The Roots of Chicha 2

Various Artists/The Roots of Chicha

Volume one. Volume two.

When Barbès released the first volume of Roots of Chicha in September of 2007, I couldn’t have foreseen the kind of impact it would have. Had I known, I would have been a little more careful in my research at the time, talked to a few more people, and asked a lot more questions. I got lucky. In retrospect, I did, I believe, pick some of the most memorable songs by some of the most emblematic Peruvian cumbia bands of the 60s and 70s. It wasn’t that hard, as the music pretty much spoke for itself.

Releasing a second volume proved a lot more difficult. I have since gone back to Peru, listened to hundreds more songs, talked to a lot of people, met some of the players, and gained a much broader understanding of the history of the music. All of which made the task of compiling a second volume much harder.

The impact the first volume had in Peru (as well as some other Latin-American countries) came as a big surprise. For decades, chicha had been scorned as the trashiest expression of Lima’s slums. While the music certainly lived on with the working class, many journalists, students, and musicians had also become interested in the music and used the release of the album as an excuse to explore this obscure chapter of their popular culture. News that a gringo was interested in chicha found its way into many of Peru’s mainstream magazines, newspapers and blogs. That this gringo also started his own band (Chicha Libre) to pay tribute to the music, gave it an additional air of exoticism. After all, if gringos liked it, maybe it was time to revalorize the music.

The timing was perfect. After the Fujimori years (1990 to 2000), a lot of Peruvians started reconnecting with the pop culture of the 1960s. It started with the very vibrant rock scene Lima had in the 60s – Los Saicos, Los Shains, Los Holys, El Opio – which were some of the most original rock bands Latin America had ever produced, but which had somehow been forgotten. This was in part because of Velasco’s dictatorship (1968 to 1975). Velasco abhorred rock (and cumbia) and officially favored folklor and criollo music. Cumbia, which had been even more popular than rock, had to be next.

A few months before the release of Roots of Chicha, most members of the very popular chicha band Grupo Néctar died in a car crash. It became major news and was reported not just in the chicha press (as the popular press is called) but in the “serious” (and seriously middle-class) press including El Comercio. This proved to be a bit of a Trojan horse. If it was ok to talk about dead chicheros, it was probably ok to talk about chicha, especially if it meant talking about an album with an English title. Two years later, a chicha revival seemed to be in full swing. Not only were old bands, such as Juaneco y su Combo or Los Mirlos, given sudden attention, but popular Peruvian rock bands started paying homage to the music. Jam- rock band Bareto released an album of classic Peruvian cumbias which, all of a sudden, took the music to the hipclubs of Barranco.

Still, the music that was being revived was cumbiachicha still belonged to the cholos, and wealthy hipsters were not quite ready to embrace it. Furthermore, the style that was being favored was mostly the Amazonian one. In part because of the exotic appeal of the Amazon, which is almost as far from Lima as it is from New York, but also because it was safer. There was very little association between the Amazon and the slums of Lima, or with the violence that shook the country in the 80s and 90s. The music of Juaneco y su Combo seemed classless and modern. It belonged to a fantasy land and an imaginary time. Chicha you could still hear daily, blasting out the combis – the private minibuses that are Lima’s main mean of transportation.

This second volume is not a sequel. It’s an attempt to rectify some of the biases and inaccuracies of the first volume. Volume two focuses more on the urban aspect of the music and less on the Amazonian side. It highlights some lesser-known bands, and it also broadens its scope to include some of the early Cuban-influenced groups who would play such a crucial role in the elaboration of the chicha sound, as well as some of the later bands who play in the more Andean style that came to be referred to as chicha.
More roots. More chicha.
Olivier Conan

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Enrique Delgado is widely seen as the creator of Peruvian cumbia. He was 30 when he formed Los Destellos in 1966 and by then was already a successful sideman who had been working with both criollo and folkloric musicians (including the great and greatly popular El Trovador Andino). A conservatory-trained musician with perfect pitch, he set the standard pretty high for all chicha guitarists. With Los Destellos, he made use of all his musical background: he played guaracha, huayno, and surf, drawing inspiration from film music, classical music, rock, and psychedelia. Los Destellos definitely set the tone for the all inclusive-sound that would come to define chicha. Second guitarist Fernando Quiroz, who had played in the rock band Los Zanys, provided a particular rich interplay with Delgado’s guitar – switching from playing chords to montunos, tight harmonies and counterpoint. Both guitarists were fond of wah pedals and suddenly switching to distortion. Delgado passed away in 1996.

