The Strange World Of… Buh Records

Jakub Knera speaks to Luis Alvarado, founder of essential Peruvian label Buh Records, and offers a beginners guide to their vast discography that takes in the country's rich musical traditions, avant-garde greats both old and new, unreleased gems from wider Latin America and more

Oksana Linde in 1985, photo by Mardonio Díaz

Buh Records, in operation for almost two decades under founder Luis Alvarado, offers a comprehensive perspective on left-field Peruvian music both old and new. If something is released via the label, it’s because it’s either the first time it’s ever been published or it’s something that’s been hitherto obscure or difficult to access. “I am interested in discovering new music, which applies to [both] traditional and avant-garde,” he tells tQ.

A music lover from childhood, Alvarado spent his formative years at concerts in Lima and was soon associating with an underground circuit of rock, punk, and metal bands. A breakthrough moment for him was reading a book called Music In Peru when he was 18. “It opened a world of important music to me, especially Peruvian academic music from the 50s,” he says. Much of what emerged as most interesting to him was not easily accessible; his desire to know more fed into the aims of the work that followed.

He began with an alternative music fanzine called Autobus, of which only two editions were published, along with compilations on CDr which were the first to feature the Buh Records logo, an image of a ghost. “The name is an onomatopoeia for ‘Boo’, the sound that ghosts make, and the label’s concept is that it is a scary music label.” After branching out into organising concerts, friends then began to ask Alvarado to release their albums too. First releasing in 2004, Buh grew from CDrs to professional CDs, and later vinyl.

There are several series woven through the Buh catalogue. The Essential Sounds collection, for instance, explores fundamental works in the Peruvian avant-garde. “Edgar Valcárcel or Arturo Ruiz del Pozo are undoubtedly important artists,” says Alvarado. “They have had a moment of great recognition, but I believe that in Peru, there has never been a record label dedicated to avant-garde music that could give more impetus to their productions, so many of their recordings were archived, and what I have published is perhaps the least known side”.

The catalogue also includes records dedicated to Afro-Peruvian music – ensembles like Los Hermanos Ballumbrosio and Mis Ancestros, and individual players like Juan Medrano Cotito and Julio ‘Chocolate’ Algendones. Elsewhere there are collections of sound art, works made by artists such as Jorge Eduardo Eielson, Teresa Burga, and Sergio Zevallos – figures usually better known for their visual art whose adventures in sound are less accessible and well-researched. Due to issues in infrastructure when it comes to specialised labels across wider South America, he has also ventured into non-Peruvian artists such as Venezuala’s Oksana Linde, Colombia’s Jaqueline Nova and Ecuador’s Mesias Maiguashca.

Another part of the Buh catalogue is compilations, where even if there’s a genre in the title, the label focus on the spaces inbetween. “Compilations allow us to document a period, [but] they are not precisely clear periods. Many people did not even identify those periods until they appeared in a compilation,” says Alvarado, who’ll embark on detective work, connecting the dots, looking for contacts, and interviewing people until he finally arrives at a selection of tracks and a text that are coherent.

There is something current about compilations, he continues. “Releases like [underground 1980s and 90s electronica compilation] Síntomas De Techno, [disco-focused] Viva El S​á​bado, or [experimental collection] Territorio Del Eco speak of a time, but reflect current obsessions in the music scene. They activate memory and are possible because the present era resonates with that specific past.”

The search is always a complex process – in Peru, there are no sound libraries or institutional archives of recordings, and material from labels in the 60s and 70s are often poorly preserved. Much from the worlds of soundtracks, theatre, live recordings and electronica are available only on limited edition cassettes if they were released at all. Alvarado spends much of his time digitising those cassettes and reel to reels. Elsewhere he’ll be faced with hours of recordings that he hones down into more concise releases, as with Miguel Flores and Oksana Linde. “It’s like being a kind of producer, thinking about a good destination for the recordings, a good selection”.

Last but not least, Buh is also releasing music that’s brand new, some from Peru or by Peruvian expats, including electronic experimenter Ale Hop, psych explorers Búho Ermitaño, electronic punk Varsovia, but also from other scenes entirely such as Chinese noise artist Li Jianhong, Czech band Gurun Gurun, and French esotericist Baldruin. In nearly 150 releases across two decades, Buh’s discography is now vast indeed. Choosing just the ten highlights compiled below wasn’t easy.

Chocolate – ‘Conga Forte, Rico Cajón’ from Peru’s Master Percussionist (Perspectives On Afro-Peruvian Music. The Collection) (2019)

This album of work by Julio ‘Chocolate’ Algendones’ album inaugurated Buh’s Perspectives On Afro-Peruvian Music series, which aims to document the past and the present of regionally specific musical styles. Algendones, who comes from a community of poor rancheros, is a virtuoso cajón player, a traditional instrument from from Peru’s Black community that was introduced to flamenco music in the 80s. When he discovered his talent, he co-founded groups such as Peru Negro and Perujazz, pioneering fusing elements of traditional music with jazz. In 1990, in Las Vegas, Algendones, under the tutelage of British producer and publisher J. Blue Sheppard, he recorded a raw yet warm-sounding solo percussion album. Peru’s Master Percussionist is an immersive display of his techniques, where he brilliantly weaves Afro-Peruvian festejo rhythms with traditional Yoruba sounds and elements of Santería. ‘Conga Forte, Rico Cajón’ is a suite lasting a quarter of an hour, on which the musician supports himself with congas, building a mesmerising piece based on a repetitive but varied rhythm that grows faster and more intense, proving that simplicity can still sound diverse.

