New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: olivier conan

Psychedelic Cumbia Icons Chicha Libre Reunite at Barbes

It was late 2006 at a long-gone Curry Hill honkytonk “I’ve got this Peruvian surf band playing on Sundays that you should really check out,” the club’s talent buyer suggested to an e-zine publisher who would eventually become the proprietor of a daily New York music blog. The future blog owner never made it to Rodeo Bar to see an embryonic Chicha Libre, but the group did go on to become the funnest band in New York, toured internationally and also pretty much singlehandedly introduced psychedelic cumbia to the world north of the Texas border.

They played a brief, maybe 45-minute set at their longtime home base, Barbes last night. It was their first New York show since early 2015, but it was like they’d never left. It was amazing to watch the faces of pretty much everybody in the band. The expressions spoke for themselves: “I can’t believe we’re doing this, and that it’s still this much fun.”

Vincent Douglas is still the most economically slashing surf cumbia guitarist on the planet – this time he hit his distortion pedal again and again, for simmer and burn and sunbaked ambience. Frontman/cuatro player Olivier Conan is more serioso in front of the band than ten years ago, notwithstanding the fact that this multinational act is just as much a copycat as the Peruvian cult favorites they imitate were, forty and fifty years ago.

Conguero Neil Ochoa had the songs’ machinegunning turnarounds down cold; timbalera Karina Colis not only added extra layers of devious flurries, but also perfectly replicated Alyssa Lamb’s vocal harmonies from the band’s first two records. Bassist Nick Cudahy held the center while Josh Camp used two small keyboards and a labyrinth of effects pedals for a decent recreation of the tremoloing, oscillating, keening dubwise effects he used to get out of an old Hohner Electrovox synth. Maybe it’s a lot easier to switch between a couple of keyboards than to strap on the heavy accordion body that houses the Electrovox. “Electronics have always been an issue for this band,” Conan confided.

The songs were sublime: jangly, and trebly, and swooshy, just like the classic Peruvian bands the group modeled themselves after. Pretty much everybody in the crowd was dancing or at least bouncing. Surprisingly, the one song that gave the band trouble was the broodingly otherworldly Sonido Amazonico, the national anthem of chicha and title track of their classic 2007 album. But no matter – they jammed it out, a little faster and more dubwise than they used to do it

The uneasily waltzing Depresion Tropical, a snide commentary on IMF bloodsucking in the Caribbean, had special resonance. Camp sang a cumbia version of Love’s Alone Again Or. Conan’s account of the little drunk guy in El Borrachito, who tells a girl in the bar that she should stop picking on him and be his girlfriend – in Spanish, obviously – was as cruelly funny as it was when the band played it ten years ago here. Same with the tightly shuffling Hungry Song, told from the point of view of a couple of guys who are so high they can’t tell weed from chicha. Speaking of which, Barbes now has that sour, beerlike corn mash liquor on draft. As a thirst-quencher on hot days, it’s better than beer.

They closed with their outrageously silly cover of the schlocky cheesy pioneering 1972 proto-synthpop hit, Popcorn, They’re back at Barbes tomorrow night, June 26 at 10, and if stoner music, or dance music, or cumbia is your thing, this may be your only chance to see this band, ever. They’re doing a couple of South American dates next, but after that, who knows.

The Best Brooklyn Venue of 2017

Every year for ten years now, this blog’s predecessor has picked two New York venues as the best in their respective boroughs, Manhattan and Brooklyn. It’s time for this blog to take over that responsibility.

For those of you who follow concert coverage here, it won’t come as any surprise that the pick for best Brooklyn venue this year goes to Barbes.

On one hand, that this modest Park Slope boîte has been able to stay in business for fifteen years during the longest downward spiral that this city’s arts scene has ever experienced validates the argument that if you give people good music, people will come.

