Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Salsa Situation Report: Christmas Eve 2008

Oooh! So much on my plate, and I'm not talking turkey either (you have to forgive the pun, it's Christmas). Haven't done one of these since October, so... a no-longer-mental note of things to do:

For Conjunto Laloma
  • I-IV-V-IV montuno progressions (minor) on guitar;
  • music for 'Monton de estrellas';
  • end sequence for 'El carretero'; and
  • lyrics of 'Lágrimas negras'.
For 4 de Diciembre
  • lyrics for 'Colombia, mi corazón' and 'Xiomara';
  • revise songo rhythms on congas;
  • explore songo con marcha rhythms further; and
  • work on Afro 6/8 rhythms for vocals.
For Personal Development
  • refresher study of "Divine Utterances" for book review;
  • study "La Lucha for Cuba" for book review;
  • practice dancing son (contratiempo) and son montuno (to clave only);
  • more Great Scale and Messa di voce vocal practices (sigh!); and
  • learn "Tiempo para el amor" on guitar in preparation for recording project.
I'd put more down but it's already looking a tad optimistic. Christmas IS a time of music and dance.

Not veg-ing in front of the tv,

Monday, December 22, 2008

20th December 2008 Cuatro de Diciembre with SalsaYarm@Tower Club Ballroom, Middlesborough

Chris and Sue Hield's Christmas Salsa Party was going to be the last of Cuatro de Diciembre's engagements before we went our separate ways for the festive season. We were determined to give it full bore, just so as to cap off what has been a great year for the band. Expectations of us were high especially after Darlington a month ago, and I'm sure it's a phenomenon that we increasingly will have to contend with as word of 4de12's good work continues to spread.

It's a nice problem to have.

There were a few solutions to be found beforehand though, the first of which was logistics. Since the venue was in use in the afternoon, BlastPA had but a small window of opportunity afterwards to get their considerable equipment up the stairs to the top floor, set everything up, and get us soundchecked. The second was with the playlist; Ferret couldn't make the gig and I was singing his numbers, so a touch more preparation was needed on my part (he ain't getting them back now! The little rascal).

Practices in between had been hairily helter-skelter, because of the upheaval of relocating to Attic studios; we'd had to move simply because we'd out-grown my place. But I knew that we were potentially going to do something special after the session last Thursday, when it all came together tighter than... well... a Very Tight thing. Every musician will tell you that practices and performances are a very different kettles of fish, but we've increasingly been able to transfer much our smooth practice form on to stage while maintaining our cutting edge.

It was time to eat that pudding.

Similar to Darlington, the anticipated three hour jaunt North took considerably less than that; my trusty iPod was only part-way through its third iteration of Café Noir by Bana Congo presents Papa Nöel (kinda apt don't you think?) when Jeremy pulled the minibus into the ballroom's grounds. It was already dark, what with it being close to the shortest day.

The Tower Club Ballroom in Middlesborough bears no resemblance to the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, although I wouldn't blame you for the association if you've ever been a ballroom dancer; the name certainly did conjure up certain chintzy images in me (sorry, couldn't help it). The former is a converted church, now a social dance venue spread across three floors. Right at the very top is the hall: with generous seating on its periphery for 180 or so, a small stage midway along one of its long sides, a bar, and a lovely dancefloor.

If you're a floor anorak like me: it's hardwood; sprung, although you can tell when joists are underfoot (and that the joists are steel); the surface polish is about 8-inches slower than competition speed, just perfect for social dance; and very slightly slower at the centre as you would expect. Two hundred plus dancers could happily strut their stuff on that piece of magic.

Okay, back to the Party.

Soundcheck was over just as Doors Opened. Ideally, we would have had a further 30 mins to squeeze more richness out of Catie's alto flute and Willie's violin; a sharper crack of slaps and a more solid, rounder presence of open tones from Whib's tumbadoras. But that's a perfectionist talking in the real world, because Blast had delivered the goods in record time once again.

I settling down to grab a moment of calm in the lull before lessons were due to begin, when whom should I spy gliding in but Ces and Kerry of LatinXces ('glide' is quite the appropriate verb for this svelte couple who do a mean bachata too). It hadn't occured to me to check the leaflet to see if any friends were guest teachers. What a Christmas Brucie bonus.

The lessons were well managed; they had to be as both Ces and Kerry's intermediate and Chris and Sue's beginner sessions were running concurrently on the same floor. The former was jam-packed, understandable considering how busy SalsaYarm have been in developing the salsa scene, and also who were the guest instructors. Both classes were more than just competently taught in a friendly convivial atmosphere (a safe learning environment in educator-speak). While most of Cuatro de Diciembre went for the challenge of LatinXces, Ana (bassist), Mike (trombonist) and I opted for beginners. We didn't want to risk taxing ourselves before the gig and felt we could be of more value there. Ana's no slouch when it comes to dancing, she can lead and follow, has been a salsa teacher for nearly ten years, and an instructor of instructors for four.

More smiling faces came streaming in: Colin Piper, Tony Piper, Ian Steer, Theo Wolashie; it was starting to feel like a party at a friend's place... I mentally gave myself a smack and the professional side kicked in. We had 160 pairs of socks to blow off this night, and Jeremy's piano notes had just started to colour the air - the opening montuno of Nueva Generación was underway.

I'd canvassed and watched the attendees beforehand to get a sense of the tempo they were comfortable with. We'd been practicing our music at a more moderate speed, and it seemed as if that was suitable as an average with some quicker and slower pieces thrown in for texture. I validated this again during the interval between sets: in my conversations with the various teachers, and guests whilst dancing. I also asked our sound engineer Tom to keep an eye out on the floor, and to boost the conga tones if he ever saw dancers looking uncertain. That smoothened everything out. Tony regards us as a "dance-friendly" band for very good reason.

With the PA firing across the room and the small stage being recessed into an alcove, we had to make special adjustments to compensate. The reflected sound of the main PA was bouncing around the back of stage, muddying our foldback from the monitors. I was relatively unaffected as I only have piano and my vocals from my monitor (the general rule being the fewer the instruments on foldback, the better), but I did have to compensate for reflected sound and make sure the attack of my vocals was earlier that when I would normally have put it.

Testament to the quality of Cuatro de Diciembre, a little bit of magic started to happen as we were entering the mambo section of the first number. We began to swing. "Swing" is that hard-earned quality that sets a great band apart from a good one; it's when the rhythm comes together and begins to live and breathe (quite different from 'swinging' notes in the blues). It didn't take the guys long to adapt to performance conditions at all.

Ana Santiago Menéndez - Onstage, on bass

This winter party will live long in my memory. The music and the friends all came together just right to create one very special night.

Everyone, directly and indirectly, declared 4 de Diciembre as the best band they'd yet seen. Tony said that we just keep getting better and better. He ain't seen what we've got planned for next time! And I'd also finally met salsa teacher and DJ Keith Tolson, someone whom I'd heard many good things about. But most significant of all, our wonderful hosts Chris and Sue referred to the night as being the most successful one they'd ever had at the Tower. Now that's a record I'd like to keep.

160 pairs of smokin' socks... and a partridge in a pear tree.

Loo Yeo

Friday, December 12, 2008

Development with a Capital "D". Springwell Community Arts, Derbyshire

Brian Evans is a bundle of energy - a dimunitive Giant of community welfare activity in England's midlands. His unyielding commitment as a Youth worker is as humbling as it is unsung. I first met him when he was still with the award-winning Donut studios. This was before he moved to pastures new where he's been catalysing unprecedented success as manager at Springwell Community Arts (SCArt). SCArt describes itself as, "a development within Springwell Community School in Staveley, Derbyshire."

Here, I would contend that the statement hardly does the drive, ambition, potential contribution, and audacity of the entity full justice. It should be Development with a capital "D" to signify the development of youths, the development of community, the development of aspiration.

The beating heart of SCArt, Brian and his co-workers, is located in the Performing Arts block, a dedicated building on the grounds of Springwell Community School featuring:
  • a digital recording studio operating Cubase and Reason, capable of recording bands, soloists and spoken word;
  • a media-editing suite running audio and video editing packages;
  • spaces for the teaching and rehearsal of the performing arts;
  • access to a plethora of musical instruments;
  • a drama studio with full PA and lighting rig which doubles as a small venue; and
  • a dance studio (my favourite bit).
More remarkably, this superb resource is open to use by the local community. But bricks and mortar alone, though necessary, doesn't ensure the success of any project. For that we need to look to 'software'; the people and the effort they commit to driving Development. That's where Brian&Co excel, leading courses in sound engineering, DJing, Community Theatre, Rock Schools, Circus art, film projects; as well as workshops about lots of stuff, like "how to improve your song-writing... "

Sometime earlier this year, Bri began planning a ten week programme designed to teach young people how to salsa, and he invited the participation of Dan (timbalero for 4de12) and myself. Called "Salsa de Springwell", it was funded as part of a local initiative to engage more young people in physical activity. He strengthened it with the option for students to learn how to play the music and play as part of a latin band. Both dance and music programmes would culminate in a public performance in mid-December. Didn't I mention that he's ambitious...?

