'Mala in Cuba' infuses Cuban music into skittery electronics. Mala describes the trips to Havana that inspired him.
When DJ tastemaker Gilles Peterson invited South London UK electronic innovator Mala to record an album set in Cuba, Mala was skeptical. Having traveled all over the world under the acclaimed Digital Mystikz production moniker and running the DMZ label and party scene, Havana — with its political reputation — didn’t exactly seem the ideal place to foster creative expression. But when we spoke to Mala, we were excited to learn that even legends can be inspired.
Mala told us all about his upcoming Cuba-inspired album, Mala in Cuba, out September 11 on Brownswood Recordings. He also touched on consumerism, Gilles, EDM, the art of being truly underground, and how Cuba managed to affect him forever.
Tell me some stories from Cuba.
Cuba is a colorful place. It’s unlike anywhere else I’ve been. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been to 67 countries, but Cuba was one of those places — everywhere you look, there’s a picture to be taken. One story, which I guess relates to the album, is that there was a guy who decided to put on a house party for myself and Gilles Peterson…the party was between two houses. He brought a big sound system in, and we played at this party. Then while we were playing one guy said “can I play with you?” and if that happens in London or new York, it generally means someone is asking to come to the microphone to MC, but then he pulled out his trumpet, and I said ‘yeah go for it!’ and he was amazing! I said why don’t you come to the studio around 11 o’clock tomorrow? And he came. He is what is featured on the track “Calle F.”
That was Gilles. It wasn’t my choice. I never would have picked to go to Cuba to work on an album at all. It was Gilles who’d been working on a project with Havana Cultura, which is a project where they search for and bring in Cuban musicians. He’s been doing a couple of albums, and he was asked to go back again, but he wanted to do something different than the traditional stuff. For some strange reason he asked me to come with him. After hesitation — because I knew it would be out of my comfort zone — there was something about this approach that’s really genuine, and despite my fears and apprehension, it felt like an opportunity not to pass on. It was in November 2010 then we went to Cuba and we went out with no concept of what was going to happen. There really is a concept, a real story behind the album.
What surprised you about your visit?
There were a lot of things that surprised me. Just the way the system is there. It’s very different from what I knew growing up in London, so yeah, the system itself is very different and quite surprising, but at the same time, people are not unhappy. They enjoy living and love life, and they’re just as free as anybody else. I think that’s a common misconception. It’s not a place where you see a lot of materialism. You don’t see a lot of commercial stuff or retail stuff. It’s not plagued by consumerism. You can’t get Hello magazine or OK magazine, you’re not looking up at a billboard and seeing Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, not that I have anything against them, I’m just using them as an example. You don’t have that kind of bombardment of ‘be this, be that, buy this, buy that.’ It was a breath of fresh air.
Also, the musicians in Cuba are phenomenal, and their openness to educate me was overwhelming.
How do you think the album will be received in Cuba?
I think a lot of them have yet to hear the album actually. I was actually asked to go and play for the British embassy, which was a totally different experience. It’s like seeing two opposite ends of the spectrum. But on this recent trip I worked with some of the musicians I worked with last time, and Cuban rappers. I played them the music. I was nervous and apprehensive. Because it’s Cuban inspired, but it’s really about me and my experience, and it’s not a traditional sounding record. They would never make a record like that. It’s like South London meets Havana. But I was pleasantly surprised by how they felt. They started rapping over it. They are bona fide hip hop guys, and this is a totally different bpm, a different sonic design, but they heard the Cuban vibe in it and loved it.
And in America? The dubstep and electronic music scene has changed dramatically but you’ve stuck to a pretty independent sound for this.
Yes, I guess I have. I am kind of like that by nature. I’m not really anti-anything. I believe everyone has a different walk and path in life. People making huge amounts of money have been inspired by underground movements, and a lot of the originators are not even heard of anymore, some people get upset about it. But for me, it’s just how it is. They’re not taking any food off my plate, and why should I have a problem with someone who is commercially successful? I don’t see myself as a dubstep artist so I don’t dictate the scene….I see myself as more of a roots kind of a guy, and no matter how big of a tree grows, roots always stay underground.
Watch Mala’s video for “Cuba Electronic” off the album Mala in Cuba