Sofia Kourtesis: Madres

The ecstatic house music of Sofia Kourtesis suggests places that are full of people, but not necessarily crowded. Think of a time when you were closely surrounded by more heads than you would normally tolerate, but it wasn’t a problem, and actually made your environment that much better. On her debut full-length, Madres, Kourtesis invites us inside every version of this space that she knows. That includes, but also extends far beyond, the transcendent dancefloors that she summons through her enraptured, hair-on-fire performances. Madres travels from intimate nightclubs in Berlin to sunny beaches on the Spanish coast to booming demonstrations on the streets of Lima. It’s a rich collage of foraged samples that beg to be rewound and heard anew, a dance album that will jolt you with jumper cables, and a stirring statement on maternal patience in its many possible forms. Madres fulfills the promise of Kourtesis’ string of effervescent EPs and exceptional remixes over the past five years.

With her eye for texture, Kourtesis practically drops you into the middle of these gatherings—sometimes through field recordings culled directly from those scenes. But it’s her meticulous composition style that heightens the album’s sense of bounty. On the title track, gentle synths splash and scatter like thick sunshower drops on a windshield, vocal arpeggios loop into an angelic backing choir, and a door hinge creaks in distress. Kourtesis eventually sighs a tender and glowing refrain, introduced by the song’s crown jewel: a grainy, vintage sample of a nasal voice yelping a mysterious broken phrase, calling out from beyond. She treats the sample like it’s a torn-off corner of an old photograph: damaged and decontextualized, then reframed and reconsidered.

Sofia Kourtesis on Her Debut Album Madres and Subverting Techno Perfectionism

That approach pays off most of all on the clamorous protest track “Estación Esperanza,” which features her lifelong role model and the first musician she ever saw in concert, Manu Chao. When Kourtesis released “Estación Esperanza” as a single nearly two years ago, it illustrated her noisiest side, clanging like an old radiator warming up—and in the context of Madres, it’s ripping hot. Alongside chants from a Peruvian anti-homophobia protest, Kourtesis dices up and echoes a rhyme that Chao repeats throughout his 2001 album Próxima Estación: Esperanza. The line—“¿Qué horas son, mi corazón?”—could be interpreted as a parent asking a child for the time, or a personal mantra, or nifty nonsense. Chao named his album after its recurring sample of the Madrid metro intercom announcing Esperanza station; written out, the words appear to say “Next Station: Hope.” But Kourtesis takes a page from Chao’s book and spins the title into a rallying cry: Here, “Estación Esperanza” could be read as “Hope Season.” Her gift for pulling new meaning out of aged audio fragments is one of Madres’ foremost delights.

So is her growth as a singer and lyricist. Kourtesis fully broke out of that shell on Fresia Magdalena opener “La Perla,” and Madres begins with a heart-to-body sequence reminiscent of that EP’s first two songs. “Si Te Portas Bonito” flips the switch from daytime to nighttime Balearic pop bliss, laying a Top 40-style verse-chorus structure over a silky, sexy house beat. “Vas a querer escucharme” (“You’re going to want to listen to me”) is one of its first lyrics, and while she’s singing about physical intimacy, the shot-calling carries its own punch, too.

Madres moves in some familiar dance music patterns, but also harbors a sudden tidal shift. On the icy, desolate “Moving Houses,” she briefly abandons her signature multi-layered house; the song is a tempo-less experiment in crispy static and lonely, sporadic chimes, recalling the sonic dabblings of renowned German photographer and artist Wolfgang Tillmans as well as the voice of Björk. The atmosphere is a world apart, but the individualized care remains: She cherishes each sound like her own child.

Nothing could be more fitting, given the hardship that preceded Madres. While she toured off the acclaim of Fresia Magdalena, Kourtesis was also constantly flying home to Peru to see her mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. In desperation, Kourtesis posted a clip of Madres’ title track on Instagram with a public plea to be introduced to the world-renowned neurosurgeon Peter Vajkoczy. He replied the next day, performed a high-risk surgery, and extended her mom’s life. She honors him on the soulful and melancholy “Vajkoczy,” which doubles as something of an extended lead-in to “How Music Makes You Feel Better,” the album’s biggest endorphin release. Together, the tracks climb to the clouds, peaking with a sky-high synth line that squiggles like an airplane banner in the wind. As a token of her gratitude, Kourtesis took Vajkoczy to the Berlin techno hub Berghain and blew a brain surgeon’s mind.

Such is the good karma of someone who once trusted her dentist to remove a wisdom tooth a few hours after she encountered him nude in the club. Kourtesis is always seeking out new stories, whether she’s pulling strangers onstage to dance with her, or flipping traditional cumbia rhythms into a metallic, blaring album closer. It takes a special kind of force to get so many different voices in one place to coalesce. Maybe a common goal. Maybe a shared spirit. Sometimes, it’s as simple as having somebody at the center who’s willing and able to care for everyone—and who’s as magnetic as Sofia Kourtesis is here.

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