Press your ear against Ondatropica's wall of classic, polyrhythmic Colombian sound and chances are you'll pick up on more than a few styles at work. But the eclecticism is more than cultural, it's also generational. The core 12-piece band of Cumbia musicians playing Sunday at the Mayan Theater (presented by Mochilla and ArtDontSleep) was established with the goal of a musical timeline using key players in the genre--from heroes of the '50s and '60s right up to guys like Will 'Quantic' Holland, who assembled the group with Mario Galeano last year.
The plan was to re-interpret the tropical musical heritage of Colombia with new approaches in composition, arrangement and production in a historic and mythical setting. What emerged was a live-recorded, 2-CD set of songs that the band will draw from on Sunday. It's an undertaking that both Holland and Galeano were already building on--both with Holland's work with his band's Quantic and Combo Barbaro and Galleano's Frente Cumbiero. But the idea of putting a massive list of iconic old-timers like Michi Sarmiento and Mario Rincon and together with young musicians in their 20s and 30s in one room is certainly the biggest step in their progressive exploration of Colombian music.
The style gravitates towards traditional music from places like Buenaventura and traditional music from the country's northern coast. While the recording of the group's first album only took about three weeks in January, getting some of the older players to come out of the woodwork was probably the most time consuming aspect of the project.
"Some of them knew what they were in for, we had a relationship already and it was quite easy to convince them," says Holland in a recent phone conversation. "There were others that we didn't have those relationships with. But when we told some of the older guys that we'd just be recording in a room and it wasn't gonna be a reggaeton thing and they wouldn't be reading a ton of music but just playing their instruments, I think they got excited about it."
The record was done in one room, a fairly historic one, inside the aged wooden walls of Disco Fuentes Studios, one of the country's first recording studios and labels in Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia. At a pace of about three recordings a day, Holland says that the long hours of recording in tight quarters with so many musicians of different ages and backgrounds was interesting to watch.
"The young guys were really challenged by working alongside guys who had so much reputation, that was really nice to see their adaptation to the older members. And in reverse, the older musicians really had to find their youthful flow again and play music that was quite energetic."
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The record is a mix of older standards and new compositions from Holland and Galleano that combine Cumbia's African, Latin and European folkloric roots--flush with flutes, piano and accordion-- along with smatterings of electronic influence and hip-hop drums. Over the course of the recording, the core band was joined by a wide range of musicians that numbered about 42 in all, some of whom will be on stage on Sunday night, including the group's oldest member, 83-year-old Pedro "Ramaya" Beltran, a progressive Colombian musician who Holland says hasn't visited the States since 1969. Given the amount of history sprawled out on stage at the Mayan, Holland and Galeano's ability to see the project through won't soon be forgotten by fans who come out on Sunday.
"It was a risk," Holland says. "But we've definitely stepped up the kind of work we're doing from the stuff with Combo Barbaro it's definitely a natural progression of what I've been going for now for a while."
Ondatropica performs with Very Be Careful, Buyepongo, Chicano Batman and more, Sunday, July 29, at the Mayan Theater; 1038 S. Hill St., Los Angeles, www.clubmayan.com. (213) 746-4674.$20 advance, $25 at the door. 7p.m.-1a.m. 21+.