Friday, December 16, 2011

Timbale Landmark - The First State of Independence

Last night's band practice marked the passing of a huge milestone. It was the first time I was able to cue the transitions with the abanico, play cáscara and clave (either flavour) in the pre-montuno, timbale bell and clave in the montuno AND sing lead vocals at the same time.

I know it's taken a little longer than anticipated but I think I can justify it, what with having so many projects going on at the same time, and give myself a wee pat on the back. So what next? The most immediate is being able to play bongó bell (left hand) and timbale bell (right) whilst singing. Having just practiced it for a couple of hours just now, I can do it already... minus the singing.

After that, it's sorting out how to play the maraca and güiro rhythm on the hi-hats a la Mike Collazo; then with cáscara, then plus singing.

In the meanwhile Catie has been keen to add congas to her arsenal of musical instruments; and this is a fantastic opportunity to explore rhythmic movements together - like mozambique and songo. Plus I'm sure there'll be a healthy amount of 'chop-building' ahead.

My dance partners, old and new, are very much aware of these developments even if they don't exactly know why. As I said to Emma the other night, 'It's a shame to have so many rhythms playing and to use only one'.


Monday, November 28, 2011

24th November 2011 Son Para Todos @Revolución de Cuba, Sheffield

Son Para Todos is Sheffield's own working salsa band. Originally conceived as a duo: Rodrigo Paredes (vocals, guitar) and Armando Murillo (percussion, coro), its line-up has stabilised over the years to include an additional keyboard, second guitar and trumpet. They work hard to earn a living off their playing, that's what I mean about a 'working' band, lugging their instruments and their PA around in car boots to deliver music in restaurants, bars, and the odd special event.

Respect. This is the grind of what Nuyoricans would call the cuchifrito circuit. I understand the decisions they have to, and are willing to, make in order to bring a touch of Latin American zing to Sheffield's night life.

For years, they've held a once weekly residency at Cubana where they played Cubanesque standards such as 'El Cuarto de Tula' and 'Montón de Estrellas'. Then Inventive Leisure decided to diversify to include rum-based drinks and launched its Revolución de Cuba chain, opening a branch in Sheffield's city centre a salsa song's walk from Cubana - the fit-out has been superb, and the balance of drinks on offer very well-judged.

And so it transpires that Son Para Todos now have three residency slots, playing twice weekly in Revolución de Cuba on Thursday and Friday nights as well.

A wee slice of fantasy Cuba on Mappin Street

I turned up to listen and to get a vibe of the place on Thursday evening. The bar was humming with activity from the beginning of their first set at about 8pm. The hubbub continued its crescendo even when the final strains of their third set faded at 10:30 and Stephen 'DJ Gordo Mágico' Jackson worked the decks.

Chatting with Armando over a mojito, I said that I'd noticed that there were new numbers in their repertoire, mainly at chachachá /son montuno tempo from the Latin Crossover pocket (think Santana), salsafied pop, and some reggae. He gave a wry smile, gestured to the crowd, and said that they'd had to expand and diversify their selection, what with having to play longer and on two consecutive evenings. I told Armando that I thought Son Para Todos had made the right decision - I know plenty of salsa bandleaders who would sneer at playing this mix, but these are ones who have the luxury of not having to perform for a living.

Actually I think that Son Para Todos are being true to their name - bringing the experience of son and its children to everyone - and playing the key role of cultural mediator. And they do so deftly and with aplomb. Cultural mediators are necessary. They are the conduits by which the salsa scene is (Re)energised and (Re)vitalised. A case in point being that when I popped in on Nicolai's lesson two days later: I stepped through Cubana's aged wooden doors to be greeted by two young English lads who introduced themselves to me as Chris and George. They were both there for their first salsa lesson after having been completely taken by the atmosphere at Revolución de Cuba, and I was recognised from there.

I would also confess that my first four Latin CDs were Gloria Estefan's 'Mi Tierra', Alfredo Gutiérrez's 'El Palito', Cheito Quiñones' eponymous album, and La Conexión's 'Conexión Latina'; of which Gloria's and Cheito's were my early favourites. As an ethnomusicologist of transnational genres, I understand the importance of crossover artists as cultural mediators, and am happy to say that Son Para Todos are as deft as they come.