Once availabilities were ironed out, the course was set to span late September to early December, culminating in a public performance; and we launched it with an all-day introduction to the students of Springwell on Friday 19th September. That was a challenging day, teaching salsa in the main hall over the five periods to more than six hundred school-goers collectively. I'd not felt drained like that in a very long time. But happily it met with sterling success, Bri saying that, "this was a really fun day for all involved and the students had the chance to try something new and challenging". The weekly programme began four days later.

And here I'm about to confess my shortcomings.

I was keenly looking forward to involvement in this project for its community aspect. I'm no stranger to teaching salsa in schools and as a community activity, both voluntarily and for extended courses of time. It's an energising and rewarding the experience. Based on previous involvements, plus having had the pleasure of working with Bri before, it seemed like a no-brainer.

I found it tough.

The brief was to teach the dancing of salsa, and for the dancers to show off what they'd learned at the end. The members of the class were largely performing arts students and the simplest way to meet the ends was to work out a routine and simply drill it for ten weeks - it was, after all, a context that they were used to. But that is not what salsa as a social activity is about, and I found my interpretation of salsa at odds with the easy/efficient route.

I made another rod for my own back in not adapting my teaching philosophy to a narrowly targeted, information-restricted i.e. need-to-know model (see previous post). Over the weeks, it became increasingly clear that only a small minority of my charges were self-motivated enough to thrive in my learning paradigm. I'm clearly more used to running master-classes. Things definitely weren't Peachy.

Salvation of the programme came from an unexpected direction... my being poorly. My replacement, Karthik, from the Salsa & Merengue Society and The Forum gave the class the shot in the arm it needed more than midway through; effectively a clean slate once the committed students had been selected for. It was a welcome relief to all involved.

The next time I was to see my former charges was at the final performance at the Speedwell Rooms in Staveley four weeks later i.e. last night, where an edited version of '4 de Diciembre' took the end billing. Springwell's salsa band and its dancers acquitted themselves admirably to the tune of 'Esperanza' by Salsa Celtica, attaining the ambitious marker that had been laid down by Bri. The Springwell salsa band then went on to exceed expectations, performing an instrumental piece they'd composed themselves!

The lesson in-between Springwell's band and 4de12 was fired up by Helen, a colleague of Karthik's, who has agreed to undertake the regular salsa lessons due to start up (early next year) as a result of the project's success. Her bubbly personality and her schoolteacher background make her absolutely perfect for the role.

It did turn out fine at the very last. Staveley's community got to experience salsa thanks to Bri's efforts, and should expect to continue doing so. I got to experience teaching at a community school and more valuably, understand another facet of English secondary school pedagogy and how it prepares its sparks of the future.

Staveley's daughters and sons have plenty to be proud of.

Loo Yeo

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Need To Know

In 'Philosophical Reasoning' the author, Nicholas Rescher, proposes that:

"At the basis of the cognitive enterprise lies the fact of human curiosity rooted in the need-to-know of a weak and vulnerable creature emplaced in a difficult and often hostile environment in which it must make its evolutionary way by its wits."

I read that as, 'the need to know is a fundamental survival trait in humans'.

This is at odds with the other better-known "need to know" phenomenon describing the restriction of information regarded as sensitive. The latter was a major bugbear of mine during my days as a dance competitor, where I consistently felt that I was being drip-fed information at a rate that hindered my development. Not that I blamed my instructors.

Not at all. The urgency was in the preparing of us for competition, and they didn't want us to be side-tracked by extraneous information. I interpreted it as their being most comfortable with a parent's "do as I say" paradigm. However the approach did rob me of the ability to tailor my development to suit best my needs; and slower, less accurate assimilation because there was only a small contextual framework with which I could associate new material. "Need to know" left me not knowing the right questions to ask.

It wasn't until my second year, when things seemed as if they would remain unchanged, that I threw down the gauntlet at my dance teachers and asked them to challenge me. To their credit, Carole and Jeff threw even the kitchen sink at us (my then partner and I); and the results came quickly - a leap in the number of re-calls to the floor.

I made a promise then, to myself, that I would not ever teach in the same way.

The principle of providing as much information as the learner can possibly take has several benefits, and just as many drawbacks.
  • It is intellectually highly taxing on both parties.
  • The instructor bears the burden of organising the information in order to reduce the onset of student saturation.
  • It has a greater setup cost because of the larger contextual framework. Initial progress can be perceived as slow but once established, the assimilation phase of the learning process is comparatively speedy, flexible and accurate.
  • The distribution of the group according ability and commitment is rapidly established.
  • Highly self-motivated students benefit the most with this approach. It is not suitable for lowest common denominator teaching.
I got to thinking about this because of two recent experiences: one when I was asked to teach a group of secondary school dance students (more in a later entry); and the other with Conjunto Laloma.

We'd been working on a tremendous lot of stuff over the past week, and I realised that I hadn't done the best possible job of organising the material nor emphasising enough where the weight should lie. One cogitation session in the shower later (I do all my best thinking there) et voila! I had a firm design for the workshop. It looked like this:

Part 1 - Changing the feel between son and son montuno by altering the proportion of instruments playing the arpeggiated cinquillo-based rhythm vs guajeo rhythm.
Part 2 - Tresillo rhythm and its variations, counterweighting, and handover points. Developing a stronger handle on this fundamental motif.
Part 3 - Introducing a regular reference pattern.
Part 4 - Riffs, stabs and moñas.
Part 5- A sneak peek at the whole thing. Assembling the full rhythmic context with a regular reference rhythm, a syncopated rhythm, sobremontuno, and moñas.

I knew it was going to be a tough ask for a 2-hour-something session, but I desperately wanted to establish as much of the full context as possible. Implicit within Nicholas Rescher's statement is the requirement to act (or actively decide on inaction) upon the knowledge gathered. Conjunto's been pulling 2 workshops a week, and it was soon going to be time to employ the 'whole-part-whole' learning principle; so we could have the context of complete songs combined with specific exercises.

Knowledge means little if unaccompanied by the will to effect change.

Despite the leisurely discussions in between exercises, accompanied by tea and chocolate cake, we managed to make it through all five planned parts - albeit the last felt only the slightest of touches. It's enough to be satisfied with, and more than enough as a starting point for next week.

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

29th November 2008 Rob Yoxon's Salsa Party

On the surface it might seem strange that I would choose to blog about, of all things, a house party.

But for me, salsa is not just about the glamour of the shows, the all-nighters in the paid dance halls, the workshops, the routines of Strictly Come Dancing, nor the jet-set 'superstars' appearing at international congresses. That might be very much what it is today, but it was the humble house party that kept Salsa's heart beating during its youth, and through the doldrum years when the record labels tried unsuccessfully to tell us that salsa flojo was the way of the future.

Nuyoricans used it then to raise rent money, helping part-time musicians cobble together a living at the same time. Rumbas, parrandas, bachatas still erupt in houses and backyards in the cities of present-day Latin America. And some have chosen to migrate here to the steely-grey winter of Sheffield.

Rob's been a stalwart of our salsa scene for many years and has been putting on a salsa house party every month or two since establishing himself in his current place. In the many years that I've known him, I hardly recognised in him the urge to instruct or to demonstrate; he never seemed to be distracted from what he loves most - and that is dancing with other people.

Now salsa as a social activity has the potential to become politicised, people jockeying for position on the hierarchy, instructors vying for students. Rob's parties are like a watering hole in the Serengeti where everything's put to one side and everyone simply has a drink and a dance. Nearly a year ago (at another of Rob's salsafests), I said to one of Sheffield's leading salsa teachers that I thought what Rob managed to do was "quite remarkable". The response I got was, "I wouldn't go that far."

I don't think the instructor quite got it.

I asked Rob the other day, how he went around inviting people. He has a large house, and he knows a lot of people - I was thinking that there would necessarily be some sort of selection process to make this work, otherwise he'd be swamped. Rob simply replied that he just invites all his friends, and about half of them turn up... no worries so far. That just sums him up to a tee.

A person who loves salsa so much that he puts on a semi-regular event through his own time, effort and expense; where people are willing to suspend their differences to gather, drink and dance; where the music is generally agreed to be more varied (like kizomba, merengue, bachata) and better than most salsa clubs running; a party that is unintentionally true to salsa's early past.

Rob Yoxon gets it more than most.

Loo Yeo

Monday, December 01, 2008

Bomb-proof Laloma

The past two weeks to have been more musically fulfilling to me than I could possibly have wished for. I think that's a testament to our philosophy of 'friends in a workshop' approach.

When we set out a fortnight ago, I felt that one of the primary milestones was being able to play in a way that distinguished between son and son montuno. Yesterday we took a very big step forward with El carretero as a context thanks to Jeremy playing either the guajeo or cinquillo-arpeggiated pattern on tres, myself interpreting the latter on guitar, and Jan playing tresillo on violin (Catie's been away surveying the environment 'down South'). And the real mark of progress was how we could begin to flavour the music for white or black consumption, simply with some minor variations like muted notes and changes in phrasing.

