Cafe Del Mar (series)

The best Cafe Del Mar albums date mostly from DJ Jose Padilla's time as curator of the series (1994-1999) and they remain essential snapshots of warm, tech-savvy, post-dance chillout music...an oasis of old-school ambient, warm Arabian strings, liquid dub, Latin melodies, nu jazz and lounge. Each is spread over a wide, blissed-out canvas that's as bright as a sunny day.

series:
Cafe Del Mar

country of origin:
Spain

style(s):
Balearic, lounge, chillout, ethno-ambient, nu jazz

decades active:
90's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Cafe Del Mar Vol 1/Uno (1994, React)
  • Cafe Del Mar Vol 2/Dos (1995, React)
  • Cafe Del Mar Vol 3/Tres (1996, React)
  • Cafe Del Mar Vol 4/Cuatro (1997, Mercury)
  • Cafe Del Mar Vol 5/Cinco (1998, Mercury)
  • Cafe Del Mar Vol 6/Seis (1999, Mercury)
  • Cafe Del Mar Vol 7/Seite (2000, Manifesto)
  • Cafe Del Mar Vol 8/Ocho (2001, Manifesto)
  • Cafe Del Mar Volume 11/Once (2004, Cafe Del Mar Music)

Reviewed by Mike G

Since the 1960's the Spanish island of Ibiza has been a Mecca for hedonists, alternative lifestylers and party-goers from all over the world during the Northern summer. Nowadays, instead of Pink Floyd and paisley, the culture is unabashedly electronic dance music: all-night clubbing and throbbing house and trance have become new partners to that age-old Ibizan tradition of goodtime excess.

Amid all this madness is - or at least was - an oasis of chilled-out vibes by the ocean known as Cafe Del Mar in the resort town of San Antonio.

The Padilla years

The Spanish musician and DJ Jose Padilla started playing records there in the late 80's, spinning eclectic tunes which he wrote "would otherwise be forgotten, or which capture the spirit of Cafe Del Mar". That Balearic spirit is mellow, mellow, mellow, even when it's got you tapping your feet and nodding your head. Soon, people started asking Padilla where they could buy the music he played. After selling home-made mix cassettes for a while at local markets and the cafe - all of which sold out - he eventually decided it was time to go legit. Teaming up with UK label React, he started issuing compilation albums on a yearly basis under the cafe's name.

The albums listed above date mostly from Jose Padilla's time as curator of the series - Volumes 1 to 6 - and they remain essential snapshots of warm, tech-savvy, post-dance chillout music.

Cafe Del Mar Volume 1 (1994) is as good as place to start as any and provides the template for the albums that follow: tracks from mainly obscure artists, one of Padilla's own compositions, and an eclecticism that is always surprising. Who else could nerdy folk minimalists The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and techno superstars Underworld on the same album and make it sound convincing?

Padilla's compilations are - for the most part -  the flip-side of the cooler ambient techno and bleepy spacemusic of 90's acts like Speedy J, Black Dog, Biosphere, et al. His sound is an oasis of old-school ambient, warm Arabian strings, liquid dub, Latin melodies, nu jazz and lounge. Sometimes there's snatches of filtered vocals amid the relaxed breakbeats and ambient house, even whole songs on occasion. Each album is spread over a wide, blissed-out canvas that's as bright as a sunny day. To Padilla's considerable credit, his six original comps generally maintain the positive vibe without becoming cheesy or receding into cafe wallpaper.

The Bruno years

Padilla wrapped up his involvement with the original series in 1999.

Officially, he wanted to do more DJ'ing and pursue more solo work - having already released a decent debut album Souvenir (1998) - but he also made clear his disillusionment with the increasing commercialism of the Ibiza club scene. There were also growing legal squabbles between various parties, including Padilla and the React label, over the rights to the Cafe Del Mar name, an ugly and confusing business which continued well beyond the 90's as the brand expanded into fashion retailing and a global cafe bar franchise. It seemed like every time a new bar opened somewhere around the world, the news media quoted one or more of the original owners calling it out as illegitimate.

