Though guitarist Mike Lee — who founded the Boulder band Chicha — was a late bloomer in terms of performing, his deep love of music dates back to his childhood in the Bay Area.
“My first real exposure to music was driving around with my brother,” Lee says. “When he first started driving, he had tons of cassettes. He played a lot of Chicago. I also loved transistor radios and remember being in bed [with] the radio under my pillow.”
Then he heard Santana.
“I was blown away,” he recalls. “It was so cool, so exotic, like this other world. It was something different.”
Lee fondly remembers camping outside Oakland Coliseum at age 15 to see Santana at one of the late Bill Graham’s Day on the Green concerts, which Lee talks about with hushed tones in hindsight.
With Santana, Ritchie Blackmore (Rainbow, Deep Purple) and Terry Kath (Chicago) as his idols, Lee “dicked around on guitar” in high school and college (University of California, Santa Barbara) but, for whatever reason, didn’t start to get serious in the United States about guitar” until entering his 40s, playing rhythm in such Colorado surfrock bands as the Mahi Men and the Beloved Invaders, whose breakup led to the forming of a Grateful Dead cover band that failed (thank God) before it “got out of the practice space.”
In 2012, Lee found his groove in Chicha, a big, talent-filled Latin band that’s essentially his dream come true: playing lead electric guitar in a group that’s heavily inspired by the “something different” that turned Lee on to Santana as a kid, but more focused on toying with the native Latin rhythms and musical sensibilities that’ve fascinated Lee the last couple years.
“I really wanted to start playing out again after the Dead thing didn’t work out,” Lee explains. “As a guitar player around [Boulder] it’s mostly jambands, and I didn’t wanna play that stuff. [Latin-influenced music] was the first the thing that really grabbed me, but electric guitar is really not featured in Latin music outside Santana. So I thought ‘I’d really love to play Latin music but there’s really no [electric] guitar in there.’” It was then, as if by providence, that Lee discovered his band’s namesake: chicha, a genre that’s relatively unknown “ and creatively adds electric guitar-tinged psychedelia to native Amazonian music.
“It just blew me away,” says Lee, who happened upon chicha by “rummaging around on iTunes.
“It started in the ’60s with the natives living along the Amazon in Peru. They started listening on the radio to British rock and American rock, psychedelia and surf rock. They originally adapted their native music, which is called huayno — native Andean music and music from along the Amazon; then they started adding guitars and Farfisa organs and created this new genre.”
It’s tough to characterize chicha, which has spread, in part, because of two Roots of Chicha compilations put out by Brooklyn’s Barbés Records, that are just plain mind-blowing. Describing chicha, according to Lee, is like describing rock ’n’ roll. It’s not a set of parameters so much as a spirit, though the essential idea is “ethnic folk music on rock instruments.”
Lee grew up in Menlo Park, which is famously where the Grateful Dead got its start along with Ken Kesey’s trailblazing love affair with LSD. So the genesis of chicha music — Amazonian musicians’ passion for both American psychedelic rock and ayahuasca, a powerful natural psychedelic that’s been used for centuries by Amazonian shamans — makes almost as much sense to Lee as the genesis of Bruce Springsteen’s music might make to a native of Asbury Park.
However, all this is not to say that Chicha — which mostly gigs around Boulder but is hoping to expand its audience soon — plays only chicha music, though Lee says the plan is to work in more. The seven-piece outfit (drums, percussion, guitar, bass, keys and two vocalists) draws from a wide range of Latin music and even does a Latin version of “I Will Survive.”
“It took forever to get the band together, mostly with Craigslist,” says Lee, who calls Chicha’s repertoire “modern Latin” and explains that the act tries to keep things “danceable” but really enjoys stretching tunes out to showcase its impressive musicians. Even bassist Dave Lyons takes solos.
“It’s a team concept,” Lee says.
Lee’s team opens for Latin-rock stalwart Los Lobos — a band that’s rightfully enjoyed worldwide acclaim since the mid-’80s but was memorably “tomatoed” when Lee saw the nowlegendary L.A. group open for the Clash on one of the English punkers’ final tours.
“I don’t know why people would even bring tomatoes!” Lee recalls hilariously.
No worries for Chicha on the 29th — the emerging Boulder septet is a more sensical pairing with Los Lobos than the Clash, to say the least.