Tuesday, December 18, 2007

2007 Is Drawing To A Close

And it certainly feels like it.

Fewer and fewer Decemberists can make it to practices due to work parties and family commitments (and that includes the shopping). There's a last drive-to-the-line to get some more recordings done; Ana's laying down final backing vocals takes this Thursday and Saturday. And I've started planning my development course over the break.

I've traditionally spent this season on my own, something that grew out of being a student in a country with no immediate family nearby. Over time, it's grown into a sort of a comfortable familiarity; an occassion to spend quality time with myself. And I don't forsee this year as being any different. In fact I'm counting on it, because I've got a ton of stuff lined up:
  • practicing my singing to tres accompaniment;
  • working out stronger vocal melodies to "Tiempo para el amor";
  • watching several DVDs on folkloric Cuban music and dance;
  • preparing my workshop on timing to be delivered at Tony Piper's Twelfth Night festival;
  • developing my son (dance) phrasing; and
  • reading up on the birth of Bachata.
That's on top of finishing up a highly technical literature review for my company Verdant.

I've got slightly over ten days - which should be plenty of time, especially fuelled with festive foods: Homer can have his d'oh-nuts, I'll go for the mince pies and several hours of son to work them off. And there're a couple of house parties thrown in for good measure.

The Christmas ahead looks like it's gonna rock!


Friday, December 07, 2007

Patato Se Soltó

This morning I opened my Inbox to find a message from the guys at Descarga:

"Carlos "Patato" Valdés 1926-2007. On Tuesday, December 4th, legendary conga master Carlos "Patato" Valdés died in NYC of respiratory failure. To all of his friends and family, our deepest sympathy. RIP Patato."

I'm saddened. Although I never got to meet him personally, he played an important part in my development as a conguero. As a role model, he showed that congas could be melodic instruments too, and commesurately how important the development of tones were in the natural skillset of a conga player. He also showed how important it was to remain a person whilst under the weight of, amongst other things, the quest for technical perfection; and to inject one's character into everything one does, be it drumming or dancing. Apart from being a master drummer, this dimunitively-framed man was also a rumbero mayor.

I remember how his playing just blew me away when I heard the 'Conga Kings' album; more so than Cándido Camaro and Giovanni Hidalgo, no slouches themselves, who were also featured.

I laughed after reading the liner notes and listening to the first track of 'Ritmo y Candela' - a gem of a CD that I'd initially bought only because my tres which I'd acquired via eBay, was featured on it. In 'San Francisco tiene su propio son', Patato unexpectedly took to singing inspiraciones impromptu through his conga mic in his cackling voice, the coro responding quickly off the cuff with "Patato se soltó (Patato's let loose)"... they left the take in the final cut of the Grammy winning album.

I smiled at the pictures of him, whilst reading of his thoughts on salsa in Mary Kent's Salsa Talks.

I chuckled at Ray Vega's spoof of Patato on Martin Cohen's (founder of Latin Percussion) site.

I don't know what to feel or say. But I do know what I will do. I'll dance tonight.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Que Viva Changó

By a strange turn of events we ended up celebrating the 4th of December at my place tonight. We had planned originally to record the guide melodics on Thursday the 6th, but one thing led to another and it got nudged forward by a couple of days. Now I'm not sure if many people would class a recording session as a celebration but we certainly did this time, although we sorely missed Catie who had to travel to Folkestone unexpectedly on a work-related matter.

I called Mei's on Charles Street, my long-time favourite Chinese restaurant, shortly after close of work to place an order for the obligatory salt and pepper squid, and Singapore-style spicy udon noodles, and a plethora of other goodies. I had just enough time to pick them up, jump in a taxi, arrive home, and get the rice in the rice cooker when Dan arrived to set up the recording paraphernalia.

Here the AMT wireless microphones came into their own: the Roam 1 Elite on Carolyn's tenor sax in the attic and the Roam 2 in Jan's violin one floor above gave crystal clear sound with minimal setup. Dan reckoned it cut the time needed down to half; it certainly meant less trailing wires. Thom was also upstairs blowing his trumpet into the Shure Beta 91 gaffered into the reflexion filter (we're finding lots of uses for that configuration), and Mike was on the ground floor playing his 'bone into a Neumann KMS105. The much underrated Samson S-phone four channel headphone amplifier allowed Dan to give everyone the mix they individually wanted in their headphones.

The guys rolled up at 7:30pm as planned and hungrily fell on the still-warm food, washing it down with cups of tea. The scene is a jovial one: relaxed and warm. I remember my very first session at Yellow Arch as being a tense affair, and this was the polar opposite. Not a long while after and with bellies full, it was time to get going. While the guys were on soundcheck, I popped out to the local off-licence, the rather excellent Dram Shop for: Golden Glory (a badger ale) for Dan, Hebridean Gold (a Skye ale) for Carolyn, some Indian Pale Ale for Mike, and witty repartee with the sales-lasses for me.

The mantra of recording studios is 'keep the musicians happy'. For Cuatro de Diciembre, feeding and watering them is the best way. Oh, and there was also chocolate.

I had thought initially that not having Catie there would prove a very difficult obstacle. This didn't turn out to be so, as the guys had practiced it loads and kept track of the spaces for flute. 'Bembé' was the first to get the guide treatment and we kept the third take - there is always an element of playing, listening, reviewing and rerecording, but where it was once a luxury back in the bad ole days when we used to hire studio time, with our own step-up we can afford to take the time to do it right, even at guide stage. It's helped our musicianship loads and I would recommend it to any conjunto with the expertise who might be slightly balked by the initial costs.

Then came 'Recordando Africa' followed by 'Tiempo para el amor'. Somewhere along the line, Nathan turned up to join the party, as did Ana after work. On reviewing the first take of 'Tiempo' both Mike and Thom, after discussion with Dan, worked out a different arrangement which yielded a stronger take. It's always nice to see that happen at a recording session; I think it indicates confident musicianship in a relaxed atmosphere. Kinda sums up 4de12.

And it's funny how whenever we add a new series of tracks to the songs, we change what we think its central theme should be. Well at least I do anyway. Take 'Tiempo para el amor' for example:

When we laid down the framework, I thought that it would centre on the relationship between the vocal and piano; then when timbales and bongó went on, it had a more bolero character; adding the hand percussion gave it a more son montuno flow. Now with the melodic guides, it has a great old-time pre-mambo feel.

I think that's one of the things the guys value about playing in the band. Everyone knows that they have the freedom to interpet the songs in their own way, and yet everyone is sensitive enough to accommodate everyone else. And so as the 4th of December 2007 drew to a close, we had all the necessary guides for us to resume recording in the new year for finalised takes. Ana is next up on backing vocals; we just have to sort out a schedule between her and Dan.

And I'm at home with a lot of left-over food.

Today's been a mighty good day.

Loo Yeo

Monday, December 03, 2007


It's the 3rd of December, the eve of Changó's day, and in a few hours time revelry will commence in Cuba.

'Víspera' (Spanish for 'Eve') is also the name of Cuatro de Diciembre's debut album. 'Víspera' is more than about an evening before, it is the moment presaging change: from 'Hijos de Cam' which tells of change's inevitability; 'Corazón Fugitivo' in the heartbeat of escape; 'Llamada de Ogún' on the passion of liberation; 'Tiempo para el Amor' on the uncertainty of rediscovery; 'Recordando Africa' in the quickening just before passing...

And there is also change in real life.

We should be seeing the posting of our first live track 'Recordando Africa', garnered from our performance at Leeds Met, on our various sites. It is a big step for us indeed; to put up something of a suitable recording standard from a live performance. Those who perform can appreciate what I mean. It's ironic in a way... that we had first embarked on the studio recording project as making a memento of our playing together, and to find ourselves beaten to the finish line by this milestone.

And with this act, we should have found the main driving force behind the recording project as having vanished, had not the studio project had taken a life of its own - energised with our determination to see it completed.

There is one smaller irony: that the first song would be 'Recordando Africa', which is about passing on to another place. I think most of us in the band would agree to it being the ugly duckling of our practices, and yet a beautiful swan of our performances.

Víspera is turning out to be full of surprises.

Yeo Loo Yen

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Confluence of Circumstances

Eric Alfonso is a Cuban timbalero of several decades experience. For quite a while now, several members of our salsa band have been getting about a bit and Dan and Nathan, timbales players themselves, have become well acquainted with Eric and his musician colleagues in Salsa Celtica. Taking advantage of a gap in Salsa Celtica's touring schedule, the both of them invited Eric down south to sunny Yorkshire for a weekend of rampant Afro-Cuban noise-making, where he guested in one of our practices, and led a day-and-a-half of tuition.

It was an enlightening and much-needed injection of knowldege from an old hand. There are things one can't pick-up from books or YouTube - subtleties... nuances that one must experience in the flesh. To say that his trip made an impact is a little bit of an understatement. But what's really nice about the guy is that he wanted to see us do well; because he recognised instantly our musical approach as stemming from a genuine desire to understand the roots of his culture.

Since his visit, percussion development has been growing in cohesion and direction; so much so that our practice format has been amended slightly to capitalise on this, in the same way as we had made changes to the benefit of our melodics months ago. One of his main drives was in the use of breaks in our arrangements to build tension and add definition to our numbers. Although I had identified and written about this myself (see previous post), it required someone external to the band to provide the crucial impetus.

