Juaneco y su Combo - The Birth of Jungle Cumbia

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Juaneco y su Combo
The Birth of Jungle Cumbia

The Vital Record ( www.thevitalrecord.com )

It's always worth a look and listen when a lost album is unearthed, especially if the music is of such unpolished glory as this. We have recently been treated to a resurgence of what eventually came to be called chicha, a pulsating, psychedelic style from Peru's Amazon region that owed as much to Afro-Latin rhythms as it did to the progressive spirit of late 1960s rock and roll. But before the chicha label was hung on it (chicha being a type of corn liquor consumed mainly by the working class folks who first embraced the music), it was known as jungle cumbia, Amazon cumbia or Peruvian cumbia.

"El Llanto de Ayaymama"

The people behind the reissue of this album prefer the jungle cumbia term and I'm good with that, since the music did originate in an area that's largely jungle territory and harnesses the same clip-clopping beat as the Colombian coastal style known as cumbia. The last few years have seen collections of previously obscure chicha/jungle cumbia released worldwide to great acclaim. We have also seen the formation of a New York City-based group called Chicha Libre, who re-create the original sound.

But the band that started it all was Juaneco y su Combo, who in their initial incarnation were called Juaneco y su Conjunto and played traditional music in and around the eastern Peruvian city of Pucallpa. When leadership of the band shifted from Juan Wong Paredes to his son Juan Wong Popolizio circa 1965, the younger Juan Wong decided the band should go modern: out with acoustic guitars and accordion, in with electric axes and organ. And so it was that jungle cumbia was born.

The material on The Birth of Jungle Cumbia dates from Juaneco y su Combo's first recordings, an EP and LP released in Peru in the early '70s. The tracks for this CD were lifted from rare vinyl without the benefit of master tapes. And as scratchy and lo-fi as the disc sounds by today's standards, it's got the raw passion of a band breaking new ground. Even the jungle-denizen garb they wear in the reproduced original cover photo was considered radical.

There's plenty of grinding organ riffs and deftly twangy lead guitar dueling above a foundation of congas, bongos, timbales and guiro clattering and scratching away, as rhythm guitar and bass fill in the margins. The vocals are low-key and fairly minimal and most of the short songs have the kind of primal groove that the blue collar class embraced and the upper class disdained. But when the mold is broken by a track like the bolero-ish “El Forastero” or distinctly Cuban-influenced “Guajira Loretana,” the group's developing versatility, later accentuated by improved production values, is clear. Sadly, most of the band (including lead guitar wizard Noe Fachin Mori) perished a 1977 airplane crash, and although they regrouped and continued, that early magic was never recaptured.

"El Forastero"

So take full advantage of the fact that this sweet sonic slab of music history is now available. There's much more to the story, and you can read all about it in the detailed liner notes as you're rocking out to sounds that still have the power to shake things up. -Tom Orr

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Further Reading

Panama! 3: Calypso Panameño, Guajira Jazz & Cumbia Típica on the Isthmus 1960-75

Radio Bakongo