Diggin’ Peru

Zulu (1969) pre Zulu solo artist when in Los Nuevos Shains
Zulu (1969) when in Los Nuevos Shains

“The sweetest spot in anything in life is when it’s the most incredible quality and the freshest, most unique thing that you’ve ever tasted or heard. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

For decades, most of what those north of the Isthmus knew of Peruvian music was limited to Andean pipe flute bands. That impression began to shift in more recent years as record hounds discovered so-called chicha styles, which blend the familiar two-step bounce of cumbia with the twangy reverb of surf guitar. Early chicha and Peruvian cumbia compilations ignited a minor fervor among collectors, who began to hit up Lima dealers to send through records from artists such as the Beatles-esque We All Together, the psych-tinged Los Diablos Rojos, and the Amazon’s native son Ranil and his Conjunto Tropical.

“I just think people have been looking for something new,” says Martin Morales, the Peruvian-born, British-raised, producer/restauranteur who operates the popular Peruvian kitchen, Ceviche, in London’s Soho district. For years, Morales helped produce compilations of underground global dance music for labels such as Outcaste and George V, but whenever it came to Latin styles, he says “the commercial success of Brazilian and Cuban music monopolized certain music markets and ways of thinking about South American, Central America, and Latin in general. Whenever I floated the idea of focusing on the music of my family’s homeland, there just wasn’t room. There wasn’t interest.”

Los Orientales
Los Orientales

Morales finally decided to do it himself, and alongside veteran label-man Duncan Ballantyne and Lima’s Andres Tapia, formed Tiger’s Milk Records. Together, the three assembled the label’s inaugural full-length release, Peru Maravilloso, a 16 song compilation of deliciously obscure records from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The trio wanted to highlight some of the complexity and diversity of Peru’s musical heritages. After all, the country itself used to be made up of many different societies in starkly different climes, ranging from the cloud-bearing peaks of the Andes to the lush tangle of the Amazon to the broad stretches of coastal plains. As a result, music in Peru has evolved to be anything but monolithic. “There’s about 40 different types of harps that we have in the different regions,” says Morales. “25 different types of guitars that we use. Drums, gosh, there are probably about 80 or 90 or 100 different ones.”

Some of the songs nearest to Morales’s heart are those that cross over regional styles. Perhaps there’s no better example than the song that launches the comp, “Mambo de Machaguay” by Lucho Neves y su Orquesta. While the main rhythm is drawn from Afro-Cuban dance, Morales singles out the song’s distinct piano riff. “That’s very Andean, from a style of music called huayño. Huayño has never really been fused by electronic producers with some beats, but in this track, we found it marinated with mambo, and that made it really quite unique.”

Pocho Purizaga
Pocho Purizaga

Or take the example of the rhumba track, “Toro Mata,” a familiar composition from Afro-Peruvian folk traditions, given an unexpectedly dramatic rearrangement by drummer Pocho Purizaga and originally released only on 7” by singer Lucia de la Cruz. For Morales, this festejo version gets at the root of what a “rhumba” stands for.  “Forget the ballroom dancing. The real rhumba is for percussion,” says Morales.

He also insists that “Peru Maravilloso is not just out to highlight eccentric music. There’s no freaky songs in there,” but one might quibble (in a good way). There’s Félix Martinez y sus Chavales’s “La Gallina (The Chicken),” which opens with band members clucking their way onto the slick cumbia track. On Los Ecos’ “Me Siento Felíz,” the familiar melody of The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” is given a fab makeover with layers of Peruvian percussion and reverb-washed guitars.

Los Ecos
Los Ecos

The intent behind this volume of Peru Maravilloso was to highlight local Latin styles. For the next volume, Morales, Ballantyne and Tapia may veer more towards Peruvian dabblings in punk and funk. As noted, Peru embraced so many different local and global styles over the decades that the possibilities feel endless. Given that the trio are entering into a budding field of other Peruvian-related releases, they’ve relied on their own deep crates to fix on songs that haven’t already been reintroduced to the broader listening world. “We’re record collectors. We exist to present the new, the unique, the different,” says Morales. Invoking a metaphor that could apply just as easily in his restaurant as on the album, he explains, “the sweetest spot in anything in life is when it’s the most incredible quality and the freshest, most unique thing that you’ve ever tasted or heard. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

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