Saturday, July 16, 2016

Rhythmic Modulation

Exploring the phenomenon of timeline modulation was the theme this week's Solares. There are a number of forms it takes, so the definition of modulation in this workshop was:
"when the rhythm of one timeline is allowed to influence the rhythm another"
There were two rhythms at play,
  1. the standard unaccented embodiment rhythm (atiempo timeline); and
  2. the vocalised open ("gung-gung") and slap ("pak") tones of the tumbao moderno (contratiempo timeline).

Warm-up: Recap of Previous Content
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic. Begin with "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add "pak" vocalisation (beat 2).

Solo, with music. As above.

Observation Practice
Two participants were selected to demonstrate modulation. One had naturally allowed the "pak" vocalisation to modulate her embodiment rhythm, evidenced by a stronger, accented second step. Another, although performing the "pak" vocalisation, had naturally maintained three unaccented steps.

Exercise One
Solo, without music. Caribbean sway basic, then walking. Begin with "gung-gung" vocalisation (beats 4,4+). Add embodiment rhythm (beats 1,2,3). Add "pak" vocalisation (beat 2). Allow the "pak" vocalisation to 'colour' to the second step.
Learning point: "let the pak from your throat flow through your feet"

Exercise Two
Solo, with music, As exercise one.

Learning Concept
Participants were first encouraged to explore modulation as present (accented) or absent (unaccented). Then they were encouraged to explore it quantitatively as 'colouration' (i.e. modulation) using the metaphor of a volume control dial: zero being unaccented, ten being as accented as possible, then arbitrary values in-between e.g. five, three, seven.

Exercise Three
As exercise two. Application of learning concept. Participants were asked to determine which 'colour' dial setting was most appropriate for the music track being played.

Exercise Four
As exercise three, but partnered.

At this point, participants' quality of execution encountered a downturn. As the addition of a partner was the single additional parameter, I surmised that the challenge lay in the mutual negotiation of an appropriate modulation level. This was verified through questioning the workshop participants. Reading this - the negotiation of each individuals idea of appropriate modulation in a partnership - as being one variable too far, I determined to continue with the principle of the exercise but adapted to make it achievable.

Exercise Five
Partnered, to music. Caribbean sway basic. Tumbao moderno "gung-gung, pak" vocalisation.
I called out a number indicating modulation level (on a scale of 0-10) and each participant was to interpret it at individual level, and then negotiate it at partnership level.

The initial exercises were met with varying success. This may have been due to either: a lack of skill in the execution; or a lack of understanding, given that modulation was a new concept. Both were equally likely.

Modulation is dependent upon the quality and strength of both signals: the embodied timeline and the vocalised timeline. If one signal timeline (in this case the vocalised one) fades in and out, and is temporally unstable, then the effect of modulation cannot be consistent.

Towards the end of the session (during exercise five) participants' dance rhythms were showing increasing signs of being affected by the "pak" accent, indicating that early-session low success was due to a lack of familiarity with the concept.

The introduction of additional structure through removal of one parameter (i.e. my setting of modulation level) suggests that more structured intermediate exercises might attenuate the steepness of the learning curve.

The indications are that a re-running of the content with additional support and fewer variables i.e.:
  1. externally set modulation levels;
  2. emphasis on individual exercises; and
  3. defined spatial configurations;
would provide an intermediate range of practice for the development of the skill of modulation.

Yeo Loo Yen

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Possibility of Dialogue (Tumbadora Session Two)

Two Solares participants and I met up for dinner and chat; which morphed into an impromptu tumbadora percussion workshop shortly after dessert was downed. It was I who suggested it, given that there was an opportunity to explore the 'non-moderno' (i.e. non one-person) version of the basic conga rhythm. All three of us were keen: two friends keen to lay hands on the drums, and I to explore more how to articulate the relevance of percussion to dancers.

We went over how to set up to play congas; then the necessary basic strokes of open tones, heel tones, toe tones; and the heel-toe marcha.

The first hurdle was in how to properly co-ordinate two drummers, each playing a complementary part of a whole rhythm, without bringing in the extra complexity of clave beforehand. I elected to introduce the entire rhythm as vocalisation, to a regular pulse meter tapped out by the ball-of-foot.

The sung rhythm was "gung-gung-fru-ku-gung-gung-fru-ku-" where:
  • "gung" is the open tone, corresponding to beats 4, 4+, 2, 2+ respectively;
  • "fru" is the heel tone, corresponding to beats 1, 3 respectively; and
  • "ku" is the toe tone, corresponding to beats 1+, 3+ respectively.
Taps of the ball-of-foot synchronised with each "fru". The "fru" syllable was used instead of "tu" because it is non-plosive.

