Sunday, 31 May 2009
Next Post: 'Exercises on Free Writing' to be published on Tuesday 2nd June at 11:59pm (GMT)
Thursday, 28 May 2009
And one of those artists is Telmy Telma, or Telmary, her stage moniker. Here's a singer who claims to rap 24 hours a day (the clip has English subtitles, by the way) and on the evidence of her debut album, 'A Diario', you could be forgiven for thinking that she may actually mean it. 'A Diario' is a record that from the hilarious cover reading 'Parental Advisory: Cuban Content' to the guests' list takes the listener through an amazing musical journey.
Even the Intro(Rezo/Prayer), usually a fifteen-second self-indulgent exercise that barely deserves a footnote in the credits of any record, is a powerful prescient tool in this album that announces the arrival of a real artist.
'Fiesta' ('Party'), finds Telmary duetting with Athanai, one of the most famous Cuban musicians nowadays,(and to think that he and I went to college together and that his song 'Séptimo Cielo/Seventh Heaven' was performed for the first time in faraway countryside Pinar del Rio instead of urban Radio Ciudad de la Habana where it premiered shortly after) and the result is a feelgood track that could well fill up the floors of many a party this summer.
"Que Equivoca'o" ('You're So Wrong') deals with an errant, alcoholic partner and his pathetic excuses whilst trying to make up for his errors. 'Marilu' is dedicated to Telmary's mother and it boasts a guest slot by none other than Mayito, the singer from the salsa band Los Van Van, besides sampling the original 'Marilu', a composition by the same salsa troupe. 'Sueño Brujo' ('Enchanting Dream') has another famous contributor guesting on it, Marina 'la Canillas' from Ojos de Brujo and that's the clip you'll be able to watch below. 'Wondering (Sly)' has the ever hard-working Yusa duetting with Telmary. Yusa has been a regular feature on this blog for a long time now and it is also her skillful fingers playing the bass guitar that we see in the clip below. 'Spiritual Sin Egoísmo' ('Selfless Spiritual')is probably my favourite track from the whole album, difficult statement to make when this is a groundbreaking record full of top tunes. This song starts as a 30s or 40s jazz tune, it changes dramatically and ferociously halfway through and it finishes with an operatic voice ghosting in in the background whilst both Telmary and guest singer Kumar let rip in rapid-fire funk-jam style.
If you are looking for a sound to your summer, those sweaty and damp nights when there's hardly any breeze and humidity hits the 90%, this is your record. Whether it is a slow, sultry number you're lusting after, or a fast, uptempo one, this record's got all the ingredients you need for a summer holiday, preferably playing on your car stereo en route to somewhere nice and fresh. Southern Spain anyone?
Next Post: Song for a Spring Sunday Morning to be published on Sunday 24th May at 10am GMT
Tuesday, 26 May 2009
remember what that brought'
'There Is No Time'
By Lou Reed
'Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper'.
If you can read the sentence above without feeling a twinge of discomfort or a lump in your throat, then you could have possibly qualified for Stalin's entourage. Although that alone would not have bought you any life insurance. Even going against Mr Reed's words and holding onto the typical true believer's philosophy of my country right or wrong would have been insuficient.
I had a sense of déjà vu when I read the first fifteen pages of 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich', the famous novel by the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And of course, I had indeed read a similar work, only that it was a memoir and it was about incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. Primo Levi's personal account of his time at the hands of Hitler's hordes is harrowing in its restrained and subdued approach. And Solzhenitsyn's tale of the horrors endured by a prisoner in a labour camp in Siberia is just as painful to read.
It is almost an accepted truth amongst readers that certain memoirs and biographies read and, more importantly, feel like works of fiction. The same could be said of certain novels and how they mirror and feel like real life and 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' is one of those. It describes in detail a day in the life of a prisoner sentenced to one of Stalin's gulags. During the course of this journée we are introduced to a myriad characters and situations that reveal the horror of that period in the former Soviet Union. Even though it is written in the third person singular, not even for a single moment could I shake off the sensation that I was Ivan and that it was me withstanding the adversities suffered by him.
