Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Weekender At Red Hat Salsa

"That's a whole weekender" remarked Christophe.

I hadn't thought of it that way. It was that dwelling period that we have over coffees just after lunch - one of the little luxuries we to afford ourselves as we catch up. The inimitable man from Biarritz had just asked me how much teaching I was to do in Reading next weekend. Christophe knew my nose had been kept firmly to the keyboard; organising material for the workshops, and having to put plenty of salsa-related items, like the updating of this blog, on hold.

It happened a while ago when Sharon, who runs the successful Red Hat Salsa in the Reading/Bracknell area, contacted me by email after happening across the website in a bid for more words on salsa's history. We kept the jungle drums beating while I was in the Far East, and together finally arrived at a date, times, and topics for things she wanted me to cover for Red Hat.

Although I'd already sent outlines to her whilst in Penang, I decided to make a rod for my own back and go further by preparing indicative schedules, just as I'd done for Tony Piper at 12th Night.

I regard this as simply 'best practice'.
  • A well prepared schedule questions the best order of priority for the learning points, identifies aspects that might otherwise be overlooked, and forces the design of flexibility into its structure.

  • A primary factor affecting the performance of a guest instructor is an understanding of local learning culture. Treated as product specification document, the process has given us both (with me being the provider and Red Hat Salsa the client) a chance to prepare something suited to the purpose.

  • It informs parties of what to expect, that way only those genuinely interested in the topics will attend. Sometimes this can be a source of tension for promoters who want as strong an attendance as possible, but thankfully most acknowledge that a successful workshop is of better long-term value than a well-attended disappointing one.

  • Detailed documents are a source of strong marketing support to the promoter, and having been on the receiving end more than just a couple of times, I make sure I do my utmost to help.

  • A schedule also provides an educator (i.e. me) with a performance benchmark against which feedback can be used to identify areas of success and improvement.
I also took it as an opportunity to do some long-overdue house-keeping of my learning materials.

A question which posed some internal conflict was, 'should I restrict circulation of the documents or not?'. All know-how is hard-worn, and certainly in the case of Verdant, the more important the information, the more qualification is required of the potential recipient.

But salsa is different.

For better or worse, I don't instruct in the same arena as most social salsa teachers so there is no need to indulge in competitive defensive practices. But there is something more fundamental at heart - when I first started teaching, I made a personal promise not to hold back; this was after experiences, with myself as student, of teachers who did. When I emailed the files to Sharon, I made no mention of any restrictions in distribution - they've since passed through her mailing lists.

So here it is, the workshops for Red Hat Salsa next weekend:
  1. Saturday Morning: A Year In A Day, Part 1 - The Efficient Mover
  2. Saturday Afternoon: A Year In A Day, Part 2 - Power and Culture
  3. Sunday Noon: Hear It, Imagine It, Dance It - The Route to Improvisatory Dancing
  4. Sunday Afternoon: Dancing Beyond The Count
That's a whole weekender alright!

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, October 26, 2009

Latin Percussion's Compact Congas

I've got a not-very-salsa-street-cred confession to make...

I've been lusting after a set of LP compact congas for a while; since they first appeared and won the 2003 Musikmesse International Press Award (MIPA) as a matter of fact. And six years is an awfully long time to wait, but finally the time was right to let a set into my front room.

The main driver is the sexteto format of 4 de Diciembre. I've had, with the agreement of Ana, Catie, Jan and Jeremy, to suspend Conjunto Laloma practices until the new year; giving over the time slots to 4de12 instead. This is to make sure we can be ready for our Middlesborough concert with Chris and Sue's SalsaYarm. In return, I gave my assurance that our ground-up approach to musicianship and arrangements embedded in Laloma's practices would persist into 4de12 sexteto.

The compact congas and bongo have come into play because it gives a wider palette of percussive sounds with a very small footprint. Since I've now taken a structural approach to playing güiro and bongo bell, it has allowed Wib to play more freely; the addition of more soloing surfaces goes a long way into offsetting the absence of a timbalero. There is also the opportunity for increased dynamics through the incorporation of contrasting son and pilón-style passages.

Future expandability's looking bright: without the presence of full-sized shells, there's room underneath to deploy pedal percussion (something Wib is very fluent with) like jamblock, cowbell, bass drum, triggered samples, hi-hats; and played with sticks, we could re-incorporate timbales with a bass drum and move to a songo-style sound. We'd have to move to practice rooms if we went down the latter route, but the set-up is very portable.

All this would have been for nought had the sound from the compact units had been of poor sound. There were some reservations: I figured that the open tones would lack sustain, body and warmth; biasing the way one played towards the dry slap strokes - my discussions with Karl of Electromusic (from whom I eventually purchased them) seemed to confirm that. However, Jeremy had played on them when he was in the States, and they had Giovanni Hidalgo and MIPA's endorsement on their side.

Latin Percussion's compact bongó and congas.
AfroCuban drums, but not as we know them

The promise of so much flexibility proved too much to endure, and so it was that the big LP stork placed the new baby into my arms last Friday. Tuning started that day and continued through most of 'Strictly Come Dancing' on Saturday, ready for use in anger on Sunday's practice. I took the time to settle the skins, made sure all the heads were tuned to each other, and most importantly of all, tensioned the heads for the fullest open tones.

Ana, Catie, Jan and Jeremy were mightily impressed. Catie called them 'space-age' thinking it weird that such a full sound could emanate from what was effectively a frame drum. I'm just as baffled. They play more like fibreglass drums: not a lot of warmth, but loads of projection and easy on the hands. The stands, although heavy-duty and double-braced, still flex a bit compared to a wooden shell under compression; and I had to adjust my strokes accordingly. They're so good that when it came time to discussing our transportation needs for Middlesborough, we all agreed that the compact units were the best choice for sound and space-saving.

My personal Brucie bonus is that bringing congas and bongó my salsa workshops is greatly facilitated. I'm looking forward to the greater liberty, spontaneity and interactivity that being unfettered from the CD player brings.

Long live innovation.

Loo Yen