Whether as a producer from south London or a seasoned world traveller, Mark Lawrence AKA Mala has always found a way to forge deep bonds. For him, “life is all about relationships”.
Peru's one of those places where the land is very powerful; it's a presence
Mala's latest album Mirrors was created in Peru and comprises samples of local musicians whom he befriended. Through his encounters, Lawrence gained an insight into Peru’s diverse range of cultures, be it Afro-Peruvia, Spanish, Andean or Amazonian. He recorded instruments such as a quijadais, made from a donkey’s jaw; a cajita, which is a church donation box; and a cajón, a cargo shipping box originally played by slaves.
He also worked with music styles such as sikuri, an Andean dance that incorporates large bands of pan pipe players and drummers, and the zapateo, a form of tap-dance rooted in the Spanish Flamenco.
Mirrors is to be released through Gilles Peterson’s label Brownswood Recordings. It is Mala’s second album with Peterson and follows in the same vein as the previous release Mala in Cuba from 2012, when Lawrence collaborated with musicians from Havana.
I met my partner many years ago and she always spoke about Peru. Her closest friends are Peruvian, and she'd been before. As time went on, our relationship became more serious and we had kids. I just knew I would go there at some point.
After the Cuba record, Gilles and Brownswood asked if I wanted to do another and I suggested Peru. It was the perfect opportunity to go with the family.
They'd never been recorded; this type of style hadn't been recorded
When you have kids, its tough travelling on tour. You think its going to get easier as the kids get older but it gets harder because they're more aware that you're not there. They want to be with you as much as you want to be with them.
Were your family there the whole time?
For the first trip – we went out there for a month. My kids were three and one. Having them close allowed me to feel comfortable and free to explore. I went back to Peru three more times.
Did you have more control than you did with Mala in Cuba?
It was different. Gilles orchestrated the last one. He had his situation set up in Cuba; I was under his wing. But we would go off on adventures and meet random musicians. It was still experimentation. That process gave me an idea of how to approach another record.
Did you try not to absorb too much information about Peru before you left?
Definitely. You can read stuff but when you're sitting down with a person, or you're in that environment, things are different.
But I didn't go in there completely blind. Gilles introduced me to Martin Morales, who runs Tiger's Milk. It's a Peruvian label based in London. From what I remember, he's got the biggest Peruvian record collection outside of Peru.
He gave me an idiot's guide to Peruvian music, through records and videos. I told him to take me back as far as he knows. This was when I got introduced to Afro-Peruvian music and cumbia [an Andean dance music]. He opened my mind.
I planned my trip to Peru in November 2013 and he had some business out there too. Our days were crossing, so we met up the day after I arrived. He was holding a meet-and-greet session for his record label. On the back of it he said, 'My friend Mala is here from London, he did this album in Cuba and is looking to collaborate with musicians from Peru.'
I was surprised by how many people already knew what I'd been doing. It was very easy to find people. From that, I started to meet others. Like life, it's all about relationships and how you approach them.
Where in Peru did you stay?
In Lima, Cusco, and Urubamba, which is in the Sacred Valley. This was my favourite place to stay. Peru's one of those places where the land is very powerful; it's a presence.
Could you speak about the musicians you worked with.
I met up with a guy called Jorge [Giraldo], who was introduced to me by Martin. Him and a friend called Sergio [Sarria], from the cumbia band Bareto, just went above and beyond. Jorge put me up in his house for nothing. Bareto are big in Peru, so he was able to connect me with a couple of studios.
If I put some bate beats and bass over it, it wasn't going to work
One day Jorge was like, 'You've got to check this music out.' He sent me a YouTube link and I was like: I need this. It was a group of about 25 people playing pan flutes and percussion. I was leaving in a couple of days and there was no way to get it recorded.
After nine months, he finally found people that would play this style. We started negotiations and the money that they were asking for was way out of my budget.
They'd never been recorded; this type of style hadn't been recorded. It got to the point where I was like, 'I need you guys to come down for half and hour'. They agreed and I met the boss. He gave me a gift, a book about this style, which is known as sikuris.
It comes from a particular part of Peru, Puno – a city that's very high up. In February, there's a festival that happens there. Groups of sikuris players have tournaments, like soundclashes but with the pan pipes and drums.
Once the guy felt comfortable, he was like 'What do you want us to play?' I showed him the video. After about three seconds he said ‘Yeah don't worry about it, that's us’.
It went from them agreeing to record one song for half an hour to me documenting them on film. They went to their vehicle and put their tournament robes on.
We had 16 men in the studio all in a semi-circle. They got out a bottle of pisco – no branded stuff, this was some moonshine business – and started sipping on it, sharing it around, singing and getting into their mood.
After warming up, they were ready to record and stayed for four hours.
Did you do the bulk of your recordings with this group?
Not at all. The Afro-Peruvian percussion was with a guy called Marcos [Mosquera], he's part of a band called Novalima. They're white Peruvian and Afro-Peruvian. Grimaldo del Sola is one of the producers.
Grimaldo hooked me up with some real dons. They played most of the Afro-Peruvian rhythms. The zapateo, which translates as "stomping", is like tap-dancing and you have violins and also the cajon [percussion instrument]. Colectivo Palenke was another group who did a lot of recordings for me.
Could you speak about the two female singers you recorded.
The first singer is Danitse. I met her through Sergio. She was quite shy and didn't speak much English.
I remember just playing her a few of my songs and asked her what she'd like to play. She said she'd like to play something her mum used to sing to her, 'Cunumicita'.
She came to the studio and did it in one take. It sounded beautiful. It's a cover of a love song that is sung in part-Spanish and part-Quechua, the native language of Peru.
The second song, 'Sound of the River’ was sung by Sylvia Falcón. She's an anthropologist and is into maintaining and promoting Andean culture through her music. When you see her perform, she wears Incan clothing. She looks like a queen or a princess.
Sylvia has a powerful voice; she’s a soprano. Her dynamic is incredible. In the studio, she played to a metronome. I just wanted to have her essence and her not be influenced by what I'm doing.
The song is about someone far away who is longing for their home and wondering if their mum and dad are still thinking about them.
Did her song affect you?
For sure, maybe I'm just oversensitive by nature. A lot of people who have listened to the record have been touched by it.
There isn't one piece of music on the album that hasn't been touched by Peru
In the studio, I was listening to it and thinking to myself, what am I going to do with this? If I put some bate beats and bass over it, it wasn't going to work.
You formed a relationship with everyone you recorded. Did you feel worried when working on their samples?
Not worried but I wanted to make sure they felt appreciated.
There is another story about the 'Sound of the River'. In the Sacred Valley, I was with my son and we were walking by a stream. I had my dictaphone with me and was recording the sounds while he was throwing pebbles in.
My son turned around, looked up at the mountains and could see there were these heavy clouds coming. He said 'thunder's coming'. You can hear this at the beginning of the track.
This energy, this reality – regardless of whether you pick up on it – exists in this record. There isn't one piece of music on the album that hasn't been touched by Peru. By actually throwing myself into a place and its music, culture and people, I don't have to fabricate anything.