Loo Yen Yeo

Sunday, October 09, 2011

8th October 2011 Soweto Gospel Choir @Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

"...and I'd like one for the Soweto Gospel Choir, too" I heard myself say.

I was standing in the sun-drenched box office of Sheffield's rather swanky Crucible Theatre. I could rationalise it as much as I'd like, for instance saying: "well, as an student of AfroCuban music, it's important to see its roots at the source", but the truth was that it was a momentary mugging by spontaneity.

I can only put it down to Rising Sap from the pseudo-Spring conditions teasing Yorkshire's autumn.

I expected beautiful rich tibreous voices in rhythmic harmony. My mind's eye painted an image of 'Songs of Praise' crossed with the deep South's Gospel. My mind's eye was agog seconds bars into the programme.

The twenty-strong men and women of the choir slipped onto stage in a vibrant kaleidoscope of colour, swaying and singing in undulating rhythm. Unlike their genre predecessors Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the presence of women in the ensemble endows the Soweto Gospel Choir with a greater vocal, harmonic, and timbrel range. It also extended the possibilities in programme presentation: very early on in the first set there was a piece sung by the ladies, followed straight after with another by the gentlemen - it was call-and-response achieved by gender.

Photograph Copyright © Waltons New School of Music.
All Rights Acknowledged.

Call-and-response was the overarching theme in their concert, and it was a full blown concert, of two sets: the first, a call of traditional and folkloric songs; the second, a response of more accessible contemporary numbers. The mix was well-judged, the very pleasant white middle-aged ballroom dancing couple occupying the seats beside me, Susan and Paul, clearly preferred the latter when they said "the concert just kept getting better and better". The hard-nosed musicologist inside me found the first set spine-tingling; it has been the only time, ever, that a musical performance has ever ilicited tears.

It was impassioned and committed unlike any performance I'd experienced before.

Within the choir were leaders and instrumentalists, some of them assuming the positions of bassist, pianist, guitarist, and percussionist (trapset or djembe). I was least prepared for the dancing - a joyous celebration of the music they create. Group, couple and virtuoso solo performances of physical movement, from which it was obvious where Cuba's rumba yambú, guaguancó and columbia were desecended.

Each and every one of the twenty women and men sang from their very essences, their voices a commitment to an absolute purpose. As a musician, it was my privilege to be humbled.

I can only sum up my Soweto Gospel experience with one word - Joy.

For Cubans and those partake of AfroCuban culture, from this choir there is much to be learned.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, September 25, 2011

23rd September 2011 Palenke @SalsaWorks, The Engine Shed, Wetherby

Tony 'El Caballero' Piper understands how central the breaking of bread together is in creating strong social bonds. That's why he makes the run to his local supermarket twice weekly, to nab provisions for his salsa classes and his social evenings - it's an effort he makes that's over and above any other promoter I know.

So I'm perched at the breakfast bar of the Piper kitchen, scoffing one of Mary's cupcakes and watching the last batch of sausages emerge from the oven with a predatory eye. It's been a while since I was here last and I find the rhythm of this household to be refreshingly different. Already I've been Tony's grocery trolley dolly, a slicer and chopper, and packer of various comestibles; and as soon as my host's back is turned, those piping bangers are going to get a right menacing.
I'm staying over to enjoy one of my favourite salsa dance bands, Palenke, perform at the Engine Shed.

Palenke's Fernando, Adriana, Lisandro and Bill are the warmest characters you'll ever meet, and I surprise them side-stage just as they're about to soundcheck. We go back a long way. Smartly, the band provide their own PA, which means they can remain competitive with other ensembles who don't, and still being able to take home a more live-able wage. It's something well-established working bands do.

Both Tony and I feed back that the sound's a bit bright, so Fernando juggles the controls to tone down the migh-mids as the dancers begin to trickle in. SalsaWorks at the Engine Shed features a band on its programme once every six months. It's something they don't have to do (in fact they just about break even) but the team feel it's important to support live music otherwise "where would future recorded music come from?"

