“Mala In Cuba” is one of the standout albums of 2012, a musical journey to the Caribbean to find the common roots of dubstep and Cuban music. We talked to the DMZ man to know more about this project and its future manifestations.
The impact the island of Jamaica has made on the world continues to defy expectations. From such a small place has come so much; arguably most important of all, a new way of thinking about music inherited from the works of luminaries such as King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. “Part of what I do is a continuation of that” Mala says over a crackly internet phone line. “That” is Jamaica’s dub tradition, and Mala is one of its most fascinating and stimulating practitioners, amid the diaspora of modern dance music, that has rooted itself in dub. “My father’s Jamaican, so I’m inherited, I was born and raised in South East London. Since the Jamaicans came over to England to help rebuild after the war there’s been a huge Jamaican influence in London over the past fifty years or so. That’s something I’ve been involved in to some degree because it’s my environment,” he explains before affirming that his new project, “Mala In Cuba”, is “100% Havana meets South London, or should I say South London meets Havana.” Despite the towering shadow dub has cast over his work since his beginnings as one-half of dubstep pioneers Digital Mystikz – he once termed his work as London Dub – this new project for Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label is about a brand new journey and adventure between two very different and distinct islands, Cuba and England.
This journey began over two years ago in a London pub where Gilles Peterson offered Mala a chance to work on an album as part of the Havana Cultura project. Gilles had been involved with the project since 2009 and wanted to step away from the compilation work he’d done so far, towards something new. He wasn’t sure what that something was but he knew he wanted Mala to be a part of it after the pair got to know each other via their respective work in London. In January 2011 they flew to Cuba for ten days, returning a few months later for a similar period of time. The plan was to go to Cuba and make an album, how was another question entirely. “My experience in Cuba, the way the album came about and the approach taken to create the record was a 100% authentic” Mala explains. “There was nothing manufactured about it. It was only the morning of the day we decided we were going to record with the band that we came up with the concept to record traditional Cuban rhythms for me to work with. We hadn’t even…” he pauses, seemingly still stumped to explain the story despite having given interviews for a few weeks now. “On our way to Cuba we had no idea what we were going to do or who we were going to work with.” His explanation of the album’s genesis brings to mind a quote I recently came across in a record. The quote claims that nothing is the best place from which to start, because you have all the possibilities in front of you.
In Havana Mala worked with Roberto Fonseca and his band, consisting of a drummer, a congas player and a contrabass player. “I asked them to play traditional Cuban rhythms at a tempo of 140bpm,” an interesting move that doesn’t automatically transpire when first listening to the album. “Some rhythms sounded funny at that tempo, so we slowed some stuff down. It was all recorded to tape and I took everything home to my studio, stripped it down and dissected it.” Thus began the process of creating an album, which also happened to be Mala’s first despite a career spanning close to a decade. “The quality of the recordings was incredible. I had that to play with however I felt. It was like being a child in a sweet shop, literally too much for you to take in so you don’t take anything in” he reflects with a hint of laughter. “It felt like that when I got home and looked at all the material I had. It was overwhelming. Watching them play as musicians and speaking with them about their music and getting an insight about their understanding of rhythm and groove was also very overwhelming for me. That’s when it dawned on me that this was going to be something serious.”
"I’m not Cuban. I don’t understand music in a traditional or classical sense, so trying to make a traditional sounding Cuban record wouldn’t… I couldn’t do it"
Since its announcement a few months ago, Mala In Cuba has garnered a lot of public buzz and interest, unsurprising as Mala is one of dubstep’s best known names when it comes to the deeper, some may say truer, side of the genre. More interesting is how this interest has thrown the man forward into the spotlight despite his well-known humility and habit for shying away from it. Despite weeks of interviews and even taking to social networks for promotion, albeit sparingly, he seems resolved to stay true to himself rather than come across as just another artist selling his project to the public. When I ask him how it feels for his first album proper to be a project such as this he’s keen to reinforce the aforementioned idea of authenticity, an idea that has always underpinned his work. “I don’t think I would have made it had it not been for the way it came about. From Gilles asking me to the experiences we had there. Some people are able to write albums in a few months, I’m not so lucky. When I look at my releases over the years a lot of the records sound quite different I think. There’s a particular grain that people might associate with my music, yet examples of it can be widely different – take something like ‘The Wrath’ and ‘Left Leg Out’” he explains. “Because of the way the whole thing came about it’s almost like the album is me trying to translate my experiences. And these being authentic experiences that happened at a particular time and in a particular place I was able to just channel and focus in with the material I had” he says before clarifying “both the audio and the ‘real life’ material, the energetic and spiritual feeling that I had while in Cuba.”
