Play It Forward: Mala Sees The Space Between The Notes | New Hampshire Public Radio

Play It Forward: Mala Sees The Space Between The Notes

Jul 17, 2020

In the inaugural season of Play It Forward, we've followed a musical chain of gratitude across genre, regions and time. First up was Dan Snaith, the Canadian indie-electronic auteur who records as Caribou. He was thankful for Glenn Copeland, an outsider musician in his 70s whose music went largely unnoticed until it was rediscovered by a Japanese collector in 2015. Copeland spotlighted a young band from Canada named Bernice, and its lead singer Robin Dann passed the chain to Georgia Anne Muldrow. Muldrow passed it to saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, and Benjamin to James Blake.

In the last episode of Play It Forward, James Blake dug into his musical past to pick an artist he's grateful for and our final artist in this chain. Before he went global, Blake was a figure in U.K. dance music and his biggest inspiration was Mala, a pioneering dubstep producer in the scene's vanguard. As one half of the duo Digital Mystikz, in the mid-2000s Mala helped turn a South London church basement into the epicenter of dubstep with a bimonthly night at DMZ.

Blake found inspiration in the community and atmosphere of DMZ — he even played a night in 2011 — but he developed a deeper appreciation for Mala's music. Restrained and minimal, pulling from U.K. garage and jungle influences, Mala's tracks were antithetical to dance music at the time. Yet they rang out at DMZ and, eventually, around the world as dubstep went international.

In this episode, Mala talks about meeting James Blake for the first time and wielding minimalism as a way to inspire imagination and free thinking. Since he's the final artist in the chain, we let him choose whomever he wanted, dead or alive or totally unattainable for an interview; Mala chose the late Jamaican dub producer Augustus Pablo. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights of the conversation.

YouTube


Interview Highlights

On meeting James Blake for the first time

I remember first meeting James many years ago, and I remember him handing a CD to me. We used to run an event called DMZ, and I remember outside of the venue, there was an old Jamaican guy who used to sell jerk chicken and mac and cheese at, like, 6 in the morning. His name was Speedy, and I remember we were getting some food at 6 a.m. when the dance had finished. And I just remember this really tall young guy coming over to me and going, "Oh Mala, I love your music, I just made some songs. I wonder if you'd be interested in listening to my CD." I remember going home and listening to that CD a couple days later, and I just remember being really inspired by what he was doing at such an early stage. I think at the time he gave me music, it was still kind of unfinished. To see how he's somehow managed to become so popular and his music has reached such a wider mainstream audience, his music is still very, very original and organic to who he his. And for me, that's what my musical journey has always been about: How can we go the distance without compromising?

On being drawn to minimalism

I think partly how I am as a human, maybe I felt the push of man in city, London, that kind of drive and energy, and maybe being a little bit exhausted by what appeared to be an acceleration. So I've found it much more interesting to take the foot off the gas. Just like you can read between the lines, there's something in between the notes that happens as well, and when music is overly colorful and blatantly obvious, for me that's not so interesting. The music can be extremely well made and it connects with you in just the same way, but I've found I was much more curious about what was happening in between the sound, you know? The space that you give to a listener.

It almost allows the listener to conjure up their own melodies and their own thoughts, using their own imagination. And I think for me, and ever more so in the world that we're living in, freedom of thought should be exercised at all costs. So for me, making music that kind of bombarded a message or was pushing some type of agenda or something like this didn't seem to make sense. It was more about allowing people to discover the music and interpret it in their own way. And I think allowing space and having something that's minimal, I think, it's a lot easier to do that.

YouTube

On Augustus Pablo

Augustus Pablo [is] most known for his playing of the melodica, such a simple instrument. His music, when I was listening to it as a teenager, really inspired me to be free with the music I was making, because that's what I always heard in his music. Just kind of this real simplicity and a real freedom of his playing. Obviously, the music being from Jamaica, I always felt like there was sunshine in his music and that really inspired me, not in terms of how I wanted my music to sound sonically, but more of an approach and more of a mindset.

I think within his music there's real strong words and real strong messages without any words actually being spoken. And when I listen to his music, again it comes back to that simplicity and freedom. And I think not just in music but also in life, these are two things that, if we can sometimes scale down a little bit, and look at things with a more simplistic view, I think sometimes things would feel much more free.

A message for Pablo

I'm not sure I would have anything to say to him aside from "thank you" for all the music he's made and for the journey that he was on because it's really inspired not only myself, but I'm sure many generations before me, and he will continue to inspire many generations after me. Some things are beyond words, and what I would have to say to Augustus Pablo is far beyond words.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time for our musical chain of gratitude Play It Forward, where artists tell us about their music and the musicians they're thankful for. Last time, superstar producer James Blake told us why he's grateful for Mala, a dubstep pioneer who is one-half of the groundbreaking duo Digital Mystikz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAMES BLAKE: If you listen to Mala, you're basically getting, like, a masterclass in minimal drum programming. And he sort of expanded my imagination about what dance music could be and how intricate and how interesting but, at the same time, completely primal it could feel.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to him next. So what would you like to say to Mala?

