Watch any modern documentary on Peruvian music, and you’re bound to see Alfredo Villar, the all-knowing music expert, with his whispy white-hair bouncing from one location, to the next. The collector, DJ, and historian has become the go-to man when it comes to anything related to the Peru’s once-forgotten tropical cumbia scene. A cultural expert, and fastidious collector, Villar has helped in the curation of some of the better known collections of Peru’s musical past, while simultaneously discussing the county’s current and future music scene for the likes of Vice, and Native Instruments. Recently Villar assisted in the reissue of the debut release by Chacalón, one the country’s figureheads in the 70s chicha scene. Speaking to Villar, I discussed his role as an ambassador for Peruvian music, how he interprets the world’s recent interest in Peruvian culture, along with his thoughts on the recent digging culture.
“It’s about putting the music in context,” explains Villa over the phone from his home in Lima, Peru. Villar has become one of the first names you see in the liner notes when it comes to reissues and compilations of Peruvian music. That’s often because he’s the one writing them. “As the background of the music is quite peculiar, you need some social reference to understand why this music sounds the way it does, and why it’s different across the decades. It has a lot to do with the social changes in my country.”
Villar has been a buyer and collector for many years. “I have 4,000 cumbia records, maybe. I haven’t counted.” Having started his passion for digging in the early 90s, the Lima resident has gone on to amass his collection, documenting the country’s rich, musical legacy. When he began though, the country’s exotic, musical legacy was often overlooked. It wasn’t until it began attracting international attention that things started to pick up. “I was wondering why if this was so good – was it was so cheap?” Villa recounts. “Records that are going for now $30, were $1. Records that are now hard to find.”
Peru is home to a particular type of tropical cumbia, often referred to chica. It’s a mixture of Colombian cumbia, Amazonica, Huayno – a type of chanting that was present in the Andes – and rock ’n roll, which was becoming omnipresent throughout the world. It was the use of electric guitar that really set it apart from everything else that was happening in the region – and something that Villar believes has attracted the recent digging community. “There has been this recent pressure to look for sounds that don’t belong to Western music, and Peruvian tropical music has this electric guitar, along with tropical rhythm and similarities to psychedelic music,” Villar explains. “At one point I was wondering why more people don’t listen to this music, and then in 2007 came the first compilation by Olivier Conan The Roots of Chicha – and it all went boom. Not only in my country, but wherever they were looking for new sounds.”
The Roots of Chicha acted as a catalyst for the real revival in Peru’s music scene. The past ten years have seen numerous compilations from Vampisoul and Tiger’s Milk, in addition to helping the country’s contemporary electro-cumbia scene establish a global footing. Legacy acts such as Los Wembler’s D’Iquitos and Los Shapis have also managed to find international audiences. The Roots of Chicha however received criticism for its lack of authenticity and understanding of chicha, and when it it came to putting together the second edition, Villar was asked to come on board. “Olivier came to Peru and I recommended him some groups, for example Los Wemblars.” Helping the label connect with the acts, Villar went on to help with other compilations representing the Peruvian scene, in particular the Cumbiabeats series for Vampisoul, for which he wrote the liner notes and acted as a consultant for the track selection.
Earlier this year, Villar was involved with Peruvian label Discos Horóscopo after it making its return of decades being in the quiet. Horóscopo was one of the biggest players in the 80s chicha scene, releasing countless 45s by defining artists. Originally started by Juan Luis Campos Muñoz, it was thanks to the initiative of Jalo Núñez Del Prado – founder of Spanish imprint Plastilina Records – that the label is making its return. Taking it upon himself to relaunch the imprint and bring the music back to the attention of the new global audience, Del Prado deduced to start things off again by reissuing the debut LP by Chacalón y la Nueve Creme, originally released in 1981.
“Chacalón is, for many Peruvians, the people’s angel, the messiah of the poor, the maginalised ‘Inkarri’,” Villar writes in the records sleeve notes. The 12″ pressing, limited to just 350 editions, is a fine thing to behold, a beautifully designed fold-out sleeve, with liner notes in both Spanish and English. As tropical began to mix with cumbia back in the 60s, Chacalón was just a street singer, out raising money for his family. Gradually he became one of the forerunners of the chicha scene, making his mark as a ‘chichero’. His reputation and music is still as important to Peruvian people today, as it was once was.
Villar’s work with Horóscopo goes far beyond just writing the liners. Helping out with the artwork and distribution, he’s also played an integral role in connecting the label with the musicians. “I think Horóscopo is an excellent catalogue but a little harder to understand – as the chicha from the 60s has more of a psychedelic vibe, and were more instrumental.” Next up will be a compilation of old Horóscopo singles, released through a label in Belgium, in addition to a new record by Los Shapis, with whom Villar was instrumental in helping re-establish. “I’ve been a friend of Los Shapis for years. I made first contact with them and will be making the liner notes of their next record.”
Along with connecting the traditional Peruvian sounds to international audiences, Villar is heavily involved with the local community. “I do some little things to push the scene. But it’s really the musicians who are the real ambassadors.” As a writer, art historian and curator of Amazonic and urban culture, Villar also DJs throughout Lima under the name DJ Sabroso. “Before 2008, chicha was the music of bad taste for some people,” he jokes, “but then things started to change.” It’s a way of reconnecting the community with its long-forgotten, musical heritage. Something especially important when the old records are no longer accessible to the local community. “It’s getting harder, especially in the street markets,” Villar says in relation to digging. “The prices are high, and I think it’s the influence of this Internet culture; people who buy records just to sell them online for high prices.”
As diggers mine their way through the global riches of niche music cultures and music communities, what impact is it having on the local population? “It’s having both a positive, and negative effect,” Villar answers. He explains that global awareness and distribution is important for the culture and country. “There are some people that are trying to not only distribute the music, but to try and make some history of this strange Peruvian music. They digitalise, and make great web pages. The main thing is that the music doesn’t just disappear into private collections.”