The authenticity and honesty that transpires through the music on “Mala In Cuba” is what allows it to sidestep the traps inherent to a project that bridges cultural divides through art. This isn’t a London ‘dubstep’ producer doing a Cuban record, nor is it someone using their position of privilege to profit from another culture’s music. Rather it’s an artist’s journey and experience translated to music. “What I had to put in my mind is that I’m not Cuban. I don’t understand music in a traditional or classical sense, so trying to make a traditional sounding Cuban record wouldn’t…” he hesitates before affirming “I couldn’t do it. I had to go back to basics as to what I’m about, who I am and what it is that I do. I just had to remember the whole time I was there recording that what they gave me and the experience I had in Cuba would be something that would be coming out through the music regardless.” And the music on “Mala In Cuba” is quite clearly dubstep: it operates around 140bpm and deploys warm, enveloping and – when heard on a capable sound system – pressurising sub bass. Those key elements were the only things the music had to have when it first emerged from its South London incubation chambers. After that it was carte blanche, you could do what you wanted and you were in. It was an exciting time, the musical possibilities felt endless. “Mala In Cuba” is one of dubstep’s finest long player moments to date precisely because it harks back to the music’s original ethos and uses Mala’s Cuban experiences to complete the picture.
I wondered if he felt any degree of apprehension about colonialist traditions when embarking on the project. He’s very quick to dismiss the idea. “Through our books and our system we’re educated in a certain way you know?” he asks rhetorically. “I’d rather take people at face value then go there with pre-judgemental opinions. I just went to Cuba and tried to jam with the Cubans, simple as that” he concludes before adding “I met some amazing people, incredible musicians. It’s such a colourful place. People there have a real message and a real story.”
"We can all make the same music over and over again and play to crowds that know what we do. But I think it’s more important to play places that don’t get it all the time"
Shortly after the album’s first single was released, an official video appeared online, composed of footage of Mala walking around Havana and DJing to locals in an open air venue. The shots of local Cuban youth dancing and smiling as Mala mans the turntables make for quite an inspiring sight, especially considering dubstep’s global rise to fame over the last few years. “The footage in that video is actually from my most recent trip to Cuba which had nothing to do with Gilles’ project. The British Embassy booked me to close a festival celebrating British culture earlier this year and when I got there I realised the people who’d booked me knew nothing of the ‘Mala In Cuba’ project. However they were telling me people were excited and they were expecting a good turnout. As it happens word had got out that this guy from London had come the year before and was playing this dubstep sound,” he recounts mentioning a house party he’d played in Cuba the year before with Gilles during one of the trips for the album. As he arrived at the park for the show, he found a huge crowd of people had gathered and the experience reinforced one the core beliefs that has driven Mala’s work to date. “These things always remind me why I do what I do, both as a producer and a DJ: it’s to take that risk and be on the frontline, to try and play and introduce new sounds to new ears. That’s really important to me. We can all make the same music over and over again and play to crowds that know what we do. But I think it’s more important to play places that don’t get it all the time.” This drive to bring his sound wherever he may go, a sound he helped define and which grew beyond any of its originators’ possible expectations, is an integral part of what has made Mala the respected figure he is today. Listening to him explain his motivations, it’s easy to understand where that respect comes from. “Even if it means you’re not getting your full fee or whatever I still think it’s important to go to some of these places in the world where they don’t have what you have. You can build something there. I think the music I play, which is a handful of producers’ music, it has a good energy, it’s good to uplift people. Not in an obvious way either. I think the stories the producers whose music I play have to share are important stories. For me it’s a real blessing to be able to go and play the music to people like that” he explains before bringing it back to where it all started, “it reminds me of what we were doing back in 2003, 2004 in London. It was just playing new music to new ears. It’s how a new movement and a whole new wave of sound and club nights came about. It’s important that producers and musicians keep trying to do that.”
I ask him to pick out a memorable experience from the project. After a few seconds’ hesitation he brings up two. The first is a real ‘story behind the music’ moment, a perfect encapsulation of the project’s underlying authenticity. “One of the most memorable stories is about how I started working with the trumpet player who appears on the album. Gilles and I played at this house party in Cuba last year and during my set this guy comes up to me and asks if he can play. So I asked him what he meant because in London when says that they would be asking to get on the mic. Turns out he meant his trumpet!” he remembers with a fondness that’s apparent even through a phone line. “He drew out his trumpet and just started jamming over my track ‘Lean Forward’. It sounded so sick that we asked him to come to the studio the next day. We recorded him for about an hour doing takes over a few beats I’d made. One of these takes ended up becoming the trumpets you hear on the first single, ‘Calle F’. That for me was one of the really nice stories behind the record.” The second experience he picks out hints at the project’s potential future, one that’s exciting. “The last time I went to Cuba I hung out with some Cuban rappers. I played them tracks from the album despite being apprehensive about it, and more than a little nervous, as these are bonafide local hip hop guys. To me there was an obvious sonic difference there and yet they totally got on it, they started rapping over it and it was such a surprise” he tells me seemingly still in shock. “I shot a lot of it on camera. So in the future I’d love to work with these guys on something different.”
“Mala In Cuba” is out now on Brownswood Recordings. The project will also tour live throughout the winter.