Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Contratiempo Embodiment Rhythm: Pregón Troubleshooting

There are times when even the best lesson plans get deferred when unexpected-yet-important things pop up. Last night was such a time. I'd put the music on, and was playing martillo on bongó (I've been doing the latter for the past month to help participants acclimatise to the rhythm and how the instrument sounds) while participants warmed up using last week's exercise two as a recap...

Warm Up: Switching between 'coro-pregón' and 'pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway, maracas, and vocalisation
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempoMaracas playing pregón: "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tik" with the handles. Full vocalisation "tok-tik-tuk-tik" on beats 4-1-2-3 respectively. Participants alternated between 'coro-pregón' (i.e. full Caribbean sway) and 'pregón' (i.e. side step only), switching at their own choosing.

I looked up and was initially dismayed to see that, although some participants where vocalising and playing maracas correctly, their embodiment rhythm had frame-shifted such that their pregón was where the coro should have been and vice versa! I signalled a correction, which was made, and while the rest of the warm-up continued I thought on how to make use of this opportunity.

By the time the song ended, I'd decided that the best course was to adopt a masterclass approach and dissect the phenomenon.

Briefing: "Why did the error occur?"
The process began by asking participants, "why did the error occur?" to get them fully engaged. In typical form they freely chipped in, objectively, with their thoughts. It made me proud - there is no blame culture in Solares.

Then I began slicing away at the phenomenon:
  • Observation #1: the vocalisation was correct to the music and the martillo played by me.
  • Observation #2: the maracas pregón tones were correct to the vocalisation and hence to the music and martillo played by me.
Therefore, every participant's reference points of synchrony had to be correct.
  • Observation #3: the embodiment rhythm was initially incorrectly frame-shifted relative to the percussion rhythm-stream.
  • Observation #4: the embodiment rhythm was correctable upon notification of error.
Therefore, there was nothing inherently wrong with the embodiment rhythm. It had to be that the embodiment rhythm was initiated independently, without taking its cues from the vocalisation and pregón tones. The logical course to overcome this was to set up a sequence of execution.

Exercise One: The Sequence, martillo only
Solo, to bongó martillo only.
  1. Listen for the martillo, or super-impose it if not present;
  2. Vocalise "tok-tik-tuk-tik" to the martillo;
  3. Play the pregón using the maracas: "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tik" (beat 1) with the handles; and,
  4. Perform the Caribbean sway: initiating the side-step on "tok" and completing with relaxation after "tik".
Participants were asked to make each successive step of the sequence conditional upon the step preceding. They were encouraged to stop and start repeatedly until they were comfortable with the sequence.

Exercise Two: The Sequence, to music
As Exercise One (above) but to music.

The error in the execution of the warm-up was used as a serendipitous event (crucial to building a collaborative, supportive culture). The frame-shift of the embodiment rhythm came about because it was not contingent upon the vocalisation nor the maracas.

It made some participants realise that they had been using the dance rhythm (what they were most accustomed to using) as their entry-point to music, their vocals and instruments were entrained to it i.e. the dancing was their portal to the music, and the vocals+instruments followed. Their cognitive capacity was only sufficient for the maintenance of the vocalisation and maracas, which allowed their embodiment rhythm to drift. Customary behaviour was exposed as being susceptible to error.

The solution was to establish vocalisation as the entry-point to music, and entrain the maracas pregón, then the embodiment rhythm, as conditional steps. At the close of the session, participants acknowledged a need for 're-programming' (as one put it) and how the new sequence made for a musically immersive experience.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Contratiempo Embodiment Rhythm: Pregón

Last week we split open a dance basic and looked inside it. We explored the relationship between the two pieces based on the martillo synchronising timeline: coro-pregón; and began to define the properties of one of the pieces: the pregón.

As is normal with new concepts, solares participants only fully appreciated the value of the early exercises after the fact. It made sense to repeat the content of last week's session since they now knew how better to approach the exercises. Slight modifications to exercise design were made to add variety and widen perceptual scope.

Briefing: Developing the pregón [call] through isolated practice
Having come to appreciate the importance of the Caribbean sway's side step as the contratiempo embodiment of the pregón, the theme of this session was to give the pregón primacy in practice; to establish it as a tangible artefact in its right.

Exercise One: Caribbean sway, maracas, and vocalisation
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempo. Maracas playing pregón: "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tik" with the handles. Full vocalisation "tok-tik-tuk-tik" on beats 4-1-2-3 respectively. The maraca accents are a proxy for the bongó's martillo tones which voice the contratiempo embodiment timeline's pregón. Participants whom encountered difficulty where first asked to play the "tok" hembra tone (beat 4) only. Once they got in the groove, they were able to introduce the "tik" handle click tone (on beat 1).

