Monday, July 20, 2009

Musical Directions - 4 de Diciembre and Conjunto Laloma

It's been nice to get back to the business of playing music again... in a more committed fashion I mean. For the last few months it was a case of trying to keep things ticking over as much as I could, while chipping away at the mountain on my plate. The effect of my being torn between projects was felt more keenly in Conjunto Laloma (than Cuatro de Diciembre) for three reasons: the smaller line-up is more transparent to the impact of an individual's effort; we practice more often and at a skills-based level; and because I fulfil two central roles as singer and as provider of the rhythm stream.

During this period of time, Jeremy's progress as tresero has been very impressive; I told him the other day that he seems to speak more freely through the voice of the tres than the piano (and he's no slouch on the keyboard!) If anything it's been a relief to pick up the guitar in anger once again and do justice to their efforts - although like the true friends that they are, Ana, Catie, Jan and Jeremy have been the very ideals of support and understanding.

Yesterday, Conjunto Laloma gathered at Ana's place for a change; to practice and to share a meal together delivered from our favourite Chinese dispensary. There, I outlined what I saw as our starting set: American Sueño, Caminando, Chan Chan, El Carretero, El Reloj de Pastora, Lágrimas Negras, Montón de Estrellas, Ya Lo Sé and Yo Soy El Sonero; plans to solidify our arrangements and playing to a performance standard by the end of the year, and the strategy for improving our fundamental musicianship a lo cubano. The latter involved a launch into changes of rhythmic texture using of triplet motifs; it's been on the cards for months and I sensed that a convivial Sunday afternoon provided hot enough iron.

4 de Diciembre presents a differing range of challenges. Since the proportion of our line-up now leans more heavily towards the melodics than percussion compared to any point in our history, many arrangements are still being worked through. However with respect to the Latin style of playing, the knowledge-base which informs these arrangements comes from Catie and myself. Ideally Mike and Thom would be equally fluent with salsa idioms, and to that end I took the decision to recommend that we augment our playlist with more covers, which would add more textures and serve as case studies. Both our horns agreed that this was something they'd very much enjoy doing, so we spent the last practice session dedicated to finding which of my recommendations they found inspiring. As chance would have it they selected American Sueño and Caminando by La Excelencia; as well as Vacilar by Orquesta Gitano and Talento de Televisión by Willie Colón and Rubén Blades.

As music director, I'm very much anticipating the prospect of interpreting the same song with different line-ups; it seems a natural progression for someone with an interest in music arrangement. There are a couple of things in the periphery that we might try our hand at - a translation of Yerba Buena's El Burrito from a cumbia into a songo con marcha; or Calle Real's Ya Lo Sé into a full salsa arrangement, for example.

Time to stop with the words and pick up the action.

Hasta next time.

Loo Yen Yeo

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

'Situating Salsa' edited by Lise Waxer

is a collection of thirteen essays by twelve authors, with two of them being written by Lise Waxer and another two translated by her. It strikes me that the intent of the volume is to let salsa be spoken of by many voices, and as such the content shifts significantly in perspective: from the socially scientific, the musically analytical, the weightily philosophical, to the personally meaningful.

Through the book's myriad of tonal textures, salsa is presented as a multifaceted entity - an approach which challenges, informs, and encourages the reader to (re)define what salsa means to him or her. It is a mature collection allowing differing opinions to be expressed, simultaneously keeping them discrete by chapter so as to avoid dissonance.

'Situating Salsa' achieves its overall coherence despite its international scope by organising the contributions into three sections of progressive themes:
  1. Locating Salsa in its mainspring environments - geographically, sociologically, musically;
  2. Personalising Salsa through biography; and
  3. Relocating Salsa in its diaspora;
hence the book's subtitle 'Global Markets and Local Meaning in Latin Popular Music'. I particularly noted the use of both 'salsa' and 'Latin popular music' on its front cover; since there is considered treatment as to whether salsa has evolved from a catch-all marketing term to a legitimate genre, and treatment of the boogaloo as its precursor. There is something here for everyone: from the interested hobbyist dancer or musician to the career musicologist, and it will reward you upon every revisit. What it does not have is the single thread of one storyteller. Instead think of its broad compass as akin to what you might encounter at an animated dinner party, you'd not be off the mark - because you'd take your leave satiated from all the variety, having learned something new, and with plenty to ruminate on.

'Situating Salsa' is recommended reading if you're beginning to wonder about what salsa means to you.

Loo Yeo

Saturday, July 04, 2009

3rd July 2009 La Exelencia @Rumberos, The Wardrobe, Leeds

If any concert laboured under the weight of expectation, it would be this one. As I descended the red-walled stairs into the cauldron that is The Wardrobe, I spied many of the region's great and good: Mary and Tony of Salsa York, Lossie and Gareth of Encuentro Latino, Amos de Roover of Salsa Sin Limite, Dave Fenton of Mambo Collective, and organisers Fabio Bahia and Lubi of course; gathered together for what we anticipated to be the gig of the year. The floor was just getting packed under the exhortations of Simon Taylor, the Midlands-based Flip and Bounce salsa instructor, as his lesson got underway - an apt 'New York' style prelude to the main event.

Hanging with Tony Piper

I'd been aware of La Excelencia's progress, notified mainly by Facebook's photo updates, and knew that this was the last date since their arrival via the Channel Tunnel: a hectic schedule which took in Brighton, London and Glastonbury. A small part of me felt trepidation on the band's part; 'Mi Tumbao Social' had raised the bar so high, and I wondered how much there was in the tank after a grueling world tour. And there was the added consideration that artists can be good musicians, performers or entertainers, but very few are blessed with the complete package.

I busied myself with dalliances and a spot of not-very-clean dancing. Before I knew it La Excelencia had sprung out of the woodwork, giving us the CD's opening track 'Salsa dura' full-bore!