In the sometimes polarized world of Peruvian cumbia aficionados, a sizeable faction claims Trujillo native Manzanita as the true father of the genre. In truth, Berardo Hernandez (his birth name) is indeed the other great chicha pioneer. Very much like Enrique Delgado, who always overshadowed him, he was a classically trained guitarist who started out playing criollo music and first earned his living working with folkloric bands such as Los Pacharacos. He formed Manzanita y su Conjunto in 1969 and made his mark right away. His sound was like no other – never derivative, always personal. He liked to improvise more than was the norm in musica tropical and, unlike Delgado, wrote most of his own tunes. He is remembered for his superior technique but was not an overwhelmingly flamboyant player – he favored parts and arrangements. His band used a Farfisa organ to play the kind of harmonies and counter-melodies usually played by a second guitar. Despite the historical competition, Delgado and Manzanita seemed to have been friends and very much admired each other’s playing. Berardo Hernandez passed away in 2007.

Raul Llerena is one of the most fascinating characters of the Peruvian cumbia movement. He was born in Belen, a mostly poor and indigenous neighborhood of Iquitos, the largest of the Amazonian cities. Like a lot of his contemporaries, he came his background was in criollo music. He started singing in a criollo band but gradually got more interested in tropical music. He started his own tropical band in the mid 70s, calling it Ranil after the first syllables of his own and his wife Nilsa’s names. Unlike his peers in local bands Los Silvers or Los Wemblers, he refused to sign on with a label and decided to start his own, which he called Llerena. He put out a number of LPs that proved very popular in and around Iquitos, but due do the independent nature of the venture, never crossed over in the rest of the country. Ranil had studied in Lima to be a teacher, and not content to simply be a musician, he started his own radio station in Belen – and briefly ran his own TV station. Many of his songs were already concerned with social issues and he became quite the gadfly as a radio personality. He seems to now have achieved folk hero status and he has also decided to run for mayor of Belen. In the past few years, there has been a regain of interest for his music.

When Walter Leon started Los Ilusionistas, he very consciously modeled his band on Los Destellos. He even admitted that he wrote Colegiala thinking of Los Destellos’ early hit Elsa. Ironically, Colegiala would go on to become one of the best-known cumbias in the world, although few people know the original version or are even aware that the song is Peruvian. In the 1980s, Nescafé made it its theme song but used a version recorded by a Colombian band. Most Europeans were introduced to cumbia by hearing the Nescafé version on television. Walter Leon wrote a number of very well known songs but doesn’t play much anymore. Los Ilusionistas’ singer, Carlos Ramirez, is still very active. He went on to lead Centeno, one of the classic chicha bands of the 1980s, and he still plays regularly.

Guitarist Victor Casahuaman started Grupo Celeste in 1974. He is one of the founders of the moderrn chicha sound. His own songs relied on lyrics as much as they did on the music. Earlier cumbia bands were more concerned with making people dance and a majority of the songs were instrumentals. Grupo Celeste made people care about what they sang about. The sound was also harder, more rock – with busier bass lines, less tumbaos, funkier grooves. Lener Muños’s lead guitar was louder and less syncopated. But mostly, Grupo Celeste introduced Chacalon to the world. Chacalon sang Celeste’s first major hit, Viento, which is said to have sold close to a million copies and made him the voice of the provincianos practically overnight. Chacalon sang with Celeste on and off for a few years but went on to form one of the two most influential chicha bands of the 1980s. Grupo Celeste went through a great many personnel changes but remains active to this day. The group is particularly popular in Mexico where its style has had a direct impact on the development of Mexican domestic cumbia.

Compay Quinto was one of the first Peruvian guitarists to specialize in an all-Cuban repertoire, mixing up a surf-like esthetic with criollo technique and syncopated Cuban montunos. El Diablo, which was released in 1967, remains his most famous tune. He still plays in Lima.