The novel stars with the five o'clock reveille, which as usual 'was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters'. From then on, the quest for survival begins, as Shukhov (Ivan Denisovich's second surname) tries to take advantage of the ninety minutes he has before being called to work. There were various ways in which to secure a living, 'by sewing a pair of over-mittens for someone out of old sleeve lining; or bringing some rich lag in the team his dry valenki* right up to his bunk (...) or doing the rounds of the store-huts...' This operation was repeated everyday methodically and endlessly. Early in the morning, whilst it was still dark outside and with sub-zero temperatures to face, the only companion prisoners had were their own thoughts: 'There is nothing as bitter as this moment when you go out to the morning muster - in the dark, in the cold, with a hungry belly, to face a whole day of work. You lose your tongue. You lose all desire to speak to anyone.'
There are two elements that make 'One Day...' a valuable and timeless literary piece of work. One is structure and the other one language.
At least in my Penguin copy (first published in 1963) there are not breaks in the story. No chapters or middle-of-the-page dividers to indicate that the action will change place or focus on another or other character(s). This set-up allows the reader to follow the plot continuously and without interruption and it helps understand the main character's plight better.
The language is short and snappy and since I can't speak Russian, I don't know whether this works in the novella's favour or not. As regular readers, fellow bloggers and followers will know by now when it comes to translation I am usually cautious. But, although I am unable to speak that Slavic language, I think the translation from Russian to English was very professionally and accurately done and as a consequence the narrative flows effortlessly.
The reason for Ivan Denisovich's imprisonment is a stupid one and it exposes the cruelty and political blindness of Stalin's dictatorship. Shukhov is sentenced to ten years for allegedly being a spy. The reality is rather different, though. Ivan is captured by the Nazis and manages to escape. Yet, instead of finding empathy in his comrades from the Red Army when he re-joins them he is immediately arrested and sent to Siberia.
The author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had first-hand experience of life in a gulag since he spent eight years in one for having criticised Stalin. It is this personal touch that gives the novel its authenticity and its resemblance to a memoir and the reason why I think it ought to be a must-read for anyone keen to find out the calamitous effects of absolute power and the cult of personality.
*Valenki: Knee-length felt boots for winterwear.
Next post: 'A Cuban In Cuba (Music)' to be published on Thursdy 28th May at 11:59pm (GMT)
Sunday, 24 May 2009
Well ya play that Tarantella/All the hounds they start to roar/And the boys all go to hell/Then the Cubans hit the floor/And they drive along the pipeline/They tango till they're sore/They take apart their nightmares/And they leave them by the door.Mr Waits, you should know that Cubans do salsa, not tango! Now, where did I leave that mate:-)? A teetotal drunk on atonal music performed by an artist with a warped sense on humour on a Sunday morning. Yup, that's me. Enjoy.
Next post: 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Review)' to be published on Tuesday 26th May at 11:59pm (GMT)
Thursday, 21 May 2009
The clip below was taken from the movie 'El Lado Oscuro del Corazón' (The Dark Side of the Heart), one of the landmarks of Latin American cinema in the early 90s and a movie that influenced my generation a great deal. It introduced several young people to the poetry of Oliverio Girondo, Juan Gelman and the poet to whom this tribute is dedicated tonight and who has just died, Mario Benedetti. To watch the same scene with subtitles in English, click here. I reserve my opinion on the quality of the translation, or lack of it thereof. Many thanks
Mario Benedetti, Uruguayan poet (born 14th September, 1920, Montevideo, died 17th May, 2009)
Next Post: 'Song for a Spring Sunday Morning' to be published on Sunday 24th May at 10am (GMT)
Tuesday, 19 May 2009
I confess to having approached 'The Women's Room', the legendary feminist novel by Marilyn French, with no prior knowledge of its importance. When I announced my decision on the Guardian's talkboard, where I sometimes post under my blog moniker, the general feeling was that the novel was dated and its main themes obsolete. It turned out, rather, that they were not.
