Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Is Important?

I will be standing in front of the mics tonight, doing the same as I did last night.

After a decent spell of soul-searching and a heart-to-heart with friend, confidante and co-writer Ana, I've laid my timbale development on the sacrificial altar of Víspera. Playing the past evenings to the first cut-pass mixdowns has crystallised the realisation of how close the album is to finishing. And yet, with my vocals and congas being the first step of the critical path, the work could not proceed until I've done my part.

Ana understands how importantly the timbales feature potentially in the future of 4 de Diciembre; and she too, has made her fair share of sacrifices for the band. Over the snatched moment of her lunch, Ana expressed her preference, candidly and unburdened by expectation, for Vispera's progress to be at the fore.

I'd come nearly to the same conclusion; 'nearly' in that I was still looking for a way to have my cake and eat it. If I prioritised the recording of lead vocals, only a little effort would be needed to prepare for each song, and therefore the rate-limiting step would be the availability of Dave, my-partner-in-studio-crime, to work some magic with Cubase and press the record button. Practice times on timbales and congas (for the next recording step) could be arranged around these dates.

I sent Dave a speculative text and, bless him, he freed himself up yesterday and today in a busy run-up to Christmas. If things go well tonight, I'll have suitable final vocal takes to work on, to keep me from being a glassy-eyed, TV-swilling, Auld-Lang-Syne-singing lounge potato. In-between sessions on the drums, that is.

A timely reminder that in the midst of so much that can be done, determining what should be done can be resolved by digging deep and asking the question, "exactly what IS important?"

Loo Yeo

Friday, December 17, 2010

Doing The Hard Stuff

It feels as if everything that's happened over the past few years has culminated in preparing me for this one moment - taking on the challenge of being lead vocalist and timbalero at the same time.

If I were a believer in the Fates, I would say that it was their hands that had wrought it so, because all the key elements are in place:
  • The Festive lull - unlike most households, the Christmas and New Year period is a relaxed, introspective period after the frenetic activity of late-November to early-December;
  • The first cut pass of Víspera's songs have just been completed - the mixdowns provide the most context-accurate material to play to;
  • Playing of the timbale ride patterns is on the verge of being naturalised - a sustained effort has freed up enough cognitive overhead to process vocals as well, resulting in three (possibly four) way independence - vocals, clave, shell or bell pattern (pulse marked with a foot);
  • Compelling reasons for doing so - for the sake of the band, a timbalero adds more percussive weight to the ensemble, helps define the song's structure, and gives Whib our conguero someone closer to play off; for the sake of Víspera, I'll be having to lay down new and replacement timbale recordings.
The first stage of developmental independence is to be able to sing, play the rides and cue the transitions; with the target time being mid-January when band practice resumes. Having just done two evenings worth of solid practice, progress has been good using the cáscara, son clave in the context of one song, 'Hijos de Cam'. So much so, that 'Corazón Fugitivo' gets the cáscara and rumba clave treatment tonight.

Most of all, I'm curious and excited to find out what unexpected gifts this atypical-and-not-particularly-easy endeavour is going to do to my understanding of musicality and dancing.

Exciting times are happening right now!

Loo Yen

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Cut Pass

One of the first things a mixing engineer/arranger/producer does upon receiving and listening to audio from the recording engineer is a cut pass. In principle the idea is straight-forward: simply to cut out any material extraneous to the song. The actuality is anything but.

Deciding on what to leave out requires a firm sense of what constitutes the Essence of the song, as gleaned from the different voices of the people - the performers, the lyricists, the songwriters, and the producers - who've had a hand in its creation. For me, having assumed all four roles for Víspera, the cut pass has been at both times easy and difficult.

Its been easy because with the first lyrical melodies from the very start, a completed version of the song has lived in my mind. 'Completed' as I would have performed every part.

The challenge has been in loosening the Grip of Conviction sufficiently to listen, understand, appreciate, and weave a place for my peers' virutoso expressions; so that they augment the vision with their own understanding, making each work richer from the creativity of more than one. And so when it's come to the cut pass, a lot of the work has been emotional-intellectual: in reconciling what I understand the song to be as its songwriter-performer, with the ideas of my friends who've breathed it to greater life.

With my producer hat on, I'm conscious of not to riding rough-shod over 4 de Diciembre's individual musical interpretations - I have to be even more a builder, and a reluctant blocker. It's a team-working thing where:
  1. a blocker says 'no' to a suggestion; whereas
  2. a builder says, 'that's a good idea, here's how we can make it better.'
There are times where elements are left out because they butt heads with others or detract from the focus of the song.

At the editing desk, this translates into the fine-details of:
  • slicing audio files at zero-point crossings;
  • muting audio regions;
  • aligning elements where the attacks weren't appropriate; and
  • moving elements into new places.
The latter task, that of arrangement (and in some cases re-arrangement), has been the most rewarding; where the products of the first cut pass, rejigged and tidied up of all extraneous parts, have sounded more than a little inspiring.

It doesn't mean that there isn't a long way to go, because there is. But at least after tonight, when Thom's trumpet riff at the beginning of the second chorus plus a couple of stabs during Mike's trombone solo in 'Tributo al son' have been adjusted, I can mix-down all the drafts so that Jeremy, Ana and I can prepare for the next tranche of overdubs in the next year.

There'll be more about that in my end-of-year update but at least by the end of tonight, the first cut pass will have ended, signalling the resumption of the recording phase.

Loo Yeo

Monday, November 22, 2010

Where Is The Love?

Cafféteria is where I go for my regular poison. It might be true that a few yards farther, both Gusto Italiano and Caffé Nero share more luxuriant decor and narrowly a better bean. But whereas its more auspicious competitors are proud to deliver a good product as standard operating procedure, Cafféteria's girls show me the love.

It means a lot to me.

A touch of Gemma in the morning

If you found yourself smiling, you're feelin' it too.

I'm finding that my relationship with salsa is moving the same way. With less and less time on hand, there's no choice but to be increasingly selective about where I dance and whose lessons I attend (yes I still do occassionally). With the former, it used to be about great music.

It's now about where the music comes from; the disc jockey's heart, if you will.

I can forgive a multitude of sins if I know that the person behind the decks cares for whom he or she is playing. The operative words here are: 'care' as in the well-being sense; and 'for' instead of 'to'. It stems from my consistently lukewarm experiences of the Biggest and Best events, and the intimate and unexpected delights from the least assuming of venues.

My contention is that an emotional need cannot be fulfilled by solely rational circumstances - a compelling performance cannot be assured through technique alone. A competent DJ who really cares manages to communicate this in the atmosphere he or she generates, and it makes a world of impact on the clientele the DJ attracts and retains, and in constructing the night's cultural timbre. An observer should take just three to five songs, reading the deck-spinner and the crowd, to understand where the DJ is coming from.

Let's put it another way.

Below is a quote taken in entirety from a semi-open forum. It was expressed by a leading DJ for the response of other salsa-folk:

What was THE salsa track that, many, many years ago was one that got you hooked? For everyone it will be something different.
But, I'll bet it wasn't Hacha Y Machete, or other such matured palette tracks.
Was it perhaps an Africando track? Was it a melodic Frankie Ruiz. Or even God forbid! Sonora Carruselles
We need to keep our minds open to the fact, that our over exposed tastes may be becoming prejudices. Seem exotic to the silent majority, in fact....
We all love salsa. If you want it to grow, it needs to be inclusive not exclusive.
All I've seen over the years is the salsa crowds, get smaller and smaller and the music become more and more exotic.
I can't help but think there is a directly proportional relationship.....
In truth if I had walked into a salsa club over a decade ago and heard the never ending hard core styles I hear today, I would have walked back out and never have bothered.
Cheese has it's place. It brings people in.
I'm not saying shit music should be played all the time. It just has it's place.
You can't grow quality Fruit and Veg, without a little manure.

The point regarding inclusivity and the arguments flowing from it are hard to ignore. The tenor bears no small element of condescension, imbuing the passage with a shade of arrogance. And yet the question is open, unguarded and disarmingly honest.

But for all its rationality, my question is, 'Where is the Love?'

