Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Retrospection: 4 de Diciembre's Course Through 2009

The critical success of our final concert in 2009 was the culmination, and validation, of painstaking analysis and committed team effort in what has been one of the most turbulent years of 4 de Diciembre's history.

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.

The result?

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.
I'm happy, and I'm satisfied.

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.

Cuatro de Diciembre in its moment of truth

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.


Monday, December 21, 2009

19th December 2009 Cuatro de Diciembre with SalsaYarm@Tower Club Ballroom, Middlesborough

Our first anniversary return to Yarm coincided with one of the most highly disruptive snowstorms to grip the United Kingdom in many a year; and we'd kept our keenest ears pinned to the weatherman's lips in the run-up, wondering if our best preparations might be for nought. Ultimately, the band opted for an early start and was rewarded with a straight run to the tower ballroom, but by the time we alighted in the late twilight, flurries were chasing themselves over shoe-deep snow at the foot of the old church tower.

Things were looking a wee bit on the uphill side... especially more so after we'd set up onstage and the sound reinforcement crew were still nowhere to be found.

Whib, our congüero-bongocero.
30 seconds later, he was making snoooozy-sounds

Decemberists busied themselves reading, chewing, or snoozing (in Whib's case); and I reacquainted myself with the dancer's delight of a floor, stretching out with a solo effort of a slow foxtrot to the tune of 'oohs' and 'aahs' from one of the windows. Sadly they weren't for my trottings - Ana and Catie had discovered front row seats to an iconic English winter wonderland scene: that of an arterial motorway grinding to a rather spectacular halt.

Emerging from a fall-away slip-pivot, I turned to be greeted by Mary Piper's winning smile; Tony Piper and Chris Hields weren't far behind. As well as a firm friendship, we all shared, in that moment, a strong disapproval for the churlish behaviour of the weather gods. We unwrapped Christmas contingency plans and I briefed the band on the worst case scenario of having to perform semi-acoustically. I'd no sooner finished than the lads from JSS audio drew up, hefting a veritable mountain of P.A.

Muévelo: JSS Audio really shifting

Is that a silver lining I spy before me?

Soundcheck stretched past 'doors open' and the determined revellers who'd bravely made it in were treated to an extra rendition of two of our numbers. That was all it took: a couple of songs on top of individual mic checks, a total of fifteen speedy minutes. Peachy's the word! JSS were as competent and well equipped as BlastPA - the only thing that foxed the two young engineers was the Markbass amp which Ana was playing through.

Sue, Chris, Mary and Tony chose to delay the onset of the party salsa lesson to allow for latecomers; and when they finally did get underway, Chris cheerily warned me off sharking around in his lesson after the antics of last year. Tail between my legs, I skulked off to sulk... that is, until I caught sight of Marco and Lina's arrival (from Red Hat Salsa in Reading, see previous posts). That they made it at all was a touching act of dogged determination, despite being back just up the road for Christmas. SalsaYarm would not countenance my covering their entrance, and had generously them put on the guest list.

Just before we were due to play, Chris asked whether we would shorten our sets to accommodate the dance performance at the interval as things were running late. I happily acceded; we were there to provide a service after all. My fellow Decemberists were inclined to drop our more recent songs, reasoning that our more established numbers would allow us all to perform with more punch. I very much understood their point.

However, I felt that we shouldn't let the chance to blood our new songs slip by because:
  • it's only in the furnace of a live performance where one properly understands a song's substance and how it could be performed better;
  • all were unusual covers that many people on the floor could relate to; and
  • the playlist order was set out with very deliberate changes in texture, where the covers and originals combined in a way that complemented each other.
The guys decided to trust my judgement.

4 de Diciembre opened with the pacey original "El Gallo" [The Rooster], a crowd pleaser and band favourite - the third song Ana and I ever wrote. Being a sexteto, we all fitted neatly onto the small stage with me alternately being dazzled by a bright green spotlight or inadvertently 'Glasgow-kissing' the Christmas bell decorations on either side. The set flowed every bit as well as anticipated, from "En La Sangre", through "El Reloj de Pastora", "Bilongo", "Tempest", "Buscándote" and ending on a high with the Cuban classic "Pintate Los Labios, María".

Tony slapped a couple of stonking tracks on the decks before inviting the Encuentro Latino student troupe onto the floor in what would be their penultimate display before they disband. They broke On2 to the rat-a-tat percussion of Tito Puente's "Ran Kan Kan", much to the appreciation of the collected party-goers. Two songs after that and I had a face-full of green once again.

Shrek the halls with riffs of salsa

Ana opened up with Bembé's bassline groove, and it was as if we'd never left off. That's the best way to be. "El Hechizo del Montuno", "Hijos de Cam", "Talento de Televisión", and "Nueva Generación" powered by, and all too soon we were closing with "Ya Lo Sé" and "Muévete" - a most magical live pairing. All that remained was a belated introduction of Catie, Jan, Whib, Ana, and Jeremy to the audience, and heartfelt thanks to all who were there including Sue, Mary, Chris and Tony.

The responses to 4de12's performance were all overwhelmingly positive, unsolicited and corroborated: from friends Lina, Marco and a sundry others; the dancing audience including Richard, himself a leader of a Latin band, who fondly recalled last year's gig; and my promoter-friends who tell me like it is. By the time I'd tripped some fantastic light with the revellers and packed down, the anniversary was over and we bade our season's goodbyes.

Sitting on the front passenger seat and watching the dark snowscape pass us by, I thought on all that had transpired in the year since 4de12's debut at SalsaYarm.

(On to 'Retrospection: 4 de Diciembre's Course Through 2009'.)

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, December 07, 2009

4th December 2009 Mambo con Rumbo @Slug and Lettuce, York

Once a month, on its opening Friday, the great and the good of York's salsa community congregate in the farthest corner of Swinegate to indulge in an unseemly display of dance solidarity. Gyrating together in a travesty of good-two-shoes libertarian behaviour at the Slug and Lettuce watering hole (not to be confused with the identically named one next to the river, to which the unknowing are cunningly misdirected), 'On1ers' from Mary and Tony's SalsaYork and 'breaking On2ers' from Lossie and Gareth's Encuentro Latino do nothing at all to reinforce the convention of market segmentation gripping the commercial salsa world.

This author turned up to cast disapproval at such brazen proceedings...

Actually, I turned up because I'd been hearing from Tony about how this night was going great guns and to support the North's latest live music debutantes - Mambo con Rumbo (yes, it's rumbo, not rumba), featuring people whom I'd become increasingly acquainted with via Twelfth night and the Engine Shed, reinforced by a strengthening social network both corporeal and electronic. It was also the 4th of December, and such alignment of the planets could only be ignored at one's peril.

"It's all very much last-minute as usual" I thought, as I clutched my overnight bag on the train to York post-work. Dinner was an intimate affair with Mary, Tony and myself at a busy and cosy brasserie in the middle of the historic city a stone's throw from the Minster; an ideal way to update each other on our lifestyles' circumstances. Come nine o'clock, we forsook our tables for the Slug and Lettuce to unload the gear and set up. Steve Carter (timbalero, vocalist), Gareth Roberts (conguero), Phil Moores (bass, songwriter), and Adam Parnell (flautist, saxophonist, music director) were already on-site preparing for soundcheck; and after the jovialities, I removed myself from underfoot to evaluate the venue.

The Slug and Lettuce is a chain of modern pub-eateries whose physical premises are pleasantly less 'busy' in decor and arrangement than their web-image suggests. Their menu is somewhere in-between as regards coherence, but their bar offerings are accurately targeted. Staff morale was solid, and the supervising management was good-natured and accommodating - it was clear that both parties, the promoters (Gareth, Lossie, Mary and Tony) and venue management, had put effort into cultivating a good business relationship. It bodes well for an enduring salsa night.