The realisation of years of accumulated theory in a moment of practice is an experience I still today, 24 hours later, feel very grateful for.

The immediate plan is for us to continue along the same vein. We'll be working on the same rhythms but additionally start exploring variations and what they mean for the listener; start developing interaction using rhythm hand-over exercises; and explore changing the rhythm balance in ensemble. I intend to build for us a bomb-proof rhythm foundation that the great Cuban ensembles have.

True to my predictions, although much sooner than I expected, I'm under pressure to improve my guitar work just to stay ahead of the others - which is exactly what I was needing. And they guys asked me, "why Laloma?" It's a play on words from the very famous son called 'son de la loma', where the lead singer asks where the best son singers are from; and the response is that they're from la loma [literally 'hillock', but specifically a region in Cuba]. I think we're committed to playing that number.

Loo Yeo

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

22nd November 2008 La Tierra Flamenco@Steel City Salsa, Millenium Hall, Ecclesall Road, Sheffield

It transpires that since I've been away in Asia, things have changed a teensy bit at Bill Newby's socials. The music policy, once dominated by Africando with a reggae slot at midnight, has had a makeover more dramatic than in Changing Rooms. Revitalised by an intent to diversify and update the playlist, the night now has a fresher hue to its once-fading colours.

Granted the strategy is more risky; at one point there was a tango vals playing to an empty floor, but given the choice between staid predictable music or something more adventurous, I would always go for latter and forgive the occassional bombs. I personally hope that the social continues along this vein, and that people appreciate that there will be bumps along the way as the music policy evolves.

But what hasn't changed is Bill's desire to introduce Sheffield-folk to other dance genres.

I serious applaud him for doing so, and tonight's social was to be presaged by a flamenco class. At first I wasn't even certain if the social was on, since I hadn't gotten any announcements directly or otherwise; at the eleventh hour, it was thanks to social networking (i.e. Facebook) that the confirmation came along. There was a some umm-ing and aahh-ing as to whether I wanted to scramble for the class after watching 'Strictly Come Dancing' (a guilty pleasure). A "Flamenco Show" billed by Bill last year turned out to be a rather lacklustre Sevillanas demonstration, and I didn't feel like I wanted to risk being short-changed again.

I talked myself into growing a spine... and happily the gamble paid off.

'La Tierra Flamenco' comprise Flamenco dance teacher Naomi Hatch and guitarist Paul Evans. I knew good things were in the offing when I stepped into the hall and espied a dedicated PA setup, two mics, two seats and a well worn flamenco guitar. What can I say... Naomi knew her pedagogy, had a strong yet adaptable lesson plan, good class control, lively and engaging delivery; Paul's support of her was ideotypically strong, smooth, yet unobtrusive. My first experience of them in the lesson context, told me that they make a formidable team.

Flamenco is a lifetime's work, and no single lesson could feasibly turn a novice into an expert. However the smiling faces, the lively chatter, the periods of intense concentration, and the movements of us students at the end of the rumba (flamenco) routine spoke volumes about how deftly the lesson was delivered.

Over the course of tonight, Naomi and Paul gave two shows with a variety of interpretations. Her dancing and his playing have less of the harsh attack of the adrenaline-fuelled white-knuckle ride that I've commonly experienced with Flamenco. Instead there is a slightly rounded edge to their performance, a more subtle approach that I find just as engaging.

With deference to Bill, 'La Tierra Flamenco' gave the best lesson and delivered the best show that I've ever been been to at the social. He booked them blind, and they repaid his faith in full. They can be contacted by email on:

And I thank Bill for taking the risk.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Slow Music

All four of us from conjunto got together for the first time this afternoon, Catie, Jan, Jeremy and myself. Jan is the only non-current member of 4de12 and we've collectively been sharing the same stage as band-mates for the past five years. Let's just say we're comfortable in each other's company.

This time around with Conjunto Laloma, I wanted to take a Slow Food approach; making sure we took the time to build on and assimilate properly each concept in Cuban music-making. I figured that the best way to do this was with a relaxed workshop format: with heavy emphasis on practice, concentrating on a small number of points, principle variation-based learning; rich in example; time to be discursive; and most of all, highly contextual. People who benefit most from this model of learning are those who are patient and exacting, which fits the four of us down to a T.

The mark of good Cuban music is a deceptive simplicity brought about by a mastery of rhythm played at a temperate speed. Indeed during Arsenio Rodríguez's time, tempo was a defining characteristic of Cuban popular music: mid-tempo requiring more control and having more opportunity for expression was consumed by blacks; up-tempo was favoured by the then social elite who were predominantly white.

So I set out our first session with three opening entries into conjunto's rhythm library: an arpeggiated cinquillo-based form; a classic guajeo; and son clave. These are the building blocks that distinguish between a type of son and the son montuno; and being able to interpret a song in either form, or a middle point thereof, would be our earliest anticipated milestone.

For context, we've started with four songs:
  • Yo soy el sonero
    son original, 2-3 clave, A minor, 2 chord progression, rhythmic cycle of 2 clave phrases.
  • Chan chan
    son cover by Francisco Repilado, 3-2 clave, E minor, 4 chord progression, rhythmic cycle of 2 clave phrases.
  • El carretero
    son cover by Guillermo Portables, 3-2 clave, A minor, 2 chord progression, rhythmic cycle of 1 clave phrase.
  • Tributo al son
    son montuno original, 2-3 clave, A minor, 2 chord progression (+2 optional), rhythmic cycle of 1 clave phrase.
The difference in cycle times would allow us later to investigate rhythmic dilation, and experiencing both clave orientations would deepen our feel for its fuerte [strong] and debil [weak] properties. The underlying rhythm streams of all four songs varied in feel: from the strongly clave-indicative to the highly clave-diffuse. Having them in the same (or similar key) would allow us to explore the portability of motifs across songs more easily; helping us understand the commonalities in Cuban popular music.

My role on guitar was to provide the broadest possible stream of notes (as described by Marty Sheller) as well as lead vocals; the skeletal structure of conjunto. Jeremy on tres, Catie on flute, and Jan on violin explored their way through, getting a handle of the rhythms and how they interact with one another. We covered a lot of ground today.

Slow Music is like Slow Food: relaxing, comforting, made for sharing.

From personal experience, music is most appreciated when endowed with a sense of time and of place. The three of them left clutching my DVDs of Trio Matamoros and Septeto Nacional, and a CD of the former - a starter course in the genre that I've grown to love in all its guises be it singing, writing, playing, or dancing. And I would never have presumed to call it homework.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Beauty, Understanding and Grace

Cuatro de Diciembre had been having changes in line-up and I'd found myself necessarily giving more priority others at practice, in order to be best prepared for our performing commitments. As time drew on, I caught myself more frequently being musically complacent a large ensemble there are plenty of places to hide.

It wasn't a situation I wanted to be in, and so I set out for the polar extreme; I sought to develop myself as a self-accompanied singer - it's the most exposed position a musician can be in with nowhere to hide, and subsequently brings plenty of pressure for improvement. That was a year ago.

Then came the prospect of Conjunto Laloma (for which I'll use the abbreviated shorthand conjunto) and all that it offered. Playing in a small group shares many aspects with playing as a solo musician, plus there's the added pleasure of sharing and interacting. And I couldn't think of it being more enjoyable than doing so with good friends.

But I knew to my core that for conjunto to come alive, there had to be Grace living in its reason for being. It had to have musicians who'd so loved learning that they'd already sacrificed selfish pride on the altar of the open mind, who carried the mark of insatiable curiosity, who always delved their deepest in their playing music for others. It had to mean Beauty - for us to render each song at its best in the playing, arrangement and creation. It had to have the promise of Understanding, the ideal that each of us would have appreciated something new come the close of every session.

I undertook to be the torchbearer for the latter.

Conjunto needs to draw from the same well of knowledge that Cuban musicians have been drinking from since their birth. Its manner of execution must also be from the ground up: fundamental rhythms, sobremontunos, then moñas. And in a small acoustic setting, listening, interacting and co-ordinating arrangements promises to be something, well, more intimate.

"Simple music played elegantly" best describes the intent, following the examples of Sierra Maestra, Trío Matamoros, Eliades Ochoa, Septeto Nacional, Arsenio Rodríguez and Benny Moré. With conjunto being comprised completely of multi-instrumentalists, I forsee an opportunity to play vallenatos amongst other Caribbean folkloric genres, but the core music will be Cuban: son, changüi, güajira, pregón and son montuno.

But talk's cheap.

Earlier today, Jeremy (pianist for 4de12) and I had a get-together to get a feel of the potential for a line-up rhythmically based on guitars. I particularly wanted to know whether a nylon-string guitar and steel-string tres combo could sonically form an effective rhythmic backbone for the sort of music I had in mind to play. Jeremy was playing guajeos. I was articulating both the bass tumbao and either a guajeo or an arpeggiated cinquillo-based rhythm simultaneously.

