Crushing With Joy, Grupo Alegría

Crushing With Joy, Grupo Alegría

To talk about Grupo Alegría is to propose an approach to the origins of Andean cumbia, to return to the times in which big ‘chicha’ bands took over the capital and wrote the final soundtrack to an epoch of great hopes, passion and pain. It also means talking about the emergence of Andean cumbia, which, contrary to popular belief, did not occur from the periphery of Lima, but 300 km inland, on the heights of Huancayo.

In the mid-70s, the rock scene in this central andean city —where bands such as La V Rebelion or Los Datsuns stood out— was being displaced by the emerging Peruvian cumbia, in which the electric guitar took the spotlight. The psychedelic and rhythmic guitar playing by Los Destellos' founder Enrique Delgado was fundamental in this change. A new style was born from the combination of cumbia and music genres from the highlands such as huayno: tropical Andean music, or simply ‘chicha’, like the sacred drink of the Incas.

Soon, these young Huancaino rockers who at that time had acquired electric guitars to play rock, realized that the future headed towards a different direction. One of these young musicians was Augusto Bernardillo, who, at the time, played in short-lived rock band ‘Acido’. His destiny, however, would change when the leader of the cumbia group Los Diamantes convinces him to join his band.

In 1979, Augusto, at the time a forestry engineering major in college, decided to start his own band along with Victor Guzman, then percussionist for Los Jíbaros (a band in which Julio Simeón “Chapulín, el Dulce” would get his start in music, shortly before forming legendary band, Los Shapis). Guzmán, also a rocker, in addition to collecting LPs by Deep Purple, Alice Cooper and Van Halen, also owned albums by Los Destellos, Grupo Andaluz, Grupo Melodia and Los Titanes. Both musicians then became tied by the same influences, music taste and a family bond: they became brothers-in-law. Thus, both of them form Grupo Alegría, a duo with more than 10 years of successes that would result in some of the elementary themes of Andean cumbia.

A long list of musicians would join them throughout their career. However, the most stable were Arturo Cueva on bass, José Cerrón on guitar, and Eloy Balbín on keyboards. The three participated in the recording of the debut album. During their first months, vocals were in charge of Rody Jiménez, who would later form the Sentimiento Group. Then vocalist Ismael Aliaga, ‘Mael’, would join the band. The first recorded track was Triste Realidad, published by the Silver label. For Discos Horoscopo, the band recorded two 45s, with songs like La Rosa Blanca, which was a huayno turned into cumbia. Today those records are gems coveted by collectors.

At that time, in parallel to the Grupo Alegría, Mael formed Los Millonarios, a move that generated suspicion in Bernardillo. The situation got complicated due to a duel concert between the two bands. That same day, after singing with Los Millonarios and while waiting for his turn with Grupo Alegría, Mael got replaced with a charismatic young man, responsible for carrying the band's gear: Alejandro Pacheco, the popular ‘Alin’.

Small fighter

A fan of Leo Dan and Kike Balarezo of Los Ecos, ‘Alin’ would become one of the best voices of chicha. Considered a cumbia heartthrob, magazines described the Alin phenomenon like this: "The fifteen-year-olds who attend the dances sigh for him and make efforts to take a picture with him that they could take as a souvenir," describes a magazine article. A humble Alin replied: “I have my fans, but nothing more. The image I project is only for the stage. It has nothing to do with who I really am”. Grupo Alegría, thus, began the best stage of its career. But it was necessary to conquer the capital. Hired by promoter Aquilino Ramos, they played a concert in Lima that turned out to be a disappointment; only “4 couples and a gum seller” showed up, Alin recalls. A few blocks away, Los Shapis were blowing up a show at a beach called Asunción. Amazed, Bernardillo and Alin make a promise: “We have to be like them. Why not? They appeared after us after all”, they say to each other.

After releasing some 45’ rpm albums, Grupo Alegría's opportunity to record its long-awaited first LP finally arrive in 1983. Released by Discos Horoscopo, "Arrollando con Alegría", was their first step to achieve the conquest of Lima and prevail as one of the icons of tropical Andean music.