With the fading of the last meal sitting, a cord barrier was put in place to partition off the dance area. The polished wooden flooring throughout is a nice surface to move on, although the split-level nature of it, in effect, divided the available space into two long-but-slim stretches, aside from the spot occupied by the band. Nevertheless, the Slug could (and did) cheerily accommodate a hundred and sixty grooving souls with a band in place.

The main event was Mambo con Rumbo playing to a friendly crowd; there was plenty of home-town support for its band members, many of whom have been long-term protagonists on the salsa scene. Its single set of about eight numbers, half of which were instrumental, were well chosen to suit dancers. There is an obvious difference (in the U.K.) between the music of bands that comprise dancers and those that do not, and Mambo con Rumbo decidedly belong in the former. The nine person line-up comprised: congas, timbales/vocals, hand percussion/vocals, piano, bass, alto saxophone/flute/vocals, tenor saxophone, trumpet and trombone; and their interpretation style struck me as salsa dura with a hint of romántica arrangement and dose of jazz. It was NYC, despite cover version nods to Venezuela with Llorarás and Colombia with El Preso.

Adam's hand as a music teacher with arrangement experience was evident with the assuredness of the horns; Gareth and Steve's backgrounds as enduring aficionados of percussion presented its flavours strongly; and the instrumental number penned by Phil comfortably withstood scrutiny by the dance floor. Mambo con Rumbo as an ensemble displayed all the ingredients for the realisation of potential: creativity, crucial for developing a unique identity; musicality; organisation and arrangement; direction, in the band's navigation of salsa genres; and most overlooked of all, grounding i.e. persistent contact with the needs of the target audience.

I was the most impressed with Gareth's tumbaos. His phrasing is as authentically Latin as I've ever heard - a benchmark for any aspiring salsa musician; there is a guile and subtlety in his touch which belies a deep-seated, seemingly innate, understanding of the essence of salsa.

Before the gyrating hordes:
Mambo con Rumbo at soundcheck.

As a debut it was more than just commendable, and I shall be keen to follow their progress with interest.

The powerful things about bands are, that a good one can establish an atmosphere like no other artefact. The warm glow of salsa was carried through the rest of the night with Gareth, George a.k.a. 'Doctor Salsa' and Tony as torchbearers on the decks. It was particularly touching to have Tony announce the significance of El Cuatro de Diciembre and dedicate one of our favourite tracks: 'La Candela' by Yerba Buena, that most Cuban of New York bands, to the occasion.

No-one minded that, by then, the clock had struck well into the fifth.

Yeo Loo Yen

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

El Reloj de Pastora

There are times when, as a musician, you can feel the potential in a song. It's a feeling of great promise as yet untapped, where every ounce of effort poured in will be rewarded in kind, now matter how much your own abilities grow. Such pieces are rare, gems to be treasured, nurtured even, and this classic composed by Arsenio Rodríguez is one. The example I selected for us to learn from is Sierra Maestra's fine interpretation; first for Conjunto Laloma, and lately for 4 de Diciembre.

'El Reloj de Pastora' is proving to be an inspired addition to our playlist. Its unusual key and lulling hypnotic quality of its harmonic progression; moving from B flat minor to A flat major, then transiting through F major on the return to the root, creates an interesting harmonic space for soloing - something the Decemberists have very much enjoyed. The challenge has been, and continues to be, the song's revealing simplicity and how we adapt it best to our instrumentation.

The lyrical theme is based on iteration and misdirection, and as such places heavy demand on a singer's ability to interpret and phrase. The high tessitura of the original key is a chance to develop the upper section of my vocal range, and thankfully 'El Reloj de Pastora' can accept a singing style slightly more laced with overt classical technique than most salsa numbers. The thematic subtexts; the metaphorical meanings that inform the phrasing, are taking a little more time to understand, because it's not literally about "The Shepherdess' Clock" - I read it as being about a something-someone's time.

As a personal journey, 'El Reloj de Pastora' is opening the way to a better understanding of the son and the son montuno. Yes, 4 de Diciembre are charanga-salsa in lineup, and I wanted to preserve that son montuno lilt despite the move to salsa instrumentation, but with a contemporary edge. Strangely enough, it was a stubborn desire both to play the slow rhythm on the güiro and to dance contratiempo while singing that provided a flavour of authenticity.

Nothing worth learning comes cheaply.

I found that the upper body güiro rhythm (one cycle per bar) and the lower body contratiempo rhythm (one cycle per two bars), provided the independent reference points necessary for rhythmic triangulation to solidify the vocal phrasing in the son montuno style. Managing the attacks of the vocals (early), güiro (middle) and dance (late) is awkward for now, but getting less so every day.

At least there's a clear course of development for this singing-güiroing-dancing escapade: moving to son montuno and then chachachá footwork.

©Copyright 2004 World Circuit. All Rights Acknowledged.

Manuel Güajiro Mirabal's version hasn't yet found its way into my lap, but it will once we've got a stronger handle on the groove - I've got a feeling that the trumpet ideas could well propel our playing of the song to new heights. After we've built up the basics that is. Until then, it'll have to twiddle its thumbs impatiently on my wishlist.

Santa... ¿porfi?


Monday, November 16, 2009

6th-9th November 2009 Salsa Workshops @Red Hat Salsa, Reading (Afterword)

A week has passed and with things having settled down a bit, I can make a more detached assessment of the workshops. Although I'd prepared feedback forms for use after each session, it transpired that there wasn't a chance to deploy them. Instead I've had to rely on anecdotal responses collected from Red Hat and corroborate them with my own observations.

Taking the positive points first, as every educative critique should:
  • Most attendees said that they learnt a lot, from a really different, interesting and refreshing perspective.
  • They felt it was good to hear from someone of my background and experience.
  • Even self-confessed non-instructor dancers learned more than they thought they were going to.
  • A number would attend my workshops again.
Great! On the downside... :
  1. There were a few who felt it was a little biased towards my way of teaching and therefore not sufficiently relevant to themselves.
  2. Many felt the Saturday was too long.
  3. A couple said there was not enough dancing.

Thoughts on Point 1
It's clear from the title, schedules and course blurb that the 'Year In A Day' is exactly what it says on the tin - progressive over one year and skills-based.

But I surmise that the comment comes from a different place: from those who conduct mainly stand-alone combination-based sessions. I'd sensed that a few couldn't see the relevance in possessing a Hierarchy of Development plan which extended beyond a discrete one hour lesson.

I would have to disagree on the basis that such lessons would still be reliant upon returning students in the short-to-mid term, and that therefore a Hierarchy could be applied to the benefit of the individual at remedial level. Such a treatment would add value to the learning experience, augmenting it above commodity level and convert returners into the mid-to-long term. However there would be an increased effort cost that some instructors might be unwilling to pay.

Thoughts on Point 2
In terms of duration, the Saturday was advertised as beginning at 10:00hrs and ending at 18:45hrs; it actually ran from 10.30hrs until 19:00hrs.

I suspect that this comment was more in response to the sustained cognitive load generated by the session; "long" is an expression used commonly by students to describe learning saturation. The onset of saturation could have been delayed if the stream of concepts had been broken up with assimilation practices, but that was not an option available.

I have, however, already taken this under advisement and will make much firmer recommendations regarding session content in future.

Thoughts on Point 3
Again, this I would interpret as being an alternate expression to Point 2 - the desire for more assimilation time at the expense of content. It's a piece of feedback that I'd anticipated, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with.

In Conclusion
The dryness of the feedback shouldn't be allowed to overshadow what a pleasurable experience it was; to meet so many engaging instructors who take their own personal development, to the benefit of their students, so seriously - Ali, Penny, Sharon, Chunky, and Marco to name but a few. It's been invaluable to keep apace of the challenges they that face in an increasingly competitive arena.

