Mario, Will, should we see Ondatropica as the Colombian answer to Buena Vista Social Club?
Mario Galeano (bass): "No, that's not really what we were going for. Buena Vista arrived at the height of the world music craze and thus became a format for other bands featuring veteran musicians. In our view these musicians shouldn't be limited to that format, because with their experience they have far more to offer than just repeating old standards. Apart from that, for Ondatropica, we tried to bring different generations together to create something refreshing and new; we don't play old classics, but have focused on a whole new repertoire of our own."
Will Holland (accordion, guitar): "Describing Ondatropica that way would be more of an example of lazy journalism than anything else; not only because of what Mario just said, but also because it kind of implies that there isn't much difference between the music of Buena Vista and that of Ondatropica, when in reality Cuban and Colombian rhythms are worlds apart. One of the reasons we created Ondatropica is just because we want the world to know Latin-America has more too offer than Cuban music."
You recorded the album in the Discos Fuentes studio in Medellin, a place you compared with iconic studios like Motown in Detroit or Studio 1 in Kingston. In what kind of condition did you find the studio?
Will Holland: "Structurally it's still pretty sound; it's an historic place that symbolizes the birth of the music industry in Colombia, and more specifically that of Medellin. During the eighties, which was a difficult time for tropical music, things started to dilapidate and today the equipment isn't really up to scratch anymore. When we were working there it really felt like the end of an era."
Why did you decide to release two versions of the album?
Mario Galeano: "Well, we actually recorded around 35 tracks, and even on the deluxe version of the album that consists of two discs, there are only 26, so there's still a lot of material we haven't released. Apart from that, we wanted to offer something to everyone's taste; you have people who just want to listen to the music, but others also like to read the story behind the project and get to know the musicians."
For this project you brought a whole host of older and younger musicians together. Was this a one-time deal or will there be a sequel?
Will Holland: "For this record we got a grant from the British Council, which meant our budget was ten times what it would have been otherwise, so even in that perspective the whole process was kind of unique. We'd definitely like to take this further though; we'll just have to see what the future will bring."
Mario Galeano: "We're both involved in various other projects (Quantic, Frente Cumbiero), so it's also a matter of finding the time and, as far as Ondatropica is concerned, personally I really wouldn't want to rush things. We certainly won't be pressured into recording another album; when the time is right it will happen."
What makes the project interesting from a musical perspective is that you didn't just focus on popular genres like cumbia or salsa, but also introduced lesser known Colombian genres like porro, gaita and bullerengue.
Will Holland: "With Ondatropica we wanted to focus on that unique blend of European and African influences you can find in Colombia. In the Pacific side of the country you have more African influenced styles like currulao, bunde and aguabajo. These are genres that are a bit harder to grasp at first, in part because they have a 6/8 rhythm instead of a 2/2."
Mario Galeano: "On the Atlantic side you have genres like puya, gaita and bullerengue, which are all distant cousins of cumbia. I guess you could consider cumbia as being the mother of all these genres. Colombia is quite a big country, so the musical styles you will find there are as diverse as the landscape, that both in instrumentation and rhythm."
You guys worked with a number of Colombian legends for Ondatropica, what made Michi Sarmiento (Born into a musical family in 1938 - his father Climaco Sarmiento played sax and clarinet in the orquestras of both Lucho Bermudez and Pacho Galan, and would later become one of the in-house arrangers at Discos Fuentes - Michi, a musical-child prodigy of sorts, began playing the cabarets, casinos and cathouses of Cartagena in the late 1950's. By 1967 he had formed his Combo Bravo focusing on guaguancó, descarga and porro, as well as performing rousing versions of early salsa and boogaloo hits. Through the late 60s and 70s Michi Sarmiento y su Combo Bravo were one of the premier salsa groups in Colombia, while also gaining international notoriety through the recordings they made for Disco Fuentes at this time, red.) stand out to make him the godfather of the project?
Will Holland: "We already knew about Michi way before we got involved with the Ondatropica project. He did some work with a friend of ours, Lucas Silva (Palenque Records), and I also know the more Afrocentric work he did during the nineteen eighties and nineties. He just has a great personality and he's a fantastic sax player; he's sort of the Pharoah Sanders (Saxophonist Ornette Coleman once described Pharoah Sanders as: "probably the best tenor player in the world." Emerging from John Coltrane's groups of the mid-1960s Sanders is known for his overblowing, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques on the saxophone, as well as his use of "sheets of sound". Sanders is an important figure in the development of free jazz, red.) of Colombia. For Ondatropica he was the musician we spent most time in the studio with, so it was kind of logical he would become the godfather of the whole project."
Will, you were born in the UK. What drew you to Colombia instead of one of the other Latin American nations?
Will Holland: "The quality of the cocaine! (laughs) No, that's exactly what the Colombian Tourist Board doesn't want to hear... A good friend of mine from New York was originally from Cali (Santiago de Cali, normally referred to as simply Cali, is a city in western Colombia and the capital of the Valle del Cauca department. With a population of 2.5 million, Cali is the third largest city in the country, red.) and that's basically how I ended up there myself as well. So far it's been a great experience!"