What kind of participants does this DJ attract? What might be the timbre of the culture constructed?

And so I'm coming to redefine what I mean when I use the words 'good' or 'great'. People who work the decks do so because they draw from a complex pool of motivations, some being: a desire to share one's love of music; an economic need; external validation; political altruism; ideological conversion... To propose that there be just one reason would be a little bit naïve.

I'm looking for the mix that most suits me - Great coffee.

  1. An admittedly commercial product (I don't mind paying for the good stuff);
  2. Made up of good ingredients (it doesn't always have to be top-of-the-line, but right up there is nice);
  3. Blended with loving care; and
  4. Pitched with a good twist of humour.
Loo Yeo

P.S. My answer to the question is Proyecto Uno's "El Tiburón". It's a merengue, but I didn't know that at the time. And I still love it as much today as I did then.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"The Art Of The Solo Performer" by Steve Rapson

Illustration (left) ©Copyright 2007 Steve Rapson. All Rights Acknowledged.

This book is lavished with personal insight about the music performance business. From cover to cover, the witty, mischievous, and sometimes moving morsels of wisdom pose as answers to rhetorical questions, like:

Should I fire my manager?
What is a song plugger?
How come everybody doesn't recognize my greatness?

Mr.Rapson's style is easy to read, making light work of deceptively profound performance truths gleaned at the coal-face of Boston's acoustic musicians circuit. It is less of a field guide, and more of a field journal: the sort of book that rewards re-reading as you develop.

Steve makes little distinction between musical performance and public speaking, and understandably so: unless you're as great as the late Roy Orbison, most artists have to have a little patter between the numbers.

Although the ideas are arranged into the major categories of Philosophy, Business, Material, Performance, and Public Speaking, they are still quite modular in nature; so it's worthwhile making notes and arranging them in a way that suits your own mind.

Clever, honest, funny and perceptive. There's always something on its pages for you as a performer to think about; be you a fledgling to the stage or a seasoned hand. Having "The Art Of The Solo Performer" next to you is like having your own personal performance consultant, and therein lies the rub: consultants help you understand what should be done, but you still gotta do it yourself.

He makes mark of that in the Addendum.

Steve Rapson's book is a deserved classic.

Loo Yeo

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Stage Presence From Head To Toe" by Karen A. Hagberg

Illustration (left) ©Copyright 2003 The Scarecrow Press, Inc. All Rights Acknowledged.

This work strangely only gets going halfway through - as if the author began with what she knew best, worked through to the end, and then addressed what she considered the ancillaries; some of which were placed at the beginning. Consequently the sections following "The Orchestra" on page 47 inclusive are most coherent; while those preceding, for example "The Small Ensemble", read as a largely repetitive subset of this 109 page publication (including Bibliography).

All the material, set within the realm of classical rendition, is based on the principle of 'The Listener's enjoyment of the Music is paramount, and anything that distracts the Listener from its performance should be eliminated'.

While such a defensive approach does have value, it by no means portrays the full story; there is negligible mention of how a special rapport might be established with the audience, and nothing at all about how it might be enhanced. As such, the marketing of Dr.Hagberg's work under the title "Stage Presence" is hardly justifiable. "Stage Conduct" would have been less sexy but more apt.

There are some "Don'ts" and too few "Dos"; most iterated more than a handful of times, and the book does positively boast illustrations which drive the points home very well indeed.

Dry, procedural and uninspiring... it is an attempt which could have been précised in less than half the space. If the publishers had had a certain minimum size in mind (as I'm sure they would have done), then there would have been plenty of room for personal insight - Dr. Hagberg presents workshops and offers consultancy in this area, and thus should have had plenty of scope to demonstrate her expertise. Sadly, this was overlooked.

Overall, "Stage Presence From Head To Toe" is a flawed endeavour; an squandered opportunity whose strong concept deserves a well-planned revision.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, October 03, 2010

1st October 2010 Havana Rakatan @Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

Havana Rakatan, the Cuban dance show spectacular, had been making large enough waves that even the regions far-flung from Britain's capital had heard of, albeit perhaps not witnessed, it. That changed as Summer's September gave way to Autumn's October, when Sheffield was chosen to launch the company's 2010 UK tour. Unusually, Havana Rakatan stayed for four nights instead of the usual Latin dance show's just one; a sure sign that artistic directors have begun to realise a-more-than-cursory interest in the genre.

(All Rights Acknowledged)

I thought it'd be a fine thing to start the weekend on a high, so on Friday night I plopped myself in Circle and thumbed excitedly through the programme. Good thing I did too, because as it later transpired, no audio narrator is present with this production. By the time the show commenced, I'd gathered that it was cleaved into two acts - the first comprising five scenes set from the early colonial period until 'El Manicero' of the late 1920s, with the exception of the contemporary opening of El Malecón in contemporary Havana. The second act has scenes set in 1940s 'Golden Havana', 1950s-60s, 1970s, and Modern Havana.

A lot can be gleaned from what was emphasised and what was left out - it was clear that the show differed little from 'Lady Salsa' and 'Pasión de Buena Vista' in portraying an idealised fantastical Cuba. Havana Rakatan possessed scenes of strong multi-textural themes, whose layered meanings were sufficient to satisfy a broad audience: from the 'there-to-be-wowed-by-the-dancing' to the culture aficionado. As such, modern standards internationalised by the Buena Vista Social Club did make an appearance: 'Chan Chan' and 'Candela' although the latter was reworked in such a musically satisfying manner, I doubt that many recognised it from the album.

The company's band "Turquino" was typical of a stage ensemble where versatility is paramount. Many of its nine personnel (excluding lead male and lead female vocals) were multi-instrumentalists: the bassist taking on lead vocals; the bongocero also playing timbales; and horn players singing backing vocals. The phrasing of their music was spot-on for each genre - it's not an easy task to play well the musics spanning more than a century. Turquino's professionalism came across best in their understated nature, never detracting from the main focus of the show which was the dancing.

It's here that the show was greater than any other of its ilk.

Being unable to rely upon the crutch of the spoken word, the choreography had to convey every facet of the narrative. The dancers, being graduates of Havana's Escuela Nacional de Arte were proficient in timing, execution and performance, although admittedly some were markedly better than others. There were a few surprises too, some great 'salsa' style dancers were less comfortable performing rumba and vice versa. And I found the rumba columbia segment too tinged with jazz movement and not flavoured enough from Matanzas, but I'd forgive the necessity to sacrifice authenticity for the sake accessibility.

If there was an Achilles' Heel in the repetoire, it was in the execution of the non-native forms like the mambo where the dancers' foot-speed was sluggish (the lead male vocalist possessed far superior foot-speed than the dancers; he could have showed them a thing or two), and the body-speeds lacked shading. Likewise the brass section was too small to deliver brashness and punch, and neither did the timbales attack quite early enough. But those were simply minor shadows in what is a high quality commission by Sadlers Wells. Havana Rakatan bears all the hallmarks of that Theatre's excellent standards - the set design, lighting, and sound reinforcement enhance the experience without being obtrusive. The programme notes could benefit from the same level of attention, given its primacy from the lack of commentary.

Havana Rakatan has come closest to transporting me to escapist Cuba, and is easily the show I would most rather to see again.

Loo Yen Yeo

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Guide To Karaoke Confidence" by Jeffrey Allen

Illustration Copyright © 1995 Warner Bro. Publications Inc. All Rights Acknowledged.

Aspiring performers, discount this publication on account of its title at your peril!

If the mark of true understanding is the ability to distill that which is complex into a work of simplicity and brevity, then Jeffrey Allen is a Master of Performance and Singing. This is the quickest route to getting ready for vocal performance bar none.

The blurb describes it as: "A quick, simple and fun course for everyone who loves to sing. Designed for all vocal ranges and styles, Jeffrey Allen's Guide to Karaoke Confidence offers numerous, invaluable performance and singing tips to insure that each and every moment in the Karaoke spotlight is successful."

I can attest that the schedule of development is indeed brief, easy to follow, and has plenty of lively learning points. I make it no secret that I'm a fan of Jeffrey Allen's work and found the second part: "The Vocal Makeover: Tricks, Tips, And Secrets Of Singing" highly familiar, drawn as it is from his comprehensive "Secrets of Singing".