And I'm glad we're finally rolling on it.

But I would be doing 4de12 an injustice and leaving you the reader with the wrong impression if I didn't elaborate further. I believe that we are now in a stronger position to take on Eric's advice than we were just a couple of months ago, because of a confluence of circumstances: a line-up change with Wib moving onto bongó and Jim coming in on conga; Dan having built up more experience on timbales; listening to and learning from the recording and editing of timbales in our upcoming album; and feedback from our Leeds charity gig which we recorded off the desk.

The latter, good as it was, highlighted several avenues of development including the benefit of increased break arrangments - there being a marked contrast between the numbers that had them, and those that didn't. Suffice to say that we've got enough to keep us occupied until Eric's next visit.

Loo Yeo

Saturday, November 03, 2007

¡Ay Dios! Ampárame

I was sitting in a Coffeeshop yesterday evening after close of work, making additions to the salsa band facebook site, when my phone rang. Surprisingly, it was Nicolai. Surprising not that he would call, but this was not his 'social routine' time.

I was right. After a friendly exchange, it turned out that he had been partially double-booked i.e. overlapped, with his DJ gig here at Sheffield's Bar Cubana on Fridays. He was wondering if I was free to cover for him for the 30-45 minutes it would take for him to get there from his earlier engagement. "Sure" (I like saying yes, and whatismore, how can one resist Nicolai?).

Two years ago it would've been like water off a duck's back, but this time a little bit of inconvenience was involved. Even though I did have a lot of new material to introduce, I hadn't prepared the supporting information in the DJ sense.

"What's that mean?"

It's about not settling into a 'comfort zone' that I see many of my peers doing, where eventually, one can predict which songs they're going to play next. One of the factors contributing to it is they way they use a CD i.e. they mark down the tracks they will use only.

This means for example, that if they find two tracks that they would use on a CD, they would use those two exclusively and fail to revisit the whole CD as their skills develop. This negates the possibility that some of the remainder might become valuable as the DJ's set-building skills develop. Therefore the exclusive system of rating restricts a DJ's ability to develop.

I rate each song in an album: objectively in terms of length, tempo in beats per minute, and rhythm type; subjectively on a scale of 1-5 and whether or not it is accessible to an audience that is new to the genre. I revisit the subjective evaluation every couple of years.

Now back to my story...

Nicolai said that it would take only six or so songs, but I always pegged him as an optimist (bless him). At the very least I needed to be prepared for an hour. But I had to account for the fact that I hadn't DJed in a while, and that I had new albums that I was not as fully conversant with as I would have liked. This required one of my special non-standard strategies.

But before I get to that, I should say that I classify my music as 'music' and 'animal food' - not politically correct I know.

'Animal food', to put it bluntly, is for a target audience of dancers who are happy to remain ignorant and uncaring of any possible cultural connections. All they want is an obvious rhythmic structure to which they can perform their vocabulary. Notice I use the word 'to' and not 'in' - the latter would imply that they did so in tempo. 'Music' satisfies the cultural insider as well as the interested outsider at a multitude of levels becuase the pieces would including socio-political commentary and significant cultural motifs.

And before any readers of my diary get up in arms about it, contents of the two groups aren't mutually exclusive.

I took these CDs:

  • 8 get-out-of-jail-free cards: 4 of music, 4 of animal food.
    These are albums, single artist or compilations, where every single track is usable under the broadest range of circumstances e.g. 'Mandali' - Africando (animal food), 'Llego...' - Los Van Van (music).
  • 8 mood-changers/floor-fillers: again 4 of music, 4 of animal food. These would give me the rhythmic and melodic diversity to change direction and texture. Typically there would be 2 or 3 tracks per album. Examples: 'Pa'l Bailador' - Johnny Polanco (animal food), 'Island Life' - Yerba Buena (music). I call them fulcrum pieces.
  • 8 new and relatively new albums. For DJs of my kind these are the lifeblood of our playlists.
The Rationale
I view every evening of music in the same way as I understand dance, and that is having stability, movement, and innovation. The dynamism of the set is based on the level of mood-movement and innovation, and that itself is dependent on the inclination of the audience that particular evening.

The get-out-of-jail-free cards form the backbone, and buy me resting time should I need it when looking for the appropriate new song. It also makes sure my audience have a comfort zone that I can return them to.

The fulcrum pieces allow me to change moods, so my audience has short-term identity and long-term variety.

The innovations are why music and dance evolves. They are hard work to learn how to incorporate effectively into a set, but without new pieces, how else can we keep a scene fresh and vital? (Many DJs I know who play day-in day-out sadly take the easy route and eventually stop allocating enough energy and time to deploying new music thoughtfully.)

Two dozen CDs is quite a lot to take for just an hour or so, but you never know what sort of audience you're going to get at Cubana. At its extreme, I'd only have a dozen to choose from and that would average one track from each CD.

How the night panned out
I always start as I mean to go on. Only the good stuff.

Some people play not-so-good songs at the start and pull out the fancy stuff later. To them I say, "why don't you build a collection full of the good stuff instead of padding it out with cheap filler?" (i.e. Jamie Oliver's equivalent of turkey twizzlers.)

45 minutes into the set, everyone's on the dance floor. There's a bunch of Cubans, some Venezuelans and Colombians, other motley Latin Americans plus Interested Outsiders. I know it's going to be a 'Music' night. Fantastic!

Monica from the bar informs me that Nicolai's called and that they're running 15-20 minutes late. That's okay, I anticipated that. Things are going great.

I play it pretty safe and straight-up since I don't want to paint Nicolai into a corner in terms of atmosphere when he turns up to take over. I'm just over halfway through my armoury of tracks of this class (the safe-straight-up class).

I get a call from Helena (a friend and Nicolai's salsa partner) but mobile reception sucks and we get cut off thrice. Monica from the bar tells me that Nicolai's car has broken down and she asks if I have enough music to make it through the night on my own. I say, "I don't think so". She hands me Cubana's folder of material, which frankly, is the stuff I'd never touch. No offence - it's just not my style.

Time to get radical.

Situation Report
I know I'm running out of safe tracks, and that I have to start using more tracks from the same artist and album (SAA). I have a 'Music' audience. Irrespective, I have to start taking risks.

I need to increase the dynamism of the night, using fulcrum pieces to swing the moods farther to extremes. I can then deploy songs from the SAA in the middle of the movements, and the general audience won't notice what I've done.

The main fulcrum pieces were from 'Island Life' by Yerba Buena, and 'El Amor De Mi Tierra' by Carlos Vives. The associations of songs extended from common artists, producers, era, and musical movement to include the lead instrument frequency range. Every 'risky' piece had at least one best-case and worst-case sequence exit route.

Although my material was heavily overspecified to the 45min parameter, it was way underspecified for 3 hours. But I wanted to avoid digging deelply into the 'animal food' compartment; it would not have been fair on the music-loving dancers there.

There were a number of occassions where I put on a song and crossed my fingers. A normal audience would not have gone for it I'm sure, but I felt I had some measure of the dancers there last night. To their credit they just took it in with aplomb; whatever I threw at them, they just danced and danced and danced.

It was an object lesson for the Interested Outsiders, and the general public.

At the end, when the lights came up and 'Havana City' died away, I found myself reminded of what I'd been missing in eschewing DJing for Cuatro de Diciembre (not that that will change anytime soon).

As I left, the doorman took me aside and spoke of the number of people who had said how good the music had been tonight; and that he had not heard patrons speak like that before. A grin split his face.

It was done on the back of just over a dozen CDs.

I would have walked home in a fog of smug if not for recognising one thing: thank God for music-loving Latins.

Loo Yen

Thursday, October 25, 2007

13th October 2007 Leeds Charity Salsa Ball @The Met Hotel (Part 2)

Nicolai called Cuatro de Diciembre to stage at 10pm. And he gave us a hell of an introduction; one which bore all the warmth of his character, and which drew from his years of experience as a public speaker.

We matched his introduction quality for quality with our opening number Nueva Generación - one of our three suite songs written deliberately for high impact; AND we played it tighter than a badger's ass in a tooling vice.

Of the many things I love about 4de12, one of the most remarkable is the sheer energy we can kick out on stage. I could see the atmosphere charging up as we powered our way through the sections, and the salseros responding accordingly. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the DJs: Nicolai and Tony, taking in the performance with grins splitting their faces. Make no mistake, Cuatro de Diciembre may not have been very well known in the salsa gig circle then, but for those who had, our debut in Leeds was very much anticipated.

Salsa Meltdown: The Irrepressible DJ Amos
burning up the floor with the Beautiful Agnieszka

Having opened with all guns blazing, we followed up with more of the same with Nathan taking it up on Hijos de Cam. We alternate singers to give the audience dynamic changes in texture as well as taking the load of the lead vocalists. It was received as enthusiastically, and from then on everything else fell into place. Being dancers ourselves, we plan our sets with energy cycles to give our audience respites as needed whilst still retaining that BIG atmosphere.

