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.