In a Nutshell: Peruvian Cumbia / Chicha

By 15 September, 2010

Chicha or Peruvian cumbia, as it is often known, is on the rise. Since Barbes Records released The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru in 2007 the popularity of the genre has grown both internationally and in its native Peru. There, it has always had its fans in the lower classes, ever since Los Demonios del Mantaro had the first chichan hit “La Chichera” in 1966, but it was generally frowned upon by the other classes who aligned poverty and violence with chicha. Since the compilation was released, attracting much international interest, perceptions seem to have changed somewhat with Peruvians now accepting that this music is something they can be proud of.

Chicha itself is an offshoot of cumbia, and could be compared to the realisation of tropicália in Brazil from various elements of Brazilian music and culture, or even to the early sounds of rock ‘n’ roll. With both of these the formation of a new genre was catalysed by the amplification of sound, meaning bands could now use electric guitars and large amps; chicha follows a simple pattern. Perhaps the rock ‘n’ roll example serves best as with early rock ‘n’ roll there followed a dilemma as public figures worried that this new ‘sexy, amped up’ music could incite the children into promiscuity and loutish behaviour, and the same happened with chicha. The parallel ends here though as strict Government control and the white ruling class caused this music, birthed in the poorer areas of Peru, to become nothing more than a fad which would be marginalised for years.

What’s it like?

The ability to incorporate different styles is one of the trademarks of chicha, hence the comparison to tropicália, which prided itself on its cannibalism of other genres. Chicha takes the feel of cumbia, the timing and ‘tropical’ sound, adds elements of huayno (from the Peruvian Andes), criollo (classic Peruvian folk music) as well as the Afro-Peruvian music that the slaves would play, along with influences from Brazil, France, Cuba and Chile. A lot of the chichan bands were obviously aware of bands from the US and England too; the group Chacalón y la Nueva Crema were named after the British band Cream and Los Quantos covered Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” yet this influence seems to have been more superficial than of any great significance to the musical style.

Chicha differentiates itself from other cumbias due to its harmonics, which are based on the pentatonic scale typical of Andean music. It is generally played in the ‘rock band’ format with guitar, bass and percussion, though there are many variations. Keyboards have played an increasing role in the music over the year, with many musicians using keyboards and PA systems ahead of guitars in the 80s. Many of the differences between different chicha bands are due to the fact they are from very different parts of Peru, with bands from Andean regions having more of a huayno sound, and those from the big cities more of an urban sound, though this is a red herring, as far too many bands prove to be the exception to this rule.

Where can I find it?

Chicha is largely played live though you may find the odd DJ playing the music all over the place. In Peru there are still quite a lot of bands playing the music; Bareto (Lima, Peru) play a mixture of chicha along with cumbia, reggae and ska; Chapillacs (Arequipa, Peru) are a raucous, psychedelic variant worth checking out; also Juaneco y Su Combo (Pucallpa, Peru), Los Figuers, Los Espias and Jawar (all from Arequipa, Peru) and Los Shapis (Lima, Peru) have all played concerts in Peru in recent years.

Chicha Libre (New York) and Los Chinches (London) are two internationally based chicha groups who have been taking the music to a wider audience.

What else should I know?

The style of music was rarely called chicha until recent times. Before that it was normally referred to as Peruvian cumbia (cumbia peruana) or Andean cumbia (cumbia andina). It was not until Los Shapis started referring to their music as chicha that the name stuck. Their first album came out in 1981 and they had great success with their singles, as well as a film in which their starred. It is this period when chicha really found its own identity. Chacalón also had a huge hit in the 80s with “Soy Provinciano.” The genre then went into decline in the 90s though thankfully, and to a large part thanks to The Roots of Chicha, it came back to life in the 00s.

Recommended listening

After mentioning it so many times it would ridiculous not to mention The Roots of Chicha. There is also now a second volume entitled The Roots of Chicha 2 carrying the same tag of Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru. They are both great compilations, with the first focusing more on chicha from the Amazon and the second having more of an urban vibe. Personally I find it hard to resist the wild, tropical vibe of the first of these compilations. Vampisoul have also released a good selection of compilations of Peruvian cumbias, though not in all cases strictly chicha. Back to Peru 1964-1974: in Search of the Cool, Back to Peru Vol.2 and Cumbia Beat Vol.1 are all worth checking out.

There have been a few recent international releases of chicha by bands or artists. Ranil’s Jungle Party is a set of psychedelic guitar jams, originally recorded in the 60s. That, and Juaneco y Su Combo‘s recent Masters of Chicha, are both worth a look.

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