Four years on from the release of his debut album Mala In Cuba, Mark Lawrence aka Mala is making a welcome return to Brownswood Recordings. The culmination of three years of visits to Peru, Mirrors is yet another example of his insatiable appetite for far ranging musical influences. Offering a snapshot of traditional Peruvian music through its 14 tracks, featuring everything from tap dancers to sopranos, the DMZ head honcho pulls out all the stops in providing as faithful a depiction as possible of this country’s musical heritage for (mostly) Western ears. Over the course of a thirty minute Skype call, in the midst of an afternoon school run, we discussed the local musical influences that proved to be key in the making of the album.
Mirrors is released on 10th June – pre-order from the Brownswood Bandcamp.
They’re a crew who dance the traditional Peruvian battle dance of zapateo, which is a kind of Peruvian tap dance and they also play Afro-Peruvian music, something that has its origins in the slavery era. The leading guy in the colectivo is a guy called Pierre, and a couple of them play the cajón (one of the main, traditional Peruvian instruments).
The cajón is a box which was initially used for cargo, and it became used as an instrument because the Spanish colonizers in Peru took away a lot of the enslaved Africans’ own instruments after hearing about the ‘talking drums’ – a way in which the enslaved Africans would communicate with one other. The slaves then had to be resourceful and make instruments out of other objects, and seeing how a lot of them worked around the ports and in the docks, it was the cajón that ended up being developed from all these old cargo boxes.
My introduction to Sylvia all came about through a guy called Martin Morales (owner of the Tiger’s Milk record label and Ceviche restaurants), he probably has one of the biggest collections of Peruvian music outside of Peru, and Gilles Peterson has known him for a long time, so it was thanks to him that I got to meet Martin. He gave me a brief history of Peruvian music before I went and he set up a meet and greet session for the first trip I made to Peru. It was Duncan (one of the guys who works at Tiger’s Milk) who came across Sylvia while we were there.
She’s a coloratura soprano singer and anthropologist of Liman and Ayacucho descent, her native tongue is Quechua and she definitely has one of the most well-known and beautiful voices in Peru. What I found particularly amazing after working with her is how similar some of these indigenous Peruvian words are to some Asian languages like Chinese, especially in terms of their actual sound and pronunciation. It’s something I’ve realised after listening to traditional Asian music and it gets me thinking that, once upon a time, the world must have been much more connected. The wonderful thing about collaborating with musicians is that it allows me to get out of a routine. I’ve always found that when you want to be creative, the best thing you can do is to try and remove yourself from this idea of the ‘creation process’, and just let things happen naturally. I don’t think creation should be forced. Before I worked with Sylvia (and the other native musicians on the album) I didn’t dictate to them what I wanted to happen, I merely asked them to share what they felt comfortable with sharing because I really wanted to learn more about their history and culture.
Sylvia told me that in the traditional folk song ‘Sound of the River’ (which appears on the album), the spirits of the surrounding area are spoken about – a region high up in the Andes. When she sung it to me for the first time it felt so pure and I was like “what am I gonna do with that?”. It felt wrong to tamper with it too much. I tried adding drums to it and quickly realised that that wasn’t the one. I then just decided to cut up some of the zampoñas that I’d recorded and put them into a sampler so I could replay them. That’s the melody that you can hear accompany her vocals in the song.
Zampoñas (pan flutes)
They’re obviously the only thing that most of us know about Peruvian music. Most of the time though, for those of us who live in the UK, our understanding of them never gets much deeper than hearing some of these South American guys cover Western songs in the high street. I was certain that I wanted to include them in the album though because they create such a distinct sound and are so unique to the country. I became aware of this group called the Asociación Juvenil Puno, they’re a group from one of the highest points of Peru and they play the zampoñas in a certain way, by interlocking them. The interesting thing about them is that they won’t play all the same notes at the same time, so you have to hear them play as a group to be able to hear a full song. My mate Jorge (who I met out there), showed me a video of them playing on YouTube (at the time I didn’t realise it was AJP) and I was blown away by what I’d seen, and immediately thought I’ve got to find this group. It took me about nine months to track them down because their approach to playing the zampoñas is not common in Peru. Eventually we managed to get them to come to the studio, I met their president and explained what I wanted to do. They initially agreed to play me one song, but they then ended up playing for four hours and it all went from there really.
Quijadas (donkey jawbone percussion instrument)
This is another Afro-Peruvian instrument that has its roots from the slavery era. The slaves had to pick up anything they could to be able to still play music because their instruments were banned. The quijada is the jaw of a donkey which still contains the teeth. You hold the instrument up at the top where the teeth are and you have some kind of bone or stick which you then grate the teeth up and down in a rhythmic way, while bashing the base of the jaw with the bottom of your fist. When it all comes together it creates this amazing rattling sound. Not only does the quijada sound great on its own but also when it’s layered with a snare drum. I got introduced to it through this guy called Marcus who came down one day with a bunch of Peruvian instruments to help me become familiar with them and at the same time, he gave me a lesson on all of the different kinds of Afro-Peruvian rhythms because there’s so many out there. In some of the tracks heard in Mirrors I do play the quijada, along with the rain shaker and cajon, but on the whole I left most of the playing of these instruments to all the experienced dons I met there. I also ended up taking two quijadas home with me after my time in Peru.