Mala in Cuba
Mala In Cuba / 2012 / Brownswood Recordings
By far Mala’s most interesting musical release, as well as his longest, the aptly named, Mala in Cuba was inspired by the producer’s visit to Havana with Giles Peterson in 2012. Although this is a distinct change in direction for Mala (one of the formative names in the contemporary London bass scene) he does not break from his roots. He’s still creating bass music on the darker dub-ier side of the spectrum. It still essentially comes from the soundsystem culture, it’s built for the rumbling tones of a huge sub.
However this is not merely the album of a single producer, its a collaborative project, notably Roberto Fonseca and his band recording for the massive array of samples which Mala sought to weave into something encompassing the culture. To me it is almost unfathomable for a bedroom producer like Mala, a perfectionist faced with piecing together a staggering collection of samples he had recorded on his trip into a solid album, pulling out the distinct sounds of both worlds without feeling abrasive or forced, He had only one request for his collaborators, to work at 140 bpm. The key is authenticity combined with subtly and it is in part helped by how distinctive and rustic the music scene in Havana is, how vibrant and passionate the musicians he worked with were.
“Change” to me is the pinnacle of the album, it follows through beautifully with the concept. the delicate flowing strings are not distracted by the softer bass, it builds and meshes harmoniously. The scales are at rest here, the balance is right, Mala approaches it with a light but distinctive touch. The introduction too comes close, it’s a bright and energetic piece, lightly pacing with sparse piano, simple yet beautiful. “Changuito” is another highlight, named after the percussionist who’s recording drives the track, it throbs with the dark bass of Malas past.
At one end of the scale “The Tourist” seems the most measurably “Cuban” track on the release; Mala allows the track to play out with only subtle intrusions of his bass-centric production obscuring the soft blend of piano and bass guitar it never strays into the darker regions. He really embraces the samples and allows them to breathe. Similarly “Calle F” is titillatingly close to it’s origins, sparcely arranged to great effect.
On the other end is “Curfew” which although it’s structural attempts to encompass it’s samples, particularly toward the beginning, it is quashed by Mala, he eclipses the song a minute in. Although it is a solid track, in the context of the album it falls short. The Tunnel similarly strays too close to the precipice of proto-dubstep.
The album is at very least intriguing and divisive. It does at times perfectly capture the natural ambiance of a culture with beautiful results. Where he has built the tracks around pivotal samples rather than applying them to his own mode he is most triumphant. It is clear Mala was never going to be able, in a short trip, get the balance perfect. It is ostensibly Mala’s interpretation of Cuban music, song like “Cuban Electronic” lose something of their original parts, sounding much closer to Skream’s brand of early dubstep, warping the snares and brass into a different mould. It’s a clear re-appropriation of an unknown sonic spectrum and perhaps it suffers from it’s context.
It is not a perfect album but it does represent a brave and heart-felled attempt to merge aesthetics. At it’s best it is challenging and immersive. Mala overcoming his aversion to the long player format and striving to something bigger than himself.