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