Chicha music in Peru in the 70s followed the same trajectory as the American surf music that inspired it. Along with the sounds that get pigeonholed as surf rock these days, the Ventures and Dick Dale and their contemporaries also played country, and western swing, and hotrod themes, then went through a psychedelic phase that eventually got pretty cheesy before a second wave of surf bands dove in and rescued it. Likewise, Los Destellos, Los Diablos Rojos, Los Mirlos and countless other Peruvian bands whose amazingly syncretic work has recently emerged from obscurity played a whole bunch of different styles, from straight-up rock, to electrified Andean folk, Colombian cumbias, Brazilian and Cuban-influenced styles. But by the early 80s, they’d started using Casios and digital technology, and the focus shifted to the girls shimmying onstage alongside what was left of the bands phoning in all the old vamps. Until Chicha Libre came along, brought the style north with them and introduced the rest of the world to an amazing, trippy, twangy sound that for decades had been exclusively an indigenous phenomenon.
Now the Brooklyn group leading the psychedelic cumbia revival have a new album, Canibalismo, coming out on Barbes Records (it hasn’t officially hit yet, but if you swing by Barbes, no doubt you can pick up a copy and then have a drink to celebrate the world-renowned club’s ten years in business). Even more than their classic 2008 debut, Sonido Amazonico, the new album isn’t exclusively chicha music: there’s a couple of tracks that sound like Gainsbourg, a little dub, a Mexican border pop vamp and a Santana-esque rock number. They’ve added a lot of different textures to the mix: keyboardist Josh Camp has added 80s synth and other vintage sounds along with his swirling, reverb-drenched Hohner Electrovox (a vintage synthesizer in an accordion body, marketed to a latin audience fifty years ago). Likewise, versatile guitarist Vincent Douglas gets more time in the spotlight, a very welcome development; there are even psychedelic EFX on frontman Olivier Conan’s cuatro, which essentially serves as the rhythm guitar here.
The opening track, La Plata (En Mi Carrito De Lata) sets the stage, a bouncily shuffling 2-chord chromatic vamp that gives Camp a launching pad for a million echoey keyboard settings, plus oooh-oooh backing vocals, and a disco beat pulsing from the congas and timbales. La Danza Del Millionario may have originated as a bad-guy theme written for a soundtrack to the 1921 Charlie Chaplin silent film The Idle Class: it’s a creepily direct, intense tune that puts the melody front and center rather than the effects. The downright creepiest track here is Papageno Electrico, which sounds like a Japanese surf song, reverb guitar trading on and off leads with innumerable woozy oscillating keyboard textures and equally woozy, menacingly cartoonish vocals. And the tremoloing, funereal Depresion Tropical reminds that bad times always hit the third world harder than the first
Camp contributes El Carnicero de Chicago (Chicago Butcher), a minor-key clave rock groove that builds to a sort of chicha highway anthem. The only straight-up cover here is a lickety-split version of Los Mirlos’ Muchachita Del Oriente (Asian Girl), lit up by a couple of nimble breaks by both percussionists; however, the band also nick a famous theme by Juaneco y Su Combo and turns it into a tribute to bandleader Juan Wong Popolizio, envisioning the man who lost most of his band in a tragic 1977 plane crash reunited with them in the great beyond.
The rest of the album is even more eclectic. L’Age D’Or, a slow, slinky, snide look at nostalgia has Conan doing his best Gauloise-flavored Gainsbourg rasp in his native French over electric harpsichord and echoey Electrovox. Number 17 looks back to the kitchen-sink psychedelia of Los Destellos’ classic 1971 album Constelacion (and to Henry Mancini) with its casually crescendoing trippiness, echoey vocals and absurdist lyrics (a tribute to Fermat prime numbers…all five of them). Lupita en la Selva y el Doctor is a slyly undulating tropical tribute to Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD. Ride of the Valkyries is punk in spirit if not execution, revealing how incredibly cheesy and ridiculous Wagner’s original was – it has the feel of something that the bass player might have brought in at the last minute at the end of the recording session and dared his bandmates to take a stab at. The album ends with Once Tejones (Eleven Badgers), a playful shuffling anthem with boomy percussion, intricate late 60s soul guitar and some unexpectedly keening slide work.
Is this the best album of 2012? Probably. That’s not to say that any such competition between bands exists, or that it should. It’s simply to say that this album packs more pleasure and thrills than anything else released this year so far. To put it in context, it’s right up there with Raya Brass Band’s Dancing on Ashes, Dancing on Cinders, and Black Fortress of Opium’s Stratospherical. Chicha Libre are currently on South American tour; after a series of midwest US dates, they play the album release show for this one at 9 PM on May 19 at the 92YTribeca for a measly ten bucks.
And if the press release for this album is to be believed, the cumbia revolution has finally reached the fauxhemian class: the pretty boys of Animal Collective have ostensibly been spotted sashaying around Lima, flashing their parents’ credit cards and digging through musty old crates of vinyl in search of chicha treasures. But not to learn how to play the music, of course: only to sample it.