Q&A: Chicha Libre’s Olivier Conan, A Musical Cannibal

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Olivier Conan is one hell of a busy guy. Not only is his band Chicha Libre celebrating the release of its second album Canibalismo this week, he also celebrated the 10-year anniversary of his independent label, Barbés Records, with a week-long series of performances from various artists at the Barbés performance space/bar. By the way, he runs that space too.

He and the rest of the members of Chicha Libre made a stop in L.A. last Tuesday for a special album release concert with local chicha group La Chamba and special guest, Peruvian surf rock legend Jose Carballo. The concert provided the Bootleg Theatre with the all-too rare experience where everyone in the audience down to the sound operator and bouncer danced the night away. I sat with Conan before the show and spoke with him about the new album, the role ayahuasca has played in the creation of chicha music, and why some people slit their wrists after listening to chicha.

I love the fact that you have your own version of “Ride Of The Valkyries” on the album.

It’s a little bit twisted but that’s the way God meant it to be! That was Nick, the bass player’s idea but we’ve been doing a lot of classical covers and twisting them. On the first record [¡Sonido Amazónico!], we actually had two. One by [Erik] Satie and one by [Maurice] Ravel so we decided to take it a step further by picking an iconic one like “Ride Of The Valkyries,” which is always associated with movies and with Coppola, and change it radically.

It certainly fits with the theme of your new album, Canibalismo.

We do that to every genre. At this point, we do it on purpose because that’s who we are. We come from so many different backgrounds and have played so many different types of music all our lives so, the more things we can fuck up, the better!

You’re a Parisian-born, Frenchman living in New York City and you’ve dedicated your life to chicha music. What is it about Chicha and South American culture that you find so attractive?

In Paris where I grew up, one doesn’t really listen to French music, or at least not popular French music. There was a lot at the time when I was growing up so I ended up listening to Anglo-American punk and Salsa; I grew up with the two. I had kind of a surrogate family when I was a teenager. [They were] from Venezuela and they introduced me to a lot of music. When I moved to New York, all that music was there so I started playing in rock bands there but, at the same time, I was really into Latin music. Punk was kind of gone by then. I started playing in a band with Vincent, the guitar player, that mixed up a little bit of that stuff but more on the rock side than on the Latin side.

I went to Peru in 2004 and I got into chicha there completely by accident. I was there because I really wanted to hear Peruvian music such as Criollo music…and when I was there, people started telling me: “Have you heard this Amazonian cumbia?” and “this chicha cumbia…?” That’s the big one. All the bands from the Amazon have a very distinct sound, very trippy, very ayahuasca-based. You know the trippy thing people do in California with LSD? They were doing it with ayahuasca.


Did you try some ayahuasca while you were down there? Or ever?

I have not. I’m very interested in trying. You just really have to dedicate a week of doing nothing else, take it seriously, it’s not a recreational drug. It’s a serious experience but I’m very interested to try it. It’s had a very huge influence on the music in Peru especially on the Amazonian side. The most famous band from the Amazon is Juaneco Y Su Combo. The guitar player was one of the main writers for the band and he claims to never have written a song without the influence of ayahuasca.

You were quoted in another interview two years ago as saying that chicha music leads to “late-night drunken violence and suicide attempts.”

I don’t think I said that! [laughs] Say that again [quote is re-read]. Oh, OK, they probably paraphrased something I said but it’s kind of true. A chicha concert in Lima is not necessarily a happy thing. The ritual is that you bring a case of beer [and] put it on the floor. It’s kind of a family thing at the beginning. You’ve got the kids, you’ve got the wife, and you’re all around the crate of beer…and you drink and you drink and you drink! There’s a lot of drinking going on. By the end of the night, it gets a little bit of hardcore. Sometimes there are fights like on Saturday nights in tougher neighborhoods all around the world; people work all week and they’re a little harder edged. Chicha is ghetto music originally. The cliché in Peru is that the really hardcore chichador slits his wrist at the end of the night. I don’t know how often that happens. It’s one of those mythic things.

Is it ghetto music in the sense that west coast gangsta rap is ghetto music?

Yes and no. The whole ethic of chicha and of the people who play it and who listen to it are Indian. It’s completely austere, about hard work, about getting up early. It’s not about partying. It’s seriously, poor culture, and it gets violent and dark but not in a way of glorifying the party aspect of it. There’s no crazy lifestyle that you would associate the guys in gangsta rap with.

You used Kickstarter to help launch your new record. How do you feel about using it in the future and what role will it play for independent artists?

I don’t know. There’s something kind of humiliating about it because we’re serious musicians [and] there’s a sense that even though it’s a way to cross swords and to use new marketing techniques, it still feels like begging. It’s pretty undignified but, at the same time, a lot of people helped out and they got a CD for it. I feel ambivalent about it. I wish there were still a record business that could still sustain making records and paying musicians, but it’s a new world and we have to find new ways to make it work and that’s one of them.

You’re also working on a documentary called Our Man In Iquitos. What’s the status on that? What’s it about?

It’s almost done. We have to tweak it a little bit. We can’t really afford to go and shoot more, unfortunately. Movies cost money! It’s worse than music because they don’t make money, especially documentaries. Hopefully in the next two months we’ll have something to show and start touring it in festivals. I met [Ranil] first because he was one of the influential cumbia musicians from Iquitos in the early ’70s. He’s from Belén, [which] is sort of the slum of Iquitos, Peru but it’s also a very picturesque place. They call it the Venice of the Amazon, sometimes, because the houses tend to float on the water during the rainy season.

Ranil was born there, managed to put himself through school and become a teacher. Then he decided he wanted to be a full-time musician so he started a cumbia band in 1972 or ‘73. He became hugely famous but pretty much only in the Amazon. He refused to work with the record labels so he started his own record label, his own record stores, his own radio station, all that in his own house in the old neighborhood. Then he became an activist. He did a lot of socially conscious things like to get his neighborhood an autonomous political status and then he ran for mayor, which he lost. I was there last time, when he ran for mayor, to cover the election and build a portrait of him. He’s an inspiring character and a difficult old man at the same time.

Download Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo below:

Chicha Libre – El Carnicero de Chicago (from “Canibalismo”)