Growing up in the 1960s, discovering rock in the 1970s and following it through the 1980s led to a quandary in the 1990s. How could the music continue to generate freshness?
With a family, ears that no longer tolerated blasts of loud sound, and no great inclination to stay up to 2 a.m. in a crowded club or bar, I was cut off from the root source of much of the music that I had taken on board in the past. Commercial radio was crushingly dull, dominated by the same prepackaged acts that have always dominated it, but without any of the extra-musical hooks that might have drawn me to the music in the past.
What was I to do?
I found an answer by returning to a strategy that I used in the very earliest days of my listening, the dismal mid-1970s when there was precious little good music in the mainstream – I started rifling through cut-out bins and second hand record stores.
This time my object was the burgeoning underground of dance music. Disco revived as house music, and already by the end of 1990s splitting into the hydra head of sub-genres; trance, big beat, trip-hop, speed garage, jungle etc, etc.
Naturally enough, a deal of what I bought was uninteresting and uninvolving. But that’s always been true of any time. What I did find were a series of compilation CDs of the music that would eventually be called nu-cool put together by Ibiza DJ Jose Padilla.
These were atmospheric dance cuts, low on insistent beats and high on atmosphere. The first Cafe Del Mar record I heard was the first (1994), and it remains the best.
The artists included were completely left-field to me. William Orbit, Sabres Of Paradise, Sun Electric, the appropriately named Leftfield, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Sisterlove, Underworld, Ver Vlads, A Man Called Adam, Obiman and Jose Padilla himself. I knew nothing of them. To this day, I know little about some of them – it is a striking characteristic of underground dance music that most of the records are put out by what one might call ‘one-hit-wonders’. The artists emerge and blend back into obscurity carried by the winds of a DJ’s passing fancy.
So Cafe Del Mar – Ibiza was new to my ears, and it was fresh. It was so fresh and enticing that I hold it to this day as a one of the very best compilation CDs ever issued covering any period of music.
The first cut Agua by Jose Padilla defines the sound of the record. It’s a dance cut, with a house-disco beat underneath much of it. But a slow synthesizer introduction (like the waves washing ashore) , a gentle South American or African-style hand drum beat, electronic bubbles, South-American native pipe interjections followed by Asian Indian flute stylings, and a gentle synthesizer keyboard riff all precede the major beat. Once introduced that drops out to make room for a vocal resembling the Middle-Eastern call to prayer, before returning with ever greater insistence.
On the surface this extraordinary mish-mash of world music should be completely synthetic but the effect is totally the opposite. Despite its undisguised scavenging of evocative sounds. Because of its undisguised scavenging, in fact.
There is absolutely no pretence that this music is somehow ‘authentic’ or a folk-music. As such it completely bypasses the sometimes unsatisfactory syntheses in the work of artists ranging from Paul Simon to The Talking Heads. It’s true sound manipulation, barely conceivable in the pre-digital age, but now almost effortlessly possible.
It’s simply wonderful.
The rest of the CD follows a similar pattern, with differing blendings but the same overarching concept. A masterpiece of moody dance music that is equally effective simply as a listening experiece.
Cafe del Mar – Ibiza was the first record of the 1990s that I heard that convinced me popular music was moving forward with as much potency as ever. Nirvana did not do it; neither did Oasis. The 1990s were truly the decade of innovative dance, the implications of which are still not worked out or fully integrated into the mainstream. But it will happen.