Hang at the bar long enough and you may meet locals who, when they were growing up, probably never listened to anything edgier than Bonnie Raitt. Yet they’re nuts about Slavic Soul Party. And have seen the band dozens of times – simply because Barbes’ management thought that giving a weekly residency to an oompahing brass band who love hip-hop as much as Serbian music would be a moneymaking venture. On a Tuesday night, no less.

And they were right!

For years, the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre – who probably deserve more credit than any other group for making cumbia the world’s default party music – packed the house on what otherwise would have been a dead Monday night. Had they played Saturday nights like every other band in the world wants to do, they could have succeeded at a venue ten times the size of Barbes. But this was a win-win situation. The bar made Saturday night money, the band did well, and the weekly residency eliminated the need for a rehearsal space.

Stephane Wrembel, the paradigm-shifting Romany jazz guitarist, has been playing there pretty much every week, practically from day one. He has a gig somewhere else in town, or out of town, most every other night. New Yorkers have more chances to see this guy than we do pretty much anyone else. And yet, if you don’t show up early enough, you won’t be able to get into the room to see him.

On a Sunday night.

A few weeks ago there was a klezmer band in the back, and it was impossible to get in to see them, too. This was at four on a lazy weekend afternoon.

Practically every night of the week, there is an act here worth seeing. The scene is global; cross-pollination is the name of the game. Bollywood cumbia; creepy surf art-rock; film noir dance music; Afrobeat psychedelia; Peruvian parlor pop, and one of the original and most popular mashups in the history of American music: latin jazz. If Barbes has found success in pushing the envelope, why don’t other venues do the same thing?

Obviously, a lot of them haven’t been around as long and are under considerably more pressure to pay the rent. In their circumstances, the hope of being able to weather a couple of down nights if an act doesn’t pull the expected crowd is a luxury they can’t afford. The opposite is true too: many of the new neighborhood clubs are vanity projects funded by rich out-of-state parents who want to give Junior something to keep him busy and off dope until his trust fund kicks in. And the trend at larger venues is to hand over booking to number-crunching poindexters who won’t work with any artist who doesn’t have the requisite social numbers – which are all fake, by the way.

Still, you have to wonder. What Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas are doing at Barbes is nothing new. Bill Graham did that at the Fillmores, east and west. Hilly Kristal did it at CBGB. You’d think that somebody, somewhere in this city beyond the elite echelon of Barbes, the Jalopy, Drom and Lincoln Center would see the value in niche programming – if only to eliminate the agony of having to suffer through one lame Muse or Beyonce wannabe after another.

Sure, there’s the magical Owl in Crown Heights. But as far as pretty-much-nightly music is concerned, that’s it. Barbes has at least another five years left in their comfortable former laundromat space at the corner of Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue. It’s a scene every bit as historic as what was happening at Birdland in 1957, or at CB’s and in the vacant lots of the South Bronx twenty years later. And it’s yours if you want it.

Tomorrow, this blog’s pick for best Manhattan venue.

Brooklyn’s Best Music Venue Is in Trouble

Barbes is fifteen years old this month. Since 2003, the little Park Slope boîte has been home to the most fearlessly adventurous global sounds from across the borough and around the world. To give you an idea of what kind of magic takes place here night after night, multi-instrumentalist Chi-Chi Glass played here a couple of nights ago and aired out a brand-new Peruvian piano ballad with lyrics by Maya Angelou, as well as part of an Albeniz piano sonata and a series of haunting Andean-tinged art-songs with rapturously ethereal harmonies by Judith Berkson and accordion from La Rubias Del Norte’s Alyssa Lamb.

A couple of nights before, psycho mambo band Gato Loco blasted through a set of percussively stalking noir themes with frequent detours into Ethio-jazz. And the Saturday before that, the band in the back room was Les Chauds Lapins, who unveiled a bunch of lush new classically-infused string arrangements to bolster the droll, surrealistic French swing they’ve made a name for themselves with, mostly here. There is nowhere else in New York, maybe in the world, where you can hear such diversely entertaining talent – and unless the venue can come up with seventy grand, there  may not be one anywhere.

