In 1960s Peru, a new style of music was born: Peruvian cumbia, also known as “chicha”. Tropical genres such as Dominican merengue, Cuban guaracha and rumba, and Colombian cumbia mixed with 1960s psychedelic rock, while electric guitars reinterpreted folk melodies and traditions from the Andes and the Amazonian jungle, in a musical representation of the exodus from rural areas to Lima and other big cities in Peru.
The roots of chicha go back to mid-1950s Peru. Mambo was gradually replaced by preferences for other rhythms like merengue, guaguancó, cha cha cha, joropo, guaracha, rumba and cumbia, which timidly started to sound during these years. In Lima, it was the golden age of great orchestras and music ensembles which were capable of playing swing and jazz, but especially the diverse tropical variants flooding the market. The most successful of all, La Sonora de Lucho Macedo, released in 1965 an LP consisting exclusively of cumbia.
Around this time, the successful folklore group Los Pacharacos released the album “Los ídolos del pueblo”, which included a cumbia song in the middle of the medley of huaynos, waltzes and polkas. The marriage between folklore and cumbia had taken place.
Peruvian groups preserved the fusion of foxtrot and mambo rhythms along with huayno and cumbia in their music. That feeling would be the basis for the success of such unorthodox and unclassifiable songs as ‘La chichera’ or ‘Petipan’. The recording in 1965 of these two songs by Los Demonios del Mantaro on a seminal 45 rpm for the Sono Radio label was the jumping off point for the birth of cumbia andina, also called “chicha” precisely for this song, which is dedicated to a vendor of the well-known Andean beverage.
The electric shock of rock guitars entered the world of cumbia in 1968. The cause of such hybridization was Enrique Delgado Montes, regarded as the genre’s godfather. He did it, as part of his band Los Destellos, on a 45 r.p.m. (‘El avispón’ / ‘La malvada’) and an eponymous LP. His songs constituted the most surprising musical fusions and amalgams of the time: whether they merged Cuban music and psychedelia, explored the sounds of the Andes or Amazonian music, combined the amplified Creole guitar with huayno melodies or abused fuzz tones and distortion pedals with enormous strength.
The metamorphosis of cumbia turned it into a genre that seemed to voraciously cannibalize acoustic traditions and modern technologies. There wasn’t an innovation that tropical guitarists didn’t add to their sound: delay, fuzz tone, overdrive, wah-wah, reverb, modulating effects typical of rock bands were assimilated into a stunning sonic cocktail.
In this context, cumbia reached the top of the charts in popularity. Cumbia replaced rock as the urban sound. The groups would slowly develop an ethnic sensibility inspired by native Shipibo (indigenous Amazonian tribe) motifs and an astonishing and bewitching sound that seemed to drink from all the mysteries, secrets and myths of the jungle.
Groups such as Los Hijos del Sol, Los Shapis, Los Mirlos and Los Destellos popularized chicha during the 1970s and 1980s. Although Colombian cumbia had a revival during the 1990s, chicha faded away until recently, when record collectors found Peruvian LPs that featured the familiar chicha formula, a mix of surf, psychedelia, Andean music and Afro-Caribbean beats.
Sonido Amazónico – Amazonian Chicha
In 2007, American record label Barbès Records released a 17-song compilation of psychedelic cumbia from Peru. That album, The Roots of Chicha, re-introduced chicha music to international audiences.
Peruvian band Los Wembler’s de Iquitos, who formed in 1968 in the Amazonian city of Iquitos, was responsible for some of the first hits of the psychedelic cumbia genre – including “Sonido Amazonico” and “Danza del Petrolero.” Los Wembler’s became extensively popular in the Peruvian Amazon and for a dozen years they toured the region, with ventures into neighboring Brazil and Colombia. In the mid-1980’s, however, touring mostly came to a stop and the band remained in Iquitos, playing mostly parties and local events.
Los Wembler’s De Iquitos discography includes Al Ritmo De Los Wembler’s (Odeon Del Peru, 1971); La Danza del Petrolero (Decibel, 1975), La Amenaza Verde (Decibel, 1975), El Encanto de la Selva (Decibel, 1976), Carapira (Decibel, 1976), Fiesta en la Selva (Sono Radio, 1977), Bailando Hasta el Amanecer (Sono Radio, 1978), Fiebre en la Selva (Sono Radio, 1978), El Sabor Tropical (Sono Radio, 1979), Estos Son…Los Famosos Wembler’s de Iquitos (Sono Radio, 1980), and Ikaro del Amor (Barbes Records, 2017).
With the rediscovery of chicha, there was renewed interest in Los Wembler’s, both in and outside of Peru. Los Wembler’s collaborated with Peruvian electro cumbia group Dengue Dengue Dengue, have been covered by Chicha Libre, La Chamba, Xixa and Firewater, been part of a number of documentaries and TV shows and inspired new bands across the Americas and Europe.
In 2010, The Roots of Chicha 2 was released, highlighting 11 bands and 16 tracks recorded from 1968 to 1981. It focuses on some lesser-known bands, and broadened its view to include some of the early Cuban-influenced groups that would play such a crucial role in the elaboration of the chicha sound. It introduced some of the later bands, such as Los Shapis, who played in the more Andean style that would eventually define chicha.
The Roots of Chicha 2 included essential chicha acts such as Grupo Celeste, which had a tremendous influence on the emergence of Mexican cumbia; Chacalon, the legendary “bad boy” of chicha; Ranil, the independent folk hero from Iquito; Manzanita; and Los Destellos, whose had a seminal role in the evolution of chicha.
Secret Stash Records reissued Los Destellos’ album Constelación in 2011.
In the United States, a band called Chicha Libre, gained notoriety with its mix of chicha, Latin rhythms and surf.
Peruvian band La Inédita, formed in 2010, created a new genre called chichamuffin, a mix of chicha with Jamaican beats, rock and electronica.
American band Xixa, from Tucson (Arizona), combined chicha with psychedelic rock and border music. Xixa’s debut EP, Shift and Shadow , came out in 2015 on Barbès Records.
Members of Austin’s Grupo Fantasma and Brownout formed
Money Chicha. Their debut album, Echo En Mexico , came out in the United States in 2016 on the Vampisoul label.
Los Wembler’s returned in 2019 with Visión del Ayahuasca (Barbes Records).
The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru ( Barbès Records, 2007)
Masters of Chicha 1 – Juaneco y Su Combo ( Barbès Records, 2007)
Chicha Libre – Sonido Amazonico! ( Barbès Records, 2008)
Cumbia Beat Vol. 1, Experimental Guitar-driven Tropical Sounds from Peru 1966-1976 (Vampisoul, 2010)
Chicha Libre – Canibalismo ( Barbès Records, 2012)
Xixa – Shift and Shadow ( Barbès Records, 2015)
Money Chicha – Echo En Mexico (Vampisoul, 2016)
Los Wembler’s De Iquitos – Visión del Ayahuasca (Barbès Records, 2019)
Sources: Vampisoul, Angel Romero (World Music Central), Manuel Carrasco and Barbes Records.