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

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