Olivier Conan is a Frenchman from Brooklyn (as well as an avid record collector and label owner) who was trolling tiny markets in Lima, Peru, hoping to discover something new. When he stumbled upon a treasure trove of psychedelic cumbia from the 1960s and 1970s called chicha, he felt as if he'd discovered his own Beatles.
While the drink chicha, made from maize, has been around for centuries, chicha music was born in the slums, blending traditional criollo — the national music of Peru — with Afro-Latin rhythms and bits of surf and rock. It put the electric guitar at the forefront of the Andean folk tradition, and its songs described the harsh everyday lives of the poor, plagued by drink, love, work and violence. But it received little respect from mainstream society. Chicha was considered trashy.
Thirty years later, a cumbia revival has popularized chicha, and it's slowly making waves around the world. Now Conan is releasing the second volume of his compilation series, The Roots of Chicha, on his record label, Barbès, following up his 2007 release with a more refined selection of artists from the early days of chicha and presenting a nationwide series of release parties.
Here in Los Angeles, he's enlisted Renz "Renz De Madrugada" Revelli of local DJ collective Listen Recovery, a Peruvian transplant with a full crate of chicha records. They were happy to give L.A. Weekly a history lesson.
L.A. WEEKLY: Do you think chicha would have crossed your path even if you hadn't gone to Peru?
OLIVIER CONAN: It would have reached our shores sometime. It's too good to be ignored forever. I literally bought records on the street in Lima. There are few record stores. The way it works, you just talk to a street seller. A lot of them are experts. They tell you, "Listen to this. ... My grandma really likes this." I'd never heard of chicha before, but I was interested in criollo and Afro-Peruvian music. Chicha is so generous in its way of mixing things. It was a revelation. I was surprised it never became popular outside of the classes where it was popular in Peru.
RENZ REVELLI: Chicha exposes a different side of Peru — the more raw side of the capital itself. Having the Barbès compilations released worldwide exposes people to something out of your regular Andes music and wind flutes. Right now the global community wants to know about other genres of music. There are so many versatile collectors out there. Here comes chicha and they are intrigued by the electric guitar style — it's psychedelic. It opens the door for people who are not so enthusiastic about Latin music, kids who like psychedelic music.
A lot of the lyrics involve drinking, bad luck and bad women. "Mala Mujer" by Ranil y su Conjunto is pretty harsh. He compares her to garbage heaps at the market!
CONAN: I was ambivalent about putting that song on the record because the lyrics are horrible. But it's a good song. Even in the middle of the Amazon, they think that song was harsh. He wrote a song about his friend's wife, and it became this mean song. A lot of the early songs are sexist. Not many women wrote chicha. They mostly danced. Most of the lyrics in the 1960s to mid-'70s are about local neighborhoods and partying. Then it became more social — the hardships of life, songs about suffering or sadness, drinking — not so particularly sexist!
REVELLI: The catchiest songs aren't much about something righteous or political. It has always been party music. They don't speak about the unlawful use of the Amazon forest. There are tons of records about that already. Chicha is not just music — it's the story about this music. The people who made it were really poor. Some recordings come from garages and rooms in their houses. They did singles and 7-inches — that's all they could afford. The music shows the character of the poor Peruvian people. There's music all over the world representing poor people. That is almost a genre in itself. Chicha allowed people in violent societies, especially in Lima, to unite through music. Just like James Brown did with the Boston riots.
How does chicha fit in with other popular forms of Latin music?
REVELLI: Chicha should be acknowledged and played at clubs alongside cumbia or salsa or boogaloo. It's a type of music that gets into you regardless of what ethnic background you come from. Cumbia, chicha, samba — any Latin rhythm or sound is contagious. Chicha itself could appeal even more than others because it has that high-pitched guitar sound. It's great in the car or in the club.
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CONAN: Chicha is influenced and informed by the rest of Peruvian culture and music. There's a lot of North Andean music in it. It encompasses every bit of Peruvian culture. That's what makes it a national genre. It's very guitar-based, with African influences, and the guitar players are usually trained in criollo music.
What gives chicha a universal appeal?
CONAN: It's really different from any other music in the 1970s. It's a new way to look at pop music. It's one of the few music styles I can think of that incorporates things that are familiar all over the world. Like the Beatles: rock, blues, R&B, British folk. In Peru, they were doing the same thing in a different order. They created something as strong as the British Invasion. The fact it wasn't popular is a product of politics and class structure. It could very well have been the music we all listen to.
Barbès Records and Listen Recovery present The Roots of Chicha 2 release party with La Chamba plus DJs Rich Spirit, Fresko and Renz de Madrugada at La Fonda, 2501 Wilshire Blvd., Thur., Nov. 18; $5; 21-plus. Free CD giveaways. Listenrecovery.com, barbesrecords.com.