Embracing Cuban music and heritage proved to be among the most challenging steps of the dubstep pioneer’s career
Known as one of the eminent originators of dubstep, Mala’s style is deep, dark and meditative, his finessed productions acknowledged as those of a skilful and thoughtful producer. Revered as he is, Gilles Peterson, owner of Brownswood Recordings, radio DJ extraordinaire and Cuban enthusiast, became a fan of Mala’s innovative work early on, right when the Londoner’s DMZ nights were achieving notoriety. With Gilles having supported several releases and featured Mala on countless radio shows, we fast-forward to 2011: Gilles invites Mala to accompany him on one of his fabled trips to Havana to meet, talk and record with local (and eminent) musicians.
Mala in Cuba, released via Brownswood this September, is the result. It took two consequent trips, a year’s work and a good few weeks of promoting it across the globe. Crack was lucky enough to receive an invite to the unusual surroundings of the London listening event (around lunchtime in a Mayfair members’ club) and to later have a chat with Mala. If you’ve got speakers handy, Crack advises playing ‘Calle F’ through the pipes whilst having a read.
We left the listening event via the back entrance of Low, the intimate setting with a nice soundsystem, mojitos on tap and porcelain urinals shaped and painted like mouths. We wondered about the significance of the event. It seemed something befitting a Brian Eno sound installation rather than a dubstep-meets-Cuban rhythms collaboration on an independent label. Why not the ordinary promotion: press release, CDs, gigs? Mala was keen to point out that he simply hadn’t worked on a “project that had warranted such a thing in the past”. In other words, this was a big deal for both Gilles and Mala; such a challenging period incorporating three separate trips to Cuba called for something rather special. Mala had also been burnt when previous work Return II Space was released. “Within about four hours of posting up that the record was coming out, somebody hacked into my Photobucket account, found the artwork and put it up online. Ever since then I was just like … that’s scary.” He continued, “when we started going through the promo and how we were going to put out the record, I was kind of a bit paranoid about the album getting leaked. I was very lucky that Brownswood were up for it and they held back all the promo CDs until as late as possible. Then Gilles was like ‘I want to do an exclusive listening session’; come down and see the album. We did one in New York, we did one in Paris, we did one in London”. Presenting something at home always has “that added pressure” for a perfectionist like Mala. As a figure so central to such an intimate music scene, the homecoming, full of friends and some familiar journalist faces, was noticeably nervy.
At the listening event, Mala mentioned to the small crowd that he had found it difficult to complete the project. At interview, he elaborated that he’d “always stayed well clear of getting involved in doing an album”. Continuing, he revealed “I was daunted by the prospect that I would be blatantly out of my comfort zone. Not just the fact that I was going to another country and working with musicians … I’m a very isolated producer and I’m usually in my studio on my own. So just the fact that I’d be working with other people was very different”. Laughing through the irony of this being an interview promoting his new album, he added, “to get my head around making an album’s worth of material was just something that I never ever wanted to get involved in”. That said, Mala had an inkling that this would be different, something for which it was worth taking the leap of faith. He sensed an element of adventure. For Mala, Gilles is an “incredibly innovative and creative guy, he’s one of those guys that’s still like a youth, he’s got a youthful heart when it comes to music: he’s always looking for that new angle to present something, or he’s looking for the new guy that’s coming through who can put a spin on something”. Gilles’s judgement and knack for interesting music projects evidently deserves trust. Mala emphasised that he’d been offered a lot over the years, offers that would have benefited him “career-wise, profile-wise, financially”. However, “like everyone, you can only do things when they feel right for you”. This project felt right.
At Peterson’s behest, Mala travelled to Cuba for a “foundational” exposition on traditional Cuban rhythms from the revered Roberto Fonseca and his band. Mala took these away to study, returning to Cuba and recording with percussionists, singers and brass players. The album takes a few listens to appreciate the rhythmic nuances, changes and improvisations. But the voice and brass work immediately stands out, by far the most dazzling features of the album. Blending this live instrumentation with Mala’s dub-influenced production, especially his delay work, brings something refreshing: yes, the tracks are meditations on a rhythm and a bassline, but they are interspersed with epiphanic moments of the Cuban musicians’ improvisations. The album was recorded at the tempos that Mala would later work at, largely but not exclusively 140bpm. The musicians he worked with were at ease at such an unusually fast pace. They would practise for three or four minutes, give the signal to the production booth, and just jam a rhythm for another five. Each instrument or percussive element was isolated during recordings and Mala took the material back and worked through it to explore and find the sound he wanted. “The whole point of me going, in Gilles’s opinion, was to get involved in mashing up those rhythms. All the recordings on the album couldn’t have been made had I not gone to Cuba and worked with the musicians I worked with”. On a first listen, it feels more dubstep than Cuba, with all the production qualities of DMZ: deep bass, heavy snares, syncopated hi hats. But Mala’s explanation of how he worked through the album helps draw out what the album is actually about. It’s not about replicating Cuban rhythms directly, and neither does it seem to be solely about the influence of the rhythms themselves, though a major feature. Mala’s time in Cuba and the much less tangible influences of people and places is represented by the music: “what they gave me left such an imprint, and the album is me trying to express and translate my experience of being around them, and of being in Cuba”.
In a bizarre twist, Mala was invited to a gig at the British Embassy. One his trips coincided with the Queen’s Jubilee and a Britannia week in Havana. “It was crazy, as soon as I landed I got picked up and the woman says, ‘you’ve been invited to the Embassy party, you’ve got to go to the hotel, get changed, and we can go straight away’. I turned up to this place and you’ve got all these naval officers, and me wearing jeans, my t-shirt and my hat!” Although not the usual Embassy fare, Mala was well received. He used to work on music projects for youngsters before Government funding was cut for music studios. He was highly complementary of the UK Ambassador to Cuba and, by his own admission, told of how he was busy networking to get youth music projects on the go. Unexpectedly, he returned home with a wallet full of business cards.
Mala concluded that the best way to surmise his experience is through the metaphor of a ‘magic eye’ optical illusion: it is, at first, just a piece of paper. However, after some time you begin to lock in and an image becomes visible. From that point on, you will always see that image: “I don’t think I can ever have the same perspective that I had. I feel like I’ve come out of it with new ways of approaching creation”. For Mala, the trip was about gaining experiential knowledge. However, forever measured in his approach to life, he emphasised that he sees little benefit in constantly acquiring specific production knowledge. “In the studio, there are two kinds of perspectives: you can look at something from a ‘vibes’ perspective, or you can look at the same thing from a ‘scientific’ point of view. In the studio, sometimes I’m too much of a scientist, and there come these blocks. In science you do certain equations and certain equations should give certain answers. Vibes is just vibes, y’know?”
Surprisingly, Mala stated that the making of the album was partly grounded in discomfort, but that this discomfort is the essence of creativity. In the studio, or before a performance, “there are many times when you feel uncomfortable. It’s feeling comfortable with feeling uncomfortable that gets me through in these kind of times, not having fear of the unknown … it’s actually being free from the known. Those are the places that I like to explore the most”.
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Mala in Cuba is available now on Brownswood Recordings. He brings the project to Brixton Electric on November 17th.
Words: Jon Wiltshire
Photo: Teddy Fitzhugh