Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Last Post of the Year 2006

Cuatro de Diciembre's been going from strength to strength, we couldn't have imagined how far we've come along in a year: we've got a fully developed repetiore which suits our ethos of music-making right down to the ground; our original music is on a par with the very best of the classic covers that we do, and there's an evolving synergy between our recording and live activities. We saw that at our last gig of the year at Sabroso, where our recorded songs formed a solid spine for a cracking playlist.

Next year promises more exciting developments as our recordings edge towards completion. We're just a few equipment pieces short of being able to record everything the way we want, namely: a great pair of stereo mics for recording timbales, a Shure Beta 91 kick-drum mic, a transparent pair of studio monitors, and a high quality valve compressor for vocals.

Most of December's been dedicated to carving out the shape of a new song for our upcoming CD to bring the total number up to 10. The theme is done and I've isolated the feel of the montunos. The next step is to get the Spanish lyrics saying what I mean them to say and matched to the montunos. That should take a few more weeks yet. In the meanwhile, the montuno section to one of the songs has been re-developed much to my relief. That had been bugging me for the past year now, and it's been raised to the same comparably high standard as the rest of the suite.

I've also picked up the tres again for the first time in years, and that's my main target for this break, to get two of guajeos up to recording standard for a couple of songs. Having played a lot of bass and some guitar in the intervening period has changed my approach to palying that instrument, for the better.

I think you'd have noticed that the band is central to my activites. But rest assured that that's not all. I'm half-way through writing the next tutorial and hope to have it posted early in the new year. I've nearly finished Alejo Carpentier's book, and have already started Cuban Miami by by Robert M. Levine and Moises Asis. You can expect ideas raised by these sources to feed into the website as soon as I finish the tutorials: most probably first in the salsa glossary and salsa timeline.

I'd love to write more, but it's taking me away from the things I urgently have to do. So until next year,

Loo Yeo

Thursday, November 30, 2006

End of November synopsis

(a personal record):

  • Reading
    More than half way through Alejo Carpentier's "Music in Cuba". Will be followed by "Cuban Miami" (and Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential").
  • Tutorial writing
    Planning the first Hip Isolation lesson. Hope to have two tutorials on hip isolation finished by the end of the year.
  • Song-writing
    Penning the inspiraciones for the fifth song (the last one to complete) of our suite right now. Then to work out the melodies and get it into the practice room.
  • Recording
    Polishing the two remaining basslines for our first phase of four songs. Then to lay down the hand percussion layers of Phase I. Begin recording the guide vocals to Phase II.
  • Playing
    Just three more songo variations to master on the tumbadores before I can move on to other rhythms and soloing strategies. Rehearse guitar montunos for our original songs and start developing guajeos on the tres for two of them.
  • Dancing
    Solidify timing as regards dancing on the upbeats (in between the beats). Focus on rumba guaguancó movement.
That should gobble up all of my spare time all the way through to the new year. Yuletide's looking pretty fine!

Loo Yen

Friday, November 24, 2006

In a Teaching State of Mind

Well that's another salsa tutorial done, which means I can post this much belated blog entry.

It's been pretty hard getting back into the teaching mindset; more specifically writing for a web-delivered tutorial because of its unique constraints and demands. I've just done two in a row: on lateral chest isolation and on circular movement of the torso which completes the upper-body level programme. Roll on to the hips next.

I'm only just feeling as if I'm into the swing of things again. And since efficiency is a big thing with me, I'll stick with the lesson writing for a good while to save having to shift mental gears. I've always maintained that I get as much out of doing this as those who use them, although there seems always to be a point in the process where I question that; usually when I'm struggling to articulate a tough concept.

So all in all, things are going well, and I'm looking forward to completing the body movement series over the next few months. I've nearly convinced myself that the 'Using Rhythm' tutorials deserve their own section, but there has to be more content to warrant that (and you know what that means).

Loo Yen Yeo

Friday, October 27, 2006

"Salsa Talks" by Mary Kent

"Salsa Talks" is another book that I'd managed to finish just recently.

It's a large book, comprising intimately candid interviews coupled with some marvellous photographs; a volume that brings the protagonists of salsa to life in a way that I've found no other book has been able to.

Despite the dedication of a good portion of its contents to pictures, sometimes duplicated which left me wondering if it was a design feature or "padding", the interview transcriptions are meaty but simultaneously easy to read. This is a welcome change from the normal fare which is either extremely well researched but stodgy, being derived from someone's musicology thesis; or so under-researched and misrepresented as to be misleading.

This book is SUCH a refreshing change.

Salsa Talks gives something back to you every time you read it: the way the artists express themselves about their work; their recollection of the times; their hopes. Many of them have passed on now, a comment on how long Mary's journey has been.

It has helped me personally on so many levels:

1. much of the flotsam of information I'd gathered from a multitude of sources finally came together within the context of the narratives, making salsa clearer and more comprehensible;

2. my listening appreciation of music became more profound as I came to understand what the artists were personally going through and thinking at that time; and

3. their comments about how they approached their work gave me valuable insight into how I might interpret salsa myself as a musician.

