Star Turn: Alonso Mendoza

September 14, 2001

Sue Law imagines herself in sunny Mexico as she listens to the man who spices up the learning lives of international students

The hot and spicy rhythms of virtuoso Mexican percussionist Alonso Mendoza make the perfect de-stresser after a hard day's study.

Leicester University's musician-in-residence has been making a big impact with his laid-back style and compelling Latin sounds in workshops celebrating cultural diversity at the Richard Attenborough Centre. Each term, students, staff and participants from the local community give a public performance to show off their new-found skills.

Mendoza has an understated look, with a floppy black fringe and a languid grin. Beneath this lies a man who knows his stuff: he has a masters from the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague, the Netherlands, and has worked with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at the Proms under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. He has lectured at Birmingham Conservatoire and is researching African music at the University of London.

His weekly workshop for international students begins quietly as the group arranges pairs of 3ft-high conga drums in a circle. There is chat in Spanish, German and Italian but the students seem tired. Suddenly a loud rhythmic beat fills the studio, as Mendoza perches on the edge of a chair with the drum between his knees to demonstrate how to use the fingers then lower palm. The two newcomers struggle to master it, while the old hands rap away confidently.

"Don't worry, it takes weeks," he reassures the beginners, then launches into a more complicated alternating Latin rhythm called Azucar (sugar), as the students watch and follow. All pairs of hands move in unison, but the beginners are faltering. Mendoza passes them each simpler wooden instruments, called claves, to play instead.

The hypnotic salsa sounds vibrate through the room and you can feel the sunshine and bright colours of Mexico even on a grey afternoon in Leicester. The students concentrate hard but smiles break out as they get drawn into the uplifting tempo.

Now Mendoza leaves the circle and brings a large zurdo drum into the studio, adding a deeper texture to the melee of sound. He sways to the beat, tapping a giant cowbell and giving a little wiggle and a grin, then beckons a student to take over the drum while he returns to the circle of congas. He begins tapping out an intricate beat over the main rhythms, while drawing in each student in turn to show the correct technique or give a nod of encouragement. Finally he signals them to stop, and they relax laughing.

For an hour hardly a word has been spoken - an ideal antidote to the usual torrent of words used in teaching. Marcello, an Italian studying for a PhD in environmental science at Nottingham, travels over every week to join the class: "I like his attitude. It's like playing a game as a family round a table."

German exchange student Andreas has been attending weekly for four months, and is one of the group's stars. "It is really fun. There is a core group and some newcomers each week, but he never excludes anyone."

As the group drifts out, chatting animatedly, Mendoza says he hopes the workshops give them a broader view of music.

"For these international students it is something to take them out of their usual routines. They tell me that in these two hours they forget about the pressures of study," he says.

"Music is about enjoyment and that feeling shouldn't get lost in the process of learning. Art reflects society, and you can understand more about other cultures through music by showing the way people feel."

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