Saturday, October 29, 2016

Backbeat Timeline: Güiro and Campana

I've been striking a balance between 'stretch' and 'consolidation' sessions, and have been finding it particularly challenging because I'm having to rely on my observational feedback than verbal feedback from Solares participants.

That's because these practices are so novel in this context, that participants don't have any reference points in how to articulate their experiences, and what experiences are useful. Recognising this, I shall devote some part of the next Solares to the framing of feedback responses, so that I can help them better.

The other challenge is that of the pacing of delivery. As a person already proficient in the skills being developed, I can observe the external signs of competence but cannot reliably gauge the qualitative level of internalisation. My instinct is to give them more time for practice, which is in tension with my ethos of having a high 'Teachers Expectation Factor' so that participants benefit from the Rosenthal Effect.

Again this is something I will have to articulate at the next session. I think everyone is far enough adapted to the format to be able to provide a contextually considered response.

Back-beat components of the güiro rhythm
So the session developed, after a recap warm-up, with the use of the shaker playing double-beats on the backbeat i.e. on beats 2,2+ and 4,4+.

The fundamental rationale was that these beats were a literal interpretation of a compnentnt of a basic rhythm played on the güiro (gourd scraper). I contextualised this with a demonstration on the güiro, and participants synchronised their shaker tones with the backbeat strokes.

I also gave them the traditional vocalisation of the güiro rhythm as:
"aeowh-chik-chik, aeowh-chik-chik..."
where: "aeowh" intiates on beats 1 and 3 and lasts the entire quarter note; and "chik-chik" initiates on beats 2,2+ and 4,4+.

A key improvement to their articulation on shaker was to draw attention to their over-use of the top of the shaker shell; the tonal strikes for the top and bottom of the bead enclosure were roughly equal in number and volume. I expressed a desire for a greater contrast: using the bottom of the shell, and hardly any strikes on the top of the shell. They got the idea and cleaned up their articulation after just two songs worth of practice, allowing them to engage with higher tempo music.

Introduction to the concept of rhythm surfaces
The same rhythm was played, but instead the shaker moving in free space, it was played into the horizontal palm of the opposing hand. This gave the sound: a sharper initial envelope (shaker shell onto skin); and, a longer tail (uncontrolled impact of beads all over the interior of the shell). One rhythm, two very different voices.

Back-beat components of the campana rhythm
The introduction to 'rhythm surfaces' segment served as a bridge to exercises using the campana rhythm, which is idential to that interpreted on the güiro. The salient difference is the envelope of the tones, which has a profound impact on: how the rhythm is perceived, and the instrumentalist's relationship with other musicians.

I demonstrated the complete bongó bell rhythm, where participants synchronised their shaker tones with the backbeat strokes. I did not provide the vocalisation. Participants seemed quite taken with the güiro vocalisation, and I was loathe to distract them from their fun.

Participants found that:
  1. they could get into a state of entrainment sooner because of their level of practice. I indicated that the objective was to be able to slip into entrainment within the opening seconds of a song.
  2. the güiro rhythm initially diffused the backbeat modulation on their dance rhythm. When asked whether this was still the case after sustained practice, the answer came back as a 'no'. This indicated that they'd made a snap judgement, before sufficient proficiency had been gained. The take-home learning point was "keep practicing the rhythm until it grooves".
  3. in some cases, they were beginning to synchronise the movements of different parts of their bodies to different instruments. (This was very good news to me, for research purposes!)
The session was wrapped up by highlighting:
  • what a difference a single beat made to the feel of a rhythm - the comparison was made between the tumbao moderno and the güiro rhythm;
  • that attention needed to be paid in the quality of their practice, as demonstrated in the shaker technique;
  • changes in playing surface have a profound impact on the way a rhythm is perceived; and,
  • that they had an additional two instruments to which they could synchronise their embodiment rhythm.
Loo Yeo

Saturday, October 08, 2016

A Musician's Relationship

"So why is it that playing a different rhythm, even a very closely-related one, causes the performer to listen to different things in the music?"

