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: latierraflamenco@hotmail.co.uk

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 ...in 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 http://www.salsayarm.com 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.