Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Backbeat Timeline: Introduction To The Boogaloo Rhythm

Tonight, I introduced Solares to the boogaloo rhythm.

It had reached that stage where the tumbao moderno practice was in danger of being entrenched, of participants feeling that the tones were synonymous with the back-beat; and they're not - they are one of a number.

So it was late on in the day, the last ten minutes of the session, when I put it on as a contrasting activity (they'd made good headway into the shaker-tumbao entrainment exercises).

It began as a briefing, that a feature of the boogaloo is in how the backbeat timeline is highlighted with hand-claps - present or implied.

We then listened to a number of tracks from the original boogaloo period out of New York i.e. 'chachachá with a backbeat' (e.g. Joe Cuba); to migrated interpretations in Puerto Rico (e.g. El Gran Combo), and Colombia (e.g. Grupo Gale); and modern versions.

Participants were then given one track with which to clap along to, using both hands or one hand against a thigh; and another track where the shaker single tone was substituted for a hand clap.

There is work yet to be done, for participants to be presented with a progressive flow of exercises next session. But the introduction served its purpose: to illuminate the path ahead for the backbeat timeline workshops.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Two Feelings, Two Walks

We began Solares as we did last week: playing the audible tones of the tumbao moderno: "gung-gung" and "pak" on the shaker; while performing the Caribbean sway basic. Having made such delicious progress last week, I was keen to maintain the practice so that participants could reliably and quickly enter the state of flow.

Throughout the session, entrainment was achieved more quickly at under two minutes and in songs at higher tempi ~160bpm. Encouraging though this is, there is still a distance to be made up, with my 'holy grail' objectives being entrainment: in less than thirty seconds, and at a tempo of +190bpm.

Additional challenge was incorporated by the use of two shakers, one in each hand, of differing tone and/or loudness.

Two Feelings
Participants began to "drive into the floor" i.e. derive more leverage (stack joint toque curves) from the floor. Because they had not yet been shown how to damp the resultant force, it evidenced as a more staccato 'punchy' movement. They were not aware that they were moving more percussively.

I drew their attention to this, and asked them to accentuate the sway in the cradle of their hips, to deflect (not dampen) the resultant sideways. This restored the smooth action, but with an intrinsic gain of power.

The shorthand for the two qualities was "punchy" and "smooth".

Two Walks
We also investigated the relevance of the two shaker tones: the single, and the double, with respect to the salsa walk. At this point, I introduced them to the concept of the two walks:

The 'rhythmic walk' where the vocalisation and step-sizes are matched as "short-short-long" to create the "quick-quick-slow" rhythm. This walk opens a clear space for the double tone of the shaker.

The 'pinch-a-bit walk' where: the first step is taken early on beat one; the second step is 'in the pocket' on beat two; and, the third step is taken late on beat three. It's called the 'pinch-a-bit' because the dancer pinches time from both sides of beat four to give it to the first and third steps. This results in a smoother, slower, flat-triplet feel to the walk. As the second step was taken in the pocket, this was synchronised with the single tone of the shaker.

We took the time to have a qualitative discussion on the merits of both, and the circumstances under which they might be preferentially employed.

Additional supporting information was provided by referring to my web tutorial on:

'Figure 2.2. Fault tolerance' illustrates the two variations of walks.

The row labelled 'Tones' corresponds to the back-beat timeline played on the shaker(s).

The row labelled 'Accurate' represents the 'short-short-long' rhythmic walk.

The row labelled '2, slow' represents the smooth 'pinch a bit' walk (for torneo and setenta). '2' means it's calibrated to beat 2 (single shake of shaker); 'slow' means a pinch more time is added between steps 1&2, and 2&3.

That we are now examining the qualitative rhythmic nature of dance in solares is encouraging. It shows that participants are developing an increased sensitivity to the aural and kinesthetic dimensions of dance. And the possibility of greater fulfilment. I wonder what that might look like.


Wednesday, September 07, 2016

A State Of Flow

Yesterday was the first Solares after my return from the Far East. I'd been pondering the learning approach to the session, and had predicated the learning plan on the probability that the participants would have done very little practice. Hence I designed the workshop as a practice session, not as an overt learning session in a flipped classroom context.

The purpose to doing that was the removal of anxiety.

As we'd moved into investigating the domain of timelines and fundamental rhythms, solares participants are being asked to re-frame their embodiment activity as percussionists. Achieving a "state of flow" is essential to the activity's success.