They’ve raised a little more than half of that via Indiegogo with a month to go. There are all sorts of awesome musical perks for contributing. Characteristically, the amount you can donate on the page peaks out at $1000. These guys are populist to the core, and probably assume that nobody has more than that to spare.

But this blog believes in angels. That’s a matter of personal experience. Having sustained a wave of computer meltdowns over the years, and having been rescued every time by a global support system, it seems more than reasonable to believe that there might be someone out there who’s experienced a degree of personal success and would take pride in rescuing a venue in a time of dire need. You can talk to owners Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas – the brain trust of legendary psychedelic cumbia band Chicha Libre here.

Another way to help is to treat yourself to a night of some of Barbes’ stable of amazing bands, who are playing a benefit concert on June 9 at Drom featuring mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Who’s playing when is still being figured out, but everybody on this bill is worth seeing. Advance tix are a bargain at $20; the show starts at 7 PM and goes into the wee hours. It might be the single best concert of the year.

To lose Barbes would be a devastating blow to the arts in New York, but also would be personally devastating as well. In case you haven’t already figured it out, Barbes is New York Music Daily’s local – notwithstanding the fact that this blog isn’t based in Park Slope.

Sure, if Barbes closes, some of the younger and most popular acts can find gigs elsewhere. But there’s definitely no other place in New York that would provide a home where trumpeter Ben Holmes and accordionist Patrick Farrell could workshop their wickedly creepy Conqueror Worm Suite…or where resonator guitarist Mamie Minch could collaborate with film noir soundtrack maven Steve Ulrich…or where klezmer clarinet wizard Michael Winograd could pull together a band and figure out how he’s going to record all the amazing material he’s written over the past year.

Or where a rustic Greek rembetiko band called Que Vlo-ve could morph into one of this city’s mightiest and most menacing heavy psych bands, Greek Judas. Or where bands like Balkan brass funksters Slavic Soul Party, or western swingers Brain Cloud, or Romany guitar jazz reinventor Stephane Wrembel could play weekly residencies on off nights that would become legendary in Brooklyn history. In an era where spaces that support the arts are being displaced right and left by yuppie greed and status-grubbing, we need Barbes like never before. Hit their Indiegogo page,  tell your rich friends if you have any, and see you at Drom on June 9. 

Psychedelic Peruvian Legends Los Wemblers Make a Historic Appearance in Red Hook

Even on their home turf in the Peruvian Amazon, psychedelic cumbia originators Los Wemblers de Iquitos had pretty much dropped out of sight until the past few years. It’s probably safe to say that if Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas hadn’t started Chicha Libre, who brought the wild, surreal psychedelic cumbias of the 1960s and 70s out of Peru for the first time, staging this concert anywhere outside of an expat community would have been absurd. But thanks in large part to their band – and Barbes Records’ two Roots of Chicha historical compilations – this trippy, intoxicatingly danceable music isn’t an obscure niche genre anymore. Maybe, as Conan once boasted, cumbia really is going to take over the world.

This family band of six guys from an isolated Amazonian oil boomtown, most of them in their sixties and seventies, played a wildly vigorous show Thursday night at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, keeping a mix of sweaty kids and curious oldsters on their feet for the better part of three hours. As one of the night’s emcees emphasized, Los Wemblers distinguish themselves from their innumerable countrymen who from the late 60s into the 80s mashed up American surf music, psychedelic rock, indigenous folk themes, sounds from Cuba to Argentina and pretty much all points in between.  But where so many of those bands went soft when synthesizers got popular, Los Wemblers sound exactly like they did in their hometown of Iquitos in 1969 – except louder.

The band’s patriarch, guitarist Salomon Sanchez sadly didn’t live to see the band’s resurgence, but his five sons did and now comprise most of the group. The star of the night was guitarist Alberto Sanchez, who played most of two long sets with his eyes closed, the trace of a smile on his face as his fast fingers fueled a magically clanging, twangy, undulating tropical time machine.

