Mala MalaMala In Cuba
It is unusual for a solo debut to arrive after over ten years of musical titles and works. And for that debut to also be approached as a sort of supreme challenge - in which the debuting musician enters into the musical folklore of another culture - adds an interest for listeners that is hard to find on other albums. This is the case of Mark Lawrence, Mala from the duo Digital Mystikz, the banner that he is abandoning for the first time since he started to build the dubstep sound in 2003 in South London with his friend Coki. In their previous, magnificent album “Return II Space” Mala went solo on production; nevertheless, at that time he still didn’t want to give up the alias Digital Mystikz. For this reason, “Mala In Cuba” offers a unique experience to date: the chance to find out about the development of Lawrence’s sound from a new perspective, without the restriction of having to justify the continuity of the Digital Mystikz sound, which after the commercial prostitution of dubstep, has been upheld widely as one of the purest pedigrees on the London underground.
For those who still haven’t situated themselves, “Mala In Cuba” is the fruit of a trip to Havana. Gilles Peterson, the head of Brownswood and a sublime documenter of modern music, invited Mala in 2011 to form a part of his Havana Cultura Project. The plan was that there was no plan. To go there, meet some local musicians and to go back to London with enough material to make an album. This story rings a bell to all of us. From Damon Albarn to Modeselektor and Robot Koch, projects have been chiselled out with musicians indigenous to distant lands. And we also know that these experiences, from an artistic point of view, can turn out very well or they can be shitty, if you’ll excuse my language.
Perhaps these precedents were what led Mala to receive the proposal sceptically. As he himself recognises in an interview for FACT, it was his intuition that led him to become involved in a setting in which he would be an outsider in more than one sense. First of all, because he wasn’t very familiar with Cuban rhythms and sounds, and secondly, because he had never worked with live instrumentation as his raw material. Nevertheless, these two aspects that were, in theory, handicaps for the producer, have ended up being the basis for the success of this album. Cuban son, rumba, salsa and the island’s other styles have a strong rhythmic basis that works perfectly when fit into the range of bpms that dubstep moves in.
The atmospheres generated in Mala’s productions with Digital Mystikz are replaced here by a continuous network of congas, bongos and drums. The best example is “Cuba Electronic”, the most heated moment of the album and possibly the cut that is most balanced as far as its dubstep banger essence and pure Afro-Caribbean rhythm go. But this also occurs in “The Tunnel” and “Changuito”, which also exemplify the second “handicap” that is turned into an advantage: the instrumentation. Working with material recorded exclusively for you - like Roberto Fonseca’s pianos or Changuito’s drumming - provides nuances that are impossible to find in any plug-in. The fact that the material recorded in Cuba was finite and unchanging could have led Mala to limit his exploration. Nevertheless, it seems to have inspired the producer to make incursions into other styles and play with other structures, something unheard of in Lawrence’s discography. “Mala In Cuba” has very cinematic moments, like “Mulata” with its truly Havana piano, or “Ghost”, with its tribal rhythm and nostalgic air (this is not new in Mala and if you don’t believe me, listen to how sad “Don’t Let Me Go” sounds).
This is not the end of the unheard-of, however. The Londoner works for the first time with “real” voices and takes advantage of the opportunity to wreak havoc on his own rhythmic structures in “Como Como”. The other cut with vocals, “Noches Sueños”, with Danay Suárez, smells of Jamaican dub and underlines that if there is a link between Havana and London, that link is called Jamaica and it sounds like dub. Furthermore, amidst bass passages that constrain you as if you were in Plastic People and piano lines that put you right into Havana’s Malecón, the album flows eloquently. Mala no longer sounds strictly dubstep, like he had until now. But he still sounds completely messianic, extracorporeal and moderately mystical.
The experimental status surrounding Mala’s first album minimises the work he has done. Maybe it wasn’t so complicated to mix London and Cuban culture in a few songs. And very probably, the next album that Lawrence produces as Mala will go down in history as Mala’s first album; “Mala In Cuba” will be relegated to being “that album with Cuban musicians”. But nevertheless, I suspect that it will become crucial to understanding how the man’s sound may evolve. At the end of his career it won’t be his best album, but it might be the one that marks the turning point between the good (which we already know) and the sublime (which is yet to come).