But for those who can already sing, and to some extent those who can play, it's "Part 1: Secrets of Living Comfortably Onstage" which promises the elevation from musician to performer - it details succinctly the mental preparation required to take to stage. Even then, a good deal of effort needs to be invested on your part; those hoping for the lurking of magic words in Mr.Allen's handbook, the mere reading of which to transform them instantly into a mesmerist on stage, are going to be sorely disappointed.

Take, for example, the critical self-reflection he demands of the singer in order to breathe life to performance:
  • "Why did I choose to sing this song...?"; and
  • "To whom am I singing this to?";
are but a pair of sample questions. Applying them all in turn to each song, yields insight into and artistic confidence in, every work.

Pound for pound, word for word, the compact "Guide to Karaoke Confidence" provides the best value in self-schooling for the Performing Arts.

Loo Yeo

Monday, August 23, 2010

To Complete An Emotional Space

The past two months have been intense. The editing of 4 de Diciembre's music has, and continues to be, one of the most demanding challenges - on a par with setting up Verdant, and the completion of my postgrad thesis.

It's not that the recorded performances have been poor, in fact, it's been the converse. Most of the time's been taken up with the pain of deciding what to leave out - the Sonic Archaeology of revealing the essence of each piece.

But the most personally enlightening experience has been having to audition my own vocals listening to every positive and negative, over and over again, as they were chronicled three years ago. Many people I know are uncomfortable with the actual sound of their own voices. With the recordings, this is magnified and relentless. It's harsh medicine.

What were considered good takes then, many performances and tough experiences later, I can better. And with the audio having been aligned, cleaned up, and arranged, the four songs done so far deserve a stronger vocal. As top music producer Richard James Burgess says in his book "The Art of Music Production", a great vocal is the next biggest asset after the quality of the song itself. Mr.Burgess goes on to describe what is meant by a great vocal; and it's not about the technique, although that helps the chances of recording one. Bob Dylan's grammy-winning one wasn't technically perfect - the producer tried for a correction with a 'punch in', but eventually had to abandon the attempt because the emotion couldn't be re-created.

To let the cat out of the bag, I'd been delving into this aspect of performance for months and there are several book reviews to follow. They all offer valuable advice and insight, but the reality of willingly placing oneself in a position of emotional vulnerability can only be done by one person. It's anathema to what we're used to socially. At least it is to me, coming from an East Asian society where cards are played close to the chest.

So it's baby-steps to overcome a giant hurdle (in the Soft Arts, one learns very early on that the hardest thing to overcome is one's self) beginning at band practice, where my vocal's being positioned to 'complete' an emotional space. I've chosen not to mention what I'm doing to my band-mates, so that I might gauge their natural responses; which has been subconsciously positive. The sessions have, in the main, been musically easier and convivial - possessed of a substantial anchoring point.

There's yet a long way to go, but I forsee the vocal re-recordings to take place first quarter of 2011 at the earliest. My voice should be stripped of its defenses by then.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Measurements Of Expression

The music desk's been my hangout for the past five weeks, and there're two edited songs 'Corazón Fugitivo' and 'Yo Soy El Sonero' sitting smugly on disk to show for it. A vast chunk of the work has been in getting each instrument track aligned; a weakness of computer-based digital recording is latency, where there is a delay in the delivery of music to the recording musician. This delay can vary up to twenty, even forty, milliseconds which means a newly-recorded track is slightly out of sync with older ones.

It not might seem like a lot, but given that the effect is cumulative, and that the ear begins to distinguish two sounds of similar loudness as individual ones from thirty milliseconds onwards (see Haas effect), the alignment of instrumental tracks becomes a key qualitative issue.

That's at the coarse level.

At the fine detail level in terms of artistic interpretation, the single millisecond is King. No-one I've yet encountered can listen to two examples and objectively say, "that's a millisecond later than the other", but I'd contend that that's not how a millisecond's variance is heard. My suggestion is that such minute fractions of time are detectable, and that they are interpretable by the listener in terms of emotion.

If I may take Catie's flute relative to the other instruments as an example: one thousandth of a second (or even fraction thereof) late to early, changes the feeling of her performance from sluggish, disinterested, passive, laid back, mechanical, keen, energised, nervous, pushy, to single-minded. Ten milliseconds is the span of that gamut from end to end. One day after the CD is done, I shall put these up on the salsa website as audio examples.

This concept of fine timing has tremendous bearing on the professional dancer, who trains long and hard for consistency, precision and accuracy - because a millisecond in time, is a millimetre in movement. I've found very few salsa professionals capable of communicating feeling through their bodies in the way that ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov did in a scene in White Nights; he is, for me, dance's equivalent of Maria Callas.

Lest I end up sounding too high-brow, I chose these two because they are paragons of their Art. It is not enough for me to be dazzled by high-speed spins and 'armography'; Wonderment is an easier feeling to evoke than Longing or bittersweet Joy - Wonderment doesn't require the performer to reach out and resonate deeply with their audience.

Salsa has a rich heritage and doesn't deserve to be short-changed with "it's only a social dance" as an argument for a less-than-exemplary emotionally-engaging performance. I look forward to the day when our displays in salsa-the-dance match the millimeter-commanding expressiveness of Baryshnikov. And why shouldn't we expect it to be so, since our evocative performances of salsa-the-music already stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Greats of other genres?

We certainly don't make excuses for Beny Moré, Hector Lavoe and Ismael Rivera as being "only social singers".

Yeo Loo Yen

Monday, June 14, 2010

Resuming Víspera

It was two weekends ago, in one of the lulls during practice, that I aired my intention to resume the recording project. Ana, Jeremy and I band together on the-more-than-occassional Sunday afternoon to put intransigent rhythm sections to the sword; and with the two of them being the longest-serving members of 4 de Diciembre and both also having invested the most in the creation of the album's songs (after yours truly), it was only right that I broach the matter to them first.

The project had slipped into a state of suspension after Dan and Nathan left at the end of 2008; I'd engaged the former in a paid professional capacity to record us using some pretty state-of-the-art equipment I provided. Accountants would call it an 'opportunity cost': bands are, by their very nature, living breathing things that change, evolve and dissolve; and I wanted capture some of that raw essence while it was there for the taking. We succeeded in getting a wealth of inspired musicianship on tape.

But the more urgent matter of rearranging 4de12 music to a different line-up took precedence; and it wasn't until the process had run its course, culminating in the latest acquisitions of 'La Gota Fría' and 'One World', that I could think about brushing the dust off the project.

All set up for editing, complete with Mickey Mouse timekeeper.

Both Jeremy and Ana were very keen to see 'Víspera' (our album title) awakened, even while knowing that it would take some of my focus away from regular band-related activities. Dan never maintained a studio log, so it would up to me to find out exactly what had been recorded, where the material was located, how it was organised, and what needed to be done to realise the dream.

It's about assuming Ownership of the project once again - and all of the benefits, efforts, and trials that that entails.

So over Saturday, Jeremy and I cleaned up and packed down the recording desk and outboard equipment; leaving only the server, monitors, sound interface, hard-disk recorders and house clock - reconfiguring the recording booth to an editing/mixing studio. A fish lunch at a recently-discovered Japanese restaurant featured somewhere in between.

Yesterday we fired up the Digital Audio Workstation, sighing with relief that all our connections were right, and created a new project file for 'Corazón Fugitivo' which will feature second on the album - the first clean slate of many.

It feels good. Very good.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

29th May 2010 Calle Real @Relentless Garage, London.

The Venue
I knew I had to make this one. By hook or by crook.

The soreness of disappointment, after last summer's foiled attempt to import the Cuban-funk-playing Swedes to these isles, still chafed; and the salve took a wee bit of juggling to arrange. I emerged from the depths Highbury tube station into the drizzly afternoon sunshine, and a touch of trepidation weighted my heart as I took in the exterior of the Relentless Garage across the road.

