(The video of Chicha Libre performing at sxsw is the one at the bottom of this post, in case you want to skip the boring part)
We usually think of technology as a collection of devices, tools, and instruments. But technology is also the knowledge about how to use those devices and about their purpose. Furthermore, technology affects the ways in which we perceive and relate to the world. Technology opens doors to realities we did not know. It opens our senses to new experiences and enables us to see what, until just before we deploy its devices, was invisible to us.
We could say, then, that music is a technology because this is precisely what it does. More than the instruments and devices we use to produce and reproduce sounds and the knowledge we both require to use them and acquire from their use, music is what our listening minds imagine when the acoustic vibrations coming from those instruments excite them. Music opens new worlds to our imagination, and some particular types of music and bands are specially effective in doing that. To me, as to many other cumbia lovers, Chicha Libre is one of those bands whose sound gives access to a world we are unable to perceive before listening to their songs. Of course, the images that music produces in each one of us can be very different (it is extremely difficult to talk about experience and perception in non-subjective terms) but, very likely, they are not totally incongruent with each other. The picture below helps me to describe what that world looks like.
When someone mentions the Amazon rain forest, the first things that come to mind are lots of vegetation, humidity, wild animals, and naked indigenous people. Images of urban life, noisy streets, or rock bands seem incompatible with stereotypical images about this region. The idea of having a house of iron designed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, the same engineer who designed the famous tower in Paris) under the tropical sun would appear even stranger. No. It would appear frankly crazy, something belonging to a bizarre world. However, the picture is real. It shows the Casa de Fierro in Iquitos, the oldest city of the Peruvian Amazon. This world showing the strange outcomes of a globalization that started since the so-called discovery of America is formed by a collage of the modern, the primitive, the local, the foreign, the jungle, the city, the indigenous, and the alien. It is the world that Olivier Conan and his band encountered in a form of cumbia that mixes the contagiousness of Afro-Colombian rhythms and Cuban percussion with the psychedelic rock sound of electric guitars and organs filtered through wah-wah and reverb effects.
If we keep defining technology as a series of methods and devices that change the way we view the world, we can understand psychedelic music as a technology that is about another technology, because both music and psychedelia are based on the use of devices (instruments and LSD respectively) and procedures which reveal to us dimensions of reality we do not see without their intervention. Psychedelic music, then, made audible to the world the new sensorial experiences that the youth of the countercultural movement of the 1960s discovered through the use of LSD before it was banned in 1968. Psychedelia reached many corners of the world, including Lima. There, bands like Los Holys and Los Belkings adopted the sound of American psychedelic rock, and the pioneering music alchemist Enrique Delgado mixed that sound with the Cuban rhythms, creating a Guajira Psicodélica.
But, beyond these rather experimental creations, the sound of psychedelia found its new home in the cumbia made in the Peruvian Amazon, now known in Peru as “cumbia de la selva,” by bands like Los Mirlos and Juaneco y su Combo. (Some people would include “cumbia de la selva” within the term “chicha,” but chicha is more frequently used in reference to the type of cumbia made by migrants of Andean origin in Lima.) Even though the sound of psychedelia is implicit in cumbia de la selva (it features electric guitars with wah-wah pedals, Farfisa organs, and instrumentals are important), the term “psychedellic” was never employed to qualify it perhaps because its sound was, from the start, identified as local. This happened because cumbia arrived in the jungle at the same time that “la ola verde” a mestizo political and cultural movement toward the independence from the central administration in Lima and the creation of a neo-Amazonian identity was growing rapidly. More interestingly, ancient Amazonian practices equivalent to psychedelia but much more developed as methods to acquire knowledge about the world, such as the shamanistic trips with ayahuasca (an hallucinogenic substance traditionally used by many Amazonian tribes), were already integrated by the mestizo poulation of Amazonian cities as part of their new identity.
Chicha Libre’s music is a discovery of the psychedelia that became concealed as an organic element of urbanized Peruvian Amazon identity. It is a substance that shows us the workings of other substances, a double technology. This is why their sound is one of the most carefully planned aspects of their performance (I realized this when, after a disastrous night for the sound personnel at the sxsw venue where the video below was shot, Chicha Libre’s act soundend astoundingly pristine without much tweaking). And this is why parody, not in the sense of mockery, but in the sense of careful re-elaboration of musical models is Chicha Libre’s main expressive strategy (compare, for example, the “Danza del Petrolero” by Los Mirlos, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PKRJWKJgKM with its parody by Chicha Libre, “La Danza del Millonario,” here: http://barbesrecords.com/Canibalismo.html).
(My apologies for the poor camera work. Apart from my cheap camcorder, I was unable to stand still before the rica chicha coming from the stage. My thanks to Olivier Conan and Sonido Chichadélico for providing me with important pieces of the information here included.)
IMPORTANT: Chicha Libre plan to release their new album, Canibalismo, on May 8th and need our help to make it real. You can donate here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/chichalibre/canibalismo-chicha-libres-new-album