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