What I'd thought was a curious name ("Relentless") for a converted venue (garage) in the tradition of Wetherby's Engine Shed or Camden's Roundhouse, turned out not to be so. A suspicion that it was indeed a venue where garage-the-genre was played-without-quarter left me disquieted. It continued to do so as I was metal-detector-swept by a politely looming doorman some hours later. I'd left my Letter-opener of Ultimate Despair behind at the hotel, and only a concerted grope would have discovered the Chopsticks of Ineffable Annihilation secreted about my person.

He didn't go there.

Slinking up the stairs with a brief detour via the cloakroom, the Misgivings fell silent with the closing of the double doors behind me. The main hall was a cosy affair measuring 15 by 20 metres with the stage to my left, permanent front-of-house booth to my front-right, and a disabled-access ramp and steps on the immediate-right leading to a 20 by 6 metre elevated tier, with the bar at the end along the far width of the room. More importantly the wooden floor bore a healthy sheen of regular cleaning and polishing, and there was not a whisper of staleness in the air. The venue was looked after by some serious people.

Karen, also from Sheffield, was the first person I saw. I invited her to dance.

The speed of the floor was slightly on the slow side, but would not pose a problem for the 'Cuban-style' clientele Calle Real would attract. The Relentless Garage was a countess of a venue, but not quite the princess. What Karen told me next confirmed my thoughts; the doors had been late to open because, apart from a delay to their flight, the band had had a longer-than-anticipated sound check. I could tell this from the sogginess of the music, and it couldn't have been due to the dimensions, size nor surfaces of the dance hall.

As my amiable bar-man decanted my poison, he volunteered that Garage and Rock were indeed the mainstays of the place. That would explain the boomy bass and the smeared dull mid-range; if the installed Public Address (PA) system, and especially a graphic equaliser, had been optimised for these genres. The sound-man would have asked for access to the PA cabinet (hunting for the EQ bypass switch), and the duty manager would not have confessed to having the keys (for fear of irrevocable tinkering).

I got my dances in early, anticipating a packed floor, and possibly to enjoy the coming performance in singular spectatorship. Although the sound was better at front, I was concerned that the signal from the DJ decks was being fed through the mixing desk, which would not bode well for Calle Real. But then I'm also very familiar with their PA requirements, having used them as a starting-point for 4 de Diciembre's own, so I knew this was unlikely. More probably the gains on the DJ mixing desk had remained undisturbed, which to me was a shame - irrespective of song selection, each piece passed with heavily unrealised potential.

The Concert
Soon came the Witching hour. I picked my prize spot at the top of the stair and waited...

Calle Real, baby!

The Meaning of Bliss:
Calle Real and a really good audience

It was fulfilling finally to put faces, fingers and hands, bodies and movements to the sounds of 'Con Fuerza' - one of my most frequently revisited timba albums.

Did Calle Real sound better live?

In many ways they did, more so with the numbers from their second release 'Me Lo Gané'. The studio recordings had had much of the life compressed out of the brass during the mix, but dished out live, the songs sang as if they'd just gotten out of jail - trumpets punched out their accents with brilliance, and trombones rasped as they were born to do. With this era of digital tools, we're led to expect perfect sound, even from stage. There were occassions of imperfect tuning from the brass (usually indicative of issues with onstage monitoring), but that only lent authenticity to the feel of the moment.

In terms of execution, Calle Real were outstanding; every stab physically accented, every passion expressed. They were generous to a fault. The weaknesses of their debut album, primarily the languid attack of the backing vocals, had been well and truly eradicated. This was a performance of confidence and maturity; best portrayed by their rendition of the United Kingdom's favourite, 'Ya lo sé'.

The CD version is lush with poignancy, suspended with the intimacy which the privacy of a studio can bring. Knowing that this effect is unachievable in a club setting, Calle Real reinterpreted it successfully as a rhythmic ballad adding more inspiraciones and melodic brass. That maturity also manifested itself as contrast: when one of their youngest songs 'Me Lo Gané' and one of their oldest songs 'Princesa' were performed in juxtaposition.

Me Lo Gané required a conscious exertion of power for its delivery, leaving less space to the skill of interpretation; while Princesa eased from them with creative musicianship, propelled by a potent yet effortlessly-flowing energy. For any ensemble musician who's worked at the coal-face, the qualitative difference in interpretation between a song one decade old and another many years younger is abundantly clear.

Fervour after the encore, Con Fuerza

The Calle Real experience left a number of lasting impressions:
  • Surprise. Karl, Michel and Patricio's backing vocals sounded higher than I remembered; that wasn't obvious from the CDs.
  • Respect (in the Jamaican sense), complete and utmost, for Gunnar's virtuoso performance as a timba pianist.
  • Regret. That the sound of flair player Rickard Valdés' conga failed to come across properly in the mix.
  • Amusement at the personality of Andreas' bass - 70s-inspired funk complete with dark glasses.
  • Pensiveness. That perhaps Harry's songo on the drums could, occassionally, have been given the regular driving framework of the bongó bell rhythm to tug against.
  • Pride in Cuban-style dancers. Nearly all of the audience stayed face-forward to the stage throughout the eighty-minute concert; the true sign of live music appreciation.
  • Satisfied. That 'Con Fuerza' got to see the light of day. As an encore.
Calle Real's melodies mark them as European despite the Cuban authenticity of their rhythms. Another property which reveals their hand is how the attack of their instruments is distributed; a sonic fingerprint if you will, which gives the band their characteristic laid-back feel even at higher tempi. That and their uniqueness leads me to suggest that if it ever occurred to anyone on the U.S. West Coast to play timba, they'd use Calle Real as a role model.

End Note
Performance dynamism is clearly one of the band's greatest assets. For Heaven's sake, bottle it! I'd like to see every one of their gigs for the next year digitally recorded off the front-of-house desk. Heck, I'd loan them one of my HD24s. Then cherry-pick the best performances, edit them, mix them, send them to Bob Katz for mastering, and release a 'Live' album.

What would it take to make that happen, I wonder?

Loo Yeo

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Salsa & Merengue Website (Part 2): Adding Voices

In the years its been available, the site has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors; a small proportion of whom had made the effort to express their thanks, offer suggestions, and rare criticism. All of these little treasures sat patiently in a mail folder, preserved for posterity. The fact that each of these people who drank from the well of Latin America had cared enough to write, left me always with the feeling that I should be more generous than a personal response (which they each received), by finding light for their words in public.

If anything, it would be a nod to the curious as a glimpse behind-the-scenes of one of the world's most relevant internet resources on salsa and merengue.

Stories to be told..

I decided that their place would be as quotes on relevant pages, as other voices to the website's main narrative. It is a risk to take: a balance needing to be struck between narrative cohesion and diversity of prose; in relaying stories by people without teetering into the realm of commercial-style endorsements. I admonished myself for my control-freakery and forged ahead.

The first flurry of quotes are now up (the second tranche will be garnered from web references), and some trimming of position and weight is expected.

Yes, it's true that a number of the words featured come from prestigious sources; and the subtext of their place on the pages could be read superficially as commercialism. That's a peril I'm happy to face, since a more-than-cursory inspection of the site will show no attempt at 'monetising'. I think that readers would like to know that the material they've chosen to look at is highly regarded by independent authorities.

But there's a more intimate side to the story, and one that is, I feel, infinitely more valuable.

The quotes tell of how important salsa is as a personal cultural marker to the Latin American; of how the tutorials have helped people learn to dance in privacy, at their own pace, successfully, ...and that it's okay to do so; that learning to dance can be a family activity that builds strong bonds; that involving oneself in salsa can instill a strong sense of purpose and responsibility, even if the torchbearer wasn't born into the arms of Latin America.

Ultimately, the risk of losing the focus of a single voice was far outweighed by the potential of a stronger, more humane, narrative wrought by the expressions of those who'd experienced it first-hand.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Salsa & Merengue Website (Part 1): The Big Clean

The Salsa & Merengue website has for a long time been an uncomplainingly unattended brainchild. As salsa horizons stretched, dotted with the hugely entertaining events and pithy crisis-points, this wondrous resource (words from you, the users) saw less and less of me.

High on the list of things to do was the archiving of the Spanish sections.

