It’s hard to believe that the day has finally arrived when an album with a subtitle like “Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru” feels like a bit of crass market pandering. The last decade or so has seen an explosion of uncovered sonic obscurities that have given ethnopsychedelicists plenty to chew on. Gone are the days when one depended on word of mouth and back-of-the-crate discoveries to sate an appetite for tunes that were as foreign in their language as they were in their freaked-out approach to pop music. File-sharing has replaced word of mouth, and nontraditional digital labels like Anthology and www.rerelease.net have supplanted crate-digging as a method of discovery. And, since David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label blazed the trail with odd-rock comps from Brazil, Okinawa and elsewhere, scores of CD reissues and compilations from dozens of labels have provided introductions to obscure music scenes that the vast majority of music fans had never heard of.
In this brave, weird world, a disc with a bold and unexpected tagline like “Psychedelic Cumbia from Peru” is setting a high bar for itself. The fringes of ’60s and ’70s Latin American music are just now being explored in earnest; after years of exposure to Brazilian tropicália, it turns out the rest of South and Central America is a treasure trove of unheard sounds. Yet, despite the revolutionary fervor that swept through these regions, too much of the “alternative” music that developed was tied to the traditional sounds; when a break was made, it was usually in favor of straight-up mimicry of U.S. and British rock & roll. The selection of tracks on Roots of Chica tends toward the former, and it’s hard to reconcile the word “psychedelic” with music that’s not trippy in the least.
With percussion and melodic structures that are mostly traditional, very few tracks on this compilation qualify for the same “freaky foreigner” designation as, say Erkin Koray or Os Mutantes. But listening to the weird and thoroughly enveloping “Linda Muñequita” by Los Hijos del Sol – with its echoey choruses and overlays of cracked laughter – it’s clear that at least some of the musicians represented here were attempting to push these “traditional” approaches into something modern and radical. With gritty, flangey production values, a pan-Latin stew of styles (most of which have little or nothing to do with Peruvian music) and a subtle sense of subversion, these bouncy, engaging tunes may not be the weirdest thing you ever hear, but they qualify as an exciting discovery.