The Pittonkatonk May Day Celebration – a brass band festival and community potluck – returns to Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park this Saturday, May 11, 2019, and this year’s line-up includes Peruvian legends Los Mirlos.
Cumbia Amazonica, or Chicha, is the sound of the Amazon jungle and oil-boom migrations, of electrified instruments and Andean melodies. It originated during late ‘60s, and Los Mirlos was among the genre’s pioneers.
Lead singer Jorge Rodríguez Grández was born in Moyobomba, San Martin, in Peru’s northern Amazon region. In 1973, Grandez moved to Lima, and along with his two brothers and a cousin, formed Los Mirlos. The music they created was a syncretic mix of styles including cumbia rhythms, surf and psychedelic rock, and indigenous melodies. And, revolutionary for the time, it was performed with electric guitars and organs.
Although the genre would become a source of local pride and identity, the music never gained a wide audience outside of Peru.
I stumbled onto this music 12 years ago, at a record store in Miami, Florida, where I lived at the time. The Roots of Chicha was a newly released complication of “psychedelic cumbias from Peru.” Based on the description, and the neon-green cover art, I bought the CD without even listening to it. The album’s lead track is Los Mirlos’ “Sonido Amazonico,” a song driven by psychedelic guitar set to a cumbia beat — it was infections and original and I couldn’t get enough.
Shortly after buying that record, I moved to Pittsburgh where there happened to be a promoter — Pete Spynda — who incorporated Cumbia Amazonica in his DJ sets, and even booked live chicha bands. Pittonkatonk is one of Spynda’s signature events.
Renaissance of Psychedelic Cumbias
More than a decade after its release, The Roots of Chicha is largely responsible for the ongoing renaissance of psychedelic cumbias. In 2017, the LA Weekly called the album the “skeleton key” for the formation of chicha bands in cities like Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago, and New York. This renewed interest has also bought a few older bands out of retirement–or, as in the case of Los Mirlos, put them back on the road, and to new destinations.
“To see that they are playing places outside of the community is wonderful,” said Olivier Conan, who compiled and released The Roots of Chicha in 2007. “[Los Mirlos] are part of a wave of chicha and cumbia bands finally getting their due.”
Although Spynda has worked with new and classic cumbia bands for years, bringing Los Mirlos to Pittsburgh, and to have them share the stage at this year’s Pittonkatonk with the younger musicians they have inspired, is what Spynda calls his dream lineup.
Los Mirlos kicks off first ever US tour in Pittsburgh
Spynda has also booked and promoted Los Mirlos’ first U.S. tour. After their Pittonkatonk performance, they will be traveling to Kingston, New York.
“To bring them over here, and to show the fans of this music where it came from, I think is invaluable,” said Beto Martinez, of the Austin, Texas-based group Money Chicha.
On May 25, Los Mirlos will perform at Chicago’s Mole de Mayo festival. Jaime Garza is that festival’s founder, and electric bassist in Dos Santos, a Chicago-based band whose early influences included Peruvian cumbias of the 1970s. “Los Mirlos were one of the pioneers in that time,” he says. “They made their own cumbia.”
If you can’t catch them on Saturday, Los Mirlos will return to Pittsburgh on May 20th, for a show at the venue 25 Carrick Ave.
According to Garza, who saw Los Mirlos perform recently, it’s definitely not too late to see the legendary band live for the first time. In fact, Los Mirlos haven’t lost a step. “They still got it,” he says. “No one plays like them.”
Los Mirlos US Tour Dates
- May 11 – Pittonkatonk // Pittsburgh, PA
- May 13 – BSP // Kingston, NY
- May 14 – Frank Bradley’s // Philadelphia, PA
- May 15 – Statehouse // New Haven, CT
- May 16 – New City Brewing // Easthampton, MA
- May 17 – Fete // Providence, RI
- May 18 – Tropicala // Washington DC
- May 19 – Diva Lounge // Virginia, VA
- May 20 – 25 Carrick Ave // Pittsburgh, PA
- May 21 – Now That’s Class // Cleveland, OH
- May 22 – La Terraza // Detroit, MI
- May 23 – Mexicains Sans Frontieres // Grand Rapids, MI
- May 24 – Martyrs’ //Chicago, IL
- May 25 – Mole De Mayo // Chicago, IL
- May 26 – Brooklyn Bazaar // Brooklyn, NY
Header photo and art by Pedro Tolomeo Rojas Meza