Chancha via Circuito finds cumbia’s beating heart

Julianne Shepherd managed to squeeze in some time with Argentinian beat-smith and remix revolutionary Chancha via Circuito during his stop in New York City for Unsound, an experimental electronica festival now in its second year.  His excellent “Las Pastores” mixtape is available for free through XLR8R magazine, and his new album “Rio Arriba” is available now.

By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Photos by Pedro Quintans

Pedro Canale spent a majority of the past two years deep in the jungles of South America, listening for the earth’s heartbeat. Curious about música folklórica, the traditional rhythms and melodies of indigenous peoples from the Andes and the Amazon, he flung himself across the bottom half of the continent, stretching out from his native Argentina, up the mountain ranges, through Chile and Bolivia and Peru. “I first traveled to the highest region of Argentina, when I rediscovered the folklorica of the Andes – the pan flute and charango,” says Canale. “I started to be involved in this kind of sound. Then I returned to Bolivia, and last January I was in Peru, too. I went to the jungle in Peru, the Amazonas river, with a community of natives who are Shipibo, and [learned about] the culture.”

It was during these trips that he began collecting sounds for his music as Chancha via Circuito, capturing bug chirps to inject in songs or pitch down to blend into entomological beats. On a jaunt to Coroico, Bolivia, he caught birdcalls in the jungle while marveling at waterfalls, snakes, mango trees, wild pineapples. A chorus of insects and hooting animals he recorded introduces his last mixtape, Los Pastores, before giving way to a watery kind of baguala, a traditional Argentinian song, augmented by computer glitches and and edited with an ear for wide-open negative space. He wove a cricket’s call into the sproinging shuffle of “Damas Gratis Dub,” his track summoning Argentina’s biggest cumbia band; he employed a higher-pitched birdsong for the elastic sibilance of “Rio Arriba.” ”When a sound attracts me, I catch it, like a fly. Come here,” he says. “But then I share it with all the people. Be free again.” Canale’s latest album, also called Rio Arriba, released in Argentina in 2010 but only now being unleashed in the States, is transportive––a document of an undefined point in time-space, encapsulating ancient vertigo in an undefined present, a transcendent future. In his travels, Canale says, “I was looking to be nearer to the environment. I wanted to let my soul grow.”

In the annals of the internet, the term ‘tropical’ has become shorthand for a certain sound or genre of globe-spanning music – digital beats generally rooted in a nebulous concept of music from Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean Islands. In Oye Como Va!: Hybridity and Identity in Latino Popular Music, Deborah Pacini Hernandez writes, “As cumbia moves beyond the confines of solidly working-class mestizo contexts into cosmopolitan and cosmopolatino dance-oriented settings around the globe, its already complicated genealogy and racial and cultural associations continue to shift… they are being retropicalized with images of black festivity unconnected to any particular community and accessible to everyone around the globe.” As Chancha via Circuito, Canale goes beyond “performing tropical,” driven more by ethnomusicological and creative impulse than the desire to churn out dancefloor-centric club burners; with his music, he says, he is most interested in creating “a place to rest the mind, a place with meditation maybe, with no thinking.”

By drawing a direct line from timeworn ways to technological revolution, Canale scatters the spirit of both the Andean jungle and the Andean high plains across the web as a tool, rather than a vehicle for a brand. “I like the idea of keeping these rhythms alive,” he says. “Mixing the old things with a fresh point of view. ”

But even as interest in genres like cumbia increases across the world, more localized indigenous music is threatened in parts of Argentina, Canale says, in part because of the epidemic Westernization of global pop culture. Younger generations look increasingly towards the United States and Europe for inspiration and to glom onto trends that are seen as status symbols, and the roots get lost. “It’s a problem of class,” says Canale. “The middle, upper classes, they don’t care about folklore.” The class- and race-based disdain for cumbia in Buenos Aires is documented – in 2008, author Jace Clayton’s story exposed both the insane popularity around the genre and the insane prejudice against it among richer, whiter Argentinians. Zizek, the Buenos Aires club where Canale used to work, promotes a young, hip, digitized and globally mish-mashed version of the genre, and its excellent, attendant label ZZK – on which his music is released –has made inroads into normalizing it among different sociocultural circles worldwide, though Canale says he hasn’t escaped the snobbishness that pervades the culture. As his global profile has increased, his local one has been slower to follow. “When foreigners speak well about you, people in Argentina see you with different eyes, with a little more respect. I don’t know why,” he says, “I think it’s because of prejudice– oh, he’s mixing folklore and electronic, it’s not correct.”

Tell that to the kids in Chile. Last year, Canale traveled there with fellow ZZK artist Villa Diamante, and held workshops for local youth to teach them how to record their own music on computers. Using programs like Ableton Live and FrootyLoops, the kids recorded sketches of traditional songs and looped them over beats. “We started the workshops to show the people in essence that they have a lot of interesting music around them, their folklore is rich to use. I taught them to make their own beats, and a way to find an individual point of view in their music. To find their personal aesthetic.” It was the first experiment in a new project called ZZK EDU which, according to label head Grant C. Dull, will “use the record label’s music to show other local cities and towns what we’ve been able to do, and trying to get them involved in their own context.” It’s an effort not only to spread what they’ve learned with ZZK in community-building — old fashioned DIY — but an effort to ensure the old songs don’t get lost amidst the overwhelming import of European and American pop culture. In other words: Canale’s dream to preserve the beats, a tentacle stretching beyond his own work, beyond the lives of others, and into the continuum of history, circuit-bending culture immemorial through a kaleidoscope lens of future vision.


“I like when art in general helps the people to grow, to improve their lives. Like Alejandro Jodorowsky says, art is the only thing that can help the people.” says Canale. “I like this idea.”

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Pedro Canale named Chancha via Circuito after the train route he took commuting to Buenos Aires from his home on the outskirts in Zona Sur. That was four years ago, when he was still working days as a graphic designer at a print house and nights doing odd jobs around the Zizek Club. He was collecting Andean music on Soulseek, the filesharing site most Argentinians “live by,” in the words of Dull, and putting together music, composing beats, collaborating with friends. Concurrent with the switch, he had a revelation about his job – he wasn’t that into it– and ditched it after a decade to start a carpet-cleaning business with his friend. While all this was happening, he was recording Rio Arriba, spurred not only by his travels but by the night sounds from the fauna around his home. “I’m a little bit of a hippie, I like the hippie life. Plants, sunlight, siestas, dogs and cats. I love dogs and cats,” he says.

The album reads like a living organism, and it’s not just because of the nature sounds. On some tracks the instruments were recorded so live you can hear the particular acoustics of the room they were cut in, echoes and natural reverb factoring into the texture. “Cumbion de las Aves,” a haunting rhythmic dirge so named because the pan flute reminds Canale of a birdsong, was recorded in his apartment with a friend who plays charango –– the tinny, tiny traditional string instrument –– and is accompanied with an industrial sounding counter-rhythm that sounds like heavy factory equipment pounding stamps in iron. He remixed several tracks by his ZZK labelmates, and one eerie-beautiful baguala by Alicia Solans and Miriam Garcia – the latter of whom is now teaching him to sing baguala, copla and other Andean folksongs. It’s intensely creative – and, in keeping with the global exchange, he lets local influence intermingle with dubwise aesthetics, which pulse beneath the melodic accoutrements.  In context, the middle class rejection of the folklorica he mines seems even more trivial and banal – this music is immune to social construct. It is beyond castes. It feels whole.