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Interview with Olivier Conan (Chicha Libre, english version)

Chicha Libre
Olivier Conan - (Chicha Libre, english version)
(Interview by Nicolas Ragonneau, for Paris DJs - May 2012)

Olivier Conan is Chicha Libre frontman, cuatro player and singer, a NYC band delivering a unique peruvian psychedelic cumbia-surf music-chanson française-pop & classical cocktail. Chicha Libre's first album (Sonido Amazonico, Barbès Records / Crammed Records) was a true 2008 revelation. Now they are back with a new hypnotic release, one the 2012 best so far, Canibalismo (Barbès Records / Crammed Records). Ingredients are pretty much the same (tropical influences, classical covers and original compositions) but the lineup has changed. Thanks to Olivier and his two fantastic compilations (Roots of Chicha 1 & 2, Barbès/Crammed), Chicha music is on the map. Now a few weeks from his first parisian concert (at New Morning on June 30th), he talks about his digging activities in Lima, Chicha Libre in South America, his Brooklyn club (Barbès), his taste for musical hybrids, The Simpsons, french colonialism and much more. Icing on the cake, he will be back on Paris DJs for a special Molesting Laura guest mix very soon.

Olivier Conan Chicha Libre
Olivier Conan - (Chicha Libre, english version)
(Interview by Nicolas Ragonneau, for Paris DJs - May 2012)

01. You're french, but you've been living in New York for years.
You just summed it up I guess. I moved to NY - to Brooklyn actually - 25 years ago… Although i'm still reminded that I am French on a daily basis, at this point i'm mostly a New Yorker... Think of me as a non-practicing frenchman, the way you have non-practicing catholics...

02. You created Barbès Records ten years ago. With a name like this, did you intend to bring some kind of 'exotic' parisian flavor to NYC?
Well, I try to be careful with the exotic label... I already play music that is deemed exotic… Before being a label, Barbès was ( and still is) a small club in Brooklyn that I opened with my fellow chichero Vincent Douglas. We named it Barbès because, yes, it was French, but in a way that we could relate to. The Paris we grew up in and which I would qualify as the anti Amélie. I am from Place de Clichy and Vincent is from Couronnes. Both are Old Paris neighborhood with a strong immigrant flavor. The opposite of what a New Yorker would expect from a Parisian bistro. The label was named after the club, and was started 6 years ago.

03. What kind of color did you imagine for your record label?
I have no idea how to answer that. Even though I do have a bit of a fascination for synesthesia, I never assigned a color to the label. I did intend the for the label to promote un-pure music, for lack of a better word. Personal hybrids, music that draws from tradition but is never tied to it. I think all the bands on the label fit that description. Hazmat Modine certainly does - they don't play traditional blues... as does Slavic Soul Party or Chicha Libre. We all have in common to be drawn to older music, often thought of as traditional, but make up our own rules.

04. You released two cult compilation records called 'Roots of Chicha' and 'Roots of Chicha 2'. Was it the beginning of the Chicha adventure in a way?
Totally. Although the adventure really started in Peru when I first heard the music.

05. Tell us about your digging trips to Peru in search of vintage music. Fantasy images of jungle and wet forest come to my mind, I imagine you as a kind of 'wax colonel Fawcett'…
You know how to push buttons. Funny you should mention Colonel Fawcett - one of the many hats I wear is that of a voice over artist. I was the french voice of an Australian series called the Lost World - I played the main character who was loosely based on the aforementioned colonel...
The truth is a lot less exotic however. I was traveling through Peru with my girlfriend, and looking for music, because that's what traveling is for. I had been into Peruvian Criollo music for a very long time and was mostly looking for old criollo records. I ended up in markets buying bootleg cds (sorry...) and most of the vendors were very helpful, very enthusiastic about what they were selling. One of them played me some "ancient cumbias" as they said, cumbia antiguas which turned out to be cumbias from the amazon - Los Mirlos and Juaneco y su combo. I freaked out. It may sound corny, but it was as if I recognized the music. It had all the elements of most of the music I had been interested all my life, but sounded completely original. I ended up buying a lot of music. I bought no vinyl on this first trip - just CDs and MP3 collections. I started buying vinyl on my second trip, when I knew more what I was looking for, and also had people in Lima help me..

06. How would you describe Chicha music in a few words? What is specific to this music according to you?
Chicha is Peru's own brand of tropical music which thrived from 1968 on .The bands use a somewhat typical afro-carribean rhythm section (bass, timbales, bells, conga and bongo) to play a simplified version of Colombian cumbia. The main instrument is the electric guitar, which sets it aside from most other tropical genre, - and organs to a lesser extent. The guitarists are all schooled in the Criollo tradition - spanish style, lots of waltzes - and most of them are virtuoso. The songs use every possible influence - from Andean music, to amazonian rhythms, classical music, salsa, rock, brazilian- you name it. This the most satisfyingly un-pure music I know, yet, it has the strongest identity. Although it borrows from every possible source, It sounds like nothing else.