It was a decision weighed with reluctance, but there were increasingly fewer and fewer resources to be mobilised for human translation, and it was beginning to show. The divergence between the modern English sections and the fractured Spanish ones painted the loss of coherence as obvious. And bearing in mind what new material there is to go up, the lack of their Spanish language counterparts would push the website's identity into the realms of the unravelled.

Another minor niggle was the information section about the activities of the University of Sheffield Union of Student's Salsa Society. I'd kept that publicity avenue available to them because of our long history together, but since their move almost solely to Facebook, responses to email queries directed to them via this route had become sporadic. It was starting to hurt public perception of the site.

But the straw which stirred prompt action assumed the form of an email by a kindly concerned visitor, a Mr. Silvestre, last week:

"Your trainings are fantastic. They are helping me a lot for salsa. I started with Merengue also and noticed that the codec you used (ligos-Indeo) for compressing these videos are different and are not supported by Vista or Windows 7. No video viewer is able to display them (VLC, Gom, WMP, etc)

"I found a solution by reincoding in a different xvid codec and now I am able to watch them. Other people may be disapointed by not viewing your videos and may not find a solution.


Okay. That's a problem on a different scale altogether.

I replied expressing my profound thanks, and then set about a solution. My first inclination was to recode and re-upload - not a small task. What I found galling was that there was no guarantee against the same thing happening again, some time down the line.

Then my colleague, Paul, suggested YouTube. And it all made sense!

They'd bear the burden of band-width and future-proofing; I'd be able to integrate video inline with the text on the webpage; and there was a small opportunity to direct new-sector traffic to the website. The only downsides were a compromise on intellectual property use as per YouTube's terms and conditions (which is only a theoretical compromise, since people were free to download and use it before); and the poorer control of the playhead slider.

And that's what's been happening in-between blog posts: uploading, and spring-cleaning of files and HTML.

It's done, and I'm very much happier with the presentation of the dance lessons now that the videos are embedded on the page. The proof of the pudding, as always, will be in the responses I receive from developing dancers like Mr. Silvestre.

Loo Yen Yeo

Friday, April 16, 2010

Predictable Outcomes

The core members of 4 de Diciembre have been together for a decade, and you would've thought that I'd have the measure of them by now. But even after all this time they conspire to surprise me.

We've been booked for a prominent gig next year, and with such a supposedly-distant horizon, the inclination is take things at a sedentary pace. I certainly didn't want that to happen. To stop the claws of complacency from digging in, I sat the band down and sketched a vision of the ideal playlist; a challenging roadmap if you will, of the best I thought we could be by that time. It's essential for everyone to understand and share the same vision; 'buy-in' is key to maintaining a healthy ensemble.

Two pieces of the puzzle to be put in place were a couple of cover adaptations: 'La Gota Fría' based on Carlos Vives' version, and 'One World' by local Sheffield band 'Boy On A Dolphin'. When suggesting these, I thought the former would pose the greater challenge; we'd never tackled a vallenato before, whereas the latter bore more familiar motifs.

We tackled One World first, and my optimism soon got bogged down in the quagmire of frustration - its chord structures, the very thing that made it interesting, didn't fit the modal system that underpins salsa. There was also dastardly a one-chord vamp section that had Jeremy scratching his head in trying to keep it more tasty than musical cardboard. He and I consigned two Sunday afternoons to the salsa wastebasket before I tried something out of the box of Desperation.

I slapped on a version of Xiomara on the CD player and proceeded to sing One World's lyrics over two different sections of piano montuno. Jeremy and I are of very different music backgrounds and have highly contrasting approaches to salsa, which has always been our strength. The most important thing I had to do was to demonstrate what was possible. He got it. We spent a few minutes determining which was the more suitable base progression, changed some chording to double its cycle length, and we had it! What was looking like an attempt I might have to bin, transformed into a song of promise; and one which we were well on the way to making our own.

Decent quasi-salsa songs in English are as rare as hen's teeth and One World, with its different harmonic textures and meaningful lyrics, complements any of 4de12's originals perfectly. It was a relief to crack it and be able to add it to our stable.

Given the birthing troubles of One World, I was a little gun-shy about approaching La Gota Fría last night. That's probably why I left it until the last thing at practice, almost as an afterthought.

One pass of the song, lasting all of three minutes and thirty-two seconds, was what it took to nail the core of it. That included transformation to salsa piano vamp over a hypnotic jungle-inspired conga rhythm, glued together by a funk variation of the classic bass tumbao, while still holding true to the spirit of the piece's energy and melody of haunting undertones. The latter is preserved by Catie on the flute and the adaptation of the accordion's lines to Jan's violin. On hand percussion, I found that the cumbia's güira rhythm on the gourd scraper worked best.

What an astounding experience.

True, plenty more creativity and work will have to be exercised before these two songs will be polished to my satisfaction. But at least I can now envisage it happening, whereas I couldn't before. And the band-members do so too.

Only one thing is certain: that the mercurial talents (and I can think of no more apt a description) of my fellow Decemberists will conspire to keep me safe from predictable outcomes.

Loo Yeo

Monday, April 05, 2010

Right Brain, Left Brain, And The Grey Bits In-Between

I've just passed the finish line of my four-week commitment to the timbales, and what have I learned? The most important has been a reinforcement that building a foundation for the realisation of ultimate potential is a painstaking process. Males like myself are largely task-driven and, were I to accede to the desire to be ready to perform at the earliest opportunity, I'd specialise as a right-hander, target the commonly deployed patterns and bypass their variations - a timbale synonym for the social dance environment.

Luckily, I'm not your average bear.

The complete approach to the fundamentals would include pitting cáscara and timbale bell rhythms against rumba and son clave, in both 3-2 and 2-3 orientations, sinistrally and dextrally. It immerses both hemispheres of the brain in every rhythm, fine-tunes the motor control (especially of the non-dominant side), and allows a comparison of phrasing.

Additionally, since research increasingly holds the cerebellum as the seat of timing, see for example:
  • Ivry, R.B. and Keele, S.W. (1989). Timing functions of the cerebellum. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Vol.1:2, pp.136-152; and
  • Pollock, B., Gross, J., Kamp, D., and Schnitzler, A. (2008). Evidence for Anticipatory Motor Control within a Cerebello-Diencephalic-Parietal Network. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Vol.20:5, pp.828-840;
it makes perfect sense to exercise it with the motor cortex in all possible combinations. I estimate the difference in effort between the complete approach and the task-driven approach, to the First State of Independence, as being in the ratio of 5:1. A large portion of that is in developing the fine motor control of the sub-dominant side.

And that's where I'm at, at the end of the beginning - killing three birds with one stone. Interpreting the timbale bell rhythm (subdominant) against rumba clave (dominant) in the 3-2 orientation; changing sides one in every four times, varying the phrasing and increasing gradually the tempo.

I'm in it for the long-term relationship, and I have my inspiring secondary school biology teacher to thank for this robust approach; although I suspect that Mr. Menon would never have anticipated this particular application.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Playing The Silences

Two weeks of standing in front of the timbales and I'd love to describe progress as being superhuman. But I can't. 'Steady' is the best I can muster. But then, there's always next week...

The lion's share of the hours have been devoured by the fundamentals - I've approached this little escapade as somewhat of a restart, a chance to put the perfection of hindsight and years of accumulated experience into practice.

How many times have we uttered the phrase "if only I knew then, what I know now" and had the opportunity to do it all over again?

I'd decided long ago that closed strokes, sometimes called press strokes, would form the backbone of my playing. This is when the timbale sticks stay on the shells after each strike to mute their ringing. It's decidedly old school, from back in the days of the danzón when the dance salons of Cuba knew nothing of microphones. Timbales were played in this way so as not to overpower the delicate violins, just perfect for 4de12's charanga line-up and the confines of the practice room.

Old Skool is a patient person's game; it takes more energy to perform and takes longer to learn. But what it yields are greater dynamics and more articulate expression.

The dynamics come from a greater contrast between the sound of the initial strike and the silence of the shells being closed to ringing - the timbalero plays the silences. The articulation comes the way the sticks come off the shell, either: straight off; or slightly rolled off, towards or away from the drummer.

