Saturday, July 28, 2012
ONDATROPICA (Soundway, 2012)
It went a long way since its rural origins in colonial Northern Colombia, until it moved down to the city to experience its golden age in the '60s and '70s thanks in big part to Discos Fuentes. Then it vanished from the Colombian mainstream while simultaneously gaining millions of fans in such diverse places of Latin America as Mexico, Peru and Argentina, where the genre (with its new local variations and adaptations) became the preferred music of the proletariat. All this time the musical lingua franca of the Latin American working classes lacked any sort of interest or support from the snobby (predominantly eurocentric) taste-makers and critics who shunned the genre as kitsch and lowbrow disposable music for the undereducated. The English-speaking half of the world, completely ignored its existence. Then in the late '80s and '90s a new generation of Latin American rockers (and punk rockers) started to experiment with the genre, incorporating it "ironically" to their sets. This, in its turn led to a whole other generation of bedroom producers and DJs to take up the task in the new millennium creating ñu-cumbia, a whole internet-based scene coming out simultaneously from the big cities in Mexico, Argentina and the US. Halfway throughout the first decade of the current century British DJs, producers and diggers caught up with what was going on in Latin America and kicked off a whole phenomenon of unprecedented global crossover for cumbia. The genre, for the first time, reached the so-called first world dancefloors and prestigious DJs and progressively-minded boutique record labels (like UK-based Soundway) turned their ears toward Colombia as the new untapped source of exotic Latin music for export. This, of course, sparked a boom of sudden interest in Afro-Colombian musical roots amongst the Colombian youth who had been ignoring the genre for the past three decades.
And here we are now, at the peak of ñu-cumbia's renaissance, with the genre's most ambitious opus ever conceived. Recorded at the genre's historic source: the legendary Discos Fuentes studios, in Medellin, Colombia. Produced by a Colombian digger who pretty much spearheaded the ñu-cumbia emergence in his country after following its evolution throughout the continent, along with a British big name producer and taste-maker who has been instrumental in spreading the cumbia gospel throughout the Anglophone world. Together, Frente Cumbiero's Mario Galeano Toro and Will "Quantic" Holland took upon themselves the challenge and responsibility of creating what could easily end up being labeled cumbia's ultimate masterpiece. In it, many of the legends who are still alive from cumbia's golden age (Aníbal Velásquez, Fruko, Michi Sarmiento) collaborate with representatives of the new generation who had discovered cumbia through the prism of hip-hop's music recyclability. Not coincidentally, the ending result, a beautifully packaged triple LP (historically cumbia albums never received this kind of special treatment, most didn't even include liner notes and replaced the artist's photos with girls in bikinis) had to be pressed in Great Britain (the project was, in fact, funded by the British Council). Full circle indeed.
All of this is of undeniable historic significance. Well, what about the music?
Ondatropica is not a band, it's a studio experiment and as such lacks the sort of immortal compositions that only come out after years of rehearsing and playing gigs together. This is understandable, it was done within a very restricted timeline, with guests that came and went through the studio and for the most part didn't know each other. So expecting otherwise would be fatuous. At times it feels underproduced, as spontaneous studio jams, almost recorded live. That's exactly what it is. Of course, this helps highlight the amazing skills of some extremely talented musicians with up to five decades of tenure in the recording business, and the vision of the producers who called the shots on the go. There are moments of undeniable genius, and fortunately they are multiple. But there are also some tracks that could've probably benefitted from more work or post-production. I guess the premise was to reflect the studio experiment as a whole and trying to replicate the atmosphere of the moment on wax, which is certainly achieved.
Now, here's the paradox: even though both producers come from a DJ background, this is not a DJ-oriented album per se. There are no obvious big club tunes here and honestly, the packaging is so nice, that I don't know if I wanna take it out with me to my gigs. But both of them are also renowned diggers and this is in essence a digger's wet dream of an album. They basically put together the tunes that they would go crazy for if they found on an old dusty pile of records at a garage sale in Cartagena. So much so that they took the effort of recreating the sound and aesthetics of the sought-after golden era recordings. They even recorded the whole session in analog, on a four track, and made very clear that the vinyl edition did not, at any point, got digitized. It went straight from reel to reel tape to mastering to pressing. No protools, bitches. Ever.
So yeah, it has an overall old-fashioned feeling, but at the same time it aims forward. It's as if their intention was to re-write the Afro-Colombian tropical cannon from scratch, connecting the best of the progressive old-school directly to the present and the future, skipping (and ignoring) all the dark period of decline and assembly-line commercialization that happened in the middle.
Overall it was a delight listening the album from beginning to end and I figure it's one of those that will inevitably grow on me even more with successive plays. As a bonus, if all this historic significance wasn't enough, the album includes an impromptu guest appearance of my dear friend, and one of my all-time favorite artists, Ana Tijoux, and as far as I'm concerned, this is the very first time her voice was pressed on vinyl!
To all of those who thought that cumbia's revival was just a passing trend for hipsters and bloggers what can I say other than tough titties, I wish you better luck next time you try predicting music trends. Cumbia is here to stay and this is just the beginning.
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