Havana meets South London: the story of Mala in Cuba
By, Jun 10 2012
“This is the record that reevaluates and realigns the dubstep movement within sound system culture.”
So says Gilles Peterson of Mala In Cuba, due to be released through his Brownswood label on September 10. In May 2011, Mala, dubstep trailblazer and one half of Digital Mystikz, travelled to Havana with Peterson to record and collaborate with local musicians – Mala In Cuba, a full-length album, documents the results of this unlikely culture clash.
FACT spoke to Mala last week to hear more about the project’s origins, and what’s next for him as an artist.
“The plan was literally just go to Cuba, link up with some musicians, check out the vibes, and then see what happens.”
So where did the idea and the impulse behind the project come from?
“You’d really have to ask Gilles where the impulse came from, because he was the start of it for me. It was really random to be honest with you. I’ve known Gilles for a good few years now, just from the music that I’ve been making and the music he plays on his show – he’s played a lot of the Digital Mystikz stuff over the years. I think it was probably October or November 2010 that we first spoke about it – and he just said, look, I’ve got this project that I’m doing in Cuba, and i want to take you out there to work with the musicians there. And it was as simple as that – decided over a pint of Guinness.”
Did you have any reservations about getting involved?
“I was a little bit unsure about it, to be honest with you. It felt way out of my comfort zone. You must understand – I’m pretty low-key, I do my thing in a particular way, and I’m happy doing things that way, because it’s right for me.But when Gilles approached me it did seem like a serious offer – you know, I’ve had many offers over the years from a vast range of many different people and companies to do all kinds of projects, but usually I shy away them because they don’t feel right. Something about this felt right.”
How did your collaboration with the Cuban musicians actually work? Did you make an instant connection with them, or was there a lot of trial and error?
“We just kind of jammed. I was totally out of my element, but you have to do these things in life to change and grow, to learn about yourself and to learn about other people as well, you know. I knew from the start it was going to be a total learning experience – when we first went out there we didn’t even have a concept for what we were going to do. The plan was literally just go to Cuba, link up with some musicians, check out the vibes, and then see what happens. We had some studio time booked at one of the studios there in Havana. I went twice: one in January 2011, and a second time in April/May 2011, and both times for just over a week. The first time was just to get know Cuba and to get a sense of the vibes. We ended up working with a guy called Roberto Fonseca and his band. These guys are just overwhelmingly good musicians.”
“You have to do these things in life to change and grow, to learn about yourself and to learn about other people as well.”
Did you have a solid idea of what you wanted to achieve from the start, or did it come out of the process?
“It wasn’t until the very morning that we went into the studio in Havana that the concept came about – which was that they were going to record traditional Cuban rhythms for me, but at the tempo I enjoy writing music at…around 140. Just watching them attack that tempo with what they do was just…it’s just something you can’t put into words. I’ve never been around musicians of that calibre – all of them were phenomenal. They’d set up, literally practice for five minutes and then bang, knock out a five minute improvisation for me to take home. I ended up coming home with about 60GB worth of their playing, just from the first trip.”
“I started making some stuff between the first and second trip, and by the time I went on the second trip I wanted to scrap everything I’d already started on, so I did some more recording. I think it was clear that a traditional kind of Cuban record wasn’t going to be made. It was really my interpretation of what they gave to me. It took me just over a year to decode, digest and really strip down and rebuild everything that I’d experienced on my first and second trips in Cuba.”
Is that why the project took so long to complete overall?
“It was a long process, and I was very fortunate that Gilles and everyone at the label were so patient. I know that in an ideal world they’d have released it a lot sooner than it’s turned out, but luckily for me they really trusted my vision and the way that I work, and they let me go through it the way that I needed to.
“When you’re coming from what I come from, where you’re literally sitting with a computer in the studio with Coki or whatever, and you just jam, and you just please yourself. But when you’re called for another record label and when you’ve been asked to produce something for somebody, and when you’re taking all the musicianship and all the inspiration from the musicians, as well as Cuba itself, because they were traditional Cuban rhyhtms that I worked with, suddenly there emerges this mountain of a task in front of you. It’s not just making a beat and releasing it when you feel like it. It definitely felt like a huge challenge and that’s why it took me the time it did to complete. I think I’ve started and completed it at least three times [laughs].
“I’ve always stayed away from working on albums and all those things. A project like this, it’s so involving – you really live and breathe it, day in and day out, and that causes all sorts of problems at home [laughs]. But this is what I do, you know.”
“It’s Havana meets South London, you know?”
Do you feel changed by the experience? Do you think what you learned during the project will impact significantly on your future work?
“I’ve managed to complete an album and there’s a load of tracks that I’m happy to share with people – and that’s something that’s quite rare for me. I don’t release a lot of music. But something happened to me during the process I worked with a friend of mine, a producer called Simbad, on the finishing stages of the album, and where I had to go to both musically and mentally to create this was… well, I went to places I’ve never been before. I don’t mean to sound far out or cliche or anything like that, but when you go to certain places, and you explore a certain way and you discover certain things about yourself and about music, it’s impossible to go back. So without a doubt I think this project has heavily impacted on me and the way that I work, the way that I want to work in the future.”
Have the Cuban players you worked with heard the album as yet?
“A couple of the musicians that have been involved have heard the music and the feedback’s been good. But even just playing the music that I make to the guys and the girls out there – they don’t really have that kind of culture out there, it’s a different vibe. I’m thinking, I don’t know if I can even work with these guys because they’re on a totally different level musically, and I feel so inferior, but then you play them something of yours, and it’s not that they feel the same exactly, but they don’t know how you created what you created. So you’re both in an unknown, so to speak.
“I like to think that it was interesting for [the Cuban musicians] to hear what they do in a completely different context. I wanted [the album] to feel Cuban in a way, to respect the musicians and the culture, but at the same time I still wanted to make music that I could play to my audience, and in my environment – on a soundsystem. I played a couple of the dubs out at the weekend and they got a really nice response. It’s kind of like Havana meets South London, you know?”