Sunday, June 21, 2009

20th June 2009 4 de Diciembre @De La Salle Grounds of Beauchief Hall, Sheffield

It was at a practice session one Thursday evening not long ago, that Thom asked if we might play on an occasion for one of his long-time friends. We were in the throes of preparing for Mike's, and it would have been just as convenient to run the same set again two weeks later - the audience profile was going to be similar. The only reservation I had as music director was that we were going to be without Catie, who would be away touring Scotland with her folks; it might have meant preparing a further song for the set, as the others would have been shortened from the lack of her flute solos. Then Jeremy put a question mark over his availability with a potentially clashing family engagement.

That would've normally have put paid to it, since the absence of our melodics section leader (Catie) AND our pianist would have left us with a pretty ginormous mountain to climb. Investigating our options, it transpired that the event was to celebrate the life of someone terminally ill.

That was it. I had to say 'yes' - if you can't music for times like these, you shouldn't be playing music at all.

My mind raced, thinking about what I needed to do on guitar to provide the stream of notes in place of the piano, and the playlist we might offer. It was starting to look as if a 4 de Diciembre-Conjunto Laloma hybrid was the most viable answer and my fretting fingers tingled with dread...

Jeremy, feeling exactly the same way as I did about playing on this occasion, pulled out all the stops and confirmed his place there not a day later. My digits silently thanked him (I admit it. I'm a wuss).

Beauchief Hall: its outbuildings (out of shot) are on the left
Photograph ©Copyright sixxsix. All rights acknowledged.

Beauchief Hall is set in a picturesque part of Sheffield, and it was a gorgeous summer's afternoon when we idled past the 12th Century Beauchief Abbey up the leafy single track to the former outbuildings of the Manor House. When we drew up to unload, the barbecue had already been in full swing for several hours, and the cricketers had just finished and retired to the idyll of the clubhouse. It struck me that this was a most surreal setting for some blazin' Afro-Cuban tunes, and El Diablito inside me looked gleefully to launching a fervent Caribbean assault on this very picture of English gentility. The Caribs were, reputedly, a bunch of marauding boat-pushing cannibals...

I kept that image in mind.

Not long after we'd set up finished setting up, Thom appeared ruddy-faced from his exertions at another festival in Heeley. Again like at Mike's party, we shared the billing with another band but this time we elected to go first: Thom wasn't sure how much longer he could last, and Mike and I wanted the time afterwards to mill about and enjoy the rest of the evening's entertainments.

Jeremy, not content with playing on his Roland, singing vocals, and tapping pulse and clave, gets greedy and takes on the acoustic piano as well. Bonkers!

We played well, but I still felt a shade disappointed that we didn't quite have the same lustre of our best performances: maybe because both gluttons-for-punishment Whib and Thom had separately played gigs just hours earlier, probably because Catie's sure hand was missing. I look upon it as an opportunity to rampage missed. Nonetheless, the packed clubhouse was gobbling up the salsa invasion of their quaint little barbecue. If only I'd had some dancing girls handy...

When the final strains of montuno died away, the Guest of Honour spoke, thanking the hundred plus souls present for being there to celebrate, saying how flattered he had been by everyone's efforts, apologising for his retirement because of his ebbing energy, and wishing all a wonderful remainder of the evening. A poignant moment. It took a lot out of him to stay until the end of our set; I saw it in him, in his wheelchair, even as I sang.

The party picked up again with the blues band that followed. And they were good! Well they should be, given that many of them were old bandmates of Thom's. Munching on a much deserved hot dog, I distracted the pianist and rhythm guitarist as best I could from outside a window - all the musicians I know like a bit of levity when they're playing (apart from tango that is, where a pained expression is de rigueur). It was a real hoot.

The evening ended over a curry flavoured with satisfaction and a dusting of sobriety. Salsa might be for dancing but music, at least for tonight, was for living.

Loo Yen

Epilogue (dated 16th July 2009)
I heard today from Thom that the person for whom we performed passed away the following week. We're honoured to have been the last band he saw. This is to the memory of dedicated youth worker and Champion of their rights, Tom Collins.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Commentary: 13th June 2009 Joe Bataan @Rumberos, The Wardrobe, Leeds

When I found out that Joe Bataan was coming to my neck of the woods, there was nothing for it but to get my grubby mitts on a ticket. New York City's boogaloo 'crossover' period presaging salsa's birth is an epoch in Latin music that I am least familiar with, so I took this as Chance's blessing to witness one of its main protagonists in action.

The timing could not have been better as I needed to plug the gap for the sake of a commission I was undertaking (see later post). That was why I'd decided to do a 'J.K.Rowling' and checked into the rather swanky art deco Queens Hotel in Leeds, dedicating myself to pushing on with the first draft despite the invitations of a lovely day beyond the windows. Come ten 0'clock, I let myself outside and made the light summertime evening walk to the Wardrobe.

