Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hierarchy of Advancement Workshop Twenty-Five

Warm-up: bi-rhythmic practice
Playing rumba clave (arms), and alternating between stepping on pulse and salsa dance rhythm (legs).

Warm-up: rumba guaguancó knee action

Concept: rebound of the knee
If the stepping of the foot is atiempo, then the knee action is contratiempo where: the outward articulation of the knee is active, and the inward articulation is rebound-passive.

Practice: rumba guaguancó knee action with rebound
To rumba clave only track. On the spot, then walking all directions.

Concept: "It has to sound great!"
Within the historical context of rumba with its simple instrumentation, even the sounds of the dancer's foot rhythm has got to groove.

Practice: Pulse-Clave transitions
To rumba clave only track, 143bpm. Alternating between dancing pulse for two phrases, and clave "pa-pa, pa-pa-pa'um" in 2-3 orientation.

Learning materials
Rumba clave timelines by Jeremy Wise and Loo Yeo
Flor Pálida by Marc Anthony

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hierarchy of Advancement Workshop Twenty-Four

Warm up, to rumba clave only tracks
Walks in all directions: forwards, backwards, to side, linear and rotated; changing between stepping on pulse and salsa dance rhythm.

Analysis: distribution of movement energy
In front of mirror, stepping between pulse and salsa dance rhythm, upper body engine. There is rhythmic dance energy apparent above the waist than below. It looks unbalanced.

Concept: increasing lower body dance energy
Engaging the knees rhythmically introduces the involvement of the adductors and abductors, increasing lower body dance energy.

Concept: body-part substitution in rhythm interpretation

I - Body-part substitution in salsa dance rhythm

Practice: salsa dance rhythm foot to knee substitution, on the spot
To rumba clave only tracks. Salsa dance rhythm: instead of foot-foot-foot, to foot-knee(out)-foot, static practice. Centre-of-gravity remains a constant distance from the floor, which causes the ankles to raise off the floor as the knees move outward.

Learning points:

  • listen for the foot-knee-foot action. The auditory feedback should be "thump" (foot strikes floor), "rustle" (clothing brushes knee), "thump" (foot strikes floor)
  • lower centre of gravity to produce more power
  • the knee movement is undamped, being allowed to swing freely yet rhythmically.

Practice: salsa dance rhythm foot to knee substitution, walking
To rumba clave only tracks. Salsa dance rhythm: instead of foot-foot-foot, to foot-knee(out)-foot, walking practice (all directions). This is the rumba guaguancó knee action.

Learning point: the knee action is deliberately exaggerated at low tempi so that it will be observable at the high tempi of guaguancó.

Practice: rumba guaguancó knee action, strengthening exercise
Walks to rumba clave only tracks. Intersperse with four steps on same foot, taking successively deeper steps. This develops physical flexibility and strength, and timing compensation for step size.

II - Body-part substitution in rumba clave rhythm

Practice: stepping to 3-2 rumba clave
To rumba clave only tracks, sidewards walks. Six steps to the compound rumba-son clave vocalisation (3-2 orientation) "pa, pa, pa-um / pa, pa" as *side, close, back-side / side, close*

Practice: stepping to 2-3 rumba clave
To rumba clave only tracks, sidewards walks. Six steps to the compound rumba-son clave vocalisation (2-3 orientation) "pa, pa / pa, pa, pa-um" as *side, close / side, close, back-side*

Learning materials
Rumba clave timelines by Jeremy Wise and Loo Yeo
Flor Pálida by Marc Anthony

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Right Feeling (re-found in Barcelona)

Over the past few years, my re-acquaintance with a long-time friend has led to an increased return to the social dance floor at venues across the country. I'm struck by the heterogeneity in customer experience - in the music played, sound quality, lighting ambience, hospitality, venue setup, dance surface...

At the risk of wearing out my rose-tinted glasses, I recalled promoters putting more effort into their offerings. I put it down to a time when the salsa scene was niche, and, with the actual dance population being small, salsa nights had to have the capacity to 'fascinate' the larger non-salsa audience and draw them in, since they had barely a sense of what salsa was. Now that the salsa-experienced population has grown to a significant enough size, it seems that that attention to fascinate and welcome has drained away.

On more than one recent occasion, I found myself paying to dance in a box.

I've wondered, "has the salsa experience become commoditised?" "Would we, as first-movers in a fledgling salsa scene, have been able to grow it to what it is now by offering today's kind of experience?"

I was saddened. But at the same time, I realised that there was something in it. You see, two friends had been bouncing around the idea of starting up a salsa event with me; and I was only going to commit if the night came from the right place: from the heart. It had the right feeling.

