Saturday, May 16, 2009

The End Of Wage Slavery

is the name of the event that Mike, our trombonist, has arranged to commemorate his pending retirement from Linguistic Academia. For that he's booked the Millenium Hall on Ecclesall Road for an evening of joyous, if not raucous celebration on the 6th of June. Friends and family will be in attendance and a good number of very highly proficient musicians will be amongst them.

He asked the band whether we'd play a few numbers, and me personally whether I'd be okay to step on stage and do a little salsa lesson for the party-goers. A delighted "yes" was the answer on both counts. Mike wanted very much for everyone there to hear what Cuatro de Diciembre was about, and also to give his musician friends the chance to jam with the gang.

He and I decided that five numbers would be sufficient and agreed that two of them, the ones at the end of the mini-set, should be the jam numbers. Understandably we had to choose two Latin songs that non-Latins would be familiar with, and picked 'Oye como va' and 'La bamba' out of the shortlist.

There's been a sense of deja vu as we've been preparing these standards; I remember performing both of them nearly a decade ago before leaving them behind as our playlists matured. And I must confess to being internally conflicted at the outset, in returning to songs which I associated with the 'cheesy' end of the salsa band market.

Then I brought myself up short.

Firstly, we were doing this for musically legitimate reasons; foremost of which were audience accessibility and audience participation.

Secondly it was up to us, Cuatro de Diciembre, to interpret any song in an honest and distinguished manner. It fell on my shoulders as Music Director to rise to the challenge of ensuring that 'Oye como va' and 'La bamba' could speak in the manner that we all believed in. As usual there wasn't to be much time.

The descarga format is meant precisely for these purposes, and that formed the basis for the structure of both songs:
  • a simple fixed opening consisting of intro, verses and choruses;
  • a closing consisting of a break, chorus reprise and outro;
  • both sandwiching an extended montuno section of uncomplicated harmonic progression where the guests might descarga [improvise, lit. 'unload'].
However that the guest musicians might not be fluent with the forms and conventions of the descarga, was an important consideration. Two additional moderation structures were put in place:
  1. Catie (flute), Mike (trombone) and Thom (trumpet) would perform solos - one at the beginning of the improvised section, one to bring us out at the end, and one to fill in should any guest soloist not be ready in time. There's also the possibility of a percussion and a vocal solo if necessary.
  2. a short instrumental bridge was put together to be played by all the former three, to act as an interlude between one soloist and the next. I'd like to think of it as the sorbet which refreshes the palate in between courses.
For Oye como va, we've drawn inspiration from the startling arrangements of Ernesto Estrada a.k.a. Fruko and the augmented lyrics of the great Celia Cruz's ultimate version.

For La bamba, we've eschewed Richie Valens' electric guitar-based vibe for the easy Mbalax-tinged feel of 'Sabador' by Africando - the latter an interpretation much better suited to 4de12's way of playing.

There has been some element of reassurance needed to be given by me to my colleagues in the band, particularly the founding ones who remembered playing these songs the first time 'round. I had to make sure that there was plenty of opportunity to express the maturity of our musicianship - so that the reprise of these songs would not be interpreted as a retrograde step.

In the end, it was the elegant simplicity of our groove which spoke most clearly of our growth during the intervening years.

And it was the tasteful use of a limited pallete of motifs, as simple highlights to let this groove shine through, that told of my personal development as director of this great band's music.

I learned something new along the way: that La bamba has a folkloric heritage of Mexico that is centuries old; and that I myself had been labouring beneath prejudices that rightfully needed to be overcome.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A Place Or A Name?

I've been using Facebook as a research resource for a project I'm working on: looking at salsa all over the world, with an especially keen eye on communities where salsa is not indigenous like Asia and Australia. I signed in one morning to find that Bosco had left me a question about an experience he had in India which triggered a flurry of dialogue. Here's the (edited for brevity) wall-to-wall:


Jose María Bustos:
Loo, as a musician I gotta ask you, while playing in Mumbai a woman walked up to me and said she loved my music, but why was it 'all on two' ? I glared at her and explained that there is no such thing as 'on one' or 'on two' music its all the same, but you can choose to dance it on one or on two.

Who has started this rumor that muscians actually sit down and say 'oh, lets write an 'on one' or an 'on two' track today. Its mambo, cha cha, timba whatever but never one or two. Can I get a witness on this!? or an I missing something here?

Loo Yeo:
I don't go out to write songs for 'on1' or 'on2', I don't know of any artists who do. However, you can certainly take a song and interpret it in a way that certain 'clans' of dancers would associate with. I'll be brave and say that the association occurs at the dance pedagogic end.

Very interesting experience you had there! What music did you play?

Also, I'm able to give you a more thorough response via a blog article. Mind if I address it by opening using the below (above in this case) as a quote?

