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