The downstairs concert venue is small with an optimistic capacity of four hundred. Marketeers would probably label it 'intimate', I call it a toaster-oven - even at partial saturation, you'd better be prepared to keep hydrating and bring spare changes of clothes. Like all sunken floors with gallery-style seating around it, the main dance area attracts more than its fair share of the attention-seeking with the awkwardness of restricted mobility at its edges. It is nevertheless a place which holds landmark memories after the trauma of Casa Latina's move from the Underground: namely the joys of experiencing Los Jovenes del Barrio, Wayne Gorbea and Ricardo Lemvo's Makina Loca.

It was a surprise to see only a handful of salsa regulars, especially when there weren't other big events going on. This region's scene is dominated by the North American-styles, countless exponents' lips of which have professed a love of salsa and an irresistible compulsion to dance to its music. And yet the only notable teacher of this school present was Dave Fenton, long-time stalwart of live music and founder of the Mambo Collective. Actions speak louder that words.

Or perhaps, to give the benefit of doubt, none of the others are partial to the music of Joe Bataan... a man whose music eclipsed that of Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente for three years, leading into the rise of New York salsa.

The event's main sponsor, Red Bull Music Academy, promotes collaborative efforts between artists of dissimilar backgrounds. Well, you won't get more dissimilar than this billing... Curiosity had me by the scruff of the neck wondering how on Earth James Pants, 'purveyor par excellence of that unmistakable “fresh beat”: 80’s Soul, Electro Boogie, Early Rap, New Wave, & Post-Punk Disco' was going to mash with JoeB.

Mr.Pants opened with his voice-effects processor backed by Grupo X and I began to see how there might have been some common ground; the Latin boogaloo did after all coincide with the substance-enhanced 'Psychedelic goes Latin' movement. Don Jaime Pantalones did two numbers before inviting Mr.Bataan to take his place behind the keyboards. All credit to James who admitted that the sonic experiment hadn't quite worked out and that he was going to stand to one side and just smack the cowbell for the rest of the evening. Which he duly did. Energetically.

Joe Bataan was hungry and evangelical. He performed like a person whom, having squandered a priceless opportunity and lived to regret it, was unexpectedly handed another one. In truth, I think he had. Joe spoke heartfully in-between songs using the narrative as a glue to hold the set-list together - tonight was his musical biography. During one such interlude he described his teetering on the brink of oblivion, the changes it wrought in his life, and the support he had through the episode from his wife Yvonne (there on vocals) and long-time friend Peter 'Chuckie' Quintero (on timbales). Playing on stage clearly meant more to him than just performing.

Being only superficially familiar with the body of work he presented, it'd be disingenuous for me to attempt a blow-by-blow account - that's why I consider this more as a commentary than a review.

What I got from the concert were priceless insights that I could not have obtained had I chosen to languish at home in my (rather attractive) carpet-slippers:
  1. You can do a lot with very little. Many of the songs started with just two or three instruments: perhaps kick drum on beats one and three, hand claps on two and four, and some call-backs (see earlier post); or piano montuno and vocals. And yet the musical groove that came out was highly infectious.
  2. Boogaloo is a Performance Art. Of the boogaloo recordings from the original NYC era, only a small handful succeeded in capturing my imagination. After experiencing it live, I understand better that it's an art more for stage than it is for disc. When I revisit them, it will be with that in mind; and I'll go as far as imagining the performance in front of me as I listen.
  3. The Rationale for 'Crossing-over'. The reasoning for Latin music's use of lyrics in English, an attempt to engage with the larger mainstream music consumer market, was much clearer - on evidence of the enthusiastic response from the mainly non-salsero audience.
  4. Audience Engagement. Joe gave the concert-goer a chance to see what it was like to be on the other side of the fence as a performer; something I have to ponder in my role as vocalist for 4 de Diciembre.
The role Grupo X with its line-up of 'British Jazz, Funk and Latin' musicians is also significant food for thought. Having backed Jimmy Bosch the last time he was in the United Kingdom (UK) and now Joe Bataan, the formation of a generic ensemble as 'body' onto which a big name 'head' can be plugged into (like statues in the Roman Empire) is recognisably a response to economic and regulatory pressures. Firstly, it's cheaper generally to bring just one artist plus a couple of key personnel than an entire ensemble from overseas. Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, approval for entry into the UK by Border Control is not guaranteed hence the risk has to be suitably managed.

As needs must.

Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of something in live music that has existed in salsa's record production for three decades: the drawing from a small pool of musicians, inadvertently giving rise to a geographically identifiable sound. Perhaps it will be through this route that the UK finally achieves its own salsa style. Perhaps...

That's just pure speculation for the moment.

What isn't, on the other hand, is that Joe Bataan is a true ambassador of the boogaloo art.

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, June 08, 2009

6th June 2009 4de Diciembre @Millennium Hall, Sheffield

Millennium Hall is one of my favourite places for a social: there's plenty of room to dance or sit and chat, yet small enough to have a warm atmosphere; the floor though unsprung is an even, predictable surface; acoustics are good; and temperatures are comfortable when the air-conditioning works, which is most of the time. The last time we played in the venue was a touch over three years ago at Nicola's 40th - 4 de Diciembre's debut. This time it was for Mike's retirement party.