Palenke, giving it plenty @The Engine Shed
Alfredo and Christine take the intermediate salsa class on the main floor, while Tony leads the willing beginners (and one house guest) up to the smaller dance area. The theme of the 'beginner' lesson (as opposed to 'absolute beginner' of which there were none) is cross-body lead with "Titanic" variations, where us gents play Leonardo DiCaprio to the ladies' Kate Winslet with varying degrees of aplomb. Since these manoeuvres, though commonly found in the wild, aren't in my active dancing vocabulary, El Caballero's ship-encounters-iceberg hour made for a mischievous diversion.

Shortly afterward, the band struck up.

Palenke are in the midst of producing their second album. Strictly speaking, it's Lisandro who is its central custodian and midwife; he's always dreamt of having the band's album made in his home of Colombia and finally decided to take the plunge. Their two live sets featured numbers from the upcoming release, and if they're anything to go by, their production should be feature a cracking number of dancefloor-fillers.

There were signs, which only an experienced eye could glean, that the band weren't entirely comfortable with their foldback (i.e. onstage sound) during the first set - that's part of the risk with not having a dedicated live engineer - and as such I think Palenke delivered their second with more surety, with a well-judged mix of salsa, son montuno and bachata.

on past record how brilliant I feel Palenke are. That has not changed. They still reside at the pinnacle of salsa dance bands in the UK, and have been so for more than 20 years when others have been and gone. Dancing to them is a joy and a privilege, especially in a such a venue as the Engine Shed.

Basking in the warmth of their music and of dancing friends, this has been one lovely highlight to this year of salsa.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"La Lucha For Cuba" by Miguel A. De La Torre

Illustration Copyright © 2003 University of California Press Ltd. All Rights Acknowledged.

I was drawn to this book by its cover: a protester clutching a Cuban flag, a sash of cordon tape across his chest, being restrained by three concerned blue-clad police officers. It looked familiar somehow, and it turns out that it was an exilic Cuban protesting at the Los Van Van concert at the Miami Arena. I remembered watching the DVD of the concert which opened with scenes of the protest, and wondering why salsa - a phenomenon which sometimes sells itself on the basis of Latin American unity - inspired such fervent anger.

There was another reason; research into augmenting the History of Salsa on my website, with sections on Colombian, Venezuelan and Miami salsa.

The author, Miguel A. De La Torre, writes about Miami exilic Cubans' power geometry in the contexts of Dade County, the United States, and against Castro's Cuba. The work unmasks the structures of oppression  deployed by exilic Cubans to maintain their position of power; it is piercingly insightful, utterly convincing and written with relentless candour. He is a brave man. I can only imagine what he risked as an insider, in the publication of 'La Lucha'. Laura Pérez, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies in University of California Berkley, regarded it as an "... extremely important, courageous and long overdue project about cubanidad...".

It is heavyweight, erudite, and yet personal. It is not light reading. But difficult endeavours, and their accounts shouldn't be. His writing is compact, succinct, heavily laden with meaning. I think the value of his commitment is best be revealed through some of his own words (In order to avoid misunderstandings due to my purely personal choice of excerpts, I strongly urge you to obtain a copy of the book to read them in the context as the author intended):

In his preface he observes, "My hatred for Fidel Castro has been ingrained in me since childhood."

And of the institutionalized racism he and his family encountered when they moved from Miami to Kentucky he says, "The day we moved, I woke up "white" in Miami, but that night in Louisville I went to sleep as a man of color. This experience illustrated that while in Miami, I benefited from the power and privilege obtained by Exilic Cubans, yet when I left Dade County, I suffered because I was seen as a Latino."

And for me, most importantly,

"The Cuban clergy was predominantly from Spain... trained during the Franco dictatorship and highly influenced by the bitter Spanish Civil War victory over communism."
"These priests transplanted the atmosphere of a religious crusade against communism from Spain to Cuba."
"The Cuban Revolution occurred before the churches in Latin America became radicalized by the Vatican II (1962-65)... which articulated the basic tenets of liberation theology." [page 27]

This was the 'a-ha' moment - all of a sudden, things made sense. It was worth the cost of the book for the value of page 27 alone.

