Live Last Night: Chicha Libre

Reviving a half-forgotten late-1960s Peruvian musical craze might seem an awfully, well, *specific* thing to do. But the advantage of a folk-meets-rock style like chicha (named for a traditional corn liquor) is that it's so adaptable.

On its 2008 debut album, "Sonido Amazonico!,'' Chicha Libre mated the genre's clip-clop rhythm with Satie and Ravel. Last night at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, the sextet gave the Andean treatment to "Alone Again Or,'' a baroque-pop song by '60 L.A. band Love.

Chicha Libre is based in Brooklyn but rooted in Paris, childhood home of singer Olivier Conan, who plays the ukelele-like cuatro, and guitarist Vincent Douglas. On Wednesday, while Conan sang mostly in Spanish, the musical accents were more widely distributed. Douglas's guitar incorporated Dick Dale twang and Link Wray rumble, and Joshua Camp's accordion-like Electravox mimicked the Farfisa organ prominent in Tex-Mex rock. The faster numbers embraced the polyrhythms of cumbia, which came to chicha from Colombia, but strongly evoked Cuba.

The group played a few mid-tempo instrumentals that sounded like backdrops for something that wasn't there -- a Paul Simon melody, perhaps, or a shot of Clint Eastwood stalking a spaghetti-Western landscape.

Such brisker tunes as "Primavera en La Selva'' (written by Conan and an uncredited Vivaldi) were more satisfying, thanks in large part to percussionists Greg Burrows and Timothy Quigley. Ultimately, though, it wasn't chicha that turned listeners into dancers. The set-closing barnstormer was the Mexican-influenced but all-American 1958 hit, "Tequila,'' with the shouted title replaced by Conan's cry of "chicha!''

-- MARK JENKINS

By J. Freedom du Lac |  January 22, 2009; 8:51 AM ET Live Last Night
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J-Free (or Mark J): You may want to change the title of this posting from "Chica Libre" to "Chicha Libre".

Posted by: SSMD1 | January 22, 2009 11:26 AM

As a side note, chicha is traditionally fermented with (human) saliva. In the Andes, "bars" that serve chicha advertise their presence by tying a red plastic bag to the end of a long wooden pole.

Also, chicha tastes awful. Really, really awful.

Posted by: jacobko | January 22, 2009 11:45 AM

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