Its brought back early memories of training as a dancer: learning to thread movement through each floor contact; and why foot placements, on and off, are more articulate than footfalls. The principles are identical: minimise movement to achieve consistency, and lessen background noise so that actions can be clearer without needing to be louder.

Dancing the silences draws your partner into your sense of time.

Playing the silences does the same. The technicalities might be different, some analogous some not, but both are also alike in requiring an exacting level of detail at fundamental level for success. With the timbales, for example:
  • control resonance by striking the shell directly opposite the rubber stand-off, so that vibrations travelling clockwise and anti-clockwise have identical distances to travel;
  • sense the stand-off through the timbale sticks when the shell is placed under different levels of compression;
  • the sticks must become extensions of the hands, where the position of the tips and the speed of their movement are known even when they're unsighted; and
  • know which part of the stick gives the best feel of the stand-off, the best sound, and the most versatility in voicing.
I can be a better musician because of my dancing. And there is much that can be transferred between the two.

Particularly with silence.

Loo Yeo

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Artistry Of Vulnerability

Kate is a sweet, diminutive, young English rose.

An organisational reshuffle six months ago caused our spheres to overlap, and we've become casual acquaintances. Last week when I strolled into the reception, she motioned to me and asked, "do you dance?"

I decided to play along, shifting subtly to a leaden pose. "Do you really think I look like a dancer?" (add slightly disbelieving tone)

"Yes you do actually."

Darn. Normally that works. This one's a sharp cookie.

Kate had always thought that I'd looked familiar but could never place where she'd known me from. A chance conversation with a colleague let the cat out of the bag. It turns out that I'd shared a song with her one salsa night eight years ago. She told me she was just beginning then, and still remembers it clearly. Because even though the song had stopped, she kept on dancing on the inside.

A genuine compliment.

Kate's caused me to think about the persistence of a dance experience. What turns it into an Event? An landmark memory?

Louie Spence said that the performance of dance can be so emotionally evocative that it can make the watcher cry. The fourth episode of SKY1's exuberant 'Pineapple Dance Studios' is the best so far, especially the five minute sequence where Louie is down but not out after realising his age, being unable to stay the distance though an hour-long warm-up, which the teenage dancers around him don't even break a sweat through.

He rallies spectacularly once the music comes on and the youngsters, with their physical prowess, are awestruck. The videotape editing leads the episode to skim over the most important artistic truth that Louie reveals to his young charges; that a performance at the pinnacle of Art requires you to expose your emotional vulnerability to your audience.

It takes a mature performer to believe, and trust, that the audience's acceptance of a genuine effort is unconditional.

I've been wrestling with this since performing in Yarm. Being a better singer is now no longer about skill, it's about letting down my defenses to let people see how the song makes me feel. This invitation to vulnerability is so very alien, complete faith to be placed in strangers.

It's the reason why we seldom look into the eyes of those but our loved ones. As windows unto the soul, looking into someone's soul requires that we expose our own to them.

All the enduring artistic Events have this in common. An truth of expression born of vulnerability.

That's why I take umbrage to 'styling' as it's purveyed - it is not delivered nor received as an aspect of form for the conveyance of artistic expression. It is manufactured and consumed as a pair of sunglasses to shield the soul, a façade behind which we can shelter our vulnerabilities in comfort and yet still sell to our audience-partners as 'art'.

Each dance robbed of the possibility of forever.

But there is one great positive to say. In this place, those of us willing to risk, stand out to our kindred. Because we all show to each other, and are recognised by, our calling.

Loo Yen

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Reason For The Timbales

The past three months have been a musically busy time, as I've been leading 4 de Diciembre through a comprehensive series of new arrangements. The outcome has surpassed even my best expectations; good songs have metamorphosed into artistically compelling works - it has to be put down to working with a collection of great musicians. During this period, I've had at various times to play (while singing) a variety of rhythms on congas (such as guaguancó contra-clave, songo con marcha, mozambique) and on hand percussion (timbale bell, clave) to tease out the right groove.

Along the way our little revamp-fest exposed a pair of Achilles' heels which might one day stunt my growth as a rumbero/salsero: that my command of clave was not yet instinctive, and that I was still an eighty pound weakling in the rhythmic independence department. Playing clave is a world away from clave phrasing, and I used to think that the phrasing bit would be more difficult to achieve, since you'd have to keep both the clave and what you were playing in mind. I was wrong.

What I learned was that it takes a stellar level of ability to make those five notes sing - in that rhythm there is no hiding place.

To achieve mastery, I needed to play it more often. And it'd have to be 'extra-curricular' with respect to the band, since the hand percussion I play when performing is necessarily pulse-based for the sake of the dancers, and it also sets up the rhythmic structure in which our conguero can improvise. An exception to this rule is "Tempest", one of our newly (re)arranged songs, which now works best with the timbale bell pattern played on the mounting block of my trusty bongó bell.

So to recap, I needed to work on my independence, internalise clave, and play highly syncopated bell rhythms. What might be the best way of doing this?


My anticipated restoration to the timbales has been an on-and-off lunchtime topic of conversation with Christophe who, as a dancer, could anticipate a number of benefits:
  • The ability to tune in better to the polyrhythms of the instrument, understand its phrasing, and become more sensitive to transitions and their cues.
  • Use dance movement and music as mutually supporting activities in evolving soloing strategies.
  • Increasing four-way independence to five (a giant leap for a percussionist dancer).
  • Timbales interpret at least two rhythms if not three, as compared to the congas' one. A window upon hybridity, the timbale domain not only encompasses the AfroCuban domain, but intersects others like pop/funk/rock.
And, it's the last major piece of my recording project jigsaw which has been in hiatus. The only thing holding me back was the commitment - I needed to schedule three weeks of daily high-quality practice to establish momentum.

But as I say to my students, "people always make time for what they feel is important".

Was it important enough for me? How much of this was 'comfort zone' resistance?

On Saturday, I went upstairs and unpacked the timbales.

I'm actually lucky enough to possess two: as custodian of the band's Latin Percussion (LP) Tito Puente timbales in brass, the industry reference standard; and my own personal Meinl Luis Conte timbales in cymbal-quality brass. I've had the Luis Conte ones for four years, and had every intention of playing them, but then 4de12 suddenly needed a lead singer. The rest is history.

So, as it transpires, I've never laid a stick on them; that was a pleasure left for our former timbaleros. Considering the LPs and the Meinls side-by-side, it took five minutes to decide on the Meinls:
  1. I like the larger shell area for playing the cáscara (something which LP addressed in latter revisions).
  2. I prefer the sound of the shells - their hand-hammered surface has a warmer sound, and strikes have body and yet can cut through the mix.
  3. Most importantly the Meinl shells are more sensitive, less forgiving of inconsistent technique. They would take longer to master but, being more articulate, will reward more musical players.
  4. Of all the cowbells that were in the house to constitute a timbale set-up (I've mugged enough cows for four sets), the Meinl ones best suited the sound of the timbalero that I will be.
In the best AfroCuban tradition, I cleaned away the neglect of the set's previous caretakers, selected my bells, adjusted the heights and angles, and prepared a place of commitment in the front room.

Then I washed my hands and began to play.

Loo Yen

Saturday, February 20, 2010

16th February 2010 Pasión De Buena Vista@The Lyceum, Sheffield

Although Sheffield ranks as one of England's largest cities, its status on the Latin music circuit is best described as 'provincial', averaging just one concert by the Buena Vista Social Club franchise and one Cuban show at its theatres per year; so the appearance of any such performance company is hugely anticipated, and normally sold out well beforehand.

News of the 'Pasión De Buena Vista' show rattled along the local salsa grapevine a good three months before the performance date, but work had me wriggling on tenterhooks until the weekend preceding. Fortunately there are certain advantages to attending shows unaccompanied; the best of which is the likelihood of securing good "late return" single seats, and my slightly-worse-for-wear ticketer helped find a great one in Circle.