Miguel Flores – ‘Pachacuti’ from Primitivo {Essential Sounds collection} Vol 2 (1983)

Alongside Arturo Ruiz Del Pozo and Manongo Mujica, Miguel Flores was one of the most important representatives of Peru’s left-field music of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when musicians mixed modern compositional techniques with elements of folklore. Flores began by playing rock in the 1960s as a percussionist, and in the 1970s turned towards an exploration of Peruvian folk – at a time when the politics of the nationalist president Juan Velasto Alvarado widely promoted that genre. Pieces commissioned by choreographer Luciana Proaño are compiled on Primitivo, combining elements of folk music, improvisation, electronics, and psychedelia. ‘Pachacuti’ is a conceptual masterpiece that tells the story of ancient Peru, and its invasion by Spanish conquistadors. Here, Flores plays 14 guitars that are slowed down after recording and played back backwards, modulating the speed of the sound. He doesn’t use any effects on the guitars, the feedback arising solely from the impact of volume and distance from the speakers. The result is a unique study of guitar and references to Afro-Peruvian tradition.

Walter Smetak – ‘Áquas’ from Smetak (1974)

One of the most prominent figures in the Latin American music scene is Walter Smetak, who was born in Zurich and had Czech roots. He went to Brazil in 1937, where he became a conductor, and also invented his DIY instruments. He worked with Gilberto Gil and Tom Zé and became one of the key figures in the development of the tropicália movement. He created music based on graphic notation but also conducted research into Afro-Brazilian traditions, microtonality, and improvisation, using the ‘plásticas sonoras’ he created, instrument-sculptures made of PVC pipes, pumpkins, and polystyrene foam; in total he made around 150. ‘Áquas’ is one of the most extensive pieces on his 1974 album, produced by Caetano Veloso. It shows the fullest cross-section of his interests, from musique concrète, post-classical instrumental tunes to quasi-tropical sounds, lightly smoldering and reminiscent of the alchemical properties of water.

Jacqueline Nova – ‘Creación De La Tierra’ from Creación De La Tierra: Ecos Palpitantes De Jacqueline Nova (1964-1974) (1972)

Jaqueline Nova, who began learning piano when she was seven in the 50s and 60s, quickly broke into the conservative musical community in Colombia, when female musicians were mostly confined to roles as teachers. An out lesbian, she charted new paths in Latin America using amplifiers, filters, microphones, transformers, and oscillators. Her music was played by orchestras, and she also contributed to the visual arts, theatre, and cinema. She tested the boundaries of acoustic instruments, electronic sounds, and human speech. On ‘Creación De La Tierra’, based on vocal recordings of indigenous U’wa peoples of Northeastern Colombia, she interacts with found sound, modulating it without resistance and distorting it. The voice is constantly transforming and shifting, deliberately becoming less and less understandable. Nova perversely modulates the voice from the dominant group’s perspective, amplifying its sound-replicating voices. She reflects on the relationship between society and indigenous groups, questioning the political implications behind the intelligibility of speech, history, and place.

Jorge Eduardo Eielson – ‘Colores’ from Grabar Y Coagular – A history of Audio Pieces By Peruvian Artists (1972-2018) and La Materia Verbal – Antología De La Poesía Sonora Peruana (2022) (1972)

Buh has published two compilations dedicated to audio art and sound poetry, bringing together the experiments of different artists over several decades. On the one hand, they hark back to the investigations of the Dadaists or Futurists; on the other, they boldly experiment with transformations and voice modulation. Many of the pieces use technology to amplify voices and record them as testimony, which is significant in the context of a multilingual and multicultural country like Peru where oral traditions are important. The two records are linked by the piece ‘Colores’ by Jorge Eduardo Eielson, a poet and visual artist who became famous for his work exploring the quipu, a traditional Andean recording device consisting of a collection of colored strings made of cotton or llama and alpaca hair with knots. He classifies his composition as part of a trend called audiopinturas (audio paintings): vocal poetry experiments based on combinatorial analysis. ‘Colores’ is based on repeating the names of colours: red, yellow, green, and blue, using differing tones and emphases on each, a work inspired by serialist composition and conceptualism.

Ale Hop – ‘La Procesión’ from The Life of Insects (2021)

Alejandra Luciana Cárdenas, as Ale Hop, explores the boundaries of the guitar using modular synthesisers and what often verges on sound art. On The Life Of Insects, which came after she spent a month living with different types on insects in her home studio and recording them for the sound design of a film she was working on, she creates a sonic expression of their habitat. There are a lot of glitches and industrial walls on the album, the artist combining metallic, quasi-percussional layers, and developing a musical language comprised principally of guitar layers that mimic environmental and atmospheric sounds. In ‘La Procesión’, the music gravitates to the pace of such ritual movement -– from an ecstatic thickening wall of sound to a multi-layered, somewhat lyrical form in the finale.

