Monday, January 26, 2009

25th January 2009 Barrio Latino @Platillos, Leopold Square, Sheffield

(aka. A Winston-Flavoured Salsa Lesson)

It was a bit of a mad dash yesterday. I raced back from this nation's capital barely in time to make it for the last of three taster salsa lessons which had been running weekly in Sheffield's newest salsa night 'Barrio Latino' in Platillos. The previous two I had contrived to miss through a conspiracy of circumstance, and I would not to be foiled again (even if it meant getting out and manually locomoting East Mainline's ageing locomotive).

I walked briskly into the newly revamped and swanky Leopold Square, smack-bang in Sheffield's city centre, and a medium-sized stone's throw away from the veteran Bar Cubana - past the eateries and purveyors of libations which were standing forlornly empty. It was Sunday night and the Square, packed to the gunnels on Fridays and Saturdays, felt as if tired from its exertions.

Platillos is a well-appointed establishment: a bar downstairs and a tapas restaurant upstairs. Entering the lower floor, I encountered a rectangular room with stairs upwards on one side, a bar on the opposite side, DJ booth at the far end, and seating along most of the periphery. The unsprung wooden floor which would have been a tight squeeze for thirty-plus dancing couples, was interjected with two structural columns. The decor is warm and plush; a perfect small venue for a salsa night.

Rob's grin was there to greet me and coax my details onto his organiser's mailing list. We made our first-time acquaintances (he'd heard of me via Facebook apparently) with amiable chatter as I fished out my taster dues - the lesson had been billed as "New York-style" salsa; a mode I'd not revisited in the better part of a decade. What-is-more, the charismatic Winston Mitchell, friend and pillar of the salsa community was doing the teaching. I'd never had a Winston-flavoured salsa lesson before, so I was very much looking forward to this.

Spying him in the far corner, I snuck up to say "hello" and to extort him into accepting a beer using the good ole, "we gotta keep the bar happy to keep the venue ticking over" thrust. He countered with the reliably effective, "you're good, you shouldn't be doing this class"; which I deflected with the philosophical "one's basics can't be too strong" manoeuvre. The riposte he was gathering was beginning to look mighty when, as luck would have it, the exchange was blunted by the appearance of a Winston-fan. I hid behind the decoy and made good my escape.

Winston's lesson was co-taught by Sophie, and structurally contained a bit of everything as all tasters should: basic steps, a short combination with turns evenly distributed across both gender roles, a simple shine, technical pointers, and a bit of styling. It was ably presented with the setting of achieveable goals, and the class was split on the odd occasion as Sophie went through the women's part whilst Winston the men's. The learning atmosphere reminded me very much of Ces and Kerry's (of LatinXces) manner where a patient, easy approach is the hallmark.

If I had been tasked with designing a single-hour taster of NY salsa, it would have borne a similar form.

I had heard from some salseros that they thought Winston's pacing was a little slow. I now I understand why. The perception is based on a comparison with some other instructors who cram their hour with one combination, packed wall-to-wall with turn elements. Like proverbial sardines in a can. Winston on the other hand, resisted the temptation and opted for a short, balanced combination; and used the available time to explain fundamental technical details AND allow sufficient practice of the component parts. It was clear he was after quality.

Next week he and Sophie begin a six-week course. I'm sure that they've already begun addressing their vocal projection (the room is not acoustically kind to an instructor's voice), and will continue to accumulate their range of teaching metaphors. And as experience lends them more polish, I have no doubt that calls for them will increase in volume. NY salsa has stylistically changed since I last was a beginner, and would myself have signed up for its duration had it not been for commitments to Conjunto Laloma. I cannot give a more honest recommendation.

The normally interminable wait between the end of a lesson and the full pace of social salsa didn't happen. Whilst I blinked, Platillos filled up; and suddenly there was pedal-to-the-metal dancing. Ana, Rob's partner-in-crime, was on the decks playing modern dancefloor favourites. As a DJ she set up a strong party atmosphere like in Manchester's long-running Copacabana, mixing it up salsa with merengue, bachata, reggaeton and kizomba. Everyone: the Kenyans, Brits, Angolans, Spanish, Asians, Latins, ate it up - I waited for zouk to come on as the kitchen sink.


It was all hot, sweaty fun. But sadly I can't feature a full review, as I had to make an early exit.

'Barrio Latino' is still very much in its birthing phase: enjoying the euphoria of being young, new, and the rapidly escalating success that that conveys. It has all the right ingredients for success: welcoming hosts, a dynamic energy, strong instructors, a crowd-aware DJ, a tremendous amount of goodwill and a clientèle who appreciate that the bar needs to be fed well for the night to prosper.

