Monday, April 27, 2009

24th April 2009 Conjunto Salsonito @Salsaworks, Roger Kirk Centre, York (Part 2)

Conjunto Salsonito dishing out New York-style Salsa Dura

The Galleria of the Roger Kirk Centre comfortably hosted five hundred and fifty salseros at Twelfth Night, whilst the Engine Shed would pack out at slightly over two hundred with the overspill moving to the floor upstairs. Seasoned promoters would spot straight away the potential danger of a significant leap in venue size and the impact that might have not just on cost, but also in atmosphere.

With a lot at stake and a number of competing events on that night and that weekend, Tony, Mary, Alfredo and Christine pulled all the stops out mobilising their considerable salsa-base, inviting two performance shows, putting on the band, and designing a rather interesting warm-up lesson (more on that later). The attention to detail was relentless. That's what the "none of that jazzy bollocks" quip was about, jazz musicians are occasionally given to an introspective mode of playing with robs a salsa performance of its typical exuberance; it was a reminder to remain extroverted and engaged with the dancers.

Well, it worked.

Conjunto Salsonito delivered recognisably New York-style salsa dura tracks well, and the progression through the setlist did point to some measure of Lubi's hand in the selection; I've known him for long enough to make out his style of music. I can see why the band could be marketed as in the mould of La Perfecta, mainly with the deployment of two trombones. But though they played well, they weren't committed enough to be put in the same league. Let's face it, few groups ever will be.

As an ethnomusicologist and salsa historian, it's easy for me to see why.

In Mary Kent's interview with Eddie in her definitive 'Salsa Talks', Mr.Palmieri talked of how La Perfecta was made special because each and every member was unified in an "unbearable" single purpose. That phrase is permanently seared in my mind as a benchmark for any ensemble performance, be it my own, any other band, or dance troupe.

There is only one word - Intensity.

I think that's the nub of it, if the rumours be true. The performers didn't come across as believing completely in the music they were playing - it's a problem if numbers are selected without getting enough 'buy in' from the people interpreting them. Don't get me wrong, it was a competent rendition that could have been blessed with a little more flair; perhaps a few shamelessly extroverted face-melting solos a la Jack Black's 'School of Rock'.

'Restrained' would be the fairest word that I could use based on what I experienced. One number, ironically their cover of Eddie Palmieri's 'Muñeca', showed off Conjunto Salsonito's full potential - they laid it out absolutely brilliantly. It was the clearest instance of the musicians united in purpose. If I were music director for the band, I'd strengthen the setlists by trialling thirty to forty shortlisted songs, selecting for the ones that spoke to every musician in the same way that 'Muñeca' did. It's harder work, but it's an approach that's paid dividends for 4de12.

All that said, it wouldn't be unrealistic of me to expect great things of them when I see them next; and I wish Jonny every success. Few guys deserve it more.

The other formally scheduled diversions of evening were two amateur dance troupe performances: one from York-based Encuentro Latino, the other from Jimmy SA's school in Newcastle. Both troupes were large, about ten couples each. Whilst not having the precision and polish of a professional one, they both had something that pro groups sometimes lack: enthusiasm and... you guessed it, Intensity.

Striking Pose: Newcastle Amateur Performance Troupe
choreographed by Jimmy SA

I always, always, watch the faces of first-time performers - it reminds me of much and keeps me honest.

With all of the performances over, I set about spreading myself out a bit: dancing contratiempo with an ETOn2 salsa newbie here, a chachachá there, some bachata thrown in.

Which reminds me... Alfredo and Christine's lesson earlier on. It was a combination of bachata and tango, that is, 'bachatango' danced to Gotan Project-style music - a movement currently being promoted by well-travelled bachata instructor Tony Lara. I thought it was fun. And yes, I know the purists of both would have been giving the above two lines the evil stare, but the two genres have at least two things in common: the Caribbean rhythmic motif of the cinquillo; and their histories as suppressed musics and dances of the underprivileged classes. I just don't know how the defining hip movements of the Dominican dance can be squared with the stringent lack of one in the Argentine tango. And surely in terms of spirit, isn't the kizomba a more mature and better resolved system? Bachatango can't even boast the advantage of ambidextrous movement changes that tango has over the kizomba.

Sounds like an attempt at product diversification to me.

Meanwhile back on the dance floor, I espied an East European stunner and resolved to find out if she could dance as well as she looked. She would have been hard to miss: red dress, carefully coiffured highlighted hair, pearly white teeth, plenty of foundation, matching lipstick and accessories. I gave her every opportunity to express herself and valiantly got as far as a little honest smile behind her broad display one. Part of me felt extremely tempted to put her through her paces to see if I could get her blusher could run from her perspiration, but thankfully I managed to suppress that Chingis Khan portion of my psyche and decorously returned her to her table unmussed at the end of the song.

The contrast with the next dance, a salsatón with an uninhibited power-pack of a partner could not have been more stark. Urban movements, rhythmic tensions, sexuality... drew an impromptu round of applause from those seated nearby; likely for the sheer bravado.

By the time I hit the sack at the Piper's, the birds were tweeting. Again. It's getting to be a bit of a disturbing habit.

Salsaworks with Conjunto Salsonito was an evening plum-full of enjoyment. And from the looks of every salsa dancer there, there was plenty of the stuff going around.

Salsonito are a solid band, and I very much enjoyed dancing to them. But their management, whomever they might be, should exercise more care when marketing them in the same breath as the words La Perfecta.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, April 26, 2009

24th April 2009 Conjunto Salsonito @Salsaworks, York (Part 1)

The salsa community in the North of England is a small one, and its grapevine had been rattling for several months with talk about a new band. Actually 'rattling' is a bit on the gentle side, think hooting lemurs.