To me, the piece works in three acts like a play with a short epilogue that barely amounts to half a dozen pages.
Part I opens with Mira Ward, the main character, hiding in the ladies' room. Yet, this scenario is nothing but an excuse to throw the reader into the vortex that this woman's life had become and see it in retrospective. And what a life. Like the saying that goes 'still waters run deep', Mira's life, whilst apparently placid on the surface, reverberates a mile underneath. This first part deals with Mira's pursuit of the American Dream. A panacea to which many women, not just in the US, but also around the world, suscribe, without many times realising what is at stake. Mira marries young and dies young, metaphorically speaking. After her second son's birth, her husband, Norm, neglects her to the point where a glass of wine, and on occasions a whole bottle, become her companion par excellence.
Part II picks up from this calm destruction into which Mira's life has contracted. With Norm's success comes a change in her life as they up sticks and move into a posher neighbourhood. New friends obliterate memories of her previous ones and her daily existence takes on a more stay-at-home Mum-role. At this point in the book the first signs of disquiet emerge and it is not long before we witness how her marriage founders. The surprising note in this section is that it is Norm who leaves her with no indication whatsoever that this is an outcome he would have considered at some point. During the divorce settlement Mira 'submitted a bitter bill, totting up the cost of her services for fifteen years.' Needless to say the word 'amicable separation' was not once on their lips.
Part III finds Mira suddenly thrust into freedom. And as it becomes evident there is no better freedom than that from a slavery one did not know it existed. Shackle-free, Mira turns her energy into university studies and new friendships. The latter lay the grounds for what becomes the heavier emotional section in the novel. The group of women, and some men, Mira meets at her university serves as a very accurate portrayal of the heyday of social and radical politics in the late 60s and early 70s in the USA.
The novel ends with Mira travelling through Europe with her divorce money, returning to the US and on realising that the market for over 40s Harvard-graduates has dried up, decides to go to live in a little 'community college near the coast of Maine where she walks the beach every day, drinks brandy every night, and wonders if she's going mad.'
To me 'The Women's Room' was an eye-opener in terms of gender politics, an issue with which as a Cuban-born man, I had not fully engaged. Despite having lived with four women (my Mum, granny, auntie and cousin) in a one-bed flat in downtown Havana since my early teens (when my Dad left), women's situation in my island was off my radar. Saying that, some of the themes explored were familiar to me from a different viewpoint.
Let's forget for a minute that we are dealing with 1950s suburbia in the US and that the world the novel tackles is full of mainly WASP wives. The issues of exploitation, housework being taken for granted, abuse, both physical and sexual, low self-esteem and the existence of a glass ceiling ring the same bells no matter in which part of the world you are.
Women are at the bottom of the ladder. This is a point I made briefly whilst writing about 'Until the Violence Stops', a gritty documentary I screened at the arts centre where I worked for five years. Women's position in society was a phenomenon I grew up with, although unaware of its complexities, in my native Cuba. And in 'The Women's Room', the parallels were there for me to see.
The formation of the FMC (the Cuban Women's Federation) after The Revolution came to power, was supposed to 'liberate' Cuban women from their drudgery and low expectations of life. Whether it has achieved these ambitious targets or not remains a moot point but what cannot escape the observer like me, with a more critical and empirical eye, is that over the years the FMC has merged with the status quo and accepted blindly the social norms that the system imposes. Women are still at the bottom of the ladder in Cuba. True, there are more working women in the Caribbean island that there were 50 years ago (including those 'night flowers' on 5th Avenue, Malecón and Rampa), women hold senior managerial roles in stark contrast to the position they were in half a century ago and equal rights protecting women are part of the Cuban Constitution. Said constitution was first drafted in 1940 by the way.
