Unearthing the Roots of Chicha: An Interview with Olivier Conan

By 03 October, 2010

Chicha, a unique form of cumbia from Peru has had something of a renaissance since Olivier Conan released his already-legendary compilation The Roots of Chicha in 2007. That compilation largely showed the Amazonian side of cumbia, featuring bands such as Los Mirlos and Juaneco y su Combo, bands that were popular among Peru’s poorer classes during their heyday of the 60s and 70s but were now largely forgotten. The record helped shine a light on these amazing musicians as well as highlight just what a unique and exciting style of music chicha is. Now, Olivier is back with The Roots of Chicha 2, introducing the world to more of this forgotten style, and so we thought it was about time we asked him a few questions.How surprised were you by the success of the first compilation?

Quite surprised. While i thought I’d put together a particularly exciting album, I had no idea that it would become as much of a cult. I was particularly surprised by the response it got in Latin America and in particular in Peru, where it played a part in re-valorising the music.

How did the process of choosing the songs change for the second release? Was a lot more research carried out?

Yes, I did a lot more research. I was pretty naive when I released the first comp – I was somewhat of an overly excited tourist – this time around i knew people in Peru were waiting to see if I did justice to the history of the music, the social aspect, if I included some of the seminal bands etc., so there was a lot more pressure and I felt I had to spend a lot more time on it, which I did.

I’m curious as to whether you had to do a lot more digging to find songs for Roots of Chicha 2. Not because there are a lack of good songs, but more because, after doing more research, there became particular songs or artists that you were trying to find records by.

Finding the recordings themselves was never the problem really. The main problems were boiling it down to a few bands and a few songs. The body of work is absolutely astounding. You’re talking about fifteen years of amazing output by dozens and dozens of bands. In the case of Los Destellos, I had to pick four out of about 200 songs that I listened to a lot. Same with Chacalon or Manzanita – especially Manzanita, who deserves his own box set. The other problem was obtaining the rights. The history of song ownership in Peru can be pretty byzantine. I wasn’t able to secure the rights for a few bands – which is really too bad.

Have you been able to meet many of the artists that have featured on the compilations? How has their reaction been to the fact that they are now being heard worldwide?

I have met some the artists – I’ve actually played with two of them with my band Chicha Libre at this point (Ranil and Jose Carvallo) – I have talked to others on the phones or met them in Peru. All of them have been incredibly appreciative of the interest and have been almost embarrassingly nice to me. Especially people like Jose Carvallo of La Nueva Crema, Jaime Moreira of Los Shapis and Ranil.

How much has researching chicha had an impact on your own band Chicha Libre? Have new discoveries caused you to think about different ways to play the music?

Yes. The more I hear classic chicha, the more I am sorry we named the band Chicha Libre. I really love the music and It has been a great inspiration but we are not a chicha band per se – we play our own hybrid. We play Chicha the way 60’s British bands played American blues. I love what we do, but it’s still our own thing. Peruvian musicians seem to see us as belonging to Peruvian musical history though, which is pretty amazing.

What do you think about some of the modern chicha bands, such as Los Chapillacs, or Bareto (who have covered quite a few of the songs featured on the compilations)?

Los Chapillacs are amazing. Some day, they will eventually make their mark outside of Peru. They’re young and they still have time, but I think they have all the elements of becoming a truly great band. They completely understand the music they draw from and they are totally irreverent at the same time. They are the punk of chicha and I think they are ready to launch their musical revolution. Hopefully more bands like them will follow. Bareto is diferent. Their cumbia cover album did a lot to re-popularize the music, and that’s great, but they never positioned themselves as a chicha band. They are more of a jam band who took on Peruvian cumbia as project. I think they have already moved on.

One of the great factors (I believe) in the success of the first compilation was the ‘wow’ factor of hearing this psychedelic, Amazonian music for the first time. Where do you think that sense of revelation will come from in this second compilation?

I think people will be amazed that the first one was not a fluke, that there is a lot more wows where this music came from. A much greater scope of influences – more rock, more Huayno – more Cuban guaracha – more wows!

We have heard the Amazonian side of the music in volume one, and now more of an ‘urban’ feel in the second installment, are there many other sides to explore?

I don’t know about a lot more sub-genres, but there are certainly a lot more musicians who should be known. And the early Andean, pre-Destellos influence could definitely be anthologised. There was a lot of great cumbia coming out around 1965/66, before Enrique Delgado (of Los Destellos) inposed the electric guitar as the main melodic instrument. Bands like Los Compadres del los Andes for instance.

Just to go back to the beginning for a moment, what was your original reason for going to Peru in search of music?

I don’t know that i had a reason, really. I like traveling, and I like music. My main musical motivation for going to Peru originally was Criollo music – sort of the national music of Peru.

Which was the first record that you heard that made you set foot on the road to discovering more about chicha?

The first song I ever heard was by Los Mirlos on a bootleg compilation called Pura Selva which also turned out to have Juaneco and other classics on it.

In the notes to this new release you speak of the ‘biases and inaccuracies’ of the first volume. Could you elaborate on this at all?

Are you kidding me? i don’t want to embarrass myself in public…

I know I’m jumping the gun a little, but do you have hopes for a third compilation?

I haven’t been able to license any more music from Infopesa and Dinsa, two very influential labels (it hasn’t stopped some people….). If i’m able to clear some of the legal problems and if I don’t go bankrupt – and it is pretty likely that I will at this point, all small labels will… – then, I will put out a last volume.

What’s next for yourself? Any Chicha Libre activity on the horizon?

It looks like Chicha Libre will be touring a lot in 2011 and I’m looking forward to it. For one thing, we will be playing in Colombia, holy land of Cumbia – and I can’t wait. we will be recording a new album in the spring – we haven’t time to record at all, so i’m very excited about that, and see where that takes us. I’m also starting a documentary on Ranil, one of the musicians on the new comp – he is from Iquitos, in the Amazon, and is pretty amazing character – a musician, pirate radio personality, promoter, activist. He’s running for Mayor there, and i’m going there to start filming in two days.

Know any wealthy backers? it is going to be one amazing film….

You can find out more about the Ranil film, as well as helping fund the project HERE. You can read our review of The Roots of Chicha 2 HERE and find out more about chicha music HERE and you can buy the CD HERE

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