In a word, the self-titled debut album from the Colombian music collective Ondatrópica could be described as grand. All aspects considered, the supergroup’s first endeavour, shepherded by DJ and musician Will Holland with the assistance of bandleader Mario Galeano Toro, was a huge project, with the finalised album consisting of over 100 minutes of material spread across 26 tracks, with over 40 musicians contributing to the recordings. Even the compositions themselves were monumental, being rooted in the Latin dance genres of cumbia and bossa nova, whilst pulling influences from all over the musical map, including hip hop, rock, reggae, pop, Afrobeat, jazz, dancehall, funk, folk and more, with all of these styles being worked meticulously into the intricacies of the compositions featured on the record. Such ambitious undertakings are not simply incredible because of how impressive they seem on the surface, but are made incredible through a painstaking amount of precision, which is necessary to overcome the almost innumerable issues that could arise along the way, and Ondatrópica undoubtedly achieved this on their first attempt with their debut, crafting one of the most demanding and noble contributions to the legacy of Latin music in the last decade, and perhaps beyond. Few musical ventures would likely prove more challenging than the one faced by Holland and Toro on this album, but producing a follow-up to such an epic project is certainly an example of one. Baile Bucanero is the successor to Ondatrópica and, despite still being a significantly larger undertaking than much music being released in 2017, it is considerably toned down when compared to its predecessor. On the surface, this new record contains just 15 tracks, adding up to an hour’s worth of material, with only 35 musicians lending a hand this time around, which is understandable given the cultural diversity of Ondatrópica and how hard it will have been to organise the sessions for the album’s recording. Baile Bucanero, whilst still infusing genres such as ska and dancehall into the Latin foundations of these pieces, is also more measured in terms of stylistic scope, with this record’s emphasis being more focussed on Latin music itself, as opposed to its interactions with the music of other cultures, as was the case on this record’s precursor. Even on a compositional level, these songs are noticeably less audacious in terms of structuring and development, resulting in fewer fiery moments on this album, with certain points on Baile Bucanero genuinely demonstrating a notable lack of ideas, at least when compared to Ondatrópica. Indeed, whilst the amount of effort that went into the assembly of this record is admirable in itself, and whilst there are a significant amount of successful moments here, it seems that the unfortunate restrictions of producing another album like Ondatrópica’s first resulted in a record that is notably more restrained, thus hindering the extent to which Holland and Toro’s ideas can be effectively translated into a group of recordings.
One of the most striking aspects of the compositional approach employed on Baile Bucanero is the greater emphasis on linear song structuring compared to Ondatrópica’s self-titled album. Ondatrópica certainly featured a handful of tracks that developed minimally and, as should go without saying, there’s nothing wrong with this in principle. Indeed, such cuts on the group’s previous record were made effective by the dynamic production value, the tangible chemistry between the band members as they delivered some explosive performances, and the willingness to take risks even within the context of a confined compositional structure. Few of the linear pieces that show up on Baile Bucanero, however, are as successful in this regard, often suffering from less vibrant production and a stiff song structuring that allows little room for the same kind of exploration that appeared on many tracks from Ondatrópica. Easily the most notable culprit of this on Ondatrópica’s new album is Estar Contigo, which is largely founded on some minimalist rhythmic ostinatos, whilst some very subtle, atmospheric keyboard chords dip in and out of the mix. With such a sparse instrumental arrangement, the focus of the song is almost entirely concentrated on the call-and-answer, chanted vocals, which remain almost exactly the same through the entire track and are performed very poorly, with the voice of the male singer who leads the group on this song being incredibly shaky and displaying weak volume control as he reaches into his lower register. Perhaps what’s most irritating about Estar Contigo is its length, being the second longest song in the tracklisting at over five minutes, with no apparent reason as to why this choice was made, especially when the inadequate, repetitive vocals grow tiresome very quickly. This being said, Estar Contigo is a particularly grating example of a more straightforward songwriting style utilised on this record, and few other tracks display such glaring flaws in this regard. Lazalypso, one of the songs teased leading up to the release of Baile Bucanero, certainly could have been elaborated on more, but, unlike Estar Contigo, it is at least founded on a solid groove, consisting of a Latin jazz-style horn section. An obvious issue with this track, however, is the production, particularly regarding the duelling stringed instruments that provide incidentals and solos throughout the duration of the song, which are so quiet and mixed so poorly that it’s difficult to even make them out. Undoubtedly the most successful of the more linear compositions on Baile Bucanero is Caldo Parao, which stands out also as one of the better marriages of various styles on the album. The guitar and bass riff that opens the cut has an inflection not dissimilar to what one might expect from a Malian desert rock record, especially during the guitar’s soloing later in the track, but then the addition of the clearly cumbia-influenced flute changes the mood of the piece significantly, especially when paired with the syncopated drumbeat that exists somewhere between contemporary jazz and Afrobeat. The general tone of the piece shifts drastically with the introduction of the dynamic horn section, whose triplet phrasing provides highly effective counterpoint to the palette of other rhythmic structures that can be found throughout the arrangement. Indeed, overall, with a considerably greater emphasis on linear song formatting, it’s a shame that the number of compositions that completely come to fruition within this structure is limited, but tracks like Caldo Parao, although still somewhat restricted when compared to the material on Ondatrópica, nonetheless display an ability by the collective to convey an impressive array of ideas in this format.
