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A Mission to Spread Peruvian Funk: Martin Morales Interviewed

Tiger’s Milk is a British record label that is dedicated to compiling explosive and rare tracks from Peru’s past and telling the fascinating stories behind them. After dropping the exquisite Peru Maravilloso last year, the label’s new compilation, Peru Bravo: Funk, Soul and Psych from Peru’s Radical Decade explores a different side of the country’s music scene–one that is more Western-inspired, but nevertheless tied to Peruvian traditions and the country’s shifting political situation. Martin Morales, who compiled the collection along with Duncan Ballantyne and Andrés Tapia del Rio, talked to Sam Backer, Afropop’s producer for new media, about the inspiration behind Peru Bravo. Also be sure to check out the mix that accompanies this post.

Sam Backer: So, first off, the compilation is great. It’s a really nice counterpoint to the Peru Maravilloso album that came out last year. What was the thinking behind it? Can you tell us a little bit about the concept behind the compilation, and how it differs from the previous record?

Martin Morales: Peru Maravilloso was to capture a moment in time. All our compilations do that. They tell stories. Peru Maravilloso is from a moment when music was transitioning in Peru, when radio airwaves from the U.S. and U.K.–rock bands–began to be heard in Peru. Electric instruments began to be played and bands and musicians began to blend this with their own styles. Mid-’60s to mid-’70s electric guitars began to influence traditional Peruvian rhythms. Cumbia became electric…and Amazonian…and psychedelic. Mambo blended with huayno–a very traditional Andean rhythm. Rock ‘n’ roll influenced salsa. All these and more are represented in Peru Maravilloso. Maravilloso means “marvelous.” So, the music became free and beautiful in this way. They all are extremely rare tracks–many only ever released on seven-inch vinyl. Some are worth hundreds of dollars. I’m Peruvian and have been collecting since the age of 16. I’m crazy about seven-inches. We brought all these genres and fusions and rhythms together. It’s a fascinating palette of songs.

Then…the new one! We decided to tell the story of what happened next. In the early ‘70s, Velasco came to power–a brutal dictator. Santana was banned from performing Latin soul-funk and the Chicano movement was growing in the U.S. West Coast. Some of those records started to be heard in Peru–James Brown and others–deep funk, heavy funk. It landed in Peru from the U.S. during a period of conflict, a period of censorship, of political instability. Funk began in Peru with just a few bands who wanted to express themselves through this raw rhythm. They wanted to escape at times, at others they wanted to scream about politics. And the summer of love continued to a certain degree, but instead of being overtly psychedelic, it blended with funk and, of course, sometimes Peruvian styles. That’s Peru Bravo. Bravo means clap your hands, well done, but in Peru it also means tough, edgy. So the title has a double entendre.

That’s really interesting. So the music from Peru Bravo is actually drawn from a later period than Peru Maravilloso?

Yes, slightly. There is some crossover, but it’s more about the stories behind each album. We are storytellers. That’s how we compile. We are making a historical background of what the youth was feeling musically, how they expressed themselves through music and nightlife, and a scene–a funk scene for Peru Bravo.

Right. Inspired by the funk music coming over from the United States…

And the political situation–escapism and anger.

It’s interesting how funk is actually this incredibly political music in so many places. Rock has the whole “rebellion” thing, but when people really want to talk about serious things in the ‘70s, they seem to turn to funk. Was that true in Peru as well? Did the rock/beat groups tend to be less politically engaged?

Yes. They softened up. They chickened out. They became pop. Well, before punk arrived, but that’s another story…for the future. You know Peru created the first punk band?

Los Saicos.

Indeed. New York Dolls used to reference them a lot.

Really? The records made it to New York? That’s amazing!

I’m not sure how, but they reference them. We play a lot of these songs in our small but beautiful restaurant, Ceviche. We didn’t plan it, but the music has become a big part of why our customers love us.

That’s fantastic!

Our food has been widely acclaimed as some of the best in Britain, but we have customers that come for the music. We only play Peruvian music–from punk to funk, chicha to cumbia, huayno to tropical bass.

That’s really cool. So, you guys also prepared a mix for our website. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about it.

What we want to capture is the spirit of our restaurant and our ethos on the label. Peru Bravo and Peru Maravilloso tracks are featured, plus a whole lot more. Take Tribilin Sound, for example. They’re unknown outside Peru and hardly known in Peru, apart from within the new electronic scene. Dengue Dengue Dengue are part of the new electric tropical bass scene in Lima. I know these guys personally. I’ve been working with some of these new bands for many years–Novalima, for example. I met the bandleader, Rafael, 10 years ago when they had their first demo, which featured acid jazz, bossa nova, and one Afro-Peruvian track. I had been doing some work with Gotan Project and I’d met Gustavo Santaolalla, who wanted me to release his album with Bajofondo. I advised the Novalima boys to focus on Afro-Peruvian music, and they agreed. I introduced them to Toni Economides, as he and I were working on artists at Outcaste Records, which I was running at the time [Nitin Sawhney, Badmarsh and Shri, etc.], and Toni was doing all the West London sound stuff. He started working with Novalima and then they made Afro, a lovely album. I wrote sleeve notes and applauded their fantastic work.

Bareto, Chakruna and others are some guys I’ve helped a little [not signed, just mentored or helped]. It’s all their work, but that’s what we do. We help great new artists and uncover songs and stories.

So it’s really about embracing this culture at the widest possible level.

Sure. We are a powerful country. We were shy for many years–downtrodden by dictators, corrupt politicians and disparity in society. Our people always treasured the outside; they didn’t look internally enough. But things are changing now. We value what’s inside our country much more. Food has helped a lot with crossing borders. My work and that of my team has been pioneering. My cookbook Ceviche: Peruvian Kitchen, published by Ten Speed/Random House in the U.S., is an example of that. It’s the first of its kind. And we are doing the same with music. No one else wants to do it. No one else cares, but we do. Yes, there is the odd compilation of rare stuff, but we meet, know and understand the people that lived there because we are from there. Los Saicos lived two streets away from me!

That’s amazing! What you said about not valuing the internal culture is really interesting to me, because a lot of the music on this compilation is very Western-influenced. It’s this amazing combination of things.

Traffic Sound, Los Mads, Laghonia… All incredible bands in their time. They didn’t last long, but made some pioneering music.

Yeah, for sure!

From the ‘30s onwards, we had that feeling that everything from outside was better than what we had internally. We couldn’t get music or TV until later, but we thought Peru wasn’t great. It started off as liking the international scene. Then we blended it with our stuff. And then in the mid-’80s, we thought it was better than what we could make at home. We started hating ourselves and our traditions and customs, because we were surrounded by misery. But things began to change in the mid-’90s. A reversal started to happen–transparent systems were put in place; the government became less corrupt. Abimael Guzmán [the Shining Path guerrilla] was captured. The Shining Path threatened to kill my dad. They sent him a death letter and we lived under armed guard for a year. Once that man was caught and other factors, as mentioned, began to take hold, foreign investments started to come in again. And we began to value our own resources. We became wealthier bit by bit. The middle class grew. And now our music–from electronic to dub to singer/songwriter to folk–and our art–video, street art, painting, graphic art–is among the best in the world. We are creating movements in food, in chicha, in art, and more.

And you have a mission to bring that to the world!

Oh yes. We are definitely on a mission. We will chronicle this and tell more of this story in the future on Tiger’s Milk Records. We want a legacy–a great one–not money, just a legacy of quality and passion.

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