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