Also reassuring, to me personally, was the affirmation that there is indeed an audience for an alternative skills-based approach; and that I had all the facilities at my disposal which allowed for effective delivery of content, by way of literature, music and instruments. Special mention must be made of the LP compact congas which really came into their own that weekend.

"Some people have been really raving over how great they were", said Sharon.

That's good to know.

Loo Yeo

Monday, November 09, 2009

6th-9th November 2009 Salsa Workshops @Red Hat Salsa, Reading (Part 2)

Mercifully, Sharon had scheduled a mid-day start and I spent a relaxed Sunday morning preparing the musical examples, making notes of time codes, and refining teaching points for the first session: 'The Route to Improvisation'.

This workshop on improvisatory dancing required the most attention, not due to a lack of familiarity with the material, but because I wasn't as fluent with the structure as I would have liked - the Hierarchy of Development of a stand-alone session is chalk and cheese to a long-term progression. Also, I was concerned with the management of expectation; where the only exposure that the majority of dancers have to improvisatory dancing is through the routine of shines.

Bar Risa on Friar Street was only six minutes' walk from the Mercure St.George, and I stepped through the tradesmen's entrance well ahead of time.

There were just eight takers for this session, but reassuringly they were all dance instructors from yesterday. It told me that the material from 'A Year In A Day' had resonated with two-thirds of the teachers present there; strongly enough for them to want to know more. Fantastic! I quickly adjusted the delivery to suit educators, cut out the redundant material, and obtained their permission to take the session into greater depth.

The couple of hours passed as an eye-blink and it proved an unqualified success: there had been plenty of discussion, practice, and sharing of little-known hard-won material. But it must be said that this was could not have been possible without the tremendous amount of hard work invested the day before.

Two non-teachers, an interested musician and journeyman dancer, joined us for the final workshop: 'Dancing Beyond The Count'. This was potentially going to be difficult, what with 80% of the class already being so far ahead in terms of development and groundwork information. I discreetly sought Sharon's advice, as the promoter, as to whether she wanted me to deliver focused on the incoming duo. We decided to continue targeting educators as the primary audience and that I would address the newcomers at remedial level and during the breaks.

Once again, we proceeded well beyond the original schedule and I tied it back in the content of the workshops before, culminating in the dancing of the son montuno to Sierra Maestra's cover of Arsenio Rodríguez's Dundunbanza. I'm fairly certain that this was the first time the son montuno had ever been danced in Reading.

And then my weekender was all over.

I book-ended my trip by attending Red Hat Salsa's Sunday evening session at Jongleur's upstairs of Bar Risa. It was a nice way to unwind, meet more of the dancers and say my goodbyes.

Well, now it's time to pack up. There's a train to catch.

Loo Yeo

6th-9th November 2009 Salsa Workshops @Red Hat Salsa, Reading (Part 1)

It's Monday. The salsa weekend is hours passed and I'm in my hotel room packing for the return trip to Sheffield. With a belly-full of breakfast, there's no better time than now to get a first-impression assessment of the workshop sessions.

My introductory glimpse into Reading's salsa scene began with dinner at Sharon and Ed's on Friday night. It was the ideal way to make our personal acquaintances, talking about how Red Hat Salsa came to be; the regional salsa scene; and for me to understand why they left the beaten track in engaging me to run these far-from-typical sessions. Sharon's genuine appetite for knowledge is vividly striking; something reinforced, unsolicited, over the next days by teachers who've had occasion to work with her.

For dessert, we hopped into the car for a trip to Bracknell.

It was their monthly shindig at the Hilton Hotel where I was at various times during the evening an irrepressible beginner in Sharon's lesson; tripping the fancy stuff with the local salseros; trading wit with the two other teachers that evening, Penny and Chunky; taking in the happenings on the floor; and listening to the kinds of tracks coming over the PA. It was a precious chance to assess the Latin dance scene, at ground level, ahead of time.

Saturday dawned beautifully, but its promise was marred by a tardy taxi which landed me thirty minutes behind and starting on the back foot. The wintry community room was filled with two dozen dancers; half of whom were instructors, some having flatteringly travelled from near three hours away. It was never going to be easy - the extensive content and the compressed time-frame of delivery made sure of that. But having to make up more than thirty minutes, AND re-pitch the specification from a secondary to a primary target audience of teachers on-the-fly without losing the non-teachers... okay, this was going to be a robust test of preparation and experience.

The detailed nature of the workshop specifications were the biggest safety net there could ever have been. I kept to the schedules as much as I could because of the coherence already built into them, omitting or skimming over the less significant; and in so doing increased their value as post-session reference documents. Sadly a portion of the time allotted to the practical exercises, the most valuable aspect of any workshop, was sacrificed in lieu of content coverage. The day had a feel more akin to a seminar than a workshop and I've braced myself mentally for that as feedback. To avoid the delivery becoming dry, I made use of plenty of musical examples, including an impromptu rendition of 'El Carretero' as a son element.

The Saving Grace came in the latter part of the day as dancers and teachers warmed up to exchange their experiences in free-flowing discussion. That, arguably, is THE greatest benefit of any well-facilitated session. It told me that despite the less-than-ideal combination of factors, a true workshop-style learning environment had been established. I adjusted the content and presentation at every moment of the day, taking on the feedback articulated or expressed through body language, and making sure to solicit the opinions of the silent during the breaks. The vast majority was positive and helpfully constructive.

Nine-hours of high-intensity delivery left me depleted, and I dropped off my things at the hotel with relief before venturing out to the Oracle, Reading's rather snazzy shopping district, in search of food.

I'd spotted a 'Yo Sushi' bar on the way through, and decided to salve my spirit with some Japanese food. I never eat alone at these places because the hypnotic conveyor-belt of morsels seems to open the gateway to conversation. With Dave the visiting American, we chatted about a Brazillian restaurant we both frequented in Singapore; with the Nepalese sushi chef it was knives, especially the 'kukri' - the knife of the Gurkhas; and the English and Nepalese waiting staff, about the dishes they favoured at the establishment.

What the Oracle looks like after a Japanese fish dinner

Retreating sated to the stillness of my room, I began rallying for the challenges of the Sunday ahead.

(On to Part 2)

Loo Yeo

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Weekender At Red Hat Salsa

"That's a whole weekender" remarked Christophe.

I hadn't thought of it that way. It was that dwelling period that we have over coffees just after lunch - one of the little luxuries we to afford ourselves as we catch up. The inimitable man from Biarritz had just asked me how much teaching I was to do in Reading next weekend. Christophe knew my nose had been kept firmly to the keyboard; organising material for the workshops, and having to put plenty of salsa-related items, like the updating of this blog, on hold.

It happened a while ago when Sharon, who runs the successful Red Hat Salsa in the Reading/Bracknell area, contacted me by email after happening across the website in a bid for more words on salsa's history. We kept the jungle drums beating while I was in the Far East, and together finally arrived at a date, times, and topics for things she wanted me to cover for Red Hat.

Although I'd already sent outlines to her whilst in Penang, I decided to make a rod for my own back and go further by preparing indicative schedules, just as I'd done for Tony Piper at 12th Night.

I regard this as simply 'best practice'.
  • A well prepared schedule questions the best order of priority for the learning points, identifies aspects that might otherwise be overlooked, and forces the design of flexibility into its structure.

  • A primary factor affecting the performance of a guest instructor is an understanding of local learning culture. Treated as product specification document, the process has given us both (with me being the provider and Red Hat Salsa the client) a chance to prepare something suited to the purpose.

  • It informs parties of what to expect, that way only those genuinely interested in the topics will attend. Sometimes this can be a source of tension for promoters who want as strong an attendance as possible, but thankfully most acknowledge that a successful workshop is of better long-term value than a well-attended disappointing one.

