Sofia Kourtesis – Fresia Magdalena (2021) – Review

Sofia Kourtesis’ new EP, Fresia Magdalena, is a timely and much needed ray of sunshine – as the warmer months approach and with them, the promise of evenings outdoors, picnics in the park and open-air music festivals. The anticipation of spring is always something to be savoured, but is heightened tenfold this year, given how much longer we’ve all been denied those simple pleasures. And with its gently swaying rhythms and colourful infusion of samples, Fresia Magdalena would make the perfect soundtrack to any one of those settings.

This is the second release from the Berlin-based Peruvian, Sofia Kourtesis, who connects the dots between scratchy lo-fi house, spacious melodic techno and the kind of sample-laden beat-smithery that Ninja Tune (on whose Technicolour imprint the EP is being released) used to be practically synonymous with. Much like her debut EP – which was entitled Sarita Colonia – Fresia Magdalena radiates a kind of joyful warmth that will have those lockdown feet itching to get on a dancefloor.

Lead track La Perla feels particularly restorative and uplifting, with its intro of gently tinkling piano and angelic oohs and ahhs that set the stage for Kourtesis’ own vocals to come into the mix. Although the vibe feels light and carefree, the track is in fact dedicated to her father, whom she recently lost to leukaemia. As she explains, “‘La Perla’ is about staring at the sea. It’s the first thing I’ll do when I return to Peru. My dad used to say staring at the sea is like meditation, it clears your head.” This explanation makes perfect sense when listening to the track, as La Perla feels very much like a head cleaner. Having spent practically the entirety of the last year confined to a drab suburban environment, I can’t wait for the relief that’ll come when I can finally get out to a wide-open space, let alone see the sea; and La Perla encapsulates perfectly the feeling of release and exhilaration that comes with being out in open, gazing at a distant horizon.

Over the course of the EP’s five tracks, Kourtesis channels a wide-ranging mixture of influences, from French-touch style Filter House; to the hypnotic polyrhythms of fellow South American turned Berliner, Ricardo Villalobos; to the riotous sample-blending of The Avalanches. But at no point does her music sound derivative of any of these musical forebears, with every element united by a common thread running through the whole production.

This is most likely due to Kourtesis’ creative approach, that saw her begin by making field recordings in her native city of Lima and in particular the district of Magdalena, where her family still live. “I look at songs like a collage”, she says, “I put all the samples at the forefront and create music around them”. Samples are powerful tools and can instantly alter the mood of a track, transporting the listener to a specific time and place. But they should be used judiciously because for the same reason, a sample can dominate a track. Kourtesis pulls off this balance by knitting everything together with her field recordings and cohesive production. On By Your Side, she conjures up a vibrantly busy mix, where it’s practically impossible to distinguish the source material. Crackly snippets of recording rub up against blaring trumpets and crooning singers over an irresistibly funky beat. It feels like a bustling street scene, where everyone’s competing for your attention and everything on offer looks tempting.

Although La Perla was the track chosen for single release and opens the EP, for me Fresia Magdalena gets better as it progresses and the energy level ramps up. The aforementioned By Your Side is downbeat and funky and while its midpoint drop is delightfully cheeky – and would act as a handy touchpoint for a DJ spinning the track – it’s also understated. Next up, Nicolas feels like Kourtesis’ take on French House; the interplay between the teasingly filtered stab of disco synth and crisply organic drum hits are an open invitation for a DJ to tweak and remix on the fly. The final two tracks, Juntos and Dakotas, are more techno-oriented and are the strongest of the bunch. Both follow a steady upwards trajectory, carried by lush string, piano and vocal samples and propelled by insistent tribal kick drums.

As it traverses that blurred spectrum from house to techno, Fresia Magdalena remains an invitingly warm record, with its vintage crackles and hiss of analogue. But Kourtesis is careful to include just the right amount of crunch and poke to prevent things getting too soft around the edges. On the first opening bars of La Perla, you can hear what sounds like a very restrained 303-style acid synth, just giving us a tease before the ambient pads come in. The rat-tat-tat beat on Nicolas seems to mimic the sound of a crossfader being shunted back and forth by a DJ in full flow, and that acid synth is back for the climax to Dakotas – a slow-building techno epic that will no doubt soundtrack a few Ibiza sunrises this year.

Despite its dancefloor readiness, Fresia Magdalena is not simply a party record. The EP’s artwork is a collage depicting Sarita Colonia, the ‘Patron of the Poor’, which was made using images from the Cementerio Banquijano, situated within one of Lima’s largest favelas. And the Fresia of the title refers to Kourtesis’ own mother, who she says, “…has fought her whole life for the people of Magdalena. This is my tribute to her and other activists round the world.”

This passion, both for her family and homeland, is what gives Fresia Magdalena its real depth. And whether it inspires activists, soothes troubled minds or simply gets a dancefloor moving, it’s a ray of sunshine we could all do with.

This review originally appears in Still Listening Magazine.

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