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