Whether it can sustain itself to become an established favourite? It's too early to tell. In Winston and Sophie are instructors more than capable of introducing newcomers to salsa and growing the base. The hardest part will be in keeping the product vital; by avoiding the attentions of Complacency in the format - especially in music policy. To the protagonists of 'Barrio Latino' I say,

"It's there for the taking."


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

12th Night Extravaganza 2009. Saturday & Sunday (Part 3)

My eyes drifted open to the world knowing that Saturday was going to be a day of little respite.

My feet, happily worn from last night's revelry, were probably going to be disconsolate by lunch and downright rebellious by dinner. And yet there had to be enough in the tank for a truly heroic run at the evening party, plus a little left in reserve to be amongst the last to leave with Tony and Mary. An itch of anticipation seeped in with my duvet's warmth tinged, dare I say it, with a hint of dread. Age is a cruel mistress.

But I've also found that she can be distracted with a nice cup of tea and a hot shower. With Age rubbernecking, I packed up and stepped out into the morning frost, returning my keycard to the porters at the lodge, joshing with them about the quality of institution food, and wending my way to an uncertain cooked breakfast. I discovered it to be strangely reassuring that bacon, sausage, beans and egg are universally constant across all university canteens be it Bath, Reading, Sheffield, Stirling and in this case, York. Nostalgia aside, breakfast times at congresses are valuable opportunities to meet fellow delegates; where I try to get in early and take it at as leisurely a pace as possible. Alejandro, Bill and Jimmy of Palenke were just finishing up and braving the cold to sight-see York. I settled down with a group of, as it turns out, very itinerant salseros based on the other side of the Pennines who were busily mapping out their day through the workshop programme.

Bridge over duck-rink: all roads lead to salsa
(as they all should do)

Returning to the Roger Kirk Centre, the nerve plexus of 12th Night, Mary took up my offer of help by tasking me with remedial teaching at the more fundamental workshops. The first workshop I chose was, with his permission, Bill Newby's tango argentino class where the gender imbalance seemed greatest. It was gently and patiently delivered in Bill's typically warm manner. And despite the difference between his salon and my orgullo style (which I masked), and his immaculate polish versus my red-raw rustiness, my partners clearly appreciated learning with an experienced hand.

But instead of indulging in a blow-by-blow account of each class, this year's 12th Night could be better summed up in one general observation and a number of personal highlights.

A General Observation

Social dance instruction in the UK remains largely driven by force of personality; and is a reflection of the need of its primary consumers, the middle classes with the expendable income, to be entertained. From a pedagogic perspective, few instructors demonstrate that they have identified and understood what they consider to be the pinnacles of their art, let alone mapped a clear development route to those summits for their students. The narrow educative knowledge-base results in two things that are readily apparent in congresses here and abroad:
  1. confusion as to the different approaches that distinguish a class from a tutorial and a workshop; and
  2. an impaired ability for instructors to act in concert through the meshing of their progressions - the learning contexts they establish are inflexibly individualised (to their personalities) instead of sharing a lingua franca of physical skills training.
[I note that there has been some movement by the United Kingdom Alliance (UKA) to certify salsa dance instructors. But having studied their syllabus (upon which their instructor examinations are based) at length, I see much description of vocabulary but little that is modern in the teaching of physical skills.]

Choice is the primary benefit at a congress, not threaded learning; and there was a smörgåsbord of it in York. As a generous estimate, thirty percent of sessions in 12th Night were roughly in workshop format; the remainder were vocabulary-based club classes. I see the latter as either: the instructor sticking to what (s)he knows how to do; or, just as likely, giving the attendees what they expect.

Having taught in the same shoes, I find that most attendees themselves are unable to distinguish between 'workshop' and 'class', treating both as the latter; and that I have to bill a workshop as a 'masterclass' in order to create the correct mindset.