'La Lucha for Cuba' has brought me to a cross-roads. Should I augment the history with a deeper analysis which would necessitate consideration of political (and hence polarising) influences? Or should I maintain the history's accessibility to all by side-stepping the controversies which lie at the very heart of salsa?

Perhaps there is a middle path, should Elegguá be kind enough to show me the way. Otherwise, my instinct tells me I should follow De La Torre's example, and trust my readers to know the price of the difference.

Yeo Loo Yen

Sunday, July 31, 2011

M is for Metaphor

I've been working my way through Beard and Gloag's 'Musicology: The Key Concepts' (2005), using musicology as a lens through which to study dance. To be frank I've found the book a bit of a struggle, more due to the density of subject concepts than the writing style (see the review in a later post). But along the way, there's plenty of stimulus for thought. Take the opening section on the entry for 'Metaphor':


Metaphor is a concept that defines our relationship to music. For example, music cannot be said to be sad; rather, sadness is a quality that we may ascribe to it (Neubauer 1986, 151). Metaphor arises in all forms of discourse about music, even when, as in theory and analysis, it attempts to treat music as an autonomous object (see autonomy). Naomi Cumming has summarized metaphors about music as 'a projection onto sound of aspects of our own mentality' (Cumming 1994, 28). In a critical appraisal of Roger Scruton's discussion of ways in which metaphor has informed musical descriptions, Cumming comments:
If explanations of music commonly make it an 'intentional object' by treating it as the object of understanding, not as a thing which can be described 'in itself'... then references to qualities which derive from our own cognitive mechanisms rather than from any acoustic property of the music are bound to appear.
(ibid., 28)

An aspect of the philosophical use of analogy is that confidence in validity of the comparison depends upon the level of similarity between the things being compared. Based on the Latin American concept of 'ritmo' which refers not only to rhythm in music also to its associated dance, we can derive these analogous statements of high confidence:
  • Metaphor is a concept that defines our relationship to dance. For example, dance cannot be said to be 'hot'; rather, 'hotness' is a quality that we may ascribe to it
  • Metaphors about dance (can be described) as a projection onto movement of aspects of our own mentality
  • ...references to qualities which derive from our own cognitive mechanisms rather than from any kinesthetic property of the dance are bound to appear
Through this lens, we can pierce the marketing veil to look at underlying constructs and contradictions.

Of Hot and Hotness
A glance of the salsa dance listings in the United Kingdom is replete with terms like: fuego [fire], fever, heat, and spicy. The marketing implication is that one can be 'hot' like the constructed Latin American. However if we ascribe the property of 'hotness' to salsa, or at least the potential for it, then it leaves responsibility for achieving it in the hands (and bodies) of the interpreters.

'Hot' allows the engagement to be passive, just by participating in the activity renders the dancer 'hot'; whereas 'hotness' demands active engagement, requiring the conscious and continuous act of interpretation to realise potential. But as salsa is rendered here as a decontextualised activity, how much Latin American hotness should we expect to achieve?

Projections of our own mentality
In the content of our salsa lessons, move vocabulary vastly outweighs rhythmic strength demonstrating our cultural pursuit of the pinnacle at the expense of the fundamental. That our prevailing style skims across the surface of the floor instead of deriving a strong hip action off it, privileges the European roots over the African.

Qualitative references derived from cognitive mechanisms
The segregation of salsa communities into those brandishing salsa, mambo, contratiempo, On1 and On2 markers tell us that salsa is the being treated as an 'intentional object'. It causes us to ask the question, "what is the underlying intent?" driving the promotion of these markers.

And the next concept is 'Modernism'... Hmm...

Loo Yeo

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Listening in Rome

"...a phasing effect with the very early reflections". One bit of sentence told me that Bob Katz works on a completely different plane altogether.

The thought of listening for this audio artefact had never troubled my mind; and even knowing what to listen for, I could only just make it out in the studios at home and at Red Tape. Having said that any feedback on Corazón Fugitivo's 'Rome Calling' mix would yield new and valuable information, this innocuous-looking snippet was a complete game-changer - telling me that I would have to send the salsa album to Florida for mixing as well as mastering.

That was the day before Rome.

