Over the summer I chatted to Gilles Peterson for the "Mala in Cuba" sleeve notes...
Blackdown: Hey Gilles, great to chat to you. So first of all, I’d love to know, really, about the beginning of this project. I didn’t raise it with Mala, I didn’t know whether it was appropriate or not but the funny thing is back in the day he always really wasn't sure about albums. And maybe he got over that with “Return II Space,” but what’s so great about this project is that Mala really seem to be comfortable with the album format for so many years, and it’s like, even in some of the interviews I’d done with him, it’s apparent on the record why he’s really resistant to it. So, I just think it’s fantastic that you got something of that length out of him.
Gilles: Yeah, yeah. Well, I’m delighted as well. I don’t think there was ever any sort of definite concept to the album. I mean, I was a fan of him and what he represented for many years… and his aura. In a way I just I went to the club…
B: Yeah, I remember seeing you there!
G: …Well, yeah, so that’s good because I only ever went once. Yeah, so, I went to the club and I remember Mary Anne Hobbs was at the door (laughs). It was probably about four years and it had been going for a while but… but it was quite a big deal for me because that was a Saturday night, and I work every Saturday night. So I really made the effort to go to Brixton.
B: And cancel a gig!
G: On a Saturday and all that. Anyway, the point was, I was discovering his music through Soul Jazz really because they were pretty quick at stocking that kind of sound. And I just kept an eye on him all that time really, and played the odd record on the radio that I liked and stuff. And then the Cuban project sort of came along and I wanted to have a second “alternative” approach to the project, just to make it more exciting for me really because, obviously, these projects that I do, under the Havana Cultura banner, they’re actually quite an amazing opportunity for a label like mine to be able to go and do something that’s funded by a brand. It reminds me a little bit of when Island Records used to do weird concept albums and stuff. In those days labels used to throw money at fusion projects or world music… like Kip Hanrahan or Bill Laswell.
So, for me, it was brilliant to work with an initiative like Havana Cultura, run by a French guy called François Renie, out of Paris. Fundamentally, for him, it was about me guiding people towards their website – havana-cultura.com. Havana Club is jointly owned by the Cuban government and Pernod Ricard, which is a French company, and the deal seems to be that they have to give something back and promote Cuban culture. So, they have a website called Havana Cultura which is a really passionate sort of guide to all things Cuban and cultural.
So, whether it’s art or dance, or music... They basically gave me carte blanche to go over there and discover what is currently happening in Cuba. So, I went over there, recorded an album – ‘Havana Cultura: New Cuba Sound’ – a few years ago, and we did a remix version of that too. And then for the second album – ‘The Search Continues’ – which we went and did last year, I was very keen to have a twist, and to be able to do my straightforward version, which was kind of me taking rappers, singers and musicians and having a nice platform for them. But, equally, I wanted to do something a little bit more experimental and just out of the blue, which was basically this kind of clash, this sort of Britishness and…
B: I’m glad you describe it as a “clash” because it’s interesting for me to find out if there is some kind of overlap between Mala’s take on sound system culture and Cuba’s roots. And maybe there are, like overlaps but maybe there aren’t. It’s not the first thing I’d think of for Mala to do, so yeah, “clash” is maybe a good one for it.
G: Yeah, I mean, I just wanted to have fun. I’m in such a good place to do this sort of project, I wanted to throw more things at it just so that there’d be more surprises to be had. I’ve always been a believer of just throwing stuff in… even some things that you just don’t think are going to work at all… and then, usually, things come out of negatives, as such. I knew that.
Anyway, for me, I just had an instinct and I just thought it would be really good. I wondered if Mala would try it because dubstep is a big part of British music culture over the last however many years and on one hand you’ve got the success of the Benga’s and the Skream’s, and the Skrillex’s, and whatever, and then you’ve still got this kind of foundation which belongs to Mala and what he has kind of created.
I’d done interviews with him on the radio and for a lot of reasons I was impressed by him and I thought it would be really interesting to see how he would react as a sort of Jamaican Englishman, coming from all that culture that we come from, who didn’t know anything about Cuban music, just throw him over there and see how he responds to it. And like I’m sure some people would have just gone: “Oh, where’s the local McDonalds?” and “I just want to stay there for three days and I’m actually not at all interested in the culture or anything.” Whereas, obviously, Mala was fascinated.