A male supreme leader, an almost-all male Parliament, a heavy military presence in government (in fact it is the last government in the Americas where the statesmen still wear military fatigues), also male, and a system that caters to and protects the male of the species cannot be conducive to a total, or even a partial 'liberation' of women.
The key words here are 'looking after' and 'help'. For in Cuba, and I am a victim of this mindset myself, women are looked at as creatures in need rather than as beings on a par with men. When Mira meets her new friends at the beginning of the book at one of the many parties that are thrown in her neighbourhood and both men and women part ways in opposite directions, I was reminded of the segregation I witnessed at the parties I used to go to (soirées I am referring to here). Women talking about women's topics, children and housework, men debating baseball. When Mira finds out that some of her female friends' husbands are sleeping around including with some of her own chums, her initial reaction is anger only to abate quickly and be replaced with apathy. As I read those passages I had flashbacks of the women in my household discussing the 'secret' affair that Mr So and So was having with 'this or that woman' who lived next to the baker's or the fishmonger's. This was normally followed by a shrug of their shoulders. When Mira's best friend's daughter is raped and is put through the terrible ordeal that can only be the whole legal tribulations of trying to snare a rapist, I was reminded how since my early teens the general consensus in school was that 'no' was actually 'yes'. Well, guess what? 'No' is 'no'. Pure and simple.
The novel throws up other issues, although more marginally. For example, Mira's racial prejudices to begin with, not apparent at first, but more obvious when she meets Val's daughter's black boyfriend. By way of explanation the author, Marilyn French, points at Mira's background amongst mainly middle-class, same-age, white people. This issue unveils a deeper schism between the liberal, white, middle-class Mira belongs to and the black minority referred to by Angela Davies in her ground-breaking book 'Women, Race and Class' and also addressed by yours truly in my analysis of 'Native Son'.There is also Mira's relationship with her two sons, one of the more beautiful passages in the novel as the generational conflict that flares up is solved in an organic and natural way and serves as a contrast to Val's indictment of men following her daughter's rape trial. To Val all men are potential rapists. The epilogue acts as a reminder that this is not the case. Homosexuality, too, gets a walk-on part in the form of Iso, whose heart gets broken when her long-term partner leaves her to start a new life in a different city.
'The Women's Room' is a timeless reminder of why our complacency has led to women not having had a 'Holocaust' or 'Transatlantic slave trade' moment. Whilst the entire world witnessed the effects of the Shoah, and only lately we have come to terms with the barbaric outcome of the slave trade, the truth is that we are not able to apportion the same degree of gravity to women's exploitation. To me the reason lies in its on-going, non-stopping nature and the intricacies of the phenomenon. Can you campaign for the same rights for Cuban women as you do for their British counterparts when the former lack even the wherewithal to live day by day? What is the first step in the struggle, food, childcare or pay gap?
Marilyn French leaves me with more questions than answers and that in itself is a positive outcome. As a man, I take things for granted because I live in a world that favours me and caters to my needs. As a black man, these opportunities are reduced. As a black immigrant in the UK, the choice is cut even more. Take away the identity of the main character of 'The Women's Room' and substitute it for Jew, black or gay and we are all in this together. And it is time to change it.
Next post: 'Goodby, Mr Poet' to be published on 21st May at 11:59pm (GMT)
Sunday, 17 May 2009
I hope I have camped up your Sunday morning a bit more ;-) and please, maximise the screen, the better to appreciate those two beautiful front teeth. The quality of the clip is awful and that watermark is intrusive but have heartbreak songs ever felt this good? Many thanks. Enjoy.
Next post: Tribute to Marilyn French to be published on Tuesday 19th May at 11:59pm GMT
Thursday, 14 May 2009
It was hightime that this section made a comeback. I love cooking and I love music. So, why not combine the two of them and recommend a playlist based on a particular dish? More so if that recipe contains most people's favourite ingredient: chocolate.
