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Disclaimer: No humans were consumed in the making of Canibalismo: Chicha Libre’s Unmistaken Identity

article by John Powell

Olivier Conan is in the middle of our interview when he stops to answer the phone. It’s his wife. “Is she asleep?” he asks quietly in the corner of the loud bar. “Hey, I’m doing an interview right now. Is she asleep? Okay, I’ll call you later.”

He’s checking in on his three-year-old daughter, a moment when he slows down. Otherwise, Olivier is the Parisian with a le se faire attitude; an incredibly interesting man with a mouth always trying to keep up with his mind. A Brooklynite, Olivier, along with Karina Colis, Joshua Camp, Vincent Douglas, Neil Ochoa, and Nick Cudahy, make up Chicha Libre, the surreal, fun, and lively chicha band from the country’s melting pot. Olivier gets into a deep discussion about their sound, and, as you’ll read, claims to not have started the apocalypse.

Tell me about your very different sound.

The music is mostly our own. It’s inspired by Peruvian music from the 70s. It’s called chicha, and it’s a form of tropical music or cumbia, that was developed in the late 60s, early 70s, in Peru.

Are you familiar with cumbia? It’s originally from Columbia and it’s a lot of brass, clarinet, or accordion, and in Peru they changed the model. They kept the Afro-Peruvian, Afro-Columbian rhythm section of timbale, conga, bongo, but they used electric guitar instead of accordion. That was a very novel thing at the time, especially in Latin America, which didn’t have a lot of electric guitar. And there’s a tradition of electric guitar in Peru, a lot of classical guitar- you had amazing virtuosos that got into the electric sound, started using wah pedals, and brought in this psychedelic sound in the middle of Peru, completely disconnected from the rest of the world, in a way, because they were isolated, but at the same time very much connected to the things that were happening in England or California.

Chicha Libre

At the same time, they were interested in a million other things: surf music, rock, all kinds of Latin music. In a way that was very post modern, but it was ghetto music. It’s kind of an interesting process.

I went to Peru in 2004 for the first time, truly fell in love with Latin music, and was exposed to recorded music mainly because that music was not around that much anymore. I got excited about it and ended up putting out a compilation of the music called The Roots of Chicha, which became this cult thing around the world- and at the same time started this band, which first started as a cover band, essentially because we liked the music. It outgrew its original purpose and we started writing music for it. We made a record a few years ago that did okay, and now we expanded even more by being more from the Peruvian model that we liked but it’s at the core of what we still do, but we bring our own background.

We’re from all over the place. We’ve got two French people, a Venezualn, a Mexican, and two real Gringos. [Laughs].

It’s nice of you to let them in. [Laughs]

Well, we’re all in New York, so… We’re all essentially Brooklyn people. In many ways what we are reflects what goes on in Brooklyn.

Do you play covers in your live show?

We do about 75 percent our own music and we do a couple of classic Peruvian covers. We also do a Clash cover. And we go through our respective backgrounds.

What would you say are some quintessential chicha musicians?

Well, some of the most famous bands, most influential were Los Distellos, Los Miros from the jungle, later, Choco de la Crème. There’s a lot.

It seems chicha had some time to grow as a style.

There was a 15-year period that was the golden age of that kind of music. It’s surprising it did not become as popular as it should have been. At the same time, you had the tropicalia movement in Brazil, that got huge. It was similar, but more of a middle class movement. In Peru, it was a ghetto thing, so it never made it onto mainstream radio. That was the main difference.

Making this kind of music, is the mission to share that kind of music?

Chicha Libre

It’s a party band, but also for those that like to listen. There’re a lot of things going on in the music. We spent a lot of energy producing. We all come from liking arranged music a lot, and at the same time we make sure that people can dance. That’s very important to us.

I think music is often about celebration. It can be a celebration of anything, but fun should be involved. But, you know, funerals are also a kind of celebration, and there’s a place for funeral music too- That’s not what we do! [Laughs] We play dance music for people who celebrate…and are alive.

Lyrically, your music is sparse, but it’s concise and to the point.

A lot of them are more surrealistic vignettes, except for the song in French, which goes deeper. It’s slightly abstract, sometimes a little absurd. It’s colorful motifs.

When you’re out playing shows, what kind of music have you been paired with?

Pretty wide. Often Latin kinds of bands, but not always. We’re into the new Latin music scene. We’ve toured South America, so that expanded what we do. Here, we play with so many people. We paired with Dance Fever, that do something similar. It’s a band that does Cambodian rock, but much more rock n’ roll than what we do.


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