Over and above everything else, Salsa Talks communicates with passion, a sense of Time and Place; that's something books don't do often enough.

I'm glad that this one is with us, because it makes us all the richer for it.

Loo Yen Yeo

"Cuban Music from A to Z" by Helio Orovio

Illustration (left) ©Copyright 2004 Duke University Press. All Rights Acknowledged.

I've just finished reading Helio Orovio's "Cuban Music from A to Z", which I'd been meaning to do for a while now, but thought the prospect of tackling it in Spanish a little daunting. Luckily my courage was given a reprieve when the translated version hit the shelves a couple of years back. The encyclopedic entries make reading the book a very dry experience if you approach it from cover-to-cover, which is understandable as it was designed as a reference work.

Nonetheless, doing so at a leisurely canter gave this reader a sense of the book's scope, what the author thought to be important, and what is not so. It would be unfair to dwell on its inaccuracies: like the unlikelihood of people dying before they were born; or some of its glaring omissions like not mentioning the likes of Pedrito Calvo whilst maintaining and entry for his colleague Orlando Canto; simply because this work has no equivalent in the English language arena.

The balance of information seems to be heavily polarised, with plenty of weight given to musicians of Cuban-European music and practices of African origin, with not much in between. It's as if the cataloguing began with a very pro-European bias, and was only recently redressed with some very Africa-centric entries in an attempt to render it some sense of balance. It's a far from perfect work, but its very utility will ensure that Mr. Orovio's name will continue to stare back at me from spine of the book on the shelf for many years to come.

And one final thing.

Reading it serially, hard on the palate though it might have been, gave me a sense of the Cuban contribution, in part, to the development of salsa.

But tellingly, it was missing the names of non-Cubans commonly mentioned as staples in other books of this genre, that told me just as much. The likes of Johnny Pacheco, the Palmieri brothers, and El Gran Combo. I guess there is truth in the saying "You don't recognise the value of something until it's gone".

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Promised Land

When the band started back out on the gig trail a few months ago, I remember approaching the prospect with some trepidation; not that I was concerned about our ability to perform live. No, it wasn't that at all. I knew that the large well of studio experience would always stand us in good stead, despite major changes in line-up and playlist.

It was always going to be more of how we would manage the tensions between that of recording and that of performing live. Such is there a demand for a solid salsa band that I knew we would be inundated with requests, which would in turn put pressure on our opportunities to record. But at the same time, our songs (the original ones) needed to be played in order to mature and realise their full potential. And fully matured songs are the ones that I think should be recorded. A classic Catch-22.

So it has come to pass we're pretty much booked up through to our December break.

We're due to play at a mini-congress in a couple of weeks, and we're more than ready. The process was accelerated somewhat when we were invited to play at a sold-out event for fifteen-hundred a few weeks back. Preparing for that unexpected gig placed us under no small amount of pressure and I, as music director, behaved like a bear with a sore head to get us ready in time. Contrary to popular belief, that's not my preferred method of conducting operations.

That was followed shortly after by our monthly gig at the Interval Cafe to a more intimate crowd. It was nonetheless, just as well received.

As a result of all this, 4 de Diciembre has entered the "Promised Land" ahead of time: we have at a high performance standard, two full length sets plus a variety of encore numbers; and more importantly, the fresh stage experience to cope with inevitable unexpecteds (like imperfect monitoring) with good humour.

Band practices have returned to the joyous, even mirthful, occassions they once were - now that we've passed from the fraught song acquisition phase to the more creative optimisation stage.


Yeo Loo Yen

Sunday, October 08, 2006

7th October 2006 4 de Diciembre headlining the Intro Fiesta@Octagon Centre, University of Sheffield

The Intro Fiesta is one of three glittering jewels in the crown of the University of Sheffield's International Students' Committee (ISC), the other two being the International Cultural Evening and the International Food Evening. And of the three, the Fiesta is the dearer to my heart - having the fondest of memories attached to it; existing purely for the enjoyment of the students (unlike the display-based other two); and, being located right at the beginning of the school year, it wears the atmosphere of jubilant optimism.

Photograph courtesy of E-Leen
Copyright©2006 E-Leen. All rights reserved.

Our road to this event was not an easy one. I'd been preparing 4 de Diciembre for a gig at a salsa weekender in Doncaster and all of our practices were geared to get us ready in that time. When the band accepted Luis Ananguren's (the International Student Secretary) invitation to play, my timetable of preparation dramatically compressed from five weeks two weeks. Oops!

There was also a plague of uncertainties: Catie and Carolyn were due to holiday in Skye and looked as if they weren't able to join us; some horse-trading with the timeslots we were to play in; and slightly lumpy matters with the sound reinforcement. The first two impacted very much on what and how we played; and it wasn't the eleventh hour, literally one week before, before I knew for certain that both Catie and Carolyn could make it and that we'd be expected to play two thirty-minute sets.

