A landmark event in New York music history took place Thursday night, when the brain trust of Brooklyn hotspot Barbes – who’ve now gone into the worldwide booking business – sold out the Pioneer Arts Center with the debut New York performance by Peruvian psychedelic legends Los Wemblers. Largely forgotten even in their home country until the past five years or so, this family band of six guys, most of them in their sixties and seventies, from an isolated Amazonian oil boomtown, played a wildly vigorous show that kept a mix of sweaty kids and curious oldsters on their feet for the better part of three hours. In an era when nobody in New York leaves their neighborhood, that the Barbes crew could bring a crowd this size all the way to Red Hook sent a message. Imagine what the guys could do with a venue that everybody could actually get to – like Madison Square Garden.
But that’s just part of the story. If Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas hadn’t started Chicha Libre, who brought the wild, surreal psychedelic cumbias from the 1960s and 70s out of the Amazonian jungle for the first time, staging this concert anywhere outside of a Peruvian 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.
As one of the night’s emcees emphasized, Los Wemblers distinguish themselves from their many other countrymen who mashed up American surf music, psychedelic rock, indigenous folk themes and sounds from Cuba to Argentina and pretty much all points in between from the late 60s into the 80s. Where so many of those bands went soft when synthesizers got popular, Los Wemblers sound exactly like they did on their home turf 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 percussionsists laid down a slinky, irresistible groove that boomed and rattled off the walls of the space to the point that there was an oscillation between the clave click of the woodblock and the thump of the congas, ramping up the psychedelic factor several notches. Together they ran through a surreal mashup of snaky cumbia, sprightly Pervuian folk themes, twangy surf times, a couple of strikingly stark, minor-key, Cuban-tinged numbers and many of their hits, mostly nonstop, segueing into one after another.
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 that Los Wemblers treated the crowd to twice was the careening, aptly gritty La Danza Del Petrolero – and happily, unlike the popular Los Mirlos single, 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. If you weren’t lucky or ambitious enough to make it out to Red Hook, Conan promises they’ll be back next year.