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 www.favelarising.com 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