Friday, February 27, 2009

In The Heart Of Change

Since the beginning of the year Cuatro de Diciembre has been adapting to a line-up change with Dan and Nathan both leaving for different pastures. That change happens isn't at all surprising and I've had than my fair share of her company at 4de12. Instead the best way to be with Change, as I've found over the years, is to embrace her warmly as Opportunity. And this time didn't feel any different.

My cunning plan is to hug the girl until she's blue in the face.

Without another lead singer, I'm taking on all the lead vocals. That might have daunted me a bit had it not been for my marathon training sessions over Christmas. This singer's now more than happy to handle two full sets plus encores; the only thing to keep an eye out for is the hydration level before and during performances. Actually, I'm rather looking forward to interpreting such favourites as "Corazón Fugitivo" and "En La Sangre" which had been necessarily relinquished to Nathan. The immediate impact on how the band plays is not massive; it's nice to have changes in vocal texture, and we can achieve the same result by re-arranging the set-lists to give a better scope for me to change my resonance bias from song to song.

In contrast, life without timbales is pretty different.

I miss its sonic texture, the thickness it adds to a song, its attack and the drive of its syncopated patterns. Not having it around does make some of our bigger numbers more challenging to play, but Change didn't come to us with doom and gloom packed in her bags; there've been a whole slew of positive surprises:
  • we're understanding each other better as musicians now that we can hear one another's musical subtleties (something we couldn't do before during practice due to the sheer volume of the drums);
  • there's a greater level of interaction between all of us i.e. a tighter knit between the melodics, rhythm and percussion;
  • Decemberists are all learning to play more propulsively - in effect a key role of the timbalero is being redistributed across the entire ensemble;
  • it's providing us with the opportunity and incentive to increase our knowledge base; and
  • we're exercising our creativity in altering our arrangements to maintain the same feel and drive in our repertoire.
I think I'd mentioned it before, that there was a danger of Cuatro de Diciembre reaching a plateau. Change, for all the reasons above, is making sure that we don't rest on our laurels. And as my good friend and salsa aficionado Christophe so astutely pointed out, Cubans have been playing propulsively, without the need for timbales in their line-ups, for more than a hundred years. As an old adage goes, "the more things change, the more they say the same".

Loo Yen

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bongolicious Booty

After an Odyssean saga which involved:
  • a Trickster (Royal Mail postie),
  • a Scylla (Royal Mail's Website of ultimate deflection),
  • a Charybdis (Royal Mail's Telephone System of spiraling circuitousness),
  • drachmae (my trusty credit card), and
  • a lovely Cassandra (Royal Mail customer service lass with mucho Gaelic charm),
the great Hero (Me!) bested the intractable Poseidon (Royal Mail) to claim his prize: a priceless set of bongó books and DVD by Trevor Salloum. Cue the Orgy and the dancing girls.

The next day, still drunk from success, I made plans to enjoy my deserved spoils over the weekend. Followers of this beloved blog might just be wondering whether I've finally turned in a couple of sandwiches short of a full picnic. As if guitar, vocals, congas and two bands plus the dance-floor menacings aren't enough, Loo's going for bongó as well? ¿Qué?

It's hard to rationalise it from an instrument perspective, so I'll not go there; rather, it's the skills that playing bongó can develop that I'm after.

Since 'The Great Songo Breakthrough of 2009' (see previous posts), my conga-playing's been blessed with fertile new pastures of rhythmic space and plenty of cognitive overhead with which to do the seeding. As a result I'd already started to cultivate little fills and accents, tasteful ones might I add, to give my music that bit more sabor. But I found that ferreting around for little snatches of examples in songs, whilst educative to some extent, lacked an overall coherence. And I'm a big fan of coherence.

That's when I thought, "what about the bongó; that oft-overlooked virtuoso instrument born precisely to lead, fill and solo?"

It ticked ALL the right boxes straight away:
  1. one of its basic rhythmic interpretations the martillo, is similar to a caballo on the conga, both of which I needed more practice of and their near-infinite variations;
  2. Conjunto Laloma would have more musical avenues to explore if there was a bongosero in da house;
  3. friends have been wanting me to guide them around those skins for a long time;
  4. it would expand my ear-training workshop to address música de guitarra forms like son, bolero and bachata;
  5. it would support another of my workshops on dance movement improvisations;
  6. and most important of all, it's an instrument I've been ashamed I wasn't better on.
For the two days past, Mr. Salloum's voice has wafted forth from the telly; patiently teaching me the arcane bongo-arts even as his fingers seemed cheekily to mock mine. I'd possessed his manuals before and in part of my hard-won booty were replacements for things lent and ne'er returned. Saturday and Sunday were graced with a comforting sense of déjà vu as my eyes, hands and ears remade their acquaintances with the drum.

I don't yet know how my return to Ithaca (bongoland) will be received, but no doubt the jeers of frustration will have to be silenced by the wine of success for there to be a happily ever after. I'm a bigger fan of happy.

Loo Yen Yeo

P.S. A review of Trevor Salloum's work will follow later.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Kinesthetics, Neurolinguistics & Pictures

To add pictures or not, that's been the question.

One part of me has wanted to let the words speak for themselves - in much the same way as a novel leaves it up to one's creative mind to conjure up the imagery; certainly only a rare handful of visual adaptations have ever been able to match the books that have been played out in my mind's eye. I've felt that maybe the inclusion of a picture might unnecessarily harden a reader's imaging of a post. But then, by not doing so, I'm tilting things towards people like me.

I should explain.

It comes from a sports coaching course I did some time back which featured a large Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) component. That was when I learned that I was not as visually-driven as most. One of the early exercises involved a crude categorisation of which senses an individual preferred to use, and went like this:
  1. Think of a loved one
  2. What is the very first impression you have of her/him?
    Is it the way (s)he looks, sounds, smells, or feels?
  3. What is the second impression you have of her/him?
    Is it the way (s)he looks, sounds, smells, or feels?
The first is your primary sense. The second is your preferred sense. I discovered my primary to be auditory and my preferred to be kinesthetic (touch/taste) i.e. I heard them first and then remembered how they felt to the touch. The visual image of them established itself later.

Neurolinguistics sheds an analytical gaze on the instruction of salsa and the assimilation of practices. For example, as the majority of people have the visual sense as their primary or preferred, phrases biased towards the sense of sight like "picture this" and "see what I mean?" effectively address most class attendees but overlook a specific minority. Likewise, people like myself benefit from unsighted lead-follow drills better than our visual counterparts, developing kinesthetic skills more quickly.

What I learned from the advanced coaching sessions caused me to re-evaluate and rewrite my "Teaching & Salsa" training manual, using sense-neutral terms in the main and sense-specific terms where they were best suited: the premise being that it should be as useful to the broadest range of educators. (I deployed a spread of sense terms during the opening of this post as a demonstration.) NLP has made me much more aware of the language of expression I, as an educator, should choose to use in class.

Back to the subject of pictures.

I wonder if my ambivalence to having graphical images on this salsa blog simply stems from my personal lack of requirement for it - my imagination is happy to rampage about freely; it would probably disregard a photograph as a tether. But having read Darren Rowse's blog and associated comments, I think I should. And I feel I will.

Loo Yeo