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Mala, ‘Mala in Cuba’ (Brownswood)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: September 11, 2012
Label: Brownswood

Mala is a tourist, but a cautious one. Discussing the self-explanatory Mala in Cuba, his first major release in years, the dubstep savant and member of South London’s Digital Mystikz admitted that he was hesitant to take on the project at all, explaining he had little knowledge of Cuban music and was wary of half-assedly dabbling in such lively regional sounds. But when BBC Radio One stalwart Gilles Peterson insisted — the album is part of the DJ’s Havana Cultura: The Search Continues project, a showcase of the country’s musical melting pot presented on his Brownswood imprint &#8212 the quiet, dreadlocked producer succumbed.

While dubstep recently has been valued solely by the atomic weight of its bass, tightly wound builds and crashing drops have no place in this world: Mala in Cuba prefers continuously driving movement to the stop-and-go suspense of the genre’s more popular producers. Keeping true to his dubby Digital Mystikz aesthetic, Mala uses gently bloated bass lines as dense, cloudy cushions for the complicated orchestration of snappy Afro-Cuban drums; the most gripping moments come when he chases after complicated 5/8 clave rhythms, rather than succumbing to the 4/4 catch-and-release pulse that Skrillex and Datsik fans know and love.

Meanwhile, a gang of Cuban musicians and fellow Havana Culturaartists provide the jolting Red Bull counterpoint to those subtle, pulsing thuds. That dubstep relies almost entirely on electronically created sounds can make live contributions feel out of place, so Mala does what he does best: Filling up his hard drive with live Afro-Cuban jazz, bata, rumba, and other local sounds during his time in Cuba, then returning to London and stripping down that lively raw material only to build it all back up, heavier and bigger. The resulting melodies are minimal, issuing in short, repetitive bursts: “Calle F” uses jazz pianist and one-time Bueno Vista Social Club showman Roberto Fonseca’s choppy keys plus zippy trumpet runs to glide over murmurs of reverb, while “Ghost” leans on somber horns to balance urgent congas. “Changuito” stars the legendary titular percussionist, his signature clave-and-bongo-bells routine recorded as a freestyle and expertly shaped into an album highlight.

The cultural integration here is key. Unlike the backseat driving of popular labels that flaunt their global crate-digging chops (see Mad Decent) or the recent boom in sample-heavy, Latin-fused Internet genres like moombahton, Mala’s fusion of U.K. bass and Caribbean rhythms comes naturally. In fact, the only request he made of his collaborators was that they stick to dubstep’s middle-ground 140-BPM tempo. “I don’t call my music ‘dubstep,'” says Mala. “My music is all digital. It is all mystic.” Which explains “Como Como,” an African-born bata song wherein Dreiser Durruthy sings responsorial scripts to evoke the spirit of the drum. Or “Noches Suenos” (that’s “Night Dreams”), with R&B vocalist Danay Suarez channeling the same kind of fantastically soothing dub that Digital Mystikz proffered on 2006’s “Ancient Memories,” with the foggy wub drowning out her smooth, Badu-like soulfulness. As Katy B is to Benga or La Roux is to Skream, Suarez ends up being to Mala: a fitting siren precisely because she doesn’t try to be one.

With Mala, it all comes back to dub. He may play the role of an outsider exploring new sounds here, but he’s no stranger to soundclash culture: Most tracks live or die on percussion and bass, but the strongest successes are borne of competitive internal tension, where insistent, weighty plods and looming chords wrestle with quick-footed claves and congas. The sinister, pitched-down reverb of “Tunnel” feels like a call-and response between neighboring subwoofers; “Curfew” centers on jazzy piano melodies subsumed by bass with a quicksand-like pull that evokes Digital Mystikz cohort Coki’s manipulations (alongside Benga) on 2008’s “Night.”

Most importantly, Mala avoids the biggest trap Mala in Cuba set for him: falling into the painful clichés of jazzy “world music.” True, “Intro” and “Tourist” approach the yawn-y kitsch of too much urban electronica (Thievery Corporation’s loungy ESL imprint comes to mind), but their titles at least warn you what to expect. And Mala consistently weaves the Cuban elements deep into the threads of his low-end theorizing, rather than treating them as tacked-on afterthoughts.

It’s a weird time for dubstep. Latin and African influences in popular, festival-spanning electronic music are more prominent than ever, and also more puzzling than ever: Tribal face-paint, feathered headgear, and animal-print leggings are popular fashion choices for festivalgoers, making a wildly confused joke out of the music itself. Amid all that cultural confusion basking in a neon glow, Mala in Cuba is a welcome relief, an artist reveling in his uncertainty and building it into something original and authentic.