Behind him, the band’s two percussionists laid down a slinky, irresistible groove that boomed and rattled off the space’s bare walls to the point that there was an oscillation between the clave click of the woodblock and the thump of the congas, which raised the psychedelic factor several notches. Together they ran through a surreal mashup of snaky cumbia, sprightly Pervuian folk themes, twangy surf tunes, a couple of strikingly stark, minor-key, Cuban-tinged numbers, and many of their hits, segueing into one after another with hardly a single break.

The best one of the night was Sonido Amazonico, which they played twice. The first time around, they did the haunting, phantasmagorical “national anthem of chicha” as a sprawling ten-minute jam, a creepy cocktail of Satie-esque passing tones, like a warped tarantella to counter the effects of a lysergic spider bite. The second time around they hit it harder and more directly, like the original vinyl single, the guitarist capping off his solo with a sizzling, spiraling flight upward, then hitting his wah pedal and leaving it wide open, a murky pool of sound mingling with the echoey, cantering beats. What frontman/percussionist Jair Sanchez left no doubt about was that it was their song to mess with, notwithstanding that Lima band Los Mirlos‘ version was the bigger hit, and that Chicha Libre’s cover is what pretty much jumpstarted the Brooklyn cumbia cult.

Another hit the crowd got to twice was the careening, aptly gritty La Danza Del Petrolero – and happily, unlike the popular Los Mirlos cover, the guitar was in tune this time. The rest of the set was a fascinating look at how psychedelic cumbias are just as diverse as American psychedelic rock. Without blinking an eye, the band made their way expertly through a couple of bright, cheery vamps that more than hinted at Veracruz folk tunes, eventually hit a brooding, Cuban-flavored number, made cumbia out of a stately, dramatic tango anthem, sped up, slowed down and took a couple of frantically pulsing detours toward merengue.

One of the night’s best numbers was also the most ornate and ominously elegant – but no less danceable. Devious references to the Ventures, Duke Ellington and the Richard Strauss theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey bubbled to the surface. By the time the old guys finally called it quits, it was almost midnight.

New York Bands We Take For Granted: The Perennially Fun Chicha Libre

Musicians call it the curse of the residency. In New York, after all, bands typically don’t build a following: you play to your friends. Book yourself into a weekly residency for a month and see everybody come out for the first and last shows…if you’re lucky. Chicha Libre have managed to beat the odds, on a Monday night, of all nights. By all rights, the Brooklyn chicha revivalists would be entitled to weekends at Barbes, considering that the frontman/cuatro player and lead guitarist own the joint. But they graciously let other bands play Fridays and Saturdays and do their weekly residency/live rehearsal on a Monday…which is genius in a way, since it turns a dead night into a crazy party that probably earns the bar just as much as a Saturday.

Chicha Libre get extra props for singlehandedly spearheading the psychedelic cumbia revival: without them, it’s probably safe to say that the wild, trippy sounds of legendary Peruvian bands like Los Destellos, Los Mirlos and Juaneco y Su Combo would never have made it out of Peru. What Chicha Libre does is exactly what those cult acts were doing forty years ago, mashing up Colombian cumbia, British psychedelia and American surf rock into a trebly, trippy, intoxicating, indelibly Peruvian stoner blend. It works just as well as dance music as it does stoner music; that Chicha Libre are recognized as giants of the genre in Peru speaks to how well they’ve assimilated it. “Sorry we’re late,” cuatro player Olivier Conan told the crowd packed into the back room there a couple of Mondays ago, “It’s our only claim to authenticity.” He was being modest.