Our cover of Bilongo was going to be a potentially sticky bit because I'd heard Tony play it just two songs before we came on. True enough, just after I announced it, Tony heckled good-naturedly (he was really getting into the swing of things) from sidestage. I just smiled and said, "yeah, but we're going to play it even better!" And we did, with our trademark unique middle section that Ana, Jeremy and I developed. The numbers kept rolling, and we ended the set fourty minutes later, exactly as the organisers had planned.

I did interrupt the opening of a song, the last one, to slow down the tempo. I'd seen that the dancers were getting fatigued and felt that we could help accommodate them more. It was a move received very positively by the salseros and the DJs/promoters, the latter of which are always reassured when a band demonstrates that it is aware of the audience's needs and has the confidence to respond accordingly.

During the break while my colleagues were in the dressing room, I got some dancing in and chatted with the DJs to get a feel of how well our performance was being received. Amos of Salsa sin limite paid us a very nice compliment saying that he enjoyed it so much he forgot to dance - normally you can't keep him off a dance floor. Tony of Salsa York used the word "astounding" (in a good way). Great! That meant that only small quantitative changes needed to be made for the second set, which had a playlist at least as strong as the first.

Nicolai and Helena (Sueño Latino) putting on the razzle dazzle to live music

The rest of the band came in to watch the very entertaining dance demonstrations: one of tango argentino and two of salsa. Mike in particular was having a blast - I will always remember the look of delight on his face on the far side-of-stage. Just one short interval later that and we were back on. James, on hearing from Nathan and myself that we both felt as if we over-singing, put our monitor levels up. That helped us a tremendous amount and made the vocal performance a lot easier for the rest of the evening.

There were so many highlights: how all the Decembers were introduced during the first song El Tambor; the looks of astonishment on the faces of the DJs as we burned our way through El hechizo del montuno aka Salsa Gitana a beautiful and immensely challenging song for a band to make its own; and Bembé which turned out to be one of the jewels of the night. Nathan took us to the close on En la sangre and it was exit stage right.

A few minutes (and one tiny glitch) later, Nicolai led the audience in calling us back for an encore. This was where we pulled out all the stops having reserved Tributo al son and El gallo for this occassion. They absolutely cooked.

And then it was all over, finishing on a high.

Ana, Nathan and I managed to get just a couple of dances in before we had to go; we would have loved to stay longer, but given the poorly state of half the band, the prudent thing was to get them safely back home. Every December was and is an absolute trooper. It's easy for me to be completely biased about how well we played, but the real proof is easily seen. Everyone (and I mean everyone) who was there at the Ball not only enjoyed it, but have been telling their friends that they had missed something really great. So much so that salseros from Sheffield were coming up to me the next day, saying that they'd heard how brilliantly 4de12 had entertained.

Cuatro de Diciembre @Leeds Charity Salsa Ball 2007

The organisers, DJs, demonstrators, attendees, and salsa band all played their part. For me, there is no better way of making sure that the Leeds Charity Salsa Ball becomes an established annual event.

Loo Yen Yeo

Post Script:
The Ball raised a total of £1650, split between the Leeds Society for Deaf and Blind People, and the British Heart Foundation. Cuatro de Diciembre's thanks go to Verdant EcoLogic for their generous sponsorship, to make their chance to play at the Ball a reality.

Monday, October 15, 2007

13th October 2007 Leeds Charity Salsa Ball @The Met Hotel (Part 1)

It was the beginning of summer 2007, I was lounging around in Cubana on a Saturday afternoon. Nicolai had just finished his lessons and we were catching up, as we normally do after an age of not having done so simply because our lives had gotten in the way. It was then that he popped the question.

"Would 4 de Diciembre like to play at the inaugural Leeds Charity Salsa Ball?"

"Sure!" I said.

Friends and organisers:
The Cheeky Shanti and the Delectable Jo

Summers being summers, people were away on holiday at overlapping times and we had the pressure of recording timbales then bongó and djembe. What seemed like a goodly amount of time soon started to evaporate; and our preparations for two killer sets started to acquire a fevered pitch. Pressures mounted, and over the ensuing weeks there were more that a few heated discussions between band members. Certainly, we could have made things a lot easier for ourselves by choosing a safer route with the playlist, but that's just not our style - simply because it would feel like we weren't doing our best for the people who make the effort to come to hear us play.

Amazed at the Might of Jan's violin solo. Photograph courtesy of Shanti T, Copyright 2007. All rights reserved

One of the key pressure points was my intention (and I shoulder the burden of blame) to debut Bembé, even though it hadn't been fully arranged yet. My extended absence in Asia and the States and a bad case of traveller's flu afterward put paid to our ability to practice it. But still, I really wanted to do it to make the Charity Ball an extra special occassion, and to thumb my nose at conventional wisdom. True, few people would appreciate it, but the people who mattered would. Everyone in Cuatro de Diciembre put in a Herculean effort and Bembé survived final cull for the playlist with two days to spare. It emerged as one of the sparkling gems of the night, and the gathered were only told of its debut after the last strains had faded away.

We arrived at the Met hotel in plenty of time, and James our excellent sound engineer was already a good way through setting up his PA. The main hall is an acoustic challenge with highly reflective glass surfaces in the form of mirrors behind the stage, freely vibrating glass panes at the far end, corners that trapped bass, and a vaulted ceiling. That caused the soundcheck to take a little longer, but having the excellent AMT microphones on the melodics and the Markbass units for Ana's bass made the job a easier.

Most of the band were labouring under the weight of flu, with Catie and Nathan at their worst. Whilst they were resting after soundcheck, I put my glad rags on and went out to mingle.

A li'l care and attention:
Mike (trombonist) helping Wib (conguero) tart himself up

Having hired bands myself in a previous life, one of my pet peeves were of the ones who just turned up, played, took the money, and scarpered. When salseros attend a live music event, they do so not only to experience the performance. Such is the nature of Latin bands that the people who play the music are more accessible to the dancers than in other genres. In every gig by a top salsa band I'd been to, be it Spanish Harlem, Ricardo Lemvo or Manolito, some members always made a personal appearance either at the bar or dance floor after playing.

I decided to go one better and start promoting before the gig; Nicolai and I both knew how important it was that the first Charity Ball be successful...

(On to Part 2)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

My Momentary Lapse Of Reason

What was I thinking? Somebody cuff me over the head with a heavy object.

After returning from San Diego, I realised that I'd been eating that little too well during my travels - business entertaining and all that. Coupled with the remarkably sedentary life of a musician, the pounds seem to have found a swarming point on my frame.

"Okay", I said to myself, "exercise is the key". So I cast about thinking about the best avenue to explore. Running again was too boring a prospect, with the included hazard of dodging student-hurled chow on the pavements; and I haven't returned to swimming since being a substrate to an overly-friendly Trichoderma. So the obvious thing was to go out dancing more.

"Winner", I thought. Burn off some of those dastardly calories and inflict myself on more people at the same time. The only proviso being that it can't be on a band practice night...

Only then did I realise how limited my options were: most salsa spots are during the weekday, as the bars make more money with mainstream nights over the weekend. Jive was the same. The prospect of a return to ballroom dancing was starting to loom large. Also, there is the increased prospect of business dinner-dances, so it's clearly in my best interests to knock a few rust-spots off.

So I gritted my teeth and returned to the club I'd left as a student more than a decade ago, knowing that I'd be incognito, and hoping that the things that I'd despised about it (I don't use strong emotional words like those very often, so please bear with me) had changed for the better. My timing was perfect as it coincided with the beginning of the new academic year, and the "Give-it-a-go" introductory lessons were on. I turned up on the Friday evening without a change of dance shoes...

There was the usual gender imbalance that most dancing clubs in the UK have to negotiate. But at least the competitive team members were there to act as demonstrators, and the instructor tried to deliver an airy and light atmosphere.

I'm really sorry to say that those are the only positive points I could find. (My thoughts on the level of physical education skills in that arena are well documented, so I shan't retread old ground.)

The same reasons why I'd left and started up the Salsa & Merengue Society - those same issues, which when addressed properly made S&Msoc the most successful of its kind, were still there in the now-rebranded Dancesport club more than 10 years on. Even as a then member of the Dancesport competitive team, I felt strongly about the oligarchic nature of the club, that team members failed to engage more extensively with the standard 'pundits' if you like, in order to foster a higher quality of dance.

Societies are funded in great part, in proportion to their membership numbers - Dancesport can recruit more than 250 members annually, of which at most 24 will compete in the A,B and C teams. In my time, a disproportionate level of resource I felt was being devoted to subsidising the team and not enough on developmental opportunities for the non-team students. This perception was made more vulnerable to conflict of interest as the governing committee comprised team members or their friends.

That night, team members spent most of their time exhibiting themselves, and talking to each other and to their Latin instructors - who arrived late. To be fair, apparently there had been a mechanical failure with the bus that the latter had been on; they had been taking lessons in London - but it begs the question, "Why didn't they allow for that?" They would have, if it was a competition they were going to - you can bet your bottom dollar.

Maybe the occassion of introducing a group of interested people to your supposed passion and livelihood wasn't considered important enough. And not a single team member was actually in the learning body to offer any remedial advice. Not one. I (surreptitiously) helped more than all of them put together.