According to Owen Schaffer's white paper "Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow, Human Factors International" (2013), there are seven conditions to be met for a state of flow to be achievable:
  1. knowing what to do;
  2. knowing how to do it;
  3. knowing how well you're doing;
  4. knowing where to go (if navigation is involved);
  5. high perceived challenges;
  6. high perceived skills; and
  7. freedom from distractions.
In practice, these were satisfied within the exercise of: generating shaker tones synchronised to the audible tones of the conga's tumbao moderno, while performing salsa's atiempo embodiment rhythm, to a salsa track.

Conditions 1 & 2
were met through revision of exercises one through three from the last session (see: http://salsadiary.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/percussion-concept-attack.html).

Condition 3
was fulfilled by the short impulse sound of the shaker, providing immediate feedback on quality of performance.

Condition 4
largely irrelevant, was met by self-determination in the direction of the rhythmic walk.

Conditions 5 & 6
were satisfied by the as-yet undeveloped proficiency in the synchronous performance of two timeline rhythms: back-beat and embodiment; to a qualitatively stringent level (less than 40 milliseconds).

Condition 7
was met by the studio environment (privacy), exercise design (solo practice), and unobtrusive support (subtle remedial intervention).

Three common states disrupt the maintenance of flow:
  • apathy - low challenge level, low skills level, engenders a general lack of interest
  • boredom -  low challenge level, high skills level, causes a distracting search for higher challenges
  • anxiety - high challenge level, low skills level, creates a feeling of uneasiness.
The latter is why the session was planned the way it was; to maximise the possibility of achieving the state of flow.

It succeeded.

At just before the workshop's mid-point, it was observable that each participant had entered (albeit inconsistently) entrainment. (See also PDF on entrainment by the Open University: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/experience/InTimeWithTheMusic.pdf). As proficiency increased, so did the need for challenge to maintain interest for flow. Adjustments to only three parameters were necessary:
  1. variations in tempo,
  2. quality of shaker tone, and
  3. fine synchronisation between timelines.
This was the first time I'd seen solares' participants enter the biomusic state of flow, and it heralds an exciting threshold of possibilities in the workshops.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Percussion Concept: Attack

This was the last Solares session before a long break, so I wanted to leave all participants with something simple yet of fundamental significance that they could practice.

It had struck me during the modulation practices that their vocalisations were inconsistent in interval and in tonal quality, it's a drawback to vocalisations deployed in communities where rhythmic social activity is not a mainstay. So I brought along every shaker instrument I owned: shakers, maracas, ankle rattles, shekere...

The idea was simple: to replace the "gung-gung" (beats 4, 4+) and "pak" (beat 2) vocalisations with beats from a shaker.

Long impulse to short impulse sound
Using a vocalisation, the participant is not normally critically aware (speed, climbing intensity) of the initiation of the sound, nor of its decay (due to resonance in cranio-thoracic cavities). Vocalisations are slow to develop their full sound pressure and to dissipate as well - they are long impulse sounds.

Shakers initiate their sounds quickly because they have a discrete impact event. Their sounds also dissipate quickly because their containing cavities tend to be small. Their tones are short impulse sounds.

Critical evaluation
Moving the back-beat timeline from vocals to an internal instrument, decoupled tone generation from the perceptual-integral self: placing the rhythmic activity outside the body; and, at some distance from the centre (i.e. at the end of the arms) such that a lag time was introduced, and had to be compensated for. Both of these factors contribute to a requirement for critical listening and a more critical evaluation of the quality of performance.

Options for development
Transferring the interpretation of the back-beat timeline onto shakers broadens the scope for the musical development of percussionist dancers: rhythmic variations; call-and-response; ensemble performance; percussive attack and decay; and phrasing. Crucially, it frees up the vocals to interpret a separate timeline.

The giant of all immediate purposes is to render to the participants the best possible feedback on their quality of performance, in fine synchrony of movements to music, and involvement in co-operative ensemble.

Exercise One
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic, then walking. Begin with "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add "pak" vocalisation (beat 2).

Exercise Two
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic, then walking. Begin with two shaker beats synchronised to the "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add one shaker beat synchronised to the "pak" vocalisation (beat 2).

Exercise Three (without back-beat vocalisations)
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic, then walking. Begin with two shaker beats on beats 4,4+. Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add one shaker beat on beat 2.

Exercises one through three were repeated to slow music. Exercise three was then maintained to music of increasing tempo.

