Chicha is the name of a corn-based liquor the Incas distilled in the days before The Conquest, and the word's mysterious, boozy etymology makes it perfect for the musical style that bears its name. Chicha --the music -- was spontaneously distilled during the culture clash of the '60s when the Indian population of the Peruvian Amazon blended Columbian cumbias with American rock & roll, particularly the twang heavy sound of surf music. With cheap electric instruments, Amazon Indians used the syncopated beat of cumbia as the foundation for melodies that sound to western ears like Andean folk music played on electric guitar supported by Tex-Mex style Farfisa. When the Indians moved to Lima, chicha became a thriving subgenre, but since the '70s the style has been dying out. Olivier Conan, owner of New York's Barbés nightclub and record label, discovered the music on a 2005 trip to Peru. In 2007, he put out a compilation called The Roots of Chicha. The music so captivated New York's downtown crowd that he put together Chicha Libre, a combo comprised of New York's musical scene makers, and started playing the old hits, and some new compositions, to packed houses. Part of the charm of the old chicha recordings had to do with their distorted, lo-fi approach, something that you can't match in a Manhattan recording studio. Nonetheless, Sonido Amazonico!, named after a hit by the chicha band Los Mirlos, is a sunny, upbeat collection guaranteed to bring a silly smile to your face. Vincent Douglas' plays a twangy guitar and Josh Camp plays a rare Hohner Electravox, an accordion-like instrument that sounds like a '70s Farfisa, anchor the band's timeless sound (the Electrovox is an electric hybrid; no air passes through it).
Like reggae, the chicha groove is so recognizable, and flexible, that almost any style of music can be played using it. Chicha Libre takes Vivaldi's "Primavera" theme from "The Four Seasons" and gives it a twangy remake that's halfway between spaghetti western and some Amazon garage on "Primavera en la Selva." Erik Satie's "Gnosienne No. 1" tips its hat to Cuba, the Amazon, Argentina, and Redondo Beach with a lilting Latin surf vibe. "Sonido Amazonico," a hit by Los Mirlos, gets a loungey remade that soothes out the rough edges and ragged percussion of the original, but it still sounds funky and flaky. "Mi Plato de Barro" has that spaghetti western vibe, but the rhythm sounds more like Argentinean cowboys riding through the set of a Republic pictures Western from the '40s. "The Hungry Song" has hints of a Gypsy 2-step in its galloping rhythm; Camp drops a woozy Hohner Electravox solo while the vocalists sprinkle rhythmic non-sequiturs in the background. Douglas dominates "El Borrachito" with his psychedelic cowboy picking, while Conan delivers an appropriately boozy vocal. "Indian Summer" is a sultry chicha, cha cah; "Six Pieds Sous Terre (Six Feet Under)" uses a French chorus and perplexing lead guitar line to stretch the genre a bit, while "Cumbia del Zapetero" hews close to the basic style with odd keyboard accents, spacy guitar lines, and syncopated percussion. The playing here has a lightness and humor that the originals lacked, but Chicha Libre's not making any claims about being authentic or keeping a lost tradition alive. They're playing it for kicks, and they supply plenty of 'em.