The not-knowing made it a real challenge at practices in the run-up.

On a gray autumn Saturday afternoon, we deposited ourselves and our gear at the loading bay of the Octagon centre; we'd even brought our own complement of microphones to save the student-run technical crew time. Otherwise they would have had to swap them and their EQ settings between us and the opening reggae/dub band.

We began our three o'clock start at four; were soundchecked for 120 minutes though played less than 15; made to finish before the end; and hustled off stage to make way for a late earlier band. I kept thinking to myself "erm, okay, hitches are normal for a gig". Then we found out that we were doing one sixty-minute set instead. And that we were playing at the later time of 22:30hrs.

We were left with four hours to unwind, and I was struck by how unwise it was a thing to do as I watched Decemberists gambol about their environs.

Sweet sweet love: Piñata-thumpin'
Photograph courtesy of TMirando.

Copyright©2006 TMirando. All rights reserved.

The main hall of the Octagon Centre lives up to its name and houses up to eight hundred seated (more standing) - it's a popular stop for big UK acts who choose to warm up on the university circuit before a national tour. The spacious stage is set 1.5 metres off the ground, and the room 's acoustics reward careful handling. The whole venue lends itself well to the performer in setting up an atmosphere, so long as you can get more than four hundred souls on the floor.

Not a problem, tonight was already a sell-out.

The many international groups were well underway with setting up their cultural areas: from Mexican to Malaysian; with activities from face-painting to henna-tattooing. And once we spotted the sumo ring, well... that was it! The angst of the previous hours was wrestled away and by the time the opening band "I Witness" came on to lay us back with their tunes, we were in peril of over-chilling.

A pink pair of Malaysians
Photograph courtesy of MASSoc.

Sumo! Just like the real thing except the ceremonial salt
Photograph courtesy of MASSoc.

I looked at my watch. Things were running very, very late. Joining the hubbub at side of stage, I read disappointment in the faces of the teachers, Dan and Kate, who would have been giving the salsa and merengue lesson. I braced for what was coming next - it was well past 11.00p.m.

4 de Diciembre had one forty-minute set. The ISC tried to be gracious saying that we could spill over if we had to, but a few seconds with my fellow band-mates was enough: we didn't need to put the night any deeper into a jam; and we could distill our playlist down into the punchiest of killer sets. 4de12 had been highly billed, and this was going to be the most gracious way of managing disappointment.

Cuatro de Diciembre on the starting blocks
Photograph courtesy of CSTan.

Copyright©2006 CSTan. All rights reserved.

The eight of us: Ana (bass, vocals), Carolyn (sax), Catie (flute), Dan (guitar), Jan (violin), Jeremy (piano, vocals, clave), Nathan (timbales) and myself (lead vocals, congas) mounted the stairs and broke out the heavy artillery. After the mellow sounds of reggae, the audience's blood had to get pumping for the DJs afterwards.

We so totally rocked the house.

Photograph courtesy of SGammati
Copyright©2006 SGammati. All rights reserved.

I can still see with my mind's eye, a sea of bobbing faces aglow with the many colours from the overhead stage lights. The one definitive lasting memory of the night however, was during "Yo soy el sonero" which Ana and I wrote in a traditional East Cuban style; enjoying the sight of a large group of Latinos waving a Cuban flag, jumping up and down with their thumbs up in the air.

It was worth the cost of every trial, just for that one moment.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Guitarra Mía

At last I feel as if I'm making headway; for a number of years now I'd made repeated efforts at cracking the guitar and tres; and although each time I tried I succeeded in making some progress, I never generated enough momentum to see it through. It was shaping up to become one of life's regrets. Thankfully this time it's different; and I put it down to having invested an inordinate amount of thought into drawing up a detailed plan AND sticking to it like a pit-bull to a postman's shin.

I had set a final target of a six song mini-set: varied but with mutually complementary numbers, covering the range of styles and absorbing the techniques that I wanted. The styles are típico to modern, and the techniques were designed to allow me to play the guajeo style of Arsenio Rodriguez over a complementary AfroCuban bassline adapted from the Travis method. In the faster tempo numbers where this might not be possible, I've been inclined to use chords and arpeggios with percussive counterpoint on the soundboard.

I'm finding it tough to get going on some days; there's such a lot of material to cover that it takes ages for things to come together. A sense of decision paralysis seems to like lurking nearby. But four months plus and this guitar-player wannabe's still at it - with all the songs in place albeit in various states of repair. Overall it's been a summer well spent.

This process has been just as valuable to me as an educator. Why am I succeeding this time when I didn't in the past? Is it in having spent the time establishing the final context? I think so, as now, every practice has a setting, every success is perceivable, every advancement makes clearer the way ahead.

Mosts of all, the guitar has taught me not to be greedy. To recognise that in order to achieve success, one needs to be brave enough to say "no" to those seductive "really nice to have but not at all essential" things; and to recognise them in their different guises.

