Mention Peru and most people will think of either the Andes Mountains or the Amazon river, the two great natural attractions of that South American country. Both regions were once home to great civilizations decimated by the coming of the Spanish conquistadors. The quest for gold and the souls of heathens followed by the encroachment of the mining industry into the mountains and the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest has reduced their numbers even further. Now, like other groups native to the Western hemisphere, the Shipibo and the Aztecs live in poverty.
In one of those strange quirks of fate that happens on occasion when a collision of cultures occur, the music and culture of the Shipibo was given a new lease on life and is now being brought to an international audience. The strange journey started in the 1970s and is tied up in the history of the musical hybrid of Brazilian carimbo, Columbian cumbia, American surf guitar, psychedelic organ, and native cultural influences known as chicha music.
Chicha's origins lie in the poor working class towns dotted throughout the interior of Peru whose populations were a mix of Shipibo and workers brought in to labor in the mines and industries that were final death knell for the native way of life. Ironically instead of the natives being assimilated by the invading culture the reverse happened and a great many of the workers embraced aspects of the native culture as their own. In the small town of Pucallpa a group of those had formed into a band that did the occasional gig playing a mix of jazz and dance standards.
When the original leader, Juan Wong Paredes, of Juaneco y Su Combo gave way to his son, Juan Wong Popolizio, the band's direction took a radical turn. The younger Juan Wong traded in his accordion for the electric organ and hired Noé Fachin, a guitar player with a penchant for native pharmaceuticals. It was Fachin's interest in indigenous folklore and his love for the wah-wah pedal that supplied the first stage in the development of the band's new sound. Thanks to short wave radio the band was introduced to the carimbo and cumbia rhythms that were to become the beat that carried them to popularity.
The story almost came to a tragic end when five of the band members, including Fachin, the group's primary composer, died in a plane crash in 1977, but Juan Wong persevered and kept the band going. Now entering its third generation, Juan Wong has died and the group is led by his son Mao Wong Lopez. Thanks to Brooklyn-based Barbès Records, the music of Juaneco y su Combo is now available to an international audience for the first time on the compilation Masters Of Chicha Volume 1, featuring sixteen of the band's tracks from their 1970s heyday.
The first thing you notice in almost every song is one of the two anomalies that give chicha music its distinctive sound: the sustained warble of a wah-wah guitar or the slightly jarring and hypnotic notes produced by early electric organs. Propelling the music to almost frenetic heights are the staccato sounds of various percussion instruments rapping out the high speed Latin beats that defy you to not dance. Over top of this oddly compelling melange of sounds, lyrics that draw upon the folklore and traditions of the Shipibo are sung, chanted, whooped, and hollered.
While the majority of the band weren't native, they typically performed in Shipibo costume and embraced aspects of the culture with enthusiasm. Fachin's nickname, "El Brujo" – the witch doctor – wasn't just an idle joke. The chief songwriter made frequent use of ayahuasca – an hallucinogen prepared as a tea by Shipibo shamans – and claimed to have received inspiration for a number of songs while under its influence. You can hear the native influence in the lyrics of songs like "Me Robaron Mi Runamula," which tells the story of a half-mule, half-woman creature of Shipibo myth, and "Vacilando Con Ayahuasca," where a woman repeatedly asks for more "tea" as she ascends further and further into a state of ecstasy.
In some ways the music of Juaneco y su Combo is a predecessor to today's house music, specifically trance, with its tendency to repeat the same rhythmic pattern hypnotically. Yet unlike most of today's music, these songs have an emotional texture that brings them to life in ways you don't often hear in modern electronic music. Of course, there are also the tracks where the enthusiasm of the musicians and the rhythms are so strong that no matter how repetitive things may sound, you'd never find yourself drifting away into another world.
Juaneco y su Combo aren't the only chicha band to have come out of the Peruvian countryside, but they are one of the originators of the sound and the first band to have really popularized it. It's only fitting that they are also the first band to be given an international release. As odd as it may sound, the music is infectious, fun, and never boring. If you're looking to hear something new, then this is the band for you. I can honestly say that I doubt you'll have come across anything quite like Juaneco y su Combo before.