The results were very, very encouraging - there was potential for power and grace in conjunto's music.

Jeremy left the house with pointers on the walking method of tres-playing; and with both of us looking forward to the first full gathering of conjunto in a few days time.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Suficiente Tiempo Para El Son

Since experiencing Sierra Maestra in Harrogate, a little touch of unsettlement has taken to niggling in the back of my mind. Even thinking back to that magical evening, now more than a year ago, fills me with wonderment at how they created breath-taking beauty with artful simplicity. It gave me goosebumps and moved me to think on how I could ever play music that way; and how an ensemble might be formed, outside of Cuba, that could begin to interpret the son and the son montuno in a similar vein.

Neither of them easy questions to answer.

I began the search, drawing from books, interviews with fellow musicians, DVDs, son dance workshops, direct observation... whatever resources I had to draw upon. With Sierra Maestra, probably our modern day's finest interpreters of the son cubano as my chosen ideotype, the challenge was not a trifling one.

One part of the journey involved understanding how smaller ensembles managed to create big sounds to rival that of larger bands. Reading about and listening to Arsenio Rodríguez proved crucial to understanding the evolution of son to son montuno, and his strategies for creating more powerful arrangments for black consumption. The same goes for Trio Matamoros, and specifically how their rhythm guitar performed the function of two instruments. A further source concerned the great Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández's arrangements for his Cuarteto Victoria.

Establishing a library of rhythms, and knowing how they were interpreted across instruments in mutual support of each other, in agreement and in contrast, was also part of the journey. Significant was understanding the purpose of these rhythms and their origins - these details were very hard-won. And becoming a proficient enough dancer of the son and the son montuno was pivotal in my comprehension of rhythmic drive, phrasing, and the possible location of propulsive accents; tying physical interpretation to the musical.

But the ace proved to be my previous experience with composing sones (which continue to be a part of Cuatro de Diciembre's repetoire), a bridge of inestimable valuable joining the theoretical to the practical.

Conditions were ripe for embarking on another project.

I'd always fancied the idea of playing Cuban music in a small acoustic ensemble or conjunto setting ever since 4 de Diciembre's infancy in 2002. I also fancied the idea of playing the tres or guitar, going as far as acquiring the instruments and educating myself to play them. But it was two things: the lessening of my commitment to 4de12, going from practices twice a week at my place to once a week elsewhere; and a slow-down in the recording project, with brass arrangements still needing to be fully sorted out and matured before they can be put on tape, that untied the Gordian knot.

I had the knowledgebase, the skillsets, and the time to make a start of it.

I had the interest of highly motivated, exceptionally talented musicians, who happened to be very dear friends.

I now had a plan. And a simple working title of Conjunto Laloma.

Loo Yen Yeo

Sunday, November 02, 2008

1st November 2008 4 de Diciembre with Maxsalsa @Darlington Arts Centre, Darlington (Part 2)

The East Hall of the Darlington Arts Centre in which MaxSalsa's monthly events are held is a light, wooden-floored, double-height space with a capacity for maybe 140+ dancers and seating on the periphery. It's a nice venue in which to accommodate a dance event, although for live music it's somewhat more tricky: not because of the lack of a stage - I actually enjoy performing on the same floor as the audience, and the hall is not deep enough to disadvantage viewers at the back; but due to the alcove-like end of the hall lined with plenty of uncurtained windows. This is the only place where bands can be set up, which is unfortunately an ill-behaved resonance chamber.

Band in a boom-box: Waiting as Blast dials out the nasties

Talking to Ian, he told me that his previous bookings had found it a challenge to get good control over their sound. I was unperturbed. Those bands didn't have the rather magical BlastPA by their side. Setup and soundcheck passed unremarkably, with Chris and Richard making mincemeat of the wicked Troglodyte of Resonance with their trusty Yamaha LS9 desk. Chris and Sue of were Ian's partners-in-crime that night. All three of them enthused that the sound was the best that they'd ever had at the Hall; welcome praise indeed, considering that the former had also booked 4 de Diciembre to play at their big Christmas party in Middlesborough without ever having heard a demo from us.

Tengan fé.

Willie and I unabashedly leapt into the fray when Chris and Sue called everyone to order for the beginners lesson. It comprised some basic steps, cross-body-lead, and he-turns-she-turns-he-turns combination. Partners were changed often, and it was very easy to give people the impression that I didn't know what I was doing - each and every one of my blushing dancers assumed I was such, and I was inclined not to disappoint. Willie helpfully whispered reminders of how unconvincing a beginner I was at every change, which spurred me on to greater efforts.

Then there was just time for a short breather before we were called to stage.

The attendance wasn't as strong as expected, and that always makes it a challenge; it's an experience that every non-manufactured band goes through. I always remind myself of the pop band "The Police" and how they got their big break in the States playing to an audience of only three people, one of whom turned out to be a local radio DJ. They had taken the time to sit down and talk to the members of the audience just before playing. In my own way, I try to do the same by taking part in the lessons beforehand. Anyhow, the moral of the story is, "play for the people who are there, not for the people who aren't."

Loo Yeo getting the show started
with red-hot salsa band 4 de Diciembre

So with me taking the opening number, I start us up as we mean to go on; playing exactly the same way as we would to a house bursting at the seams. I felt extremely proud of Ferret's lead vocals which were solid on his debut: no indication to anyone at all that he hadn't sang lead for us gig-in, gig-out. Willie was dazzling on the violin all the way through, on solos and on rhythm. This gig was also a watershed moment for me: it was the first time I'd performed without having my lyric sheets nearby. Before, even if I never looked at them, they were always a safety net lurking somewhere in line of sight. This time, without their implicit presence, I found my performance having a stronger connection to the audience. I missed them only once; when I repeated a verse in 'Recordando Africa', but now having left sheltered waters and realised the benefit of the risk, there's no turning back! It all boils down to confidence.

There were enthusiastic responses for every song we played, salsa and son alike, where the floor wasn't short for dancers. The setlists I'd designed worked flawlessly, but the best bit was the comments afterwards. Both Chris and Sue felt that Cuatro de Diciembre were the best band they've seen - high praise indeed, as they have brought a number of leading names to the North-East. At a personal level, it was very rewarding to meet up again with Donna and Colin Piper, salsa instructors whom I'd last met in January at the 12th Night Salsa Extravaganza. They'd made the trip across especially to see us perform, and I felt immensely flattered. You won't meet two people more warm and genuine than this couple.

Challenges are there to be overcome, and at the end of it all: MaxSalsa got a terrific performance and the best live sound it ever had, with 4de12 setting down a marker as a tough act to follow; Chris and Sue know exactly what they've got booked for their Christmas party; and the salseros of Darlington got a good dose of music CuatroDeDiciembre-style.

4 de Diciembre in relaxed mode
closing out the evening

And I got to catch up with good friends and meet new ones, including a winsome lady whose idea of a good dance is to finish it with hair looking like it's come out of a washing machine. The same one who insists that dancers of the North-East like their music very, very fast.

If she's right, we might need to work up more of a lather at practices for X'mas.


Prologue: 1st November 2008 4 de Diciembre with Maxsalsa @Darlington Arts Centre, Darlington (Part 1)

The Road To Darlington...

Britain was wearing her most lustrous of autumns and the bright sunshine set off a kaleidoscope colours on the Saturday we made our way to Darlington.

Arrival: 4 de Diciembre touch down
at the Darlington Arts Centre

The calm and relaxed air in the minibus was quite a contrast to what I had been personally feeling not three days before.

Before summer, and based on word-of-mouth from Cuatro de Diciembre's blinding performance at the Engine Shed in April, Ian Steer, the larger-than-life promoter of MaxSalsa, booked us to deliver the goods in his November live band slot at the Darlington Arts Centre. We were only too happy to oblige, and Catie took up the baton and ran with it - unselfishly acting as first point of contact, and all the pressure that that entails.

This was going to be the first of our several gigs after the summer break and with my music director's hat on, I anticipated the return to form as being a bit of a bumpy ride. With only four weeks to polish the rust spots off when everyone officially came back together, I knew I was going to have my hands full: two Decemberists were away for half of that period; we had new songs to deliver in two expanded set lists; the very talented Willie Lok was featuring as a guest violinist; and the Ferret making his debut as a lead vocalist.

Scheduling the content for the practices was proving to be a bit of a challenge. A Royal Marines assault course was starting to look inviting.

But the greatest source of pressure came from my impression, rightly or wrongly, that we were resting on our laurels. The euphoria generated by our mini-tour of the North (of England) where we were very well received, a slew of glowing commendations, and being so comfortable on stage, made for what felt to me like a laissez-faire attitude. Understandable though that might have been, it didn't make sense to wait until a poor performance before learning from it. Each gig should be attacked the the same commitment, the same energy as a debut. That's easy to pay lip service to, but much harder to make true.

Even poor Catie was feeling the pressure.