Obtaining early results is a cornerstone of effective teaching, and learning to play this instrument has revived my understanding of its significance.

Yeo Loo Yen

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Spanish Half

Sometimes one just has to bit the bullet and get on with it.

The revamp of the website in Spanish has at last started. A few months ago I restructured the salsa website in English; to reflect accurately its position relative to the local organisations, and to maintain its continued relevance worldwide. I'd been delaying doing the same for the Spanish version - for just one reason; I'm not the one doing the translating.

That task's been taken up by the embarrasingly talented Ana Santiago Menendez: educator, singer-songwriter, dancer, bajista, and gold-panner extrordinaire (Yep, you read that bit right). I suspect she didn't know what she was volunteering for, otherwise it'd still be only a monolingual site. I wanted to make sure that the new structures were bedded down properly in the English version, so that there wouldn't be any extraneous work due to a lack of organisation on my part.

Having worked with Ana in songwriting for the band before, I can very much appreciate the vast amount of work needed to get the message right. We're still looking for accurate translations for "close hold" and "bugbear".

Perhaps there's a hint of cultural pride; it doesn't do to have a top salsa site in English and not in Spanish. That might nark one's sensibilities. Thank God cultural pride doesn't extend to my wanting to translate it into Chinese.

I wonder what "close hold" is in hokkien?

Loo Yen Yeo

Friday, September 01, 2006

Doing something right

It's an open secret that 4 de Diciembre and its previous incarnations of Grupo 271 and Chévere have been in the recording studios, on and off, for the past three years. In that time we've amassed a veritable mountain of material, some of it truly inspirational. Sadly a good proportion of it will never see the light of day, because of some inherent flaws that render it unsuitable for release.

I put those down as much to our then level of inexperience, as well as a recording studio that was not, I feel, particularly sympathetic to the needs of a Latin band. But we are lucky in that now, we have in our midst an experienced recording engineer in the shape of Dan.

A few months ago, we decided to take the step and do the recordings ourselves.

The proposition of getting us all, a large-ish Latin ensemble on tape isn't a small matter. That's part of the reason for my writing hiatus; I've been busy planning with Dan our recording strategy, our equipment needs, getting it sourced and making it happen. The last pieces of the jigsaw: the recording desk, remaining microphones, connectors, gates and compressors, will be arriving within the next couple of weeks. Once it's all hooked up to the stuff we've already got, we'll be good to start.

I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to this with a strange melange of anticipation and trepidation. For me, it remains the final and best opportunity to have our hard work, character and creativity rendered in a lasting manner - to hold in our hands a permanent token of an exceptionally rewarding period of our lives.

We actually have enough material for at least two albums, and we've elected to go for the greater challenge of having our first release comprising solely original material. We're not "easy route" kind of people.

Watch this space.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Hard hands

Joe, our conguero and one of the original founding members of 4 de Diciembre left us in pursuit of bigger and better things at the beginning of this year. I know that's a tough piece of information to digest - what could be more cool than playing in a burgeoning salsa band? His very personal brand of exuberance is sorely missed.

So for the past few months, I've been doubling on congas and vocals; developing specifically the aspect of independence i.e. doing both and yet compartmentalising them so that they don't pull each other around. Truth be told, I'm not finding it easy but I've got no grounds to belly-ache about the situation since Jeremy, our pianist, plays clave on a foot pedal and sings backing vocals. I'm astonished his brain doesn't explode. And to rub salt in the wound, our timbalero Nathan (who plays with the additional kickdrum) has started with backing vocals too. Now that's just hateful.

It's tough playing in this band.

And now that I'm more or less there, Nathan's leaving me for dust in the call-and-response timbale versus conga sections. Talk about being victimised by percussion!

Did I mention that it's tough playing in this band?

So in an effort to spruce up my conguero hat, I've been working on increasing speed, and learning some traditional licks to provide some sort of bedrock. This can only help as we'll be recording again soon (more on that later). If you happen to be a developing conguero too, I can very much recommend the Tomas Cruz conga method. I've used many others, and can already play confidently in most salsa bands. But Timba is a totally different kettle of fish, and this course is the only one I've come across so far that I can see getting me there. Right now I'm really getting into the 6/8 and 12/8 groove. Can't wait to see how this'll affect my dancing.

Confused looks from my unsuspecting partners I reckon.

Off to conga,

Monday, August 07, 2006

Brakes and Breaks

Okay, I'm not long back from a stint away in the Far East. I'd like to say it was for pleasure, but although it was good, it certainly wasn't a picinic. Sadly, there was a lot of work to be done prepping for and during the trip, so it put a damper on all things salsa.

But in a peverse way, that did a lot of good.

Being so heavily immersed in salsa writing, dancing, playing and teaching - especially for extended and intense periods of time, tends to over-accentuate some things and de-emphasise others. Taking a breather has always helped me "normalise", for want of a better term, my perspectives of salsa. I just didn't realise how much I needed to do it this time, until now.

Long live the break.