Distorsi​ó​n Desequilibrada – ‘Ataque sensorial auditivo’ from Visiones De La Catástrofe – Documentos Del Noise Industrial En El Perú (1990 – 1995) {Essential Sounds collection} Vol 5 (1991)

The 1980s saw an explosion in the rock scene in Lima, which later split into post-punk, techno, and noise. Known as ‘The Lost Decade’, it saw political crises and increasing violence in the streets from both terrorists and the military, which were reflected in the unrest in the music scene, where there was an accumulation of harsh sound, nihilism, and darkness. Enormous walls of rough sound reflected the noise in the streets and a climate of terror, building an apocalyptic mood. ‘Ataque Sensorial Auditivo’ comes from the first demo by Distorsión Desequilibrada, recalling the achievements of Merzbow or KK Null. Due to a lack of equipment, the sound was generated on anything they had to hand: radio and television signal processors, throaty voices, feedback, any imaginable domestic artifact, vinyl and cassette tape collages, and banged-together metals. The result is a rough, overpowering and gripping wall of sound, distortion and noise.

Varsovia – ‘Entre Velas Encendidas’ from Diseñar Y Destruir (2022)

Varsovia, which take influence from the likes of Suicide and Chris & Cosey’s contemporary sound, became prominent in 2014 after their debut album Recursos Inhumanos. After focussing on solo projects before numerous line-up reshuffles, it was a long wait for the followup. After a reissue of their debut by Buh in 2020, the dark industrial sound of last year’s Diseñar Y Destruir is the canvas for a concept album telling the story of Peru in the 1980s, as defined by blackouts, bombings and the uncertainty of living amid armed conflict in a city lost in the chaos. The whole thing opens with ‘Hablemos Claramente’ with a sampled voice of General Juan Velasco Alvarado. Later on, the band plays intense EBM. With a motoric, driving beat, synth layers, and guitar riffs, vocalist Sheri Corleone tells the story of a city gripped by terror in the 1980s, images that are still remarkably relevant today.

Oksana Linde – ‘Mariposas Acuáticas’ from Aquatic And Other Worlds [1983-1989] (2022)

Oksana Linde’s recordings are another example of Buh stepping outside the national field and showcasing the lush wider Latin American scene, particularly its oft-overlooked female players. Linde first began exploring her passion for music while working at the Venezuelan Institute For Scientific Research in the 1970s but only two of her tracks were previously released. There was no social and economic support for them, and they soon disappeared in a flurry of male composers like Ángel Rada, Miguel Noya, and Oscar Caraballo. In 2019, Luis Alvarado encountered Linde’s work on Facebook, leading to the reissue of music she’d recorded between 1983 and 1989. The compositions on Aquatic And Other Worlds [1983-1989] were created using a Polymoog, a Casio CZ-1, a Moog Source, and various other synthesisers. ‘Mariposas Acuáticas’ (‘Aquatic Butterflies’) is a miniature composed in the spirit of kosmische music, which gradually unfolds through delicate seductive arpeggios, in which bass lines build the background against which seductive melodies and harmonies enchant the front.

Rollets – ‘Patinado’ from Viva El Sábado: Hits De Disco Pop Peruano (1978-1989) (1980)

This album takes its name from a music video program that Panamericana Televisión broadcast between the 80s and 90s, which <a href=”” target=”out”>Alvarado says was a substitute for a nightclub at home, bringing colour to a grey reality where violence and anxiety dominated. Disco, heavily centered around the Iempsa record label, transitioned from a fascination with rock to an interest in tropical music and salsa. Viva El Sábado is the most pop-oriented release yet in the Buh Records catalogue, which perfectly demonstrates the limitlessness of this label (as well as the beginning of a series of immersions into disco in Peru). A great example of the turn from rock to disco comes from the brothers Saúl and Manuel Cornejo, who played in Laghonia in the early 1970s and later formed the band All Together, inspired by British psychedelic and progressive rock. Taking advantage of the fashion for roller discos, they recorded the tracks ‘Patinado’ and ‘Lady Rock’ in 1980, where Saúl took care of bass, guitars, Hammond organ, piano, and synthesizers, while Manuel played percussion and vibraphone, building a unique disco sound from live instruments. As a result ‘Patinado’ is a proper boogie-era disco hit with a crisp beat and shimmering swirling keyboard parts, guitar, and Malena Calisto’s endearing vocals. It was such a national success that the Cornejo brothers released an LP early the following year even though the fad for roller discos had passed.

Buh Records is a partner of this year’s COSMOS, an online platform of Le Guess Who? festival which takes place from 9 to 12 November.

Luis Alvarado will premiere his documentary Noise Rites, which explores Lima’s underground experimental scene on 12 November. Find out more here

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