Globalization isn’t a new phenomenon. Still, it’s easy to forget how much rapid cross-pollination existed even before this century.
Starting in the 1960s in the Peruvian Amazon, largely poor, indigenous oil-boom workers mashed up the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of Colombian cumbia with Peruvian indigenous music and surf and psychedelic guitar riffs from the United States. In hindhearing, the music that resulted could easily have come from some of today’s better “world music” acts, if the recordings were slightly sharper. The pioneers of the 1960s and 70s dubbed their genre “chicha,” after the delicious traditional Incan corn beer. Now, Brooklyn band Chicha Libre is updating it for our era.
Chicha Libre comprises an assortment of musicians from all over the Americas as well as two Europeans, the owners of Barbès, a bar and performance space in Brooklyn. The sextet rediscovered this glistening musical form and championed it with a long series of concerts around the world — not calling their own music “chicha,” but certainly giving credit where it was due. Meanwhile, Barbès Records, a label affiliated with the bar, released a compilation in 2007 of near-forgotten original chicha gems. Chicha Libre, and its label, might well have jointly rescued chicha music from obscurity.
On October 14, I saw the band at its weekly performance at Barbès. Half the audience flailed ecstatically for two whole sets, and nearly everyone moved. The group puts a premium on juicy melodies and riffs — originals, chicha classics, even “Flight of the Valkyries” and some Serge Gainsbourg — which makes the music consistently absorbing and elevates it above pure dance grist (though it is quite danceable). And wildly diverse as all these threads are, the songs inescapably belong together.
The lynchpin sounds are guitar and keyboards. Vincent Douglas, guitarist, coaxes the perfect twangy surf tone out of a Gretsch and an arsenal of pedals. He must be sorely tempted to chord, but restrains himself — none of the huge, meaty riffs of “pure” rock styles here, and I can remember only a few occasional double-stops — and thus he transforms the electric guitar almost into a gritty, silvery, hard-edged wind instrument that seamlessly complements the keys while also allowing the other instruments to shine through.
Joshua Camp, on keys, wrings serious atmosphere out of his small synthesizer and Roland accordion. He plasters various effects onto the latter, so that it evokes a plodding indie-rock Wurlitzer in one moment and the wistful-yet-sinister shimmer of Doors organist Ray Manzarek in another. Most striking, perhaps, is how he uses a classic wah-wah effect (long a guitar staple) to convert the accordion into a medium for just about anything. Camp tends to play the insistent arpeggio riffs that are usually assigned to a trés or other steel-string instrument in cumbia styles, and the resulting soulful quiver ventures into pleasant whimsy without ever becoming schlocky. He shares most of the vocals with Olivier Conan, who doubles on the Venezuelan cuatro, though the other players’ voices turn up here and there. As lead singers, the two are by turns sardonic, regretful and lusty,
Conan’s cuatrro, and Nicholas Cudahy’s rock-solid electric upright bass, play a mostly subliminal role in the ensemble.The watery strum of the guitar-like cuatro is especially beautiful, but it was so quiet at this show that I wondered if the sound levels were actually set at what the band wanted. The percussionist who was subbing for regular Karina Colis burned up the timbales with great flair, and Neil Ochoa, while taking fewer and less flashy solos on the congas, nevertheless struck triumphant blows on the stop-time sections as he tottered and tottered and tumbled back into the groove with breathtaking syncopation.
Midway through the show, Conan broached a topic the young, chic, artsy, heavily-queer crowd had had stuck somewhere in their craws for the last dozen hours: “Happy Columbus Day! — Wait, should I say that?” A few “No!”s and mostly uneasy murmurs followed, but it wasn’t hostile. Rather, it sounded like everyone in the room agreed on what globalization should and shouldn’t be.
Chicha Libre performs at Barbès Mondays at 9:30pm. For more information, see barbesbrooklyn.com.