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)