Two singers (Ferret, Nathan) and a timbalero (Dan) moved on at the beginning of the year; while at that same time our brass section, Mike and Thom, expressed a desire for greater involvement in the musical direction of the ensemble. I was very pleased to hear this, relishing a wider range of inputs; and it was the ideal time to do so, as 4de12 would have to re-arrange most of its numbers and repetoire to reflect the strengths to our changed line-up.
We started putting the brass in more central positions: cueing openings and breaks, carrying the main harmonic lines, and setting out more areas for improvisation. But a combination of factors cropped up that affected the ability of both horn players to attend regularly; by the early second quarter of the year, the pursuit had stagnated. Knowing that we couldn't be prepared in time, I had no alternative but to disappoint Tony by informing him that we would not be able to play for him at the Engine Shed.
4 de Diciembre had featured so well in the year before, that a high performance level had become associated with our name - I knew we could only take to the stage again if we could satisfy or exceed that standard; and as prodigiously talented as Catie is, the ensemble needed a strong and regular musician to complement her magical flute.
That person turned out to be Jan Rens.
Being a founding member of 4de12 through its previous incarnation, he agreed to return and play - his violin in partnership with the flute completed us as a charanga sextet. In truth, we'd all never stopped playing together: I'd set up the Conjunto Laloma acoustic quintet in November '08 with Ana (bass, vocals), Catie (flutes), Jan (violin), Jeremy (tres, vocals) and myself (guitar, lead vocals) as a vehicle for the exploration of AfroCuban music from the fundamentals upwards.
My promise to them was that I would develop 4 de Diciembre's music on the same principles that had worked so well with Laloma. It was an easy one to make, as I believe to my core that it is the best way to play; and an easy one to keep, because every musician in the ensemble now felt the same.
The rebirth of 4de12 began over the summer, built on a conceptual foundation laid down by Laloma where each song was played, analysed, disassembled, rearranged, and prepared for public performance. It was painstaking work. To raise the stakes further, I also selected several covers for case study and as potential candidates for our playlist.
When I returned from the Far East at the end of September, we had a mountain to climb and three months to do it in. Group practices grew to thrice weekly to account for absences due to commitments to other bands (and in my case, teaching). It was my responsibility to plan the schedule to be ready on time; work with Whib in articulating new percussion rhythms; determine breaks, ensemble arrangements and sectional changes; support Catie's genius and Jan's moments of inspiration; and maximise Ana's practice times, as she was personally bearing a mammoth teaching load.
Cuatro de Diciembre delivered two highly articulate sets as a heavy-hitting sexteto, punching well above its weight. The successful strategies were based on those of Arsenio Rodríguez, whose conjunto commonly took on the Big Bands in 1930s Cuba.
We played not four, but five new covers to counterpoint our vast original material: "Buscándote", "Muévete", "El Reloj de Pastora", "Talento de Televisión", and "Ya Lo Sé"; which were all enthusiastically received. Many musicians will acknowledge how much of a challenge some of these numbers are to interpret well.
Every song featured new arrangements, some to within an inch of their lives.
It's considered poor form for an artist actively to solicit the views of his or her audience after a performance, so I didn't. But what was volunteered from the lips of those who had seen us last year, was that 4de12:
- played engaging songs at comfortable dance pacings;
- had beautiful arrangements; and
- possessed as full a sound yet was all-the-more dynamic.
Happy that that mountain of effort all of us put in, made such a noticeable difference. I'm satisfied that the music direction we're taking, building from AfroCuban first principles, is the right one.
We're now back at the performance level of where we were a year ago.
Scratch that, we're better - as individual musicians, as ensemble players, with deeper roots. It is a special feeling to be sharing the stage as friends, ready to play at the drop of a hat. Few bands can cope with what many would regard as a seismic change in line-up, but it's a shining testament to the quality of 4 de Diciembre's musical core to come back and play better than before - in less than a single year.
Normally that would be enough, but through my teaching and this remarkable band, I got something more for Christmas... I got the chance to introduce good people to good people: Marco and Lina to Chris, Sue, Tony and Mary.
It's been a year to remember.