Almost everyone pulled together and made it through both practices in the last week. At the end of the second session, I finally could say to myself, "We're ready".

A lush Darlington autumn
enjoyed with salsa band 4 de Diciembre

With relief and lightened mood, I drowsed in the back of the mile-eating minibus that Saturday afternoon listening to César Pedroso's latest album. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the journey lasted just two hours (and not the three that I had anticipated), as we rocked up to the main entrance of the Arts Centre in a gorgeous leafy suburban setting.

[Part 2: Live at MaxSalsa]

Loo Yeo

A Side Note
I can just imagine what you must be thinking: that booking '4 de Diciembre' sounds like a bit of a gamble; and that maybe I should be censoring this glimpse into 4de12's musical life. Not on yer life! When I started this blog, I made a promise to be open. But I would ask you to temper your judgement, knowing that my perspective is that of a perfectionist and that I don't like leaving anything, and I mean 'anything', to chance.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Good Intentions Never Go Unpunished


I've been running the site for a number of years, and keeping it has not been easy. It's evolved over time to become a resource for people who wanted to learn more about latin music and dance; the intent was for it to be an adjunct to the many commercially driven sites. And in that, it has garnered tremendous succeess.

This morning, I logged in to find that PowWeb (who currently host the site) have suspended the site. No warnings beforehand, zilch. The first thing that I checked was the billing section - and it's paid up no problem. Turns out, it's been listed under "bandwidth abuse". Not alleged bandwidth abuse, but the rather accusatory "bandwidth abuse".

When I come onto the package a few years ago, there was a 5GB per day limit over which I would pay an excess. Nothing said about denial of service.

I can only assume that they disabled the service to protect me from a third party bandwidth thief. Then surely "bandwidth abuse" could have been replaced with a more customer-friendly subject header?

The website does generate a few headaches because it doesn't fit the 'standard' model: it has a large-ish volume of media files which can be downloaded for free (alarm bells), and as such it takes up more than the usual amount of bandwidth (more alarm bells). I'm constantly having to reassure some techie or paper-pusher or bean-counter that I own the copyright to the materials, and that the bandwith being consumed is within the original agreement. I think one day, some bright spark will say it's now unlimited use with a fair use policy (despite my not signing up for a modern package), and that the current bandwidth is no longer within their definition of 'fair use'. Perhaps today is that day.

This is the first time PowWeb has tried to shut it off, so I'll give more than what PowWeb gave to me, and that's "benefit of the doubt".

Perhaps this is the last piece of punishment this Good Intention can take.

We'll see.

Loo Yeo

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

From Drum Heads to Vocal Chords

Shell resonances. That's what this little bit is about.

I've been covering a lot of ground over the past few months in terms of drumming, learning more in this intense spell than the last couple of years combined. But like languages, it's reached that stage where I've got to pause for a moment and concentrate on context work; and that means playing congas for the band. With Wib, our regular conguero having only turned up sporadically over the summer, I forsee plenty of opportunity to play second fiddle.

So while active drumming learning is taking a pause, I've decided to shift from drum-shell resonances to sinus resonances - you guessed it, I'm back developing my singing again.

When I first embarked on developing my vocals for salsa, with its typically bright and occassionally nasal sound (the latter which I avoid), one of my primary practice resources was Jeffrey Allen's excellent "Secrets of Singing". The course comes with exercises for Low and High voices, and I found the low-voice endurance exercises especially good for developing warmth, body and vibrato. Once I reached a level of competence I was satisfied with, I set it all to one side with the intention of getting back to it again one day.

Well that one day dawned last Friday and this time I was going for broke: I was going for the high-voice exercises. I had tried this before, out of optimistic curiosity, just as I'd started singing for 4 de Diciembre - and to say that I didn't achieve stellar results that time is like saying that Napoleon didn't fare too well at Waterloo. So I felt well smacked with the kipper of trepidation when I pressed the 'play' button.

I was surprised to learn how much I'd developed; that all the notes are now within my range without falsetto. True, the top two are simply functional for now, but it's a positive start. Functional means that beauty is possible. Falsetto doesn't even mean that. And as each day goes on, I'm understanding better and better how to configure the resonances to get the sound I want.

The timing of this change i.e. the transition from drums to vocals, could not be more right. Lead vocals on "Tiempo para el amor" are due to be re-recorded very soon.

Loo Yeo

Friday, August 08, 2008

"Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music In New York" by Max Salazar

This book had been on my 'to acquire and study' list for a very long time. Many of the books I'd read had cited Max Salazar's work, and I was conscious of its significance. This was supported by a number of glowing reviews, but in contradiction, I found it curious when trying actually getting a hold of a copy that it was no longer in print.

Personally I had just come off the back of Ned Sublette's "The World That Made New Orleans", and was expecting a work of similar stature. Anybody who has had the pleasure of encountering Mr.Sublette's work could justifably accuse me of having unrealistic expectations.

It turns out that 'Mambo Kingdom' is a collection of articles written by Max Salazar that were previously published primarily in 'Latin Beat' magazine, with the remainder in others like 'Impacto'. This wasn't alluded to in any of the reviews that I came across.

Most of the articles are biographical and based on taped interview material between the author and the relevant artist, the latter of whom are stellar: ranging from Miguelito Valdés and Vicentico Valdés to José Curbelo (a glaring omission is Celia Cruz despite her presence during the time-span). Significant phenomena in the mambo world such as The Palladium, Charanga, and Salsa Origins are treated from the participant-observer perspective.

Max Salazar writes authoritatively and allows the reader to live the mambo times through is eyes in New York City. As temporally-spaced single articles, they might be appreciated by fellow residents of the era as entertaining commentaries. But juxtaposed as they sequentially in the pages of the book, the material comes across as being repetitive and contradictory - some as rehashed from others. It is easy to accept that two luminaries might have distinct interpretations of a key event; to a critical thinker it's even valuable to have those contradictions. However, what is unforgivable is the lack of authentication of facts that are easily verifiable.

For example, in the Tito Rodríguez article, the report of Tito's final day is dated as February 28, 1972 not 1973. That might seem like a small typographical error that succeeded in slipping past Mr.Salazar, and his then magazine editor, but it also slipped past the book publisher too... two pages later, the cremation of Tito's remains regains the correct timeline. In a separate instance, the founding of Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) the performing rights organisation is incorrectly reported as formed in 1940 (actually 1939).

The lack of rigour in proofing and in verification, even with the simplest of facts, put me in the frame of mind of "if he got these minor things wrong, how can I trust him on the important issues - like the faithful transcription and interpretation of his interview material?"

'Mambo Kingdom' has more than its fair share of errors, plus snippets of information that have eluded verification so far. These have cast a long shadow of doubt over the factual integrity of his writing. It is a flawed work, and vitally interesting though it may be, must be treated simply as entertainingly anecdotal and thus relegated to the status to that of a secondary resource.

With such a topic of immense richness and historical significance, 'Mambo Kingdom' is simultaneously essential reading and a bitterly disappointing pill to swallow.

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

School's Out

Okay, I know that I haven't blogged in nearly two months... actually I have an Oscar D'León review in draft form that, when I get it into a state where I can hit the "publish post" button, will precede this one. It might appear that I'm playing with time.

The reason for my absence? Copious quantitites of salsa-related activity of course.

Foremost is Facebook. I've been developing 4 de Diciembre's profile page as well as the salsa band's fan page. It's still very much a work in progress - I think it always will be, but the effort is informing the layout of Cuatro de Diciembre's pages on my personal website, hence the lack of activity on that front for now. Gaining a large number of friends has helped my understanding of numerous properties of the social networking phenomenon which I would not have known had I been using my own smaller profile page. Nothing's ever a chore when I'm learning.

Added to this is my resurgent effort at becoming a timba conguero. Sometime in between last month's post and this one, I came at last to believe that playing congas in the songo manner was personally attainable. Prior to this, I wasn't sure that I had it in me to play with the fluidity and musicality that the best Cuban congueros do, their having been steeped in their own special rhythms from the womb. That Eureka moment has had me playing more intensively now than at any other time previously in my development. It has meant that I had to design my own tools for the self-teaching process, including compiling two timba practice CDs - no small feat in themselves as it required me to rate my entire CD backlog (two and a half years' worth) and sort and collate the information, beforehand.

I'm also a significant way into Katherine Hagedorn's spectacular book "Divine Utterances" on AfroCuban religion which I will no doubt review later. Throw in a couple of DVDs: Los Van Van's "Aquí Que Baila El Gana" concert in Cuba, and the Docu-movie "Cuba Feliz" and you've got a pretty good snapshot of I've been up to.

Oh, yes. We managed to complete recording Mike on trombone, and I've been contracted to run a 10-week dance training course from late September. All that has necessitated a lot of planning and scheduling, some of which is still being finalised.

In the meanwhile, band practices have been scaled back to once a week over the summer. This will change come October as we have a couple of gigs lined up soon after, when everyone's back 'at school'.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Blogging Helps

Visitors to this blog will have noticed, apart from a change to layout, the recent addition of the "labels" navigation feature.