And it just so happens that I'm in Barcelona with them.

They'd never been to the great Catalan city before, and had always wanted to see it. So I let myself be cajoled into being their guide, and I was keen to give them a touch of the Barcelona lifestyle they would treasure.

And it was in 'El Xampanyet' that they experienced the right feeling. 'The Champagne' is one of the city's finest bars, run by the Esteve Family for three generations.

Traditional, yet trendy
El Xampanyet's appeal lies in its dichotomous encapsulation of Iberian values (above). It's both old and new, trendy and traditional, a place to stay or to pass through.

Everyone creates the spectacle
The tapas bar, well-oiled with the elbows of locals, serves a mouth-watering array of fresh local produce and canned seafood in the Catalan tradition. The important thing is, that both the patrons and the staff, together, are involved with creating the spectacle (above). El Xampanyet's staff know this; that people inherently know how to enjoy themselves, and that all they have to do is to help.

A sense of place
Blue Iberian glazed tiles jostle for space on the bottle-lined walls with an eclectic mix of antiques. You know you're in El Xampanyet (above). There's a feeling of place. There's also a sense of timelessness; it doesn't occur to you to think about how long you've stayed.

A feeling of generosity
The offerings are always good. Everyone will prefer some things over others, but it's always good. And most of all, there's a heartfelt feeling of generosity (above).

People come back for friends
It might be the reputation, the drinks, and the pintxos (tapas) that draws you first time through its doors, but in the end, everyone comes to El Xampanyet to be with each other, be they friends or friends not yet made.

So there you have it. What a fledgling salsa scene once had, and lost. And perhaps what it might have once again.

Loo Yen Yeo

Sunday, June 16, 2013

15th June 2013 Prince Royce @The Coronet Theatre, Elephant & Castle, London

"Royce? In London?!?" was my first thought.

The freshly-minted event cropped up innocuously on Facebook and I couldn't believe my eyes. My mouse pointer made like Usain Bolt, sprinting to the link before it dropped off my news feed. If this were true, it would be the first time, at least in my memory, that an international bachata artist had played on these shores. Questions careened about crazily in my mind - What would the audience demographic be? How might the live performance bachata differ to recorded material? Would the consumption of bachata differ to salsa? If so, why? Could I hack a whole evening of the Dominican sweetmeat (ahem)? Would experiencing the artist's live performance practice inform my understanding of his music? Would it help in the deployment of bachata in my DJ sets?

A ticket was the portal to answers.

On a blustery, changeable summer's morning, I was transported bleary-eyed after two nights of hard DJing via a fleet steel carriage to the great capital in the company of four fellow Roycers of unique intensity. A smacking Malaysian lunch; a trot up the Mall to Buckingham Palace into the teeth of a deluge which would have had Noah reaching for his nails and saw; an exhausted refuge in a pub cellar, failed to dampen spirits. We joined the tail of people at the Coronet Theatre at the appointed hour.

And we waited. And we waited. In the coldly stiffening evening breeze.

The minute-hand traced more than a full lap around the clock-face; its progress increasingly confirmed that the promoters, Ritmolatinobaby, had bitten off more than they could've organisationally chewed - there was no extra capacity for management to dispel uncertainty and misinformation. I crossed my fingers and gazed at the dishevelled blue cube of a building that was the Coronet Theatre, lodged as it was against the shoulder of London's unofficial hub of Latin American life - Elephant and Castle's shopping centre.

When we were finally loosed within, I was frisked after the metal detectors (a stark reminder of club life in the big city) and ushered past the box office where my name was crossed off a list. Inside the Coronet was much more promising. Its previous life as a place where actors trod the boards is still evident: the entry ramps brought us in at Circle level with a bar and facilities at the rear, Front-of House (FoH), DJ and lighting booths to the front. Steps on either side of the booths led down to the former Stalls area, now a well-proportioned dance space with obligatory security pit in front of the stage. Above was the Balcony area where the seating had been retained.

The sound quality was the first thing which struck me - it was good. Probably was a result of its former purpose, the acoustic coverage was even across both levels and without boom. A lack of sibilance from the flyers indicated the quality of the set-up, good enough for me to distinguish easily when lossless or data-compressed music was being played. The settings on the digital mixing desk reassured me that the band had been sound-checked, possibly the cause of our delayed entry.

