Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Retrospection: 4 de Diciembre's Course Through 2009

The critical success of our final concert in 2009 was the culmination, and validation, of painstaking analysis and committed team effort in what has been one of the most turbulent years of 4 de Diciembre's history.

Two singers (Ferret, Nathan) and a timbalero (Dan) moved on at the beginning of the year; while at that same time our brass section, Mike and Thom, expressed a desire for greater involvement in the musical direction of the ensemble. I was very pleased to hear this, relishing a wider range of inputs; and it was the ideal time to do so, as 4de12 would have to re-arrange most of its numbers and repetoire to reflect the strengths to our changed line-up.

We started putting the brass in more central positions: cueing openings and breaks, carrying the main harmonic lines, and setting out more areas for improvisation. But a combination of factors cropped up that affected the ability of both horn players to attend regularly; by the early second quarter of the year, the pursuit had stagnated. Knowing that we couldn't be prepared in time, I had no alternative but to disappoint Tony by informing him that we would not be able to play for him at the Engine Shed.

4 de Diciembre had featured so well in the year before, that a high performance level had become associated with our name - I knew we could only take to the stage again if we could satisfy or exceed that standard; and as prodigiously talented as Catie is, the ensemble needed a strong and regular musician to complement her magical flute.

That person turned out to be Jan Rens.

Being a founding member of 4de12 through its previous incarnation, he agreed to return and play - his violin in partnership with the flute completed us as a charanga sextet. In truth, we'd all never stopped playing together: I'd set up the Conjunto Laloma acoustic quintet in November '08 with Ana (bass, vocals), Catie (flutes), Jan (violin), Jeremy (tres, vocals) and myself (guitar, lead vocals) as a vehicle for the exploration of AfroCuban music from the fundamentals upwards.

My promise to them was that I would develop 4 de Diciembre's music on the same principles that had worked so well with Laloma. It was an easy one to make, as I believe to my core that it is the best way to play; and an easy one to keep, because every musician in the ensemble now felt the same.

The rebirth of 4de12 began over the summer, built on a conceptual foundation laid down by Laloma where each song was played, analysed, disassembled, rearranged, and prepared for public performance. It was painstaking work. To raise the stakes further, I also selected several covers for case study and as potential candidates for our playlist.

When I returned from the Far East at the end of September, we had a mountain to climb and three months to do it in. Group practices grew to thrice weekly to account for absences due to commitments to other bands (and in my case, teaching). It was my responsibility to plan the schedule to be ready on time; work with Whib in articulating new percussion rhythms; determine breaks, ensemble arrangements and sectional changes; support Catie's genius and Jan's moments of inspiration; and maximise Ana's practice times, as she was personally bearing a mammoth teaching load.

The result?

Cuatro de Diciembre delivered two highly articulate sets as a heavy-hitting sexteto, punching well above its weight. The successful strategies were based on those of Arsenio Rodríguez, whose conjunto commonly took on the Big Bands in 1930s Cuba.

We played not four, but five new covers to counterpoint our vast original material: "Buscándote", "Muévete", "El Reloj de Pastora", "Talento de Televisión", and "Ya Lo Sé"; which were all enthusiastically received. Many musicians will acknowledge how much of a challenge some of these numbers are to interpret well.

Every song featured new arrangements, some to within an inch of their lives.

It's considered poor form for an artist actively to solicit the views of his or her audience after a performance, so I didn't. But what was volunteered from the lips of those who had seen us last year, was that 4de12:
  • played engaging songs at comfortable dance pacings;
  • had beautiful arrangements; and
  • possessed as full a sound yet was all-the-more dynamic.
I'm happy, and I'm satisfied.

Happy that that mountain of effort all of us put in, made such a noticeable difference. I'm satisfied that the music direction we're taking, building from AfroCuban first principles, is the right one.

Cuatro de Diciembre in its moment of truth

We're now back at the performance level of where we were a year ago.

Scratch that, we're better - as individual musicians, as ensemble players, with deeper roots. It is a special feeling to be sharing the stage as friends, ready to play at the drop of a hat. Few bands can cope with what many would regard as a seismic change in line-up, but it's a shining testament to the quality of 4 de Diciembre's musical core to come back and play better than before - in less than a single year.

