London producer wraps Cuban motifs around monolithic bass, with great results.
Paul Clarke 2012
In 2011, London dubstep producer Mala travelled to Havana at the behest of Gilles Peterson to collaborate with Cuban musicians. That might sound like a recipe for "Buena Vista Social Club remixed by Benga" – but even if the reality weren’t so different, you’d at least have to credit Mala with more daring than just calling Dizzee Rascal for some vocals, as certain contemporaries might.
In Peterson’s words, Mala in Cuba "realigns the dubstep movement within soundsystem culture"; but it also shows how far the popular perception of dubstep has become divorced from the original vision of one of its founding fathers.
In a genre fixated on the quick thrill of the big bass drop, Mala’s basslines here sound as geologically slow as they did on his early Digital Mystikz releases. Yet it’s exactly this subtle shifting quality that means Mala in Cuba feels less a culture clash, more two different worlds gradually moving into each other’s orbit.
Make no mistake though: Mala in Cuba is very much Mala’s interpretation of Cuban music rather than an equal meeting of minds. Almost every track is bulwarked around monolithic low frequencies, and on The Tunnel the scattering timbales feel like mere window dressing.
But heavy as the rhythms are, Mala’s deftness of touch means the Cuban contributions are never entirely overwhelmed, and when he pulls more elements into the mix the results are often stunning.
With its rattling percussion, splashes of piano, soaring synths and samples of street chatter, Ghost could be a Vangelis soundtrack to the undiscovered Latin quarter of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, whilst Change’s mournful strings and ivories have all the decaying grandeur of Havana itself.
However, it’s perhaps the closing Noches Sueños that best sums Mala in Cuba up – in spirit, if not style. As Danay Suarez sings a Spanish lament over a reggae beat that resembles a Latin King Midas Sound, you can sense the melancholy longing at the core of both much traditional Cuban music and early dubstep. It reverberates through Mala in Cuba as powerfully as the bass.