Review Summary: Mala's first release as a transient for Gilles Peterson might not be lacking in ideas and passion, but unlike its motive its execution is, at times, a little questionable
Like a welcoming dignitary on strange lands does Mala In Cuba
begin in greeting, a beacon of hospitable gesturing that serves as the ushering in behind the velvet rope into London's very own Buena Vista Social Club. A tourist, like one and all, its friendly invitation is as much for the artist as it is the listening audience, attentively held and captivated by an album that serves as as love letter to a city that has unknowingly given so much to one tourist in particular. And like a souvenir has the flavor, the very essence of the city been smuggled across the waters back to home base, the heatstroke-inducing sun now robbed of its power as it finds itself surrounded and snuffed out by the fog and litany of horns and voices. For Mark Lawrence, a man continually referred to as the defining producer for a genre he's never cared to officially align himself with, this pilgrimage of sorts (two separate trips to be exact) served as a chance to lose and then find himself all over again, to define an alter ego that's become a linchpin to a movement that in the blink of an eye moved from basement meditation to stadium-sized orgasm. To perhaps quietly shake things up; and Lawrence, as Mala, a man perpetually in the shadows soaking up the atmosphere like a sponge, could perhaps be seen as the only one capable of pulling off such a task without returning with something farcical and immediately disposable.
In saying that though, there is a tendency to treat such interesting expeditions as the curios that they undoubtedly are, the idea that this "tampering" of the continuum, this cross-contamination of cultures might simply wind up as an intriguing artifact destined to be buried and unearthed years from now like a kind of misplaced trinket.That this album should exist, let alone succeed is a quiet miracle in itself, but its success lies within the producers' ability to fill it full of the wide-eyed excitement and amazement that's become stereotypical of the wandering backpacker attempting to shake hands with the great wide world. Make no mistake though, this isn't a Mala & Friends ensemble piece; though the project began with Lawrence playing host to a variety of local artists, playing skeletal 140bpm beats and inviting improvisation, Mala In Cuba
is very much Mala
's interpretation of Cuban music, set against a bedrock of cast-down bass intrigue and serpentine drum loops.
As such, this unconventional marriage winds up being one that's most conventional, with the traffic of conversation decidedly one way. With a purported 60gigs of free based material to work with there is a kind of sad acceptance to be had in the idea that perhaps more couldn't have been made with the music on hand, that this newly minted relationship, one that spans thousands of miles couldn't perhaps be a touch more amicable to each other, instead of regarding the other as a distant acquaintance. A cheeky piano melody may strike up at one end of the spectrum (mischievous when developed under Mala's watchful eye), and a circle of percussionists banging out mantras on their timbales may stoke their fires on the other, but more often than not are they simply ear candy, leftfield samples (live recordings cut and looped to be more accurate) culled from a unique source. Despite its title, Mala In Cuba
is still London through and through; it might be the hastily scrawled note on the back of a postcard delivered from parts unknown, but the writer is very much dreaming of home. For an album created under the pretense of experimentation Mala plays it almost dead straight, and while the fish out of water characteristic might be a perfect fit for the idea of the album, it's one uncharacteristic for a producer who is notoriously reticent about what he puts out.
While 'Ghost' or 'The Tourist' do manage to shed some light on the adventurous streak of the album, there's a 'Curfew' or 'The Tunnel' to rein it back into a world of subway cars and roads choked with pedestrians migrating en masse to their 9 to 5's. It doesn't stop the album from being of the refreshing variety, but its trailblazing feels distant and second hand, like a sign that reads "Mala Was Here". Mala In Cuba
isn't the spirit of a proud lion relocating, but rather the retelling of an event we weren't apart of, brushed up into something uniquely enjoyable on at least some level.