This club laments the dearth of male dancers, and their ability to hold onto them. Very clearly, the instructor was more conversant with teaching females than males (consistently giving erroneous direction changes to the leads is unforgiveable), and the latter were sorely neglected from an organisational perspective. Apart from the oligarchy, the lack of reason linking cause to effect is, as I said before, despicable.

All those involved purpot to love dance. But there is an obvious disparity between word and deed. What I saw was a love of individual self, not a commitment to helping another person experience one's passion.

And to score one more point:
At its height, the Salsa & Merengue Society recruited more than 800 members in a year, of which 120 were active every week (that's half the Dancesport's total membership); AND the S&Msoc waived its right to membership subsidy while still running a calendarful of well attended events.

I will go back once more, to see if the Latin teachers are any better. I hope for the sake of the run-of-the-mill members that they are.

Loo Yeo

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Salsa Situation Report: 20th September 2007

I've recently returned from another sojourn in the Far East, where I only managed to get in one merengue and one quasi-jive over the three week period. I did three songs as a teaching demonstration (of different salsa and son styles) prior to that, and one evening of salsa on my return to Sheffield. To say that my life has been a little thin on the dancing side is like calling Chingis Khan a little bit naughty.

What's worse, I've been struck down with a cold that's left me croaking like an anguished bull-frog; unable to sing at the band practices. Left with no time to settle, I have to fly again - this time, westwards. Life does sometimes get in the way.

On the positive side, my recording commitments on the tumbadoras have come to a close. That is unless we feel a need for solos on the requinto. That's freed me up to get back to the bass, tres, chekere and vocals. And this blog.

The piano montuno tutorial in the ear-training section is still on the horizon, but a distant one having been displaced by other needs. Cuatro de Diciembre has caught the interest of a number of local musicians, some of whom are in the process of being integrated into the band. To ease the way, I've begun translating the lyrics of the suite into English to give them a head-start in understanding the themes of each song. I had intended on doing this anyway, for inside the CD booklet and to help the graphic designer find the right feel for the cover art.

Another relief has been that we were able to record Harris whilst I was away. That was always going to be the cruical deadline, and the reason why we pushed so hard with the timbale recording and editing. It proved to be the right move, as we were able to capture two takes of his genius on bongo and at least one of djembe for each song. Now I haven't had a chance to listen through it all, and there's still a lot of editing to do, but there's no doubt that there's a lot of good raw meterial there. He was reluctant to do it at first, using his experience recording at Yellow Arch as a gauge, but in the end he admitted that the relaxed atmosphere and having the time to listen and re-record made for a couple of very enjoyable sessions. I'm glad.

In a way, it's vindication of my belief in each song in the face of a lack of credulity in some of my fellow musicians. Especially for 'Llamada de Ogun', which was so different from the standard format that it was slow to reveal its potential. Harris spotted how percussively flexible it was straight away and interpreted it in a way that brought out its fullness of character - like all good musicians should do.

We now have our eye on the gig in mid-October. The hard part is keeping the recordings on-track while it looms before us. As much as I relish presenting the objects of our inspiration and labour for the enjoyment of others, I can't completely dispel the feeling that I'd just as much rather bring the recording project to a close.

For me, having mounting commitments to my company Verdant, that can't happen soon enough.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

10th August 2007 Willie Colón @The Roundhouse, London

Salsa Gigs in the UK are a little like buses. You wait ages for one and all of a sudden, three come along at once. Hot on the heels of Sierra Maestra and Manolito came Willie Colón's Farewell Tour.

I would be lying if I said that I liked all of his music, but I like a lot of music that he's played on; if you get my drift. Given that, and his place in salsa's musical history, this gig at the Roundhouse was one that I couldn't afford to miss. The venue lives up to its name: the main performance hall is circular, with a suspended floor and a double-height lantern ceiling. The Grade II-listed building was originally an engine shed; and as a vestige of its original purpose, there is a ring of steel pillars obscuring the view of the stage from various seats all around the hall.

It had been a bright and balmy Friday, and people had begun to gather at the place from very early on, spilling onto the terraces and filling the bars with chatter. It promised to be a night of great atmosphere. The doors to the main hall opened at 8pm and people were let in to do their bit of dancing, music provided by a DJ onstage, for about an hour and a half on a packed floor.

And then the lights dimmed...

Willie Colón was the last to come onstage, after the guys on keyboards, bass, congas, timbales, bongo, two trombones and tenor sax. Dressed all in white, he cut quite a dashing figure thickened with age.

In my opinion, Willie Colón is better regarded as a songwriter, brass player and band leader; and less so as a vocalist. Although he has a distinctive voice, he is not held in the same regard as Cheo Feliciano or Hector LaVoe (to be fair, those two don't do everything he does). Time has not been kind to Willie's voice, and its brittleness shows through in the sustain of his notes. But his singing is not the reason why people turned up to pay homage to the man. They were here to experience the classics of a long glittering career personified by the man who created them.

The seasoned pro soon had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Engaging with those on the floor, he discovered that there was a vast majority of native Latin Americans, an overwhelming number of whom were Colombians from Cali. In my previous articles, I had alluded to the migrant status of Latin Americans in London; and it was very valuable for me as an ethnomusicologist to experience first-hand how much and how well they responded to a music form that they had adopted as their own (see 'The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia' by Lise Waxer')

All the classics were there: Che Che Cole, Talento de Television, Gitana, and El Gran Varon as the ultimate finale. But I shan't document the tiny details - it simply wasn't the night for that. It was about what two sides - entertainers and revellers, can bring with them; and what they can do when they meet, to create a very special occassion.

Loo Yeo

Monday, August 13, 2007

28th July 2007 Manolito Simonet @Harrogate International Festival

I was braced for the Mother of All Gigs even before Manolito and his band took to the stage. Having heard and danced to much of his recorded music, and enjoyed the consumate preceding performance of Sierra Maestra, my expectations were well and truly managed.

The actuality didn't quite live up to the billing, and I'm trying to write as positively as I can.

Having met Manolito at the after-show party, I have an even greater respect for him. I was disarmed by how unassuming he was - he seemed to look upon all the fuss about him with genuine wonder and bemusement. He was much more interested in finding out what inspired us (4de12) to play Cuban music, going as far as to offer to look at our arrangements (an offer not made lightly).

Manolito is, first and foremost, a person who loves music. That comes across undeniably, and tallies with what I'd been told of him by a mutual friend, Luis. So in some way, I feel as if I'm betraying him by not giving him the "all-possible-thumbs-up review". But that wouldn't be fair to memory.

Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed the performance and it still ranks as a very good one. It's just that had certain factors not dominated the stage, it would have been an exceptional occassion. He toured with a large group: three vocals, two keyboards, bass, congas, trapset-timbales, flute, cello, violin, two trumpets and two trombones. I understand from Christophe, who saw them last in Cuba, that his normal ensemble is smaller. His lead vocalists put on most of the show with a very energetic display. At times this seemed a little forced - very clearly Ricardo, the token piece of eye-candy, just went through the motions of singing when he wasn't in the limelight (vocalists among you can spot this by watching his neck).

This just epitomised poor teamwork. I found it insulting.

What is more, the cellist played as if he really didn't want to be there. The sad thing was that he was located in the middle of the stage, effectively an obstruction to intra-band communication that sucked the life out of the presentation. The stage was large and they succumbed to the temptation to spread out, rendering the performers more distant from the audience and each other.

I learned a lot about what not to do that night, and this is with no disrespect to Manolito:
  • band members should be as close to each other and to the front of the stage as is comfortable, especially the seated players;
  • lead vocals should be given enough room to fill the stage, and this space might also be used by mobile musicians when they solo;
  • percussion should be clustered in the centre so that rhythm can be disseminated outwards acoustically to all performers; and
  • deadbeats, if they are necessary, should be located where they affect the band least.
I really feel strongly about the way people play music for one another and was upset, sometimes even outraged, that two such people would have the temerity to take to the stage and balk Manolito's efforts.

Manolito, I am sure, being the musician that he is, wanted to bring the best possible show to town. And I can see why he did what he did. I just feel that with the wealth of musicians that Cuba and Miami possesses, he can find artists who can augment his band with personality as well as ability.

I will be in the audience again, whether or not that day comes.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

28th July 2007 Sierra Maestra @Harrogate International Festival

Last weekend was a bit of a landmark occassion for me. I got to see a band that I'd wanted to see for a very long time, and I got to see another that I hadn't seen since I'd first started in salsa.

Sierra Maestra opened the evening at the Harrogate International Festival, and watching them play brought a whole mix of feelings. The first time I saw them was in 94/95 when Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and Jesús Alemañy were still in their line-up, and they were then promoting their album "Dundunbanza". They made an indelible mark on my consciousness then, not least because of how much their playing helped me; to feel my role as a dancer in Cuban music, but also as a teacher - many of their songs in that album were at the right tempo for my students to learn to.

I was to see them at least four more times over the next two years, then not at all until this year. And they played better on Saturday night than I ever remembered.

It could be that I'm more used to the genre now, that I appreciated the extent of their musicianship through their subtlety. They played every single number in their set with grace, passion, power, and conviction. Compared with Manolito who followed after, Sierra Maestra transmitted a palpable sense of camaraderie - a musical understanding of each other, born from many years of playing together.

