Chicha Libre
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Chicha Libre

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Chicha Libre:_¡Sonido Amazonico!
[Barbès Records; 2008]
Rating: 7.9

¡Sonido Amazonico! takes its title from a stunning psychedelic surf instrumental by Los Mirlos, one of the best and most vital chicha bands. A faithful and great cover of that song leads of the album, immediately grasping the humid vibe that makes old-time chicha so arresting. The psychedelic organ solo is fantastic. The members don't exactly have Latino names-- Burrows, Camp, Conan, Cudahy, Douglas, and Quigley-- but they do sing in Spanish (quite competently), and they approach the music with genuine affection but not so much that they're slaves to their influences.
For instance, distortion was exceedingly rare in chicha music, but they employ a modest amount of it on the opening guitar theme of "Primavera en la Selva", a brilliant track that borrows melodic themes for the organ and guitar from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and garage rocks the hell out of them. Nicking classical themes was a favorite habit of chicha bands (Los Destellos' version of "Für Elise" is amazing), and Chicha Libre pick up the thread, cutting a version of a Ravel pavane and closing the album with a slinky surf-cumbia version of Satie's "Gnosienne No.1". They also do one of the best versions of Gershon Kingsley's pop standard "Popcorn" I've ever heard, and I've heard dozens of versions of that song. "Indian Summer" gets an exotica injection courtesy of Allyssa Lamb's ethereal guest vocal.
Though they are obviously tailoring their talents to fit a specific sonic mold, the efforts of the band members don't sound forced. In fact, they seem to write in the style with a minimum of effort. Perhaps it's simply the fact that a well-constructed melody can be adapted to just about any setting, but I think the songwriting is ultimately why the album transcends the novelty of being a tribute to an entire style of music almost no one outside of Peru has heard of..., ¡Sonido Amazonico! achieves what it sets out to do, which is to pay creative homage to an overlooked genre from a corner of the world few of us will ever see but all of us are invisibly connected to by the weather.

- Pitchfork



"Full of fabulous references to everything from African music to klezmer, with playful echoes of Manu Chao...may well bring danceable chicha to the work" - Songlines



"...any word of chicha's passing is happily premature, thanks not least to Barbes Records...and Chicha Libre, gringo Brooklyn's contemporary shout out to 'chichi antigua', purveyed via quirky instrumentation like the Venezuelan cuatro, a vintage Hohner Electravox...and beaucoup Latin percussion...

...(Chicha Libre) are extending the chicha spirit to transnational audiences, with a good deal of wry amusement and eccentric revelation along the way" - fROOTS



Olivier Conan grew up in Paris, but his musical passion is Latin. He plays a small South American guitar, called a cuatro, in a Brooklyn-based band called Chicha Libre. The group started out paying tribute to the classic Chicha bands of Peru that played 40 years ago. Chicha bands had a rollicking, psychedelic groove, even when they covered "Fur Elise." Conan also runs a bar in Brooklyn called Barbes, one of the few places north of the equator where you can hear music in the style called Chicha.
Conan first fell for the Chicha groove on vacation, walking the street markets of Lima, Peru. He says that all the vendors had a boom box, and that one of them began playing him Chicha. Even with a vaguely Middle Eastern tone and a surfy vibe, the music sounds as if it comes from the Amazon. Chicha borrows from a number of other music styles, including Colombian cumbia rhythms and Beethoven: The band Los Destellos named its 1968 version of "Fur Elise" "Para Elise" and used surf guitar to play the melody.
"I think music has always been globalized," Conan says. "I mean, there's always been this sense that there's a pure music, the platonic image of the music that exists independently of any foreign influences. There's no such thing."
Conan says he thinks Chicha Libre does with Chicha music what British bands did with American R&B. "We take many liberties with the music," he says. "So think of it as free-form Chicha."
The band's instrumentation is slightly different from traditional Chicha groups: His group has only two percussionists and uses an electric guitar and an Electrovox, which looks like an accordion but has all the parts of an organ inside.
The band leader is also the co-owner of Barbes, a bar and community space in Brooklyn that he and Vincent Douglas opened in 2002. The narrow space was a Chinese laundry until they showed up. The tiny performance space at the back of the bar is where the previous proprietors lived, but now a solid community of musicians and artists gathers there.