I'm going to do just that, so don't expect a post for a while.

Until a little bit later,


Monday, June 19, 2006

An Embarrasment of Riches

No, I haven't forgotten about blogging, but living the salsa life-style is keeping me busier than I could have imagined.

The biggest relief and satisfaction is delivering the two chapters on the Puerto Ricans in salsa after a several year wait. I'm still anticipating the delivery of materials for the ear-training tutorials; a matter that is not quite in my hands.

But the things that are, such as the tutorials on body movements, a short history of the plena, and the chapter on Colombian salsa, are being attended to. Given the business-related things I've got looming, I'm afraid all bets are off regarding timelines.

The smart person would get a clone grown to help out.

Inconveniently, the local clone-shoppe has just upped its prices to exorbitant levels due to rising energy costs.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Salsa website update: 5th June 06

I can't believe that it's been a week since I watched the film, and blogged.

Time seems to be zipping by, what with the writing pace hotting up as I come to the finishing line on the History of Boricuas in Salsa. Actually, it's done.

But before I put it up, I've got to make room for it on the site; which means editing the subsequent sections that had overlapping material. So I'm sorry, but some of you eager readers will have to wait a little while longer (but not that much longer). It'll be a relief, and with no small amount of personal satisfaction when it does go live, as I've been aching to balance out the section for a few years now.

The website development list now looks like:

That's on top of the band and dancing.

Does anyone have a life they're not living to the full and wouldn't mind donating some extra few hours to me?

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Favela Rising

Yesterday was a public holiday (we call them Bank Holidays here in the UK; apparently the monkier was designed to side-step parlimentary resistance).

In between the labour pains I'm experiencing over the gestation of the piece on Puerto Rican salsa, I took to watching the film "Favela Rising". I came to it thinking that as a piece of commentary, it would bear some similarity to salsa's rise as music of the underclasses.

I got a lot more than I bargained for.

I don't think anything I could write would do it justice. Instead I encourage you to visit the site and maybe read the director's statement to help you make up your mind; that you need to experience this film. Seldom has a film moved me to tears. As a person who plays music, it's important to be reminded of the potential significance of I do.

©Copyright 2005 All Rights Acknowledged.

Yes it is violent. The violence, the loss, and the potential to have your life taken away in an instant without any reason whatsoever is integral to the film. And it's real.

For those of you who normally avoid such things, and particularly if you're a musician, forgive the imperative, swallow the bitter pill, and watch it.

It'll hurt you, but in a good way.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Retro Weekend-and-a-bit

Saturday saw me and two band-mates boogieing on at "Hot Pants", the weekly 70s night at City Hall. It's a very large venue which would happily swallow up several hundred goers and still look vacuous. The music was safe if fairly uninspired, but some of the attendees made an effort - sporting wigs, shades, hats and such in the era's style that they had purchased from the concession stand. The obvious connection to my deciding to write about it here is the New York scene at that time when salsa was gaining popularity, and the Hustle of "Saturday Night Fever" fame which is a close relative to salsa. It wasn't difficult to assemble movement from salsa, merengue, hustle, and jive vocabulary on-the-fly to the song of the moment.

But apart from my deciding to go there and enjoy myself with a couple of friends, it provided a much-needed baseline experience to measure the salsa scene against. I think over the years I'd come to take the camaraderie of salsa for granted. True, there are some minor foibles that I think it could do without, but in general the excessive alcohol intake and associated issues more common in other scenes don't feature often in salsa. Also a greater proportion of people in salsa dance because they enjoy it than using it as a vehicle of courtship display.

And yesterday, I had a big dose of Motown in the form of the play "Dancing in the Streets". Now THAT was cool. It was very well rehearsed; the mark of a group that's been touring for a while, and a very brave effort by the cast who were trying to emulate the inimitable: Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder. No Jacksons though, I wonder why...

Again, that music was seminal to the development of the short-lived boogaloo. I love the way Motown's music is simple yet capable of expressing such exuberance. That's why I also love Fania's work.

That's enough gushing for now.

You may have already noticed that I've completed the "For Players" section of the website, at least for the time being. That leaves me in the throes of writing about Puerto Ricans in salsa, and as usual the project's grown in scope; it'll now be spread across two sections (which incidentally I think is fair, to balance the emphasis on Cuba). I've nearly finished the first draft of the first section which I've decided to call "Island Life". It'll take quite a bit of polishing, so don't expect it arrive any sooner than two weeks from now.

That's enough blogging for the moment. I've got a History to get back to.

Yeo Loo Yen

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Birthdays, Gigs and Walking Congas

It's Tuesday and I've just about recovered from a busy weekend.

Friday saw our gig at the double-birthday party which metamorphosed into a lovely triple-birthday celebration, as one of the hosts had a twin sister in attendance. What I didn't know was the extent to which the two hosts were involved in the salsa dancing scene, more a comment on how much I'd become removed from it. This was brought home when a couple of good friends from out of town turned up to DJ and present a salsa lesson, followed closely by a number of very familiar faces from the local scene.