Los Ribereños, led by Jhon Beny, is another 60s band which specialized in a mostly Cuban repertoire but gave it what we can, in retrospect, call a chicha twist. The music was getting a little more syncretic, with an occasional Andean flavor, but guaracha remained its strongest element.

From Huanuco, this band specialized in an instrumental repertoire of well-known songs from Cuba and Peru. Their version of Siboney – Cuban Composer Ernesto Lecuona’s classic – epitomizes the mixture of surf, Cuban influence, and rock, which was to play such a big part on the further development of chicha.

A product of La Victoria, one of Lima’s poor neighborhoods, Chacalon was born Lorenzo Palacios. One of ten children, his parents were migrants from the provinces. For years, he earned a meager living fixing shoes and playing a few gigs here and there – mostly with the help of his brother Chacal, who had already made a name for himself. After scoring a big hit singing with Grupo Celeste, his old friend Jose Luis Carballo, who was then touring with Los Hijos del Sol, convinced him to record with his new group, La Nueva Crema (named after the british group Cream). Producer Juan Campos offered them a deal on his new label Horoscopo. Almost immediately, Chacalon became the voice of the pueblos jovenes. His songs emphasized the urban travails of Andean migrants – the hard work, pride, suffering, and drinking of his fellow provincianos. The Pharaoh of Chicha, as his fans called him, died in 1994. His funeral was attended by 60,000 people. Jose Luis Carballo, who wrote a great number of his songs and was responsible for La Nueva Crema’s sound, now lives and works in L.A where his own band, La Mermelada, still performs occasionally.

Los Shapis gave Peruvian cumbia a stronger Andean flavor than most of their predecessors. While the musical mix was essentially the same as Manzanita or Los Hijos del Sol, Los Shapis wore their Andean roots as a badge of honor. It defined who they were and where they came from. If Chacalon was a tragedian whose longing for the Andean past had all the provincianos in tears, Los Shapis celebrated the Andean heritage with a more joyful enthusiasm – and they were the first to insist on calling the music chicha. Band-leader and guitarist Jaime Moreyra drew from rock, tropical music, bolero, and even disco, but always favored Andean sounding pentatonic melodies. Singer Julio Simeón Salguerán, better knows as Chapulin el Dulce, sang in the ahuaynado style of the classic huayno singers, with no trace of the Afro-Cuban sonero influence that informed Felix Martinez (of los Destellos and Los Girasoles), Carlos Ramirez (of Los Ilusionistas) or even Chacalon. Los Shapis’ first LP came out in 1981 on Horoscopo and was a huge success. Their first single, El Aguajal, was a traditional huayno and instantly set the tone. They became something like the Beatles of chicha – complete with a musical film, Los Shapis en el Mundo de Los Pobres (In the World of the Poor), a rags to riches musical fable in which chicha (the drink) can give super human powers, cure a hangover, or even fill up your tank. Los Shapis are still popular, playing regularly in Peru and for Peruvian communities around the world. Chapulin’s life was just the subject of TV series.

The Sanchez brothers, who lead Los Wemblers, may not have had the fame of fellow amazonians Juaneco y su Combo or Los Mirlos, but their music symbolizes 1970s Iquitos: a frontier town with one foot in the jungle and the other in an oil well. Iquitos still doesn’t have road access, but the 70s oil boom supplied sudden wealth as well as many outlets to dispose of it. Petroleros apparently liked to party, and Iquitos provided plenty of places to do just that. La Danza del Petrolero was made famous by Los Mirlos, who used it as one of their signature songs, but Los Wemblers wrote it – and must have encouraged actual oilmen to dance to it every weekend.

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Many thanks to Monica Risi, Alfredo Villar, Jose Luis Carballo (la biblia de la Chicha!), Erika Rossi, Fidel Gutierrez, Santiago Alfaro, Francisco Melgar Wong, Efrain Rozas, Jody Gillett, Jaime Moreyra, Angel Moreyra, Juan y Elvira Campos, Raul Llerena, Walter Leon, Beta Cuesta, Victor Casahuaman, Sebastian Alvarez, Vivian Gutiérrez, Myrna Li, Michael Pigott, Allyssa Lamb, Emily Hurst, Vincent Douglas, Grace Kendall, Piero Cespedes, Barbès and Chicha Libre.