I do apologise for the occassional randomness of the label categories - the ideas concerning Latin Culture actively defy my attempts to put them into neat cubbyholes. Indeed, they seem to squirm with indignation. Perhaps more than a useful aid to navigation, it provides you the reader with a disturbing insight into how I think.

The same condition is beginning to manifest itself in the Salsa Quotes section of the website, which I originally wanted to keep random; thinking that the constant flitting-about of subject matter would keep me from falling into a set pattern of thinking. It does work, but it makes finding quotes along the same thread difficult to find. And I shudder to think what the casual websufer would experience.

I'm at the cusp of deciding whether to put some broad categories in place; now's the time before it gets too big and this would be a sort of Labels v2.0. I'm sure a lot heretofore unrealised connections will be made, given the extent and content of the page. Maybe I could introduce the labels a little at a time... and still keep the quotes within each category random: short range disorder, long range order.

Just talked myself into going it. Thanks blog.


Monday, June 02, 2008

30th May 2008 Steel City Salsa Social@Millenium Hall, Ecclesall Road, Sheffield

Millenium Hall is a terrific venue located close to the Hunter's Bar end of Sheffield's trendy Ecclesall Road. It's commonly confused with the Polish Club which also features an events hall, to which it adjoins. With a capacity of easily more than a hundred dancers plus peripheral seating, it has a lovely wooden (albeit unsprung) floor, a bar, a low small stage, a high ceiling and decent ventilation. The latter points lend it particular strength as a dance venue, which Bill Newby of Steel City Salsa / Sheffield Tango Argentino has been doing for several years. And once every couple of months or so, he puts on a social which is well supported. His formula is also to introduce something different, like a sevillanas display, and/or guest teachers.

This time, a Kizomba lesson plus demo by Sheffield Angolan resident Antonio and guest DJ Helena of Fuego Latino shared the billing. I'd heard about kizomba, seen it on YouTube, but had never encountered it in the flesh, so last Friday seemed as good a time as any to do so.

It was a bit of a mad dash to get in from work and get there in time for the eight o'clock lesson, and I realised that despite remonstrations on the leaflet to be prompt it was to no avail. I spent the time catching up with some friends. Antonio is a slight, personable character in the local scene and this was his maiden outing as a teacher, having finally succumbed to pester power by friends. With teaching support provided by Bill and two very capable demonstrators, Antonio made it through the session. Considering it was his first time, and his lack of instructor training, I would say without a hint of condescension that he acquitted himself well. The content comprised a line-dance routine as a warm-up which he was to use again later in the night, and a couple of simple pieces of vocabulary.

Wearing my dance instructor's hat, it was most useful for me to observe his quality of movement and which parts of his body held which bits of time. It was also very interesting as a dance system, changes being led by the lead's left leg and a concommitant rhythmic cue by the body in very close hold, and different rhythms for even the basic bits of movement vocabulary. The proof of the pudding is that at the end of the session, I found myself wanting to know more about the dance - the ultimate objective of any introductory lesson.

And then the social dancing started.

I always enjoy Bill's parties. His music policy always has a fit of reggae plus RnB at past-midnight, followed by more salsa, then a smattering of tango at the end. Africando is a constant companion. Impatient salseros tend to leave when the reggae comes on, but if you take the time to enjoy the sounds of Bob Marley, you'll find yourself back in Cuban rhythms before you know it. The formula works well for the night but I suspect that if it were any more frequent, it would assume the guise of the routine.

But I find myself going there as often as I can, not because of the music, but because the atmosphere is welcoming, and the people are friendly... a good number of whom have become friends. Sadly, Sheffield seems to suffer a dearth of mid-sized salsa dance events like that of SalsaWorks in Wetherby, and Dance-Cubana's party in Nottingham. But whenever this is on, it's not unusual to see dancers from the nearby cities turn up.

Bill's social truly lives up to its name.

Loo Yen

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver To Congo Square" by Ned Sublette

While midway through Ned Sublette's first book "Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo", I was so gripped by it that I found myself already eagerly anticipating the second volume. When the announcement came that he had delayed it in favour of a book on New Orleans, I cried "Why?" in disappointment. To me it seemed a strange detour to take. I had enjoyed his work immensely and in my selfishness wanted the story of Cuba to continue.

To all of you who have read the first book, I'm sure you would want to follow it up with this volume. Please don't make the mistake I almost did by discounting it just because New Orleans is more commonly associated with Jazz and Blues than it is Mambo and Rumba.

I feel that the general reviews of "The World That Made New Orleans", albeit excellent, have missed a trick here. This book is, as the dust cover puts it, "a logical continuation of Ned Sublette's previous volume, Cuba and Its Music"; and as such is entirely relevant to the Cuban story. After having read it, I now understand some of the "Why".

Ned Sublette alluded to the invisible water highways of the Caribbean linking all the major trading centres: the port cities, lining the entire basin and of the islands. New Orleans has consistently been a major trading partner of Havana, and later a base for privateers preying upon Spanish shipping. It was a similar hub for sugar and slaves of the "white gold" territories, and destination of exile for the French colonial elite via Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba. They would have been non-identical twins.

Mr. Sublette describes this story as joining the dots between La Española, Cuba, and Louisiana; between the French and Haitian Revolutions. I think he's being modest, his narrative is simply more multi-dimensional than that. Consider instead the threads of history - strands passing through Santo Domingo, Saint Domingue, Havana, Santiago, New Orleans, Cartagena, Paris, Madrid, Seville, Charleston... all skilfully woven into a compellingly vibrant tapestry with clear motifs.

His gift to all of us who would learn of Cuba is to discard the blinkers we didn't realise we were wearing.

I would not have thought it possible for him to write more authoritatively than in Cuba and Its Music. I've been proved wrong (and I've never been happier for the making of these errors). Ned Sublette is an unsurpassed talent. And should he persist along this skein, I will delightedly continue to think upon whatever he has to say.

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Arsenio Rodriguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music" by David F. García

Seldom does a single person make such a contribution to the development of Afro-Cuban music that his or her biography alone would form a significant chapter in the genre's history.

Arsenio Rodriguez is such a man.
And David García is such a storyteller.

I've read a number of these books, each seemingly drawn from a musicologist's thesis; and whilst thoroughly researched, logically structured, bearing robust arguments and defensible conclusions, I found a good deal of them a little dry. Not this one.

Yes, it is true that having some knowledge of music and being able to read it does help quite a bit. But I think the author has succeeded in being able to render what he has to say accessible to the layperson. The contents are laid out in chronological order, allowing the reader to appreciate the formative events in Arsenio's life and thus insight as to what moved him. A posthumous reflection on this remarkable musician's life followed.

For a man whose creativity gave us arguably, the mambo before its internationalised guise; definitively, the second coming of the son in the form of the son montuno; and the entire rhythm section of what forms salsa today: introducing the tumbadoras, developing the guajeo/montuno rhythm, and solidifying the role of the bass, Arsenio's name is little recognised outside the circles of aficionados. Whatismore, his life is shrouded in myth and hearsay - as all Great Legends' are. David García's erudite work does much to explain Arsenio Rodriguez, the man and his music: dispelling much, explaining much, and revealing an even greater man over the course. Arsenio still remains arguably the most significant songwriter of all time.

If that's not enough, then let me put it another way: if you want to know what mambo might have meant before the Palladium, and the difference between a son and a son montuno, pick up the book.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

18th May 2008 Teaching Salsa @Wolfson College, Oxford.

Ten years ago a very intelligent trainee salsa teacher asked me a simple question, "where is beat one?" His name was Nicholas Marquez-Grant, I call him Nic, and I'm pretty sure that he wasn't aware of the sequence of events that he would set in motion.

I recall sitting with him on some stools in the University of Sheffield Union of Students' Raynor Lounge, listening to salsa music issuing from a CD player, indicating where the start of the dance cycle was, whilst the rest of the trainees were practising their bolero walks. It was a frustrating experience for him and me both, and I realised that I was trying to help him acquire timing, not teaching him. It exposed, in the most unkind of fashions, my lack of knowledge.

In the summer of that year, I bought my first set of congas and I began to teach myself to play. One year later, after I'd acquired a set of bongó and a range of hand percussion and learned to play them as well, I began the first of a series of AfroCuban percussion workshops. Three months following that, the band which would eventually become known as 4 de Diciembre was formed.

And in all this time, Nic had been moving on after finishing his degree in Sheffield, but we did keep in sporadic touch. He eventually ended up in Oxford, where amongst other things, he began salsa classes at Wolfson College in 2005. Nic always had it in his mind for me to visit Oxford; to see the sights, be a house-guest and perhaps a salsa-teacher-guest. And it wasn't until last weekend that our schedules coincided enough for that to happen.

Nick, Nico, Federica and Loo
(enough about 'roses and thorns')

©Copyright 2006 Federica Ferlanti. All Rights Reserved.