I mean, on one hand it was kind of like he’s an intelligent guy and he’s interested in the world… and the fact that he was from Jamaica, which is the island next door and Cuba’s there and it’s just so different, and they speak a different language and they’ve got different roots and stuff. But I thought, “Let’s throw him in”. So, I actually went over there, with him, just to sort of test the waters and see, just as a sort of holiday really. I was like: “Oh, do you want to come over to Cuba for a few days and see what you think of it? I’m not asking you to make an album or anything, I’m just I’m going so maybe there’ll be something in it”.
B: See what happens...
G: I was in such a privileged position to be able to offer him that haha. Which is great. And then he came over and for a couple of days we hung out and it was great. And then I had this studio booked with Roberto Fonseca, who’s kind of really important to the new Cuban sound because, I mean, on one hand he’s a pianist who’s world renowned as a jazz sort of prodigy. He came and played with Buena Vista Social Club, so he’s obviously touched that huge kind of Cuban heritage side, but then on the other hand, he’s totally young and modern, and interested, and global and worldly, and fascinated by everything. So, he’s just an incredible person. So, it’s been great.
B: So have you known him a while?
G: I met him on the first record. I was just really lucky that I just happened to… when I went out there to do my sort of checking-everything-out-before-I-make-the-record-type-of-visit, I was doing interviews for the radio as well and I was doing two or three things at once and when I interviewed him, I was like, “Actually, this is the guy to make the record” because he speaks good English and he gets, I mean, he doesn’t fully get my scene, but he definitely knows the difference between…
B: He’s open to it?
G: Yeah, he’s open to it and he was fascinated by some electronic music, and by dance music in general. So, it was like, “Oh, wow!” So he realised that certain people have heard of me… so, he was a bit fascinated by me. So, in a way, we kind of got on really well because we both worked it. So, for this new record I didn’t use Roberto as much because he was kind of quite jazz. Almost too jazz. It was good for the first record but for the second record, I wanted it to be a little bit, slightly different. I didn’t want him to kind of monopolise it because he’s so… because he is so prodigious he tends to almost frighten people, a little bit haha. He was that good.
So, I didn’t want him as involved in the making of my version of the album this time, but I did have him for a day, on that little testing visit with Mala. So, I introduced them. We went to the studio and I just thought it would be really good to ask Roberto… because obviously I wanted to start working on ideas for this… my version of the album, and so, I wanted to take rhythm tracks back to London with me, so that I could start working on compositions around them. And I thought, “This is quite good for me to kind of explain to Mala about the heritage of Cuban music, by asking Roberto play different Cuban rhythms to Mala”.
B: So, when you talked about a culture clash, I guess, in the back of my head I thought, on the other hand they also share a sense of importance of rhythm.
G: Yeah. I mean, between Jamaica and Cuba you’ve got a lot of different rhythms that have that – whether it’s mambo or cha cha cha, or Mozambique or descarga or the gun shot rhythm (laughs), or whatever, this is basically where it’s all from. So, I kind of wanted to explain to Mala about the essence of what makes Cuban music and how Cuban music has had such a huge influence on a lot of other music around the world. So, that’s where we went in the studio and I just asked Roberto to record, with a trio, and we had a couple of other instruments that we dropped in there. I can’t remember what else we had, but we had a couple of more traditional instruments in the studio as well, and literally recorded like twelve or thirteen rhythms.
And so, we recorded all that and that kind of, obviously, made Mala quite interested. He was like really fascinated by all that. And then we kind of had something to take back to England with us, musically, which he could then kind of live with and give himself time to try and understand it. We threw a lot at him in a very short space of time out of nowhere. And you’ve got to remember as well, that this is Mala, who’s somebody who’s got his labels, and he’s DJing and so I’m sort of, actually, throwing a lot at him in one go. And he’s going to need his own time to kind of to kind of put it all…
B: Mala is somebody who really does take his own time and feels his way through things, he feels, a way that things feel right or not to him.
G: Yeah. And that’s I suppose, that’s the other reason the project kind of ended up working because I don’t think I ever made him feel pressure in any way, I mean, apart from the fact that, well “You into this?” I didn’t kind of go, “Okay. Well, I’ve taken you to Cuba, now I want you to make me two tracks in two weeks time”.
B: And that’s one part of the process that I’m quite curious about your input and methods because obviously, I can see you’re doing this pretty amazing way of sort of pulling different people together, and sometimes, I guess, you might need to be really proactive in some, in other scenarios you might need to be a bit more, 'sit back and let things happen.' How do you choose what to do and how to be the person that, either actively or just subconsciously gets things together?