Baile Bucanero most definitely lacks the breathtaking scope of its precursor, but there is nevertheless a significant amount of moments that hark back to the successes of Ondatrópica’s debut, even if they are not necessarily as flashy on the surface. Hummingbird, for instance, as far as the meeting of a bevy of genres goes, is not a particularly remarkable track, being firmly rooted in Latin jazz traditions, with a few very slight touches of funk and Afrobeat worked into the piece. Whilst it may seem like one of the less explorative cuts at first, the chemistry between the various components of the piece makes for a very well textured arrangement, with the smooth, fluttering bass bouncing off the syncopated drumming highly effectively, whilst the horns and saxophones weave between some peppy performances and some more laid-back grooves nicely. De Mar a Mar is another song that is relatively unembellished when it comes to the stylistic diversity of the track, being a straightforward Latin folk tune, but is nonetheless an especially colourful piece, peppered with bright horns and noodling guitar licks, that is arguably made more impactful in its strict adherence to just one genre. In fact, of all the tracks from Baile Bucanero, it is more often than not the songs that fuse various genres that come across as less successful, with these cuts being slightly more contrived than what was featured on Ondatrópica. Bogotá, at its roots, is another Latin jazz-based song that cherry-picks some elements of Latin folk and pop music that are infused into the composition and, for the moments that stand by these Latin stylings, it’s a relatively strong song. However, the inclusion of the buzzing synth lead that plays along with the horns, as well as the traditional backing vocals that are laced in reverb, seems like a somewhat shallow attempt to integrate some musical flavours from outside of Latin America that the song would likely have been better off without. The ghostly keyboard chords on the following track, Trustin’, which is a reggae-inspired track that features some Caribbean-style rapping and jazzy sax lines, also come across as out of place, without really adding anything to the piece and simply hanging in the background with no obvious purpose. Indeed, considering one of the great strong points of Ondatrópica was the success with which Holland and Toro oversaw the merging of such a wide array of genres from all manner of cultural backgrounds, it’s strange that many of the best songs on Baile Bucanero are those that remain comfortably within the confines of a particular style of music.
Ultimately, as I had worried would be the case, the massive undertaking that was Ondatrópica’s debut album has proven to be a hard act to follow, with Baile Bucanero being strikingly less grand than Ondatrópica, resigning it to live in the shadows of its predecessor. Whilst the Colombian troupe’s first record impressively featured few, if any, duds in the tracklisting despite being so huge in scope, much of the material on their sophomore album seems to be lost in translation slightly, often as a result of the flatter production value, but also due to fewer fiery performances and extraordinary exhibitions of these musicians’ abilities. This being said, whilst Baile Bucanero is certainly disappointing, enough good ideas are conveyed effectively as to warrant a level of respect for this record and the amount of hard work that undoubtedly went into its development. As someone who expected Ondatrópica’s first album to be a one-off, I can’t say with confidence that Baile Bucanero feels completely justified, but, at the very least, it stands as an admirable tribute to the music of Latin America and its relationship with the stylistic conventions of various other cultures.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10