JULY 3, 2012
The Nat Geo Music Interview: Chicha Libre
Nat Geo Music Catches Up With Brooklyn's Homegrown Musical Chicherosby Tom Pryor
Five years ago Brooklyn outfit Chicha Libre was more of an experiment than a band.
Inspired by the cassettes of Peruvian chicha music that co-founder Olivier Conan had picked up on a trip to the Peruvian Amazon in 2006, Chicha Libre began as a tribute project, recreating the vintage, psychedelic cumbia sound of early '70s chicha and covering songs by such Peruvian innovators as Juaneco y Su Combo, Los Mirlos, and more.
But these days Chicha Libre now part of the old guard of "new" cumbia bands and DJs that have sprung up all over Latin America, North America and even Europe over the intervening years. Their 2008 release Sonido Amazonico is now considered a classic of the genre - sometimes even eclipsing the original source material it was based on - as a story that Conan posted on the band's website recalls.
"While in Iquitos," Conan writes, "I was inquiring about places where I could possibly find old records. A friend told me of a co-worker who had an amazing collection of psychedelic cumbia. He took me to his house, and proceeded to search his hard drive ... After some electronic browsing, he finally found what he was looking for: a prized album of psychedelic cumbia which turned out to be Chicha Libre's very first album, Sonido Amazonico. They had no idea I was in the band."
The band's sound has also been honed by years of international touring - not to mention their weekly residence at Brooklyn music spot Barbès - and they grew past simply covering their favorite chicha songs into writing adventurous original material of their own. And with the addition of a new percussion section, Chicha Libre sounds tighter than ever.
We caught up with Conan recently to talk about the release of Chicha Libres' long-awaited second album, Cannibalismo, which was released earlier this spring on the group's own Barbès label. We found out what's changed for Chicha Libre, what's stayed the same and how they keep it all going in a music industry in deep flux?
Nat Geo Music: Can you tell me a little bit about where the title for Cannibalismo came from?
Olivier Conan: The title is taken from the Brazilian tropicalismo manifesto by Oswald de Andrade - the manifesto antropofago. Like tropicalismo, Peruvian chichi music was a cannibalizing affair, based on imitation and borrowings from multiple sources.
Unlike their Brazilian counterpart though, Peruvian musicians were mostly from very poor backgrounds and there was no savant theorizing behind the music. Still, the parallels are striking, hence the reference.
And of course, as purveyors of the exotic, we appeal to an almost prurient streak in most Westerners - historically, the fascination with the tropical, with the exotic are linked to a mix of fear and fascination with cannibalism.
Was the title signaling that you were taking Chicha Libre beyond the Peruvian/Amazonian roots of the original project?
Yes and no. We mean to say that by getting deeper into chicha culture, we are also taking the liberty of going out of its original boundaries. Those boundaries were always pretty vague anyway. Like our chicha forefathers, we feel can steal from any source... Chicha is a process as much as it is a style of music and while we still adhere to the process, we have incorporated some additional influences.
We definitely got more into psych rock, using a lot of effects for both guitars and keyboards. Playing with recording techniques etc. We also used a wider Latin [musical] vocabulary - bugalu on "Carnicero", guaguanco on "Muchachita", hints of salsa in "Don Lucho", cumbia, villera and rebajada in "Lupita" and also made-up grooves on "Once Tejones"? French variety on L'age d'or... etc....
How do you manage evolving beyond the original source material into writing original songs?
I think we manage pretty well... Really, it was a pretty natural evolution. We've been playing this music for a while now, and it's pretty internalized at this point. Writing songs that would fit in our sound happened in a very organic way.
You guys have toured South America more than once now - what's the reception like there? Has it changed your sound or approach or attitude in any way?
The reception has been pretty amazing, especially in Argentina and Chile where the type of tropical experiments we are dealing with are very much in today's culture. Both countries have a history of playing tropical music and rock and they identify with both strains.
And yes, being there, playing there, playing with other musicians has definitely changed the way we relate to and play the music in a pretty profound way. When we started the project we were paying tribute and were a bit shy about affirming ourselves as an original project. We were outsiders from an American point of view where our music doesn't exactly fit in the mainstream, but also from a Latin point of view as the music we played is essentially borrowed.
We are no longer outsiders. Younger bands doing cumbia and tropical music in South America usually know us and think of us as part of a scene - we've been around longer than some of them - and we find it pretty validating, of course, and in a way, it frees us up to do whatever we want. We don't have to stick to a template, we're allowed to make up our own rules.
Do you have a favorite venue or city to play there now?
Playing Niceto, in Buenos Aires, a little over a year ago, was a big turning point for us. The place is the equivalent of say, Irving Plaza [in New York City], and we got a hero's welcome. We have a very soft spot for the club, and for Buenos Aires. We also played Santiago, Chile for the first time this spring and had the best time. We loved the city! All the gigs were amazing, great reception, people feel engaged in everything they do - be it partying to cumbia, protesting or keeping the pain of Pinochet years alive. We were very impressed. And we loved playing Maestra Vida. A small club in Santiago with the greatest vibe.
Any new discoveries or places you want to explore further?
In general, traveling is one of the greatest perks about playing music and we've been to a lot of places that we want to go back to. Bogota is a vibrant city with a lot going on at all levels. We can't wait to go back - and I would love to explore Colombia a little more.
You had to partially crowdsource this record to complete it, right? Can you talk a little bit about that? What was the process like and what was the response?
I still feel ambivalent about the whole thing. We definitely needed it. There is no money going around to produce an album any longer. It's great that we can connect with people who care enough about a record they haven't heard yet to actually fund it. In theory, it's a great system. In practice, it's hard not to feel like you're begging, like you're a bit of a loser for resorting to that sort of thing. So, while I'm grateful for it, I'm also vaguely embarrassed by it. I long for the days when record labels invested in bands.
What was the best part of making this record?
It might sound corny, but making the record was the best part of making this record. We spent three months at [Brooklyn music bar] Barbès, setting up every morning, and breaking down every night at 5pm. We have accumulated enough equipment that we can now pretty much record ourselves and do a good job, which is pretty liberating. We didn't have to worry about being billed too many hours [in a studio] so we took our time trying out new things.
You guys have also gone through some personnel changes since the last album - what's changed and how has it affected the band's sound?
Both our percussionists are new - our timbalera, Karina Colis and conguero, Neil Ochoa have totally changed the band. Both are Latin musicians who grew up various types of tropical music and have a deep knowledge of Latin music's grammar, which didn't used to be the case. We've built up the rhythm section to a point that sort of frees us up. Melodic instruments can do what they want... Having a more Latin rhythm section has allowed us to push the music further.
The band still does a weekly residency in Brooklyn when you're in town - does that ever become a chore? How do you keep things fresh and interesting for yourselves?
Playing every week is what makes us good, and what actually keeps the music fresh - it's what has allowed us to keep things interesting, to take risks, and to actually get better.
Hell if I know.... taking over the world, one country at a time. Maybe even making an actual living at it!