We began by interpreted the audible tones of the conga's tumbao moderno on the (more easily accessible) shakers. That exercise is designed for participants:
  1. to know, actively, where the tones are located in the music; and,
  2. to feel where those tones were relative to the embodiment (dance) timeline.
As proficiency increases, the actual tones of the conga in the music become obscured through the phenomenon of 'sonic masking'. This results in two displacements:
  • the conga tones become inaudible, replaced by the sound of the shaker, and
  • the participant assumes the position of the conguero within the context of the song.

Visualise the stage
In an example salsa ensemble, the (in this case, female) conguero is located at the centre of the stage. Immediately to her left is the timbalero, and beyond the timbalero, the bongosero, To her right is pianista, behind-right is the bajista. The metalles are arranged in an arc, curving from the bongosero's left, on the far side of the stage, to behind the timbalero. The singers playing percusión menor are in front.

The role and relationships of the conguero
When Arsenio Rodriguez brought his brother Israel a.k.a. 'Kike' into his ensemble to play tumbadoras (congas), he discovered that incorporating the drums increased rhythmic stability. When performing as conguero, I lock with the piano player's montuno and the bass player's tumbao, facilitated by clave phrasing. Then I listen to the vocalist. The congas provide the bedrock of percussion on which the timbales ride.

The role and relationships of percusión menor in boogaloo
My personal experience of the New York boogaloo (see Commentary: 13th June 2009 Joe Bataan @Rumberos, The Wardrobe, Leeds) changed the way I listened to the genre. Joe Bataan distilled the genre down to its very essence: just vocals and piano, punctuated by backbeat accents from hand-claps or tambourine. When I'm on hand percussion expressing the backbeats (clapping hands, shaking tambourines) I put the piano and vocals foremost; letting my backbeats frame the bubbly piano, and provide percussive counterpoint to the vocal interjections. Bandleader Pucho Brown famously described New York's boogaloo as "cha-cha (sic) with a backbeat", a sentiment I agree with. If the ensemble is interpreting boogaloo in this way, then I let the accents perch on top of the conga's tumbao, and lock with the chachachá bell on the timbales.

Salsa musicianship, and some approaches to its dancing, adheres the African aesthetic of 'individuals performing in unity' (Farris Thompson, 2011). To achieve this, co-operative musicianship is exercised where each musician plays his/her part of the story, co-ordinated through the clave-pulse relationship, which all combine to present the whole. Thus:
Each musician knows his/her part relative to everyone else's.
A solares participant displacing the conguero would listen to the instruments to which the conga has a keen relationship. If that same participant where then to change rhythms and displace the percusión menor boogaloo performer, then the instruments listen to and related with will also change.

State of play
Two of the participants has had prior experience in ensemble playing, neither of them in the context of Afro-Caribbean music. I expect that they will build relationships with the most obvious instruments first: those commonly present and with the most similar roles in European music. Indeed, I'm targeting those first, as 'easy wins'.

We might be high up the heirarchy in Bloom's taxonomy, but that's just with two simple rhythms. The sobering thought is how to get there with the complex members of the various timelines.

Baby steps.

Farris Thompson, Robert (2011). Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music. USA : Periscope Publishing.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Heads, Hearts And Hands

Last weekend, in between my DJing slots at ¡Parranda!, one of Solares' participants made a significant observation. It goes something like this (I'm paraphrasing):

"When I play the tumbao moderno rhythm, I listen to certain instruments. When I play the boogaloo rhythm, I listen to different instruments. Each rhythm I play, causes me listen to different parts in the music."

I've been waiting for that observation.

It indicates attainment in Bloom's: Analysis stage of the Cognitive (knowing/head) domain; the complex Valuing-Organisation stages of the Affective (feeling/heart) domain; and, the Perceptual stage of the Psychomotor (doing/hands) domain. Three other participants had alluded to being at similar points of development, but this was the first crystallised articulation.

 All Rights Acknowledged.
It means that for the majority of Solares participants, they are well up the hierarchies. There is much more case-example to be learned to facilitate Synthesis (cognitive) and Characterisation (affective), but we are within the threshold of Skilled Movements (psychomotor).

That tells me where they're at. Next, I have to explain the observation.