07. Let's come to Chicha Libre now. The name of the band alludes to the freedom of your music and influences, but also to a famous cocktail and it's political as well.
Yes, the idea was to play freeform chicha - and yes, it does sound like both cuba libre, and lucha libre, both of which are esthetically pleasing.
The idea was to use Chicha as a template. Not just the music itself, but also the very process behind the music. We used a similar instrumentation, with a similarly tropical rhythm section, and like the best chicheros, felt free to appropriate anything that worked. That meant using cumbia rhythms for the most part (with forays into salsa, rock and merengue here and there) but it also meant using our personal background. Be it French variety, classical, film music - anything that mattered to us. A process not that different from rock and roll in a way, at least, before rock and roll became codified by orthodox sects..

08. How did you cast the musicians for the Chicha project ?
Most of the band's original musicians I had played with in other bands - mostly Bebe Eiffel, a french project which did my own songs, and Las Rubias Del Norte, a chamber latin group of sorts which does covers from all over in a more or less latin style. NIck Cudahy, the bass player, we had never played with before, but I knew through Barbès. I had seen him play in a pretty wide variety of situations and I thought he'd be great - which he is.
Personnel has evolved some over the years. we have a totally different percussion section. Coincidence or not, it is now a more latin section. both in style, and in geography.

09. Did you imagine at the beginning that Chicha Libre would become a real band, or did you see it as a tribute project at the beginning?
It first started as a tribute band - something fun to do because the music was so exciting. It felt right almost immediately though, and we very quickly evolved into an original project. People seemed to like the music right away.

10. How were you welcomed in Peru when you came back to play there?
Peru is very complicated... It it the most socially divided place I have ever been to. Chicha is ghetto music and as such was never even acknowledged by the middle class. As a result, it remained totally invisible. Things have been changing - ever since the end of the civil war and the democratization. Amazonian cumbia has become popular again - but chicha from Lima, the real working class stuff, is still scorned.
The club we were invited to play at was in the heart of Miraflores, the middle class neighborhood. Some people in the chicha world took offense to it. And then, the promoters were really nervous when we said we wanted to invite Los Shapis to play with us, because it might attract the "wrong kind of people" - Los Shapis are the very symbol of Chicha, of the serranos, the migrant workers from the andes who made up a great part of the Lima slums. The organizers wanted to promote us like a foreign indie band, but in Peru, with our name, it is almost impossible to not bring up the social division aspect of the music. We did end up inviting Los Shapis to play with us on a few songs, and it was an amazing night, but the whole experience was exhausting. Playing in Argentina or colombia is easier for us - there, we get treated like a band, not like a social phenomenon. We've just donr another South American tour - but we're skipping Peru this time.
This said, the experience in Peru was amazing - I can't wait to get back. I've met a lot of great people who think outside of the class dichotomy and are truly interested in the history of the music, its place in the world etc…

11. 'Canibalismo' is a great name for a record.
We thought so... Thanks. And thanks to Oswald de Andrade.

12. I guess acculturation is a keyword for you. Don't you think there's a weird paradox in our times ? It's never been son easy to go and meet other people and countries, but instead of keeping an ecosystem of various cultures, it leads us to some converging patterns that destroy differences. Even you and me, we are both French but doing this interview in english over the Ocean…
Yep... I totally agree, it is one of the great paradox of our age. It really started in the 60's, with the explosion of youth culture and early rock. Groups of youth all over the world picking up the electric guitars and drumkits and acting modern and rebellious. The result were tremendous - be it in Cambodia, Congo, Brazil, Malaysia, Peru... Every country in the world, it seems, came up with a national hybrid that revolutionized their popular culture. A lot of it genuinely exciting - tropicalia, soukous, cambodian rock. Of course, in retrospect the phenomenon looks more like imperialism than acculturation, but there is such a thin line between the two.. The main problem is that this first global revolution was the beginning of an irreversible process of homogenization and a lot of potential new music got lost in the shuffle. Same thing is still happening - the use of electronica and hip hop around the world for instance, which at first infuses a new life, a new energy into old genres, but often ends up erasing differences ,as you point out.
Still, it is interesting to see the reverse process happening in the west, with more and more bands using "exotic" musical references to create something new - from Antiblalas to Dengue Fever, Vampire Weekend or Beirut, they all rely on codes they didn't grow up with. It's reverse imperialism to a certain extent, although all of the above (Chicha Libre included...) precisely use as a template those 60's pop hybrids which destroyed differences to begin with. It's still all self-referential. I guess there is no way to create a global culture, and keep it truly diverse.

