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.