My Sunday class at Wolfson's Haldane Room was booked from seven through ten in the evening, and we'd already been in much discussion beforehand about what Nic thought would be useful for his students to learn: ear-training, use of rhythm, and different types of movement. The content and the timeframe was ambitious - I've conducted similiar workshops before, albeit with much less content and more time for practice. But given that this was a one-off masterclass, we both agreed that this would be the best way to go.

The ear-training workshop has got a very different learning paradigm; students of salsa are accustomed to entering a class and working on physical skills, and many find a change to the abstract and non-physical quite disorienting. It is the greatest potential hurdle to the workshop's successful attendee buy-in.

The turnout was just right for the room size and comprised of salseros from Bea's Oxford University Dancesport Club salsa group as well as Nic's classes. In the first half of the workshop we covered: the standard set of rhythms, backbeat (tumbao moderno) and pulse (hand percussion); rhythmic agreement and complement; and ear-training. Then I encountered phenomena which I recognised from teaching the Salsa & Merengue Society's Teachers Training Group of yore, but for the first time outside of it...

Firstly, the dancers were capable of absorbing much more information before they began to saturate; secondly, they were able to focus and sustain a quality of practice; and thirdly, there was evidence of assimilation and extrapolation based on the questions they asked. So when the conventional end-point was reached, there was still enough in the tank for us to push on to understanding the meaning of "attack" (in the context of early, middle, and late beat) and its relevance to the regional music and dance styles. After a short break, we touched on biomechanics in movement and compared the general regional postures of Eastern and Western Cuba.

My main regret about doing workshops like these is the lack of follow-through. I would have loved to go on to clave, polyrhythmic expression, and to have provided enough supervised practice time. As it was, by the time we finished the only place we could find food was the-now-soon-to-be-legendary "Halal Munch", followed by a brief 30 minutes of dancing at Bar Risa.

I conducted an follow-up lesson two days later: an educator's perspective of salsa dancing in the acquired mode.

I don't travel much for leisure anymore, but I'm glad I did this time. Catching up with Nic, seeing Oxford through his eyes and meeting his friends were all great experiences. And working on salsa with such cognitively quick dancers also brought its own rewards. But most of all, I will remember last Sunday as the day I was finally able to answer an excellent question.

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Bachata: A Social History of Dominican Popular Music" by Deborah Pacini Hernandez

What Deborah Pacini Hernandez does extremely well is to tell the human story of Bachata. Not once, in the easy-flowing course of narrative, does she ever lose sight of the principle that the music and dance of bachata were made by and for the consumption of people; endeavouring, as best they could, to negotiate the unhappy circumstances of their existence during the Dominican Republic's economic crises.

This is not a dry tome minimally reworked from the academic thesis of a musicologist. It is laden with the juices of humanity: bitter, sweet, sour, piquant and oftentimes salty. From bachata's rural origins as simple guitar music, its migration to the shanties, its supression, its marginalisation, and its eventual unshackling, Hernandez tells one of the greatest stories never given proper voice in modern music.

For one seeking to understand what bachata is, you will not do better than this book. Be prepared though, you will get an object lesson in what it means to be human - disinterested depravation and the determination to be heard wrestle with each other across all the pages. It is a lens through which musics raised in the same foster home: rap, reggae, salsa, might be better understood.

The book stops short, just at the threshold of Bachata's revelation on the international stage. It is a shame but then it is neat, in that those who would part the curtain behind 'Aventura' to see bachata as it was before, can do it with just one well-written book. And in so doing, will come to be reminded that bad humans do bad things; and at the same time will still take heart... for good people do act to overcome injustice.

Loo Yen Yeo

Friday, May 09, 2008

8th May 2008 Buena Vista Social Club Presents... @Sheffield City Hall

It was a last minute decision on my part to get a ticket. Strange, I know. But the nature of my work with Verdant has left me, at various times, having to drop things at short notice in order to respond to urgent queries. That's left me commitment-adverse to things like these, having been stung innumerable times before.

Also, since Buena Vista has become a brand it hasn't really been completely transparent about who is touring with which performing company; and I resent that a little. Good Cuban music is good Cuban music, irrespective of how many times I've heard it, but I've taken umbrage with how the promotion of the brand has overtaken that of the artist performers. So my indifference stems: not from having 'heard Buena Vista before', because as a performer I fully appreciate that no two gigs are ever alike, and that each has something new to offer; but from a feeling that the promoters are, through their ignorance, distancing the artists from their audiences - a course of action that goes against the very ethos of the music they're trying to promote.

On the ticket were billed Cachaito Lopes (sic), Guajiro Mirabal, Aguaje Ramos & Manuel Galban. I was entranced by Mirabal's trumpet performance when I caught him last at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester several years ago, when he was launching his CD under the Buena Vista umbrella, so he was a definite draw. As was Cachaito, although tinged with a little sadness since the passing of Cachao, and of his partner-in-musical-crime Rubén Gonzalez - the latter whom I consider to be the best son pianist of all time. Manuel Galban, let's just say I wasn't a big fan of his collaborative album with Ry Cooder 'Mambo Sinuendo'.

With band practice cancelled since a number of 4 de Diciembre were going to be at City Hall, a seasonably clement May evening, and myself happily fed with Dim Sum from Mei's, I took my place: a seat in the Gods. The auditorium was nearly sold out and the air wore a polite hubbub.

Then they came on to stage, a thirteen-strong lineup of bongó, congas, timbales, piano, bass, trombone, two trumpets, sax/flute, hollowbody electric guitar, laúd, and two vocalists. Much to my delight there wre two other greats of the original Buena Vista lineup: Amandito Valdés on timbales and Babarito Torres on laúd, whom I've been very keen to see live.

There isn't much I could say that there hasn't been said already... and there are only so many superlatives in the world. I do like the continuation of the franchise through the inclusion of younger musicians with the venerables - every single one a consummate artist. I particularly liked the addition of a strong female vocal who gave a new dimension to their sound. In the end, I found that they played with the elegance of such understated ease, the warmth of which I likened to the feel of "an intimate performance in a friend's front room, to which we had all been invited".

A standing ovation brought them out for an encore, Cachaito the star having to be helped on and off-stage. His advancing years, I feel sadly, made more physically apparent by the passing of Rubén, whom they paid homage to. There was another standing ovation as the lights came on at the end, which Cachaito gracefully accepted.

Despite my misgivings about the some uncouth heathens who propel the Buena Vista brand forward, their work is valuable nonetheless in bringing such music to the reaches of our world. The talent of the older generation, and the even more precocious talent of the younger, should ensure that the trademark of riches from currently-communist Cuba remains in rude health.

Loo Yen Yeo

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

25th April 2008 SalsaWorks @The Engine Shed, Wetherby

This concert was quite a while in the planning. True, Tony and I had agreed this in principle well before the beginning of this year, but getting the nitty-gritties sorted out took a little bit longer than expected.

4 de Diciembre giving it the beans at the Engine Shed

The first thing was Easter. Originally, our gig was planned for the end of March but Alfredo and Christine (Sueño Latino), Tony and Mary's (SalsaYork) SalsaWorks collaborators at the Engine Shed weren't sure about the level of attendance over the holiday break. Perfectly understandable - putting on a band even at mate's rates is a BIG commitment. So we moved it by a month (incidentally our Preston gig filled the vacated slot instead, and the dancers' support there was very good indeed).

The second consideration was that of PA. The Engine Shed has a built-in PA system that is billed by the owner Dave as a surround system covering two floors. One proposal was that we us it and just bring in an engineer with a desk and monitors. Dan and I were a little sceptical - trying to mix Front-of-House (FoH) with a surround instead of 'point' source can be an absolute nightmare. Whereas Tony had contact numbers of some engineers who would be willing enough to work with it, I thought it warranted a closer look. A couple of abortive attempts later, we made a scouting trip to The Engine Shed on a Friday night.

Salsa at the Engine Shed, Wetherby
Taken early on in the evening; it's just warming up.

I'm glad we did. The 'surround' system consisted of four speakers suspended from a rig - one over each corner of the dance floor firing inward. The bass bins were mounted against the wall in the pitched roof! And connections from the desk into the wall were based on unbalanced TRS 1/4" jacks. Whilst possibly suitable for DJ decks and recorded music, it would take an engineer braver than we knew to take on a live gig with an 11-strong ensemble like 4 de Diciembre. There were a number of us from the band there that night, and we took the chance to dance and chat with the attendees to get a feel of the atmosphere.

Gig day was a Friday, and the band needed to get there in different batches since some of us had taken the day off work and others didn't. Everything was back to normal with hitches aplenty; it seemed as if they had taken a vacation for our Nottingham gig and were not back with a vengeance. The biggest "hiccup" I encountered co-ordinating our setup was with the venue owner Dave: I don't know what it was, whether he wasn't happy at having to open the place early for us to soundcheck (he wanted to kick us out before we'd done just so that he could go home and change), or perhaps he took our preference for using Blast PA as casting aspersions on his...