Exercise Two: Switching between 'coro-pregón' and 'pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway, maracas, and vocalisation
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempoMaracas playing pregón: "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tik" with the handles. Full vocalisation "tok-tik-tuk-tik" on beats 4-1-2-3 respectively. Participants alternated between 'coro-pregón' (i.e. full Caribbean sway) and 'pregón' (i.e. side step only), switching at their own choosing.

This was a challenging evolution from the previous exercise, since it demands independence of the embodiment rhythm - switching between coro-pregón and pregón only - from the vocalisation and maracas timelines. Participants required a few songs to get into the swing of things, but their interpretation was still mechanical (to be expected). I then reminded them of the principle the exercise: the development of call-and-response phrasing in the embodiment timeline, focusing on the call.

Briefing: What movements correspond to 'tok-tik'?
The "tok" cues the commencement of sideways movement (i.e. weight transfer) in the side step. The "tik" coincides with the instance when the hip, knee and ankle are directly vertical, but movement is still continuing. The relaxation phase, which marks the completion of the side step, occurs after the "tik".

Exercise Two (above) was repeated, this time with emphasis on the quality of the pregón in commencement, continuation, and completion.

At session's end, participants remarked that paying attention to the call-and-response phrasing using a 'triple-lock' of vocalisation, martillo, and embodiment rhythm is a more immersive learning experience. It gives them direct access into the music.

There might be plenty of room for improvement, but I've chalked that up as a win.

Loo Yen

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Contratiempo Embodiment Rhythm: An Internal Dynamic

Dance rhythms are about relationships between sets of sounds. A set might have only one or more than one tone, and it's how one set 'talks' to another which is important. That's why Cuban percussion instruments are in dialogue pairs: 'hembra' [female] conversing with 'macho' [male]. Take the bongó's martillo rhythm as an example: "tok" talks to "tuk", and the "tik"s in-between could be interjections by either. And so if we're using the martillo as a reference timeline for the dancer's contratiempo embodiment rhythm, should the latter be imbued with conversation as well?

That was the theme of last night's Solares: the basic embodiment rhythm can be interpreted as a call-and-response timeline, thus introducing a rich internal dynamic and powerful possibilities in phrasing.

Warm up: Caribbean sway, maracas, and vocalisation
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempo. Maracas playing "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tuk" with the macho. Full vocalisation "tok-tik-tuk-tik" on beats 4-1-2-3 respectively.

Briefing: Contratiempo call-and-response embodiment to the martillo
Call-and-response is a common feature in Caribbean music derived from the African aesthetic. In Spanish, it is known as 'coro-pregón' where the 'coro' is the respondent and the 'pregón' is the caller.

With respect to the bongó's martillo:
  • the pregón or call spans "tok-tik" (beats 4 and 1)
  • the coro or response spans "tuk-tik" (beats 2 and 3)
This means that in the Caribbean sway:
  • the pregón cues the side step with the "slowandslow" transfer of weight; and,
  • the coro cues the back step and replace step, both with "quick" transfers of weight.

Exercise One: 'coro-pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). This exercise is a light introduction to the idea that the embodiment rhythm and the basic step are fractionable. Participants begin to understand:
  1. the idea of movement groups, and
  2. the possible relationships between them, in this case, call-and-response.

Exercise Two: 'coro-pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway, partnered
Partnered practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). This exercise provided the opportunity for participants to compare and contrast their own call-and-response phrasing to that of someone else's. Participants noted the breadth of variation in articulation of phrasing, interpretation of rhythm, and quality of movement.

This spurred a flurry of formative discussion, not on what was "right" (they were all doing it right), but what kind of "right" they preferred.

Briefing: Contratiempo call-without-response embodiment to the martillo
Call-without-response, or call-only, is a phenomenon where its judicious use as 'an insistent question unanswered' creates rhythmic tension.

Exercise Three: 'pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway
Solo practice. Performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). Caribbean sway side step only, executed 'slowandslow'. The vocalisation was necessary to provide the placeholder vocal response to the physical pregón. Without the vocalisation, participants found it difficult to maintain their place in the contratiempo timeline.