Conjunto Salsonito is billed as a seven member ensemble featuring two trombones, keyboards, bass, congas, timbales, and Cuban singer Kike Sire on lead vocals and doubling up on bongó. All the musicians have a Latin or jazz background, previously being part of other Northern salsa bands like Grupo X, Descarga, and Raices Cubanas, ably led by trombonist Jonny Enright of the former.

Conjunto Salsonito 'bringing it' to York,
playing New York-style salsa dura

That's the objective line.

I found the undercurrent on the grapevine much more interesting. Scuttlebutt had it that DJ Lubi Jovanovich was the backstage force behind the band, assembling it, designing the playlist, determining the playing tempi, and opening the doors to the various promoters with whom he had the professional relationships. In other words, Lubi was informally credited as the manager and music director behind the band, and that he played a greater role on the music direction than Jonny. Whilst that might have explained a few things, I knew better than to listen to rumour and speculate upon its implications.

Conspiracy theorists dance salsa too.

And neither should it matter. I was simply very, very keen to experience "New York-style salsa dura in the style of (Eddie Palmieri's) La Perfecta". The simple thought of it alone had me drooling in anticipation - surely the scene could be enriched with another top-notch band playing frequently in the area? What's more, I'd already booked the day off since 4 de Diciembre had been tentatively billed to play this slot (4de12 eventually had to decline as changes to our lineup haven't been completely worked through yet). Personally, I felt a mixture of happiness and relief that Salsaworks promoter and friend, Tony Piper, had booked such a strong alternative in the form of Jonny & Co.

The early Spring weather was Britain at its vibrant best. Even the machinations of an inconstant ticket-vending machine, and a shirty teller with a customerserviceectomy failed to dampen my mood as I caught the train to York.

Tony picked me up at the station, his latest salsa acquisition blaring from the stereo, and we soon alighted at his place where he and Mary were preparing the nibbles for the evening. That's the sign of their attention to detail, might I add. The breaking of bread together is fundamental to building a community, and I can't think of many promoters in salsa who go to such lengths. I'd brought gifts as usual, and duly presented Mary with a fine bottle of aged Cuban rum and Tony with a rather delicate bouquet of yellow roses.

Then it was to the business end, Tony and I set off to the Roger Kirk Centre at the University of York where Salsaworks is now in residence. The event's found a new home there after the shock passing of Dave, owner and licensee of the Engine Shed. Sadly, contention of ownership have kept the Shed's doors firmly shut for the last four months (and for the foreseeable future) hence the move to 12th Night Extravaganza's venue.

I helped rig up the lighting with Tony and made a nuisance of myself with the sound reinforcement guys, one of whom was sporting a rather fetching pink "mohican". You know you're gonna get good sounds from a confident individual like that! Then Jonny Enright arrived, and he and I were finally formally introduced. What a nice soul, gentlemanly and understated; he struck me as someone good to work with.

Tony and the 'Neers: a light moment during setup

A short conversation later, Tony and I were off to pick up more stuff, grab dinner, and tart ourselves up for the evening, leaving Tony's now-famous exhortation of "none of that jazzy bollocks" lingering in the air and Jonny's poor ears.

(On to Part Two.)


Thursday, April 02, 2009

You Dancing? I'm Asking

Putting yourself 'out there' is kinda tough.

I'm not referring to the act of stepping out on the dance floor. I talking about that more important act beforehand: going to and asking someone for a dance. It's something that fledgling salseros, believing me an old hand, quiz me about a fair bit. Usually this happens at the edge of the floor, so I only have a few seconds to reply.

The short answer, at least for beginners and males, is that if you don't ask, you don't dance. The question then really becomes, "how much do you really want to dance?" After that, growing the rhino-hide and the self-assurance not to take rejection of a very personal act personally, becomes academic.

Sometimes I sugar-coat it a little, but if the fledgling finds it difficult to take an honest answer, well, then he or she only tends to hang around the edges of the floor for a few more weeks before disappearing.

Salsa has a brutal underbelly.

Appreciating this, I never turn down a request to dance unless my would-be partner is obviously drunk beyond the point of my being able to navigate her safely about the floor (think 'listing galleon'). It likewise holds true for those who might have serially turned me down in the past - life's too short to indulge in point-scoring; and that, for me, isn't what salsa's about. Partaking of Nottingham's generous salsa scene is a strange role-reversal where women outnumber men dance-wise (it reminds me a lot of what Sheffield was like fifteen years ago). It was there that a partner used exactly the same words I'd used, "you don't ask, you don't dance".

But clearly the more experienced you get at reading people, the better you maximise the chances of someone agreeing.

Which brings me nicely to what prompted me to this post. A salsera friend wanted to know what I looked for in the sort of person that I would ask.

"Easy!" I said. She looked at me as if she understood that I was simply after partners of negotiable morals.

"Just three things" I interjected, avoiding a clip around the ear.

"The most important is to see laughter in her eyes. This tells me why she's dancing.

"The second is whether she tries to use floorspace considerately, partner allowing. This speaks to me of her generosity.

"The third, and least important of the three, is the quality of her back-step. One unstressed backward step tells me more of a dancer's ability, training and persistence than a fancy triple spin with sauerkraut ending. It's the most overlooked probably because it's unsighted, even the so-called professionals seldom get it right."

I've long since given up the empty calories of eye-candy. Why people dance, who they are, and how they dance - that's what makes me decide. What they dance doesn't even get a look-in.

And then I asked her to dance. Strange... her back-step's feeling a bit lumpier than usual...