I walked into the Auditorium della Discoteca di Stato on a wondrous Wednesday morning to be greeted by the lovely Andrea and Laura assisting none other than the flame-haired Mary Kent, author of "Salsa Talks". It was a great thing finally to meet and connect over salsa, as my attendeeship to "Bob 'Til You Drop" (BTYD) was being processed. Indeed, over the next three days I consider myself fortunate to have had so much of Mary and Bob's time to talk about things other than and including salsa dancing and music.

Loo... certified by Laura and Andrea

BTYD was a brain-melter of a workshop.

The early part of the morning dealt with ear-training; listening to several audiophile recordings and understanding how they were achieved. After the mid-morning break, it was into mastering software and workflow. Lunch was delish; an outside catering company had set up in the old courtyard with benches laden with classic Italian cuisine, and there we mingled - engineers, producers and musicians alike - under white canopies in the bright early summer sunlight. Then it was back into the fray to ruminate over the main tools of mastering and their effects. By the time those essentials were covered, space in the schedule for mix evaluations had run out.

If there were to be one slight regret, it would be that (frankly, all of us were hostages to the effects of saturation by then). It was more than compensated for by the company of warm, open, like-minded talents like Pierangelo, Federico and Samuel - musicians and audio experts in their own right.

Bobbin' 'til we were a'droppin'
(back, left to right) Pierangelo Troiano, Bob Katz, Federico Simonazzi
(front, left to right) Samuel Gaehwiler, Loo Yeo
Photograph courtesy of Mary Kent. All rights acknowledged.

Bob had kept up a lively, engaging patter throughout the day. It's not easy to run a full-dayer like that; his slight frame surely hid a deep well of stamina to draw upon. What I can say is that Mary and Bob hosted, presented, managed and delivered the workshop with not inconsiderable style. It is certainly one to go to again.

The next two days of 'Rome Calling' were more technically based on broadcasting and, despite being focussed on loudness normalisation as per European Broadcasting Union's Recommendation 128, had more than enough of the good stuff for the general producer and engineer. I came away with a feeling of being privileged to have engaged with unassuming people at the top of their game, the likes of Florian Camerer, George Massenburg, Thomas Lund, and Alessandro Travaglini. George especially, still communicates energy, enthusiasm, curiosity and wonder in all things to do with sound, music and people.

I have also an elevated respect for TC Electronics, headline sponsors and organisers of the 'Rome Calling' Audio Seminars, a company with so much class that it chose not to emblazon its presence in every nook and cranny. Instead, everyone from TC Electronics adopted understated roles of facilitators/advisors. Deserved plaudits go to them all.

And salsa still proved relevant to this entire context. Rome Calling affirmed several things. Foremost, a number of the demonstration pieces selected by Bob and George were Latin; in private conversation it sparked considerable interest when we discovered that it was an area I worked/played in. Afro-Cuban and Latin music has stature amongst the audio elite.

Just as invaluable was the chance to hear the personal story, about: why Mary embarked on "Salsa Talks" and how it resonates with my position with Víspera, and what she's working on now; Bob's insights into the remastering of the Fania back-catalog; and George's work with Cándido Camaro and Linda Ronstadt.

BTYD in the Eternal City.
Photograph courtesy of Mary Kent. All rights acknowledged.

Salsa is such a rich sustaining world that it's easy to be drawn in and become cloistered within it. Rome was a landmark event, to step out and to look back, and to savour it as appreciative outsiders do, if only for a short while.

Loo Yeo

For more about Loo's sojourn in Rome, visit the public photo album links (by Facebook) below:

Monday, May 30, 2011

Corre Mi Corazón

That's it. The first mix of the first song of the album has just finished being uploaded to Digital Domain's site.

Three weeks ago I learned of a rare opportunity - there was going to be a gathering of the world's audio elite, respected audiophile and Grammy award-winning producers/engineers, in Rome to convocate a new broadcasting standard; one with the potential to change the way all music is produced and broadcast. Competition for places was always going to be keen, but a lightning spate of to-ing and fro-ing (plus maybe a wee bit of leverage with a UNESCO credential) committed me to a presence in the Eternal City.

Yet, there is more icing to this already jammy cake. It transpired that one of the speakers, Bob Katz, author of "Mastering Audio" and sonic guru at Digital Domain was conducting a full-day seminar the day before!