G: I don’t know. I mean obviously, I’ve been doing this for thirty years now, like A&Ring or being on one hand I’ll be headlining gigs myself, or on the other hand, I’ll be interviewing people, or I’ll be interviewed, or I’ll be A&Ring or I’ll be mentoring, or whatever I’ve been doing all aspects of the sort of music thing for quite a while. So, I’m still a mad music fan. I’m still somebody who’ll go and buy magazines and read them, and, not because I want to read about myself, but because I want to kind of find out about things. I’m still a fan in a lot of ways. And I think that with someone like Mala, or someone like Roni Size or groups like Masters at Work when I do the records of all of those people, or Carl Craig I think that I’ve found my place because I could talk their language, in a way. I wasn’t competing with them, as a producer, there was no sort of rivalry there, which is weird. I think that’s probably helped me slightly… I find myself in quite a good place that is close enough yet not too close.
B: So, does that mean, if you have this, a position that’s slightly removed, that you can, they’re open to like overt persuasion and more subtle persuasion, or that it’s just the balance sits right and you don’t really need to think about either really?
G: Yeah, I just think the balance is right. I think that I think that with all these things, I mean, I think persuasion is probably quite a good word because I mean, with Mala, actually, to be honest with you, I wasn’t thinking, okay, I’m going to do it in such a way that in a year’s time I’ll have this great album that could be a Mercury Prize winner.” I didn’t think like that haha. Obviously not to say that it’s going to be that, but, I just, I don’t know. The other thing is with the music industry these days, I mean, of course, you’re thinking about running your business and you’ve got people, who work for you and all that stuff, and you want it to work well, but I think that, equally, there’s so little to gain in the music industry these days. You can only do things and enjoy them, almost. Because if you’re going to try and deal with it to make money or whatever, I think you’ll be fucked really.
I don’t, so, for me, I’m just trying to have fun really. And I just wanted to have fun, I wanted to get to know Mala better and I wanted to… I thought he was a really interesting guy, and I thought and I thought, “Let’s just try…” I mean, really it isn’t any more complicated than that. I mean, literally he’s a really cool bloke, and I really respect what he does, I think he’s really relevant in terms of where he fits into this history, whether it’s sound system culture, club culture, or whatever.
B: He did sound like, talking about it, that he has really been through hell and back to do it, that he struggled, and it was a complicated thing for him to go through.
G: Definitely, definitely. When I spoke to him a couple of… just after he delivered the final record we went out, and he was like, “I was so close to saying that you can have your money back and here’s the record I got. I can’t keep with it” haha. But I kind of sensed that was happening anyway, a lot of the time, so I just left him to it really. And then, I think we were quite lucky and I think Simbad helped a lot as well…
B: Yeah. He said that Simbad was really crucial at a key point.
G: Yeah, he was crucial at that key point because he could just give him a little bit of that more traditional production value, and lessons about arrangement and this and that. He’s a musician so, actually, I think that was really… and Simbad is… Simbad is a mad guy so, I don’t know if you’ve met… have you met Simbad? Do you know him?
B: I haven’t, no but I feel like I must have heard his stuff before.
G: Everybody loves Simbad. He’s one of those guys who’s just totally, he’s so pure. He’s such a pure person. And especially in England, everyone’s like always after something or they’ve got another, they’ve got their own sort of agenda or whatever. He’s just totally honest and pure, and a nice bloke. I mean, I know that sounds weird, and people actually find him, they find that disconcerting because they think he’s got to have another agenda, but he’s not. I mean, I’m overstating it, but he’s one of those really unique blokes haha. Does my head in sometimes haha but he’s too nice. But, anyway, yeah, he came in good because he understands… he, because, again, he’s another one he’ll have the Koli Geet album, or he’ll listen to a new thing on Hyperdub and he’s right on top of that culture, musically. So, he can have those conversations with Mala. So, those two elements together and at a time when Mala was probably going through a moment of doubt, definitely gave the record a boost.
B: He sort of described it as getting himself into a maze or like fifteen different mazes at once, and couldn’t find his way through. And it sounds like a little bit of classical training from Simbad allowed him to see the route through.
G: Yeah. Yeah. I’d say that. I think that definitely I mean, I, again, I had absolutely nothing to do with any of that stuff. I literally let Mala get on with his stuff, send me some demos, I thought they were sounding good. It didn’t sound like it was quite, kind of getting to the next level two months later and I thought these guys get on really well, let’s send Simbad over there. That is probably that’s what good A&R is, I suppose.