Exercise Four: Switching between 'coro-pregón' and 'pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway
Solo practice. Performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). Participants alternated between 'coro-pregón' (i.e. full Caribbean sway) and 'pregón' (i.e. side step only), switching at their own choosing. This exercise was designed for two purposes:
  1. to make clearer the distinction between the 'pregón' grouping and the 'coro' grouping; and,
  2. to demonstrate the necessity of the vocalised timeline as a stabilising component of the compound rhythm stream.

Exercise Five: Switching between 'coro-pregón' and 'pregón', partnered
Partnered practice. Performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). Switching between call only and call-and-response states was left entirely to each participant's discretion, and neither partner was required to follow suit. Some participants expected anarchy, and were surprised when they didn't encounter it.

This exercise highlighted the 'pregón' as the crucial synchronising movement between partners; and that the better (smoother, better-controlled, stronger, granular) the quality of execution, the easier it was to achieve synchrony.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Way To Contratiempo

With my partner in crime away, I was regaled with a double session at Solares last night. I seized the opportunity with both paws, since we could get through more than twice the content (efficiencies of scale), to open up a new chapter: contratiempo [literally 'against time'] embodiment rhythm.

Warm Up: Martillo on maracas
Solo, to music. Vocalising 'tok-tik-tuk-tik'. Playing martillo on maracas. Full Caribbean sway, atiempo. Participants were asked to note that in the atiempo embodiment rhythm, their first and third steps coincided with the 'tik' vocalisation and click of maracas handles.

Briefing: The Way To Contratiempo
Just as with languages, contratiempo embodiment rhythm may be achieved either through acquisition (like our mother tongue) or learning (like subsequent languages). Whereas it is possible in solares to do so through acquisition, I'd opted for the learned mode. This is because nearly all contratiempo instruction delivered in the U.K is in the learned mode. By doing the same, I can outline the pitfalls which other instructions overlook, so that participants can still attend workshops by other instructors and be able to fill in the gaps.

The learning mode (for those whom already dance salsa atiempo) comprises to phases:
  1. Translation
    where the embodiment rhythm is 'frame-shifted' later by one beat. This generates the rhythm structure referred to as "dance on 2" or "power 2".
  2. African-derived Phrasing
    where instead of the count "2-3-4, 6-7-8", it is phrased to African cycle "8~1-2-3, 4~5-6-7". Phrasing is the most significant differentiator between "On2" styles and contratiempo, and this aspect is most overlooked by educators.

Exercise One: The Frameshift, side step only
Solo, to music. Vocalisations and Caribbean sway's side step. It began with the isolation of the Caribbean sway's side step during the 'tok-tik' part of the vocalisation. No movement occurred during 'tuk' nor 'tik'. Participants got used to initiation the side-ways movement on 'tok', hitting the 'tik' with the side of the hip, and relaxing shortly thereafter.

Exercise Two: The Frameshift, full Caribbean sway
Solo, to music. Vocalisations and Caribbean sway. In between Caribbean sway's side step during the 'tok-tik' part of the vocalisation, the back step and replace was introduced during 'tuk' and 'tik' respectively.

Participants were left to practice the frameshift. I observed that approximately half of them gravitated towards 'on2' phrasing while the others did not demonstrate any clear phrasing. When asked for their feedback, they reported a solidity to their timing, as if they were rhythmically "on rails". I attributed this to the martillo reference timeline where every tone is clear, defined and on-beat when vocalised (as compared to the tumbao moderno's every other).

I drew participants' attention to the fact that a number of them were using the back step on 'tuk' as a starting point, and that this was 'dance on 2' phrasing. They were told that this was acceptable so that they would develop a feel for 'on2' phrasing, but that they would be progressing to contratiempo phrasing in the upcoming sessions.

Participants' observations also extended to the physicalities of execution, centred especially on the performance of the side step. They noted the requirement for:

  • hip flexibility - more than one of them were asymmetrical in their side step to either direction due to lower flexibility which, left unchecked, would result in a sideways 'ratchet';
  • pull-push - the smooth transfer of weight required a 'push' with the unloading leg as well as the customary 'pull' with the loading leg; and,
  • trailing contact with the floor of the unloaded leg as an indicator of gradual weight transfer i.e. if trailing contact was absent, the weight was being transferred too quickly.

Progress had been good, and the penetrating questions asked by participants told me their comprehension, assimilation and synthesis were on track. Although we'd addressed only the translation phase, I felt it best not to court cognitive saturation, and to finish on a high.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Martillo

Solares had been using the conga's tumbao moderno as its reference rhythm for three years, since inception. Along the way the rhythm's near-ubiquity has served us well, being simple to understand, easy to pick out, and straight-forward to vocalise. We'd also added another string to our rhythmic bow: the regular son montuno rhythm interpreted on the maracas.

