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