  • Detailed documents are a source of strong marketing support to the promoter, and having been on the receiving end more than just a couple of times, I make sure I do my utmost to help.

  • A schedule also provides an educator (i.e. me) with a performance benchmark against which feedback can be used to identify areas of success and improvement.
I also took it as an opportunity to do some long-overdue house-keeping of my learning materials.

A question which posed some internal conflict was, 'should I restrict circulation of the documents or not?'. All know-how is hard-worn, and certainly in the case of Verdant, the more important the information, the more qualification is required of the potential recipient.

But salsa is different.

For better or worse, I don't instruct in the same arena as most social salsa teachers so there is no need to indulge in competitive defensive practices. But there is something more fundamental at heart - when I first started teaching, I made a personal promise not to hold back; this was after experiences, with myself as student, of teachers who did. When I emailed the files to Sharon, I made no mention of any restrictions in distribution - they've since passed through her mailing lists.

So here it is, the workshops for Red Hat Salsa next weekend:
  1. Saturday Morning: A Year In A Day, Part 1 - The Efficient Mover
  2. Saturday Afternoon: A Year In A Day, Part 2 - Power and Culture
  3. Sunday Noon: Hear It, Imagine It, Dance It - The Route to Improvisatory Dancing
  4. Sunday Afternoon: Dancing Beyond The Count
That's a whole weekender alright!

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, October 26, 2009

Latin Percussion's Compact Congas

I've got a not-very-salsa-street-cred confession to make...

I've been lusting after a set of LP compact congas for a while; since they first appeared and won the 2003 Musikmesse International Press Award (MIPA) as a matter of fact. And six years is an awfully long time to wait, but finally the time was right to let a set into my front room.

The main driver is the sexteto format of 4 de Diciembre. I've had, with the agreement of Ana, Catie, Jan and Jeremy, to suspend Conjunto Laloma practices until the new year; giving over the time slots to 4de12 instead. This is to make sure we can be ready for our Middlesborough concert with Chris and Sue's SalsaYarm. In return, I gave my assurance that our ground-up approach to musicianship and arrangements embedded in Laloma's practices would persist into 4de12 sexteto.

The compact congas and bongo have come into play because it gives a wider palette of percussive sounds with a very small footprint. Since I've now taken a structural approach to playing güiro and bongo bell, it has allowed Wib to play more freely; the addition of more soloing surfaces goes a long way into offsetting the absence of a timbalero. There is also the opportunity for increased dynamics through the incorporation of contrasting son and pilón-style passages.

Future expandability's looking bright: without the presence of full-sized shells, there's room underneath to deploy pedal percussion (something Wib is very fluent with) like jamblock, cowbell, bass drum, triggered samples, hi-hats; and played with sticks, we could re-incorporate timbales with a bass drum and move to a songo-style sound. We'd have to move to practice rooms if we went down the latter route, but the set-up is very portable.

All this would have been for nought had the sound from the compact units had been of poor sound. There were some reservations: I figured that the open tones would lack sustain, body and warmth; biasing the way one played towards the dry slap strokes - my discussions with Karl of Electromusic (from whom I eventually purchased them) seemed to confirm that. However, Jeremy had played on them when he was in the States, and they had Giovanni Hidalgo and MIPA's endorsement on their side.

Latin Percussion's compact bongó and congas.
AfroCuban drums, but not as we know them

The promise of so much flexibility proved too much to endure, and so it was that the big LP stork placed the new baby into my arms last Friday. Tuning started that day and continued through most of 'Strictly Come Dancing' on Saturday, ready for use in anger on Sunday's practice. I took the time to settle the skins, made sure all the heads were tuned to each other, and most importantly of all, tensioned the heads for the fullest open tones.

Ana, Catie, Jan and Jeremy were mightily impressed. Catie called them 'space-age' thinking it weird that such a full sound could emanate from what was effectively a frame drum. I'm just as baffled. They play more like fibreglass drums: not a lot of warmth, but loads of projection and easy on the hands. The stands, although heavy-duty and double-braced, still flex a bit compared to a wooden shell under compression; and I had to adjust my strokes accordingly. They're so good that when it came time to discussing our transportation needs for Middlesborough, we all agreed that the compact units were the best choice for sound and space-saving.

My personal Brucie bonus is that bringing congas and bongó my salsa workshops is greatly facilitated. I'm looking forward to the greater liberty, spontaneity and interactivity that being unfettered from the CD player brings.

Long live innovation.

Loo Yen

Monday, September 28, 2009

Salsa Looming

This intrepid explorer's just barely touched down and already it's back into the fray. Five weeks have passed with just a slightest hint of Cuban rhythm and I'm faced with a full-on schedule preparing workshop materials for a weekender at Red Hat Salsa, and getting sexteto 4 de Diciembre fully lined up for a repeat Christmas concert further up north.

Sharon, the engine driving Red Hat in Reading, has yet to finalise a date - but it's going to be in about five weeks time when I make my way to deliver four workshops: two half-day ones and two 2-hour ones. It's all content that I'm consummately familiar with, but the key is in the structuring of it to minimise mental saturation. Sharon certainly doesn't lack ambition: the two half-day ones cover the entire extent of a full training-year of my teacher development programme (hence the concern over saturation). No doubt there'll be more blogging about it between now and then.

At the same time, I've got to prepare 4 de Diciembre, in sexteto format, for public performance. That's Ana (bass, vocals), Catie (flutes, vocals), Jan (violin, vocals), Jeremy (piano, vocals, clave), Wib (congas, bongó) and yours truly (lead vocals, hand percussion). The easy way would be to re-jig our set-lists slightly and gloss over the horn parts. The best way would be to lengthen each set by a song to account for shorter montuno sections; introduce the equivalent of a whole set of new material; and re-arrange the existing ones to make full use of the charanga format.

Where's the challenge in 'easy', eh?

Whatismore, we've chosen to cover some great but tough-to-interpret songs. Thankfully the guys have been plugging away at their individual parts, so we're quite some way down the road already - all this music director has to do is bring it all together. Piece of cake...


Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Depth of Latin Culture: The Meaning of an Accent (Part 4)

To a native Spanish speaker, it's usually possible to place the origins of a person by the accent he or she carries. Salsa is no different, but it seldom occurs to my students to think 'what does my manner of dancing speak of me?'

What accents inform the Colombian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Nuyorican and Venezuelan schools for example? Which of these are geographic, to be distinguished from the personal? What does the ungrounded the heel of the North American back-step actually mean (and it's not necessarily to do, as often professed, with not wanting to step on someone)?

Everything in the earlier parts can be distilled into one point: to achieve cultural depth, salsa dancers would need to learn more than salsa. Because how someone moves tells me plenty.

  • the angle of your foot says you're quoting from urban Cuba;
  • the shimmering quiver of your hips driven upwards from the knees is the voice of Puerto Rico's bomba;
  • a certain stillness of your upper body hints at class distinction, perhaps from Caracas;
  • your movement, inspired more by shells or skins, clues me to the kind of salsa playing in you car - or if you have any playing at all.
It's easy once you know where, and how, to look.

And for many, salsa is all they know and any accents I express pass them by unnoticed. It's a shame, because the subtext of a dance adds much to the whole enjoyment of it.

So leaping several logical steps ahead, perhaps the more pertinent question is, 'what would I want my dancing to say of me?'


Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Depth of Latin Culture: Boogaloo (Part 3)

Then he hit me with another! His keyboard must've been afire that night.


José María Bustos:
Why do DJs play boogaloos when nobody can dance to them, the beat is almost impossible to follow, unless of course you abandon training and just disco down?


Now that's what I call 'a quiet-looking sentence with a big stick'. One could write reams of pages about beats being difficult, 'abandoning' training, boogaloo, and the relevance of the disco era to salsa. It IS a good question, so I owe it to the both of us to have a run at a considered response.

