only a few years ago, the local newspaper at which i have cause to ply my trade, won the highlands and islands community newspaper of the year award. this news gave birth to a blogpost from someone not long on this island, but who felt the need to make comment. he, as a friend of the newspaper's editor, made the point that the publication had been raised from a mere community newsletter to a standard that had led to the award. now i don't contest that the editor had made considerable improvements both in illustration and written content, but those of us who have worked at the paper under several other previous editors felt that the gentleman's comments were somewhat errant.
technology has marched on at a fierce pace since the newspaper emerged in the early 1970s, and it is a matter of fact that the previous editorial incumbents had made use of that which was available at the time. i therefore e-mailed the blogposter on behalf of the longer term members of staff pointing out that we all thought him rather terse and unfair in his comments, and would he consider our pleas to issue a retraction, or alteration to his initial published remarks. arrogance always finds its own level, and indeed did so in his considered reply. "it's my f**kin' blog, and i'll write what i f**kin like" was the basis of the reply i received.
the man was, of course, correct, though could perhaps have found a more diplomatic way of stating it. in the case of the following book review, i am happy to adopt a similar stance, though i will refrain from issuing the same expletives.
salsa for people who probably shouldn't has nothing whatsoever to do with cycling, though its author does contrive to mention bicycles on page one. old habits die hard. matt rendell is renowned as a highly literate and perspicacious author, through volumes such as 'the death of marco pantani', 'olympic gangster', 'blazing saddles', and several others. he is also one half of the real peloton podcast with ned boulting and formed a part of itv 4's broadcast team for both the tour de france and the vuelta. it's an impressive palmares.
but being recognised as something of an expert on cycling does not preclude the writing of books on subjects other than our current obsession. 'salsa for people who probably shouldn't' aside from being by far the best book title since tim hilton's 'one more kilometre and we're in the showers' has a subject close to the author's heart. if you can recall one of matt's earlier tomes concerning colombia's cycling heroes, aside from european cycling's brief encounter with the likes of lucho herrera and other colombians, mrs rendell also hails from that very country. knowledge from the inside rather than observations from afar.
if i put my mind to it, i can sustain the necessary bass drum and hi-hat ostinato pattern for a samba, while scattering a semblance of snare drum strokes over the top. the resulting sound bears distant comparison to that of the brazilian dance, not so much that residents of sao paolo would drop everything in rhythmic appreciation (i did play this with a brazilian bass player this past weekend), but within my immediate locale it is passably acceptable. as a drummer, i am expected to have an advanced sense of rhythm, but that does not extend as far as dancing. it's an activity i prefer to avoid (as do any onlookers) if i can; any possibility of dancing salsa is a distant pipedream. in fact, if i'm totally honest, i have little or no idea as to quite what defines salsa in the first place.
there are similarities between salsa and samba, despite their differing geographical origins, in that both were originally the preserve of the poor. take them out of that original context, however, and it's possibly too much to expect that all will remain in pristine condition. though i am not poor, there is no denying i have a better standard of living than those in the slums of brazil, and there is also no doubt that my faux samba at ardbeg last sunday was a far cry from the brightly coloured surdo and repenique players.
it's just the way of the world.
mr rendell has crafted this book quite beautifully. the obvious strategy would have been to approach the subject from the outside, incorporating relevant information, interviews and opinions to present an history and overview of the salsa phenomenon from its lowly colombian beginnings to the present day. the narrative presented contains far more intrigue than this, as matt introduces us not only to the meeting of his present wife, but meetings with her immediate family, and how salsa has become an integral part of his own life, along with that of others worldwide.
salsa is, for those living in colombia, and many of the diaspora that has resulted from the drug wars long waged in that country, more a way of life than an object to be described in literature and proscribed dance steps. rendell describes how carlos valencia, a dancer from the 1950s, adapted movements from football, basketball and boxing into dance steps. there are few traditions that continue to exist in isolation; the same phenomenon has affected the world's major religions, all of which have received local adaptations as they ventured into the big bad world. salsa is no different, though rendell notes that when popularity reared its ugly head, it became less about the gestalt and more about individual moves designed to impress.
there are also some surprisng revelations as matt traces the different strands of dance infected with and influenced by colombian salsa. my early years as a session drummer brought a wide range of musics to be encountered, mastered, and played with some conviction, one of which was the foxtrot. along with apparently generic names for many tradtional forms of dancing, this one gave little pause for thought, but some 35 years later, i am entertained to learn its true origin. apparently a vaudeville comedian called harry fox, slowed down ragtime and smoothed out its stride, creating a series of dance steps hitherto known as mr fox's trot.
i did not know that.
salsa for people who probably shouldn't is a book that intertwines two approaches, but so seamlessly that interest is sustained and enhanced throughout. for had this been simply a book about salsa, its audience would surely have been relatively limited, particularly in the light of the dance having reached its ascendancy some years back, and that its current adherents seem more preoccupied with the show aspect rather than its heritage. but by writing in such a sensitive manner, matt rendell has related almost a selective autobiography, one that has a beginning, middle and end, one that demands your full attention. it also quite superbly describes the history of salsa in detail, but in a manner rarely seen in modern times.
and aside from the title, it does have a particularly notable cover. do yourself a favour and take a deserved break from cycling for a day or two.
posted friday 23 september 2011..........................................................................................................................................................................................................