I knew little about this troupe when I parked myself in the plush chair, so I made a start by ogling the stage layout. It looked promising: keyboard, bass, a trapset-timbale combination, a conga-bongó combination, a microphone setup for a four or five piece brass section, a tres on a stand, and a full trinity of batá drums; plus there was ample stage-front for at least four dancing couples to do their rumba thing. Then Meinl logos on the congas caught my eye and my hunch was confirmed by the souvenir programme: this was a German production.

The glossy booklet was filled with attractive earthy-toned action shots of dancers and singers captured mid-performance. It exuded dynamism. Delving deeper, the supporting texts of introduction and biography of the star vocalists came across as stilted and typographically challenged. This was an uncommitted effort through a patent lack of attention.

I sincerely hoped this wasn't an indicator.

A solo female dancer opened the show, moving to the sounds of the batá. Dressed in red and black and clutching a crooked stick, she was clearly the representation of Eleguá, Orisha of pathways, who is traditionally invoked at the beginning of all Afro-Cuban occassions. While her circular shrugging movements were correct, the stillness of her spinal axis showed me that sacred dance was not her bag - this was a rendition purely for the commercial world.

Eleguá's invocation gave way to the introduction of four other figures dressed in green and black; gold and blue; red and white; and blue and white, representing Ogún, Ochún, Changó, and Yemayá respectively. They symbolically enacted a pataki [Yoruban fable] capturing their sometimes tumultuous relationships with each other, although it was not clear which fable (or combinations of fable), and which version was being told.

Advertently or not, this act set out the entire premise of the show: the conjuration of a 'Fantastical Cuba' as escape, and one that host Knut Gambusch's stilted narrative tried to reinforce again and again. Otherwise, there was no overarching structure of storytelling that I could discern.

The two setlists punctuated by an intermission comprised of some very Latin standards: 'Bésame mucho', 'Quizás, quizás, quizás', Benny Moré's homage to his birthplace 'Santa Isabel de las Lajas'; 'El Manisero'; 'Píntate los labios María' complete with a Michael Jackson dance tribute; and 'Changó 'ta vení' interpreted as a pilón.

Modern classics also had their place, such as Francisco Repilado's 'Chan Chan'; Celia Cruz's popular interpretation 'La vida es un carnaval' where the dancers were appropriately dressed in the blue and white of her patron Orisha; and Gloria Estefan's 'Mi Tierra'. The latter struck me as unusual; that a Resident Cuban band would choose to play an Exilic Cuban composition.

There was one little treat - an original number by tresero/trombonist Yuilie Velazquez-Guerra, arranged as a songo con marcha. Although bringing in the kick drum in on the downbeats bogged down the rhythm somewhat (I suspect it was meant to imply the bomba) the highly compact show band 'La Ideal' negotiated complex timba, and the other genres demanded of it, with flair. You'd have to go a long way to find a more professional support band; you noticed them only when they wanted to be noticed, because La Ideal knew what the true star of the show was.

The Singing.

I once thought that Ibrahim Ferrer was one of a kind. But that night I was entranced with the voice of someone cut from the same cloth - Inocente "Pachín" Fernandez-Jímenez. His phrasing, his attack, and his vocal texture was so similar; and yet so authentically individual, that they could have been brothers. I gave silent thanks for the chance experience. While it's true that Maida Castaneda-Cordovi and Tomás Sanchez-Aguilera have the strong voices we have come to expect in the Cuban vein, Inocente's lyrical qualities place him very much in a league apart.

I could have listen to him 'til dawn.

In that light, the dancing was disappointing; the lackadaisical nature marked it as the afterthought of the production. Although a myriad of genres were attempted, from conga de comparsa to chachachá, their navigation lurched from placidly mid-stream to dangerously rocky. There were three prominent weaknesses:
  1. The dancers lacked the stagecraft to draw in and engage their audience.
  2. The angular velocities of their movements were constant but too slow. Whilst it gave their execution the characteristic Cuban smoothness, the manoeuvres were never properly finished. The result was a great deal of jarring and rushed transitions as dancers played 'catch-up' with their routine elements.
  3. The choreography emphasised quantity and not quality, the dancers always pulled up one iteration short of demonstrating virtuosity.
'Just good enough' seemed to be the mantra of Pasión de Buena Vista's production company. It extended to the sound system, where only one pair of 15" low-frequency units was used to move the mass of air in the auditorium (most companies would have specified three pairs); and the sound did suffer for the decision.

Pasión de Buena Vista feels as if it started life as a business plan as opposed to a burning desire to entertain. The mimicry of concept places it as a fast follower to "Lady Salsa" but without the cohesive storytelling nor attention to detail. Both have tried to leverage off World Circuit's Buena Vista Social Club brand, with the German production more blatantly so - the attempted linkages via the artist biographies border on the barefaced and read as tenuous at best.

For me, the frontispiece collage of the souvenir programme is the perfect identity for Pasión de Buena Vista. Some people would either not notice or be ambivalent out its patchwork character. Others might be sensitive to the artistic contrivance and feel the jarring of its elements.

These people would feel the same respectively of the show.

I'd go to it again. For the luscious singing and the music. The dancing can wait.

Loo Yeo

Saturday, February 13, 2010

13th February 2010 Stomp@The Lyceum, Sheffield

On a brisk winter's Saturday morning, I sauntered into the Box office of the newly re-fitted Crucible theater. It's the Eve of the Year of Tiger, which I thought was a fantastic reason for an unplanned matinee ticket - I'm quite the impulse shopper when it comes to Shows, and a decadent afternoon sounded like a perfect way to usher in Chinese New Year.

"And I'll have one for Stomp as well, please," I heard myself say after securing a seat for my intended target, 'Pasión de Buena Vista' on the day-after-tomorrow.

Stomp are a performance company of percussionist dancers, and their acts unfold in the setting of an urban street, which gives what they do a modern yet accessible context. The eight protagonists assume delight in using everyday items as drumming surfaces; masking, or more appropriately bridging the gap between the drummer and the layperson - using a disposable lidded cup with straw as a friction drum instead of a cuíca; halved plastic storage drums as surdos; matchboxes as pandeiros; and brooms as, well... brooms.

I'm still wondering how they managed to tune the brooms, or maybe was it the floor panels?

Stomping: Drum and Bass

The structure of their story-telling began with the simplicity of a headed broom: its bristles on the floor as scraper, its head on the floor as drumstick, and its handle against another as woodblock. There was a restrained elegance about the opener - as if to draw in but not to overwhelm; to engage and gently challenge the assumptions of the audience, causing them to think again about what everyday objects mean; to see the humour of invention.

This was the theme as the rhythms and use of ordinary items became increasingly complex - the cheeky, almost impertinent delivery kept the seated enthralled, warding off the clutches of technical estrangement.

The Lyceum's spaces swelled with rhythm: I noticed flavours of Brazil's batucada; Bali's gamelan; the sartenes of the comparsa; hints, perhaps, of the Dahomey; to the gumboots of South Africa. Not that it matters. Stomp succeeds because it understands that the minutae of names and techniques of rhythms aren't important, but that in the grandest scheme of things, our most primal selves understand and respond to rhythm.

Gumboots: This is how ya do it!

The Energy of their performance spans the continents. And the maturity of their company can be seen in the slickness of their delivery; geographical reach from South Africa (gumbootland) to the United Sates; demographic independence of young and old alike; and diversity of activity in entertainment and education sectors.

Stomp uses the narrative of rhythm to show us how much fun we could let into our daily lives if only we'd wear different eyes .

"This is comedy, but its music too" (The Independent)

As a percussionist, the show was a reassurance of how far my understanding of rhythm: its power, types, and strategies; has come along. But I received the most counsel in the aspect of the dancer.

Analysis of salsa class levels reveals the convention that dancers are judged to be better according to their ability to execute complex combinations - that criterion is the prime class differentiator, clubs and congresses alike.

Stomp demonstrably validates an alternative premise: that someone can make him or herself instinctually understandable by another, at a level which transcends abilities and conscious command, by quieting the extraneous that the rhythms may speak.