And here I was thinking that we'd be playing to a non-regular salsa crowd.

Up until that point I'd shied away from taking up gigs in direct contact with the regulars, friends and colleagues of the dance scene because I always felt that we would be more ready. Coming off the back of a number of years in the recording studio, a change in line-up, and a brand new repetoire, there were a few performance rust spots to polish off and hence my plan for '4 de Diciembre's re-introduction was still more than two months down the line. Let alone playing in front of Nicolai and Helena. Of course, all that fell by the wayside.

As it turns out, I needn't have worried - the band comfortably absorbed last-minute changes to the playlist and performed admirably in the convivial atmosphere. I love playing at events like these.

The next evening and the roles were reversed as I danced my little socks off to the music of Orquesta Cache. I'd seen them before and have highly rated their performance which is passionate, engaging and energetic. The venue was like an oven, every human body radiating heat at full blast - just my sort of place. The people in Nottingham are friendly, at least to this salsero, as once again I enjoyed the freedom of anonymity. I had considered perhaps not to make this too much of a habit lest my status change, but there's too much fun to be had right now.

The preceding afternoon I'd spent 'spectating' at a salsa dance lesson, just hanging out and involved in discourse about things salsa. Truth be told it was a combination of many things: a chance to develop a couple of friendships, researching material for a couple of articles I've got brewing, and my favourite past-time of people watching. It culminated in what Nicolai calls a "salsa anorak's" chat about the current resurgence of Cuban salsa and what Cuban style is perceived to be. There'll be an article on that soon.

Sunday and the role was reversed again, as we took stage at the Interval Cafe. After having gone the distance two days previously, the only potential pitfall was going to be that we would take our ability to perform for granted. Learning from our previous experience, we relocated to the upper tier of the room, and in combination with our new microphones, delivered a far superior sound. The performance was relaxed and and enjoyable, apart from a conga that insisted on walking toward me as I played it. Normally not a problem, but this animated drum kept strolling away from its mic and pushing me away from mine.

I wonder if other people have to contend with overly frisky percussion instruments too.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Salsero incognito

There's something quite refreshing about experiencing a different scene where no-one knows you.

I don't tend to venture to other salsa realms all that often but I have two very good friends, kind enough to tolerate the inconvenience of my company, who do. And very occasionally, I manage to travel with them to dance in someone else's neighbourhood.

We did just that last Saturday and had a thoroughly enjoyable time, and I'm sure my inimitable dance-floor manoeuvres contributed somewhat to their entertainment. It left me thinking, "do I now enjoy dancing in other cities more than here?" Based on recent experiences I would say so.

"But why?"

I reckon it's something to do with the freedom born from a lack of expectation. And I mean it as having a clean slate, but not as if I'm inherently constrained by a need to live up to other people's expectations.

Hmm... that explanation certainly went pear-shaped. Maybe I should put it another way.

A personality in an established salsa scene eventually accrues an expectation of behaviour from third parties. It's something that humans seem to do naturally. The properties of the expected behaviour are modelled in part on observable conduct, personal contact, and on assumptions founded or otherwise. Whereas that person might have started off being viewed neutrally, the expectation of behaviour contributes to a 'polarisation effect' that causes a migration to compatible social spaces. (That's better.)

Being at places "where no-one knows your name" allows me the freedom to move through the local groups as a neutral; to be an 'informed outsider' if you will. I find it very stimulating because my partners dance with an open mind, and enchanting because rapport is enjoined without preconceptions.

So yes, having an established compatibility circle is comfortable and has rewards that should not be so easily taken for granted. Dancing incognito on the other hand, has its own mischievous pleasures.

Loo Yen

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Website travails

A consideration for the starting of this blog was to scribe my fashioning of the Salsa & Merengue Society website - for those tenacious souls who would brave Google's sixth page on "salsa" to find it, and for myself.

I'm the kind of person who prefers to establish working frameworks before tacking on material and, as a consequence, the website indicates items that have been planned but are as yet written. This causes concerned visitors to email me about inactive links. But that's okay being the social creature that I am.
Ever a work-in-progress

The thing I have with the site is that it's not obvious to a visitor what work might be underway, since only the results of the process are seen, and not the process itself. Some projects can take several months to complete; tutorials for example take 4-6 weeks. The top of my enticingly voluptuous In-tray currently looks like:
  • research the role of Puerto Ricans in Salsa, which will result in an additional chapter in the History of Salsa (4 weeks gone, and at least 4 weeks more to go);
  • Percussion: Bongó webpage in For Players (1 week);
  • Percussion: Timbales webpage in For Players (2 weeks);
  • Planning the Piano section of the Salsa: Ear Training section (4 weeks so far, indeterminate time-scale).

This blog's great because it gives an indication of progress and I have a historical record of site evolution.

An unexpected boon of blogging has been how it's helped my writing. The first few months back to regular penmanship were downright painful (writing articles and tutorials after a two-year hiatus), but the practice is proving quite invaluable. On the down-side, I'm spending time blogging when I really should be spending it writing webpages. Sigh.

