One of the best L.A. concerts of 2016 took place in a little space in Boyle Heights that is no longer there — a bar called the Whitt, with strong $3 margaritas and a guitar covered in tiny mirrors spinning from the ceiling like a disco ball. An ensemble called La Chamba played "La Cumbia del Pacurro," a song of the Amazon, originally written and recorded in Peru in the late 1970s. There arose a steam of conga, güira, guacharaca and cowbell; a bass line solid as a tree trunk; a snapping, minor-key guitar melody; growling organ. Members of Los Angeles' Thee Commons and Tijuana's La Diabla joined in, and the ragtag cumbia orchestra played well past 1 a.m.
La Chamba plays chicha, a distinctive style of cumbia, one with Brazilian carimbó, Andean huayno and American acid rock in its blood. But it's distinctly Peruvian, an obscure form that arose in the '70s from the shanties outside Lima. It was, in its earliest form, music played by working-class migrants from the jungles and mountains of Peru, banged out on cheap instruments at neighborhood parties.
And, unexpectedly, the music has become one of the linchpins of L.A.'s thriving Latin alternative scene.
"Chicha is taking root here because it makes a lot of sense to people, from its history to the way it was conceived to what it means now in [our] political context," says Jason Zepeda, La Chamba's lead vocalist and conga player. "We're in a time where we don't have positive spaces for our communities. Chicha is playing that role in providing a healthy, positive space for communities of color in L.A. It's like our sanctuary."
La Chamba are dedicated to exploring chicha, but numerous other L.A. bands, from Chicano Batman to rising acts such as Thee Commons and the new wave–influenced Twin Seas, have cited the music and incorporated it into their sound. A handful of DJs, spinning at local parties and shows, have also helped popularize chicha around town.
The skeleton key is The Roots of Chicha, a compilation of 17 chicha recordings, originally released in 2007. It made landfall in Los Angeles a few years later., when songs like "Sonido Amazonico" by Los Mirlos and "A Patricia" by Los Destellos started popping up in local bands' live sets.
David Pacheco, lead vocalist and guitarist of psychedelic cumbia punks Thee Commons, was among the first in L.A. to create music inspired by the sound. He recalls the first time he heard it.
"We're getting into this party, and I remember I hear the bass line, right? A simple cumbia bass line," Pacheco says. "To me, [the sound of cumbia] was reminiscent of going to backyard parties when I was a kid. We're walking into this little room — it's like an office building turned into a house — and there's a band jamming and people dancing and lights going. It's La Chamba playing, back when they were first getting started. They're all wearing Día de Los Muertos–style face paint. It tripped me out. I was just like, 'What the hell is this?'"
Pacheco described the music he'd heard — cumbia with loud guitars — to a friend, who told him about The Roots of Chicha. Pacheco went home and looked it up on YouTube. "I was like, 'Oh fuck!'" he chuckles. "That just took me down the rabbit hole." Not long after, he started Thee Commons with his brother Rene, and put the rhythms and guitars of chicha at the center of the band's music.
Thee Commons often conclude their gigs with a mashup of Mexican rock band Caifanes' "La Negra Tomasa" and "Ya Se Ha Muerto Mi Abuelo," the sixth track on The Roots of Chicha's B side, by Juaneco y Su Combo. Originally, "Ya Se Ha Muerto Mi Abuelo" was a psychedelic Peruvian cumbia, adorned with wild-eyed organ, whose chorus translates to "my grandfather just died," a kind of feverish backwoods death celebration. Thee Commons' version is hot-rodded, propelled by Pacheco's Fender Jaguar.
Hearing chicha "made me feel that being Latino is cool as fuck," Pacheco declares.
Pacheco and Zepeda of La Chamba recall another pivotal moment: seeing a young Chicano Batman cover "Lobos al Escape" by Los Orientales Paramonga — a jagged chicha cut that doesn't appear on The Roots of Chicha. "It sounded so epic," Pacheco remembers. "The clouds opened up a bit and the sun was shining on them during that song."
For Zepeda and his bandmates, chicha's origin story is as compelling as the music itself. "What really called us to it was just the way that chicha was formed, the way it was treated in Peruvian society," he says. "It's the music of the lower class, of the working class. And we come from South Central and East L.A. We're first-generation college students, first-generation high school graduates. We come from marginalized communities, communities that have historically been socially disadvantaged. It made a lot of sense to us."
In 1967, when Jose Luis Carballo was a 17-year old living in Lima, Peru, he became obsessed with Eric Clapton.
Soon after that, he discovered Enrique Delgado and Berardo Hernández, two other guitar players who, like him, lived in Lima. Both played cumbia music but, like Carballo, they had also fallen under the spell of American psychedelic rock. Together, the guitarists were pioneering a sound unlike anything happening elsewhere in the world.
"The roots [of chicha] were created in Lima, by musicians who played rock, guarachas" — an uptempo Cuban style — "salsa, Peruvian folk and clásico," Carballo recalls in Spanish.
Carballo began playing around town. He and his friends organized dances in the pueblos jóvenes — slums on the periphery of Lima inhabited mostly by migrants — where they lived, and played at neighborhood parties for free. "We were marginalized," Carballo says. "We played for the love of the art."
Through Carballo's connections, including Delgado's sister, Eva Celeste, the shows slowly got bigger. Chicha eventually moved from the slums into downtown Lima. "It was very difficult to get into the same space as the big music groups of that time," Carballo says. "But thanks to the support of our people from the neighborhood and some of the radio broadcasters, our songs got played on the radio."