Jose María Bustos:
Please do, by all means! Frankly I see it being bad for salsa if dance school perpetuate this notion and bad for music sales as well. You are correct it is a dance school notion and should be nipped in the bud!

Jose María Bustos:
Johnny Cruz, Bobby Valentin, Cheo Navarro, Willie Rosario, Issac Delgado, Hector Ramos, Mulenza, Eklan...

Loo Yeo:
hmm. You kept to Puerto Rican/Nuyorican salsa mainly? Was the Issac material pre-timba?

Jose María Bustos:
Dude, I play NYC style and the Issac is post Timba, as he's now amercianised himself with a more Miami sound, beat and arrangements. But I can mix it up with the best of em! Which brings me to Soneros All Stars 'La Timba Soy Yo' This is... kind of Timba!!

Loo Yeo:
I think I understand more about the context of the lady in Mumbai's question. NYC salsa could have been associated with On2 purely on a geographical basis; instead of understanding which musical features should be significantly prominent (irrespective of source location) which might best suit an On2 style.


NYC style. NYC salsa.

If we're talking dance then are we referring to Eddie Torres On2? Palladium or Power 2? How about Boogaloo? That's a style born of the great city. And Pachanga too. Both the last two are ostensibly On1...

And is the concept of synchronising a movement with beat two specific to NYC? Is "{anything}2" a NYC trademark? What of contratiempo or en clave which have been Cuban phenomena for more than a century?

What sort of music is New York salsa best danced to? Is it that which simply comes from New York? Fania, RMM, salsa dura, salsa romántica, DLG, Yerba Buena, La Excelencia, Orquesta Broadway, Wayne Gorbea?

What about El Gran Combo or Sonora Ponceña if they'd recorded in Puerto Rico?

Reading Mary Kent's biography of Eddie Torres featured on

"With no concept of timing, technique or theory, his instruction consisted of rudimentary pointers: "You hear that accent? That means you break forward with the left foot and when you hear it again, you break back." This is known as dancing on two, Eddie would soon find out.
Breaking on two meant that of a four beat measure, you stepped forward with the left foot on the second beat and on the second beat second measure you stepped back on the right foot. According to Eddie's mentor, Tito Puente, that's why beat two is so popular, because it compliments the tumbao of the conga and the rhythm section."
©1995 Mary Kent. All Rights Acknowledged.

It's exactly consistent with what he and I talked about in '96 when I first started dancing his style: then branded "Street 2".

I've played a lot of Latin percussion since, and realise that the accent Eddie's talking about is the slap stroke of the tumbao moderno on the conga. It's played on (what European-trained musicians recognise as) beat two. New York-style mozambique, a favoured rhythm of Eddie Palmieri, also has slap strokes on beat two; as well as on the 'and of 1' and 'and of 4' every other bar.

A caballo, also interpreted on the conga for pachanga, has slap strokes on beats one and three, with a hardly-audible ghost stroke on beat two. Slap strokes are generally optional in another New York favourite, the guaguancó originally from the West Cuban ports of Matanzas and La Habana (the slaps would precede the open tones to add definition, and work a fill in the phrase).

This means that if we were slavishly to adhere to the raison d'etre of Street 2, we would mainly be dancing only songs containing a tumbao moderno and NYC mozambiques. And hence any defensible critique of a DJ playing mainly "On2" tracks would require the critic being able to distinguish the likes of mozambiques, chachachás, and guarachas from the other likes of pachangas, guaguancós and songos.

Referring again to the first line of the quote from Mary Kent - I seldom come across On2 dance instructors, or On1 ones for that matter, who have a strong enough understanding of: the rhythmic structures of salsa, and the purposes which the On1 and On2 time-steps are meant to achieve, to be able to communicate this clearly to their students.

Sadly, the gap in this knowledge is papered over with the dogma 'NYC-style salsa dance is danced to NYC salsa music'.

More regretfully, this façade hides the richness of the basic time-step and how it may be varied to interpret the breadth of salsa's music. How many dancers think that there is only one way of executing the basic time-step, and that they've learned it already?

I know first-hand that the charismatic creator of "Street 2" emphasises adaptability, not rigidity. What makes him great to this very day, even when there are others who are flashier, younger and faster, is his desire to understand the Whys and to make sure that he fulfills seriously his responsibilities as an educator - that his students are informed to the best of his ability.

An educator empowers his students to choose, and eventually to own their knowledge. I stopped dancing On2 years ago. My partners now dance with me.

I should like that the rising stars of the salsa dance-teaching scene remember that there is more to it than just the excitement of travel, glamour of performance, and the adulation at the congresses. There is the very real task of being an educator, which unarguably requires more commitment than any prolonged training for a stage show.

And I should like that their young charges continue to ask the 'why?' of them, to release their ultimate potential.

Yeo Loo Yen