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The uncanny valley of Ondatropica’s ‘Baile Bucanero’

| Wednesday, March 29, 2017

ondatropicaWEBJoseph Han

Generally, writers abstain from reviewing music which they feel unqualified to discuss. But is there such a thing as being overqualified in this regard? I may be overqualified, as a Colombian, to address cumbia super-group Ondatropica’s sophomore record. Perhaps this will make me excessively opinionated, but in this case, such strong opinions may be warranted.

This is, put simply, because the record flies too close to the sun and leaves the rest of Colombia to bite the dust. Following the ensemble’s massive self-titled debut, “Baile Bucanero” is a more compact — an hour as opposed to 100 minutes — yet more ambitious record. While “Ondatropica” attempted a faithful and polished reinterpretation of Colombian cumbia — looking inwardly, at the national spirit, for inspiration — “Baile Bucanero” looks outward. Recorded in Bogota and on the island of Providencia, the album fuses traditional tropes with plentiful outsourced material.

While drawing unreservedly from such styles as reggae and calypso, Ondatropica also injects the record with an unusual dosage of synthetic instrumentation on tracks like “Commotion” and “Estar Contigo.” On paper, “Baile Bucanero” takes the idea of Latin fusion to its logical extreme. Hence its culturally eclectic setting: a remote Colombian island, settled originally by the British, that is now home to the largely English-speaking Afro-Caribbean ethnic group known as the Raizal people.

Now, let’s get this straight: The record often sounds great, and there is nothing wrong with its attempts at musical innovation. The joyful “De Mar a Mar” is perhaps the group’s all-time best track, uplifting with its seafaring steel guitar and idyllic aural themes; it happens to be among the less musically mish-mashed tracks as well. Many of the more centrally instrumental tracks, including “Hummingbird” and “Caldo Parao,” are also memorable and well executed. Even “Bogota” — lush if conceptually flawed — is decently enjoyable.

What’s the catch, then? Well, that the record is a problematic mess — often to a comical and cringe-inducing degree. Granted, this awareness comes from my cultural literacy as a native Colombian. As far as the record’s problems are concerned, hardly any uninitiated listener would be able to identify them. But the problem, precisely, is that this is not a problem.

There is a reason behind the fact that Ondatropica does not worry about alienating a potential Colombian audience — a notion that underscores its unsavory vision as a musical collective. Simply put, Ondatropica does not perform Colombian music. Instead, what the group has arranged — especially on “Baile Bucanero” — is world music.

The line is fine but the difference is polar. This music is not for Colombian consumption but rather marketed to a global audience. (The label charges eight dollars to ship the record from England; it is not sold in Colombian stores.) The result is an album that sounds good but just doesn’t feel right. Like other world music, “Baile Bucanero” is a sanitized reflection of a musical culture — or, in this case, several fused together — rather than an organic product thereof.

You need only consider the collective’s leadership: Will Holland, a white man from the United Kingdom, and Mario Galeano, a white man from Bogota.

Hopefully it goes without saying that there is something jarring about a British guy producing critically-acclaimed, would-be Colombian cumbia. But Galeano is not off the hook, either. Though known internationally as a skilled cumbia musician, Galeano has decried the fact that his oeuvre isn’t up to Colombian radio snuff. Yet, as someone from Colombia’s Atlantic coast — where the Afro-Colombian population gave birth to cumbia — it’s obvious to me why a white man from the interior would lack the skill set required to compose cumbia music. Cumbia requires a certain innate groove that we “costenos” know that “cachacos” — or people from Bogota — lack. That’s why the idea of a joyous cumbia track about the gloomy, gridlocked capital is about as laughably paradoxical as a gritty hip-hop mixtape titled “Straight Outta Tulsa.”

To be fair, Holland and Galeano are passably good at what they do. But should they be doing it? While artists from around the world should feel encouraged to draw from various musical styles, marketing Ondatropica to a global audience as a Colombian product feels dishonest — especially since the “world music” designation grants their record disproportionate international currency. As it stands, “Baile Bucanero” is closer to cultural appropriation than the product of honest inspiration, tricking its audience as a result.

Imagine if “Straight Outta Tulsa” were performed by a troupe of white suburban mothers, yet were marketed globally as the definitive hip-hop mixtape. You would be skeptical. And, as far as Ondatropica is concerned, so am I.


Artist: Ondatropica

Album: “Baile Bucanero”

Label: Soundway Records

Favorite Track: “De Mar a Mar,” “Bogota”

If you like: Carlos Vives, Celia Cruz

Shamrocks: 3 out of 5

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