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.


Monday, April 14, 2008

29th March 2008 Double Salsa Feature Pa'Ti @Dancers-Preston

A most unexpected message struck me out from long-time salsa colleague Lubi Jovanovich in late January (Facebook is a kinda handy that way). As part of doing the rounds promoting his 2008 edition of Beginner's Guide To Salsa, Lubi was launching it on the 29th of March at an event organised by Dancers-Preston. Dancers-Preston comprise of Nick and Carol Atack with associated instructors who run regular ballroom, international Latin, and salsa lessons at the Preston Grasshoppers rugby ground and whom, according to Lubi, made it a habit of promoting live bands at their events - Casa Latina Allstars, Merengada, Charanga del Norte, Sexteto Cafe...

To quote Lubi, "he (Nick) has heard about you on the grapevine and the reports are all good." [Butter me up baby, and I'm all yours!] Not long after, the gig was set: a double bill featuring 4de12 and Lubi.

Being booked so far in advance, Dan and I were afforded the luxury of popping across the Pennines to scout out the venue a few weeks before - we had been getting conflicting information about venue size and wanted it resolved to reassure the PA guys. I took the chance to meet Carol and Nick in the flesh, have a chat, get a feel of the lessons and gauge the prospective audience. A sneaky little dance may have been involved. Dan was taking photos (of the venue).

4 de Diciembre all rocked up to Preston Grasshoppers on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, complete with soon-to-be-debutants Ferret on hand percussion and Thom on trumpet. I think Thom phrased it best when he said that he'd never been to a single gig where everything ran smoothly; this was in response to a situation we found ourselves in which I can only describe kindly as a "miscommunication" with the management of the venue itself. The whole band and our PA company, Blast PA, were left kicking our heels for a few hours in the dressing room, unable to set up on the empty stage next door, until 6pm. Doors were to open at 7:30pm.

Dan (left) and Whib (right) having a positively good time.
Photograph courtesy of Nigel Skinner, Copyright©2008. All rights reserved

Preferring to dwell on the positives instead, I can say that I learned a lot from the gig:
  • Blast PA did an exemplary job - setting up everything, soundchecking us, and delivering tremendous quality both in the monitoring and front of house. Most of us are veterans of the live music scene, and we were throughly impressed at the speed and quailty of Blast's performance, and their very accommodating attitude.
  • The interval between the two sets was too long - nearly an hour. Given our enforced spectatorship of male mud-wrestling in the afternoon, it made for the feel of a long-drawn-out day. No more than 30 minutes would be ideal.
  • Our stage layout was almost ideal - good feedback rejection, interaction between all members, and visibility from front of house. This would form the basis of our technical specification documents.
  • We would adopt a different approach to how we balanced our setlists with our encores, as audiences don't tend to call for the latter.
  • The changes we'd made to the way we played our music paid dividends in performance terms - more variety and texture across our sets.
  • Both Ferret and Thom are solid enhancements to the band's musicianship and entertaining ability.
  • The quailty of our monitoring had the greatest impact on how we played - everything was comfortable, and we felt able to express ourselves freely on stage.

The audience were promptly onto the floor from the very first number; quite unusual as things go (there's normally a period of milling uncertainty leading to a tentative foray of the brave); proof positive that Nick takes considerable effort in promoting live music. We did have a sneaky ace up our sleeve; Ferret's parents had come up from Bristol to witness his debut on our front-line, and were staying with relations (also in attendance) not five minutes down the road.

During "El Gallo": Loo and Nathan rubberneck at the might of
the brass solos. Red Ferret is unmoved.
Photograph courtesy of
Shanti T, Copyright©2008. All rights reserved

And irony of ironies, I spied a long-time friend in the audience with whom I'd lost contact with for more than ten years. Shortly after the first set, I bounded across to him to say 'hello' - he didn't recognise me at first... I guess that I was the last person he expected to see on stage. Richard Bettess knew me pre-salsa and has the dubious distinction of being responsible for introducing me to dancing in the first place: he dragged me kicking and screaming to my first ballroom class at uni. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cuatro de Diciembre double-featured with Superstar DJ
Lubi Jovanovich (left). Photograph courtesy of Shanti T (right).
Copyright©2008 Shanti T. All rights reserved

The response from the audience and the organisers spoke volumes about our performance. The floor was packed for every number, and Nick at the end of the night was happily saying that he was looking forward to having us back again. To mix my metaphors, the proof of the pudding will be in the test of time. And hiring salsa bands, no matter how good they are (and we are... good, that is), still pose a considerable capital risk to any promoter.

I would be lying if I said that there wasn't room for improvement, because that's the kind of ensemble we are. But I would still regard our first event with Dancers-Preston as an unqualified success. Maybe they and their clients would be the right persons to ask?

Loo Yeo