Darts & Confetti, Barbs & Barbès

I noted on Twitter the other day that one reason it was taking me so long to finish up the previous post is that “darts are harder to throw than confetti.”

It’s important to critique, at least if we want things to be better, but I also always try to remind myself that there are actual people on the receiving end. It can be easy to forget that when hurling flames down the intertubes. This is the other other side of the recent/recurring discussion about the death of negative music criticism.

My post on a few small cumbia labels is uneven in lots of ways. In some cases I had access to the labelheads themselves, in other cases, I was forced to focus more on what I could collect around the web. The general call for more transparency undergirding my critiques echoes in the incomplete info I had when writing, which led me to focus more on the PR efforts around Barbès than the work of the label itself (though I did try to provide some balance and qualification, noting that the music on Roots of Chicha is wonderful and that the comps are important for bringing an awareness and appreciation of chicha to wider audiences). I had put in a request with Ryan at PressJunkiePR to ask Olivier Conan about the licensing behind his comps, which was dutifully forwarded; I had also directly emailed Olivier in the hope that that might prove fruitful. Turns out, Olivier was in Peru last week and unable to respond right away.

Very shortly after hitting “publish” on the post, Olivier appeared in my inbox, diligently and detailedly answering my queries about licensing, with no idea that I’d just thrown some very public darts his way. Allow me to share the ensuing conversation, which, in the spirit of these posts, adds a fair amount of clarity and nuance and empathy to the discussion.

Hi wayne,

Sorry for the delay – I was in Peru and have been in panic catching-up mode since I got back.

Licensing is time-consuming and can indeed be complicated when dealing with music that was considered to have no commercial value for a couple of decades. While Chicha was big business for a couple of labels in the 70’s and 80’s, the record business pretty much collapsed in Peru and very few of the labels stayed active. IEMPSA, which was more of a generalist label is pretty much the only one which managed to stay in business. They were the biggest label with a huge catalog of criollo, folkloric and rock. They also acquired smaller labels along the way. Licensing anything that they owned proved fairly easy, anything else required some detective work and some of my detective work turned out to be sup-par.

For the first Roots of Chicha, I managed to locate most of the musicians. Angel Rosado, of los Hijos del Sol owned the rights to his songs, and I was able to license straight from him (he cried on the phone when I told him i was calling from the US – he died less than a year after the release of the record). Locating Juaneco y su Combo was a little more difficult, but I finally located Juaneco’s son, Mao. Juaneco had died a few years before that, and his son was both musical and legal heir. He was also very useful in giving me quite a bit of biographical data. The rest of the rights I secured through IEMPSA. They helped me contact other label owners and usually worked out a deal where they licensed directly and gave be a sub-license. It took a little bit of time, but I was able to get pretty much all the songs I wanted. Everybody I talked to at the time thought I was crazy. No one cared about the music, no one had bothered to keep the original masters. The music was only available through bootlegs. Even artists would sometimes send me the bootleg versions of their work. The idea of anthologizing the music just seemed strange to them.

The album got a lot of press in Peru (where it was never released by the way…..) and things started to change. People realized that they were sitting on potential money-makers – or so they thought. The biggest producer of Amazonian cumbia staring in the late 60’s was Alberto Maravi. He was responsible for the success of the best amazonian cumbia bands (Juaneco and Mirlos among others) and his label INFOPESA, had been inactive for years. After the comp came out, there was a huge revival of Juaneco y su combo – not just because of me. In particular, the band Bareto covered a few of their songs which became extremely popular.

Alberto Maravi, who had supposedly disappeared, re-appeared shortly after that. Turns out that Mao had no legal right to the masters (only a moral one I guess…). And 5 of the songs that IEMPSA had licensed to me were also his. IEMPSA had been pretty careless in checking rights. …

I was a lot more careful with this second compilation – I also know Peru a lot better than I used to and have a lot more contacts. People were still a little surprised that I wanted to license some of the songs – especially the stuff from Horoscopo. Horoscopo is the label that really codified what came to be known as Chicha with Chacalon and Los Shapis, its two biggest stars. They were more of a “ghetto” label and haven’t yet benefitted from the revival. They ‘re still considered crass. I had to track down Juan Campos, the owner and producer, who apparently now runs a farm north of LIma and has had nothing to do with music any more. He hasn’t kept any of the masters either but I was able to license from him with no problem. Same with Colegiala, the most famous song on the comp. I actually just got the writer on the phone who put me in touch with the original owner of the him. I don’t expect any problems on this one, but there are always surprises.

In general, getting licenses isn’t as hard as people think. The main problem is making sure you’re talking to the right person, which can be hard when the music is kind of forgotten.

Of course, many re-issue labels don’t bother with licenses at all which I don’t think is right. There is very little money involved in re-issues at this point and whatever potential profit is in part eaten up by licenses, but I really don’t understand how you can create awareness and respect for a genre when you show absolutely no respects for the musicians who created the music to begin with. Even if It is true that more than often musicians were screwed by the original producers and don’t necessarily see the money. And it’s also true that as a business venture, barbes is a total failure and I’ll probably stop releasing records by next year..

Let me know if you have any other questions or if you want me to elaborate.

I really like your blog by they way.