One person was designated to play the open tones, the other the marcha. The drummer of the open tones began first as a 'pregón' or 'caller', followed by the marcha drummer as 'coro' or 'respondent', creating dialogue. Once the two-person rhythm was fully engaged, the vocalisation was silenced. The foot taps acted as a synchronising master timeline. These roles would be reversed so that each participant had an equal amount of time playing the two roles.

Each drummer was asked to cycle through the practice using dominant and non-dominant hands, and to assess the quality of each side's sonority, musical timing, and expression. As is typical, both were surprised to find their non-dominant sides more musical.

In keeping with the principle of co-operative musicianship common to African drumming, the tumbao was split into roles such that both were essential to form the whole. The divide was made according to tonal function: obviously audible tones which project the personality of the rhythm, and subtle near-inaudible tones which are essential to the drummer for stability and texture.

Quantitative factors, such as the loudness of tone (volume), and qualitative factors, such as abrupt accusative tones (timbre) were also pointed out when they occurred.

Low-mid tempo son montuno music was selected as the performative context.

With both participants being new to the instrument and to co-operative drumming, the objective of this session was to introduce them to the idea of how congas were drummed with two people, to develop the skill of listening to each other and their selves simultaneously, and to contextualise the vocalisations we've been using in solares in triggering movement response

We completed the session some three hours later, satisfied that a substantial foundation had been laid.

Loo Yeo

Friday, July 08, 2016

The Fundamental Characteristics of African Dance

Index of the fundamental characteristics of African dance and derivatives. Derived from Welsh-Asante's seven characteristics of African dance in "Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation" (1985).

1. Low to the earth
African cosmology regards the Earth as a benevolent world which sustains them, as compared to the European's place of trial to ascend from. Hence the characteristic of African dance is one which works with gravity, not one which seeks to defy it.

The 'Earth-Centred' Posture
With the ankles just inside one hip-width apart, and the body in a seated posture but inclined forward with knees flexed, this is a root position of West African dance. The posture places the dancer in dynamic equilibrium with gravity: energy from the dancer radiating downwards to the earth is in balance with the energy radiated from the earth upwards.

2. Undulating from the centre outward
(remarks to follow)

3. Polyrhythmic
(remarks to follow)

4. Emphasis on the pelvic girdle
(remarks to follow)

5. Body part isolations
Each body part tells its own story.
"All the elements of the music are displayed clearly in the body and nothing is left out." - Emily Willette (2012)

6. Whole foot touching the ground
(remarks to follow)
"We are the men of dance, whose feet draw new strength pounding the hardened earth." - Léopold Sédar Senghor (1945).
"stamping feet on the ground is a show of extreme joy" - Alphonse Tiérou (2000) 

7. Bent knees
(remarks to follow)
"dancing in a bent-over position with arms folded over the chest is a symbol of initiation" - Alphonse Tiérou (2000)

8. Texture
describes how dance functions as bodily (performative) conversation.
"Tell me how you dance and I'll tell you who you are." - Alphonse Tiérou (2000)
"When a body moves, it's the most revealing thing. Dance for me a minute, and I'll tell you who you are." - Mikhail Baryshnikov


Senghor, Léopold Sédar (1945). Prayer to Masks. In 'Songs of Shadow'. Original text: "Nous sommes les hommes de la danse, dont les pieds reprennent vigueur en frappant le sol dur." See excerpt: [Retrieved 08/07/16]

Tiérou, Alphonse (2000). Tell Me How You Dance and I'll Tell You Who You Are. The UNESCO Courier. October 2000, Page 45. See: [Retrieved 08/07/16]

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (1985). Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation. In "African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity" edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Kariamu Welsh-Asante. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Willette, Emily (2012). The Africanist Aesthetic in American Dance Forms. [Retrieved 18/06/2016]

The Senses of African Dance

Index of the thematic principles which can be found at the core of African dance and derivatives. Derived from Welsh-Asante's seven "senses" of African dance in "Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation" (1985).

1. Ephebism
(from the Greek 'ephebos' εφηβος referring to the adolescent male)
A youthful energy (not commonly found in European ballet). "Old people dancing with youthful vitality are valued examples of ephebism in Africanist cultures." (Gottschild, 2001.)

2. Polycentrism
Literally meaning "of, or having, many-centres", it is the idea that movement may be initiated from and maintained in any part of the body. Hence the preponderance of body-isolated movement. Polycentrism is a requisite for the embodiment of polyrhythm. Emily Willette (2012) says of African dance, "All the elements of the music are displayed clearly in the body and nothing is left out."

3. Polyrhythm
Dave Atkinson defines polyrhythm as "a combination of two or more rhythms played simultaneously while moving at the same linear tempo". Farris Thompson (1974) describes his experience of the bodily expression of polyrhythm (via polycentrism) thus, “my hands and my feet were to keep time with the gongs, my hips with the first drum, my back and shoulders with the second.”