Normally that would be enough, but through my teaching and this remarkable band, I got something more for Christmas... I got the chance to introduce good people to good people: Marco and Lina to Chris, Sue, Tony and Mary.

It's been a year to remember.


Monday, December 21, 2009

19th December 2009 Cuatro de Diciembre with SalsaYarm@Tower Club Ballroom, Middlesborough

Our first anniversary return to Yarm coincided with one of the most highly disruptive snowstorms to grip the United Kingdom in many a year; and we'd kept our keenest ears pinned to the weatherman's lips in the run-up, wondering if our best preparations might be for nought. Ultimately, the band opted for an early start and was rewarded with a straight run to the tower ballroom, but by the time we alighted in the late twilight, flurries were chasing themselves over shoe-deep snow at the foot of the old church tower.

Things were looking a wee bit on the uphill side... especially more so after we'd set up onstage and the sound reinforcement crew were still nowhere to be found.

Whib, our congüero-bongocero.
30 seconds later, he was making snoooozy-sounds

Decemberists busied themselves reading, chewing, or snoozing (in Whib's case); and I reacquainted myself with the dancer's delight of a floor, stretching out with a solo effort of a slow foxtrot to the tune of 'oohs' and 'aahs' from one of the windows. Sadly they weren't for my trottings - Ana and Catie had discovered front row seats to an iconic English winter wonderland scene: that of an arterial motorway grinding to a rather spectacular halt.

Emerging from a fall-away slip-pivot, I turned to be greeted by Mary Piper's winning smile; Tony Piper and Chris Hields weren't far behind. As well as a firm friendship, we all shared, in that moment, a strong disapproval for the churlish behaviour of the weather gods. We unwrapped Christmas contingency plans and I briefed the band on the worst case scenario of having to perform semi-acoustically. I'd no sooner finished than the lads from JSS audio drew up, hefting a veritable mountain of P.A.

Muévelo: JSS Audio really shifting

Is that a silver lining I spy before me?

Soundcheck stretched past 'doors open' and the determined revellers who'd bravely made it in were treated to an extra rendition of two of our numbers. That was all it took: a couple of songs on top of individual mic checks, a total of fifteen speedy minutes. Peachy's the word! JSS were as competent and well equipped as BlastPA - the only thing that foxed the two young engineers was the Markbass amp which Ana was playing through.

Sue, Chris, Mary and Tony chose to delay the onset of the party salsa lesson to allow for latecomers; and when they finally did get underway, Chris cheerily warned me off sharking around in his lesson after the antics of last year. Tail between my legs, I skulked off to sulk... that is, until I caught sight of Marco and Lina's arrival (from Red Hat Salsa in Reading, see previous posts). That they made it at all was a touching act of dogged determination, despite being back just up the road for Christmas. SalsaYarm would not countenance my covering their entrance, and had generously them put on the guest list.

Just before we were due to play, Chris asked whether we would shorten our sets to accommodate the dance performance at the interval as things were running late. I happily acceded; we were there to provide a service after all. My fellow Decemberists were inclined to drop our more recent songs, reasoning that our more established numbers would allow us all to perform with more punch. I very much understood their point.

However, I felt that we shouldn't let the chance to blood our new songs slip by because:
  • it's only in the furnace of a live performance where one properly understands a song's substance and how it could be performed better;
  • all were unusual covers that many people on the floor could relate to; and
  • the playlist order was set out with very deliberate changes in texture, where the covers and originals combined in a way that complemented each other.
The guys decided to trust my judgement.

4 de Diciembre opened with the pacey original "El Gallo" [The Rooster], a crowd pleaser and band favourite - the third song Ana and I ever wrote. Being a sexteto, we all fitted neatly onto the small stage with me alternately being dazzled by a bright green spotlight or inadvertently 'Glasgow-kissing' the Christmas bell decorations on either side. The set flowed every bit as well as anticipated, from "En La Sangre", through "El Reloj de Pastora", "Bilongo", "Tempest", "Buscándote" and ending on a high with the Cuban classic "Pintate Los Labios, María".

Tony slapped a couple of stonking tracks on the decks before inviting the Encuentro Latino student troupe onto the floor in what would be their penultimate display before they disband. They broke On2 to the rat-a-tat percussion of Tito Puente's "Ran Kan Kan", much to the appreciation of the collected party-goers. Two songs after that and I had a face-full of green once again.