To progress further, the time has come to introduce another older (relative to secular Cuban music) reference timeline: the 'martillo' ['hammer'] as interpreted on the bongó. The rationale is that being able to reference the martillo allows gives participants:
  • resoluteness - the ability to synchronise to an alternative timeline should one (or more) disappear;
  • cultural depth - the possibility of exploring salsa's antecedent genres;
  • rhythmic stability - an additional component to the compound rhythm stream;
  • complementarity - a sense of how layers of rhythm fit together; and,
  • freedom of expression - a further choice of tonal cues for movement.

I introduced participants to the basic martillo on bongó indicating the relevant tones and their vocalisations, using African perceptions of rhythmic cycles (not the European)
  • African beat 1: open tone on hembra (large drum) vocalised as 'tok'. (European beat 4)
  • African beat 2: closed tone on macho (small drum) vocalised as 'tik'. (European beat 1)
  • African beat 3: open tone on macho (small drum) vocalised as 'tuk'. (European beat 2)
  • African beat 4: closed tone on macho (small drum) vocalised as 'tik'. (European beat 1)
Thus the full (dancer) vocalisation is: 'tok-tik-tuk-tik-'

Maracas as proxy
The next step was to show participants how to interpret the martillo using maracas. This would free up their vocals and allow them to dance while playing. The vocalisation tones were used as a mediator:
  • 'tok' - single shake, hembra (low pitched) maraca.
  • 'tik' - single click, maraca handles.
  • 'tuk' - single shake, macho (high pitched) maraca.
  • 'tik' - single click, maraca handles.

Caribbean sway to martillo
Participants were already fluent with dancing the Caribbean sway atiempo, and playing the maracas as a proxy for conga and cowbell, as well as the son montuno maraca rhythm itself. With the solid foundation already laid, it proved a simple process to assemble the exercise through drawing on their previous experiences.
  1. Vocalise the martillo: 'tok-tik-tuk-tik-'
  2. Add a single shake of the hembra maraca on 'tok'
  3. Perform the Caribbean sway on 'tik-tuk-tik-' as a response to 'tok'
  4. Add a single shake of the macho maraca on 'tuk', coincident with the second step of the Caribbean sway
  5. Add the single clicks of the maraca handles on 'tik' 
I'm looking forward to a brave new world.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ensemble Activity: Laid Back, a little bit

Two weeks ago I introduced the percussion concept of 'laid back', where an instrument sounds late to very late relative to the central the beat. In truth some participants had already achieved this, albeit inadvertently, last month (see: Exercise One, Result 2).

Although they'd become comfortable with the practice format, the ability of play late on the beat as a synchronised ensemble still eluded them. Whenever the 'laid back' call was issued from a well-synchronised 'in the pocket', the unit dissolved quickly into a mish-mash of lates.

I can only put that down to different individual offsets.

Offset: A physiological phenomenon
If a motor signal is issued from the brain to the arms and legs at the same time, the arms will move before the legs will. This is because:

  1. the signal path lengths are shorter to arms than to legs; and,
  2. arms have lower mass than legs and so can accelerate more quickly.

α-motorneurones have a nerve conduction velocity range of between 80-120 metres per second. That sounds really quick, but if there is a half-metre difference in signal path length between arms and legs, there would be a lag of at least 4/1,000s of a second (by simple calculation) and that's the best-case scenario. It might not sound like much, but that's the difference between an 'in the pocket' and a 'slightly late' attack. In practice, I see offsets in the order of tens of thousands.

So, if two concurrently-timed signals are issued from the brain to the arms and legs, and the arms play the maracas very late on the beat, the legs will step off-time. This is the challenge of playing and dancing late: there has to be near-zero offset.

Near-zero offset can only be achieved by sending impulses to the legs BEFORE impulses to the arms.

A mish-mash of lates
The phenomenon of everyone playing different interpretations of 'late' is unsurprising given the factors stacked against them, different perceptions of beat; signal path lengths; limb masses; and conduction rates.

The efforts where valiant, and occasionally successful. However at the third session of asking it was time to change tack. Instead of going the whole hog, as we did with the push, I started using the cues "slightly late of pocket" and "a little later". My scientific self wrinkled its nose at the arbitrary terms (how late is slightly late?) but the change worked. It got participants to play later synchronously.