My initial impressions were good, but not sensational. There was a mismatch between what I saw on stage and what I heard: La Excelencia were playing tighter than a proverbial pit-bull's behind with its proverbials in a vice; and yet the music lacked sparkle - the sound pressure levels were too high for the room; the cymbals lacked 'air' because of a high frequency cut; the piano, central to their album's sound, was imperceptible; and the lead vocals sounded forced as if battling fatigue. I tuned out the audio preferring to emphasise the visual spectacle instead, waiting for the sound techs to get their act together.

I was right.

Giving it the beans: La Excelencia's vocal dynamo

At the end of the number the singers wanted their stage monitors on, not just up! That explained the 'forced' quality. As the sound improved, La Excelencia lengthened their stride and ramped up the atmosphere. In my review of their album, I'd failed to mention the herculean lead vocalists Edwin Pérez and Gilberto Velázquez. I couldn't do so here. As the band's front men they are phenomena to be reckoned with live: dominating presences at the front-of-stage who just exude tremendous energy during performance.

Their set-list was a well chosen sequence of dynamics and so deliberately made for dancing, seamlessly marshaled through the hand of music director and pianist Willy Rodriguez. That they executed it all with such seemingly deceptive ease made me lime-green with envy, but more with admiration. During 'Aña pa' mi tambor' the dance floor, normally filled with oblivious-to-live-music salseros, had eyes for naught but the stage - there is NO greater compliment in this country.

When Looey met Willy - finally, in person

The culmination of their startling gig was a climax where the brass section paraded through the audience playing moñas drawing the involvement of the dancers. On stage was a virtuoso dance solo in the urban style, the rumba columbia from New York City. I mentally willed La Excelencia to play every song from the album. But that wasn't going to happen. I would have liked to hear them play a good ole Fania classic like 'Todo tiene su final' or 'Mi gente', just so I could assess that dimension of their prodigious ability. That didn't happen either.

But what I had was enough.

La Excelencia are a band of irrepressible youth, yet they possess the maturity to play with the fuerza (power) and afinque (cohesion) of their paragon forefathers. That makes them rare. That they record and entertain magnificently to boot...

La Excelencia givin' it their salsa thing!

That, makes them unique.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Challenge (Part One)

If this post were spoken word, you'd hear the relief in my voice.

It's been a lazy evening and a patchy night's sleep since pressing the 'send' button, but the listlessness that accompanies the completion of a large project (you know, the big ones that make themselves a part of your life) is still with me.

I received an email ten weeks ago via the website asking whether I would be willing to accept a commission for an article. Dubiousness was the first pang I felt; my inbox pays unflinching witness all sorts, including some interesting uses for meringue. I responded with a cautious expression of interest and began my due diligence. Some email tennis and surfing later it turned out that the query was legitimate, and from a top-end publisher.

The Mission, should I have chosen to accept it, was to write about the globalisation of salsa as an entry for an encyclopaedia, in the house style, to a whale-bone corset of a three thousand words, and have it peer-reviewed by some pretty august peers... in two and a half months.

I exhaled slowly and leant back in my chair.

It's a tough ask for any professional; not any single factor, but all of them in combination. The whole world in two months, allowing for the unforeseen. Daunted was the second pang. There were plenty of reasons, excuses all, I could think of not to step up to the mark. On the other side of the balance scales, well, financially let's just say that people accepting this kind of commission do so to enhance their standing. But with a peer-review system that's never a guarantee; so if I did it at all, it would be for other reasons and publication would have to be the icing on the cake.

I wrote back accepting the challenge. Because I knew above all that if I didn't, I'd forever be thinking 'What if?'

And so it began.

The first three weeks, I started a master document of possibly-relevant points, mapped out a coarse structure and had a stab at the introduction. The points alone came up to four thousand words. Oops! And the draft intro didn't speak clearly, and the run into the section following felt like blocked circulation telling me that the framework was weak. Difficulty in coming up with a convincing working title simply confirmed it.

But by this time, thankfully, I had a pretty good idea of what I didn't know.

Although I could now hear every tick of the clock, there was no alternative but to track down more sources and put extra mileage on my eyeballs. Another precious four weeks passed, but as they progressed a shiny new structure emerged with the working title 'Transnational flows of salsa' and there came an opening section that flowed. The downside was that the increased knowledge made the master document tip over seven thousand words.

With well less and a month to go there was a culling of points with some frantic biro action and a rather tired-looking laptop, working on a combination of paper and keyboard. The rest of life was put on hold - practice sessions, nights dancing, and sleep were sacrificed on the tall altar of penmanship. In return I had the benedictions of more caffeine, eating out in restaurants where I could put paper to work, and more trips to the gym to pair mental tiredness with the physical.

It was a strange but nonetheless welcome consolation to hear from friends that I was being missed.

The last fortnight passed in a blur: the first draft was finished with seven days to go at just over four thousand words; then came five cycles of editing as I chopped off successive layers of literary fat. Editing was painful but necessary, serving to focus on what exactly was the core of the subject. Close to the end, the structure looked like this:
  1. Introduction describing transnational salsa as a music and dance genre;
  2. Origins of the word, from flavour term to stylistic label;
  3. Properties of the music including the psychoacoustics for dance;
  4. Structural elements of a 'typical' salsa song;
  5. The five main schools of salsa performance with a comment on corroborating dance movement;
  6. Historical perspective on the development of each school;
  7. Other areas of production including the re-Africanization of salsa;
  8. References and recommended reading/listening/watching.
It's over, at least for now.

Unlike patronage during the Renaissance, this is 'try-before-you-buy' and I have to await the outcome of the editors' review. Until then, there's a more than a little reflection to be done.

Loo Yeo