A polyrhythmic expressionist who can command the silence.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, February 07, 2010

24th January 2010 Latin Music USA concerts (Part 3): Epilogue

There's a scene from '80s sitcom "Bosom Buddies" (starring a young Tom Hanks) where boss, Ruth, looks agog at Henry the copy-writer, who's innocently confessed to editing one of her reports before sending it upstairs. She rallies heroically and declares, "Well of course! A diamond's only a diamond when you cut it."

Stephanie McWhinnie and Mark Cooper must be proud of their team, having fashioned the concerts into two gleaming gems to add to the BBC's crown. The visual rhythms, created by the pacing and angles of the cuts, perfectly complement the feel of the music - successfully capturing the essence of what happened on stage and around it.

They made it look easy.

Although two hours of the Big Three Palladium Orchestra's (B3PO) performance was shot, only a small number of songs were played on account of their extended instrumental solos - the combination of long songs and a low degree of freedom makes things tricky. Thankfully transitions between songs were dilated, which accommodates edit points; songs were performed as discrete units; and there was plenty of B-roll like establishing shots and pre-concert interviews with the artists.

La Excelencia would have presented the converse challenge: plenty of material, but less freedom for edit points. The results however were just as seamless, and complications of continuity were avoided by keeping to set order.

In both instances the broadcast audio was head-and-shoulders above that in situ; the mixing engineers had brought their A-game to the studio. But even the best exercise of their craft couldn't compensate for lack of audio data entering the desk. It's a shame that the same kind of microphones used on the trumpets (Sennheiser MD 421) weren't been deployed up-close on the timbales and bongó bell; it would have made for a world of difference in capturing the bounce, verve and drive of both performances.

These minor points aside, I'm thankful to the BBC for its generosity.

Mamboniks and Salseros, thanks to the Beeb

The Latin Music USA campaign has provided a rare chance to assess the whole process of live music production from the marketing tie-ins, advertising and promotion; the two performances qualitatively by juxtaposition; the actual performance experience with its post-concert production for television; through to critical media response.

I looked to the broadsheets for the latter:
All three articles were titled as regarding with the Big 3 Palladium Orchestra and not of the Latin Music USA concerts. La Excelencia's presence there as support act was assumed, which told me two things:
  1. that the reviewers had been exposed to the same promotional material that I had had in the run-up; and
  2. that scant research had been done on the opening band itself, otherwise they might have come to the Barbican unprejudiced for an equal double-billing and their prose would have reflected accordingly.
The FT's reviewer seemed the best informed, with the insightful comment about the big-band duels at the Palladium (it was an evolution from the "War! War! War!" campaign between bandleaders Coen and Socarrás). The B3PO's inconsistency of performance was tactfully hinted at, through saying that the televised form might prove better for the editing. But those were small morsels of substance in articles largely bereft of qualitative assessment and contextual comprehension.

What was curious from all three was the inconsistent mention of front-line guests Jimmy Bosch and Gabriel Fonseca who are both Latin stars of international stature, contrasted with their unanimous gushings of tenor saxophonist Peter Wareham. Perhaps their attention wouldn't have seemed so partisan if they had also unanimously credited the unsung hero Guillermo Edghill, whose bass solidly anchored the groove when the metalles suffered a Dizzy Gillespie-esque "where's the one?" moment as demonstrated in 'Avisale A Mi Contrario'.

The journalists used personal shortcomings of stamina as a device for expressing their opinion that the concerts went on too long. There were signs displayed prominently at the entrances to the auditorium stating that the sessions were being filmed - anyone beyond novice level would expect proceedings to be conducted at deliberate tempo. But the Guardian's reviewer went so far as to imply that the B3PO were unable to play 'Babarabatibiri' because La Excelencia over-ran their set!

Let's be clear about this. The focus of a band is to engage, perform and entertain. Schedule-running is in the hands of the House Manager.

Whatismore, Mario Grillo opted to play the instrumental 'Sunny Ray' over another number, sending his singers off stage; and that other number was not 'Babarabatibiri' - there was nothing to indicate to the ordinary public that it was ever on the set list.

If there was a case to be made for informed disgruntlement, it should have been that Larry Harlow is not one of the Big Three by the Palladium definition, and that his set should have been been taken up with Tito Puente's songs - the only one was 'Oye Como Va' as the finale. But unless one is spoilt or has paid a private commission, one can't expect an artist to play one's personal favourite piece; it would be unreasonable to berate El Judio Maravilloso or La Excelencia for the lack of 'Ran Kan Kan', 'Babarabatibiri' or 'Caminando'.

I found Larry Harlow's set to be the most invigorating of the three - a delicious irony.

Had they been better prepared, the reviewers would've had more than just one "throw-away" line to say about La Excelencia. They could have picked up on any one of a number of things that night, for example:
  • Salsa Dura's declaration of musical intent, or its truthful phrasing to the earliest forms of salsa;
  • Boogalú Pa' Colombia's rather clever circular reference - a pre-salsa genre originating from New York City (NYC), played in Colombian-style as homage complete with modern inspiraciónes, by a NYC band;
  • La Lucha's guileful incorporation of boricua riffs and rhythms, the singing trombone and brass build-up a la La Perfecta, the fundamental difference in emphasis away from harmonies (as favoured in jazz) to that of rhythm and attack (in salsa);
  • the qualitative contrast in approach to brass performance between La Excelencia's 'La Lucha' and B3PO's 'Avisale A Mi Contrario';
  • El Salsa Y El Guaguancó's Cuban contra-clave pattern or the use of trumpet as modern diana before the traditional vocal one;
  • El Loco's management of power and drive by counter-weighting shifts in vocal power and attack through different applications of the metal shells - a very Puerto Rican salsa device;
  • American Sueño's metamorphosis from a campesino genre of Guantanamó into a truly urban statement complete with salsa metaphors, or as a maturing thematic development from La Lucha, or the use of triplets interpreted on Willie's piano as modern dialogue to those played in traditional fashion on maracas and timbales;
  • Añá Pa' Mi Tambor's opening evocation in folkloric 6/8 time with the beseeching of permission from the masters and the ceremonial washing of hands before drumming - a barracks practice of sugar slaves, or Charlie Limonet's rare ability on the bongó bell including a crazy 16th-note solo;
  • Ahora Que Te Tengo Aquí as the night's best vocal showcase with Ismael Miranda's tonality and Cheo Feliciano's phrasing, reminiscent of Tite Curet's 'Anacaona';
  • Unidad's theme of unity as expressed through dance (pa' los rumberos) - a deep-seated Latin American symbol of cultural identity and resistance.
Sadly, what the reader got was, "the set was short on subtlety or nuance".

Oh dear.

Although I might agree with the three-and-a-half out of five star rating given for B3PO's performance, I do so for different reasons. On the quality of the reviews, I'd give the broadsheets a one-and-a-half out of five. I'm disappointed with their lack of honesty.

There is one more incident that should not go unanswered.

During an interlude on B3PO's set, trombonist Jimmy Bosch felt the need to say that that he dressed smartly (he and his band-mates were similarly garbed in sharp grey suits) out of respect for the music. The comment struck me as out-of-place, and I can sensibly locate it only as a reference to the casually attired musicians who played before him. While I respect Mr. Bosch's artistry on the trombone, I'm more than a little dismayed to discover a person without the grace to remain above needle onstage.

'Deja De Criticar.'

Collectively, the B3PO were in the embarrassing position of being out-played by their 'support' act. And whether the House Manager had allowed the set to over-run or not, I would expect an ensemble as highly billed as the B3PO were, to be able to take anything that minor in its stride.

La Excelencia displayed their respect for Latin music by the way they played it.

Ovation: La Excelencia and the Barbican after the rumba

Polling the people I know: musicans, dancers, laypersons, mamboniks and salseros alike; they were unanimous in their preference for the performance of the opening band, live and broadcasted.

If I were in La Excelencia's position, I would take Steve Rapson's advice from his book "The Art of the Soloperformer" (see later blog post) and produce a media press pack for distribution, in acknowledgement that today's reviewers are expected to report like subject matter experts over an impossible breadth, and that the most professional of them would welcome any support and assistance from the artists they review, that the both of them can be portrayed in the best possible light.

Loo Yen Yeo