An impossibility of beats
Boogaloo's rhythm structure contains African American as well as Nuyorican elements. Salsa dancers are used to the latter which has much of Cuban origin, although the placement of the accents varies with region (see later post). But the heavily obvious hand claps on the back-beat and the different language rhythm of lyrics in English obscure the traditional elements with prominent ones unfamiliar to the Latin genre. In many recordings, the instrument balance of the arrangements are tilted towards the soul layers; and even the Latin rhythm mainstays of piano and bass were altered, diffusing their clave feel.

I ear-train others for boogaloo by putting on a chachachá and get participants to dance salsa clapping to the backbeats. I then introduce the concepts of 'call-backs' and 'call-and-response' using participant-led exercises. Half-an-hour is the average it takes to become consciously competent with the transitions - a rather good time investment if you ask me.

'Abandoning' training
Good training is transparent and eminently adaptable - it allows one's dancing to be configured anywhere in the spectrum from looking 'natural' to standing out. In the question's sense, the dancers are either unwilling or incapable of adapting to boogaloo.

I haven't yet found a magic charm for the unwilling, but the latter is most effectively addressed via a parametric approach to skills-based training while instilling an appreciation for the context of the boogaloo. The so-called 'Latin crossover' movement musically involved the incorporation of the then mainstream elements, and its physical expression does the same: the onlooker, being more familiar with movements in the popular vernacular, interprets this visually as being 'free-form'. Hence Bosco's reference to...

Discoing down
Here, a breadth of training goes hand-in-hand with a depth of culture. To establish the vernacular vocabulary, I typically introduce three simple modes of movement plus a sprinkling of short motifs (more accents than shines) drawn from the cakewalk family of dances, as evolutionary starting points.

Participants get exposed to jive (French and ballroom); twist, swing and lindy hop movement; and maybe a touch of the hustle if there's time. The scheme is to learn first how to characterise and compartmentalise each, and then learn how to let them 'bleed' through into salsa selectively. That's my favourite definition of 'letting go': the deliberate relaxation of boundaries surrounding a dance.

The obvious question is, 'why would you teach ballroom jive over the hustle?' I acknowledge that the hustle is closer in cultural context to the boogaloo in NYC. However within the limitations of a workshop, the practice of ballroom jive develops skill-sets more pertinent to the other boogaloo.

Boogaloo and salsa are little differentiated in Colombia, of which her Cali step is iconic. Sometimes perceived by onlookers as being danced in double time, the rhythm on the foot remains the same as 'On1' found elsewhere, but the swiveling of the hips accents the upbeats. This means that practitioners of the Cali step plough twice as much kinetic energy to a partnership system than the average dancer, so you'd better be prepared - if you've got one of these pocket dynamos on your hands, you really know about it.

A fine exemplar of Cali steppers dancing to colombian salsa/boogaloo

Ballroom jive's body position, action, and especially its toe-heel-swivel step provide the most successful starting points in getting to grips with the fleetness of foot and lateral hip motion accentuating the upbeats.

Which boogaloo are you boogalooing to?
The New York City one, or the Colombian one where Caleños played NYC boogaloo records produced for 33rpm at 45rpm? I reckon Cali's energy-burning style should come with a mandatory Surgeon General's health warning attached to every one of her dancers.

(On to Part Four.)


Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Depth of Latin Culture: Bolero and Bachata (Part 2)

Whilst I personally agree that Tito Rodríguez, Daniel Santos, and Vincentico Valdés sing heart-moving boleros, if one is unable to discern the lyrical content, then are bachata and bolero equals?

I feel it's necessary to ask this since they:
  • share a common ancestry, being descended from what is sometimes referred to as trova (troubadour) music in Cuba, and música de guitarra (guitar-based music) in Spanish Dominica*;
  • owe much to the work of one man - Sindo Garay;
  • rely on the martillo (hammer) rhythm of the bongó, not the conga, as their main propulsive element; and
  • are slow to mid-tempo, of broad sweeping phrases with a late attack.
The main difference, over that bolero was danced contratiempo (on2, accent4) whereas bachata is not (on1, accent4), and that the latter is slightly more up-tempo with a faster attack; is that bachata is what's happening now.

Each dance is of its time - that is the social, political, economic conditions must be right for it to thrive. For example, salsa would not likely have occurred in the courts of King Louis XIV despite the Sun King's penchant, nay, necessity for dance:
  1. Individual partner dances did not arise until later in the colonies, when plantation owners did so to express their independence from the crown. Until then, people kept step with one another in court.
  2. Military defeats in Islamic Africa and the fear of slave revolt led to suppression of influences from the 'heathen' Dark continent - including extensive syncopations and polyrhythms in music.
  3. Overt hip movements were considered lascivious and publicly indecent.
(Gawd! I'd've been thrown in the Bastille.) On the other hand, salsa arrived in Venezuela and Colombia right at a time when there was no indigenous expression for the cosmopolitanism their burgeoning cities were experiencing**. Bachata enjoys the dissemination rights of the Youtube Generation: globally reaching, and yet with its music and dance undivested of each other.

And as for the romantic musical expression, well... would people still dance to its soft soothing tones if bachatas de desparecio (thematically disparaging of women) were played? Maybe not in the Spanish-speaking countries, where women have begun to take some stand against similarly misogynistic expressions in reggaetón. But plenty of others are indifferent, and would dance anyway. They'd dance in Asia, oblivious. The attribute of being romantic would seem to owe its weight to music, with lyrical content as modifier. So how might one physically interpret this as a dancer?

The bolero does not have the same chequered past that the bachata has - its cultural history is clothed with more gentility and thematic consonance musically and lyrically. In places lived in by both, the bolero holds its own; described indicatively by Bosco as 'In America you play when the lights go down and the floor is packed with young and old alike.'

At least for now.

But are the people on that floor executing a series of movements to a rhythm; in a manner discrete enough to qualify as the ritmo of an actual genre? Or are they just shuffling about as they do in 'smoochie' sessions here? Could the latter form be the definition a social bolero - simply swaying to bolero music as opposed to dancing contratiempo? I suspect that the answer lies towards the easier end of in-between.

I got a hurry-up from him:


José María Bustos:
Hey, my man!? Check out my pics of the MWSC and when you have a minute try to reply to my question about why Asians don't dance boleros and do they in Europe? In NYC its the most romantic thing about Salsa!! Y gue Dio's te tenga en La Rumba! B.


Bro, I hope you've gotten your answer.

I myself can't say how long the grace of bolero will last in a space that bachata means to fill. With no premier bolero dancers of international repute to show us how, it can't be far away. But isn't it interesting to see how a cultural insider considers the bolero to be a part of salsa?

(On to Part Three.)

Loo Yen

*yes, a 'History of Bachata' is being planned for the salsa website.
** yes, there will be mention of this when I update the 'History of Salsa'

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Personal Journey With The Guaguancó: Basic Step

Something I bear foremost in my mind when understanding rumba is the significance of the rooster in Afro-Cuban culture. More than just a key source of protein in the Sub-Sahara, belief has it that a five-toed chicken was instrumental in raising land from water in the creation of the world. Thus much of the guaguancó as a pursuit-and-capture dance involves movements symbolising that of a gallo (rooster) circling around a gallina (hen).

I use the whole-part-whole approach as much as I can when instructing myself; one of self-education's greatest weaknesses is lack of context, so I do everything that I can to protect what little that's there; to preserve the validity of the exercises.

