Album Review: Sofia Kourtesis – Madres

[Ninja Tune; 2023]

Imagine your best day: for some it is a sunny one; others, maybe rainy. Maybe it’s alone with a book under a shady tree, wind gently rustling the pages? Perhaps it is a night out with a group of friends, carb-loaded bellies full of piscos and causa; enough to dance until dawn. In those moments of felicity, there is always the undercurrent of sting we have felt in days past, but the present is then more honest in its jubilance and no guilt over indulgences is permitted. Peruvian-born, Berlin-based Sofia Kourtesis has given us the instruction manual for living our best days ever in her bright and chewy debut album, Madres

It is hard to imagine that this kaleidoscope of sound was born at a time of pain, but Sofia has been no stranger to suffering recently. On the cusp of garnering a following with her 2019 EP, she lost her father to Leukemia; her hit, “La Perla”, from her 2021 EP Fresia Magdalena was composed about his death. Within months of his passing, she was hit with another devastating blow: her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Following the diagnosis, she traveled to Peru as often as possible to be with her mother, was determined to save her. She heard of the neurosurgeon, Peter Vajkoczy, and it was through posting on social media a snippet of the now title track, “Madres”, with the plea to the him; she promised to dedicate a song to him. Social media worked its magic, and, after meeting the doctor, her mother had a successful operation extending her life. 

Vajkoczy became intimately part of the album. Sofia shared tracks with him throughout its development, took him to Berlin’s infamous nightclub Berghain and, as promised, titled a track on the album after him.

Celebrating that miracle, “Madres” sparkles in its groovy house beats, warm Lady Kier-esque vocals, and layers upon layers of samples.  As seen throughout the album, melody is never lost with her quirky, organic sound designing. Another hip-popping track, “Vajkoczy” is rife with droid beeps, laser guns, horns, and shakers. The thump and bump of “How Music Makes You Feel Better” epitomizes how Sofia lives. At her core, is her rhythm, her unique ear for each sound being its own layer of cinnamon cake but perfectly blended so the lines are softened into a pillow of euphoria, all the while with her lovely vocals rounding the edges and tickling your earlobes. 

The drifting synths of “Habla Con Ella” and the “Si Te Portas Bonito” combined with shakers and Latin-vibing beats embody what she describes as “the mood of going out, being flirty… experimenting with |her| queerness.” Berlin affords her this freedom. She left Peru at 17 because of what she experienced after kissing a girl in school: she was kicked out, sent to priests and conversion therapy. These are parts of Sofia that she is just now sharing in hopes that others are inspired to talk about these devastatingly common occurrences.   

A strange, alien dark spot on the album, “Moving Houses” tells of the end of a relationship. “Moving house with you my friend / Is not the end / Is happiness and bitterness,” she mourns; “How can I explain the feeling? / How can I just see myself alone again?” These words are appropriately set to what sounds like a broken track of a crackling fireplace or a record left spinning on the turntable after the last song plays; hung on an endlessly designed loop that we so often rest our heartbreak upon.  

Sofia was raised an activist and that activism is present throughout Madres. Her father was a pro-bono lawyer and her mother spent her life protecting South American indigenous tribes, which inspired “‘Cecilia”. Elsewhere, a field recording of a Peruvian protest against homophobia opens “Estación Esperanza”. Sofia is fearless in her pursuit of goals and for this song she wrote a revealing and honest letter to a hero of hers, Mexican songwriter Manu Chao. She told him about her admiration of his inclusion of politics in his art, aspirations, belief, family. He was so moved that he agreed to allow her to use a sample of his famous question “¿Qué horas son, mi corazón?”

Sofia confidently yet humbly shows tribute to what has made her who she is. “Funkhaus” is her ode to the Berlin community that rescued her. With the undertone drive of techno and her signature warmth, the track is approachable and infectious. Authentic in all ways, true to her own heart, not looking to fit into a mould, she creates a complexity and depth unfound in many electronic records. 

Indulging in life’s pleasures doesn’t have to equal escapism. Delivering quite the opposite, Sofia allows her audience to celebrate the good and bad in life, creating a microcosm of what it means to be human on our dance floors and in our ears. Sofia herself describes the album so eloquently as full of “hope and the value that big love can create miracles.” She reaches through your speakers and pulls you into her fold where you ride buoyantly through her musical world, just as Peter Vajkoczy became part of her life of movement and dance. With her “Latin heart and German motor”, Sofia, in giving so much of herself to us through Madres, permits the return of our own hearts to her.