To which I replied, slightly aghast —

Dear Olivier,

Thanks much for this detailed reply. This is all very interesting. Sorry to throw a serious query your way while you were on the road.

As you may have seen, I just pushed the publish button on that long post about cumbia marketing this morning. It discusses Barbes in some detail, and since I couldn’t confirm anything about the licensing with you or Ryan, I decided to focus on the language of the promotional materials for your comps. I hope you can see that as critical as I can be, I also see a lot to celebrate about what you do. And your email about licensing really helps to bring things into perspective.

Would you be amenable to me posting the contents of this email to my blog? I think it would help to continue the conversation, and I like the idea — given my critiques — of bringing this tricky stuff more into the open, more into the story of Barbes, at least for readers of my blog (a few of whom, I’m told, have already purchased the new CD since reading this morning’s post!).

Let me know what you think. If you’d prefer to edit it, that’s ok by me too.


To which Olivier replied —

Hi Wayne,

Just read your post – that hurt… It hurts even more because it is well written and very pertinent. As a disclaimer, I didn’t write the press release (although I obviously let it be written) nor did I try to create a colonial narrative of white discoverer of the obvious. I find the idea as abhorrent as you do. I didn’t think my liner notes implied that in any way, i simply was trying to explain how I became an excuse for people to start writing about the music in Peru. That an outsider should bring credibility to aspects of a local culture that had been previously despised is unfortunately not that uncommon. That I found myself in the middle of that story is still very strange to me, but it did happen without me sending out press releases.

In general, I have been so aware of the dangers of the colonial narrative, as well as the pitfalls of the fetishizing the exotic, that I have tried to avoid it as much as possible and I feel really terrible that I should have failed so miserably. I genuinely like the music. I have spent quite a bit of time researching it. I’ve met a number of the musicians who play it. I have played with some of them but will probably won’t any more and will instead embrace berets and musette.

Also, for the record (no pun intended) Barbès records is one person – myself. I am an enthusiast, not a businessman, I have never turned a profit, never paid myself a salary and most probably never will. I don’t play up the image of the little guy toiling underground, because I do find it just as annoying. I am not a fan of the esoteric in any form but a great believer in the exoteric. I genuinely believe that chicha is not simply good music, but one of the great pop hybrid of pop music history and that its fate was directly linked to imbalances of class and geo-political power. Better producers and better reception at the time would have no doubt made the music popular worldwide. I’d much rather have people talk about Noe Fachin, Lener Muñoz or Manzanita than me.

Damn, I wish I had time to give you a more fleshed out critique of your critique, but I don’t. Still, you do raise some of the most important issues in the promotion of World Music. I am just a little freaked out to be the poster boy for neo-colonial crate digging.

Feel free to use my previous email. I don’t have time to edit it, so if you do use it, please mention that it is an email.



Shortly thereafter, Olivier added the following note (reproduced in his comment on the initial post):

Apologies for obsessing over this – but I just wanted to point out to the publicity I have been using for the record. If you look at the website for instance
there is not one mention of myself on it or the part I might or might not have played in the promoting the music. Just thought I would defend myself…


Me again:

Hey Olivier,

I’m sorry for any hurt feelings — really. That’s one reason it took me a while to write the post as carefully as I could. I really appreciate hearing all of this from you — and I suspect my readers / a wider audience will too. I don’t mean to put anyone in a defensive posture, though it’s clear that this kind of critique can do that. (Mike from Mass Tropicas, for instance, is currently hashing things out with a critic in the comments — quite productively, I think.)

At any rate, I certainly am not calling for you to play musette wearing a beret! That’s a great image of how ridiculous a lot of this cultural policing can get. I think it’s obvious that I see great value in seeking out things from different places, especially something like chicha, which as you note can really stand on its own as a remarkable moment in international/local pop. But I admit that my ethnomusicological training leads me to find lots of irksome things in the way the “world music” industry operates.

Part of the point in these ongoing, thinking-aloud blogposts is to bring more clarity and nuance to the situation. Didn’t mean to make you a poster boy of sorts — but don’t worry, there are lots of them/us — and I think your emails will help to clear that up. I’m grateful to be in conversation, and, though it should go without saying, I wish you all the best.


Back to Olivier:

Hey Wayne,

I do appreciate the critique, and the dialogue – and especially looking into inner workings of the world music industry – I guess what I really object to is only looking at the release from the PR angle and not mentioning the work that went into putting the package together – I spent a lot of time on it, none of it relies on the, indeed, objectionable narrative hinted at by the press release and generally exploited by writers who see it as an easier story to tell. What can I say. I’m sensitive.


Me again:

Totally fair response, Olivier. In lieu of more info, I’m afraid I had to concentrate on the PR. I’ll be running some of this email text as a corrective of sorts on the blog very soon. Thanks for keeping the conversation going.

I’m sensitive too, and I hate how internet “hate” can really hang over me. I’m sorry if I’ve thrown some of those bad vibes your way today. Please, keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s good work, I’m convinced of that.


And finally, Olivier closes things out with a little levity:

Can’t wait to read about something else on your blog…..


On that note, while I’m eager to see the conversation continue in the comments on the cumbia worlds post, as well as on this one, readers can look forward to some topical departures here in the near future.

Thanks again to Olivier and to all for thinking through this thorny stuff with me.