Cultural phenomena streak through popular consciousness like meteorites. There’s a significant, even life-changing, impact made somewhere, but for many it’s only a moment that flickers by, soon to be swallowed back into the cosmos. Chicha might have been like that. Instead, a once-obscure music that enjoyed a fanatic embrace in the Peruvian slums of the 1970s has become a full-fledged global occasion – thanks to the stunning success of a 2007 CD called The Roots of Chicha.
The album, released by the Brooklyn-based Barbès Records, was a passionate act of cultural appreciation: a heart-strong effort to turn the world on its ear with something it had never expected to hear. It took listeners back to the late 1960’s, when a number of Peruvian guitarists from Lima and the Amazon created a new electric hybrid, which mixed cumbia, surf, Cuban guaracha, rock, Peruvian folklore, and psychedelic touches. This new wave of Peruvian cumbia came to be known as chicha. Scorned by the middle-class and the official tastemakers, chicha remained mostly associated with the slums of Lima, where the ever-growing population of Andean migrants embraced the music and its players as their own.
When Olivier Conan released the first volume of Roots of Chicha in September 2007, he couldn’t have foreseen the kind of impact it would have. The musician, who co-owns the club Barbès in Brooklyn and owns the label of the same name, had fallen in love with the music on a trip to Peru in the summer of 2006. Back in New York, he started his own band, Chicha Libre, as an attempt to share his enthusiasm. Then, he released a compilation of some of the best chicha tracks from the ‘70s. The music quickly found an audience in the US and in Europe. Musicians and DJs embraced it as a lost link between rock and Latin cultures. Accolades flowed from the New York Times, NPR, Le Monde, El Comercio and the BBC. One of its songs was covered by the band Franz Ferdinand, actor Elijah Wood praised it profusely in an interview to Paste magazine. Chilean rock group Los Tres gave a copy of the record to then-president Bachelet, which somehow became national news.