As an omnivore I get the better of both culinary worlds so today it's vegans' turn:
Vegan Chocolate Gateau
275g/10oz/two and a half cups of self-raising wholemeal flour
50g/2oz/half a cup of cocoa powder
45ml/3tbsp baking powder
225g/8oz/one and a quarter cups of caster sugar
few drops of vanilla essence
135ml/9tbsp sunflower oil
350ml/12fl oz/one and a half cup of water
emulsified cocoa powder, for sprinkling
25g/1oz /quarter cup of chopped nuts to decorate
For the Chocolate Fudge
50g/2oz/quarter cup vegan (soya) margarine
Next post: Song for a Spring Sunday Morning to be published on Sunday 17th May at 10am GMT
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
(Edvard Munch, 2005)
Part of the current exhibition at the National Gallery
'The Internecine Schisms in the English Language
and their Effects on Contemporary British Society'
1st Oct 2008 - 1st Feb 2010 (extended due to popular acclaim)
The National Gallery
Sunday, 10 May 2009
Thursday, 7 May 2009
1. What is your current obsession?
(I gave the alter ego on the left the opportunity to respond to this question)
Dangling prepositions. I... I... I... pity those poor little darlings hanging perilously at the end of sentences about to fall... in... in... into a linguistic vortex from which they rarely come out alive. I... I... I... have spoken to my shrink about it and he said that this was a phenomenon he was unaware of. Arrrghhhh!
2.Which item of clothing do you wear often?
Although, some people think I am a dandy, that's not me, that's Juan Antonio Pesetas, another alter ego of mine. For me it's jeans, T-shirt and if the weather is mild or warm, a pair of Birkenstocks.
3.What's for dinner?
Since this post is coming out just before the stroke of midnight, let's just say that on Fridays I usually fry a steak that has already been marinated in the fridge twenty four hours before with garlic and onions. I love cooking, in fact my section Food, Music Ad Infinitum is making a comeback soon.
4.What are you listening to?
This is where my other alter ego (on the right) steps in.
One of my hobbies since I came to live in the UK has been to make compilation tapes and CDs (I have not upgraded to iPod yet, finances and all that jazz). Whether it is to listen to whilst I am jogging, or chilling out at home, for friends or family, I have made close to 30 or 40 of these little musical mementoes. I like to think of compilations as the act in which you bring musicians and singers together in a natural and organic way, almost like moving them all into a neighbourhood of your choice and seeing them all getting on nicely with each other. It is with pleasure, then, that I will be sharing with you my lovely readers and fellow bloggers the latest collection of songs I've put together. The name is '... Longina Seductora/Cual Flor Primaveral...' (Seductress Longina/ Like a Spring Flower) and it is a reference to a famous Cuban love song penned by Manuel Corona in the 1910s about a woman whose name was Longina O' Farrill. The legend goes that the famous Cuban composer fell for this ebony beauty and wrote the song a couple of days after meeting her. In the case of this compilation there are roughly seventy-odd songs written and sung by women, or just performed by women (important remark, as I have Ojos de Brujo included in the credits). The playlist below is but a snippet of all the songs that appear in the three CDs, soon to be four, (I just wanted the playlist to be a taster and even youtube has its limitations) and where possible I have substituted a particular track that was not available on the popular site for another one that I think would be just as fitting.
1- Soul Food by Martina Topley-Bird. She wasn't just Tricky's sidekick and erstwhile real-life partner. She is a very good musician and singer whose debut album, 'Quixotic', has found a soulmate in my CD player. I sometimes wonder what neighbours make of me bobbing my head and up down and shaking it side to side whilst 'Soul Food' is playing in the kitchen and I'm doing the washing up, especially the following lines 'I'm gonna show you (show you)/Show you where the good/times start, baby/I wanna show you (show you)/I wanna show you where/the feeling sparks/I'm gonna let you (let you)/Take all the time you need/Cause when the soul starts fallin', baby/We got time to leave (we got time to leave).