BLAKE: I'd like to say, honestly, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It's hard to put into words what your music did for me and then also to meet you and to become friends with you to find out that you're just this extremely giving person. It confirmed, you know, you really should meet your heroes.

SHAPIRO: And Mala joins us now.

Welcome to Play It Forward.

MALA: Thank you. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: To start, I just wonder what it was like for you to hear that from James Blake.

MALA: (Laughter) It's a lot, you know?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Yeah.

MALA: Yeah. You know, James - as James mentioned, you know, we have become, you know, friends over the years. And I know the respect is mutual. And, you know, I remember first meeting James many years ago. I remember him handing a CD to me. We used to run an event called DMZ. And I remember outside of the venue, there was an old Jamaican guy who used to sell kind of, like, jerk chicken and mac and cheese at, like, 6 in the morning. And I remember we was getting some food at - you know, at 6 a.m., when the dance had finished.

And I just remember this - you know, this really tall, young guy coming over to me and going, you know, oh, Mala. You know, I love your music. I've just made some songs. I wondered if you'd, you know, be interested in listening to my CD. And I remember going home and listening to that CD a couple of days later, and I just remember being really kind of inspired by what he was doing at such an early stage.

I think at the time he gave me music, it was still kind of unfinished in that respect. To see how he somehow managed to become so popular and his music reached such a wider, mainstream audience - his music is still, I think, very, very original and organic to who he is. And for me, that's what my musical journey has always been about. It's like, how can we go the distance without compromising?

SHAPIRO: Why do you think you're drawn to minimalism? I mean, why do you think that's the kind of music that you make?

MALA: I think partly how I am as a human. Maybe I've felt the kind of - the push of just man in city, London, that - kind of that driving energy and kind of maybe being a little bit exhausted of what appeared to be an acceleration. So I found it much more interesting to take the foot off the gas. Just like you can read in between the lines, there's something in between the notes that happens as well. And I think when music is overly colorful and, you know, blatantly obvious, for me, that's not so interesting. The music can be extremely well-made, and it can connect with you in just the same way. Well, I found I was much more curious about what was happening in between the sounds - you know? - the space that you give to a listener.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALA: And it almost allows the listener to conjure up their own melodies and their own thoughts, and they're using their own imagination. And I think for me and ever more so in this world that we're living in, freedom of thought is - should be exercised at all costs. So for me, making music that kind of bombarded a message or was pushing some type of agenda or something like this didn't seem to make sense. It was more about allowing people to discover the music and interpret in their own way. And I think allowing - you know, allowing space and having something that's minimal, I think it's a lot easier to do that.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, our first link in this chain aired months ago with the artist Caribou. And since then, we have visited Canada. We've crossed the Atlantic, talked to people making music in so many different genres. And you, Mala, are going to be our last link in this chain, which means you get to choose a musician who is living or dead, unavailable for an interview. Who do you want to tell us about? Whose music are you thankful for?

MALA: I'm thankful for an artist and a producer and a musician named Augustus Pablo.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about him.

MALA: Augustus Pablo mostly known for his playing of the melodica, such a simple instrument.

SHAPIRO: For people who don't know, melodica is a keyboard with a mouthpiece that you blow into. And it's got this kind of vaguely electronic sound.

MALA: That's correct. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUGUSTUS PABLO'S "CASSAVA PIECE ('79 STYLE)")

MALA: But his music - when I was listening to it as a teenager, it really inspired me to be free with the music that I was making because that's what I always heard in his music - just kind of this real simplicity and a real freedom of his playing. Obviously, the music being from Jamaica, there was - I always felt like there was sunshine in his music. And that really inspired me not in terms of how I wanted my music to sound sonically but more of an approach and more of a mindset.

SHAPIRO: Augustus Pablo died in 1999. Is there a track of his that we could play to help introduce listeners to the sound?

MALA: Yeah. It's a track titled "Jah Dread."

(SOUNDBITE OF AUGUSTUS PABLO'S "JAH DREAD")

SHAPIRO: What do you hear as you listen to this?

MALA: I think within his music, there's real strong words and real strong messages without any words actually being spoken. And when I listen to his music, again, it just comes back to that simplicity and freedom. And I think not just in music but also in life, these are two things that, if we can sometimes scale down a little - you know, scale things back in a little bit and just look at things maybe with a more simplistic view, I think sometimes things would feel, you know, much more free.

SHAPIRO: I know he's no longer with us, but if you could speak to him, what would you say?

MALA: I'm not sure I would have anything to say to him other than, you know, thank you for all of the music that he's made and for the journey that he was on because it's really inspired not only myself but, I'm sure, many generations before me. And he will continue to inspire many generations after me. Some things are beyond words, and what I would have to say to Augustus Pablo is far beyond words.

SHAPIRO: Well, Mala, thank you for sharing these thoughts and this music with us. We appreciate your joining us.

MALA: Thank you very much for having me, and keep safe. I'm wishing you all the best.

SHAPIRO: Mala is one-half of the pioneering dubstep duo Digital Mystikz. And we will start a new chain of musical gratitude on our next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUGUSTUS PABLO'S "JAH DREAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.