The line-up was typical of the son-revivalist group: a bongocero/occassional conguero; bajista; three soneros on percusion menor and guitarra; trompetista; and tresero. I can't say enough how much I enjoyed their individual performances, and Sierra Maestra's as a collective whole. When you're named after the legendary birthplace of son, you've got a lot to live up to. And they did with aplomb and a sense of adventure, introducing the seldom-heard genres of sucu sucu and cocuye.

It was a humbling performance that made me proud to be a player of the genre, one that made me feel sorry for my fellow dancers from Sheffield who did not make the trip, for they would have been richer for of the experience.

Sierra Maestra would be a hard act to follow... which Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco would have to do straight after the interval.

Yeo Loo Yen

Friday, July 20, 2007

Yo Soy El Bajista, Otra Vez

My bass is right now with Stuart at Electromusic in Doncaster, being restrung and having its setup checked.

I've decided to wimp out and change to lighter-gauge strings since Ana's become the regular bassist in the band. It's taken me a while to overcome denial - that I'm no longer as sharp nor as strong as when I used to be, and this step is my final admission.

The change in tension and the settling of the neck (the bass, not mine, silly!) warranted a full check-up, and I expect to have eliminated the spectre of fret-buzz when I get it back. You might think that going for the higher-gauge strings in the first place was masochistic, but in my defence, I didn't really know what I wanted then - being new to playing bass and all.

As you may have guessed, all this is in aid of the recording.

I'd been fortunate enough to acquire the rather fabulous Mark Bass TA501 head and Mark Bass 104HR cabinet, and this has prompted both Dan and myself to decide to re-record ALL the basslines to all of the songs. Mark Bass has made THAT much of a difference.

I'm finding it a daunting prospect, especially since I'm not playing regularly any more - maybe I'll feel better about it once I've got a few songs recorded under my belt. But at least I can start practicing the bass again now that Bembé's progressed to the practice stage, and since Ana's going home to casi-Gijón for a month. It means that I can lay down the tumbaos while Nathan's on lead vocals - playing in the band context will be a great help in knocking the rust spots off.

Hopefully Stuart can have it ready before this Wednesday's practice.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Jeremy and I are laying down more guide tracks for El Tambor, El Gallo, Getting It Together, (and maybe more) this Saturday. Then I'm putting down the conga tracks before the bass. At least I'm keeping in touch with the congas - Whib can only make it once a week, so I get to fill in on the other day.

I guess this is my meandering way of expressing regret, of how tough I'm finding it to keep on top of several instruments when I'm not full-time in music.

But rest assured that you would not be able to tell that from our recordings when the album is finally available. We owe it to ourselves not to let that happen.

Yeo Loo Yen

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bembé - The Whole Kaboodle

I finished Bembé a week ago last Saturday. Actually, Jeremy and I got together that afternoon and worked our way through the entire song; intro, verse, chorus, bridge, montuno, coda, breaks, the whole lot. To say that it was one of our better days is an understatement.

Then Ana joined us later and we nailed the basslines, completing both the core rhythm and vocals for the song. It was already sounding great. We introduced it in its entirety to the remainder of 4de12 a few days later (sans Carolyn and Dan who were holidaying), who all quickly got their teeth into it. Despite Bembé's tender age, it's taking shape very quickly which is the mark of a good song. There's even a chance that we could have it ready to debut at our gig in Leeds.

Jeremy and I began the process of recording Bembé with the guide piano, vocals and clave last Sunday - this is the fastest we've ever worked on a song. Conventional wisdom dictates that we should gig a song for at least a year before recording it; to give the musicians time to explore it, for the song to reach maturity. Scheduling pressures on the recording project dictate otherwise.

Where some might think of this as an unfortunate circumstance, I think of it as an opportunity to give Convention a good poke in the eye. Having been through the recording wringer a few times already, I think and feel that there's every chance we can come up with a rendition that will match the others in terms of exceptional quality.

The Fast-track begins here and now!

Loo Yeo

PS. I've recently discovered Facebook and in it, I'm documenting the rise of Bembé in the form of a photo diary. It's a bit of an experiment right now and if it works out as well I think it will, we might publish it on one of our websites.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Timbale Fills... done!

Nathan was on fire last night.

Nueva Generación was the best I'd ever heard him play it: a practice, under the record button, or onstage. As a song that would be made or broken in large part by the timbales, this was the best possible result. And then he went on to add to the feel of Llamada de Ogún; a song that we didn't think could be added to wrt. percussion. Wow!

This was the best way we could have recorded it - the timbales sound as if you're right there playing them. The difference in Sound Pressure Level (SPL) between the rides and the fills was... aww heck! I'll spare you the gory details.

[Get thee hence, recording-tech dweeb!]

Having put all but one of the timbales tracks to bed, we can now turn to editing and preparing to record Harris on bongó; whom incidentally, is so cool he's travelling all the way from Nottingham to lay down the beats. I've set Bobby on the task of getting the Meinl bongó stand for me as I type.

And now that we've been able to pack-down the gear, the front room is available again for band practice. We're all looking forward to playing music together again after a fortnight's enforced watery break. I'm really looking forward to trying out the AMT Roam 2 unit on Jan's violin tomorrow night having already decided to go ahead and get the other Roam units for 4de12. Again, Bobby's on the case.

Lastly, the band (read Nathan) now has a presence in facebook: Cuatro de Diciembre. Pop in, say hello, make Nathan a happier man!


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I'm Afraid Something's Just Gotta Give

And it has to be the website, at least for now.

Readers of the blog should have noticed that the entries are more to do with Cuatro de Diciembre and the music project than anything else, with the odd comment on my dance experiences thrown in. But then, it really should have come as much of a surprise given that I'd mentioned the possibility before. The website development is on hold for now, as I continue to facilitate our salsa band's development in both the recording and live arenas.

It's still my intention to add to the salsa glossary and timeline: there are plenty of entries sitting on my table, twiddling their thumbs as they wait to be put to use. And I have enough material to write the piano tutorial of the highly regarded Salsa Ear-Training programme. I have a forlorn hope that the mobility I might achieve through obtaining a new laptop would help me cobble together enough stolen moments make meaningful advances once again.

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, July 02, 2007

Just so the Lady could have Hot Chocolate

After having done a good morning's work, I decided to pop by the salsa classes in town on Saturday afternoon.

Unusually, both Helena and Nicolai were there and while the latter beguiled the first class, I siezed the opportunity to catch up with Helena. It's not something I get to do very often, maybe once a year, and we did whilst she was making up for a serious lack of sugar.

It didn't last because soon it came time for the students to partner up, and the class was a person short. The look on poor Helena's face - her hot chocolate had just arrived, and she knew that it would at best, be a 'tepid chocolate' by the time she was able to acquaint it with her taste-buds, caused me gallantly to volunteer instead (and partially redress the gender imbalance).

My reward was being invited to join the more third class; you can tell these participants are much more intent - they all pack a change of shoes. I felt this nagging itch, it felt a little like one was being thrown to the wolves, only friendlier(!) and to music.

Now this was the first time I'd been an advanced learner in ages, and nearly as long since spring-cleaning my dance vocabulary to just the most polymorphic of elements. It was a shock to the system, I can confess: things were happening thick and fast, and in the back of my mind I was thinking, 'we're practicing this right now at 150bpm, how on Earth am I going to get this working at 190bpm?'

So I took a student's prerogative and I cheated. Unashamedly.

After years of dancing the way I do, I'd found myself lately peering over the fence and wondering how well the 'non-me' salseros were experiencing salsa. The teaching was good, spiced up by some badinage between old friends, and sprinkled with proclamations of "my partner wants a new partner" (much to my then-victim's embarrasment); the afternoon passed by most entertainingly. But fun though as it was, I'm happy with my decision, and happier still with my curiousity assuaged.

Yeo Loo Yen

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Back on the Recording Trail

I'm feeling a little more relieved after the weekend.

On Saturday, Jeremy and I hooked up to play our way through the entire piano/conga structure of Bembé. It had been a long time since we had worked together in such a manner. The refreshing change must have been welcome because the section transitions and variations that emerged were truly inspired. There will be a few more of these between us before the song will be ready to present to our fellow band members at practice. I'd really like to debut it at our gig on October the 13th.

Then on Sunday, the recording of timbales began for real. Again, the break (this time of three weeks) may have done a lot of good. Dan, having thought about the previous attempt, decided against using the Beta 98s on the skins, instead opting for the SM57s I'd recently acquired. We used the sE Titan on the bells and the Beta 91 on the reverse of the cymbal, and the results were improved by miles. The bells went through the Focusrite Liquid Channel, and the rest needed very little EQ and no compression nor gating - always a good sign that the right mics are in the right places.

A massive thumbs-up to Bobby at Music Technology for the sE Titan recommendation; it has a more hard-core sound than the Neumann TLM-103.

This spate of sessions is to record the Ride patterns which I mentioned in an earlier post. Nathan agrees that recording in this way is much more relaxed, and we managed to chew through four songs. The surprising thing to me was how quickly it happened; I was dreading the amount that had to be done for En la sangre but it didn't turn out to be that onerous in the end. Maybe it's because I wan't the one playing this time, or maybe Nathan and Dan made it look easy. I am glad though, that I'd spent the time listening to the guides and sketching out some arrangement which gave us a loose basis from which we could work from.