4. Curvilinearity
"refers to the curved shape, figuring or structuring of artistic products as well as within the positioning of bodies. It’s directly related to two core concepts in African societies: continuity and fertility." (Afreaka, 2013)

5. Dimensionality
Extrasensory feelings and emotions. "Asante's (sic) (1994) dimensionality refers not to "measured dimension" but to "perceived dimension," a "something extra that is present in harmony with the music, dance, or sculpture" (Caponi, 1999).

6. Epic Memory
The dancer draws upon folkloric knowledge and cultural histories to imbue the dance with spiritual and emotional meaning, thereby making a 'universal' (read 'primal') connection with the audience.

7. Holistic Unity (Wholism)
Unity arises out of the circle-solo dance format where there is a communal circle and a soloist leader or couple. Members of the circle: drummers, singers/choristers, dancers-in-waiting, audience members; all participate. Says Welsh-Asante (2010) "Participation is anticipatory and responsive. In order for an event to be successful, everyone must be fully involved. Silence and stillness are not valued in the African performance arena. In fact, to be silent is to be critical in a negative way and shows disdain and contempt for the performance."

8. Repetition
"Most African composition is based on the repetition of a musical unit. It is that repetition that holds together the other musical units of the composition. These other unit are structured with great freedom relative to the first unit, producing their own rhythmic pattern that coincides only occasionally with that of the other units and with the basic pulse. For example, in the mbira music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, a repeated pattern is established by the interaction of various parts, and the musician develops an improvisation out of this core pattern." ('Music in Africa' 2015)

"Without an organizing principle of repetition, true improvisation would be impossible, as an improviser relies upon the ongoing recurrence of the beat... That the beat is there to pick up does not mean that it must have been metronomic, but merely that it must have been at one point begun and that it must be at any point 'social' - i.e., amenable to re-starting, interruption, or entry by a second or third player or to response by an additional musician." (Snead, James 1981)


Afreaka (2013). "Africanist Dance Aesthetics: Societies in Movement". [Retrieved 19/06/16]

Atkinson, Dave (????). What is a polyrhythm [Retrieved 08/07/2016].

Caponi, Gena Dagel (1999). "Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin' & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture" Editor. Amherst : Univeristy of Massachusetts Press.

Farris Thompson, Robert (1974). "African Art in Motion". Los Angeles : University of California Press.

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon (2001). Stripping the Emperor: The Africanist Presence in American Concert Dance. In "African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas" Edited by Sheila S.Walker. pp.89-103.

'Music of Africa'. In "New World Encyclopedia" (2015) [Retrieved 16/06/16]

Snead, James (1981). On Repetition in Black Culture. Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 15, No. 4, Black Textual Strategies, Volume 1: Theory (Winter, 1981), pp. 146-154.

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (1985). Commonalities in African Dance: An Aesthetic Foundation. In "African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity" edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Kariamu Welsh-Asante. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (2010). World of Dance: African Dance, Second Edition. NY : Infobase Publishing

Willette, Emily (2012). The Africanist Aesthetic in American Dance Forms. [Retrieved 18/06/2016]

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Timelines: Rhythms and Relationships

The master index of timeline categories and their member rhythms which have been, or will be, addressed in Solares. Links to relevant posts provided are followed by the type of embodiment rhythm in parenthesis () they were performed relative to.

Contratiempo Backbeat Timeline
Congatumbao antico rhythm
Conga: tumbao moderno rhythm
Embodiment: bolero rhythm

Atiempo Downbeat Timeline
Bass: tumbao, matancera variant
Embodiment: guaguancó rhythm
Embodiment: salsa rhythm
Maracasson variant

Upbeat Timeline
Timbales: cáscara rhythm
Timbales: timbale bell rhythm
Tresguajeoson montuno rhythm

Clave Timeline
Bass: tumbaoson montuno variant
Caüa brava: catá rhythm
Clave: son variant
Clave: rumba variant
Congaguaguancó rhythm, Havana variant
Congaguaguancó rhythm, Matanzas variant
Motif: cinquillo
Motif: tresillo

Composite Timeline
Bongómartillo rhythm
Congaa caballo rhythm
Conga: songo rhythm


Loo Yeo

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

"pak" - one syllable adds heart

(Addendum to the previous post.)

As Solares drew to a close, I surveyed the last exercise: the performance of a simple rueda de casino using the "pak" vocalisation. Standing beside me was an observing participant who said something poignant:

Participant: "It makes me very sad."
Me: "What's made you sad?"
Participant: "After all these years of dancing, you've made me realise that I was doing it mechanically."

He'd understood the artistic expression individually possible in the rhythm of salsa; a fact reinforced when the rueda began to gain rhythmic dimension as casineros got their heads around adding the presence of the "pak" syllable in their rhythm.

