‘Qahwah con Leche’ Brings Latin America And The Middle East Together Over Coffee

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Qahwah con Leche, the instrumental album by producers El Bles and Thanks Joey, feels like two worlds slowly melting together. Clave patterns morph into Middle Eastern melodies; English, Spanish, and Arabic all slide together over the pulse of hip hop beats. It becomes impossible to tell where one sample ends and the other begins, and each layer is a master class in subtlety. Still, there are some moments that ring out boldly. On “Finjan Revolución,” which premieres today, the voice of Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani bursts out first: “To us, to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human rights, is as essential as life itself,” he declares, offering a glimpse at the political undertones stirring beneath the project.

Qahwah con Leche shows off the percussion-heavy techniques of El Bles, the Florida-based Puerto Rican artist who’s 2015 E.P. I Am Latin Soul flipped Ray Barretto’s 1968 album Acid into slick boom-bap beats. Here, he’s teamed up with Thanks Joey, a Brooklyn-born, Los Angeles-based Syrian-American producer who also grew up in Florida. They’ve been releasing each track on a weekly basis, revealing a collection of songs that tie together themes of revolution and cross-cultural unity with the goodwill of a cup of coffee.

The production came together through a series of coincidences. Neither producer had really planned to make a collaboration album; they initially didn’t even know each other. Still, they found themselves roving in one another’s orbit and eventually met at a studio session in Florida. After an introduction, Thanks Joey dove into El Bles’ music and noticed the parallels between their styles. Both of them have a thing for excavating vinyls and finding old-school samples from their backgrounds to build beats that trend classic.

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“I listened to the music, and I was like, ‘This is crazy! This is like the Spanish-language version of me,’” Thanks Joey sad of El Bles. “He was chopping up Latin samples, and I was like, ‘Yo, I’ve never heard anything like this, where it’s such deep cultural samples, but still very hip hop at the same.’”

After meeting a few times in Florida, they finally joined forces near Washington, D.C, where the 11 tracks on the album revealed themselves like alchemy. The two of them had all kinds of crates, filled to the brim with ‘60s and ‘70s vinyl from Puerto Rico and Cuba, plus records Thanks Joey had picked up on travels to Beirut and other parts of the Middle East.

“We didn’t know what the concept was going to be. We didn’t know what it was going to be called. We didn’t know how it was going to sound. We just hung on to each other, and fate set us up. We worked together because everything just flowed,” Thanks Joey said.

That natural partnership ended up creating a sonic tapestry that feels seamless. “We hear it now and we’re like, ‘What the hell is this? Like, how did we even create this? How did we find a clave or an Arabic drum that sounds exactly like the Latin side?’ It was just so many things happening and finding common ground on this,” El Bles said.

They wrapped production in October of 2018. Although the songs were complete, there was no concept bringing everything together. But sometime in early 2019, Thanks Joey traveled to Detroit and visited a Yemeni coffee shop called Qahwah House. That word—“qahwah,” which means coffee in Arabic—stuck in his mind and he began thinking about what had become a ritual when he was working with El Bles. If he was over, El Bles would make him his “café pesao’” with his Greca; if El Bles was over, Thanks Joey would offer Turkish coffee.

“It was kind of a bond that we shared, he said. “And so I was just thinking and mulling it over, and one day it just popped into my head: ‘Qahwah con leche.’” El Bles remembers instantly embracing the name. “I was like, ‘Yooo! That’s it, we’ve got something!’”

The name works on multiple levels. Coffee is a shared tradition, beloved by both cultures, and it also became an organizational tool for the album. They began to think of the release as a menu, with each song functioning like a drink on tap. But perhaps more striking, the idea of a coffee house grounded the quiet notes of revolution and independence that reverberated in the music. El Bles had been producing with Puerto Rico’s intensifying protests in mind, and samples like the one from Kanafani brought those issues to the forefront. They also thought about the history of coffee house and their function in various societies as a gathering place to trade political, artistic, and cultural ideas—much like the album itself had become, in its own understated way.

“[The coffee house] was a place for people to talk about philosophy and to talk about politics, to sit down and have a safe space to be able to converse,” Thanks Joey explained. “So that’s already rooted within the concept of Qahwah con Leche, the fact that we talk about revolution throughout the album, we talk about coming together and overcoming. All of that is deeply inherent to this whole concept of coffee.”

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In addition to being such a powerful exchange, Qahwah con Leche also marked a personal evolution for both producers. It was one of the few times they’d shared the creation process with another artist, and it’s now opened up new avenues for the collaborations to continue. They’re planning to release versions of the songs with different rappers and freestylers spitting over the beats—“Thoughts and Prayers,” a new song by the Canadian-Iraqi emcee Narcy that premiered earlier this month on Ebro Darden’s Beats 1, uses the title track “Qahwah con Leche.” That release represents the multiple lifespans that these beats likely will have.

“The trusting thing [as a producer] was something I had never allowed myself to experience, but timing is everything and I felt like this was the right person that would show me that lesson,” El Bles said. “Music is always better when you connect with another soul, especially when that other soul is resonating at the same frequency as you.”