Although the session was very much target driven, there was plenty of room for the creative process; indeed, I think that the clear goals helped stimulate an understanding and focus that catalysed the creativity we experienced that day. There are still four or five more songs to do before we pack down for practice; we were hoping to do some last night, but the record-breaking rainfall and resulting floods in Sheffield conspired to delay Dan on his way home from work for six hours.

Elements permitting, we'll resume tonight and perhaps tomorrow, with a mind on finishing the rides as planned before our twice-weekly practice sessions. This would be ideal, as we'd like to start recording the solos on Sunday and have them done before Dan's holiday trip.

Btw, Bembé's gonna rock!

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Performance Improvements After Millhouses

The changes we had brought into place post our Sabroso gig have made the positive improvements as had predicted.

The most telling was with the way we start our numbers, most of them are now cued in by Dan using a count-in and abanico. The feedback has been that we're now sharper with our entries, getting going straight away, and that in turn gives our music more impact. The implementation still needs more practice to make it perfectly slick, but that does not seem to be that far away now.

In terms of practices, I'm going to start using the chékere instead of the shaker because of its volume, that it can be played at higher tempi, and that it's more visible from stage. Things will start to pull together even more as Wib gains more stamina, Nathan becomes more at ease with the singing process, and I get used to performing and filling the stage again.

As mentioned previously, I've recently acquired a Mark Bass amp-head and cab for our recording and live work which should significantly improve our sound. The next pieces of equipment should be: the well-regarded AMT roam 1 for Carolyn, so she doesn't have to "snake-charm" the mic with her saxophone; an AMT Roam 3 for Catie's flute, plus the AMT WS for her alto which ideally would plug into the Roam 3 unit; and another Neumann KM-105 for yours truly.

The added advantage of the AMT Roams is the mobility it offers our melodics, which will help the band interact and develop its stage-craft. Instead of a Roam 1 for Mike, I expect that we'll use the hard-wired sE Titan on Mike's trombone (which I hear is great for the job); so that he can vary his volume by playing distance and continue using the mute, which he can't with a clip-on mic.

Having had a chat with Nathan, who is the bongó bell king, we'll both stick with hand percussion as lead singers: him on bell and güiro; and me on shaker, maracas and chékere. The both of us would re-inforce the percussive framework by providing the downbeat and backbeat accents respectively, giving Dan and Wib more freedom to manoeuvre. I eventually forsee us having a fibreglass conga or quinto up front with a Remo Fibreskin, so that Nathan could play it with the bongó bell beater along with the bell, or I could provide the tumbao to help Wib solo more freely.

There are advantages to having fully-fledged percussionists as singers.

Those are not insignificant investments, which I'll be very happy to make when the recordings are further down the road. Until then, I guess I'll have to save my pennies for the unexpected that the CD project always seems to throw at me.

Loo Yen

Monday, June 11, 2007

Recording Timbales

is going to be one of the toughest of the upcoming challenges facing the recording project. There are two general approaches as to recording them: using the classic dual-overhead mic technique which gives plenty of atmosphere but little fault-tolerance nor ability to customise sound; or to close-mic everything for a highly customisable sound at the expense of time and data storage space. We're doing the latter.

We'd already had a dry run at recording Nathan on timbales, and learned a lot from the process. Primarily, we found that the bell sounds were bleeding into just about everything else because of the high Sound Pressure Levels (SPL). Also the recorded tones of the skins lacked the ring we were looking for, and that the cymbal sounds hung around for too long.

There are a number of steps we've taken to achieve better and controllable sounds.

  • I've acquired three splash cymbals to cut short the cymbal accents, and a hi-hat on which Nathan could play the ride rhythms and still choose the level of sustain, in a manner of playing similar to that on a bell (but perhaps with more subtlety).
  • We have more recording stuff coming in: an sE electronics Titan microphone which should have a higher transient response due to its titanium diaphragm capsule, and also be able to handle the higher SPL; the AKG C414 B XLS which is an excellent all-round mic, used successfully in recording a variety of percussion instruments; and two more sE electronics reflexion filters to minimise reflected sounds from the ceilings to the overheads.
  • The recording itself will be broken up into at least three phases: ride rhythms, accents and kick drum.
  • Dan's going to try a more central placement for the Shure Beta 98 mics on the skins to get more ring.
I'm sure that other matters will crop out of the wood-work. And although the recording of timbales has expanded to a daunting 3-stage process; Dan, Nathan and I feel that this is the approach most likely to get the sound and feel that we want.

Time is knocking on a bit now. Harris is likely to return to Greece in October to perform his National Service, and I would very much like to capture his inspirational bongó playing before he does. Working backwards from there, we should aim to have all of September to record him, which means we have to get a mixdown with finalised timbales to him by the beginning of August. This just leaves a month and a half or so to get these recordings done.

Bearing in mind that this is summer, and that holiday times are upon us, you can see why there is a sense of urgency in meeting this immovable deadline.

Loo Yeo

Friday, June 08, 2007

A Clave Crisis in Bembé

The lyrics to "Bembé", the tenth song in our suite, have finally been done and we began playing it at this week's practices.

On Wednesday, we did the verse and chorus sections. This went swimmingly indeed: I'd sung the song so often in my mind that the vocal melodies were very stable, even whilst playing the congas; Ana and Jeremy had locked in well on bass and piano; Mike was cooking up some really lively trombone moñas; and Dan was pulling nice percussion riffs out of... wherever he keeps them stored. Everything was just hunky-dory.

Fast-forward 24 hours.

It was time to sort out the montuno and mambo sections. Here was when everything went pear-shaped. It all came about because of a misunderstanding.

Let's say that the piano montuno takes place over 2 clave phrases (i.e. 4 bars of music) in the i-iv-V7-i progression in C minor (actual details changed to protect the innocent), which would make it Cm-Fm-G7-Cm. In the chorus it's played in the 3-2 orientation, and I wanted it in the 2-3 orientation for the montuno/mambo.

So I'd want it changed from (clave side in brackets):
  • Cm(3)-Fm(2)-G7(3)-Cm(2) to
  • Cm(2)-Fm(3)-G7(2)-Cm(3).

The easiest way to do that would be to have a full break for an odd number of bars, and re-introduce the piano on the 2-side.

However, Jeremy had taken me to mean something different i.e. that the piano would remain locked into the clave stream, and that the vocals would come in at the new start-point of Cm(2) instead of Cm(3), effectively changing the perceived progression from:
  • Cm(3)-Fm(2)-G7(3)-Cm(2) to
  • Cm(2)-Cm(3)-Fm(2)-G7(3).
There was plenty of talking at cross-purposes before we finally understood each other, and by then Frustration was a guest band-member. Certainly the first option was the simplest for most of us to implement, and what I'd prepared the vocal melodies for. The second one required completely new vocal melodies for call and response, a new bassline, and most crucially for Jeremy to rephrase his playing so that the listener could clearly percieve the first of the C-minor chord pair as the start-point.

Naturally we opted to go for the second.

We already had another full break planned for later in the song, and have used the piano drop-out technique in several other songs of the suite. This would be the first time we'd try it this way on one of our own songs (the other instance of this happening in our repetoire is in our augmentated version of the classic 'Bilongo' aka. 'La Negra Tomasa' aka. 'Kikiribú Mandinga'). But the most important point in its favour is that the montuno section sounds different from the chorus, which it would not have done had we plumped for the easy way out.

In retrospect I should have anticipated difficulties as: this was the first time we'd written a completely new song in 2 years; and our first ever one beginning in a 3-2 orientation. I did find a decent response vocal line to the "new" progression; as did Catie, Jan and Mike on melodics. And some of the inspiraciones made the great leap with little difficulty.

Jeremy is working on recording the montuno as a practice track for us over the weekend, which I'll use to re-work the vocals and figure out the best bassline.

Our other songs were written a while ago, and teething problems like these had largely been forgotten. Last night was a short sharp reminder of things past and taken for granted.

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, June 04, 2007

4 de Diciembre @Millhouses Park Festival 2007

Yesterday, Cuatro de Diciembre (4de12) played at Millhouses Park Festival. It's an annual free event put on by University of Sheffield Management School students as part of their events management project. We were the only salsa band to play there.

On the run-up to it, I was harried by a small gremlin of dread. The few days preceeding it had been somewhat damp, and rain had been forecast.

Not so when the 3rd of June dawned. It was bright, sunny, not exceptionally warm, and Dan had done his utmost co-ordinating the logistics efforts and liaising with the sound engineer over the phone beforehand.

Dan's a gem.

We arrived well before time and set up on a make-shift stage comprising sheets of fibreboard nailed onto a platform of wooden pallets, under an open-fronted pavillion. I'd never been to Millhouses park before; long and thin in shape, it's bounded by a dual-carriageway on one side, and a stream on the other, with a rail-track beyond the latter. Plenty of greenery in between with grassy banks, tennis and basketball courts, a cafe, a miniature boating pool, and what appears to be numbered gopher-holes for you to putt your golf balls into over the uneven turf.

