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