La Banda Chuska Put a Darkly Psychedelic New Spin on a Classic Cumbia Sound
La Banda Chuska played their first-ever gig on a Monday night in October, 2019 at a Brooklyn venue known for eclectic and unpredictable programming, One of the band members explained that their big influence was Los Belkings, one of the most surf-inspired of the great Peruvian psychedelic cumbia bands from the mid-to-late 1960s. These Brooklynites slunk and wafted their way through a handful of that band’s more ornate, psychedelic instrumentals, but they also played a bunch of originals that ranged from short and punchy to lush and cinematic. Calmly and intricately, these guys (and women) really slayed with a sound that’s hardly ever heard this far north: when were they going to play next?
We know what happened next. The good news is that the band survived the lockdown to release a debut ep at Bandcamp last spring. They’re playing second on one of those sprawling multi-band bills that Drom puts on every January as part of the annual booking agents’ convention. Whether that convention served any useful purpose before the lockdown is a useful question, but it always resulted in some great shows. This Jan 14, the group are hitting the stage there at around 8:30 PM, preceded by Greek surf band Habbina Habbina, who open the night at 7:30. Perennial party favorites Slavic Soul Party play their funky Balkan/hip-hop/Ellington mashups afterward at 9:30, then at around 10:30 Red Baraat’s fiery bhangra soul trumpeter Sonny Singh leads his band. After that, Mafer Bandola plays bouncy Venezuelan joropo llanero, around half past midnight Iranian violinist and bandleader Mehrnam Rastegari leads her group, with electroacoustic drummer Ravish Momin’s Sunken Cages doing their woomp-woomp dancefloor thing to close out the night. If you have the stamina for it, this could easily be the best concert lineup of 2023: general admission is $20.
The first song on the debut ep is Cumbia Chuska. Adele Fournet plays a pulsing, vaguely sinister progression on her organ, then a guitar – that’s either Sam Day Harmet or Felipe Wurst – comes in with an ominous spaghetti western riff over the undulating groove from bassist Abe Pollack and drummer Joel Mateo. Accordionist Erica Mancini floats in, then one of the guitarists hits his fuzz pedal. This is creepy fun!
Track two is Surf en CDMX, a catchy mashup of Ventures spacerock and uneasy Peruvian chicha with a deliciously clangy guitar interweave. The women in the band join voices in Arcoiris, which is not a bright rainbowy theme but a ghostly, airy, keyboard-driven undersea tableau that rises to a big guitar-driven peak and then a wry Fender Rhodes solo out.
From there they segue into Cine Olaya, where they do something predictable yet irresistibly fun with a slow, broodingly vampy chicha vamp. The final cut on the record is Playa Privada, a surreal mashup of the B-52s, Los Crema Paraiso and maybe the Police. We need more from this imaginative, original crew.