Juaneco Y Su Combo: The Birth Of Jungle Cumbia (2013)

I always think of music born from culture as being a purely organic thing. Say, the country blues of the American south; the chants of Tibet; the music of the Sufis. But here we have a counterexample: music emerging from the region surrounding the city of Pucallpa, Puru, here the driving force being the workers moving to the area for the oil boom of the mid-20th century.

In that oppressively hot and difficult environment, Juan Wong Paredes (nicknamed Juaneco) started his dance band, specializing in rumbas, waltzes, and polkas. When Juaneco’s son took over as leader, the true sound of the combo came into being — Juaneco Jr. brought in electric instruments. With electric guitar and Farfisa organ, the music took on a greasy, butt-shakin’ bent. In time, the sound became known as jungle cumbia. Wearing traditional dress on stage, and trafficking in this deep groove, the combo was like the Peruvian version of New Orleans’ Wild Tchoupitoulas.

It’s not often that psychedelic music is thought of as being sensual, but there is no denying the raw pulse that this band put out. The percussion is in-the-pocket relentless, and the organ and guitar lines snake around each other with abandon. The not so secret weapon of this group was in fact lead guitarist Noé Fachín Mori. His incredible use of melody in chord progressions, solos, and support roles reminds the ear of a master from the modern world: Johnny Marr of The Smiths. Apparently, Fachín was known to the locals as el brujo — the witch doctor. I can see why!

Sadly, a 1977 plane crash would take the lives of five of nine band members, el brujo included. The remaining members did make the attempt to carry on the tradition, but with the brilliant Fachín gone, the spark would not live on. Thankfully, this recording captures the combo in their prime, as The Birth Of Jungle Cumbia is made up of one full length album plus some singles, none of which has seen international release until this reissue.

The sample embedded below, “Lamento en la Selva,” was written to commemorate those who lost their lives in a commercial airliner crash in 1971. The plane went down on the way to Pucallpa. Juaneco Jr’s brother and sister were on that flight. The tune still grooves like crazy. Fun music from dark times, that’s what Juaneco Y Su Combo was all about.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.