For a free download of Los Mirlos’ “El Milagro Verde” from The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru, click here!

It’s said that one should not judge a book by its cover. That’s true—but how often have you been in a bookstore, or a record store for that matter, and something strange catches your eye, making you go, "What on earth is that?"

Case in point:  The Buena Vista Social Club. Its slip case cover had no words, just an image of well-dressed man smoking a cigarette as he walked down a dusty street in a working-class neighborhood that appeared to be in some Latin American country. It had an intangible magnetism to it. Undoubtedly, from the second music fans hit “play” and the opening chords of the sweeping son “Chan Chan” came wafting out, they were enchanted and transported-and world music magically became an intrinsic part of their DNA.

Now there’s another CD that should have that same intoxicating effect on discerning listeners, its cover depicting a faded, green-tinted image of a beat- up bus going wheezing down a well-worn highway.  It’s called The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru, and it’s a keeper. 

Peru is home to many styles of music, much of it emanating from the Andes Mountains and intersecting with Spanish traditions. Huayno, cusco, puno, and apurimac are perhaps the most well-known genres. One style that emerged in the 1960s was altogether quite different, unlike anything heard before: chicha.

Borrowing the well-known cumbia rhythm from their Amazonian neighbor Colombia, enterprising Peruvian musicians grafted it on to indigenous styles with emerging rock ‘n’ roll from the United States. These cumbias amazonicas migrated to the capital of Lima and their music became known as chicha (named after a fermented corn drink made for centuries and drunk by the working class).

The music compiled on The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru is truly transcendent: instantly hummable melodies getting down with surf-rock wah-wah pedals, farfisa organs, moog synthesizers, and dirty electric guitars, all the while delivered with a raw sensuality and enthusiasm.

Take, for instance, “CariƱito” by Los Hijos del Sola. It begins with a simple scratched rhythm with vocals echoing classic Andean traditions; the electric guitar that weaves throughout propels the song like a greyhound chasing a rabbit (though take them off the racetrack and into the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland). The same goes for the polyrhythmic “A Patricia” by Los Destellos, a song that shimmies like a hula girl thanks to the stoned-out, Dick Dale-esque guitar riffs. Better yet is the band’s take on Beethoven’s classic “Feur Elise”—“Para Elisa”—in which they take the simple figure and ramp it up with an understated yet percolating rhythm section. Each of the album’s 17 tracks do similar stuff with equal acuity.

Today, chicha has transformed itself into something less desirable, a mediocre blend of pop and techno that recalls none of its deep origions. The original chicha, referred to now as antigua, too frequently laid dormant in second-hand record bins on the street. But The Roots of Chicha reveals six of the originators in all of their unvarnished glory. With any luck, a wide audience awaits.