All participants found the initial process of playing a shaker whilst dancing challenging. It was important to allow each one, the time to work out an approach which suited him or her the best. Intervention was kept to a minimum, but there was always a high availability of support.

At the end of the session, participants were clear as to what practice was required i.e. exercise three to a tempo maximum of 150bpm, and they were already able to achieve this in the workshop.

The refinements will come after I get back.

Loo Yen

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Rhythmic Modulation

Exploring the phenomenon of timeline modulation was the theme this week's Solares. There are a number of forms it takes, so the definition of modulation in this workshop was:
"when the rhythm of one timeline is allowed to influence the rhythm another"
There were two rhythms at play,
  1. the standard unaccented embodiment rhythm (atiempo timeline); and
  2. the vocalised open ("gung-gung") and slap ("pak") tones of the tumbao moderno (contratiempo timeline).

Warm-up: Recap of Previous Content
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic. Begin with "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add "pak" vocalisation (beat 2).

Solo, with music. As above.

Observation Practice
Two participants were selected to demonstrate modulation. One had naturally allowed the "pak" vocalisation to modulate her embodiment rhythm, evidenced by a stronger, accented second step. Another, although performing the "pak" vocalisation, had naturally maintained three unaccented steps.

Exercise One
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic, then walking. Begin with "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add "pak" vocalisation (beat 2). Allow the "pak" vocalisation to 'colour' to the second step.
Learning point: "let the pak from your throat flow through your feet"

Exercise Two
Solo, with music, As exercise one.

Learning Concept
Participants were first encouraged to explore modulation as present (accented) or absent (unaccented). Then they were encouraged to explore it quantitatively as 'colouration' (i.e. modulation) using the metaphor of a volume control dial: zero being unaccented, ten being as accented as possible, then arbitrary values in-between e.g. five, three, seven.

Exercise Three
As exercise two. Application of learning concept. Participants were asked to determine which 'colour' dial setting was most appropriate for the music track being played.

Exercise Four
As exercise three, but partnered.

At this point, participants' quality of execution encountered a downturn. As the addition of a partner was the single additional parameter, I surmised that the challenge lay in the mutual negotiation of an appropriate modulation level. This was verified through questioning the workshop participants. Reading this - the negotiation of each individuals idea of appropriate modulation in a partnership - as being one variable too far, I determined to continue with the principle of the exercise but adapted to make it achievable.

Exercise Five
Partnered, to music. Caribbean sway basic. Tumbao moderno "gung-gung, pak" vocalisation.
I called out a number indicating modulation level (on a scale of 0-10) and each participant was to interpret it at individual level, and then negotiate it at partnership level.

The initial exercises were met with varying success. This may have been due to either: a lack of skill in the execution; or a lack of understanding, given that modulation was a new concept. Both were equally likely.

Modulation is dependent upon the quality and strength of both signals: the embodied timeline and the vocalised timeline. If one signal timeline (in this case the vocalised one) fades in and out, and is temporally unstable, then the effect of modulation cannot be consistent.

Towards the end of the session (during exercise five) participants' dance rhythms were showing increasing signs of being affected by the "pak" accent, indicating that early-session low success was due to a lack of familiarity with the concept.

The introduction of additional structure through removal of one parameter (i.e. my setting of modulation level) suggests that more structured intermediate exercises might attenuate the steepness of the learning curve.

The indications are that a re-running of the content with additional support and fewer variables i.e.:
  1. externally set modulation levels;
  2. emphasis on individual exercises; and
  3. defined spatial configurations;
would provide an intermediate range of practice for the development of the skill of modulation.

Yeo Loo Yen

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Possibility of Dialogue (Tumbadora Session Two)

Two Solares participants and I met up for dinner and chat; which morphed into an impromptu tumbadora percussion workshop shortly after dessert was downed. It was I who suggested it, given that there was an opportunity to explore the 'non-moderno' (i.e. non one-person) version of the basic conga rhythm. All three of us were keen: two friends keen to lay hands on the drums, and I to explore more how to articulate the relevance of percussion to dancers.

We went over how to set up to play congas; then the necessary basic strokes of open tones, heel tones, toe tones; and the heel-toe marcha.

The first hurdle was in how to properly co-ordinate two drummers, each playing a complementary part of a whole rhythm, without bringing in the extra complexity of clave beforehand. I elected to introduce the entire rhythm as vocalisation, to a regular pulse meter tapped out by the ball-of-foot.

