Spreading the Chicha gospel
Transplanted Parisian brings Peru's back street rhythms to world's front stage.
New York — Olivier Conan's new house, a spacious triple-decker, sits on a quiet Brooklyn side street, not far from the flight path into LaGuardia International Airport. It used to belong to a friend, but the friend had to leave New York, and Mr. Conan took over. This was not such a very strange thing, Conan said on a warm afternoon this month, as he peered out over his overgrown garden. "A lot of stuff seems to have a way of working out like that – the bar, the music, the house. Right place, right time."
Not so long ago, for instance, Conan flew to Peru, and spent some time wandering through the narrow, sinuous alleys of the capital city, Lima. Most tourists would have returned home with a pile of glossy postcards. Conan ended up with a cranium full of meandering, low-end beats and the rounded whine of a few surf rock riffs.
"I talked to a lot of street vendors, and every one of them would play me these same records," Conan recalled. "It sounded to me like the music Americans and Europeans make when they mix Latin influences and rock 'n' roll. But it was called Chicha; they'd been doing it in the Amazon for decades. I said, 'That's pretty sexy that they'd come to the same place, the same tastes, with a completely different set of environmental rules.' I wanted to study the songs." So enamored was Conan that he decided to bring the music back to New York, and play it for his friends. Maybe, he thought, "I'll even play it myself."
A few years later, and Conan – a white man, with a soft Parisian accent – is the unlikely champion of the movement to hoist Chicha atop the world stage. From his Brooklyn home, Conan runs a label called Barbès Records, which releases albums by a host of international bands; among the most popular is the compilation "The Roots of Chicha," a wide-ranging survey of the genre's biggest stars. He owns a much-beloved bar – also called Barbès – with a cluttered and cozy back room for live music, a good deal of it internationally influenced. And he fronts Chicha Libre, a six-piece band, staffed by a crew of fellow gringos, as Conan lovingly calls them, that regularly tours the country, spreading the Chicha gospel.
"Olivier's sixth sense is pretty amazing," said Wade Schuman, the frontman of New York band Hazmat Modine, which released its last record on Barbès. "He finds music that has a commonality but no orthodoxy. I think he understands that we've developed beyond the idea that you have to be ethnic to play ethnic music. Music is a mutable form and it crosses boundaries. What's happened with world music and jazz is that people are recognizing that there can't be any musical orthodoxy when you've got a global culture."
Remembering the moment when he first learned of Conan's plans for Barbès, Mr. Schuman laughed. "Olivier was just another musician, and at the time, I thought he was completely nuts. He had no money. Of course, the club became a cultural phenomenon, and caught the attention of this mass exodus of hipsters, who were leaving Manhattan for Brooklyn. It filled a vacuum. And Olivier? He single-handedly revitalized a certain type of music."
In Peru, Chicha's history is storied, and politically charged. By the end of the 1960s, rock had spread outward from Nashville and London, from New York and Los Angeles, and spilled into southern and eastern markets. The villages of the Amazon were not immune: a handful of musicians there began stitching distorted guitar riffs over the polyrhythmic instrumentations of their favorite ballads. The music – lilting, elastic, and sonorous – was quickly scooped up by Peru's working classes and became a soundtrack of sorts in the sprawling ghettos that surround Lima.
"Most popular music starts in the slums, as despised brothel music," Conan said, pointing to the so-called "race records" of the early 20th century. "It's the same for Chicha – it's dance hall stuff. You hear it on the radio, but even the word itself, 'Chicha,' is a pejorative description of someone who's a hustler. Chicha is completely despised by middle-class people."
When word caught on in Peru that some French guy was pushing these slum tunes on American and European audiences, Peruvian journalists began phoning Conan's Brooklyn apartment, begging to know what he was thinking. "At first, it was a novelty sort of thing. They were puzzled," Conan said. "Here's a gringo – and a French gringo on top of that – playing Chicha? But they got over it pretty quickly. The fact that a foreigner likes the music makes it palatable to the middle class. And French," he laughs, "is classy."
Conan's proselytizing efforts have been met with success in South America, where a younger generation of Peruvians are "starting to dig the old stuff," Conan said. Chicha is gradually seeping into mainstream culture, via television, the Internet, and compilations such as the "Roots" disc released by Barbès.
Last week, between sets at a Chicha Libre concert, Joshua Camp, who plays electrovox in the band, said that he's been surprised at how quickly New York audiences, too, snap up on the Chicha sound. "It's a midway point," he explained, between what one hears growing up in suburban America and a more exotic low-end thump. He pointed to the backroom of Barbès, where moments before, a crowd of Brooklynites – and a handful of Peruvian émigrés – had jostled for a view of the upright bass, the electric guitar, the two drum kits. "Yeah, we get detractors," Mr. Camp said. "There are musical purists out there who see that none of us are from Peru. But that kind of purity doesn't interest me. And did you see it out there? For the vast majority of the crowd, it's a universal grin. That earthy rhythm – it's so easy to get your head around."