Peruvian Cumbia, or Chicha, had a vew “eureka!” moment, and a few musicians fulfilled the role of catalyst including Enrique Delgado, Jaime Moreyra, Angel Rosado, and Chacalon. But none were as independent or as original as Juan Wong Popolizio and Noé Fachin, the masterminds of Juaneco y su Combo and originators of the Ola Amazonica – the Amazonian Wave.
Juaneco y su Combo was born in the Amazonian city of Pucallpa in the early 60s. The group was founded by Juan Wong Paredes, an amateur saxophone player of Chinese ancestry who made his living as a brick manufacturer. The musicians would get together on weekends and played mostly for their own enjoyment. They considered themselves a jazz band, played cumbia and other dance standards, and went by the name of Juaneco y su Conjunto.
Chicha has its origins in a variety of styles and influences which became codified over time by what seems like a series of accidents. Elements include the popularity of cumbia, the huayno of classic Andean folklore, and the exotic sound of rock and roll as epitomized by electric guitars and electronic organs. As with many new musical waves, people became excited about the idea of modern sounds combined with vestiges of tradition — music your parents wouldn’t understand mixed up with the music your parents listened to.
In 1969, Juan Wong Sr. retired from music and passed over the direction of the band to his son, who renamed it Juaneco y su Combo.
Juaneco’s first recruit was Noé Fachin, a guitar player in his 40s who had been working as a carpenter and a teacher and moonlighting as a criollo guitar player. Noé was already something of a virtuoso and brought a serious musical knowledge to the band. For the next ten years, he would become Juaneco’s main composer, as well as the group’s lead guitarist.
Pucallpa was still a fairly isolated city at the time. Music was heard mostly through local radio broadcasts that played cumbias as well as Peruvian criollo standards. Nearby Brazilian stations, whose signal easily reached Pucallpa, favored carimbo, a Brazilian Amazonian rhythm with a strong African influence (the carimbo is a drum of African origin). These cumbia and carimbo rhythms would become the building blocks of Juaneco’s new sound.
The other influence was of course rock and roll, which was rapidly taking over the planet. The electric guitar had been used in local bands for a while but Juaneco was the first one to adopt the electric organ. He traded the accordion for a Farfisa, which would soon become one of the trademarks of the new Peruvian cumbia sound
Juaneco started out by adapting traditional songs, practice popular with pop artists such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan. The band’s first hit, in 1970, was “Mujer Hilandera,” a cumbia version of a popular 50s Brazilian song called “Mulher Reindeira,” or “O Gangaceiro” (a song which, incidentally, was also part of Joan Baez’s repertoire).
Soon, though, Noé Fachin found his voice as a composer and wrote a series of songs based on cumbias and carimbo rhythms. They used idiosyncratic melodies which mixed every sound familiar to the band — Brazilian classics, huaynos, Venezuelan joropos, criollo songs — as well as exotic influences that owed as much to bands like the Shadows and the Ventures as they did to spy movies. The themes that run through the songs were based on local indigenous folklore, largely borrowed from the Shipibo Indians who dominate the region.
None of the band members was actually of Shipibo origin, but they did identify with the tribe in very profound ways. It was almost a matter of local pride. Before the population boom of the 70s and 80s, Pucallpa was essentially a Shipibo town. The Shipibos made up a majority of the population, but more importantly, as the town’s original inhabitants, they were the ones with a true understanding of the jungle. Juaneco y su Combo became the musical ambassadors of the selva (the jungle, which defines Pucallpa both geographically and culturally) and their style of music is still referred to as Cumbias Selvaticas. They dressed in traditional costumes and sang about the jungle, and to this day Juaneco is Pucallpa’s most famous export – oil and lumber being its most lucrative.
Of all the musicians, it seems Noé Fachin identified the most with Shipibo culture. His nickname was El Brujo – the witch doctor – and he was known to take ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic drug used by Shipibo shamans. His reasons for indulging seemed quite similar to those of his contemporaries in California — to seek a deeper, esoteric knowledge of oneself, get inspiration…and get high. He claimed that many of his songs came to him while he was under the influence of the drug.
In 1970, Alberto Maravi, the owner of a Lima-based label called INFOPESA, offered the band a recording contract. Their first album, El Gran Cacique, included many of the songs on this compilation. It established them as the leading band from the Amazon almost right away. They spent the next seven years traveling all over Peru with forays into Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia, recording three more albums, all of them produced by Alberto Maravi.
Maravi and his label played a big part in establishing the Chicha sound. He was the producer responsible for Juaneco, Los Mirlos, Los Hijos del Sol, Chacalon, and many many more. In the 70s and 80s he became somewhat of a tastemaker in Peruvian popular music, including rock and musica criollo.
On May 2nd 1977, the day after playing a Labor Day party in San Ramon, most of the band flew back to Pucallpa. As is often the case in rock and roll stories, their plane crashed and Noé Fachin, Walter Dominguez, Ediberto Vasquez, Jairo Aguilar, and Wilfredo Murrieta all joined the pantheon of fallen music idols. Juan Wong, singer Wilindoro Cacique, timbalero Rosendo Hidalgo, and conguero Juvencio Pinchi, who had all gone straight to Lima to finish work on their new record, were not on board the plane. They decided to reform the band a few months later, with five new members, and kept on playing. They never filled the creative void left by Noé Fachin, who had written all of their best material, but remained a great live band and did record a few gems including the iconic “Ya Se Ha Muerto Mi Abuelo.”
Juaneco passed away in 2004 but in the past year, there has been a resurgence of interest in their music, in part because of the critical success of Barbès Records’ previous release, The Roots of Chicha. Various versions of Juaneco y su Combo have recently been playing in some of the best venues of posh Barranco, sharing the bill with some of the hippest rock bands and treated as heroes by a new generation. The band has been the subject of television documentaries and has been profiled in such highbrow publications as El Comercio. Forty years and many deaths later, it seems that this unique Amazonian sound has finally found its place in the Peruvian canon. May Juan Wong Popolizio and Noé Fachin rejoice in their ayahuasca paradise.