Los Wembler’s come from Iquitos, a city of half a million people in the heart of the Amazon, the largest city in the world that is completely inaccessible by road. As the band says, Iquitos can only be reached by boat, by plane—or by radio waves. And like the city they call home, the music Los Wembler’s pioneered nearly 50 years ago is deeply rooted in the sounds and rhythms of the Amazon and yet full of unexpected connections to the currents of international music.
In 1968, Iquitos shoemaker Solomon Sanchez formed a band with his five sons, Misael, Alberto, Jairo, Emerson, and Jair. The family already played music in their church—and mother Flor de Maria was a fine soprano—but Solomon was moved to venture into new sonic territory. The band drew on local folk music genres like chimaychi, tahuampa, and pandilla, sounds that were rooted in indigenous Amazonian traditions but were widely embraced in the mestizo culture of the expanding metropole. They broke new ground by incorporating electric guitar. They were inspired, too, by popular sounds from the radio: Afro-Latin rhythms like the Colombian cumbia, Ecuadorean sanjuanitos, and Brazilian carimbó, as well as the psychedelia and surf-rock of Southern California. Over this musical mélange, they layered the sounds of the jungle, from the vocalizations of parrots to the cascading, percussive footfalls of ants. They dubbed themselves Los Wembler’s, an invented name that, like the band itself, referenced both global influence (Britain’s Wembley Stadium) and the local Huambisa tribe (“wem” and “huam” sounding the same to the band’s ears)—and they added the “-’s” because “it seemed more rock and roll.” Their first hit, “Cumbia Amazónica,” gave their new sound its name, and a distinctively Peruvian genre was born.
Despite their physical isolation, in the 1970s Los Wembler’s cumbia amazónica became a Peruvian phenomenon after their hits were covered by Los Mirlos, a band based in the capital city of Lima. Los Wembler’s then toured extensively across Peru, and released a dizzying array of hit records throughout the decade before settling back in to Iquitos, where they have remained a musical mainstay ever since. Now, cumbia amazónica has experienced a resurgence, and Los Wembler’s have inspired a new generation of musicians playing Peruvian styles of cumbia. In 2015, the five Sanchez brothers (and longtime bandmate Carlos Sanchez, no relation) were invited to take part in the celebration of Peruvian culture at the prestigious Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and now they make a triumphant return to the States and beyond, taking the sounds of the Amazon worldwide.