Carballo started playing alongside more established bands, like Delgado's own band Los Destellos, who had a sound driven by Delgado's Santana-inspired leads, and Los Mirlos, who incorporated sounds that emulated the chirping birds of the Peruvian Amazon. The bands often played songs that spoke in identifiable ways to the migrant experience in Lima, and borrowed harmonic and instrumental influences from the music of the Andes or the jungle.
But even as the music grew in popularity, it was not quite accepted by many Peruvians, who derogatorily called it chicha, after the homemade corn liquor often consumed in poorer areas. (In Peru, the music is more commonly called "Peruvian cumbia.")
In 1975, Carballo met with a group recording under the name Los Hijos del Sol and, with them, recorded bandleader Ángel Aníbal Rosado's song "Cariñito." Rosado asked him to play the guitar so it sounded like water falling in the jungle. It's a shining moment for Carballo, and one he remembers with great affection. "Cariñito" went on to become one of the defining songs of the chicha era.
Carballo later formed a band called La Nueva Crema (or The New Cream, after Clapton's band), whose lead singer, a dramatic balladeer called Chacalón, became a Peruvian legend in his own right. By the late '80s, however, the Peruvian music industry collapsed, sapped by the country's prolonged civil war. The labels that had released music from bands like Los Hijos del Sol went under, largely under pressure from bootleggers.
In 1991, Carballo, looking for a more peaceful life, moved to Los Angeles.
Olivier Conan was on vacation in Peru in 2005 when a street vendor told him about chicha.
"He said, 'Do you know the early cumbia stuff? The cumbia antigua, from Peru?'" Conan recalls. "And he started playing some Amazonica music. I think the first song I heard was [by] Los Mirlos. It changed my life."
Two years later, Conan released The Roots of Chicha.
At the time Conan, who is French, was living in Brooklyn, where he owns Barbés, a bar that also functions as a de facto community center. He had never put out an album before but felt compelled to bring more attention to the music he had discovered.
It wasn't easy.
"I very rapidly realized that there was such a class divide in Peru," Conan says by telephone from Paris. "Anybody I knew in Peru who was educated or even revered among musicians had no respect for the music. So it took me a while to understand it better."
Conan came back from his trip to Peru with a pile of records and little in the way of information about the music. He talked to only one musician before releasing The Roots of Chicha: Ángel Aníbal Rosado, the bandleader from Los Hijos del Sol. When he told Rosado he was going to release a chicha album in America, Rosado was stunned.
"He started crying on the phone, and playing music for me," Conan recalls. "I didn't realize he had cancer and he was pretty sick — so for him it was kind of an end-of-the-career sweet thing." In 2008, the year after The Roots of Chicha was released, Rosado died.
Conan did the best he could to secure the rights for his compilation, but the legal morass that had resulted from decades of rampant music piracy made it tricky. After the compilation came out, one angry rights holder traveled all the way from Peru to Brooklyn to "find and kill" Conan. "I met him, and he was super nice in the end," Conan recalls.
Released on Conan's own Barbés imprint in 2007, The Roots of Chicha took off immediately. Conan was interviewed by The New York Times and NPR. And the record "made a lot of noise" in Lima, as he puts it, where it shined a spotlight on local musicians who, despite remaining popular in local circles, had never truly gotten their due. Some bands, like Los Mirlos, even re-formed, playing songs from The Roots of Chicha to younger audiences.
In 2010, Conan released The Roots of Chicha 2, which focused less on Amazonica bands and more on the urban, fuzzed-out sounds of bands such as Los Wemblers and Los Destellos. In the wake of both releases, young musicians in the United States and Peru formed chicha bands, eager to put their own spin on the curious music. Conan himself formed a band, called Chicha Libre, and mentored and played with many of the newer groups in the U.S.
When one of those young musicians, Jason Zepeda, formed his own band in Los Angeles, he connected with Conan, and Chicha Libre and La Chamba played together in Los Angeles. But Zepeda and his bandmates also found a fast friend in an older musician and guitar teacher who lived here in L.A. — a man who knew more about chicha than almost anyone else in the world.
Jose Luis Carballo plays on La Chamba's cover version of "Cariñito," which was released this year on the band's debut, Ecos de la Selva. The album also includes tunes by Los Diablos Rojos, Los Destellos and Juaneco y Su Combo.
Carballo met La Chamba guitarist Alejandro Araujo at a concert in L.A., who in turn introduced Carballo to the rest of the band. Zepeda says Carballo has helped give the band a more intimate sense of the context around the time and place, four decades ago and 4,000 miles away, that gave rise to this music.
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"The Roots of Chicha is a help for someone who wants to begin to learn something about this music," Carballo says now. "But there is so much more. Bands and musical hits that had amazing success, in that moment and right now, are not in these compilations."
But La Chamba and other bands in Los Angeles also have integrated the music into their own context. They've tapped into it and created something new, a distinctive melange of sound and culture unique to Los Angeles.
At the start, Zepeda says, the band would jam in a garage in East L.A. "We kept getting the cops called on us," he recalls. "So we went to my parents' house in South Central L.A., and the cops don't ever show up there.
"Here we were, playing in the backyard with the dogs barking and helicopters over us — and this is how chicha was formed in Lima," Zepeda continues. "That music was about migrating, and our parents are migrants, too. And [it was about] bringing all their melodies of their hometowns and translating it on guitar, and all this city sound coming together. Having our family dance to it, and coming from the inner city and South Central — the music means a lot to us, because it kept us out of trouble."