As a professional, it was a time for both Chris of Blast and me to grin and bear it.

On the PA side though, things were amazing. We were always going to be up against the gun because there were very little time between the whole band being constituted and the doors opening. Sound check was going to have to go like greased lightning. This is where the Yamaha LS9 Digital Desk came into its own. Chris had saved the individual instrument EQ settings from our Nottingham gig, which established a rough start-point once he'd finished dialling into the room's acoustics. The stage was very tight for eleven musicians plus instruments, stands and monitors; we weren't able to place the monitors in the best locations and Jan on violin was plagued by the feedback gremlin a couple of times during the night.

But the really staggering bit from a techie perspective was that Chris had gotten the desk control software installed on his laptop and linked to the desk itself via a wireless connection. This meant that during the course of our soundcheck, Chris was free to move about the venue to deliver an unparalleled coverage of sound. He could also move to the monitors beside each of us to give us exactly the foldback we individually required. No longer tied to the desk, I spied him about different parts of The Engine Shed during the night, tweaking our sound via the laptop. It's a brave new world.

Tennis Ace Martina Navratilova famously said, "What matters isn't how well you play when you're playing well. What matters is how well you play when you're playing badly." Such is our level of consistency that we reliably deliver a top-notch performance even under duress. And that's what matters. Hassle from the owner, lack of a dressing room to prepare in, cramped performing conditions, and poorliness failed to take their toll. At times like these, it is of paramount importance to focus on who you're playing for.

It's ironic how from stage, it didn't feel as if the playing came to us as easily as it did at "Dance Cubana", and therefore we inferred that we didn't play as well as we did then. This proved not to be the case at all. We have our own hard disk recorders which we use to immortalise digitally every concert we play. And upon listening back to them, I find both to have been of comparable standard, with each having similar proportions of better-played songs.

Human perception is a very funny thing.

4 de Diciembre offers me personally a unique opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. Having promoted a fair number of salsa events in my own time, I'd said time and time again that Latin music bands could more to lend value to their public than by simply delivering their songs.

When Alfredo, who was at my 12th Night Extravaganza workshop a few months ago, asked if we could provide the rhythm for the lesson warm-up beforehand, Jeremy and I were only too happy to oblige. It made the occassion seem a little bit more special, and got the dancers used to the feel of live music. And I joined the dance class once again, a bachata this time, to close the distance between dancer and musician. And Alfredo and Tony trusted me well enough to leave me to time the playing of our sets in order to build the best atmosphere.

4 de Diciembre sidestage: a foldback engineer's perspective

In the end, it turned out happily (even for Dave). Was is worth the tribulations? Yes. Christine, Mary, Alfredo and Tony were, as always, very gracious hosts. SalsaWorks saw its second-best attendance numbers in its history. The dance floor was always full, the atmosphere was vibrant, and smiles were to be seen all 'round.

The cheeky dances I snuck in before leaving were the icing on the cake.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Salsa Situation Report: 16th April 2008

I've just come off the back of a tutorial-writing frenzy, nine of them in ten weeks to be exact. It's been a gruelling schedule, but the self-inflicted ordeal was intended to clear the decks for more development.

Finish up the Deborah Pacini Hernandez's book on Bachata, then move on to Ned Sublette's 'The World that made New Orleans' and Max Salazar's 'Mambo Kingdom'.

Complete the page on nomenclature; the '4 de Diciembre' pages on technical specifications, album details and gallery. Update the great salsa timeline and extended salsa glosssary. Design the ear-training case study.

Research materials for an article on dance minimalism.

Naturalise transitions between time signatures on the congas. Increase vocabulary of AfroCuban genres and understanding of their underpinning rhythmic principles.

Solidify design of workshop material on salsa rhythms and timing. Sketch outline notes on a chachachá lesson, viewed as a resurgence of the son montuno.

That should be plenty for now.


Salsa Ear-Training Series Completed

It's done.

I was not sure this day would arrive... the day when I finished the Salsa Ear-Training series that I started three and a half years ago. But with uploading of the timbale rhythms tutorial, it's happened.

I was in a meeting with a colleague, Adrian, about the delivery of material on a new MBA programme a few days ago and we were talking about blogs, about how useful they were to the people who wrote them. More so perhaps than to those who read them (sorry, no offence intended). As I finished the file upload I took stock of just how much of a learning experience this has been. Similar to blogging, the writing of each lesson has brought its own rewards but the intensity of effort has been orders of magnitude higher: in design, planning, validation, and critical self-reflection.

And did it work out to plan?

Timbale shell strategy
©Copyright 2008 Loo Yen Yeo. All Rights Reserved.

I'd say so. The structure and progression must have been robust from the beginning, because no changes proved necessary over the fourty-plus months it took to complete. I would have liked to say that it worked out better than expected but I can't, because it was so highly specified in the first place (and you should be the judge of that) that exceeding the targets was never likely.

The design route of the learning section did assume unexpected changes of emphasis, to reflect the changes in the salsa scenes themselves - locally, nationally, internationally, and even transnationally. The original path, in my naïveté, was to have increasing levels based on dance vocabulary. However as more instructors came on the scene, plenty of vocabulary resources became available and there didn't seem much sense in reinventing the wheel. As a maturing instructor, I moved to skills-based learning - an adjustment which works better with the prevailing vocabulary-based environment. Salsa Level Two then became about helping people learn how to use rhythm, level three about using their bodies, and level four about bringing the body and rhythm together.

I don't think this process will ever end, the writing of lessons I mean. Nor would I want it to. But it's nice to have closure, albeit in a relativistic sense.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

12th April 2008 Dance Cubana@The Hillside Club, Nottingham

Out of all the gigs, this was one that I was personally most reluctant to do.

Thanks to Jane and Christophe's kindness, I'd been coming to Lloyd Dunkley's "Dance Cubana" salsa evening for a couple of years where I'd enjoyed the anonymity of being a simple salsa dancer, and his choice of music which I regard as being the best in the region. The latter is because he's a serious proponent of Cuban-style salsa and timba - subjects and musics very close to my heart.

And over that time, I'd come to be acquainted with a number of dancers whom I've become fond of; and the scene I danced in, which I enjoyed devoid of any prejudices that seem to come hand-in-hand with any heavy involvement in salsa. It all became moot when Lloyd asked for our availability to play on a double-bill with the superb son dancer and instructor Juan Carlos to commemorate Lloyd's birthday...

On the Saturday when we'd arrived at the Hillside Club, Blast PA had already set up most of their stuff. It just fell to us to bring on the instruments and soundcheck, which was a steady process unlike the mad hell-for-leather dash at Preston. This time Chris of Blast PA brought along the Yamaha LS9 digital mixer, a serious piece of equipment similar to the Mackie TT24 I'd been eyeing up for the recording project. It all went without a hitch, leaving time for a chat with Lloyd who was setting up his kit, and with Juan Carlos about Cuban dance genres before retiring to the dressing room.

A hint of concern did furrow my brow, "where's the hiccup that every gig should be plagued with?"

I changed and joined in with Juan Carlos' class, just a little something to relax and meet the dancers. Then Tony Piper of SalsaYork turned up and took over the DJ booth in the lead-up to our first set. I think he wanted to see what he was getting: we were going to be playing for him at the Engine Shed in a fortnight. The Hillside Club, by no measure a small place, was absolutely packed.

Opening with what is now our signature song "Nueva Generación", we powered our way through a 40 minute set with ease. Scanning the audience for levels of engagement, there were no signs of unease or distraction - the tempo was right and they were warming up very nicely indeed. 4de12 has a sound of its own, and like with all unique bands, it can take the listener a while to understand from which angle our music is coming from. (So much so, that opinions always indicate stronger groove in our second set; even when we swap setlist songs around.)

Still no hitches. It was starting to give my brain an itch.

Joining the dance floor during the interval, I spied Leslie and I broke my "no dancing in between the sets" rule. Leslie, I would describe as a great mover with an amusingly dry wit.

She asked me whether the band had been on already, to which I replied that the first set had finished and there was another yet to come. She seemed both disappointed and relieved.

Cuatro de Diciembre's "Nueva Generación" [New Generation]

She then asked me if the band were any good, to which I replied that I thought that they were, but that maybe she could make up her own mind and that we might compare notes later...

A couple of dances later and it was time for the second set.

Juan Carlos had already done the happy birthday song during the lesson, so it fell to us to organise the traditional birthday dance circle. I'd spoken to the band earlier about doing this, and we all agreed that the latter part of Bembé's montuno section would be the best place to do this. And if there was any place where the patron gremlin of gigs would fart, it would be right there. Practice must make perfect after all. It turned out flawlessly - the whole song: from start to breakdown section to resumption and coda. In a true Bruce-Forsythian moment, we presented Lloyd with a cuddly toy from stage much to the amusement of the dancers; it would've been rude not to.

Now, I can safely say that the gig at the Hillside is the exception that proves the rule. Not a single hitch, and it was an outstanding night. Maybe Leslie might even find it in her heart to forgive me. Eventually.