With it being local, logistics were much simpler but we still needed to provide our own sound reinforcement. I took it as a good opportunity to road-test equipment that we hadn't used in a while, and to put the information I'd acquired over the last two years as regards setting up a PA to good use. 4 de Diciembre has downsized to a conjunto-ish format and I was keen to see how much of the setup we could manage ourselves.

So with everything packed into respective cars, we drew up to the place at 6:00pm last Saturday. I did have a twinge of trepidation as things didn't run particularly smoothly the last time we used the Soundcraft M12 desk a year ago, but I'd learned a lot since then. One of the advantages of working with supremos like Blast PA is how much you can pick up just by experiencing how they approach their work. Jeremy and I went about it the same way and thanks also to our recording project, we both knew our way around the mixer much better.

It took us forty-five minutes to put everything in place, and less than ten to soundcheck satisfactorily. Then there was the hidden catch... there were to be three other acts with different line-ups, and they expected to use our PA. Note the word 'expected'. Some of our hard work had to be undone and it looked like I was going to have to play the role of sound engineer to boot. I admit I was piqued, but there was no sense in taking issue with it; after all, everyone was there to give Mike a proper send-off from the world of work.

Mike, host of honour, being serenaded by his partner Kate
as part of an
a capella duo

As 4de12 were 'headlining' the programme and due on at the end, I spent the first part of the evening juggling mics and gains: there was a guitar and flute duo; an a capella duo featuring Mike's actress partner, Kate; Thom and his rhythm & blues ensemble complete with backing choir; and a melodion and folk guitar couple as well. It felt as if I'd had a backstage pass to a Jools Holland variety show. The DJ took over for a bit. This was my chance to grab a bite; being more than just a little peckish for the past couple of hours, I was in danger of becoming a bear with a sore head - not ideal for the evening's plans.

A couple of mini-quiches later and I was up on stage giving a salsa lesson. Given the time, the occasion and the audience, I adjusted the approach so that it had a bit of everything, a taster: the vocabulary was three basic steps, side-to-side, latin basic, and opening-outs; the bit on ear-training was to vocals and conga; the principles were on walks to salsa rhythm. There was even an impromptu demo with Ana to Celia Cruz's rather pacy 'Quimbara'; and all of it was wrapped up before the clock hit the forty-minute mark.

Teaching with an unruly member of the audience:
Thom's better half
, Adele

With me still panting from the demo, the band opened up with 'Bilongo'. 'El tambor' and 'Nueva generación' followed suit, we were joined by Mike's sister and her spouse on flute and electric guitar on 'Oye como va' and 'La bamba'. It was all judged to perfection in terms of length and execution. By a quirk of fate, three of 4 de Diciembre's former violinists: Bea, Jan and Willie were at the party. It was only when I mentioned it that they realised we didn't have a timbalero in our line-up; the new arrangements had worked so well that they hadn't noticed! Instead they were remarking about how rich we sounded. Score one to Catie and the gang.

I think the most genuine compliment came from professional musician in the audience who said, 'you deserve to be playing to a bigger audience' - very flattering indeed. But having been around the block a bit, I find I enjoy the warm intimacy of a smaller occasion as much as the electricity of a jam-packed dance hall.

Oh, and it also happened to be Jan's birthday so I hi-jacked Mike's do for a few seconds and made a deal out of it. The Belgian remained unruffled. Must try harder.

Cuatro de Diciembre in relaxed mode

In the final analysis,
  • everything we did: the equipment; the lesson; the set was entirely suited to purpose. That's a good thing because we're due to perform again in a fortnight, sadly under less jovial circumstances (more on that later).
  • as a sound tech I got lucky: the room didn't give me any problems at all; if it'd been like the one in Darlington... I shudder to think. Our microphones: Neumann KMS105s; Sennheiser Evolution 945s; Shure SM57s and 58s hardly needed any EQ on the desk and were great for feedback rejection. The only awkward one was the AMT Roam on Catie's flute. Two additional pieces of equipment would give us more versatility - a pair of powered speakers like the JBL EON 15 as a minimum spec, and at least one Sennheiser HD421 for the congas.
  • as an instructor, I need to develop a broader vocabulary of teaching points for the opening-outs if I don't intend on going via the back basic. An engaging way of presenting each basic as highly user-configurable at beginner level would be useful, to act as a bridge the salsa walk.
  • for the set, 'Oye como va' would be way stronger with more dynamics in its energy; and aesthetically I'd like to beef up the cuerpo of 'La bamba' and add a call-and-response section in the montuno with a theme to reconnect it to its folkloric roots.
All in all, it's been a good day. And Mike's send off was a resounding success, made all the more special as it was the first time Mike and Thom's family and friends had had a chance to experience 4de12. Now on to the next gig.

Loo Yen