- NPR



“I know that sounds a bit absurd,” said Olivier Conan, lead singer of the band, Chicha Libre, whose name is a tribute to the craze for a style of music called Chicha that took root in the Peruvian Amazon in the early 1970s.
“But we take the music very seriously, and we do it justice,” said Mr. Conan, 46, as he sat last Monday with a drink and several band members at a table outside Barbès, a bistro in Park Slope. Later, people flocked to the bistro to hear him play the cuatro, a South American guitar he uses to strum the perky blend of Latin rhythms, surf music and psychedelic pop he first heard three years ago while vacationing in Lima, Peru.
“All the street vendors were playing Chicha on their boomboxes,” said Mr. Conan, fiddling with his cuatro as the sun began to sink behind rows of neatly lined brownstones. “I just fell in love with it.”
Mr. Conan was then in a French band named Bébé Eiffel, and he was determined to change its cultural and ethnic tunes after returning from Peru. He sat down with Vincent Douglas, a longtime friend and member of the band — Mr. Douglas and Mr. Conan own Barbès — to discuss the possibility of putting a Spanish accent on a new act.
Mr. Douglas, an electric guitarist, said he was “immediately blown away” by the recordings that Mr. Conan had brought back from South America.
“Olivier had me listen to this music, and it was just incredible,” said Mr. Douglas, 41, who has been a friend of Mr. Conan’s since they were teenagers growing up in Paris. “It had a real Latin vibe. It was very groove- and dance-oriented, and at the same time it was very rockish and surfy. I told him we should definitely start playing it.”
Chicha, which fuses traditional music from various parts of Peru with musical styles from Colombia and Venezuela, was played and danced to mostly in Lima’s poor suburbs by people who had migrated from the Amazon and the Andes in search of a better way of life.
Mr. Conan said that the band recently released a CD called “Sonido Amazonico” (Sound of the Amazon) and would perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on Wednesday.
Dressed in a cowboy hat and a dark blazer he described as “vintage Salvation Army,” he said he “could not imagine anyone else in New York, or anywhere in America, playing Chicha music.”
“If we weren’t playing it here,” he claimed, “you couldn’t hear it anywhere.”
Mr. Conan then got up and opened a cellar door to fetch the instruments, amplifiers and other equipment that belong to the six-man band. The other members are Nicholas Cudahy (bass), Greg Burrows and Timothy Quigley (percussion), and Joshua Camp, who plays an Electrovox, which Mr. Olivier described as an instrument that looks like an accordion but functions as an organ.
“We start our show at 9:30, and we get more artsy types than stockbrokers in here, people from their 20s to their 40s,” Mr. Conan said. “Of course, we get a lot of Peruvians from all around the city, but not many middle- or upper-class Peruvians because Chicha is mostly associated with the ghetto slums of Lima, so some people look down upon it.”
About an hour after sunset, Chicha Libre’s first set was under way. A dozen chairs in the bistro’s back room were quickly filled, and the band began by playing a number laced with enough spaghetti western strains to create the feeling that Charles Bronson, six-gun in hand, was about to walk into the room.
“They are an amazing band,” said Morgan Stoffregen, 29, who makes the short trip from Flatbush to the bistro, at Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue, every Monday to hear Chicha Libre play.
Ms. Stoffregen fell in love with Chicha music during a recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where she happened to hear it played in a bar.
“One night I was home about 8:30, searching the Internet for a place where I could hear Chicha,” Ms. Stoffregen said. “I came across these guys, and about an hour later that same night, I was sitting here, listening to them perform.”
Elise Marafioti, a 27-year-old waitress, was busy running drinks to the dimly lighted tables and to a few dozen people dancing along the walls. “Monday nights can get kind of crazy in here,” she said. “Especially when the place gets packed and the floors start shaking.”
By Chicha Libre’s second set, the tiny room was indeed packed, and the floors were shaking, a tribute to a Latin band with nary an ounce of Latin blood coursing through their musical veins.
“Hey, if six Latinos want to start up a French band, I think that would be a great thing,” Mr. Douglas said. “I don’t think music belongs to anyone; in fact, it belongs to everyone.”

- New York Times (feature)


Discography

"¡Sonido Amazonico!" CD - CRAW 53 CD, Crammed Discs, 2009

Photos

Bio

Chicha Libre draw their inspiration from... Chicha, a form of Peruvian music that emerged from the Amazon in the early '70s, loosely derived from Colombian accordion-driven cumbias but incorporating distinctive Andean melodies, some Cuban son and heady swirls of surf guitar, farfisa organ and moog synth. All in all, a sound which wouldn't seem out of place in the soundtrack of a Tarantino movie.
By combining covers of lost Chicha classics with French-tinged originals, re-interpretations of '70s pop classics (such as 'Popcorn' and Joe Dassin/Toto Cutugno's 1975 hit 'Indian Summer'), and subtly executed cumbia takes on pieces by Satie and Ravel, Chicha Libre meld elegant homage with playful humour and a sublime twist of the new - pushing their music way beyond mere pastiche and into strange, sun-blanched epiphany.