Unable to deflect the scornful arrows of necessity any longer, I'm off to write some more, and elsewhere.

Loo Yen Yeo

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Thank you for the music (part 2)

Of course you should feel something, silly. Otherwise what would be the point?

That's a knee-jerk apriori response. But then again, think upon this: I know two salseros who have been on the scene for a number of years now, both of whom would be classed as "advanced" dancers in terms of vocabulary. Both of them don't even like salsa music and confess to not listening to the music, only the beat to stay in time. They say they do it to be "social", not because they like salsa itself. They're not often short of people to dance with.

There goes that idea crashed and burned.

I've got this niggly feeling that I may've been barking up the wrong tree all this while.

Woof Woof.

Forever stubborn in the face of fact, I soldier on. And besides, I haven't finished my thanks to the music yet.

So contrary to conventional wisdom, I find myself reducing my dance vocabulary to a comfortable minimum. I tell others that it's because I'm getting old and that I'm now built more for comfort than for speed. That seems to bring a chuckle and no further probing questions. Dancing uncomplicatedly gives me the temporal space to say what I want to say. I would have called it reverse snobbery, but that would have been disingenuous about what salsa means to me.

I realise it's not fair to have come this far without articulating myself how salsa makes me feel.

"Salsa fills me with a need to share my interpretation of what I hear with my partner."

And everything I do flows from that.

In the end you could say that discovering music, and continuing to discover music, is what's been keeping me in the game.

Now dance with me if you dare.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Thank you for the music

You know, if it hadn't been for playing in the band, I don't think I'd still be dancing salsa regularly today.

No, really.

Starting up what is now known as "4 de Diciembre" is, in perfect hindsight, maybe the most serendipitous move of my relationship with salsa, and at the right time. Many of the crucial things were in place; I'd been teaching for many years and after having understood the skill of combination building, dance vocabulary had already taken second place to skills of movement and execution.

What I didn't realise at that time was that although my physical abilities were well matched with the intellectual, I still had a blind spot in that I lacked, for want of a better word, emotional rapport. That's not to mean that I didn't connect to the music - far from it. During those years, I enjoyed my dancing and it showed. But my quest which started out to identify the time-keeping components of salsa, led to appreciating the different salsa types, recognising the embedded cultural elements, and realising why salsa makes people want to dance. That's thanks mainly to being in 4 de Diciembre.

Most of all, it's made me feel.

And it's the foremost criterion I now look for in a person I ask for a dance - she has to feel something for salsa. Asking various regulars of the salsa scene here how salsa makes them feel, I get a mixed response from blank looks of puzzlement, to "happy". Not exactly articulate, I had hoped for something a little more insightful from the more experienced. So in my best "Sex in the City" moment, I ask, "Do we think enough about how we feel? Or what we should feel if at all?"

Yeo Loo Yen

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Cumpleaños Feliz

A cold bolt of realisation struck me right between the eyes last night. We're doing a dual birthday gig in the middle of next month and we haven't prepared a Happy Birthday song yet. Gawd.

I've been expending my energies (wearing my music director's hat) on a playlist of two strong sets and this important detail has managed to slip my mind. We could do the traditional short one, but I'd want us to do better than that. And we've got another gig this weekend first. Talk about being a glutton for punishment. And let's not even get started on my abortive tap-dance effort yesterday.

The toughest bit I anticipate will be overcoming our pianist's resistance to doing songs like these. He's never come out and said why. I guess I'm on my own working out the montuno pattern then.

Actually it's not as bad as all that; a couple of years songwriting and arranging has given me the ability to play all the parts to play in my head. Happy Birthday is in 3/4 time, and I reckon the most effective version for our setup would be a tumbao moderno variant to 2-3 rumba clave and a II-V-I-I piano montuno progression. That'll be my job tonight before band practice.

I'll lock down the bass groove later as I'm not clear how to fill the pocket between each line of "happy birthday, to you" yet. It'll be good but not earth-shaking given the short lead time, but I expect it to form good basis for a timba version later on. The lyrical theme will expand too, and I think we'll end up with a bilingual and a Spanish version.

Watch this space Birthday people!


Monday, April 24, 2006

Salsa, Charity & Dignity

Last Sunday evening was thoroughly enjoyable.

It was a salsa occassion put on by someone I knew, raising money for the post-tsunami reconstruction effort in Sri Lanka. Now that's a matter very close to my heart for two reasons: I've always felt that there has always been a lack of follow-up after an initial charitable reaction to a disaster (who remembers the earthquakes in Afghanistan and Bam?); I also have good friends who fundraise for, and help run, an orphanage school in Honduras - Children of Honduras Trust.

A beach-front in Galle
©Copyright 2005 Support Sri Lanka Foundation. All Rights Acknowledged

And that one of my brothers and sisters-in-law might well have been in Galle at the time the tsunami struck, had it not been for a quirk of circumstance.

