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

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