The LP was recorded in a couple of sessions. They were joined by the ‘mafia’, a set of renowned session of musicians hired by the label. Among them was Ricardo Hinostroza, known as "Papita" (who died in the tragic accident along with members of the band Nectar in 2007), and the great Paco Zambrano. The sessions were complicated: at times they did not have enough money to transport or feed themselves. Sometimes, in a room for three, five had to fit somehow. At the studio, Alin gets nervous, but Augusto gives him the necessary confidence: "You do what you have to do." However, the experienced ‘Papita’ would then ask: “Who is going to sing, that little skinny guy over there? What is he going to sing? Are you going to sing, son?”. But once in front of the mic, Alin is able to record 12 songs in an hour and a half. It was his first time in a studio.

The album’s greatest hit was "El Solterito", although it can be found as "El Solitario" on the back cover of the LP. The song was written by timpanist and composer Alberto Remuzgo, who only had to whistle the melody and the guitar parts to Bernardillo. The initial title of the song was "El Sacolargo", and a line in the chorus was meant to say "I am sacolargo" (I am whipped), instead of "Estoy soltero” (I am single). The lyrics were changed by Bernardillo himself, who made the arrangements.

The popularity of Grupo Alegría in the chicha scene was reaching levels never seen before. This was reflected in their famous duel with Los Shapis at the stadium of one of Peru’s most popular soccer teams, Alianza Lima. It was Pedro Santisteban, the owner of this venue, who let them stay at an apartment in La Victoria district for a while. There, every Sunday night, the boys from Grupo Alegría, Los Shapis, Maravilla and Vico y su Grupo Karicia met to drink and hang out, all while remembering their beloved Huancayo.

Is it a sin?

In the middle of the 1985 electoral campaign, Discos Horóscopo was contacted by a senior official of the APRA party, the oldest political organization in the country then at the gates of power for the first time. Their proposal was for Grupo Alegría to record a song for the candidacy of a young militant named Alan García. "Alan García Pérez, President of Peru, Alan García Pérez and the great Victor Raúl", said the sticky chorus of this song, with lyrics provided by the party.

Grupo Alegría went to perform "Alan García" in front of APRA leaders and at the Casa del Pueblo, the party’s venue founded by Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre. That year, García was elected president (no one would imagine that, 34 years later, he would shoot himself in the head the morning police entered his house to arrest him for a corruption case). With Garcia in power, Grupo Alegria received another assignment: to record the theme for a commercial
about popular bread.

On October 26 of that year, the group celebrated their sixth year anniversary with a massive concert at the Amauta Coliseum, one of the main venues in the country, where only bands like Soda Stereo and Indochine would sell out again in the coming years. Despite this, Alin's days in the group were numbered. In 1987, after having recorded four more albums with Grupo Alegria, Alin received the proposal of Markahuasi Producciones to form a new band in which he would have more creative and economic independence. This new band was titled after the production house and had Alcides Casas, Grupo Alegría’s rhythm guitarist since 1984, join them.

To remedy the loss, singer Miguel Mendoza ‘Maik’ got recruited for one more album under Discos Horoscopo: Estilo inconfundible. The following LPs would come under labels Prodisar and Dalma.


Because of a fight

Fame, excess and temptation affected the band. In 1992, there was a break between Augusto Bernardillo and Víctor Guzmán due to family problems. The later would end up joining Maik in Maik and Los Sensuales. Bernardillo would continue his career, again with Alin, until the end of the 90s. During that time, he generated controversy among his followers after merging Grupo Alegría with Los Jinetes del Amor and adopting a style closer to technocumbia, so fashionable in the last years of the regime of the former president and today prisoner, Alberto Fujimori.
Our love will never come back

The band’s later history was not, precisely, of joy. In 2010, Bernardillo fell from the third floor of his house and was had serious brain and spine injuries that left him prostrated to a wheelchair. Other problems arose. Newer bands legally used the name Alegría (with some variants), such as the one led by Victor Guzman, former composer of the original band. This generated confusion in fans and ended in a judicial mess that led Bernardillo to be arrested for using the name of the group he founded

Today, in 2019 —that is 40 years after this story began—, Bernardillo and Guzman have reunited to play despite the conflicts. We have this album to remember the greatest time of the creators of the popular ‘Estilo A’.

Fernando Pinzás.