Some Personal Highlights
  • Lunchtime with Adriana where amongst the things we talked about was: how she still remembers our first dance together ten-plus years ago in Sheffield, and having her compliment my bachata as "dangerous";
  • Steve Carter & Encuentro Latino's take on musical interpretation, and their really handy mnemonic for cáscara i.e. "I don't like carrots, I like potatoes";
  • Lisandro's happy memories of Palenke's stint in Jakarta (near my neck of the woods), and his penchant for the food;
  • A talk post-dinner with timbalero Jimmy Le Messurier and trombonist Paul Taylor about their recordings and the music industry;
  • Bill and Jaime's emotionally charged tango argentino demonstration;
  • Dancing boogaloo Colombian-style with Adriana;
  • Salsa, chachachá, bachata, and decidedly post-watershed merengue & reggaeton with some normally-very-nice people ("clean" is for whimps!);
  • Getting to know Tony and Mary better and meeting their house-guests Tony and Sarah. Two lasting memories: Mary and Sarah breathless from laughter from my rosé champagne-fuelled antics, and the two Tonys behaving badly in the kitchen until dangerously close to the daylight hours;
  • The decadence of dancing on a lazy Sunday afternoon; and
  • Two fabulous tango-tinged bachatas with Maria.

The Ultimate Decadence awaits the truly hard-of-core:
dancing on a lazy Sunday afternoon

It was over a lazy mid-morning breakfast, as we were both desperately caffeinating, when fellow (ex)Steel City dweller Caroline offered me a lift. I jumped at the chance to indulge in her company and to eschew the anonymous silence of the train. We left 12th Night in the mid-afternoon dusk, on the squally journey South.

A leisurely dinner together at one favourite Bengali restaurant was my way of repaying the compliment. It was the best manner in which to round off a perfect weekend of reconnection.

Yeo Loo Yen

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

12th Night Extravaganza 2009. Friday Night (Part 2)

After eight years of unabated success, York's 12th Night Extravaganza finds itself at the grounds of the city's University having definitively outgrown the facilities at St.John's. And whilst acknowledging that the running of the North of England's only salsa congress is not the work of one person in isolation, its rise is surely a testament to Tony Piper's philosophy and will.

I find that any social event be it a lesson, club night, or congress weekender, reflects the culture and values of its main organisational driver. I believe 12th Night to be no exception, and whilst Tony's forthright manner may not be everyone's cup of tea, his Salsa Extravaganza is a more telling measure of the man. It has a charm of understated informality; an inclusiveness that draws together the leading lights of the region, and yet generously showcases the talents of those less well-known. Its programme of workshops have been planned to give a relaxed and easy pace throughout the day; and the parties at night, unfettered from the sideline's critical eye, are a true celebration of dance.

Dance as the end, and not the means to an end, is the Extravaganza's core.

And so I find myself in the middle of my basic but clean single room in Wentworth Hall, all dressed up and ready to dance, clutching a bottle of delectable rosé champagne for Mary and Tony in thanks for being their guest. With steam still issuing from the shower of the en-suite, I pull the door to and head out on the three minute walk to where the festivities are - The Roger Kirk Centre. It's Friday night and the man-made lake, around which York University campus is huddled, is an ice-rink for ducks as England bears the coldest winter she's experienced in fifty years.

Stepping into Reception, Mary and Tony are already there as hosts with a warm greeting for all. I get the obligatory banter and friendly abuse which I hurl back in equal measure - it'd've been rude not to. After hanging up my coat on the plentiful racks (an important and oft-overlooked detail at other places), I proceed through the now-closed cafeteria and into the generous main hall. One look tells me all I need to know.

A long well-staffed bar on one side; a dance floor bound on one side by a 0.5m high stage and ample seating-around tables on the other three; a total capacity circa 500 people; and open-able windows in the entirely-glazed outer wall means some measure of client control over ventilation. The floor looked like unsealed resin over concrete which was already kicking up power through erosion (many dancers over the weekend were to assume that talc had been laid down); the ladies' balls of foot were going to be throbbing at the end of the night; and dancers who didn't have stopping technique were going to be spinning gingerly.

The sound engineers would have had their hands full (they certainly didn't look like happy bunnies) with the highly sound-reflective surfaces and multi-tiered ceiling. As it turns out my preferred spot, right in front of stage, had the best acoustics - which was just perfect as Palenke were playing. They were one highlight in a studded evening, and a real surprise was whom they'd co-opted as their guest timbalero: none other than Jimmy Le Messurier. Palenke was right on the money, creating an atmosphere of relaxed yet vibrant energy which DJ Lubi skillfully continued for his all-too-short stint.

The time in-between the band's sets featured entertaining dance performances: dancesport chachachá, dancesport rhumba, mambo and funk-freestyles. These physical interjections, far from breaking the momentum of the night, were kept short and proved valuable association and cooling-down time. Certainly those in the audience, with their lighted faces, were cheered and cheered. When the shows closed and the band resumed the stage, I'd stopped doing my impression of being a hot-water bottle on legs. Now at a partner-considerate lukewarm temperature, I snuck up on Mary and pounced on her for a dance.

