The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru

The Roots of Chicha:
Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru


First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2008, Volume 15, #1

Written by John Metzger

Thu January 17, 2008, 02:00 PM CST


The influence of Western society is so strong-willed and pervasive that it often leaves a negative imprint upon the indigenous cultures with which it comes into contact. As industrialization spreads around the globe, as countries such as the United States look abroad for cheaper labor and unrestrictive pollution laws, the results can be downright disastrous to smaller nations as they fight to retain their own identities while also striving for the betterment of their inhabitants. Every downside comes with an upside, of course, but trying to find the right balance between them is never easy. Unfortunately, capitalism is an unforgiving force, and left to its own devices, it caters to those who have the most, strengthening the positions of the rich while utterly failing to provide adequate amenities for the poor. Forests are destroyed, children are hired to make sneakers, and products deemed unsuitable and unsafe for America’s domestic market are sold to unwitting souls. On the other hand, the influx of money not only can provide food, clothing and shelter, but it also can be used to build schools and furnish badly needed medical care to those who are ill.

The pros and cons of Western society’s incursion also apply to the cultural and artistic aspects of life in other parts of the world. On the one hand, as MTV has proven with its 27 international channels, there is a tendency for everything to be whitewashed. The language may be different, but the underlying grooves and rhythms as well as the clothes and even the general behaviors, attitudes, and mannerisms are all culled from the same generic blueprint of mediocrity. By contrast, there are a growing number of younger artists who are finding ways of blending traditional styles with the sounds that emanate from the West, and they are doing so without losing touch with the basic essence of their native customs.

Some, of course, will decry that any influence that Western society has on the artistic output of an indigenous population causes the loss of its cultural identification, and to be fair, when modern ideas are applied to traditional frameworks, a country’s customs are degraded and diluted to some extent. Nevertheless, a forward progression also occurs, one that reflects how the world has grown smaller and more integrated. The changes are neither better nor worse. After all, such judgments are subjective by nature, and thus, they must be made on a personal level. Those who are open to witnessing the collision of disparate cultures, however, will find that if it is accomplished and viewed from the right perspectives, both sides of the equation are altered by the ensuing alchemical reaction, and the results can be positively intriguing.

The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru provides a perfect example. In the late 1960s, a wealth of Peruvian bands began merging Andean and Columbian music with sounds that they had adopted from the West. The style, which was named after a drink made from fermented maize, came to be known as Chicha. Although it was born in the oil cities that surrounded the Amazon, within a few years it had spread to the coastal towns, including the country’s capitol, Lima. While the form immediately became popular among the poor, it was viewed disparagingly by the upper and middle classes, and it since has devolved into something considerably less artful.

To say that The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru is delightfully weird is certainly an understatement. Throughout the collection’s 17 tracks, the sounds of surf guitars, Moog synthesizers, and Farfisa organ are draped over waves of rolling, Cuban-inspired rhythms. It often feels as if the Day-Glo-enshrined spirit of Haight-Ashbury has been transplanted to the western coastline of South America. It isn’t a stretch to say that the closest point of familiarity is, perhaps, the music of Los Lobos. Although there’s nothing on The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru that is nearly as sophisticated, there are definite comparisons to be made in how the artists have chosen to blend garage rock with traditional folk. In a similar fashion, Los Diablos Rojos’ Sacalo Sacalo superbly recasts the Grateful Dead of the acid test era as an outfit from East Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, for all of the simplicity of its musical construction, there is more to The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru than initially meets the eye. Los Destellos, for example, dares to twist Beethoven’s Fur Elise into the caffeinated Para Elisa, while Los Mirlos’ Sonido Amazonico and Los Hijos del Sol’s Si Me Quieres appear to be informed, at least around their fringes, by Middle Eastern and Greek cultures, respectively. As these songs attest, The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru never fails to surprise the listener, and it also never falters in its mission to conjure a gratifyingly festive atmosphere that everyone can enjoy. starstarstar ˝

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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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