Shrek the halls with riffs of salsa

Ana opened up with Bembé's bassline groove, and it was as if we'd never left off. That's the best way to be. "El Hechizo del Montuno", "Hijos de Cam", "Talento de Televisión", and "Nueva Generación" powered by, and all too soon we were closing with "Ya Lo Sé" and "Muévete" - a most magical live pairing. All that remained was a belated introduction of Catie, Jan, Whib, Ana, and Jeremy to the audience, and heartfelt thanks to all who were there including Sue, Mary, Chris and Tony.

The responses to 4de12's performance were all overwhelmingly positive, unsolicited and corroborated: from friends Lina, Marco and a sundry others; the dancing audience including Richard, himself a leader of a Latin band, who fondly recalled last year's gig; and my promoter-friends who tell me like it is. By the time I'd tripped some fantastic light with the revellers and packed down, the anniversary was over and we bade our season's goodbyes.

Sitting on the front passenger seat and watching the dark snowscape pass us by, I thought on all that had transpired in the year since 4de12's debut at SalsaYarm.

(On to 'Retrospection: 4 de Diciembre's Course Through 2009'.)

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, December 07, 2009

4th December 2009 Mambo con Rumbo @Slug and Lettuce, York

Once a month, on its opening Friday, the great and the good of York's salsa community congregate in the farthest corner of Swinegate to indulge in an unseemly display of dance solidarity. Gyrating together in a travesty of good-two-shoes libertarian behaviour at the Slug and Lettuce watering hole (not to be confused with the identically named one next to the river, to which the unknowing are cunningly misdirected), 'On1ers' from Mary and Tony's SalsaYork and 'breaking On2ers' from Lossie and Gareth's Encuentro Latino do nothing at all to reinforce the convention of market segmentation gripping the commercial salsa world.

This author turned up to cast disapproval at such brazen proceedings...

Actually, I turned up because I'd been hearing from Tony about how this night was going great guns and to support the North's latest live music debutantes - Mambo con Rumbo (yes, it's rumbo, not rumba), featuring people whom I'd become increasingly acquainted with via Twelfth night and the Engine Shed, reinforced by a strengthening social network both corporeal and electronic. It was also the 4th of December, and such alignment of the planets could only be ignored at one's peril.

"It's all very much last-minute as usual" I thought, as I clutched my overnight bag on the train to York post-work. Dinner was an intimate affair with Mary, Tony and myself at a busy and cosy brasserie in the middle of the historic city a stone's throw from the Minster; an ideal way to update each other on our lifestyles' circumstances. Come nine o'clock, we forsook our tables for the Slug and Lettuce to unload the gear and set up. Steve Carter (timbalero, vocalist), Gareth Roberts (conguero), Phil Moores (bass, songwriter), and Adam Parnell (flautist, saxophonist, music director) were already on-site preparing for soundcheck; and after the jovialities, I removed myself from underfoot to evaluate the venue.

The Slug and Lettuce is a chain of modern pub-eateries whose physical premises are pleasantly less 'busy' in decor and arrangement than their web-image suggests. Their menu is somewhere in-between as regards coherence, but their bar offerings are accurately targeted. Staff morale was solid, and the supervising management was good-natured and accommodating - it was clear that both parties, the promoters (Gareth, Lossie, Mary and Tony) and venue management, had put effort into cultivating a good business relationship. It bodes well for an enduring salsa night.

With the fading of the last meal sitting, a cord barrier was put in place to partition off the dance area. The polished wooden flooring throughout is a nice surface to move on, although the split-level nature of it, in effect, divided the available space into two long-but-slim stretches, aside from the spot occupied by the band. Nevertheless, the Slug could (and did) cheerily accommodate a hundred and sixty grooving souls with a band in place.

The main event was Mambo con Rumbo playing to a friendly crowd; there was plenty of home-town support for its band members, many of whom have been long-term protagonists on the salsa scene. Its single set of about eight numbers, half of which were instrumental, were well chosen to suit dancers. There is an obvious difference (in the U.K.) between the music of bands that comprise dancers and those that do not, and Mambo con Rumbo decidedly belong in the former. The nine person line-up comprised: congas, timbales/vocals, hand percussion/vocals, piano, bass, alto saxophone/flute/vocals, tenor saxophone, trumpet and trombone; and their interpretation style struck me as salsa dura with a hint of romántica arrangement and dose of jazz. It was NYC, despite cover version nods to Venezuela with Llorarás and Colombia with El Preso.

