End of week five - much music!

February 8, 2014

Well, music has officially kicked into gear.  Yesterday I had my first piano lesson with Luis Marin of the Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico.  I met him in his studio at the conservatory.  The lesson was exactly what I needed.  He first addressed my time.  His approach to playing successive syncopations is that you need to be as comfortable as you would be playing successive quarter notes.  He gave me a series of exercises that at first seemed too simple and rudimentary for me, but after working with him, I could see exactly how it will benefit me.  Essentially it's playing continuous off-beat eighth notes with a metronome until they are as relaxed as if you were playing on the beat.  Of course you have to keep track of the downbeats because after a while you can get turned upside down and start to feel them on the beat.  I'm thankful for my lessons with Jovino Santos Neto at Cornish and the samba exercises he gave me.  I spent a lot of time playing half note bass lines with all syncopated right hand chords in those days.

Again at first I thought it was too basic for me, but if the goal is to truly feel the offbeats as comfortably at downbeat quarter notes, then I think anyone would benefit from it.  I'm better already, but have a long way to go.  I already notice the difference in playing other Latin rhythmic patterns; once I'm on a sycopated section, I remember the feeling of playing offbeat quarters and they groove better.

He laid out three different approaches to montunos which were more or less review, but then he gave me a new two-handed montuno pattern which will take some time.  In short, it was awesome.  I recorded the whole thing for reference and have much to do.  The bonus was he said I could come to the conservatory to practice in the late afternoons.  I heard a number of great musicians there.  I'm hoping one of those afternoons might have a jam session in store for me.

That was yesterday day.  Last night some friends from school came up and we tried to see a light show listed one of the tourist pages online.  It turns out it's been cut due to budget issues.  On the way up there I heard some congas warming up in a little bar.  We went back there and spent a couple hours listening to a great little band.  Guitar, cuatro (small 8-string local guitar), congas, bongos, and miscellaneous percussion.  They played some Ismael Rivera songs I recognized.

The crowd was mostly locals.  Actually, I may have been the only gringo in the place after my friends left.  All generations were represented and many were dancing.  Almost everyone was singing.  Oh man, I want to dance to badly.  I have a good foundation in the basic steps, but I don't know how to do anything beyond that.  There were some folks doing a little step together, so I kind of secretly practiced with them off to the side.  I'm going to find salsa lessons/classes this week.  It just doesn't make sense to go out and listen to live music and not dance.

On a break, I struck up a conversation with two of the players.  They were super nice guys and very supportive of my being here and wanting to learn.  I'm experiencing a theme when I talk about who I am and what I want to learn.  They are generally grateful and excited about my taking the music with me and sharing it.  The conga player last night called me a "silent goodwill ambassador," because I will spread the goodwill of Puerto Rico without saying a word - just through the music.  So I'm an ambassador from Puerto Rico?  How's that for a twist?

This morning I went out to a courtyard inside of the museum of the Americas a few blocks from my house because I had heard of music lessons being taught there.  It turns out that this is the place to study Puerto Rican music on native instruments.  I thought it was just going to be presentations and hands on stuff for tourists, but there were many classes of up to maybe 30 people studying cuatro, guitar, guiro, congas, panderos, etc.  It turns out there are 8 week sessions and they meet every Saturday morning.  I took my panderos and asked about pandero classes.  The classes meet at noon.  I was there at 8am.  (And remember the night before in the bar with the music?)  So I went home and back to bed.  The place is only two blocks from my house.

I got up at 10 and met my friend Yoko who heads back to Seattle tomorrow.  We went to hear the bomba I was talking about in the last post.  That was also a class.  The Saturday bomba class is for dancers.  They have a Wednesday evening class for the drummers.  I'm going to try it out next week.  The lady at the desk told the head drummer I was there and he came out and gave me a long history of bomba including how the drums are made from Bacardi barrels.  He was a big, generous guy with really good English. 

I want back at noon to the pandero class and found that they would prorate my tuition because I was starting on the third week.  After walking all around the building for 20 minutes, I found the room and was thrust into the most challenging Spanish session yet.  There was the teacher and one other student.  Neither one spoke much English at all.  It was intense, but I made it.  It turns out the teacher is a good friend of my piano teacher.  It would make sense that everybody knows everybody, just like home.  They told me about two other plena events that happen every Monday and Thursday.

He gave me basic instruction on all three drums.  He also gave me a series of drumstick rudiments to practice to build up strength in my wrists.  I can hear how the plena rhythms feed directly into salsa.  I can even hear the clave in there.  The bomba seems a more distant relative.  It is more closely connected to the African traditions that came to the islands with the slave trade.  Bomba also has a dance element that is a necessary component to the style.  The dancers are really running the music by giving cues to start, stop, and change patterns.

So in less than 24 hours I had a piano lesson, heard a local band and danced, heard bomba, took my first pandero class, listened to 30 cuatros in a courtyard, and learned about events to go to Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings.  Oh, and Sunday Luis (piano) is going to take me to his gig.  It's out of town.  That's all I know.  Blessed.  Grateful.  Tired.



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