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Transcribing the Gipsy Kings with SlowGold

By Warren Sirota

One day last March, I was working in my studio when the phone rang. A woman’s voice said, "Hi, I’m Pam, and I loved the nylon-string guitar that you played at the party last month. I’m putting together a salsa/rock dance band called Pachanga! for a couple of Cinqo de Mayo gigs, and I wonder if you’d like to play in that, and also do a few of the same tunes in a smaller group at a benefit in two weeks."

A little background on the local music scene: I live in the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon, a gorgeous area with a total population of about 160,000. It’s main urban center is Medford, while Ashland is the cultural center, with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, cute shops, a few music clubs, and most of the hippies, musicians, and other, shall we say, "non-mainstream" types. (please don’t anyone get offended. I would never dare to suggest that musicians are "non-mainstream" types. Not in public, anyway). I live in Jacksonville, population 2000, a National Historic Landmark town because of all the surviving 1860s Gold Rush buildings, cemeteries, etc.

Anyway, there are a number of bands in the Rogue Valley, but there’s also this amorphous "cloud" of musicians ready for pickup gigs. There’s a group of about 15 or so players – a couple each of drummers, guitarists, bass players, piano players, etc. – who can be counted on to play any gig at the drop of a hat. Most of us have jazz chops, so you can pretty much call up from one to four people and say, "Gig at Mulligan’s Friday the 22nd. $70 apiece, from 6-9. Show up with your Real Book." And everyone shows up, no one rehearses, and the music sounds great.

But when I listened to Pam’s tape, I was deeply relieved that we had actually scheduled a couple of rehearsals. Among others, we were doing a Hispanic-Reggae tune called Eschuchame from the Gipsy Kings, a contemporary Brazilian fusion tune called Flerte from Joao Bosco, and a hot salsa number with lots of highly syncopated unison band breaks and a furious jam over a repeated piano part (the montuno) called No Sientas Miedo by Irene Farrera.

When I first listened to Eschuchame, I tried to follow along with the chart that another of the musicians had made. It basically made sense, but there were a couple of places where it seemed to be off. So I decided to put it into SlowGold for analysis. I did this by recording the song from the cassette onto my hard disk. It wasn’t hard to do; I simply took the outputs from the cassette deck and used an appropriate Y-connector cable to bring them to my sound card’s Line Input jack. I then recorded the song using the Windows Sound Recorder applet.

Then I opened SlowGold and opened Eschuchame.wav from my File menu. Because something was weird with the chart, I decided to play the song and click on the "Make Loop Point" button every two beats (there were often chord changes in the middle of measures).

What I discovered, to my surprise, was that the song was essentially in 4/4 (4 beats per measure), but there were measures of 2/4 (two beats per measure) added at several points, apparently to complement or accent the vocal line (since I’m not a Spanish speaker, I can only appreciate the results from a purely musical viewpoint). I discovered, through similar analysis, that the second verse did not have the same structure as the first – the extra 2/4 measures were inserted at different points in the verse.

We ultimately simplified the chart for band performance, but I found it fascinating to discover how uniquely the song was structured.

The other two songs presented different challenges. In Flerte, the challenge was to play all the chords in the intro riff on the anticipation beats (the "and" of 2 and 4), as on the recording. In order to get the feel of this into my bones, it was necessary to play along with the riff repeatedly at slow speed. So I marked the section by creating loop points a measure before its beginning (for the lead-in) and at its end, and I hit SlowGold’s "SlowPlay" button. I then practiced playing the chords at half speed, counting out loud, until I had it nailed. Then I went up to 60%, which was easy, and then to 80, which was a challenge. So I slowed it down to 70% and played it about 20 or 30 times, and then was about to move it up. Eventually, I was comfortable playing it at 110% and 120% - 10 to 20% faster than the original speed (you know how the tempo of songs tends be a bit faster when you’re playing live than when you’re rehearsing).

I ended up using the same technique practicing the tricky syncopated unison lines in No Sientas Miedo. I also transcribed the montuno part, at one point using the "Divide Loop" control to listen to a single piano chord repeated over and over. It was easy tto pick out the top note, but I wanted to know exactly what notes the piano was playing so that I could duplicate the part as closely as possible. So, while this chord was playing over and over, I played every plausible harmony note on my guitar along with the chord. Many obviously didn’t fit, and many would have harmonized but weren’t actually being played by the piano. In short order (well, okay, it was a little painstaking), I was able to figure out exactly which notes were being played in every chord of the montuno part. And, actually, they weren’t that hard to put onto the fingerboard (minus the octave doubling).

One thing that this story illustrates, I think, is that even those of us who don’t have "monster ears" can use the ears that we do have to good effect if we just chop up the work into really small pieces and exercise a little persistence. As a not-insignificant side benefit, our ears get some exercise and get better (plus, of course, we can have fun making them better in other ways, such as by using programs like Halves/Not Halves and EarMaster, reviewed elsewhere in this issue).

Anyway, the coda to the story is this: the other guitarist (no slouch himself, believe me) came up to me after the 2 Cinco de Mayo gigs and said, "It blows me away how well you know those songs. I'm still groping around with most of that material." It felt pretty good to hear that, coming from him.


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