Adam's hand as a music teacher with arrangement experience was evident with the assuredness of the horns; Gareth and Steve's backgrounds as enduring aficionados of percussion presented its flavours strongly; and the instrumental number penned by Phil comfortably withstood scrutiny by the dance floor. Mambo con Rumbo as an ensemble displayed all the ingredients for the realisation of potential: creativity, crucial for developing a unique identity; musicality; organisation and arrangement; direction, in the band's navigation of salsa genres; and most overlooked of all, grounding i.e. persistent contact with the needs of the target audience.

I was the most impressed with Gareth's tumbaos. His phrasing is as authentically Latin as I've ever heard - a benchmark for any aspiring salsa musician; there is a guile and subtlety in his touch which belies a deep-seated, seemingly innate, understanding of the essence of salsa.

Before the gyrating hordes:
Mambo con Rumbo at soundcheck.

As a debut it was more than just commendable, and I shall be keen to follow their progress with interest.

The powerful things about bands are, that a good one can establish an atmosphere like no other artefact. The warm glow of salsa was carried through the rest of the night with Gareth, George a.k.a. 'Doctor Salsa' and Tony as torchbearers on the decks. It was particularly touching to have Tony announce the significance of El Cuatro de Diciembre and dedicate one of our favourite tracks: 'La Candela' by Yerba Buena, that most Cuban of New York bands, to the occasion.

No-one minded that, by then, the clock had struck well into the fifth.

Yeo Loo Yen

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

El Reloj de Pastora

There are times when, as a musician, you can feel the potential in a song. It's a feeling of great promise as yet untapped, where every ounce of effort poured in will be rewarded in kind, now matter how much your own abilities grow. Such pieces are rare, gems to be treasured, nurtured even, and this classic composed by Arsenio Rodríguez is one. The example I selected for us to learn from is Sierra Maestra's fine interpretation; first for Conjunto Laloma, and lately for 4 de Diciembre.

'El Reloj de Pastora' is proving to be an inspired addition to our playlist. Its unusual key and lulling hypnotic quality of its harmonic progression; moving from B flat minor to A flat major, then transiting through F major on the return to the root, creates an interesting harmonic space for soloing - something the Decemberists have very much enjoyed. The challenge has been, and continues to be, the song's revealing simplicity and how we adapt it best to our instrumentation.

The lyrical theme is based on iteration and misdirection, and as such places heavy demand on a singer's ability to interpret and phrase. The high tessitura of the original key is a chance to develop the upper section of my vocal range, and thankfully 'El Reloj de Pastora' can accept a singing style slightly more laced with overt classical technique than most salsa numbers. The thematic subtexts; the metaphorical meanings that inform the phrasing, are taking a little more time to understand, because it's not literally about "The Shepherdess' Clock" - I read it as being about a something-someone's time.

As a personal journey, 'El Reloj de Pastora' is opening the way to a better understanding of the son and the son montuno. Yes, 4 de Diciembre are charanga-salsa in lineup, and I wanted to preserve that son montuno lilt despite the move to salsa instrumentation, but with a contemporary edge. Strangely enough, it was a stubborn desire both to play the slow rhythm on the güiro and to dance contratiempo while singing that provided a flavour of authenticity.

Nothing worth learning comes cheaply.

I found that the upper body güiro rhythm (one cycle per bar) and the lower body contratiempo rhythm (one cycle per two bars), provided the independent reference points necessary for rhythmic triangulation to solidify the vocal phrasing in the son montuno style. Managing the attacks of the vocals (early), güiro (middle) and dance (late) is awkward for now, but getting less so every day.

At least there's a clear course of development for this singing-güiroing-dancing escapade: moving to son montuno and then chachachá footwork.

©Copyright 2004 World Circuit. All Rights Acknowledged.

Manuel Güajiro Mirabal's version hasn't yet found its way into my lap, but it will once we've got a stronger handle on the groove - I've got a feeling that the trumpet ideas could well propel our playing of the song to new heights. After we've built up the basics that is. Until then, it'll have to twiddle its thumbs impatiently on my wishlist.

Santa... ¿porfi?