Once the doors opened, the influx of people was steady and controlled. Taking a tour around both floors I estimated an attendance of five hundred souls; average age in the early twenties; more than a third Latin; 60% women; and socio-demographically class A, B and C1 due to the comparatively high ticket price. Looking at their movements, more than 90% of them were there to see the concert; there being just a handful of couples doing their fancy twirly salsa and bachata thing.

Which segues nicely to the Disc Jockeys.

There was a whole battery of 'em - all teen-aged, male, and facing directions contrary to that of their caps. "Since when did DJing become a gang activity?" I mused. What started off as poppy post-internationalisation bachata moved on to reggaeton then k-pop/latin-pop. At first instinct I felt it strange, but then looking at the demographic of young, probably first-generation British-born Latinas, it was well-judged. What was not well-judged was the quality of their music samples. Perhaps they'll learn their craft in time. An MC came on extolling the greatness of Dominican bachata, exhorting us all to worship at the altar of dance (or something like that), steering away from mention of hot-dogs or any Bronx-based artefacts from Royce's birthland. Then the MC in concert with the DJs colluded to drum up a couple of false starts, just to wind up the crowd.

I was feeling bear-baited.

Royce the Entertainer
At last the lights dimmed for real, an hour later than billed. The band musicians assumed their posts at their instruments: rhythm guitar, bass guitar, trap-set, conga-bongo-tambora, keyboards, güira-shaker, midi, and backing vocals. Then BAM! Geoffrey Royce Rojas aka. Prince Royce exploded onto stage in a blaze of reddened yellow light.

Clad in jeans and a leather jacket over a white tee, the young man opened exuding charisma and confidence. His manner of stage presentation and engagement was very much in the United States' school, of which Christina Aguilera is a prime example: slick, sure-footed, and well managed. Always mindful of the camera, his stage coverage was heavily biased to stage left where the feed to his video wall backdrop was shot from. He filled the room with most of his 'Phase II' numbers including "incondicional", plus stalwarts from his eponymous debut release like "corazón sin cara".

Prince Royce's songs all have a mid-tenor's tessitura and a vocal range hardly exceeding two octaves: singing which is all about accessibility, about feeling comfortable, not about virtuosity. His musical intonation was good, apart from a rough patch just past halfway through, when the band's in-ear monitoring systems failed. True to his professionalism, Royce gave little indication of this to his audience. I was actually pleased to hear that, because it indicated his confidence to perform without auto-tune's safety net, although I should add that more scale-work would give him better pitch stability.

Unsurprisingly there were no deep moments of personal revelation - he's not far enough along the road for the stage truly to be his home. Instead he went down the well-trodden routes of searching for someone in the audience and singing to her when he found her two songs later; and holding a mini-dance competition with the (unexpected) winner selected via the audience voting-by-applause. These activities were strategically timed to give his singing voice respite in a concert which lasted a good eighty minutes.

Bachata practice
Unlike in salsa, it isn't overtly clear that internationalised bachata's structure is capable of accommodating musical and lyrical improvisation, even though its ancestral genres were. Therefore in comparison to salsa, Prince Royce's performance practices resulted in music which:
  • was closer to studio recorded forms;
  • lacked the flexibility for new interpretations of musical and lyrical themes; and
  • was compact, requiring more numbers to be played in the concert.
The primary mode of consumption was overwhelmingly passive - there was little participation in the interpretation-reinforcement of ritmo on the part of the audience nor was it encouraged from stage. In total, the experience highlighted an unseen division in this country; where the more avid consumers of bachata's music is by non-aficionado dancers, and the more avid practitioners of bachata's dance is by those somewhat indifferent to its music. This is far away from the Latin American cultural concept of 'ritmo' where dance and music are an inseparable whole.

And that Prince Royce's performance practice inherently lacked ritmo integration speaks volumes of his own cultural divestment, despite literature alluding to his Dominican authenticity.

I got my answers, although I must add the caveat that these general observations are not statistically accurate. I have a better feel for why Geoffrey Royce Rojas wrote his songs and what they mean to him personally - it has very much informed me as to how to deploy his music better in my DJ sets.

My friends and I found it strange that although his concert was billed as part of a "world tour promoting his 'Phase II' album", there was no merchandise on sale at the venue. It transpires that Prince Royce is now signed to Sony, leaving the label of his first two albums - Top Choice - on less that amicable terms, if reports are to be believed. It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be a wise move. Sergio George, owner of Top Choice, has an incomparable Midas touch in crafting hits. Sony, in my opinion, has had its fair share of slaying golden geese.

The experience of the concert was memorable and worthwhile; I would be happy to get the Royce treatment again. There are plenty more questions in search of answers.

Loo Yeo