Back in the early noughties, when Mala’s Digital Mytstikz crew started teaming spliffed out reggae subs with UK Garage’s nervous twitch, the sound was an anomaly; a Croydon fetish of inner city blues, skunk paranoia and new millennium dread. Its dark spaces and techno melodies drew a loyal, insular following. No one could have predicted what would follow; dubstep mutating to monstrous proportions, and, for better or worse, its new suit of ubiquitous bass wubs and half speed snare smashes have spilled out from South London to become a global pop phenomenon, leering a thuggish head in tracks by everyone from Britney Spears to Connor Maynard. It’s all a long way from the cerebral dub soundscapes pioneered by DMZ back in the day, and Mala’s new project rejects the bolshy brostep developments of the last 5 years outright.
As the album’s title suggests, this collection has Mala exploring fertile Afro Cuban music ethnographies, and tethering them to his own sub low science. Decamping his studio to Havana, the producer worked with a stream of local musicians to produce a snapshot of a country where traditional music thrives. The result lies somewhere between Buena Vista Social Club and late night Rinse FM. On some tracks the gnarly grime of the UK sound dominates- The Tunnel is a long, dark, bass heavy skanker that’s only nod to its tropical surroundings is some shuffling, insectile percussive ticks, and the same can be said of Changuito’s ponderous tech step, that is, until a haunted blast of trumpet draws the track deep into the jungle. Elsewhere the worlds meet with more cohesion- Change has adds beautiful strings and squelches to the Lain piano loops, and teeters between the optimistic and melancholic, a fitting emotional palette for an island on the brink of an uncertain future, and Calle F has jazzy horns duelling with synthetic counterparts over a syncopated, bass heavy drum pattern.
At times Mala in Cuba sinks into coffee table chill out blandness, conjuring the unwelcome spectre of late 90s Buddha Bar compilations. Fortunately however, there is enough spirited musicianship to keep the set running along, and jittering work outs like Revolution offer a genuine melding of musical cultures. If you got lost by the ear pummelling direction producers Chase & Status and Skrillex have dragged dubstep into, then you’ll find this a welcome return to deeper, headier roots.