Quantic and His Combo Barbaro: Tradition in Transition

[13 August 2009]

By Estella Hung

Have certain DJ/producers been drinking the same tonic of late? Amon Tobin, Brazil’s national treasure, no longer uses pre-recorded source material for his samples, while Brighton-based Flevans has jettisoned his turntables and laptop for real guitars and pianos. Similarly, London DJ duo the Herbaliser have supplemented their synthesised trip-hopping cinematic renderings with a full-blown big band and sassy chanteuse.

And then there’s Will Holland (a.k.a. Quantic) from Bewdley in Worcestershire, England. The beginning of this decade saw Holland mounting the rudderless turn-of-the-century UK dance machine, and perking the ears of fellow scruffy-headed producer Mr Scruff and the cultish Richard Dorfmeister. Scruff had spent the nineties filling in the sparse soundscapes of trip hop with upbeat jazz kicks and busy-bee instrumentation (consider “Chicken in a Box” off his eponymous debut). When Holland’s bedroom-recorded debut LP The 5th Exotic launched in 2001, Scruff et al. were elated by the cinematic sample-laden affair that tickled your hips with its jazz-funk breaks and gently woke you from your torpor with its measured hip hop beats.

But the rest of his career thus far has been built on a ladder aimed at the stage. Rather than rework a winning formula ad nauseum as artists are wont to do, Holland followed The 5th Exotic a year later with a sound more true to himself on Apricot Morning. The album introduced listeners to Quantic’s gangly-guitar-and-burping-brass-led jazz/soul/hip hop/Afrobeat mishmash, a sound that would manifest itself all the way to his hitherto last “Quantic” album, 2006’s An Announcement to Answer. If Holland was in any way conventional, it was that he forged many collaborative partnerships, including with the deep-throated soul singer Alice Russell and the legendary Spanky Wilson.

By An Announcement to Answer, Quantic’s fifth album, the producer’s love of world music had burgeoned with sounds culled from his travels to Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana and Ethiopia. Knowing him, he processed these “found” sounds into cross-over nightclub filler. Even though the album sounded more live than anything Holland had done before, it was still written and recorded on his laptop. A bona fide live sound came when he relocated to Cali in Colombia, set himself up an analogue recording studio, and scouted for lifelong practitioners of Latin music to mature his sound.

Like dance music’s answer to Jack White, Holland founded several side projects including Quantic Soul Orchestra, a live Latin-funk band in which Holland picked up the guitar and myriad other instruments, and Quantic Presenta Flowering Inferno, a dub-and-reggae escapade. Now he has his Combo Barbaro, a motley slew of Cali musicians.

Combo’s aptly titled Tradition in Transition is a crate digger’s virtuoso attempt at giving a new lease of life to sounds he’s excavated without resorting to the typical producer’s trick of splicing pre-recorded material and keeping the beat with a drum machine. Sounding like something you’d find in the Putumayo series of world music, Tradition in Transition is a masterly revisit of traditional and Colombian music of the last century but is by no means confined to it. In fact, given that accordion isn’t part of his instrumental line-up, one can’t say Holland has recreated anything as Colombian as vallenato.

Stand out tunes are those that render folk traditions of destinations outside the Americas into seamless pieces with a brilliant shade of Latin. “The Dreaming Mind Part 1” for instance, has a faintly East Asian theme dovetailing a Latinised string section as smooth as Champus. “Albela” is wholly beguiling for the way the Subcontinental vocal meditations of India-born Falu are mixed with congas and bongos and a smidgen of brass. Meanwhile, “I Just Fell In Love Again” is a delectable soul/gospel morsel that congruously pits Panamanian singer Kabir’s crooning Al Green style against chirping mariachi trumpets. “Undelivered Letter”, a moonlit piano-led song of the heart windswept by swooning cinematic strings, is simply beautiful. These tracks are why you would reach for this record over said Putamayo offerings.

Yet while Tradition spotlights Holland’s genius at composition and arrangement with musical idioms he’s mastered by ear (credit should also be given to Brazilian music man Arthur Verocai for the string arrangements), the brainchild of the project sometimes gets lost in the tropical mix. At times, his mimicking of the Latin American idiom is so accomplished that if you weren’t to know who Quantic was, you’d be none the wiser by listening to Tradition. “Mas Pan”, for instance, hits the salsa switch with aplomb, its layers of perfectly calibrated dabs of brass interplay as organically as bodily function. Meanwhile, aside from its name and the fact that it iterates a variation of the famous refrain from The Champs’ “Tequila”, “Mambo Los Quantic” is so Buena Vista Social Club.

That’s why Tradition is most certainly more of a treat for long time followers of the Quantic odyssey than those freshly aboard. For the former, Tradition is an expected effort in the Quantic narrative if not its superlative production. As someone whose early work already bares pangs of his latest, Holland may be in danger of becoming typecast. Yet both The 5th Exotic and Tradition show he’s more like an actor who can fully transform himself into a role no matter what it is. Indeed the “role” of Tradition is so multifarious there’s no telling which of its strains Quantic will follow next.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/109472-quantic-and-his-combo-barbaro-tradition-in-transition/