Juaneco y Su Combo have a story ready-made for an episode of Behind the Music, full of hallucinogenic drugs, jungle adventure, hardscrabble barrio life, a fatal plane crash, and plenty of rock & roll. In their heyday in the early '70s, Juaneco y Su Combo were one of the most innovative chicha bands in Peru. And what is chicha, you may ask? Chicha was spontaneously created by the culture clash of the late '60s, when the Indian population of the Peruvian Amazon discovered the Colombian pop music known as cumbia and American rock & roll. When oil was discovered in the Amazon, oil companies invaded the region, bringing some modicum of civilization and spreading around jobs that gave indigenous people some measure of disposable income. As cheap electric instruments became available, Amazon Indians put together dance bands that used the syncopated beat of cumbia -- which sounds like a laid-back Latin cousin of ska -- as the foundation for melodies that sound like Andean folk tunes played on electric guitar with lots of effects and Tex-Mex-style Farfisa organ.
Juaneco and the members of his combo lived in the Amazonian town of Pucallpa, inhabited mostly by Shipibo Indians. Juan Wong Paredes, a saxophone player of Chinese ancestry who made bricks by day and played music by night, started the band to play jazz and dance music. Eventually his son, Juan Wong Popolizio, took over leadership of the combo and traded in his accordion for a Farfisa. The other members of the band, which now called itself Juaneco y Su Combo, had already heard surf music and spaghetti Western soundtracks on cassettes brought in by the oil workers. They could pick up Colombian cumbia and Brazilian carimbo, a percussion-based pop music, on their radios, and began blending those elements with the traditional music of the Shipibo people. Popolizio brought guitarist Noé "El Brujo" Fachin into the band. Fachin played criollo music (called Afro-Peruvian in the U.S.) on the electric guitar with a unique fingerpicking style. He'd also recently acquired a wah-wah pedal, and made good use of it.
Fachin proved to be a great songwriter as well as a first-rate guitarist. He wrote tunes incorporating cumbia, carimbo, Afro-Peruvian, huayño (the folk music of the Andes), psychedelic rock, reggae, and other musics into a wild and woolly sound that set the standards for chicha. He was also adept in the use of ayahuasca, a psychedelic made from the bark of a jungle vine, and the lyrics were a heady brew of indigenous themes, forest and jungle myths, and his own inner voyages. Fachin once said his best songs came to him while he was on ayahuasca. The bandmembers began dressing in the traditional garb of the Shipibo people. When they moved to Lima, they found the costumes weren't a bad marketing strategy at all.
After settling in Lima in 1970, Juaneco y Su Combo became leaders of the so-called Ola Amazonica -- the Amazonian Wave. Their first hit, on the now-defunct INFOPESA label, was "Mujer Hilandera," a cumbia version of a Brazilian song, "Mulher Reindeira," which Joan Baez also once recorded. The success of "Mujer Hilandera" led to several albums, including El Gran Cacique (1970, INFOPESA; 2008, Barbès). The album's success made them the leading chicha band and they toured throughout Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia. INFOPESA's owner and producer, Alberto Maravi, made three more albums with the band. Their driving Farfisa, psychedelic guitar excursions, relentless rhythms, and indigenous costumes made them a big attraction in Lima, although chicha was shunned by the middle and upper classes for its "street vibe." The success of the group paved the way for other bands like Los Mirlos, Los Hijos del Sola, Los Destellos, Los Diablos Rojos, and Eusebio y Su Banjo, but Juaneco y Su Combo remained the innovators.
On May 2, 1977, after playing a Labor Day party, most of the band was flying back to Pucallpa on a small private plane. The plane crashed, killing Noé Fachin, Walter Dominguez, Ediberto Vasquez, Jairo Aguilar, and Wilfredo Murrieta. Juan Wong Paredes, singer Wilindoro Cacique, timbalero Rosendo Hidalgo, and conguero Juvencio Pinchi finished production on the band's last album and carried on with five new members. They never regained the edge they had with Fachin, but remained popular in Peru. In 2004, Juaneco died and his son, Mao Wong Lopez, took over the band. There the story might have ended, but in 2007 Oliver Conan, owner of Brooklyn's Barbès nightclub and record label, discovered the music on a trip to Peru. He put out a compilation for the U.S. market called Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru (2007, Barbès), and world music fans went nuts for this new beat -- which was really 40 years old. Juaneco y Su Combo were rescued from obscurity and started playing in the hip venues of Barranco with young rock bands who worshiped their retro sound. Several television documentaries have been made about the band, which has been profiled in Peru's trendiest magazines. In late 2008 the band was hoping to make its first tour of the U.S. ~ j. poet