If anything, this was more important (if that's at all possible), since I'd earmarked Digital Domain as the likely Mastering house for 4 de Diciembre's CD, at a time even before Bob had been commissioned to re-Master much of Fania's back catalogue. It was the ideal chance to meet Mr.Katz beforehand; be taught audio mastering from a world authority; and, as a mix engineer, to learn what to do, and what not to do, so as to avoid painting a mastering engineer into a corner.

The unique selling point was modestly tucked away in the prose of the seminar programme. It simply said, "Bring your mixes for evaluation and to see how they might be mastered".

For me, this was the ultimate. If I were able to produce a final mix of any of the salsa band's songs, and if it was to be accepted for evaluation, I would have a chance to understand how the production could be improved before it faced mastering for real at Digital Domain. In other words, I could have two bites of the cherry. A most desirable thing.

But you have to be in it to win it, right?

Hence the relative silence of SalsaDiary. Ana's backing vocals and my congas were re-recorded for "Corazón Fugitivo", edited, mixed, re-mixed, and re-remixed. Since I'm also part of the Recording 2 Course currently underway at Red Tape Studios, I was able to evaluate the mix in an alternate professional environment.

I can honestly say that the mix I've just submitted to Bob is done to the absolute utmost of my ability. No excuses. That's crucial because any feedback Bob gives, any recommendations for improvement, will be completely novel. From one of the world's best. Learning can't get more pertinent than that.

For now, it's fingers crossed that "Corazón Fugitivo" will be among the chosen few. And not too long hence, I'll be leavin'..

...on a jet plane...

Yeo Loo Yen

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lead Vocals a la Middle-Side... done!

All lead vocal re-recordings are finally in the can.

The last one 'La Llamada de Ogún' [The Call of Ogún] got the Loo treatment on Thursday; and although there is one more tune, 'Jardín' [Garden], to record, that's yet in the writing stage so it's ostensibly time to move on.

Our rather large vocal 'redo' escapade was nosed on by Digital Domain's advice on preparing tapes and files, particularly the "Gang of Four" stems. One of these stems is lead vocals only (with its reverb), which plainly means no hiding place in regard of performance, technique and engineering. All the tracks, not only my own, must withstand the close scrutiny of one of the world's foremost mastering engineers; and what I did not want, was to find myself in his mastering suite, without something to be proud of. Since there were inherent flaws in the previous engineering, Dave (our new man at the controls) and I have had to start anew.

Middle and Side. Go on... you know you want to!
(Neumann TLM 103 for the middle, and
AKG C 414 B-XLS on the side)

And this singer's having to scoff humble pie.

I used to think that pop singers were poor singers because they relied on composited vocals, and here I find myself doing the same thing. But before you judge me as harshly, there are two pretty big things in my defense:
  • auto-tune does not exist in this project, and
  • each take is non-identical as regards musical interpretation.
The second point has actually transformed the process of editing from one of potential tedium, into one of creativity, surprise and discovery - exploring the combinations on the route to building the best composite vocal has made a better lead singer. An additional improvement has come about with deploying the mid-side recording technique, which has gone a long way into allaying my fears (as a mix engineer) as to how to get the lead vocals to stand out in the dense mix that 4 de Diciembre's music presents.

Next on the list is to get Ana, Catie and Jeremy in to lay down the coro [backing vocals] using the same method. If things go really well, the results could be astounding. If not, there's always Plan B. And a Plan C...

Loo Yeo

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Challenge (Part Two)

After hearing scant word from the commissioning publishers I'd written for [see earlier post "The Challenge (Part One)"], I was somewhat surprised to hear from the lead editor, David, last November.

Reading in-between the lines, the publishing house had put itself through a phase of restructuring to face a toughening economic environment, and this particular project had gotten itself ensnared in that process. The wrought changes struck me as seismic with a near-complete replacement in editorial committee, and yet it seemed to have resulted in renewed energy - a new submission deadline for all work by contributors was set for the end of March.

I reckoned that the deadline wasn't a big deal: my entry was already in, approved, and the contract signed. I was safe. As a matter of fact, a tight deadline meant earlier publication.