The sung rhythm was "gung-gung-fru-ku-gung-gung-fru-ku-" where:
  • "gung" is the open tone, corresponding to beats 4, 4+, 2, 2+ respectively;
  • "fru" is the heel tone, corresponding to beats 1, 3 respectively; and
  • "ku" is the toe tone, corresponding to beats 1+, 3+ respectively.
Taps of the ball-of-foot synchronised with each "fru". The "fru" syllable was used instead of "tu" because it is non-plosive.

One person was designated to play the open tones, the other the marcha. The drummer of the open tones began first as a 'pregón' or 'caller', followed by the marcha drummer as 'coro' or 'respondent', creating dialogue. Once the two-person rhythm was fully engaged, the vocalisation was silenced. The foot taps acted as a synchronising master timeline. These roles would be reversed so that each participant had an equal amount of time playing the two roles.

Each drummer was asked to cycle through the practice using dominant and non-dominant hands, and to assess the quality of each side's sonority, musical timing, and expression. As is typical, both were surprised to find their non-dominant sides more musical.

In keeping with the principle of co-operative musicianship common to African drumming, the tumbao was split into roles such that both were essential to form the whole. The divide was made according to tonal function: obviously audible tones which project the personality of the rhythm, and subtle near-inaudible tones which are essential to the drummer for stability and texture.

Quantitative factors, such as the loudness of tone (volume), and qualitative factors, such as abrupt accusative tones (timbre) were also pointed out when they occurred.

Low-mid tempo son montuno music was selected as the performative context.

With both participants being new to the instrument and to co-operative drumming, the objective of this session was to introduce them to the idea of how congas were drummed with two people, to develop the skill of listening to each other and their selves simultaneously, and to contextualise the vocalisations we've been using in solares in triggering movement response

We completed the session some three hours later, satisfied that a substantial foundation had been laid.

Loo Yeo

Friday, July 08, 2016

The Fundamental Characteristics of African Dance

Index of the fundamental characteristics of African dance and derivatives. Derived from Welsh-Asante's seven characteristics of African dance in "Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation" (1985).

1. Low to the earth
African cosmology regards the Earth as a benevolent world which sustains them, as compared to the European's place of trial to ascend from. Hence the characteristic of African dance is one which works with gravity, not one which seeks to defy it.

The 'Earth-Centred' Posture
With the ankles just inside one hip-width apart, and the body in a seated posture but inclined forward with knees flexed, this is a root position of West African dance. The posture places the dancer in dynamic equilibrium with gravity: energy from the dancer radiating downwards to the earth is in balance with the energy radiated from the earth upwards.

2. Undulating from the centre outward
(remarks to follow)

3. Polyrhythmic
(remarks to follow)

4. Emphasis on the pelvic girdle
(remarks to follow)

5. Body part isolations
Each body part tells its own story.
"All the elements of the music are displayed clearly in the body and nothing is left out." - Emily Willette (2012)

6. Whole foot touching the ground
(remarks to follow)
"We are the men of dance, whose feet draw new strength pounding the hardened earth." - Léopold Sédar Senghor (1945).
"stamping feet on the ground is a show of extreme joy" - Alphonse Tiérou (2000) 

7. Bent knees
(remarks to follow)
"dancing in a bent-over position with arms folded over the chest is a symbol of initiation" - Alphonse Tiérou (2000)

8. Texture
describes how dance functions as bodily (performative) conversation.
"Tell me how you dance and I'll tell you who you are." - Alphonse Tiérou (2000)
"When a body moves, it's the most revealing thing. Dance for me a minute, and I'll tell you who you are." - Mikhail Baryshnikov


Senghor, Léopold Sédar (1945). Prayer to Masks. In 'Songs of Shadow'. Original text: "Nous sommes les hommes de la danse, dont les pieds reprennent vigueur en frappant le sol dur." See excerpt: http://www.drmalotaibi.com/courses/prayer-to-masks.pdf [Retrieved 08/07/16]

Tiérou, Alphonse (2000). Tell Me How You Dance and I'll Tell You Who You Are. The UNESCO Courier. October 2000, Page 45. See: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001207/120752e.pdf#120774 [Retrieved 08/07/16]

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (1985). Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation. In "African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity" edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Kariamu Welsh-Asante. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Willette, Emily (2012). The Africanist Aesthetic in American Dance Forms. https://sophia.smith.edu/blog/danceglobalization/2012/04/13/the-africanist-aesthetic-in-american-dance-forms/ [Retrieved 18/06/2016]

The Senses of African Dance

Index of the thematic principles which can be found at the core of African dance and derivatives. Derived from Welsh-Asante's seven "senses" of African dance in "Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation" (1985).

