I have decided to write about the rhythmic challenges of teaching the Lucumi Choir since this is always a hurdle and a challenge. What makes this choir so different to any other British Based Choir is the fact that we sing with percussion and the rhythm is as important as the melody and harmonic arrangements. Many people who come into the choir and have had no previous experience of this genre of music find the rhythmic side of it almost beyond their understanding of what rhythm is. The inevitable question of where is the 1 comes up many a time. Some find that moving and singing does not come naturally. I try and get them to use the bodies as a rhythmic clock and to really relax into the rhythm; thinking not only with the mind but the whole body. The Yoruba sequences that we have been doing with Bata, now seem to come very naturally to those that have been in the choir for some time. Finally members are now getting to understand and recognise different toques, connecting with the toque rather than the traditional western concept of the beat. A couple of years ago we began to introduce Rumba and also some sequences from the Palo Tradition.Harmonically this meant that I got to arrange some more beautiful harmonies and there is nothing like a a Rumba with a large Coro singing in harmony. However it has continued to be a real challenge trying to get the Choir members to think in terms of Clave and not the Beat. All the while that they think in terms of the beat, the phrasing of the Coro sounds plinkity plonkety nursery rhymish and square instead of lyrical. One way that I have found quite useful in explaining rhythm is to talk the words with Clave rather than sing them. For some reason, it helps the brain understand the rhythm when you talk it through. It is quite hard for those who were born into the tradition to understand the complications of teaching a group with no previous experience of singing or playing Rumba, but Rumba has got to be one of the most sophisticated, and complicated genres ever. The Choir are getting better at understanding and performing Rumba, however since the nature of the Choir is forever changing I find that we never stop working at this and that those that listen and absorb themselves fully into the genre the more natural singing becomes.
The other challenge for the choir is the organic speeding up of each sequence or song. It is a challenge for me to explain that unlike many western forms of music and choral singing, there is a build of of energy and a sequence may naturally speed up. This happens with the sequences with Bata, sequences of Palo and Cajon, Guiro and also Rumba sequences. It ‘s a normal ocurrence, however if the choir is not connecting and thinking too much about what they are singing it tends to be the case that they will still be singing the tempo that we started off in. My job is to get them to relax and connect completely with the percussion. This means that their body has to be also in tune with the percussion. It helps to move, but if there is too much intellectualisation of what they are learning then moving can sometimes be a hinderance although it should not!
Here is a Sequence in Palo that we recorded in my living room in North London.
These problems have been more over apparent when recording. The Challenges of Recording a choir of this kind are plenty. One of them is the fact that with so many singers, headphones are not an option. Being able to see and feel the percussion and each other is paramount and recording life is the only way to do it. If there are any over dubs to be done, these can be tricky giving the movement of energy and time within a sequence. Moving and singing is really important in the Lucumi Choir. You cannot possibly be still and sing! There is no doubt at all that movement, co-ordination and challenges to the mind ie different ways of thinking about rhythm is good for your mental health. It keeps the brain alert!