Silly puppy.

David yanked away my security blanket; he asked me if I would consider re-writing. Now normally, one expects to do a little fine-tuning (although not post-approval) and I don't mind putting pen to more paper to make a better article. But this was a completely different kettle of fish: the original brief required an international slant but the editors, realising that there was an definite space on salsa in South America to be filled, felt that adjustments to my entry could address that gap and yet retain the global outlook. They estimated the article as being already 80% of the way there.

In effect, this was a change of brief.

There were two considerations: the demands on time (bloggable activities plus those unconfessable); and the amount of effort required which, to complete a task, increases exponentially towards its conclusion. I estimated that the remaining 20% would require about half again the original amount of effort to complete the work.

In chess it's called "zugzwang" or compulsion to move - if I didn't, there was the possibility that all the work might be wasted; if I did, it would require more effort. Deep down, I couldn't help but wonder if this additional commitment would pay off in a publication; the first commission happened almost two years ago.

Three months, two additional books, a handful of DVDs, and several research papers later, the alterations [] to the original structure looked like this:
  1. Introduction describing transnational salsa as a music and dance genre
    [primary emphasis on Caribbean and South American practices, secondary emphasis on non-indigenous practices];
  2. Origins of the word, from flavour term to stylistic label
    [expansion to the debate as to whether salsa is a genre or not];
  3. Properties of the music including the psychoacoustics for dance;
  4. Structural elements of a 'typical' salsa song;
  5. The five main schools of salsa performance with a comment on corroborating dance movement;
  6. Historical perspective on the development of each school;
  7. Other areas of production including the re-Africanization of salsa
    [section split into additional Caribbean and Extra-Caribbean sites of production, and expanded];
  8. [Additional section - Major themes in salsa: gender, and Latin unity as a label marketing concept];
  9. [Additional section - Patterns of salsa consumption between Latin and non-Latin communities];
  10. [Additional section - Areas of relevant research]; and
  11. References and recommended reading/listening/watching.
The re-write came in at five thousand words, two thousand more than the original. David had relaxed the word limit - actually he removed it altogether. I didn't realise what an important gesture that was until a day later, at a seminar by Peter LaPlaca, editor of Industrial Marketing Management. Editors of print journals are given an annual budget... in pages, not money; and the removal of a word count, well, is no trivial gesture.

The change in commission did consume the amount of effort estimated, but I think the entry is much stronger for the changes.

Now, it's back to waiting for word.

Loo Yeo

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"The Book Of Salsa" by César Miguel Rondón. Translated from the Spanish, by F.R.Aparicio with J.White

Cover Illustration Copyright © 2008 J.T.Morrow. All Rights Acknowledged.

The original version has acquired near-mythic status as THE reference guide on the impact and development of salsa in the Caribbean with emphasis on Venezuela. This translated version finally makes this work accessible to the English-speaking audience.

Rondón's chronicle doesn't disappoint, providing a join-the-dots genealogy of salsa replete with interesting musical examples. His division of salsa into movements - the avante garde and matancerization; and by locale - salsa of the north (New York) and salsa of the south (Caribbean), are well argued; as his is take on the origin of gender narrative being guaperia, although his handling of the topic of sexism is far from deft.

The author's role in broadcast media placed him in prime position to witness and comment on salsa's impact on Venezuela: right from the very start as an imported music adopted by the urban underclasses facing censorship by the elite, through to Oscar D'León's productions for international consumption. His access to musicians and inclusion of interview material adds a much-needed counterpoint to the main narrative; I found Tite Curet Alonso's theory about love and the position of the bolero as being enriched by confrontation especially enlightening.

