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