LA LA LAND: Chicha Summit 2018
Chicha Summit 2018: Grateful Dead-length songs and acid jam bands in Español.
I had never heard of “Chicha” music when I got an invitation to attend the Chicha Summit at The Echo on upper Sunset in LA. The invitation came from Mercedes Romana of the PressJunkie PR, whose judgement I trust. She put me in touch with a band called Money Chicha. I had never heard of them either, but when I learned they were members of the Grammy-award winning Grupo Fantasma and its funky offshoot Brownout – both bands I did know – I decided to risk a Friday night and see what the excitement was about. Besides, it was at The Echo, one of my favorite music venues in LA.
For those not familiar with LA clubs, the Echo and its sister club, the Echoplex, are small to medium sized venues known for introducing talent before it gets big. Founded in 2001, the Echo programs for most musical tastes, but is heavy on punk, alt rock, and high energy Latin bands. It has hosted the likes of Beck, Green Day, Skrillex, Nine Inch Nails, Incubus, LCD Soundsystem, and Kendrick Lamar. It is also notoriously hard to find. Hiding in plain sight in a non-descript building that looks like a dying 50’s hardware store whose signboard fell off long ago, leaving bare neon tubes and no indication of what, if anything, is inside. What is inside is a high ceilinged, high quality space for 350 with a large stage, state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, a well-stocked long bar, vinyl banquets around the walls, pleasant rest rooms and some of the friendliest and most professional staff in LA. Even when The Echo’s Security People tell you to stop whatever you are doing, they are respectful, if persuasive.
Things got rolling late with the first band, La Chamba, and I was hooked. Chicha is really, really cool! Songs were mostly in Spanish but the intros and patter were mostly in English, so there was no problem following the program. Ten songs, led by LA native Jason Zepeda on the congas and enthusiastic vocals, the band could have been at a Grateful Dead concert where Latin rhythms replaced the smoke. The music moved with pulsating energy, orbiting around the psychedelic riffs of guitarist Alejandro Arujo and organist Kyle Amstrong. The woman dancing next to me breathlessly blurted that it is hard to believe this is the warm-up band, they are so good. It was, but it got better,
Dos Santos took the stage and, wow, did it get ever better. Fronted by the multi-instrumentalist Alex Chavez who can riff on rock, soul, R&B or psychedelic jams while he sings, the five piece ensemble had the entire Echo moving as a single, frenzied organism. Their music amped up La Chamba’s psychedelic flare while mixing in Colombian Cumbia and Afro-Caribbean Salsa, sometimes with social commentary. Energized and colored by Nathan Karagianis’ reverbing guitar and sustained by a Hammond organ and complex Latin percussion, this Chicago-based band raised the stakes and the room’s consciousness even higher. And then Money Chicha came on and took it up several more notches.
Money Chicha kicked off their set by doubling down on the Latin beats, outer spacey guitar solos, and long, mind-bending songs. They kept it up for 13 songs (plus an encore), most flowing from one to another without a break for the band or the dancers. The tempos accelerated and the guitar picking reached even more ethereal highs until the room felt like an acid trip at Machu Picchu in 1960. The music produced by this Austin-based band so thoroughly blends Peruvian/Columbia cumbia and regional folk music with the acid sound of the Summer of Love that infected 60’s and 70’s Latin America that it’s music is an addictive drug on its own.
By now the room was a sweatbox; everyone knew at least 10 people intimately from crashing into or dancing with them. The legendary Peruvian Chicha guitar legend Jose Luis Carballo mounted the stage and jammed with Money Chicha as the dance floor became a forest of bouncing cell phones. All three bands played songs that ran ten minutes and more. The rhythms barreled ahead as the congas, bongos, guiros, shakers, drum kits, tambourines, drum pads and cowbells were unrelenting. I remembered thinking it is a good thing the Echo had to meet LA’s stringent earthquake standards.
The Chicha Summit was launched in 2013 by Money Chicha and Dos Santos who have been playing together and collaborating for years. They have single-handedly created a national touring environment of psychedelic music tripping with Latin rhythms and roots. They memorialized their movement in 2016 with the “Summit Sessions” 7″ vinyl release and a documentary short by filmmaker Joe Rocha, shot in the Beto Martinez’s Leche House Studios. Five years later, the two bands are spreading their musical drug throughout the nation in tours and records and have generated spin-off subgenres like the “Space Cumbia” of DJ D-Flux. And they have inseminated Latin music seedbeds nationwide to grow new Chicha bands like La Chamba, which they showcase on tours as special guests.
The Chicha Summit is a remarkable creation formed through the partnership and dedication of two remarkable bands. Their understanding and skill at genre-blending and their ability to seed new talent and grow audiences has created an institution and a genre that should last, hopefully, as long as Machu Picchu.