The storyteller is not above hyperbole and sensationalisation, and one would to well to remember that "The Book of Salsa" is no more than a personal account, and as such benefits (as above) and suffers (below) from all that that entails. It has instances of:
  • absolutism - "those Cuban examples... were always isolated experiments that had no support from dancers and music fans"
  • vague value judgement - "Lavoe did not (capitalize on the potential that Curet's lyrics)... show off through the montuno in new or creative ways"
  • lack of detail - failing to clarify what he means by "mediocre arrangements" and what constitutes a good one
  • blatant author filtering or poor editing - "however, for the purposes of this book, that does not matter much"
  • getting out of his depth - weak knowledge of resident Cuban musicians; misrepresenting an artist as two separate ones e.g. Francisco Repilado and Compay Segundo, Manuel Licea and Puntillita; poor gender commentary
  • poor internal consistency - "but those same nuances acquired a special, if negligible value" (under what conditions would something deemed special be also deemed negligible?)
  • affectation - where he confesses that there are "other erudite books free from intellectual prejudices"
It is a credit to Mr.Rondón that despite its faults, his work remains important. It provides the salsa researcher with the precious gift of investigative direction; admittedly one which, due to shortcomings in its stringency and internal consistency, requires corroboration with other sources.

Loo Yen Yeo

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Stage Presence" by Jane Goodall

Illustration Copyright © 2008 Routledge. All Rights Acknowledged.

An academic study describing the titled phenomenon, "Stage Presence" largely documents and analyses the efforts of others who have sought to describe it, rather than pointing in directions as to how it might be developed. Consequently, it is a step further removed from the vital attribute - listening to and critiquing the thoughts of others, leaving the reader to deduce its contextual significance.

Stage Presence's discursive quality is that of movement in an ever-tightening spiral; of trying to identify something ephemeral by describing everything around that's subject to its influence - like astronomers witnessing the effect of a strong gravitational field through the distortion of light from surrounding stars.

What lends cohesion to the work is the thread of a timeline, from the ancient to the recent, where the expressions of stage presence were drawn from the scientific understandings of that epoch: mesmerising, magnetic, electric, radiant, dazzling. Indeed, Goodall sets out her stall in the introduction by describing the work as "an enquiry that breaks down the cultural dualisms of rationality and superstition, science and art."

The book is, at its very superstructure, a Chronicle of Rhetoric. Within that framework is located some very succinct definitions, such as the meaning of 'Star Quality'; analytical dissections, for example in the 'Definition of Parody'; and practical applications, like 'the management of energy in performance'.

Whilst there are numerous useful insights and ideas, and the author comes across best when talking about musicals, the effort becomes less convincing when Goodall strays from the aesthetic domain into the scientific; where her words are beguiling but lacking in rigour - "nature abhors a vacuum" neglects the largest known phenomenon in nature: Outer space.

At times, the author seems to grasp at straws:


"Why do ghosts, which the French call 'revenants' - those who return - come back to the places from which they are supposed to have departed, and how do they achieve the presence effect? This is a question with which scientists would have no patience but, with a little poetic licence, it helps to raise some other questions that are of the essence in an enquiry into stage presence." (Page 170)


Yes, skepticism is an inherent part of a scientific philosophy which West inherited from the Greeks. But I contend that scientists would indeed entertain her question above, if there was preceding reproducible evidence that:
  • ghosts did exist;
  • the returners were one and the same as the departed, only transcendental;
  • there was a quantifiable presence effect; and
  • such presence effect was caused by ghosts.
In the next line, she asks the reader for an act of faith (in the form of poetic licence) in order to bridge a gap in logical argument in an enquiry.

I found the pseudoscience hard to swallow.

With any advanced material, it is encumbent on the reader to maintain a critical mindset to recognise personal truths. "Stage Presence" is no different. Indeed, I found the discourse on Dramatic Interpretation: the "use of repetition - verbal and melodic - to create variation, so that their unfolding is improvised line by line with a fresh interpretive attack" particularly relevant to the performance of salsa.

But it is in the analysis of John Cage's 'now moment' as "the vanishing point in time and space" that I found my personal nirvana. Coming as it did in the closing stages of the book, it vindicated my doggedness in seeing the book through to its end in the face of a scientist's umbrage.

It articulated clearly that which I'd experienced as, "a shift in consciousness resulting in break-through to some normally excluded dimension of experience" but had never been able to express personally in words. Understanding the distance Science has yet to cover, I would not attempt a logical explanation.

Stage Presence is a valuable endeavour whose riches require considerable effort by the reader to unlock. Those of a more scientific bent would have to exert themselves a little more in the suspension of their disbelief.

Loo Yeo