Setup was quick and painless. I don't know what it is about people, but we got a little 'attitude' from the other bands. Maybe it was because we were headlining. Suffice to say that the sniping stopped after we finished our soundcheck number. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

We exited the stage for the others to set up, and everything kicked off. Then we waited, watching the preceding acts with coffee (mine's a caramel latte) and junk food accompaniment. We played two sets of five songs, each set supposedly lasting 30 mins. Because we came up just short the first time 'round, we decided to extend the solos during the second. 4de12 like to give their patrons more than their money's worth... even when they're not paying!

The audience was great. They were non-dancers, but that didn't matter - they were attentive and appreciative, and I'd take that anytime over an indifferent dancing audience. I tell a lie; a long-time friend, Ann, was there with her family, and we managed to grab a brief salsa together in 'Hijos de Cam' (the first number of our second set) before I had to join in the backing vocals.

I think this was our best performance by far despite Carolyn's regrettable absence; for many of the reasons outlined in an earlier post, and more besides. Onstage, the communication by eye-contact was superb, allowing us more flexibility and fluidity in the interchange of parts. There was much more show and energy: sweat was flying off Dan and Wib in torrents as they took the percussion to town; unleashed from behind the congas, I could exercise more stagecraft; and Nathan, this being his second gig, sang with greater confidence and aplomp. The monitoring that Catie, Jan and Mike got was well balanced allowing them to play with verve.

Maybe it was the bright sunshine.

All too soon it was over. That final half hour just flew by. Then it was time to pack down and enjoy the remainder of the afternoon.

And enjoy it we did. There's nothing quite like a great gig to set up the rest of your day.

Loo Yen Yeo

Hello MOTU

The recording project hit a nasty technical hitch a few weeks ago which made life pretty uncomfortable.

The situation was this: we had two hard-disk recorders (Alesis HD24XRs) capable of recording a total of 24 channels at 24-bit 96kHz and we need more than 50 channels per song. We get around this by copying the recorded channels onto our server (Dell PowerEdge 2950), play back the channels from the computer (using Cubase 4), whilst recording more onto the hard-disk recorders. Sounds easy, right?

Yes, with the right equipment.

Except we weren't using the right equipment, and we didn't know it.

Let me elaborate.

The real trick is in synchronising the playback with the recording. At first we were using a Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 I/O as the sound interface linked to the pc by firewire, and to the Alesises (?plural?) by MIDI. The Saffire was slaved to the house clock (Apogee Big Ben) by BNC. Cubase would stall intermittently when we hit the 'Play' button, returning control to the console several minutes after hitting the 'Stop' button. There was a lot of MIDI activity, during the interminable wait. Quite frustrating to be twiddling thumbs more than recording timbales.

Salvation: Mark of the Unicorn. Hallelujah!

I called up Bobby, our man at Music Technology and he recommended the MOTU 828 mkII USB. We got it in, partially on the basis that it had an ADAT synch, installed and configured it (a process that took a few days), and it's been working beautifully ever since. The only minor hitch was that the Big Ben would not recognise it as being terminated via the BNC, so we went with the RCA connectors instead.

With a company name like 'Mark Of The Unicorn', you gotta be pretty confident in your stuff; and they don't disappoint. The software for the product is well written and timely. I can't say the same about Focusrite.

We have a Focusrite Liquid Channel, which is an exceptional product; and it was on that basis (and lack of unfavourable reviews) that I pursued the Saffire and the Saffire Pro. It proved to be a costly error.

So in the final analysis, if you want to synch a PC running Cubase 4 to Alesis HDD recorders, consider the MOTU. I've relegated the Saffire Pro to my live rig.

You live and learn.

Yeo Loo Yen

Monday, May 21, 2007

May 2007 Sabroso@Interval Café, Sheffield

This was the the first time for us back on stage since the Donut gig, and with a significantly changed line-up:

  • Dan has moved from rhythm guitar to timbales and is doing a fine job;
  • Mike joined us just a couple of months ago, and is a great trombonist whose sense of humour comes across when he plays;
  • Nathan has emerged from behind the timbales to take on vocals (lead and backing) and hand percussion;
  • Wib joined us as a direct result from the Donut gig and is our new conguero;
  • I've also stepped out from behind the congas and am fulfilling the same role as Nathan.
I think it's great for many reasons:

  • Dan and Wib have an understanding of each other's musicianship based on years of playing live together;
  • Mike brings a wealth of experience of playing soul, jazz and blues which is something we very much needed;
  • there is more opportunity for interaction in the melodic arragements, which augments the montuno section of our songs;
  • the rhythmic 'thickness' of our sound has been increased with both Nathan and I playing hand percussion;
  • having two lead singers with different vocal ranges makes a wider range of songs possible;
  • we have a high level of redundancy, meaning we can take on more gigs; and
  • (selfishly) I can have a rest from singing during a set.
Woo-Hoo! This signals the dawning of a brave new world. Long live Cuatro de Diciembre!

Okay, as with any change in line-up, there is a period of instability. But even with that in mind and based on last night's performance, there's plenty of potential to be realised in this new line-up.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Cuban Salsa over a Chinese Restaurant

I found myself in Manchester not too long ago, courtesy of Jane and Christophe (they're still putting up with me!), at a salsa evening orgainsed by Cuban style dance teachers.

Moso Moso is an interesting place to hold such a thing: the floor's good although the room can get a little bit warm due to the low ceiling, but the real icing on the cake must be the intriguing possibility of having Dim Sum downstairs should the fancy take me. Now that just appeals to my sense of humour.

The music was a pleasant change; being more Cuban than what is normally played at the other nights I skulk into. The reggaeton towards the end of the night is not quite my cup of tea, but I'm open-minded enough to enjoy (and occassionally partake of) the spectacle. The most striking thing, to me as a dancer and a teacher, is how good the standard of timing was. That is, everyone I danced with and observed. Sure, there was the expected variation in physical abilities, but there was I didn't experience the "uncomfortable struggling with a partner whose timing skills had remained vestigeal due to move-blinkering" thing all night.

That surely must be a positive endorsement on the student and dance-culture engendered by Susan and Juan of Salsa de Cuba. I like the way they try to help their students appreciate salsa in its cultural context, and I'm glad to see that there are takers for this approach.

This wasn't my first visit there, although it was the first in a long time. If you like Cuban music, and a chance to dance in that style, I think you might want to pop in and check it out.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Cándido's Tumbao

The tail end of last week was when we managed to get the equipment fully synch'ed. The Dell PowerEdge 2950 running with Cubase, the latency of the Focusrite Saffire Pro down to 2.0ms, high quality cables throughout, the lower-output Mackie HR824 replaced, and everything that was eligible hooked up to the Apogee Big Ben.

I'm still disappointed that the Saffire has a propensity to disconnect itself due to driver instability. This is a known issue, and I'm impatient to have that problem resolved because it's a lump in our workflow; trying to get it to re-engage after it drops out. I understand why it's so well regarded and reviewed, but surely this matter needs prompt attention. I was also surprised with the Mackie monitor not living up to its reputation in terms of quality assurance. The theory goes that they're delivered to retailers in four-unit clusters, and consecutive serial numbers are matched. This has not been my experience. One of the pair was DOA out of the box. The other pair had a nearly 6dB disparity in output. Eventually I found one that matched closely enough the output of my original "hot" one, but was far from being consecutive.

Given that the Big Ben is reputed to increase resolution of the stereo field, unmatched monitors don't make that assessment possible. I'm figuring out solutions now.

On Sunday we were back in the recording saddle once again, beginning with the guide piano and vocals for "Tiempo para el amor". Then the conga and tumba were set up and mic'ed. There followed a marathon session of my playing Cándido's tumbao for "Llamada de Ogún" until I got an acceptable take. Now I can play the regular stuff in my sleep / 'til the cows come home but this groove is something else altogether. It's a lot like the bassline in "Corazón Fugitivo" which reveals errors and drift very easily. When that happens, the only option is to start all over again.
Several hours later, we got a stronger take than the one I'd laid down a few months ago. Nailing a finalised take of Bolero rítmico and tumbao moderno for "Tiempo para el amor" was a snap after that.

Monday and yesterday were supposed to be bassline recording days, but with my left hand still tired from the conga session, Dan and I thought it best not to push the issue, and we went to first mixdown mode instead finishing six songs. We should have "Recordando África" and "Llamada de Ogún" finished before band practice tonight; so the band can have it as a take-home pressie.

So I've got a lot to look forward to... a fun-packed evening promising capers and frolicks as we prepare for our gig (with brand spanking new line-up) on the 20th.

Loo Yeo

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

All Has Not Been Quiet On The Western Front

Although it might seem like it from the lack of postings.

I was hoping to write sooner, once we had every scrap of equipment up and running, but that's proved not to be the case - must be one of life's universal constants. So we've laid down the guide melodics for six of our eight recorded songs and have run out of tracks until we manage to offload and configure playback from our pc. That's the hold-up. So this week has been set aside for infrastructure and configuration issues, after the resolution of which we should be flying along again.

I did manage to find the time to pop along to Bar Cubana on Friday, as a consolation for not being able to attend Dan's 21st Birthday party, after being held up due to the family business. Having not seen so many friends in several months, it was nice to be reacquainted either on the dance floor with the ladies, or on the sidelines with the gents. Dancing in such a confined space is no small challenge, but it was great just to get out from the hermitesque existence of a DIY recording musician. It was the perfect excuse to keep it simple and basic, and much more enjoyable for it.