2- La Martiniana, performed by Susana Harp. Lila Downs' version is not available on youtube, but I think Susanita rises to the occasion very well indeed and I enjoy this version as much as I love Lila's.
3- Sounsoumba by Oumou Sangare. One of my favourite singers from Mali. Her songs deal with social and gender issues. This is a track that denounces the practice of polygamy. This is not the song that appears in my collection, but I still think it is an apposite tune.
4- Solitude Standing by Suzanne Vega. This was the album that introduced me to this excellent singer's music. And besides the obvious tracks, 'Luka' and 'Tom's Diner', there are some blinders in this record, like 'Night Vision' and the album's title track. Also, that bassline is ferocious and the guitar untamed. I defy you to stay quiet.
5-Friendly Pressure by Jhelissa. This is a song that has aged gracefully and which reminds me of my very own early 90s younger self.
6- I Am Stretched On Your Grave by Sinéad O' Connor. A powerful track by a very powerful performer. I am stretched on your grave/And will lie there forever/If your hands were in mine/I'd be sure we'd not sever. Need I write more?
7- Flash by Yusa. Since I had already posted 'Naufragio' by the same singer in my section 'Killer Opening Songs' some time ago, I chose a different one for this playlist, but on the CD it is the soulful, jazzy sound of 'Naufragio' that can be heard. 'Flash', though, shows off Yusa's bass-playing skills and taking into account that there are very few women who are known for playing that particular instrument it is all the more appropriate to include this clip in this mini-selection.
8-Raised on Robbery by Joni Mitchell. Whoever said that Joni couldn't rock? So demure and dainty and boy, she brings the whole house down!
9- Corre Lola Corre By Ojos de Brujo. One of the most fantastic flamenco outfits I have seen in recent years. Their sound includes hip-hop and Afro-Cuban rhythms. And Marina 'Canillas' Abad has an amazing voice.
10- Oh Well by Fiona Apple. Three albums later and I am a Fiona Apple fan. Lyrics, musicianship, arrangements, the whole lot. Pop does not get any better than her work.
11- Cristal, performed by Mercedes Sosa. Mention that name to anyone born in Latin America or Spain and you will see their eyes water. And this particular tango, Cristal, has Mercedes' autograph all over it.
12- I'll Be All Smiles Tonight, performed by Martina McBride and The Chieftains. This is one of those performances that sends shivers up your spine. Since it was given to me as a Christmas present last year, 'Down the Old Plank Road' has rarely been out of my CD player. And that's mainly because of the guest female singers. Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin and Martina McBride are just some of the names that make this record a must-have. Brilliant.
13-Cupido by Maria Rita. Elis Regina's daughter has a lot to live up to, musically at least. And she has measured up so far. Her voice is strong and her songs stand out in a country, Brazil, where there's no shortage of good musicians.
14- It Ain't Necessarily So, performed by Aziza Mustafa Zadeh. In my compilation, '... Longina Seductora, Cual Flor Primaveral...' I have got two other different tracks by this excellent Azerbi pianist whose work I never tire of promoting. Unfortunately neither song is available on youtube, which is a pity. One of them is 'Passion', a mano a mano between Al Di Meola on guitar and Aziza on piano and whenever I am driving and listening to this particular song I have to apply extra pressure to the steering wheel. You don't know what that tune does to your body, including your brain. However this clip shows off Aziza's versatility very well.
5.Say something to the one that tagged you.
Lizzy, thanks for writing such a lovely blog. I still have the image from 'Sunrise Through Pines' in my head.
6.Favourite vacation spot?
Granada. Spain has a special place in my heart. Scotland took my breath away and I love Dorset, southwestern England, where we usually go camping in the summer. I adored Malaysia where we spent our Easter break last and would like to go again next year. And obviously, I like going back to my own country, Cuba.