13. There's a song I love most on Canibalismo called 'L'âge d'or'. It's a kind of circumtropical track : We think El Dorado and south america, but also indonesian jungle and african tropical regions (Baobabs).
Exactly - circumtropical would be the right word. In fact, it should be a new genre, I like it. You forget the pacific islands ("le canon sonnait dans les atolls"). I was trying to evoke all the images of exoticism associated both with colonialism, and with a certain early 20th century travel literature - think Cendrars - which always seems lost between genuine discovery and total exploitation.

14. It's also an ironical song about paradise' lost and colonialism.
you've actually listened to the lyrics - i'm thrilled.. yes, the song is about nostalgia and exoticism - it's about the longing we, as a culture, have for a bygone era, an âge d'or, when everything was purer, and murder was sanctified. It is a particularly French obsession I find - and in many way I've made the obsession mine, even though I have tried to reverse it. My grand father was in the colonial army, what can I say... It's all about cannibalizing aspects of western culture, including its own obsession with cannibals... - the song has bits and pieces of Rimbaud, Francis Jammes, Shostakovitch, Prévert/Cosma and a couple more... All of them champion of nostalgia, all of them guilty, and all of them brilliant. Nostalgia is an insanely powerful engine whether used in personal introspection, or as a social and political tool - whether used by Le Pen or Villon...

15. When I listen to your cover of Wagner's Ride of The Valkyries, I have images of Apocalypse Now's jungle on fire with helicopters in the background coming to my mind… that's mean and sick.
Coppola has managed to impose his own reading of the ride of the valkyries. I find it pretty amazing - almost everyone who's heard the song mentions helicopters...

16. You've played the Simpsons' theme the chicha way. Is Matt Groening a fan of Chicha Libre?
Yes, Matt Groening came to see us in Brooklyn; apparently he really likes the band, which is very flattering - interestingly enough though, he had nothing to do with the fact that we were asked to cover the simpsons theme song, it was pure coincidence.

17. I don't know if you're following the French news, but recently, there was a polemic on what one called 'the hierarchy of civilizations'. On this subject, the former minister for state education Luc Ferry declared: "Yes, Mozart's Don Giovanni is superior to Nambikwaras' tambourines". I immediately thought of Chicha Libre, which mixes covers of Satie, Ravel and Wagner to a certain Amazonian tradition… what do you think of this statement?
To say that it makes me nauseous would be an understatement. And not only because the statement is, literally, provincial - but also because it summarizes some of the worse French values. What Ferry expresses is a basic Hegelian concept which is at the heart of the French republican ideology - and not just on the right. French leftists have the same ideology - actually inspired by Hegel. It is the theoretical justification for colonization. This is how they have justified promoting francophonie around the world as a way to foster progress. This is how they justify French colonization in Africa and claim that having a poet such as Senghor be the president of an African nation is justification enough, that the world has always benefitted from our enlightened ways etc.. etc.. Don't get me started.
And I love Don Giovanni - I used to cover the "Notte e Giorno Faticar aria" with Las Rubias del Norte... Maybe we should do a version using Nambkwara drumming. mmmmm...

18. You signed a band we love a lot at Paris DJs, Hazmat Modine. A few words on Wade Schuman and his band.
I've known Wade for years - and was already a fan of Hazmat's last century... I'm thrilled to have played a part in the success of the band. Over the past few years, they've become an incredibly strong band. I love that they can keep doing old fashioned sounding music in such a relevant, non-nostalgic way. I think it's one of their greatest quality.

19. What are the new artist you signed and you would love to recommand?
Well, the record business being what it is, i'm taking a hiatus and haven't taken on any new project lately - it doesn't look like I will be signing any new artist soon. Of the projects I put out in the past year or so, I was particularly fond of Pierre de Gaillande Brassens project - all Brassens songs brilliantly translated into Englsih. And Chico Trujillo remains a favorite of mine - the great cumbia band from Chile.

19. You've played in many continental countries, but never in your homeland. It's a shame..
I know, it's strange.
We'll be in Paris, New Morning, for the first time on June 30th. I think the fact that they are two French people in the band probably works against us... I can't wait though.

Chicha libre : officiel | facebook | parisdjs | twitter | youtube
Barbès Records : officiel | facebook
Crammed Discs : officiel | discogs | facebook | myspace | parisdjs | soundcloud | twitter | youtube

Canibalismo by Chicha Libre
Nicolas Ragonneau

Nicolas Ragonneau

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