Peru’s homegrown rock soon evolved beyond its revolutionary mid-60s beginnings into a unique and fiery sound. Russ Slater charts its history…
Forget the panpipes – when it comes to music, Peru has an illustrious history packed with many musical detours and movements, but never did it hit its stride quite so well as when it embraced rock in the 60s and 70s. From setting a blueprint for punk to blazing a trail for psych and then into creating its own tropical-surf brew, Peru created some of the most ingenious, fiery and hallucinogenic rock being made anywhere in the world.
Jump back to the early 60s and rock ’n’ roll was starting to take root in Peru’s capital city, Lima, with bands such as Los Shain’s, The New Juggler Sound and The (St. Thomas) Pepper Smelter imitating the sounds of surf, go-go and Merseybeat that they were hearing on the radio. “Lima was very orderly and very happy,” remembers Manuel Cornejo, who played in The New Juggler Sound and later Laghonia. “The art scene was full of colour and spontaneity. It was really intense, even more so with the explosion of music that came from England and the movement this generated in the youth of the decade.”
Among the first bands to put Peruvian rock on the map were Los Saicos. Their second single, Demolición, released in 1965, was unlike anything else that had come before. Over an in-your-face surf guitar riff, singer Erwin Flores screams “demoler” (“demolish”) over and over, until he hits the pay-off of “let’s tear down the train station”. Countless guttural “yeah-yeah-yeahs” follow until the train station is duly demolished, over and over again. In comparison to the garage rock being made in the US at this time, nothing came close to this level of nihilism. Further bouts of attitude followed with tracks such as El Entierro De Los Gatos (Funeral Of The Cats) and Salvaje (Savage), and they even tried a love song, with Te Amo – though the chorus of “I love you, but I have to leave” betrayed a clear lack of sentiment.
Though they didn’t realise it, the group were showing the same kind of anger and disconnect from the world that would become a hallmark of punk in the 70s, so it’s been no surprise to see them mentioned in connection with the movement. Legs McNeil, one of the founders of Punk magazine (the magazine that first used the term ‘punk’), has even gone so far as to say: “Los Saicos invented punk… if Los Saicos aren’t punk, then no one is punk.” The group themselves certainly see the similarities. “We were proto-punk,” says Flores. “Not exactly punk, but how Lucy was the predecessor to the human race, we were predecessors to punk.”
Los Saicos split up in 1966 after recording just six singles, though they made a seismic impact in Lima, influencing groups such as Los Yorks, Los Shain’s and Los Golden Boys, who adopted a similar rebel-rousing spirit to covers of songs such as Woolly Bully and 96 Tears in Spanish, alongside some garage-rock originals. Slowly, this music began to infiltrate popular culture, being featured on TV, and new magazines started up to feature the bands. Then, in 1968, something monumental happened in Peru. A military coup saw General Juan Velasco take power, and the government declared war on rock. “Velasco closed the doors of Peru to the world,” says Cornejo. “He closed the newspapers to all the ‘alienating’ influences. It reached the height of expelling Santana for being in ‘collusion’ with the communists of the University of San Marcos.”
Surprisingly, in this environment, the period from 1968 on marked a highpoint for Peruvian psych and progressive rock as various groups emerged that showed that the counter-culture was still well and truly alive. The Mad’s were one of the first to show their love for the heavier rock they were hearing from overseas.
They started out as mainly a covers band but, after meeting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who were on holiday and took a liking to the band, they headed for England under the mentorship of the group. They would go on to record in The Rolling Stones’ studio, see Hendrix at the Isle Of Wight, jam with Steve Winwood, Mama Cass and Jeff Beck, and generally take in all that mid-to-late 60s London had to offer. After a number of changes in the band, they lost some of their magic and they broke up, though the demos cut in the Stones’ studio show a great rhythmic hard-rock band with tracks such as Fly Away and Tumor Bossa showcasing great interplay between the rest of the band and talented guitarist Alex Ventura.
Though The Mad’s would not find fame until their demos were released years later, there were many bands who made a name for themselves at the time, and no psych-rock act was as successful as Traffic Sound. “There was six of us in the group,” says the band’s bassist, Willy Thorne. “We all studied at Catholic college.” With their shared interest in music, the group started playing covers of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Santana, The Who and The Animals, as well as writing some of their own songs, informed by the improvised jams they would play live. “We played at family parties, colleges, and in beach and surf clubs… as well as at discotheques, where the people danced to our music a lot,” remembers Thorne.
They released their debut album, Virgin, in 1969. It’s a record that renowned psych journalist Richard Morton Jack featured in his book Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums 1966-1970. It’s the only Spanish-language Latin-American album to feature. “Virgin is a special record,” Jack tells us, “with excellent songs and textures, and an appealingly wistful vibe, especially on Tell The World I’m Alive, my pick track. [There’s] also some fine distorted guitar in the heavier songs.” They followed it up with three further albums over the next two years, all of which are well worth exploring, especially for their addition of sax to a psych-rock sound.
