London based DJ and producer Mala is one of the most important pioneers of dubstep music. As a
member of Digital Mystikz, Mala recorded several early anthems of the dubstep scene. While his
influential club nights and highly respected DMZ record label helped to establish and spread dubstep
music beyond its origins in the industrial ghettos of London.
In 2011, renowned BBC radio host and label owner Gilles Peterson approached Mala with the idea
of traveling to Cuba to collaborate with local musicians. The result is Mala in Cuba, a full-length LP featuring an unprecedented soundclash between traditional Cuban rhythms and Mala's full-on dubstep production.
The improbable mix works, retaining the essence of Mala's dubbed-out, bass-heavy production while
never losing sight of the frenetic Cuban poly-rhythms. I spoke with Mala from his home in London; he
shared his thoughts on Cuban culture and the production methods behind this highly anticipated LP.
NUVO: What were your initial thoughts when Gilles Peterson approached you about this
Mala: Initially, I was a little bit apprehensive. But there was definitely something about Gilles and the way he approached me that felt like it was a genuine opportunity not to be missed. Despite knowing that I would be out of my usual environment and comfort zone, it's just something I went ahead with.
We actually went to Cuba for the first time in January of 2011. We didn't really have a concept other
than to meet up with musicians and make an album. How it would come about and who we would work
with, hadn't yet taken shape. It was really just about going out there and seeing what would happen.
The first trip was just going to be an education for me — just to go and check out Cuba, meet some
musicians, sample Cuban food and try to experience the country.
That first trip ended up with us working with Roberto Fonseca and his band; hey basically recorded all
the material I ended up kind of resampling and twisting in my way to create the album.
NUVO: Can you describe the process you used to write and produce the music on the album?
Mala: Roberto Fonseca and his band recorded traditional Cuban rhythms for me to listen to. They were all recorded professionally onto tape into a Pro Tools-type system. All the parts were recorded separately. The drummer consisted of five or six different mics and I have all the stems from the drum parts. Same with the congas, they used two or three mics. Same with the contrabass and the piano as well.
On my second trip, I recorded with the Cuban percussionist Changuito and that was a little different
because I'd already been there with beats that I created from what the initial musicians gave me.
Changuito recorded over them. What I basically did was take all the material I gathered, stripped it
down and rebuilt it. Not rebuilding it in a way to recreate the traditional Cuban rhythms, I was trying
to create songs and music that I would enjoy playing out from the rhythms they gave me. So some
songs might only use a high hat from the drummer and that would inspire me to write a track. I might
take some congas from another rhythm. It wasn't like a took whole tracks and remixed them. It was all
separate audio parts that I took home to reconstruct. It was really like sampling, actually.
NUVO: Did you have any interest in Latin music prior to this?
Mala: I knew stuff like Buena Vista Social Club. I went to Venezuela a few years back, they introduced me to their music. I've listened to Brazilian music. I have a very basic understanding about
certain vibes and certain rhythms. This experience about me up to a new color and a new frequency,
new rhythms and sounds. I felt very grateful that.
NUVO: This is a big departure from your work with Digital Mystikz; does this still feel like your
Mala: It definitely feels like my music. However, I would never have been able to create this record
had I not gone to Cuba and worked with the musicians I did. Not just their music, but their vibe and
spirit. There was an energy I got from these people in Cuba that was kind of ingrained in the process.
Sometimes you meet people and you hear their stories and you can't forget it. It wasn't just a little
holiday in Cuba and that was the end of that. I really was affected by my experience there for so many
different reasons. As much as I feel like it is my record, had I not been to Cuba I could never have
I played the finished album for some Cuban musicians and they said they could hear the Cuban vibe
in it. That was nice to hear from them. As much as it's my interpretation of the people I met, the food
I ate, the places I visited and the music that I heard. Ultimately, I'm not Cuban and there's no way I'm
going to make a traditional Cuban-sounding album. It's not what I could do. So it's nice that they heard
the Cuban elements.
NUVO: Is this album just a one-off, or will this project have a lasting influence on your music?
Mala: I've never made an album before. I've never been asked by a label to write an album. I've never
worked with musicians. So, the whole project from start to finish was a really different way of working.
Sometimes, when we approach new adventures we encounter obstacles and hurdles that are difficult
to overcome and make us feel uneasy. Definitely during the process of this album, it was challenging
for a lot of different reasons. I think the fact I stuck with it and worked through it the way that I did
has given me a different perspective on how to approach creating. I think in some way this will have
an effect on me for the rest of my life. I dedicated a year to creating this record. Cuba itself is a very
colorful place and the people I met there are very special people.
I'd like to do something similar to this again. Who knows where I'll travel to next? I do have a place in
mind where I'd like to go, but until I get there, I'll just keep it to myself.
Mala in Cuba is set for release on September 10.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection spotlights experimental Cuban grooves, featuring two tracks from Mala in Cuba
1. Mala - Cuba Electronic (2012, Brwonswood)
2. Los Van Van - Y No le Conviene (1976, Areito)
3. Los Reyes 73 - Adeoey (1973, Areito)
4. Buena Vista Social Club - Chan Chan [Peter Zohdy Edit] (2012, white label)
5. Orishas — 537 C.U.B.A. (2000, EMI)
6. Anga Díaz - A Love Supreme (2005, World Circuit)
7. C.I.V. Jefatura De Retaguardia — Es Mi Bandera (197?, Areito)
8. Grupo Irakere - Juana 1600 (1978, Areito)
9. Pedro Luis Ferrer — Operacion Sitio (197?, Areito)
10. Chucho Valdés - La Sombra (1970, Areito)
11. Mala - Calle F (2012, Brwonswood)