B: It’s like a really great England substitution.
G: Yeah, it is hah. It was a good substitution.
B: You send Walcott on.
G: I send Walcott on, and exactly. So, yeah, and that’s what’s come out and we’re there.
B: I think what’s most amazing about it is, just as, definitely as somebody who’s listened to Mala’s music right from well, dubplate really, so before “Pathwayz,” it was just that, I think it has a uniqueness of the sounds he’s chosen, because they are all organic instruments and all Cuban organic instruments, that like having that number of tracks with the same, or related instrument families, and then Mala’s approach to each of them, musically differently, but like with different melodies and so on, it makes it really coherent and also really unique because it doesn’t entirely sound like anything Mala’s done before, but there are elements that are very familiar to what he’s done before.
G: Yeah, I mean, it’s all of that. I just love watching people… I just love the spell that he casts on people when he’s either DJing or when that record goes on. People who don’t really know whether they like that music or not… Mala’s got an incredible… he gets everybody with his music. It’s very… it’s hypnotic.
B: It’s a very direct extension of who he is inside. That was the funny thing was that, Emily, who works for you, asked me to write a biog for Mala the other day and I wrote one and it didn’t feel like… I couldn’t write a normal biog for him, like a normal 'list of achievements' type thing. I wrote really what I felt was the essence of Mala’s music.
And then after that Mala reminded me on the phone that I’d done one for him about five years ago, he’d compared it to that and they were very similar. And it was like, it’s because that’s in essence still who he is, like that sense of trying to generate unity and connection through - in a positive way – his music. And I honestly think people connect with that in a way that subconsciously they don’t realise what he’s trying to do, but it’s very powerful. And I don’t know if all musicians have that kind of message sometimes. Maybe they should do but…
G: He found his reason for being, that’s for sure and he’s advancing it. And, I think, this project is coming at a very interesting time as well because, of course, of where that movement has gone, and all the different directions it’s gone and also I think a lot of people missed what he was doing five, six, seven years ago because it was too ahead and they weren’t ready for it. And now… they’ve subconsciously heard that sound, and now, when we go and drop this record, I think a lot of people are going to be ready for it. More than they would have been at the time. And I think the dubstep movement, whatever, if you want to call it that these days, I think it could kind of give it some new sense of… well give it that direction again. Or I mean, I don’t know if you want to call it dubstep, that’s a bit of a weird term, but it’ll be interesting to see… it’s just funny to hear the likes of Skream and Benga and those people, because they all really love him, don’t they?
B: Totally, yeah.
G: I mean, he’s really important to them.
B: He’s revered.
G: Yeah, revered, so, it’s going to be it’s kind of making everybody go, “Hang on a minute. Where are we coming from?” and that’s quite… I’m really interested in all that.
B: Yeah, and I think it’s true… I think there is a danger that dubstep will make itself irrelevant, or what most people think is dubstep, will make itself irrelevant. And maybe, arguably, already has sort of en masse perhaps already has and so, I think an album like this could be, like you say, influential in that direction. And the best thing about it, is though, that it still maintains a lot of the sound system values and the intensity from that culture. The impact of his music rather than it just being really mellow and not having the counterpoint of the bass or the drums and so on. It’s got that both sides to it.
G: That’s why I was really pleased when I heard the record it had, it does get rude and naughty at times. I was really pleased he didn’t make because it’s very easy to sort of make a record, ‘oh Gilles Petersen is involved and it’ll end up becoming a little bit jazzy, oh, here’s a trumpet or whatever’ that’s easy, I’m very aware of that with some of the projects that I’ve done and tried to keep them as dark as possible.
B: You go round telling people to be ruder haha?
G: A bit because that’s what I love about it. That’s why I love Masters at Work because Kenny Dope’s going to get dirty and that’s always been my thing. Roni was another example of that, when we did Reprazent. It was just fresh at the time, but it still had a big essence of the ruder side of drum & bass at the time. So, with this record, I was just delighted that it was just the right amount of melody arrangement but without forgetting what it’s about and where it’s coming from. So, I think that’s the most satisfying part of this record because it doesn’t ever really go into a kind of cool sort of lounge music thing. Because it could so easily have become that.
B: Totally. Well, sort of. I mean, except, of course, it’s Mala and Mala being Mala, it never would have. But, yeah, yes, I totally mean that you could see how a lighter dubstep remix could have gone in that direction. But, yeah, it’s brilliant that it didn’t, and it’s much stronger for it. It didn’t make as much sense to me the first few times I heard it, and so I had chance to listen to it loud and with the bass properly up, and suddenly you hear both working together and in harmony rather than the upper registers by themselves.