7. What I'm reading right now?
'The Life of Bach' by Peter Williams as I write. If not, whatever you see on the right handside of my blog.
8. Four words to describe myself.
Passionate, facetious, cynical and self-confident.
Hardly ever guilt, most of the time pleasure.
10. First Spring thing?
Getting back on my bike.
11. What do you look forward to?
To Chelsea winning the treble this season (tough chance, though, as I write they have yet to face Barcelona in the European Cup semifinal, second leg and Manchester United has all but secured the Premier League title for a third year running), to the Yankees finally getting their act together and winning the US championship (I refuse to call it World Series) and to my hometown baseball team, Industriales, doing the same (eliminated by the Isle of Youth from the play-offs, l'horreur, l'horreur!), to seeing Gigi, the Ethiopian singer, performing in the UK some day (her album 'Gold and Wax' has been playing on a loop in my CD player, at home and in the car), to seeing Lorna Feijoo performing 'Swan Lake' one day again (sigh!). I look forward to going back to teaching my monthly Afro-Cuban dance class in the autumn. I look forward to the end of the US embargo so that the Castros have no more pathetic excuses to keep my people under their despotic control. I look forward to the summer holidays because, hopefully, I will be driving around Spain and possibly France with my family.
Many thanks Lizzy for this meme.
Next Post: 'Song for a Spring Sunday Morning', to be published on Sunday 10th May at 10am (GMT)
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
It is just as well that I was reading Buchi Emecheta's 1976 novel, 'The Bride Price' at the same time that Wole Soyinka's play 'Death and the King's Horseman' premiered at the National Theatre in London recently. Soyinka's work focuses on themes such as: tradition, identity and the clash of cultures. Buchi's novel also addresses these issues. And both writers use their native Nigeria as the canvas on which to sketch out the plotlines that deal with these topics.
However there are stark differences. For starters, Soyinka's play takes place in the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo (note to theatre reviewers, 'Oyo' is one of the many kingdoms in Yorubaland as well as its capital, it is not a town) where one of the horsemen of the recently deceased king decides to take his own life following local custom encountering, however, fierce opposition from the British district officer.
'The Bride Price', on the other hand, focuses on an Igbo family, a different ethnic group in Nigeria. Aku-nna and her brother Nna-nndo are just thirteen and nine years old respectively and living in Lagos when their father, Ezekiel, dies. Their mother, Ma Blackie, who has gone back home to try to find a remedy for her allleged infertility, comes back to Lagos unaware of the calamity that has befallen her family. Having arrived a day after Ezekiel's funeral, Ma Blackie is told the unfortunate news. The next morning the whole family travels back to Ibuza, their hometown.
Woven adroitly into the plot is Buchi Emecheta's depiction of Nigerian polity as a society deeply rooted in traditional and conservative morals. To begin with, following her husband's death, Ma Blackie becomes automatically her brother-in-law's wife. Okonkwo, Ezekiel's sibling, has big plans not just for his new spouse - whom he impregnates immediately - but also for her daughter, Aku-nna. This is the second element Buchi so ingeniously builds into the novel's plot: women's subjugation to men. Everywhere there are both direct and subtle indications that this is a very patriarchal society where women depend on men. Although Aku-nna is merely thirteen when her father dies and has not even had her first period yet, already her stepfather, or new father, is thinking of marrying her off to the highest bidder. His idea of becoming a chief in his town spurs him on to allow the girl to carry on with her studies thus making her a more coveted prize. But life has a surprise in store for Aku-nna. Just before they reach Ibuza, Ma Blackie and her two children come across Chike, a teacher at the school of the Church Missionary Society. Aku-nna falls for him straight away without realising the dangers ahead. Chike is a descendant from slaves, which, in Nigeria's very own caste system, is as low as someone can be regardless of his/her purchasing power.