Eyeballing the demonstration of the basic step on the DVD, I observe that:
  1. it resembles (what I call) salsa's basic cucaracha step;
  2. the dance rhythm is complementary to that of the African drumming cycle, being what Europeans would describe as on1;
  3. the posture is a semi-inclined torso with softened knees;
  4. initiation of the basic is with a physical preparative drop of the body's centre of gravity on the verbal cue of 'y' [ Spanish for 'and'], functioning like a musical 'pick-up';
  5. foot placement is ball-flat, without rise, soft and deliberately percussive;
  6. weight distribution on the side step is 50/50, that is, weight is not fully committed onto the stepping foot;
  7. males: the head does not face the centre-line, but orients to the outward-stepping foot;
  8. males: the contra hand (opposite to the outward-stepping foot) is held on to centre-line as a loose fist, acting as counterweight;
  9. males: the hand on the same side of the outward-stepping foot is held to the hip where it impacts least on stability, and creates an angle of the arm that resembles a wing;
  10. females: the scarf opens out on the sidestep - the hand on the same side of the outward-stepping foot extends to its instep, the contra hand remaining on centre-line;
  11. females: the scarf closes when both hands are brought together at the hip above the closing foot.
I choose to learn both roles: to glean more context, and understand the nature of interaction between them.

The role of the rumbero as a percussionist dancer is clear: rhythms of the foot placement and the weight transfer combine to establish the framework in which the accents of the arms, head and isolated body-parts are housed; it is the same principal relationship that the tumbadora/seis por ocho drums have with the quinto. So I've chosen to approach learning to dance the guaguancó the same way I'd teach the drumming of it - framework first.

Practicing the foot placements and weight transfers, I noticed a sluggishness in my out-bound side-step signified by a lack of definition on that beat of the dance rhythm. It was a combination of two problems:
  1. not getting weight over the foot quickly enough; and
  2. the muscle conformation around the hips required a higher level of tone to maintain stability, so I wasn't perceiving a high enough contrast in tension-release around the joint.
Thinking on it, I solved it with one exaggerated practice: dancing the basic with a deliberate feeling of toe-in (which is quite a habit to break after a lifetime of work developing a foot turn-out). The lateral weight transfer increases load to the front of the foot, then the knee/instep, then the heel, allowing weight to be controlled/located toward the heel-side of the instep upon completion of the action. The shins become vertically parallel to each other with a decent-sized step, legs now bearing equal load properly in tempo.

But most valuable of all is the improvement in the quality of kinesthesia, making the feeling of the rhythm unmissable. It's probably the greatest boon to auditory and movement synchrony. I'm happy enough, at least for now, for this to be the making of the foundation to my guaguancó.


Friday, August 07, 2009

A Personal Journey With The Guaguancó: Prelude

Rumba Guaguancó has long been an aspiration of mine, both to the drumming and its dancing. You could say that they're one and the same thing, when you get right down to it.

Although I've been able to play the structural Havana and Matanzas variants for several years, the subtleties of the quinto drum have yet eluded me - something I've put down to not having enough depth of experience in its Cuban cultural context. What's been clear for a while is the need to strengthen my ability to dance it and make better sense physically of the accents and phrasing; to inform my hands on skin.

A couple of guaguancó dance workshops were only enough to add some dimension to my salsa, helping me keep up with a Cuban rumbera absolutely born to the art currently living in Sheffield (I have to leave out the vacunaos, which the doormen would very much misconstrue). The only regular lessons nearby are with Santiago-born Guillermo in York, at times which I'd have to clone myself to make.

But I knew that the dream of the guaguancó would only realise itself through a concerted effort to dance it. So I decided on learning from recorded sources, mainly out of necessity but also as a golden opportunity to assess currently:
  1. the range, distribution, quantity and quality of material available - this would inform the strategic direction of the website;
  2. the status of my teaching skills as applied to myself - primarily observation and interpretation;
  3. my learning abilities - speed of assimilation, adaptability, synthesis, key areas of immediate development; and
  4. my physical abilities - particularly fundamentals of movement from previous training which might be negatively prejudicial to rumba.
I've opted for the material from José Alfredo Carrión's rumba DVDs to establish my foundation because:
  • it offers a broad base of understanding of Cuban rumba by addressing both yambú and guaguancó;
  • the performers (from Ballet Folklórico Cutumba) and producers (Academy of Cuban Folklore & Dance) deliver with a credible authenticity, free from overt marketing intent;
  • the pedagogy favours qualitative learning over quantitative with deliberate pacing;
  • the structure is logical and preplanned;
  • demonstrations incorporate multiple angles where necessary;
  • explanations are pre-scripted, concise and succinct; and
  • musicians are present with the dancers throughout.
It's easy to recognise the voice of a seasoned educator.

I may not be sure how this journey will go, but one thing is for certain - it's time it was begun.

José Alfredo Carrión's rumba DVD is also available from

Loo Yeo

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A Depth of Latin Culture: Bolero and Bachata (Part 1)

Bosco gets around a bit, not only in his day-guise as mild-mannered leading exponent of visual merchandising, but also by night as delinquent DJ extraordinaire. I find his take on the transnational Latin scene in the Far East, as a Nuyorican who'd 'been there' at salsa's genesis, illuminating. Oftentimes, it's the questions he asks that inform me the most. Here's an edit of a recent one:


José María Bustos:
Why do Asians not dance boleros? They enjoy dancing bachata and no doubt enjoy the close physical contact and the romantic nature of the songs, although many cannot understand the words. Yet nothing is more romantic to Latinos as the bolero and when you hear someone like Vincentico Valdés sing 'La Montaña' or Tito Rodríguez sing 'Un Cigarillo, La Lluvia Y Tu' there is nothing quite as romantic... when dancing bolero... Latin schools in Asia don't teach boleros either? Is it danced in Europe? In America you play when the lights go down and the floor is packed with young and old alike.


'Wow,' my mind boggled. Pana had managed to cram a whole horde of ideas into one innocent-looking paragraph. I looked around suspiciously... 'was he doing this on purpose?'

Well, Asians don't and yet they do dance boleros.

Bolero is a much older genre than bachata and salsa, and unlike in Latin America where the same word 'ritmo' refers to both the music or the dance, the coupling between them is not so tight in other cultures. When the bolero had already attained its cultural zenith, radio (and not yet television) had only just started to become commercially relevant as conduit of the mass media. Bolero music that did reach Europe and the Far East was largely consumed in the same social space as that of easy-listening crooners (note the word 'listening') - take, for example, the career dimensions of Machín when he chose to settle in Spain.

Radio allowed the sounds of bolero to stretch out and impact significantly, parts of the world where visuals of its dance could not. Compare that to the effects of talking pictures and television on the chachachá later. The dancing of the bolero, requiring the visual form of communication, was restricted to the physical human migratory patterns out of Cuba by the predominant mode of transport - shipping. Hence the strength in reach of bolero's dance was limited to around the Caribbean basin and the port of New York.

But bolero the dance DID reach Asia, albeit in a different guise.

The ballroom rhumba, developed to conform to European mores, is danced to bolero music. International ballroom's codification of the chachachá and its rhumba serve as historical snapshots of the European, mainly British, interpretations of these genres; just as its own tango relates or not to tango argentino. This very British institution spread its influence throughout the colonies and eventually the Commonwealth; my mother remembers dancing the ballroom rhumba and its chachachá socially (i.e. on1) as a young girl in the 1950s under a grand estate-house in Butterworth. And let's not forget that Bruce Lee, aged eighteen, was Crown Colony chachachá champion of Hong Kong in 1958.

A 17-year-old Bruce Lee dancing the chachachá with Leung Bo Ling in the 1957 Hong Kong movie 'Darling Girl'. The next year he won the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship.

The dance studios where international rhumba may be learned are legion: across an expanse including Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Italy, Lithuania, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Australia and Japan. But the practice of this dance occurs in a far different social space than the bolero referred to by Bosco.

To my partner in crime, it is the bachata which now appears to occupy the place internationally that bolero once did locally in the Americas...