Padilla's replacement was Frenchman Bruno Lepetre aka DJ Bruno, another resident DJ from the venue in Ibiza. He was faced with a daunting task. Not only had Padilla defined Balearic chillout with his own idiosyncratic vision, but by this stage chillout music Ibiza-style had caught on in a big way worldwide with compilations literally flooding the market. In that context, Cafe Del Mar Volumes 7 (2000) and Volume 8 (2001) still stand out from the pack with Bruno's finely judged mixture of songs and instrumentals, including some innovative remixes of pop hits such as a haunting reworking of Bush's "Letting The Cables Sleep".

However, Volume 9 (2002) and Volume 10 (2003) see the quality beginning to slip; both are patchy and unremarkable releases that struggle to sound distinctive above the imitators of the time. Volume 10 in particular suggests a drift towards a generic chillout blandness that would soon dominate both the series itself and the broader genre it inspired. Cafe Del Mar started a number new sub-series albums during Bruno's tenure such as Chillhouse, so the quality drop may have been a case of his time and resources being stretched too thinly.

However, Bruno had one more classic to offer with Cafe Del Mar volume 11 (2004), an immersive and completely unified experience that echoes past glories while still showing a way forward. "Invisible" by M-Seven boasts an exquisitely lush trance melody married to stoner hip hop beats, a good example of uplifting dancefloor sounds being intelligently re-imagined in slow-motion, ethereal swells of sound. Austrian newcomers Sonic Adventure Project contribute a perfectly gorgeous solo piano and strings piece with "Waters In Motion". Digby Jones' "Under The Sea" is one of the best instrumentals that Zero 7 never made, with a slightly spooky chord progression of lush strings played off against jazzy electric piano. All up, Volume 11 is among the best of the series, bathed in Balearic sunshine and with depth and tunefulness in abundance.

...and the rest

After Volume 11, Bruno Lepetre left the franchise. Unlike Padilla, he made no memorable statements as to his reasons, but he did release a rather fine house-based chillout album of his own compositions soon afterwards called Puzzle (2005). He continues production work and DJ'ing to this day.

Unfortunately, and perhaps not coincidentally, the next release following his departure was the appallingly bland Euro muzak of Volume 12 (2005) - compiled by no one, it seems - which quality-wise sent the series into a fatal dive.

Nothing released since then has recaptured the original magic, to the point where very few music zines, bloggers and DJ's even acknowledge that new Cafe Del Mar albums exist, let alone bother to review or play them. Sometimes there is no DJ credit at all on the albums - suggesting pure generic product for an undiscerning crowd - though in more recent years a Finnish selector named Toni Simonen has occasionally hit the mark with some credible releases, including the wide-ranging Cafe Del Mar Volume 20 (2014) and Volume 21 (2015). But even these two struggle due to their inordinate length; the double-album format is now standard in the series and it's heavy going when the picks are so hit and miss.

Then there are the spin-off series like Aria, Chillhouse, Chillwave and Dreams. Some of these are actually worth digging through - if you have the patience.

Legacy

Cafe Del Mar's musical legacy is problematic, given the insidious presence nowadays of bland "cafe music" in so many public spaces across the world, and not just in eating and drinking establishments.

What started as a fresh musical movement and one DJ seeking a way to make a living has been bleached white and corporatised many times over. Ambient strains of dance and pop music have been appropriated and turned into pure wallpaper and, like it or not, the catalyst was Cafe Del Mar's initial success. More underground and credible strains of Balearic chillout still exist, of course, but the worst of the genre is what the mainstream mostly sees and hears.

But in terms of genre-defining sounds and cultural impact, modern chillout music without the best of the earlier Cafe Del Mar albums (1994-2004) is bit like 60's pop music without The Beatles. In a way these sounds are the easy-listening "beautiful music" of the mid 20th century reborn for the 21st. Like the best instrumentals of Mantovini, Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins, the music emphasises melody, lushness and hi-fidelity sound. It's immediately appealing and easy on the ear without the blandness, and it reveals depth and complexity for those who care to dig deeper.

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