We'll have to inch our way to the back of the bus.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Opening the Timba chapter

"What is timba?" has become a recurring question in Solares. So much so that I knew the time had come to address it, because deflecting the matter further risked frustrating inquisitiveness (a damaging prospect) and allowing blurred narratives a chance to take root.

The timing of it couldn't have been better, I've been scouting out different themes for use as a contrasting activity alongside to the chapter on percussive attack. But the challenge lay in how to address the question of timba through the experiences of a dancer. Conventional approaches tackle the topic through its layers of percussion - explained by drummers for drummers. How can timba be understood by a dancer with a limited base of percussion experience to draw upon?

THAT's the sort of challenge I love to sink my teeth into.

Given the misconception, here in the UK, that rueda de casino should ideally be danced to timba, I think it would be useful to use rueda de casino as a lens through which timba can be examined, to reveal 'truths' and misconceptions.

Exercise One: Rueda de casino, federated calling
Partnered ensemble, to music. Vocabulary restricted to: 'dame'; 'enchufla-dame'; 'enchufla-dile que no'; 'enchufla con mambo'; and, the 'pa'rriba' modifier. Calling was devolved to all members of the group, each call was preceded by the 'oyé' aural cue with the simultaneous raise of the free arm as a corroborating visual cue. Conflicts where resolved by eye contact. This is the equivalent to co-operative musicianship observed in African music performance.

Four iterations of this exercise were required until a good level of proficiency was attained. According to all participants, the dynamism of the rueda was elevated to a plane not experienced before. They where no longer passively engaged in the interpretation of one person's call. Instead, they had to open their eyes and ears for calls emanating from around the circle, and decide upon the next appropriate call and issue it.

Participants also came to realise the importance of the timing of the 'oyé' cue with its concomitant raised arm visual cue. The energy of discovery from the federated calling exercise was perfect, necessary even, for what was to follow.

Briefing: "What does rueda mean?"
Gathering everyone into a circle, I asked, "what does rueda mean?" I received the well-intentioned published responses such as "it means 'a wheel'".

"Yes, that's right on a literal level" I said, "but what does it mean when we're arranged in a circle?"
Puzzled looks abounded. "The circle in this case, and also in rumba, represents the Circle of Creation; and that is what we're celebrating." You could have heard a pin drop. I launched into a short story on one of sub-Saharan Africa's many concepts of creation, Oyá, before and including its embodiment as a Yoruban Orisha.

Exercise Two: Rueda de casino, visualising the Circle of Creation
Partnered ensemble, to music. Federated calling. Vocabulary restricted to: 'dame'; 'enchufla-dame'; 'enchufla-dile que no'; 'enchufla con mambo'; and, the 'pa'rriba' modifier. Participants were asked to visualise the circle of creation while dancing rueda.

The outcome of this exercise was not as I'd expected. Although it possessed energy, that energy came from the practice of federated calling, but it lacked the textural quality which combined visualisation achieves. It turned out to be the case. I'd made the mistake of assuming that participants were (a learning point for me) already familiar with the relevant imagery.

Briefing: Oyá as the storm of creation
Participants encountered difficulty because they were visualising the Cycle of Creation - birth through death - and hence could not see its relevance in the exercise. I re-pitched the visualisation as the storm at the birth of Creation, immediately when the sky and sea where sundered.

Exercise Two (modified): Rueda de casino, visualising the Storm of Creation
The outcome was as I'd hoped: and ensemble performance of dynamism with a quality of emotional depth. I decided to stack on another layer of skill to assess participants' levels of naturalisation.

Exercise Three: Rueda de casino, visualising the Storm of Creation, attack 'in the pocket'
The refinement of an 'in the pocket' attack was introduced, intended: to create a powerful inexorability to the performance; and, to introduce a counterpointing element of restraint to the energy of federated calling. In this, no participants were successful.

I decided not to prosecute the contextualisation of learned skills further. Instead, I decided to work with what was successful this session: the use of metaphor.

Exercise Four: Rueda de casino, visualising the self as an Agent of Creation
In keeping with the concept of Oyá as a powerful event and the creation of the first land which followed, two sub-metaphors: 'drawing thunder' (with each arm-raise) and 'creating earth' (with each step) were introduced, helping participants visualise their equal roles as agents during the Act of Creation.

Power, cohesion, emotional commitment. These were present in the rueda performance at unprecedented levels. Such is the potency of understanding dance as moving metaphors.

"Will this session change the way I dance?" asked one participant before the session started.
I thought for a while before answering, "yes."
I heard another snort in disbelief. He wasn't sniggering now.

Instead I got, "how does this fit with learning what timba is?"

Loo Yeo