‘Mil Congojas Dub’ Bill Laswell (Havana Mood, APC, 1999)

Friendship, music, remembrance

He stands in front of the electric fire, switched on with a click, the flames flickering blue and gold, and lights another cigarette.

One of the many he’ll smoke tonight as he inundates me with quotations recited from memory (poetry, fiction, non-fiction) or interesting/surprising information read aloud from books, newspapers, political pamphlets, while he takes on the role of 'DJ-fascist' usually starting out with dub, jazz or obscure electronic avant-garde to (frequently) end the night, after a reasonable amount of alcohol has been consumed, with more sentimental choices linked to his origins: Klezmer and Robbie Burns poetry, or the less comprehensible (or acceptable) from my perspective, polka and/or Tiny Tim.

On my most recent visit to Melbourne, I ventured to recite a little anecdote and got it wrong. Correcting me on its source, it was from a film not a true story, he also expanded upon it (possibly even including the original lines) and with that, the talk continued to barrel along in its typical fashion, barely stopping for breath, as he shared his enthusiasm for cultural reference points that shaped his life and gave it meaning.

Listening to the dub versions on Bill Laswell’s magical Havana Mood last night, I thought of my friend. This man who first introduced me to dub in a rented, ground-floor flat with no heating where the sounds of traffic outside were a constant presence, and then over the years continued to encourage my (mad) love for the genre. I also remembered how he had once said that his interest was always in the cultural diaspora, always.

Dub and jazz, rather than music that solely manifests its 'African' origins, created and located in the ancestral sites; Klezmer rather than – what would it be? – Israeli folk songs, I’m unsure. Other genres, funk, soul/R&B, disco and hip-hop never came into the conversation.

There is a risk I’ll repeat myself here, as this is something I’ve already written on (following the death of New York MC, Prodigy, and in other pieces as well), but it is something I sincerely believe, the only thing that matters, and it matters more than knowledge and expertise, is curiosity and the openness to difference. The appreciation flowing from this is the simplest love that I know. In an era when both sides of the political divide seem to be calling for allegiances based on 'apparently' uncomplicated strains of racial identification, my interest forever lies with the art and music that is ‘impure’ (mixed/remixed), driven by an inexplicable desire of an artist to create from the debris that remains. 

The day before I left Melbourne my friend gave me a CD, Homage to Charles Parker by George Lewis, with Anthony Davis, Douglas Ewart and Richard Teitelbaum, released on the Italian label, Black Saint in 1979 that he had burnt for me. (The Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, AACM, was the most recent musical movement that he was insisting I learn more about, and appreciate). After ‘copyright breached August 2017’ he had written my name; following ‘in memoriam’ there was the name of my sister


This set contains a classic version of recordings of son and boleros with The Septeto Nacional, Raoul Plana and Tata Guinès; it is the ‘Straight Master’ recorded at the Egrem studio in Cuba. The second disc called ‘Rhum & Bass’ is as implied by its name an attempt at another treatment of this style of music: in Orange, New Jersey, we have attempted to produce a Cuban dub.
— Jean Touitou - Bill Laswell 01/1999

The 'Rhum & Bass' part of the album is the one that speaks to me; the version of 'Mil Congojas Dub' in particular, the way the trumpet returns - amid the softly ululating electronic sounds - is heroic. There is no other word to describe it. I haven't been able to locate this individual track online and the name of the singer is similarly missing, but you can listen to the albums here ('Mil Congojas Dub' is track 4, on CD 2). 

Ibrahim Ferrer released a cover of 'Mil Congojas' on his 2003 album, Buenos Hermanos. Here is a really moving cover of the song by José Antonio Méndez (1927-1989).