In 1968, in Iquitos, the capital of the Peruvian Amazon, a shoemaker named Solomon Sanchez decided to form a band with his five sons. They were the first band in the Amazon to play popular local rhythms with electric guitars. The new hybrid they were creating would go on to have an enormous impact on South American popular music. Some of their songs, such as Sonido Amazonico or Danza del Petrolero became the most emblematic of this new Cumbia Amazonica movement.
The brothers were born and raised in Iquitos – the largest isolated city in the world. Iquitos boasts close to half a million inhabitants, but its nearest road is six days away by boat. The river and the forest are a big part of the culture, but the city remains a large urban center. Indigenous folklore and urban living have created a singular culture with the river dolphin and the moto-taxi as its primary symbols.
The brothers’ main link to the outside world was the radio. In addition to their daily diets of Tahuampa, Pandillas and Criollo waltzes, longwave radio broadcasts would expose them to Colombian Cumbia, Brazilian Carimbo, Ecuadorian San Juanitos, Venezuelan joropos – and psychedelic rock.
Curious to a fault, and willing to experiment, Los Wembler’s managed to incorporate all these styles in their playing. They loved Pinduca’s Brazilian Carimbó and covered some of his songs. Same with Ecuador’s Polibio Mayorga, who was also mixing local rhythms with tropical imports. Most of all, they loved the sound of electric guitars – especially with a wah pedal.
Cumbia proved to be the most popular and most adaptable rhythm and it became the key element in their music. Their very first tune was called Cumbia Amazonica, which became the name of the music itself.
The band’s name itself reflected both their traditional roots and their foreign influences. They combined the name of a local ethnic group – the Huambisa’s – with that of the British stadium Wembley, adding the extra ‘s because it seemed more rock and roll…
Los Wembler’s rise coincided with the height of the oil boom. With oil came money – a lot of it by local standards. Petrolero’s had money to spend, and Los Wembler’s became a favorite attraction at Petrolero’s parties.
Around the same time, other Amazonian bands were also electrifying their music. In Pucalpa, Juaneco y su Combo borrowed heavily from Brazilian music, and in Tarapoto, Sonido 2000 was inspired by Afro-Cuban Guaracha. Los Wembler’s drew more heavily from Amazonian folklore. They were also more isolated and their fame took a bit longer to spread. It wasn’t until Los Mirlos – an Amazonian band based in Lima – covered some of their tunes, that Los Wembler’s started to become known in the rest of Peru.
Throughout the 1970’s, Los Wembler’s released an astonishing three LPs a year. They toured constantly throughout the Amazon, with forays into Peru’s major cities. They became Iquitos greatest musical export.
By the mid-1980’s, Cumbia Amazonica had lost its popularity and was gradually being replaced by the more electronic sounds of techno cumbia. Los Wembler’s stopped recording and touring. Their strong family bond did ensure that they wouldn’t drift apart, and they never stopped playing as a band. They performed for whoever would hire them locally: parties, community events, weddings, but outside of Iquitos, they pretty much vanished from public consciousness.
Fast forward twenty-five years. After the Fujimori years, young Peruvians are in search of their past and start reconnecting with national popular culture. Early rock bands are being re-discovered as is Cumbia Amazonica. In 2007, Barbès Records released Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru. The album anthologized Peruvian cumbia (which came to be known as Chicha) from Lima and the Amazon. The Amazonian bands, in particular, struck a chord worldwide and came to be seen as a sort of missing link between Latin roots and rock – just as a new generation of musicians in Argentina, Mexico and Colombia had themselves started to mix those same elements.
Slowly, Los Wembler’s came to be re-discovered. In 2011, they performed in Lima for the first time in twenty-five years. A new generation of Tropical Electronic musicians started looking up to them for inspiration and the Peruvian group Dengue Dengue Dengue collaborated with them on a few songs. In 2015, the Smithsonian Institute invited Los Wembler’s to perform at their prestigious Folklife Festival in Washington DC.
While in the US, Los Wembler’s recorded a new EP for Barbès Records (to be released in the spring of 2017) and performed a few club shows, including a memorable show in Brooklyn where five hundred people showed up to cheer the legendary band.
Los Wembler’s haven’t lost any of their creative edge. To watch them perform or record is to witness musicians at the height of their powers. Their happy first experiments with cumbia and indigenous rhythms were not the product of chance. These are accomplished musicians in tune with their environment but also infinitely curious about the world. They may have a fondness for 1970’s production values, but after all, so do Jack White and Daptone. The style Los Wembler’s created more than forty years ago has finally found an audience around the world, and Los Wembler’s intend to keep it relevant by finding new ways to experiment.
Catch them on their first world tour.