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Spreading the Chicha gospel

Transplanted Parisian brings Peru's back street rhythms to world's front stage.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2008

A well-tuned ear: Olivier Conan, who stumbled across Chicha on a trip to Peru, has spurred a minirevival among younger Peruvians who are starting to 'dig the old stuff,' he says.

Chris Smith/Courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors


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."

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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."