As everyone knows, the one thing you really shouldn’t do with music is categorise it. Why bracket something of limitless possibility and permutation as if it were just a sterile supermarket brand? Why restrict it within the worded guff of some corporate twonk obsessed with marketing and sales performance? Music should be free, man! But sadly the reality is that categorisation is necessary when it comes to talking or writing about music (try explaining a sound without referring to any style), while also being pretty important in matters of self-identity and individual expression. You may not like it but that’s the way it is.
So, it’s always nice to remember that there are those out there who remain unrestricted by an imposed tag or so-called ‘market appeal’. The sensational Ondatropica project is one such example, featuring the talents of UK musician and producer Will Holland, better known as Quantic, alongside Colombian cumbia-experimentalist Mario Galeano of Frente Cumbiero. Supported by some of the finest musicians to currently grace the South American music scene, it’s no surprise that Ondatropica has been making big waves recently.
According to the Ondatropica website, the project ‘exists to explore and expand the tropical sound of Colombia in its rawest form and to marry it with the cool sound of London’. As typically happens with labelling, this description simplifies things (any idea what the ‘cool sound of London’ is?) and does little justice to the enthrallingly wide range of influences that characterise the group’s debut album. The word ‘fusion’ is often pretty liberally applied but in the case of the Ondatropica sound, which laces Colombian cumbia and traditional coastal sounds with salsa, bossa nova, jazz, funk, hip-hop, afrobeat, electro and dub, to name a few, it seems a fair term with which to describe the music.
For Holland and Galeano, the two leaders of the group, this is a natural progression from previous work. Quantic’s shift into Latin music began after Holland moved to the Colombian city of Cali in 2007 and launched Flowering Inferno, a blend of native roots music over dubby beats and bass-lines, followed by the afro-latino sounds of Combo Bárbero. Both took influence from the music of Colombia’s coasts, featuring local musicians and songs based in the rhythms and vocals that characterise the region. Galeano’s involvement in Ondatropica comes off the back of Frente Cumbiero’s alliance with Mad Professor which resulted in 2010’s excellent Meets album. Also on board are the likes of singer Markkitos Micolta, owner of one of the most distinctive voices in Pacific folklore, trumpeter Jorge Gaviria who has played and recorded with pretty much everyone in the world, and pianist and composer Alfredito Linares, a legend of tropical South American music who is behind some of its best-known tunes.
With such an impressive line-up (singer Nidia Góngora of Grupo Canalon de Timbiquí and renowned musician and ‘Recochan Boy’ Wilson Viveros are just two more), it’s no surprise that Ondatropica is one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year but does that mean it’s any good? As soon as the opening tune “Tiene Sabor, Tiene Sazòn” opens up, the answer slams into you like a train into a school bus. This is an absolutely sizzling tropical sound that sparks off in all kinds of whirling directions, but one that, with its modern brew of influences, carries an urban undercoating that transplants itself nicely to the rain-sodden and grime-strewn streets of, oh I don’t know, London for instance. Although best listened to under a palm, in a hammock and sucking on a piña colada, this also sounds pretty sweet while wading through the quagmire of daily graft.
There are some exquisite tunes, those that reflect the coastal harmony of the Caribbean and others that stir the hipster gene with their crafty cultural references and inner-city beats. The cumbia comes thick and fast in the likes of “Punkero Sonido”, “Gaita Trópica” and “Locomotora Borracha”, songs whose pulsating rhythms blend in fresh innovations and inject the classic cumbia sound with numerous external styles, making the album a scintillating joyride through all manner of vivid musical landscape. Other tunes like “El Caimán y El Gallinazo” and “Curro Fuentes” are a throwback to the fifties tropical scene that sent electric volts throughout the Latin music world.
In other places the album excels in its diversity. One of the numerous standout tunes is “Suena”, featuring Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, a delicious blend of hip hop and tropical vibes in celebration of Latin American solidarity. There’s plenty of vigour in “Ska Fuentes”, which dashes in with the hard-paced grooves that the song title suggests. Things get trippy with the vocal beats and dub echoes of “3 Reyes de La Terapía”, another personal favourite. The excellent “Libya” sounds like two rival tribes of geese getting feisty before slipping into a beautiful melodic courtship of angry bird unity. Stretched over a whopping twenty-six songs, there are one or two moments that fall a little short of the remarkably high standard on show but they are minor. The scale of ambition is impressive enough but the execution is mind-blowing on the vast majority of the album.
With its stellar cast of musicians, I’ve heard the term ‘super-group’ used in reference to Ondatropica but this conjures up, in my mind at least, images of fading and forgotten old rockers cashing in on their dwindling fame one final time, so I’d prefer to paraphrase that expression with ‘brilliant band’. Ondatropica have delivered an album of startling quality and animation that crosses the musical spectrum in a relentless blend of Latin grooves, global beats and universal flourishes. Whether taking to the dancefloor, such a vital aspect of tropical music, or just sitting back to enjoy the ride, there is no denying that this is a modern masterpiece.
You can currently listen to the album in full at facebook.com/SoundwayRecords/app_190322544333196