(On to Part Two.)

Loo Yeo

Monday, July 20, 2009

Musical Directions - 4 de Diciembre and Conjunto Laloma

It's been nice to get back to the business of playing music again... in a more committed fashion I mean. For the last few months it was a case of trying to keep things ticking over as much as I could, while chipping away at the mountain on my plate. The effect of my being torn between projects was felt more keenly in Conjunto Laloma (than Cuatro de Diciembre) for three reasons: the smaller line-up is more transparent to the impact of an individual's effort; we practice more often and at a skills-based level; and because I fulfil two central roles as singer and as provider of the rhythm stream.

During this period of time, Jeremy's progress as tresero has been very impressive; I told him the other day that he seems to speak more freely through the voice of the tres than the piano (and he's no slouch on the keyboard!) If anything it's been a relief to pick up the guitar in anger once again and do justice to their efforts - although like the true friends that they are, Ana, Catie, Jan and Jeremy have been the very ideals of support and understanding.

Yesterday, Conjunto Laloma gathered at Ana's place for a change; to practice and to share a meal together delivered from our favourite Chinese dispensary. There, I outlined what I saw as our starting set: American Sueño, Caminando, Chan Chan, El Carretero, El Reloj de Pastora, Lágrimas Negras, Montón de Estrellas, Ya Lo Sé and Yo Soy El Sonero; plans to solidify our arrangements and playing to a performance standard by the end of the year, and the strategy for improving our fundamental musicianship a lo cubano. The latter involved a launch into changes of rhythmic texture using of triplet motifs; it's been on the cards for months and I sensed that a convivial Sunday afternoon provided hot enough iron.

4 de Diciembre presents a differing range of challenges. Since the proportion of our line-up now leans more heavily towards the melodics than percussion compared to any point in our history, many arrangements are still being worked through. However with respect to the Latin style of playing, the knowledge-base which informs these arrangements comes from Catie and myself. Ideally Mike and Thom would be equally fluent with salsa idioms, and to that end I took the decision to recommend that we augment our playlist with more covers, which would add more textures and serve as case studies. Both our horns agreed that this was something they'd very much enjoy doing, so we spent the last practice session dedicated to finding which of my recommendations they found inspiring. As chance would have it they selected American Sueño and Caminando by La Excelencia; as well as Vacilar by Orquesta Gitano and Talento de Televisión by Willie Colón and Rubén Blades.

As music director, I'm very much anticipating the prospect of interpreting the same song with different line-ups; it seems a natural progression for someone with an interest in music arrangement. There are a couple of things in the periphery that we might try our hand at - a translation of Yerba Buena's El Burrito from a cumbia into a songo con marcha; or Calle Real's Ya Lo Sé into a full salsa arrangement, for example.

Time to stop with the words and pick up the action.

Hasta next time.

Loo Yen Yeo

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

'Situating Salsa' edited by Lise Waxer

is a collection of thirteen essays by twelve authors, with two of them being written by Lise Waxer and another two translated by her. It strikes me that the intent of the volume is to let salsa be spoken of by many voices, and as such the content shifts significantly in perspective: from the socially scientific, the musically analytical, the weightily philosophical, to the personally meaningful.

Through the book's myriad of tonal textures, salsa is presented as a multifaceted entity - an approach which challenges, informs, and encourages the reader to (re)define what salsa means to him or her. It is a mature collection allowing differing opinions to be expressed, simultaneously keeping them discrete by chapter so as to avoid dissonance.

'Situating Salsa' achieves its overall coherence despite its international scope by organising the contributions into three sections of progressive themes:
  1. Locating Salsa in its mainspring environments - geographically, sociologically, musically;
  2. Personalising Salsa through biography; and
  3. Relocating Salsa in its diaspora;
hence the book's subtitle 'Global Markets and Local Meaning in Latin Popular Music'. I particularly noted the use of both 'salsa' and 'Latin popular music' on its front cover; since there is considered treatment as to whether salsa has evolved from a catch-all marketing term to a legitimate genre, and treatment of the boogaloo as its precursor. There is something here for everyone: from the interested hobbyist dancer or musician to the career musicologist, and it will reward you upon every revisit. What it does not have is the single thread of one storyteller. Instead think of its broad compass as akin to what you might encounter at an animated dinner party, you'd not be off the mark - because you'd take your leave satiated from all the variety, having learned something new, and with plenty to ruminate on.

'Situating Salsa' is recommended reading if you're beginning to wonder about what salsa means to you.

Loo Yeo

Saturday, July 04, 2009

3rd July 2009 La Exelencia @Rumberos, The Wardrobe, Leeds

If any concert laboured under the weight of expectation, it would be this one. As I descended the red-walled stairs into the cauldron that is The Wardrobe, I spied many of the region's great and good: Mary and Tony of Salsa York, Lossie and Gareth of Encuentro Latino, Amos de Roover of Salsa Sin Limite, Dave Fenton of Mambo Collective, and organisers Fabio Bahia and Lubi of course; gathered together for what we anticipated to be the gig of the year. The floor was just getting packed under the exhortations of Simon Taylor, the Midlands-based Flip and Bounce salsa instructor, as his lesson got underway - an apt 'New York' style prelude to the main event.

Hanging with Tony Piper

I'd been aware of La Excelencia's progress, notified mainly by Facebook's photo updates, and knew that this was the last date since their arrival via the Channel Tunnel: a hectic schedule which took in Brighton, London and Glastonbury. A small part of me felt trepidation on the band's part; 'Mi Tumbao Social' had raised the bar so high, and I wondered how much there was in the tank after a grueling world tour. And there was the added consideration that artists can be good musicians, performers or entertainers, but very few are blessed with the complete package.

I busied myself with dalliances and a spot of not-very-clean dancing. Before I knew it La Excelencia had sprung out of the woodwork, giving us the CD's opening track 'Salsa dura' full-bore!

My initial impressions were good, but not sensational. There was a mismatch between what I saw on stage and what I heard: La Excelencia were playing tighter than a proverbial pit-bull's behind with its proverbials in a vice; and yet the music lacked sparkle - the sound pressure levels were too high for the room; the cymbals lacked 'air' because of a high frequency cut; the piano, central to their album's sound, was imperceptible; and the lead vocals sounded forced as if battling fatigue. I tuned out the audio preferring to emphasise the visual spectacle instead, waiting for the sound techs to get their act together.

I was right.

Giving it the beans: La Excelencia's vocal dynamo

At the end of the number the singers wanted their stage monitors on, not just up! That explained the 'forced' quality. As the sound improved, La Excelencia lengthened their stride and ramped up the atmosphere. In my review of their album, I'd failed to mention the herculean lead vocalists Edwin Pérez and Gilberto Velázquez. I couldn't do so here. As the band's front men they are phenomena to be reckoned with live: dominating presences at the front-of-stage who just exude tremendous energy during performance.

Their set-list was a well chosen sequence of dynamics and so deliberately made for dancing, seamlessly marshaled through the hand of music director and pianist Willy Rodriguez. That they executed it all with such seemingly deceptive ease made me lime-green with envy, but more with admiration. During 'Aña pa' mi tambor' the dance floor, normally filled with oblivious-to-live-music salseros, had eyes for naught but the stage - there is NO greater compliment in this country.

When Looey met Willy - finally, in person

The culmination of their startling gig was a climax where the brass section paraded through the audience playing moñas drawing the involvement of the dancers. On stage was a virtuoso dance solo in the urban style, the rumba columbia from New York City. I mentally willed La Excelencia to play every song from the album. But that wasn't going to happen. I would have liked to hear them play a good ole Fania classic like 'Todo tiene su final' or 'Mi gente', just so I could assess that dimension of their prodigious ability. That didn't happen either.