That's a metaphorical pounce by the way. For those of you who know Mary, you'll agree that catching her unawares is one of the great scientific improbabilities.

I was due only to spend the one night in York; some soul had had the temerity to book my room for Saturday night ...the cad! Mary discovered this over the course of our salsa a la cubana together, and offered me their spare room for Saturday. She's not the type to brook any argument, especially when hospitality is concerned. Truth be told, Tony had offered as well not a few hours previously - and with both their generous invitations, I chose to be honest and place myself in their debt once again.

Friday night proved to be the Essence of 12th Night. And as I retired to bed in the not-so-wee hours of Saturday, I remembered again why I needed to be in York.

(On to Part Three.)

Yeo Loo Yen

Monday, January 12, 2009

Prologue: 12th Night Extravaganza 2009. The Road To York. (Part 1)

I called Tony Piper last Thursday to wish him success.

The 12th Night Extravaganza of which he is the main organiser had not only changed venue, but had also doubled in size - metamorphing into a full-grown dance weekender. The step he took was more a giant Leap of Faith; I knew that there was a lot at stake, and that he'd been shouldering its increasingly considerable weight for a while. My regret was that I'd been unable to be involved formally this time because of my commitments to Verdant, but at least I could be a source of moral support.

Over the line Tony was his jocular self, and we exchanged relaxed banter. I appreciated his creating the illusion that he had all the time in the world for me; he wasn't aware that I'd tried unsuccessfully to get through more than thrice times previously. Actually come to think of it, he simply made the time. I'm flattered. Then he popped the question...

"Why don't you come up? You'd be my guest."

Caught flat-footed, I ummed and I ahhhed. I thought about what I had in the pipeline: a new product launch the next day; and all the preparation for being on-call for EU product compliance issues the following week to name but two, had led me not even to contemplate dancing over weekend as a possibility. Sensing my discomfort Tony left it simply at, "just let me know".

It was obvious to me that my reluctance stemmed from being surprised in a planned routine; and that I wasn't being honest with myself. I was using the stock 'not wanting to impose' as a poor excuse. By next day's noon, the commitments of the launch had melted away; and there was no reason at all not to. A brief call to say, "I'm coming up" and I found myself gazing at old York's city walls a few hours later.

Whilst on the train watching the darkened silhouettes racing past, I reflected on my state of lack of enchantment with salsa. Why would I have passed up an opportunity to be with friends, dance with them, and meet new ones? Why would I have gone so far as to seek excuses to do so even? I write the about spiritualities of friendship, entrancements of music and the quasi-hedonistic pleasures of dancing... was I being disingenuous?

In response, the black forms outside seemed to coalesce into a carapace in the centre of my mind. The tough shell of Responsibility. For 4 de Diciembre to be at its most prepared, such that promoters and audiences received the best they deserved; for my own musicianship to develop as quickly as possible, so as not to let my band-mates down; for my reading to expand, so that all decisions could be made with the highest-quality information available - every iota of breath could be justifiably consumed by Responsibility before a single pace on the floor.

Responsibility becomes a joyless thing if left untempered.

As I climbed into the taxi and uttered the words "Wentworth College, please" I knew I'd made the right decision. The forces which had shaped my arrival had saved me from the weight of expectation. Ahead was the gentle prospect of rediscovery.

(On to Part Two.)

Yeo Loo Yen

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Songo Conguero (Part Two) - The Flows Of Left And Right

Two mince pies later and I was back at my desk.

Happily playing away to Los Van Van with my new toy, the properly located open tone had a transformative effect on my songo marchas: there was, all of a sudden, a relaxed yet powerful push in every other rhythmic space between the double open tones. But still, things didn't seem as they should be; there was a 'hard point' somewhere in my playing which was giving my songo the hiccups. This had to mean that I wasn't yet privileged with the full story despite the rephrasing - something was missing.