Keeping the dance structure as open as possible leaves lots of room for rhythmic embellishments. Over the years, there's been less and less call for the use of turns to generate variety. Perhaps this is what it means to dance as a musician.

More later,

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Good Friday 2007

was the day I realised that I could sing. I know how immodest that sounds, so maybe I should explain.

I've been singing in the band for three years now, and all this while I've only heard myself recorded a couple of times: once was at a recording studio barely a year since I'd taken over from our previous lead, Olga; the other was when I was laying down the guide vocals for our current recordings. It's pretty fair to say that neither of them were representative conditions, the former because my voice and vocal style were still developing, and the latter was done ad hoc simply to get the job done quickly.

The rest was at gigs, where everything is transient: you sing or play a note, and then the moment's gone. Also, we were lucky in that the salsa audiences we had played for were extremely friendly and possibly a forgiving bunch... so I was never quite sure.

Good Friday was the chosen day when Dan recorded lead vocals for eight of the ten songs we've laid down so far for our first cd. I expected a marathon day, and got one, although we were both extremely pleased that we managed final takes of all eight. For the record, I sang into a Neumann TLM103 connected to a Focusrite Liquid Channel. 'Surprised' isn't the right word, neither is 'pleased'. Satisified and happy maybe; that the vocal coaching, effort and practice had all paid off. Our project is a ProTools and midi-free zone and we're determined to keep it that way.

The Neumann is an honest mic, as Dan likes to put it, and it seems to me to reveal my every strength and shortcoming: rich tonal colours as well as the most embarrasing burbles, squeaks and honks (at the most inopportune moments). Rest assured that the vocals were redone from scratch until an artefact-free take of the right mood was sung.

I've never heard my voice like that before. Ever. And that's the strongest ever testament to the quality of Dan's engineering.

This project as a learning process is of immeasureable value; feedback is immediate and uncompromising. So I'm a little sad to be stepping away from the vocal mic, or at least to have begun the process of stepping away. I forsee my commitments in business to take me away from the band increasingly, so it was only fair that I do so. But at least I can still expect to sing lead for the remaining two songs of the suite when they're recorded. Hopefully in a few months' time.

Until I can resume a firm commitment to the band, I'll just have to be satisfied with the role of guest tresero.

Actually now that I put it that way, it doesn't sound too bad does it?

Loo Yeo

Monday, March 19, 2007

Catching Up With Salsa

I'm back after four weeks in the Far East, which saw me chomping my way through a myriad delicacies over Chinese New Year, and doing very little salsa. I only danced once and saw a club band on the night of my bro's birthday. When I came back, boy was I itching to get some music done.

During my absence, 4 de Diciembre has undergone some (planned) changes to both line-up and practice structure at least temporarily; triggered by our recording project and the possibility of my reduced involvement due to business commitments.

  • The band has split into two sections: percussion, rhythm and vocals; and melodics. The latter have been focussing their efforts on their arrangements in light of their upcoming recording; having mixdowns of the tracks has proved a vital catalyst. They've done a great job so far with the first tranche of four songs, which we were given the opportunity to listen to on Thursday past. In the former, Nathan's taken up the role of lead vocals, Dan's moving onto timbales, and we have a prospective new conguero called "Wib". It's too early to say yet how Wib will turn out, he's a trap-set drummer by training. From previous experience in teaching, I know it takes a while to get used to the hand drums and the Afrocuban idiom, so I'm hoping for the best.
  • On days when I'm not required as a conguero, I'll be moving onto tres. It will provide us with a further propulsive rhythm vamp that will complement Jeremy on piano; it's an instrument that I've wanted to play for a long time; it's portable so I can take it with me and still be able to keep in touch with our music (I anticipate having to travel quite a bit soon); and it gets me out from behind the congas when we have to gig. Maybe that last point wasn't a plus.
  • Recordings are starting again with Ana scheduled to lay down maracas tracks today, and Nathan the guiro tomorrow. Dan has this weekend free, so I'm hoping that we can lay down stronger piano and bass tracks or bongo bell, or both.
  • There's more equipment arriving this week: a second hard disk recorder, a reflexion shield, a Neumann TLM103, a Focusrite Liquid Channel, a couple of high capacity HDDs and assorted cables.
  • I've had a chance to work through the inspiraciones to our ninth song, and have bounced them back to Ana for amendment.
  • Still pending later this week is for me to sort out a basic montuno pattern for the chorus of our tenth song.

It's not all work. Christophe and Jane have offered to take me to see Alex Wilson in Derby on Friday, which was an opportunity I jumped at. That'll teach me for spending a month eating mom's home-cooked food!

A rather portly Loo

Monday, February 12, 2007

Donut Training Grounds

Yesterday was a marathon day at Donut Creative Arts Centre in Chesterfield. And it was a bright sunny day too. I ran the conga workshops whilst Ana and Jeremy did the hand percussion, and Nathan and Dan the timbales. With such a wide range of abilities, it's always a challenge. The jam session after lunch was manically fun with Nathan on bass, Dan on timbales, Wibbo on drums and me on piano at one stage.

It's been such a long time since I touched the keys.

Then there was the gig later in the evening. The sound setup was exceptional yet again, under (the other) Dan's sure hand. I wish he was portable; we'd take him to every gig. Must make a note to ask our Dan to solder a couple of flight-case handles on him.

The folk of Chesterfield probably don't realise how lucky they are to have such a gem of a facility on their doorstep that put on such events like the Cultural Music Programme I was just inolved with. Headed by Bri(an) Evans, the training there in sound technology has produced high quality professional enginners - despite being vocational in nature.

A truly remarkable achievement. I'd love to take up their sound training programme if ever the opportunity arose.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Just Let Me Catch My Breath

Less than a week now before I jet off to sunnier climes, but before then there's the no-small matter of workshops and a performance at Donut - a highly successfully run youth programme for aspiring musicians, complete with recording studio. The emphasis is on edcuative development.

The link here is Dan, our guitarist and erstwhile bassist who was trained in sound recording there.

So this Sunday, we're running percussion workshops to show the young musicians how they might incorporate percussion themes of Latin American origin into their own music. You might be surprised to hear that I'm doing the congas bit. In the evening, there's to be a dance lesson followed by a performance by our salsa band.

Jeremy's really pulled out the stops and downloaded the tracks for our eight songs that we've recorded so far, and Dan's doing the mixdowns for us to arrange our melodics and percussion to. Hopefully, Jeremy will have a piano montuno track for me before I leave so that I can work out my inspiracion melodic lines for the ninth song.

When I get back we'll be experimenting with a shuffling of roles, with Dan on timbales, Nathan on vocals and congas, and me on backing vocals and hand percussion or tres. I think that I might have to travel more this year as Verdant's business develops, and it would be unfair to leave Cuatro de Diciembre in the lurch, so we're trying to build some redundancy into the system.

In some ways, I'd relish the opportunity to play tres and learn the instrument better. Let's face it, I'm an Eliades Ochoa wannabe. But it won't happen in this lifetime.

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I Bleed for My Art

The past couple of weekends we've been back on the recording saddle. Much of the material has been from me in this early phase; the guide vocals, congas, and bass. The good thing about the playing hiatus was that return to playing music was very enjoyable, the downside being blisters and other incovenient non-tone-enhancing wounds.

We're a little behind schedule due mostly to fluctuations in (my) performance, but I hope to have caught up by this evening. Then it's to laying down the hand percussion and doing a mixdown to help with the arrangements for the melodic instruments. All very timely really, considering that I'm jetting off to Penang for Chinese New Year.

The other upside is that Jeremy's found the time to provide me with the timing tracks for the Salsa Ear Training tutorials on Congas indicating clave orientation and dancing to Rumba clave. I was glad to make them live yesterday; the material had been written for more than eight months; a measure of how busy we've been with the band.

I don't anticipate that there will be additions to the website at the same rapid pace in the near-to-mid term, now that the restructuring's finished. The strategic decision I took in positioning the content of the site has paid off, and I'm looking forward to filling in the current gaps before expanding it further.

Now, on to more music.

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, January 08, 2007

Salsa Blog January


I'm back from the break and itching to go.

The past few weeks have been excitingly kind to my salsa: I've finished reading "Music in Cuba"; watched a couple of DVDs on Yambú and Guaguancó, which deepened my appreciation of rumba no end (review coming in due course); wrote and posted three tutorials; and my pursuit of dancing on half-beats has bestowed me with information I needed for a rhythm tutorial.

On the website front, I AM going to redistribute the dance skills material to open up a new tutorial category. And I am confident that it will give rise to a more intuitive navigation structure. I've only just now finished the draft of the final dance skills tutorial on whole body cascade, and I'm considering renaming dance skills (and all the hassle it entails).

The tres playing is coming along just fine, as my callouses will attest to, and I'm starting to think that that is where my long term future in Cuban music lies. I've still got at least a year before I understand the instrument well enough to make that kind of decision.

Half the band is still away on respective sojourns, so we won't start for a couple of weeks yet. All precious time to me!

Okay, gotta scoot.