1. Ephebism
(from the Greek 'ephebos' εφηβος referring to the adolescent male)
A youthful energy (not commonly found in European ballet). "Old people dancing with youthful vitality are valued examples of ephebism in Africanist cultures." (Gottschild, 2001.)

2. Polycentrism
Literally meaning "of, or having, many-centres", it is the idea that movement may be initiated from and maintained in any part of the body. Hence the preponderance of body-isolated movement. Polycentrism is a requisite for the embodiment of polyrhythm. Emily Willette (2012) says of African dance, "All the elements of the music are displayed clearly in the body and nothing is left out."

3. Polyrhythm
Dave Atkinson defines polyrhythm as "a combination of two or more rhythms played simultaneously while moving at the same linear tempo". Farris Thompson (1974) describes his experience of the bodily expression of polyrhythm (via polycentrism) thus, “my hands and my feet were to keep time with the gongs, my hips with the first drum, my back and shoulders with the second.”

4. Curvilinearity
"refers to the curved shape, figuring or structuring of artistic products as well as within the positioning of bodies. It’s directly related to two core concepts in African societies: continuity and fertility." (Afreaka, 2013)

5. Dimensionality
Extrasensory feelings and emotions. "Asante's (sic) (1994) dimensionality refers not to "measured dimension" but to "perceived dimension," a "something extra that is present in harmony with the music, dance, or sculpture" (Caponi, 1999).

6. Epic Memory
The dancer draws upon folkloric knowledge and cultural histories to imbue the dance with spiritual and emotional meaning, thereby making a 'universal' (read 'primal') connection with the audience.

7. Holistic Unity (Wholism)
Unity arises out of the circle-solo dance format where there is a communal circle and a soloist leader or couple. Members of the circle: drummers, singers/choristers, dancers-in-waiting, audience members; all participate. Says Welsh-Asante (2010) "Participation is anticipatory and responsive. In order for an event to be successful, everyone must be fully involved. Silence and stillness are not valued in the African performance arena. In fact, to be silent is to be critical in a negative way and shows disdain and contempt for the performance."

8. Repetition
"Most African composition is based on the repetition of a musical unit. It is that repetition that holds together the other musical units of the composition. These other unit are structured with great freedom relative to the first unit, producing their own rhythmic pattern that coincides only occasionally with that of the other units and with the basic pulse. For example, in the mbira music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, a repeated pattern is established by the interaction of various parts, and the musician develops an improvisation out of this core pattern." ('Music in Africa' 2015)

"Without an organizing principle of repetition, true improvisation would be impossible, as an improviser relies upon the ongoing recurrence of the beat... That the beat is there to pick up does not mean that it must have been metronomic, but merely that it must have been at one point begun and that it must be at any point 'social' - i.e., amenable to re-starting, interruption, or entry by a second or third player or to response by an additional musician." (Snead, James 1981)


Afreaka (2013). "Africanist Dance Aesthetics: Societies in Movement". http://www.afreaka.com.br/english/africanist-dance-aesthetics/ [Retrieved 19/06/16]

Atkinson, Dave (????). What is a polyrhythmhttp://www.drumlessons.com/drum-lessons/rock-drumming/what-is-a-polyrhythm/ [Retrieved 08/07/2016].

Caponi, Gena Dagel (1999). "Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin' & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture" Editor. Amherst : Univeristy of Massachusetts Press.

Farris Thompson, Robert (1974). "African Art in Motion". Los Angeles : University of California Press.

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon (2001). Stripping the Emperor: The Africanist Presence in American Concert Dance. In "African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas" Edited by Sheila S.Walker. pp.89-103.

'Music of Africa'. In "New World Encyclopedia" (2015)
http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Music_of_Africa [Retrieved 16/06/16]

Snead, James (1981). On Repetition in Black Culture. Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 15, No. 4, Black Textual Strategies, Volume 1: Theory (Winter, 1981), pp. 146-154.

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (1985). Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation. In "African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity" edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Kariamu Welsh-Asante. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (2010). World of Dance: African Dance, Second Edition. NY : Infobase Publishing

Willette, Emily (2012). The Africanist Aesthetic in American Dance Forms. https://sophia.smith.edu/blog/danceglobalization/2012/04/13/the-africanist-aesthetic-in-american-dance-forms/ [Retrieved 18/06/2016]