This is best exemplified on their signature track Meshkalina, a riotous, wailing tour de force that is as funky as it is raw. It also has playful lyrics that reveal the counter-culture in Peru and nod towards the country’s indigenous past: “Yawar Huaca [an Incan ruler] wonder[ed] why he was high once… Spread the weed one day, all over his empire… He said, ‘Man, it’s here, let’s try my new substance’, give me some meshkalina [a hallucinogen derived from cacti].”
As the 70s wore on, the Peruvian rock scene blossomed. Telegraph Avenue offered their own US West Coast-influenced take on things; Tarkus went in the heavier direction of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin; whereas We All Together could never get over the pull of McCartney, putting out some great power-pop albums. Then there were bands that offered something completely different, such as El Polen, who went for an Andean-inspired folk-rock that has recently found a big fan in Devendra Banhart, and Los Texao who, with their guttural garage-beat sound, showed there was life outside of Lima – they hailed from Arequipa.
Yet almost as soon as it had arrived, the Peruvian rock scene started to die out, and by the mid 70s, many of the bands had stopped making music. Explaining the end of Traffic Sound, Willy Thorne tells us: “The band stopped because the goals of all of us but [one] was to make music as a hobby, but it was taking over our lives, so we all went to university and then continued down different paths, since the music industry in Peru was too embryonic for us to dedicate ourselves to it.” This seems to have been a recurring theme for a number of musicians.
Describing the end of rock in Peru, Carlos Torres Rotondo, who has written a great book about Peruvian rock, called Demoler, says: “Many saw music as a hobby, and when they finished university they got a job. Others decided to continue in music, but emigrated and worked as mercenaries in hotels… others got into Latin jazz, some got burned by drugs. But the determining factor was not knowing the do-it-yourself approach, behaving, sometimes, like rock stars with an ego that made them read reality in a distorted way. That caused the break-up of several musical collectives.”
While the rock music already mentioned – which was largely played by and for the middle and upper classes – was dying out, a new style of music was developing in working-class neighbourhoods all over Peru. As with Los Saicos, it was born out of surf, but it went in a completely new direction. Chicha, to use the term that has come to define it, took the rock ’n’ roll format of electric guitar, bass, drums and (occasionally) organ, but added Afro-Latin percussion and switched from 4/4 to rhythms such as cumbia from Colombia, Cuban guaracha and huayno from The Andes.
This was tropical psychedelic rock, played by ensembles in Lima and groups in the Amazon and all over Peru, which had the aim of getting people dancing. It was much loved by the people, though despised by the elite due to long-standing friction between social classes.
The first chicha band is recognised as Los Destellos, who began in 1968 and were led by the enigmatic guitarist Enrique Delgado. Mainly instrumental, they released countless albums through the 60s and 70s, all led by Delgado’s clean, probing guitar lines which, when blessed with the polyrhythms of the bass and percussion, conjured a hypnotic quality that was impossible to ignore. In the wake of Los Destellos, countless other bands got involved. These included Los Diablos Rojos, Manzanita Y Su Conjunto and Los Walkers, as well as Amazonian bands including Los Mirlos, Los Wembers and Juaneco Y Su Combo, who would sing about the jungle and ayahuasca ceremonies – as well as the ubiquitous tracks about love, the main theme of many chicha tracks.
Juan Ricardo Maraví helps to run Infopesa, a record label set up by his father in the 70s that released classic chicha records by Los Mirlos and Juaneco Y Su Combo. He sees the popularity of chicha in the 70s, which was matched by genres such as salsa, bolero and Peruvian folk music, as symbolic of a trend. “In the 70s, a lot of the music listened to in our country came from foreign bands,” says Maraví. “I think that what Infopesa did, was to look inside instead of outside. [Our] music was made for the masses and they felt an instant connection with their roots.”
Though always popular in Peru’s pueblos jóvenes (shanty towns), chicha would not get any critical respect, until a French musician called Olivier Conan discovered the style and released a compilation called The Roots Of Chicha in 2007. It introduced many people to the genre, and helped lead to a new-found admiration for the music in Peru.
Since then, chicha bands have started up in the UK, US and even Australia, and bands including Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand and Franz Ferdinand have covered the style live. The latter band’s frontman, Alex Kapranos, even provided liner notes for a compilation released by Infopesa called Cumbias Chichadélicas. About his experience of discovering the genre, Kapranos says: “It was exciting – the music had a rough energy and a garage edginess to the sound, but had a distinct Peruvian flavour. Needle-point guitars, scrapers shaking the beat and, here and there, some psychedelic keys and echoes.” Thanks to the Roots Of Chicha compilations and reissues from Infopesa, this music keeps on finding larger audiences.
Likewise, the bands connected with the garage and psych scene have all had their music reissued, with Los Saicos finally having their singles collected together on one record and The Mad’s seeing their demos released for the first time by the Peruvian label Repsychled, as well as albums by the likes of Traffic Sound getting the reissue treatment. The arrival of the British label Tiger’s Milk Records has also helped to disseminate some of this music on vinyl for a new audience, via compilations of Peruvian music from the 60s and 70s. With every year it becomes clearer: nobody did rock quite like the Peruvians.