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

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