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 and cheerful 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 an oasis of chilled-out vibes by the ocean known as Cafe Del Mar. The Spanish DJ Jose Padilla started playing records there in the 1970's, eclectic tunes which he writes "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 you head. In the early 90's the rave crowd starting asking Padilla where they could buy the music and in response he started issuing compilation albums on a yearly basis.

The Padilla years

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

As examples of modern chillout, his compilations are the flipside of the deep ambient techno and bleepy spacemusic of acts like Richie Hawtin, Biosphere, et al. The world of Cafe Del Mar 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 and cheerful as a sunny day. To Padilla's considerable credit, the best of them generally maintain the positive vibe without ever becoming cheesy.

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?

The Bruno years

Padilla wrapped up his involvement with the series in 1999, officially to pursue solo work and do more DJ'ing but also making clear his disillusionment with the growing commercialism of the Ibizan scene.

His replacement was Frenchman Bruno Lepetre aka DJ Bruno, himself an experienced resident DJ from the venue. Bruno 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 (2003) in particular suggests a drift towards a generic chillout blandness that would soon dominate the genre.

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. It was always part of the original Cafe Del Mar blueprint and its great to hear it re-stated here so brilliantly. 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.

Volume 11 is up with the very best of the series, bathed in Balearic sunshine and with depth, variety and tunefulness in abundance. It's the last truly great CDM compilation, and on this high note DJ Bruno left the franchise. Unfortunately, and perhaps not coincidentally, the appallingly bland Euro muzak of Volume 12 (2005) - compiled by no one, it seems - sent the series into a fatal dive.

Nothing released since has recaptured the original magic, though in recent years a Finnish curator named Toni Simonen has come on board and produced some credible releases including the wide-ranging Cafe Del Mar Volume 20 (2014) and Volume 21 (2015).

Legacy

In terms of genre-defining sounds and cultural impact, modern chillout music without Cafe Del Mar is bit like 60's pop music without The Beatles.

In a way the sounds championed under the Cafe Del Mar banner are the easy-listening "beautiful music" of the mid 20th century reborn for the 21st. Like the best instrumental music of Mantovini, Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins, the best of the CDM series emphasises melody, lushness and hi-fidelity sound. They are immediately appealing and easy on the ear without the blandness, and they reveal depth and complexity for those who care to dig deeper.

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