So, strolling my way down to the place, my primary thoughts were to contribute to a cause I felt for via the door tariff and to add to the minimum 50 bodies required so that she wouldn't have to pay rental for the bar. Most of my fellow band members sportingly self-mobilised for the effort too. Somewhere along the line, the actuality of dancing salsa just slipped my mind.

Silly me.

One chaos-touched international samba lesson, and two cheekily funny learning partners later, the salsa wheels were well and truly greased. This night had in U.K. musical terms, everything in it but the kitchen sink. It was a good opportunity to dance with engaging people I often meet but don't often get to dance with; probably because of the fragmentation in Sheffield's salsa scene, and my own commitments to the band. It turned out to be one of those wonderful evenings which surprise you once in a while because it was unanticipated.

Now the core point is this. Salsa's heritage is that of a music of the underclasses. Most of us studying in this arena would acknowledge that. Some of us even begrudge its upward mobility, citing the compromising of authenticity. I, for one, would not be untouched by guilt. However, salsa's acceptance and practice by the middle classes has done much to enable the effective mobilisation of smaller-scale of social events in support of good causes. Is that not worth renegotiating a definition of authenticity for?

And here's another thought. The people we help are still people. And charity is stronger when it bears provision for human dignity. As we part with our money, is it too much for us to try to understand the people we're helping? (No prizes for guessing where my effort's going to.)

Loo Yen

Friday, April 21, 2006

Don't blame it on the sunshine

My favourite coffee shop was inexplicably shut this morning. My normal start prior to the working day involves research or writing about some aspect of Latin music, and a large milky coffee (or Latte to the seriously continental). The significance of coffee, sugar and music isn't lost on me. So this creature of habit had to go off the beaten track to an uncertain alternative around the corner.

Maybe the change of scenery did me good, a different place, a different blend. Just a couple of days ago, I'd settled on how I was going to tell the Puerto Rican story. The direction of approach is easily the most signficant aspect in the telling of a story, and you'd know very quickly if you'd got the right one by how easily things come together (they are). I suspect at least three weeks more work before that section enters the draft revision stage.

I resumed with "my music is my flag". I don't know whether it's because I'm more conversant with sociological perspectives now; or because I'm reading the book, and more carefully, for the second time; but I'm picking up really beautiful ideas and impressions that I didn't get when I first turned its pages more than two years ago. The passage that describes the position in which Puerto Rican musicians found themselves when drafted into the US 15th Infantry was very poignant for me this time around (p.56-64). Ruth Glasser has such a wonderful ability of bringing out the human aspect of the story, a talent uncommon in this arena.

Which brings me to the question: "Does my increased understanding of salsa's history, and empathy with the lives of those who shaped it, improve my salsa?" If so, then in what way?

I know sometimes I can appreciate dancing to and interpreting a song better when I can identify the cultural elements embedded in it, but how should understanding Sissle's reaction to institutionalised racism make me feel about salsa?

I'm blaming the different coffee.

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Opening Entry - Salsa Blog

Today's the day I join the modern world.

I've been somewhat reticent to start blogging, because I feel it might affect contributions to my own column, but in the end, a need to articulate unsculpted thoughts, whenever I wanted to, won out.

So let's get started.

My first thought is based on a dance experience I had last night, listening to Guillermo Rozenthuler perform at Bar Cubana here in Sheffield. Dancing with a young lady, I got a timely reminder of why I do what I do. Guillermo was already well into the song when he changed his guitar rhythm and began improvising lyrically. It took me a phrase to realise what he was getting at; and we set up a call and response between his guitar and the sound of my feet on the floor, to the calls of "zapateo" from the Latin staff.

It's always a good feeling, as a dancer taking part in the process of music making. What made it really special was the (for want of a better word) intimate nature of the atmosphere and the interaction.

Guillermo da man!
Photograph courtesy of Guillermo Rozenthuler
©Copyright 2008. All Rights Acknowledged.

As a dancer and teacher, I've emphasised that a lot over the years, to preserve the skills of dancing to live music. But it's quite a different thing to get it up so close and personal.

My second thought isn't quite so comfortable. For a few years now, my take on the history of salsa has failed to do any justice to Puerto Ricans. I admit my ignorance then, and I'm setting it right. There will be a dedicated chapter: working title "The Puerto Rican Contribution" which will definitely change, since they did more than just contribute to salsa. My current reference point is Ruth Glasser's "My Country is my Flag", which will take me to before salsa's birth. Then there'll be more and I must confess to being a little daunted by the task, given the other things I've got going on. The problem is always the initiation, so at least that's one big hurdle out of the way.

At the same time, I'm adding to the For Players section, and the writing of the Bass section should get underway today or tomorrow. I'll put down a rationale for it in a later entry.

Tonight is dancing salsa at Adelante, but I'm hooking up with an old friend beforehand at... Bar Cubana for Guillermo's second stint.

Maybe, just maybe...

Loo Yeo