I was heartened. You can't ask more from an exercise than for it to unveil the body of art.


Saturday, July 02, 2016


True to my decision for a positive move to rhythm, I turned up to Solares armed with a learning game plan, a bagful of hand percussion, a compact conga, and a cajón. This approach to content - the meanings of rhythms to dancers - was new to Solares and although I had a direction, I couldn't anticipate the response nor outcomes, so I was loaded for bear.

There were two possible routes to take:
  1. picking one timeline class and investigating-developing it to its fullest extent in the time available, or
  2. skimming through the four timeline classes to give an overall feel for the rhythm capsule in ensemble.
I wouldn't know which route until I assessed Solares' participants response to the first exercise, which was designed as an indicator.

Right from Solares' inception, the timing mechanism used has been based on the non-verbal vocalisation of the tumbao moderno's open tones "gung-gung" (beats 4 and 4+) either in full context of the music, synchronised to the actual open tones of the tumbao moderno played on congas by yours truly, or as a standalone rhythmic cue/timekeeper.

Backbeat Timeline: Tumbao Moderno rhythm
The lowest-hanging fruit was to explore the timeline in which the long-established "gung-gung" was a component - the backbeat* timeline. To put this more expressly, the tumbao moderno rhythm is an example of a backbeat timeline. To complete the timeline, all that was needed was the additional vocalisation "pak" on the European count of beat 2. Hence the vocalisation would be:

"gung-gung (4,4+), ... , pak (2), ..., gung-gung (4,4+), ... , pak (2), ..., " repeated

Exercise One
The Caribbean sway basic was used as the embodiment (i.e. dance) context.
  1. "gung-gung" vocalisation followed by three steps, to yield:
    "gung-gung", step, step, step.
  2. Then add the "pak" vocalisation synchronous with the second step:
    "gung-gung", step, "pak"step, step.
All participants executed part 1 easily. But when it came to adding the "pak" vocalisation synchronous with their second step, they encountered difficulty. It took most of the workshop as learning time (with remedial instruction) to achieve independently reproducible practice. By default, Route 1 (above) became the course.

Participants' independence and reproducibility of practice was verified through the contrasting activity of incorporating the vocalisation in a simple rueda de casino comprising just basic guapea timesteps and dame partner changes.

I believe two factors contributed to the unexpected initial lack of success.

1. The "gung-gung" had been interpreted as a component of the embodiment timeline, NOT as belonging to a separate timeline.
This meant that participants were only tracking one simple timeline. The addition of the "pak" forced the excision of "gung-gung" from the embodiment timeline into its proper backbeat timeline. Participants now had to track two timelines: the vocalised backbeat timeline and the stepped embodiment timeline. All-of-a-sudden, cognitive overhead had more than doubled since two timelines had to be maintained AND they had to be synchronised and merged to create a composite timeline**.

2. The "gung-gung" had been interpreted as a cue anticipating the beginning of the timeline NOT as the beginning itself.
The result, given that the human brain perceives regular meter as alternating strong and weak beats beginning with the strong***, was that the first and third steps coincided with the neurologically strong beats; the second step plus "pak", and the "gung-gung" fell on the neurologically weak beats.

Future Study
Participants' ability to track two separate timelines must continue to develop. This would allow for their merger to form a composite timeline yielding greater rhythmic stability; and an aesthetic investigation into what happens when a rhythm is allowed to modulate another rhythm.

A shift in the perceived start of the rhythmic timeline: from the first step to the "gung-gung" i.e. from the European to the African. To achieve success, "gung-gung" must be understood as important beats in their own right, not simply as cues to the (perceptually) more "important" beat of the first dance step. I think it likely that an interchanging dance-percussion ensemble format will be evaluated for its suitability.

Yeo Loo Yen

*The online definitions of the backbeat expose the limitations of the internet as a web resource. For example, Wikipedia's ( point to its origin as being in rock music, and FreeDictionary's ( limiting it as a characteristic of rock music. Neither mention its pre-existence in, for example, Senegambian music, nor trace how it came to be in rock music (see 'The Latin Tinge' by John Storm Roberts).

**"Paillard-Fraisse hypothesis" or "code-generation hypothesis" where dynamic stability of a rhythm is achieved through the establishment of a master time code via multi-rhythmic encoding. In:
Volman, M.J.M., and Geuze, R.H. (2000). Temporal stability of rhythmic tapping “on” and “off the beat”: A developmental study. Psychological Research Vol.63, pp.62-69.

***Brochard, R., Abecasis, D., Potter, D., Ragot, R., and Drake, C. (2003). The “TickTock” of Our Internal Clock: Direct Brain Evidence of Subjective Accents in Isochronous Sequences. Psychological Science Vol.14 No.4 pp.362-366.