G: That’s important. That’s really important. I mean, we did this party in Paris last week. We did a listening party there, and the sound system wasn’t right. So, we had to go and get a sound system at the last minute, into the venue. But, it was great, yeah, we were really lucky, how it was, definitely the spirits were with us, and we had like forty, fifty people in there, and it was amazing because it sounded great. And we just listened to it from the beginning to the end, and everybody got it and it was really important. So, we’re doing one here, in London, in a few weeks time as well. We’re going to do one in New York. So, it’s really important for us to kind of present the record to the people who are going to be the tastemakers, and the people that are important, and the journalists and all that stuff. And we really want them to listen to the record the way it should be heard because, in this day and age I mean, I’m getting all this music sent, I’m just I’m making my decisions over my little, shitty little laptop speakers. And so it’s important to try and make sure people can experience it in full sort of three hundred and sixty degrees.
B: It totally didn’t make sense to me, entirely, until I’d heard it up with the bottom end properly so I can see why you want to present it in those environments rather than somewhere else.
G: Yeah. So, hopefully, people are getting that.
B: Cool. Well, I mean, I think that’s most of the picture of… as I need it, unless there’s other bits that you think we haven’t covered?
G: No. I’m delighted, I mean, one of the nice stories, actually, it was… I don’t know, I’m sure he told you about it, was when we went over there on the, I think it was the first visit as well, he did a party. We got him to DJ over there. So, that was… he kind of did the first official dubstep party in Cuba, in Havana. And at this event, which was kind of this the cool kids were there, the ones that the little the sort of the, like in any society, it might be communist but you’re still going to get your cooler kids and your so that kind of nice venue, pretty girls and good crowd and stuff. And he was banging it out, and they were kind of they were… the crowd was kind of hip to the music, they were very interested by it all. And literally, I don’t know if he told you this, but suddenly there’s this bloke who starts playing the trumpet, and he sounded brilliant. I was like, “Well, I got to get him in the studio tomorrow”. And that’s a really nice sort of… nice moment in the record, and it’ll be great when he comes over to play trumpet when they’re doing some shows, hopefully, in the autumn.
B: Are they going to do a live project out of it?
G: Yeah, yeah. We’re going to do it. I mean we’re going to, I mean I say live, in my head, I’m seeing the Roundhouse, I’m seeing Mala, some percussion I’m seeing Changuito playing congas, who’s like a proper legend, Cuban musicians, some wicked visuals, a bit of piano, maybe, with Roberto just coming in for a couple of but I’m seeing the kind of sound system, but with Cuba, and three thousand people bouncing like it was, like DMZ. I’m seeing that for sure. I think that’d be amazing. So, yeah, I think, I think Mala’s going to be… in a way Mala’s quite modest, isn’t he? He doesn’t quite realise, in a way, who he is, and I think that he is not far from being able to… I mean, I saw Nicolas Jaar last year at the Roundhouse and I was like, “Oh, God!” This is sold out on a fucking Wednesday in February, snowing outside. I was like, “My God there is a world for this”… Mala would just murder this. So I’m hoping that he’s going to be really up for doing all that stuff.
B: Well, that will definitely get to a new audience as well.
G: Nice one, Martin.
B: Alright. Thanks, Gilles.
- "Mala in Cuba" is out now: A&R by Mr Gilles P, music by man like Mala, sleevenotes by me. Read my 2004 Digital Mystikz interview here and 2007 Mala interview here.
My Roots of ( gratitude to) Gilles Peterson
So... it was fun interviewing Gilles because he, alongside others, really influenced me back in the day. Around '98/99 if you got a remix for Talkin' Loud you were obviously hot property, and the album projects were all serious business. So here's a bunch of tracks Gilles released, compiled or first lead me to. Respect.
Roni Size / Reprazent "Brown Paper Bag"
Nuyorican Soul "I am the Black Gold of the Sun (4hero remix)"
Krust "True Stories"
MJ Cole "Sincere (2000 dub)"
Incognito "Out of the Storm (carl craig planet remix)"
Soul Dhamma "Flower (The Underwater Garden Dub)"
The Isley Brothers "Ohio"
Joyce "Aldeia De Ogum"
John Martyn "Solid Air"
Bigup Tasha, James and Mark who remember these times too. Memory flood...