They opened and closed their first set with the silly stuff: first Flight of the Valkyries reinvented as a droll cumbia, complete with a long, echoey, dubwise intro from Josh Camp’s wah-wah electric accordion. He would go on to reference 70s arenarock schlockmeisters Styx not once but twice – this band can do funny as well as they do trippy and creepy. The last song was a cumbia version of the mid-70s instrumental novelty hit Popcorn, which they ended with a good-natured shout-out to good weed and the corn liquor (sort of the Peruvian equivalent of Olde English) from which the band takes their name. In between they did the surreal, creepy stuff, lots of it, one of the best sets they’ve ever played on their home turf.

The apprehensively Satie-esque 11 Tejones (a tejon is a badger) had echoey, resonant, tersely spaced Vincent Douglas Telecaster licks mingling with Camp’s swirly, funereal organ lines. The trickly shapeshifting Depresion Tropical – third world economics as oncoming storm – kept the uneasy slink going, followed by Papageno Electrico with its irresistible, bittersweetly ominous chorus. For diehard chicha fans, it takes a slinky early 80s style synth tune ten years back in time, when Los Destellos and their compadres were doing it much more organically and psychedelically.

After that the band treated the crowd to a long, trippy take of the Los Mirlos classic Sonido Amazonico, the title track of Chicha Libre’s brilliant 2008 debut album, Camp’s lighthearted salsa organ solo handing off to a long, hallucinatory, sunbaked one from Douglas. From there, they segued into a couple of covers, the second being another Los Mirlos tune, the scampering Muchachita Del Oriente, Douglas’ spaghetti western guitar set against a long, hypnotically crescendoing twin solo from timbalera Karina Colis and an invigorated sub conga player. They wound up the set with a raw, rugged cumbia take of the Clash’s Guns of Brixton and then a similarly edgy, sarcastic original, La Danza Del Millionario.

And a show back in August where Conan was AWOL featured a second lead guitarist firing off lightning-fast flurries of tapping and seriously metal cumbia in his place. Maybe because the guest guitarist was more familiar with iconic chicha material than Chicha Libre’s songs, that set featured a lot more stuff by Los Destellos and Juaneco. You never know what you’r going to get with this crew. And everybody was dancing. Are Chicha Libre the funnest band in New York or what? They’re back at Barbes next Monday, Sept 29 at 9:30 or so and pretty much every other Monday this year: check the Barbes calendar.

Another Great Party Record from Chicha Libre

In Peru, Chicha Libre are considered to be one of the alltime great bands in the tradition of chicha music (otherwise known as cumbia sicodelica, the twangy Peruvian surf rock whose worldwide renaissance Chicha Libre and their little label, Barbes Records, singlehandedly spearheaded). That’s pretty much the same thing as being ranked as good as the Beatles in Liverpool or on par with Biggie Smalls in Bed-Stuy. Not bad for a band from Park Slope, Brooklyn. On April 11 at 9:30 PM, New York’s most deliriously fun live band celebrate the release of their new third album Cuatro Tigres at Joe’s Pub; tix are $15 and still available as of today. The whole album is streaming at the band’s Soundcloud page.

To give you an idea of how good this album is, consider that Chicha Libre’s previous two releases were ranked among the top five albums of the year at this blog and its predecesssor, and that this one is much the same even though it only has four songs on it, all covers. Chicha Libre frontman Olivier Conan describes it as the band coming full circle with their influences: the Clash, and especially Joe Strummer, for his role in bringing third-world sounds into rock; Arthur Lee and Love, arguably the trippiest band ever; Peruvian chicha heroes Los Shapis, who are still active and have joined Chicha Libre onstage in Peru; and the Simpsons, which is as popular with tv audiences throughout Latin America as it is here.

The first song on this album is Guns of Brixton. It’s an interesting choice, a reggae tune written not by Strummer but by bassist Paul Simonon (who would play guitar on it in concert, with Strummer switching to bass). This version is trippy to the extreme, keyboardist Josh Camp’s blippy layers offering a woozy nod to this era’s electronic cumbia, Conan’s vocals gleefully anticipating the day when the 99% get back everything we’ve worked for.