It is Aku-nna first period that sets in motion the series of events that will ultimately end in tragedy. At first, the, by now fifteen-year-old, girl hides this biological change from her classmates and friends. The pressure to marry is too much to bear and as a consequence her state of mind is badly affected. When she is finally found out after a trip to the river (and here Buchi Emecheta again exposes yet another archaic local tradition whereby menstruating women are banned from crossing the river) Okonkwo wastes no time in accepting several offers for Aku-nna's hand. One of them comes from Okoboshi, a local young man, who is so physically brutal in his approach to the young bride that Chike, the young teacher, has to interfere to save her from the pain the former is causing her. The result of this confrontation sees Aku-nna being kidnapped by Okoboshi's men. When Aku-nna rejects Okoboshi's sexual advances telling him that she has already given herself to Chike and is therefore no longer a virgin, the jilted lover reacts by refusing to lay a finger on her and by telling the entire village. That same night Chike rescues Aku-nna and the two flee to nearby Ughelli, a town where the school teacher has secured work. A short time after the two start living together, Aku-nna becomes pregnant. Unbeknownst to her, back in Ibuza a doll in Aku-nna's image has been made and a spell cast on her. Meanwhile Aku-nna is having a difficult pregnancy, falling ill on many occasions and it's not hard to predict what her fate will be. However she does manage to give birth to a baby girl, a much needed auspicious sign in the midst of a grim finale, since girls are supposed to be 'love babies' according to the locals.
One of the reasons why 'The Bride Price' works so well at exposing the different layers of women's forced submission to men in patriarchal Nigeria is that Emecheta avoids a preachy tone and goes rather for a sympathetic, authentic and humourous approach instead. Unlike Soyinka's play, where the clash of cultures is mainly between Western and Nigerian values, in 'The Bride Price' the confrontation is between urban and rural, an example of which can be found in Aku-nna's hesitation to bathe in the river (pre-menstruation), in Ibuza, with almost nothing on and in full view of everyone. By the same token, identity is explored when Aku-nna reflects on men's attitudes towards women and wonders whether her own father behaved the same way towards her mother and if it is her fate to accept those traditional values without questioning them.
And therein lies one of Emecheta's biggest achievements. In placing all these doubts (true, not always voiced, but usually implied) in this thirteen-year-old's head, she makes us confront a triumvirate with which some women the world over have been faced and which they have tried to overcome for a long time: identity, tradition and cultural clashes. From tribal societies to more modern ones, this is one of those conundrums that gets people hyperventilating and reaching for their smelling salts. However it is necessary to study and analyse these three phenomena closely because, and I think that the author would agree with me on this, above all, above all traditions, customs and rituals, we must always think first and foremost of the human being inside the man or the woman in this case. Aku-nna is a commodity for her stepfather, for her kidnapper and for her community in general. She has no control over her future, not even over her own body; Buchi Emecheta's vivid description of how suitors touch, pinch and squeeze young girls' nipples when they come to propose to them, had me turning various shades of red with anger.
My only criticism of this otherwise excellent novel is that Okoboshi's persona is too one-sided. He has a limp and is not physically attractive. So Chike, by default, emerges as the knight in the shining armour. However, in a book that is so short - just over 200 pages - that is not a literary sin. And the central message is not compromised in any way.
Just like in 'Second Class Citizen', the only other novel I have read by Buchi Emecheta, the non-judgemental and non-intrusive style used by the author enables the reader to make up his/her own mind. A mighty accomplishment indeed.
Next Post: 'Meme of the Moment' to be published on Thursday 7th May at 11:59pm
Sunday, 3 May 2009
Song for a Spring Sunday Morning - Elgar Cello Concerto in E Minor 1st Mov performed by Jacqueline Du Pré and conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Next Post: 'The Bride Price' (Review) to be published on 5th May at 11:59pm (GMT)