Fortified with plenty of currant-and-pastry-laden calories, I ventured out in search of the known unknown. Taking stock, I had:
  • a basic marcha whose double-open tones were played with the dominant hand. It was capable of indicating clave orientation with an open tone, played with the dominant hand;
  • a basic marcha whose second of the double-open tones was played with the non-dominant hand, which had no variations indicating clave orientation.
It's pretty obvious that a non-dominant open tone variation indicating the rumba clave 3-side should exist; despite no mention of its existence in literature I'd encountered. That's not a challenge. I made one up with the right phrasing and feel inside a minute and proceeded to naturalise it. However the Pandora's Box of permutation analysis also indicates the possibility of these marchas:
  • second of double-opens non-dominant, clave orientation open tone with dominant; and
  • second of double-opens dominant, clave orientation open tone with non-dominant.
Hoping that what I had was enough and that the last two theoretical permutations could wait for another day, I chickened out and went on to the combination analysis. Clearly, the basic marchas fall into two groups: one with the clave-orienting open tone being played using the dominant hand, the other with the non-dominant. Four simple combinations are possible [cis and trans are terms commonly used in organic chemistry to describe molecular structure]:
  1. cis dominant: dominant 2-side, dominant 3-side;
  2. cis non-dominant: non-dominant 2-side, non-dominant 3-side;
  3. trans one: dominant 2-side, non-dominant 3-side; and
  4. trans two: non-dominant 2-side, dominant 3-side.
All changes in the trans combinations occur at the beginning of the African cycle i.e. the double-opens.

I played them all and very soon they all merged seamlessly as one. It was a fabulous feeling to be drumming fluidly into to the music ...the ebb and flow of strokes between left and right was reminiscent of my dancing-jive days at the time when I was starting to master combination-building. Stress-testing what I had with the addition of more complex variations; the results, though imperfect through want of more practice, proved that the songo foundation could cope with everything I could lob at it: from breaks to songo con marcha to other pedals (rhythm families). Outlines of the groups to which the many variations belonged started to become discernible...

On Christmas day, my Songo shed its chains.

Loo Yen

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Songo Conguero (Part One) - Locating The Rumba Clave Orientation Marker

I've been playing the tumbadoras for years now, and like most of the musicians I know, there have been niggles with my playing that I've borne for a very long time; niggles that I'd learned to live with in the mental interim until there was enough time to address them properly. We never seem to make the time... because that pesky Spectre of Something-Else-More-Urgent always seems to steal the moments set aside away. "Not this time you ain't", I resolved. "It's Christmas and you're not getting any!"

My greatest regret on these hand-drums has been that I'd never become a songo conguero. I can play a range of songo patterns but that's different; it's only descriptive (and as far removed from being the real thing as a move technician is from being a dancer). Over time, I'd come to understand theoretically how songo came about, what it was designed to achieve and some of the forms in which it manifested itself.
  • It broke the old rule of low drum on (clave) 3-side, with it being used to voice the double-open tones at the end of each bar (beats 4 & 4+) if you're European-trained. They'd mark the beginning of the cycle if you're and African drummer. This was the cyclic structure of the rhythm.
  • Congueros should fill the space in between the double-opens on the tumba more freely, melodically even. Moving fluidly between variations and creating their own.
  • The congas retained only part of their traditional role, taking on aspects from other percussion instruments, and redefining themselves to create rhythmic space for the integration of a trap-set.
  • There's an optional clave-orientation marker - the first upbeat (beat 1+) on the clave 3-side, which is significant in rumba drumming.
It was the Practice of songo that had me stumped. I found it always a struggle simply changing between variations - like swimming against a current, let alone progress through it all as a seamless whole; and my phrasing didn't sound at all on the money. It was clear that my playing needed a revamp.

On Christmas day I decided to tackle my phrasing, specifically the clave-orientation marker. I had programmed myself to believe that its rhythmic location was similar to that of the note in a typical piano montuno (on the same beat) - an easy enough assumption to make, given my history as a pianist and my limited exposure to live drumming in a rumba context. It wasn't until I'd put on some of Los Van Van's live tracks and changed mental gears over to 'African mode' that it became clear how mistaken I'd been.

Trying the extremes of placement, it felt that if attacked too early, the note sounded like an echo of the first clave beat; too late and it was a lethargic introduction to beat two of the bar. Either way it was weak, failing to convey the sense of power that I knew had to exist in rumba. Unlike with piano notes, a conga's open tone swells after its initiation with resonance before it decays; and compensating for this proved to be the key. I timed the placement of the open tone such that the transition from crescendo to decrescendo formed a bridge linking beats one and two of the 3-side. The orientation marker thus emerged as a potent response to the call of beat one; acting as a complement to the clave, in contrast to the son forms where the orientation markers are generally in agreement.

It proved to be a significant revelation, not least in helping me keep track of clave orientation, but more so in opening the way to the fluid playing that songo requires of its interpreters.

I was to experience one more valuable gift on the day of December 25th.

On to Part Two.

Loo Yeo