But what I had was enough.

La Excelencia are a band of irrepressible youth, yet they possess the maturity to play with the fuerza (power) and afinque (cohesion) of their paragon forefathers. That makes them rare. That they record and entertain magnificently to boot...

La Excelencia givin' it their salsa thing!

That, makes them unique.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Challenge (Part One)

If this post were spoken word, you'd hear the relief in my voice.

It's been a lazy evening and a patchy night's sleep since pressing the 'send' button, but the listlessness that accompanies the completion of a large project (you know, the big ones that make themselves a part of your life) is still with me.

I received an email ten weeks ago via the website asking whether I would be willing to accept a commission for an article. Dubiousness was the first pang I felt; my inbox pays unflinching witness all sorts, including some interesting uses for meringue. I responded with a cautious expression of interest and began my due diligence. Some email tennis and surfing later it turned out that the query was legitimate, and from a top-end publisher.

The Mission, should I have chosen to accept it, was to write about the globalisation of salsa as an entry for an encyclopaedia, in the house style, to a whale-bone corset of a three thousand words, and have it peer-reviewed by some pretty august peers... in two and a half months.

I exhaled slowly and leant back in my chair.

It's a tough ask for any professional; not any single factor, but all of them in combination. The whole world in two months, allowing for the unforeseen. Daunted was the second pang. There were plenty of reasons, excuses all, I could think of not to step up to the mark. On the other side of the balance scales, well, financially let's just say that people accepting this kind of commission do so to enhance their standing. But with a peer-review system that's never a guarantee; so if I did it at all, it would be for other reasons and publication would have to be the icing on the cake.

I wrote back accepting the challenge. Because I knew above all that if I didn't, I'd forever be thinking 'What if?'

And so it began.

The first three weeks, I started a master document of possibly-relevant points, mapped out a coarse structure and had a stab at the introduction. The points alone came up to four thousand words. Oops! And the draft intro didn't speak clearly, and the run into the section following felt like blocked circulation telling me that the framework was weak. Difficulty in coming up with a convincing working title simply confirmed it.

But by this time, thankfully, I had a pretty good idea of what I didn't know.

Although I could now hear every tick of the clock, there was no alternative but to track down more sources and put extra mileage on my eyeballs. Another precious four weeks passed, but as they progressed a shiny new structure emerged with the working title 'Transnational flows of salsa' and there came an opening section that flowed. The downside was that the increased knowledge made the master document tip over seven thousand words.

With well less and a month to go there was a culling of points with some frantic biro action and a rather tired-looking laptop, working on a combination of paper and keyboard. The rest of life was put on hold - practice sessions, nights dancing, and sleep were sacrificed on the tall altar of penmanship. In return I had the benedictions of more caffeine, eating out in restaurants where I could put paper to work, and more trips to the gym to pair mental tiredness with the physical.

It was a strange but nonetheless welcome consolation to hear from friends that I was being missed.

The last fortnight passed in a blur: the first draft was finished with seven days to go at just over four thousand words; then came five cycles of editing as I chopped off successive layers of literary fat. Editing was painful but necessary, serving to focus on what exactly was the core of the subject. Close to the end, the structure looked like this:
  1. Introduction describing transnational salsa as a music and dance genre;
  2. Origins of the word, from flavour term to stylistic label;
  3. Properties of the music including the psychoacoustics for dance;
  4. Structural elements of a 'typical' salsa song;
  5. The five main schools of salsa performance with a comment on corroborating dance movement;
  6. Historical perspective on the development of each school;
  7. Other areas of production including the re-Africanization of salsa;
  8. References and recommended reading/listening/watching.
It's over, at least for now.

Unlike patronage during the Renaissance, this is 'try-before-you-buy' and I have to await the outcome of the editors' review. Until then, there's a more than a little reflection to be done.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, June 21, 2009

20th June 2009 4 de Diciembre @De La Salle Grounds of Beauchief Hall, Sheffield

It was at a practice session one Thursday evening not long ago, that Thom asked if we might play on an occasion for one of his long-time friends. We were in the throes of preparing for Mike's, and it would have been just as convenient to run the same set again two weeks later - the audience profile was going to be similar. The only reservation I had as music director was that we were going to be without Catie, who would be away touring Scotland with her folks; it might have meant preparing a further song for the set, as the others would have been shortened from the lack of her flute solos. Then Jeremy put a question mark over his availability with a potentially clashing family engagement.

That would've normally have put paid to it, since the absence of our melodics section leader (Catie) AND our pianist would have left us with a pretty ginormous mountain to climb. Investigating our options, it transpired that the event was to celebrate the life of someone terminally ill.

That was it. I had to say 'yes' - if you can't music for times like these, you shouldn't be playing music at all.

My mind raced, thinking about what I needed to do on guitar to provide the stream of notes in place of the piano, and the playlist we might offer. It was starting to look as if a 4 de Diciembre-Conjunto Laloma hybrid was the most viable answer and my fretting fingers tingled with dread...

Jeremy, feeling exactly the same way as I did about playing on this occasion, pulled out all the stops and confirmed his place there not a day later. My digits silently thanked him (I admit it. I'm a wuss).

Beauchief Hall: its outbuildings (out of shot) are on the left
Photograph ©Copyright sixxsix. All rights acknowledged.

Beauchief Hall is set in a picturesque part of Sheffield, and it was a gorgeous summer's afternoon when we idled past the 12th Century Beauchief Abbey up the leafy single track to the former outbuildings of the Manor House. When we drew up to unload, the barbecue had already been in full swing for several hours, and the cricketers had just finished and retired to the idyll of the clubhouse. It struck me that this was a most surreal setting for some blazin' Afro-Cuban tunes, and El Diablito inside me looked gleefully to launching a fervent Caribbean assault on this very picture of English gentility. The Caribs were, reputedly, a bunch of marauding boat-pushing cannibals...

I kept that image in mind.

Not long after we'd set up finished setting up, Thom appeared ruddy-faced from his exertions at another festival in Heeley. Again like at Mike's party, we shared the billing with another band but this time we elected to go first: Thom wasn't sure how much longer he could last, and Mike and I wanted the time afterwards to mill about and enjoy the rest of the evening's entertainments.

Jeremy, not content with playing on his Roland, singing vocals, and tapping pulse and clave, gets greedy and takes on the acoustic piano as well. Bonkers!

We played well, but I still felt a shade disappointed that we didn't quite have the same lustre of our best performances: maybe because both gluttons-for-punishment Whib and Thom had separately played gigs just hours earlier, probably because Catie's sure hand was missing. I look upon it as an opportunity to rampage missed. Nonetheless, the packed clubhouse was gobbling up the salsa invasion of their quaint little barbecue. If only I'd had some dancing girls handy...

When the final strains of montuno died away, the Guest of Honour spoke, thanking the hundred plus souls present for being there to celebrate, saying how flattered he had been by everyone's efforts, apologising for his retirement because of his ebbing energy, and wishing all a wonderful remainder of the evening. A poignant moment. It took a lot out of him to stay until the end of our set; I saw it in him, in his wheelchair, even as I sang.

The party picked up again with the blues band that followed. And they were good! Well they should be, given that many of them were old bandmates of Thom's. Munching on a much deserved hot dog, I distracted the pianist and rhythm guitarist as best I could from outside a window - all the musicians I know like a bit of levity when they're playing (apart from tango that is, where a pained expression is de rigueur). It was a real hoot.

The evening ended over a curry flavoured with satisfaction and a dusting of sobriety. Salsa might be for dancing but music, at least for tonight, was for living.

Loo Yen

Epilogue (dated 16th July 2009)
I heard today from Thom that the person for whom we performed passed away the following week. We're honoured to have been the last band he saw. This is to the memory of dedicated youth worker and Champion of their rights, Tom Collins.