Not surprisingly, the best song on the album is Los Shapis’ Rica Chica, a wickedly catchy, chromatically bristling, luridly surreal and sexy theme driven by Vincent Douglas’ precise yet practically unhinged Telecaster and Camp’s offcenter wah-wah Hohner Electrovox (an early synth in an accordion body). Love’s Alone Again Or wasn’t a hit for that band: it would have to wait nearly 20 years before the Damned covered it, not badly. This version is more laid-back and summery, grounded by Neil Ochoa’s congas and Nicholas Cudahy’s subtly undulating bass, Karina Colis’ timbales throwing off a shower of sparks on the turnaround.

When the Simpsons’ producers asked Chicha Libre to record a chicha version of the show’s theme for their 20th anniversary episode, Chicha Libre jumped at the chance. Their cover (titled La Danza De Los Simpsons) takes a lot of liberties, slowing it down with a funhouse-mirror dubwise edge, reinventing it as an ominous minor-key cartoon-face hit of blotter acid. As New York rock albums go, this one’s essential. Then again, that could be said about everything this band has ever done. And they play Barbes just about every Monday night at around 9:45 when they’re not on tour.

Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo: Best Album of 2012?

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.

Chicha Libre Go Off the Deep End

At one point during Chicha Libre’s weekly gig last night at their home base, Barbes, the whirling vortex of overtones and reverberating textures made it impossible to tell who was playing what. Was the hypnotic, repetitive “ping” that held it together coming from Vincent Douglas’ Telecaster, or Josh Camp’s two keyboards, or Olivier Conan’s cuatro, all of which were running through a labyrinth of delay and reverb effects? Whatever the answer, it was psychedelic to the extreme. Five years ago, Chicha Libre were emulating the surfy, reverb-driven early 70s Peruvian cumbia-rock sounds that they love so much; today, they’re still doing it, and they’ve evolved exactly like the bands who inspired them – Juaneco y Su Combo, Los Destellos, Los Diablos Rojos and a whole slew of others. Where all those groups began playing a pretty straight-up, Peruvian take on American surf rock instrumentals and then spiraled into psychedelia, Chicha Libre have followed in their footsteps, adding a unique deep-dub edge of their own.

Which works especially well does since Chicha Libre’s songs are so catchy, and so simple. They got off to a brisk start, blasting through the creepy chromatics of Camp’s Tres Pasajeros and several Conan tunes. Like a lot of the first-wave chicha bands, Primavera En La Selva (Springtime in the Jungle) rips off a classical theme, in this case from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. But they conceal it, just like the jokey lyric: the implication is that there’s no springtime in the jungle because it’s always summer there. They bounced through the hypnotic Six Pieds Sous Terre (Six Feet Underground, which according to the lyric is only a phone call away), a distantly Gainsbourg-esque one-chord jam, and a couple of classic cumbia covers (one of them a Juaneco song) before launching into a long jam on the Simpsons theme. This time it was barely recognizable until the section where in the original, Doug Webb’s solo sax riff comes in, and it was absolutely creepy, Camp taking his time, taking the song down an echoing, pulsing sonic wormhole. A little later they did three new ones – one that might be a Bach ripoff, one that might be a chichafied country song and another in more of a traditional, minor-key, chromatically-charged Peruvian vein. Were they originals or classic covers? Nobody in the band said anything. The band’s conguero and the timbalera (whose harmony vocals, on the rare occasions they had them, were an especially nice touch) took a long solo of their own, the band finally landing on what sounded like a random offbeat but still hitting a bullseye all the same. Of all the shows included in this dubious, ongoing stunt (which has only four more days go to!) Chicha Libre matched Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. for the most fun, by a landslide. 

Chicha Libre are at Barbes pretty much every Monday (check the club calendar) at around 9:30: it’s always a good idea to get there early because as you can imagine, they’re very popular.