Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Aziza Mustafa Zadeh - Always)

If Killer Opening Songs could give Aziza Mustafa Zadeh another middle name (assuming Mustafah is her middle name) it would be 'passion'. If she could have two surnames like us, denizens of the Spanish-speaking Americas, they would be 'intensity' and 'vim'. Because that's what K.O.S. feels everytime it plays one of Aziza's records.

K.O.S. first became acquainted with this Azerbaijani musician's oeuvre when it borrowed a CD from its local library entitled 'Women in Jazz'. Her track 'Marriage Suite' stood out immediately. A musical love affair between K.O.S. and the composer ensued from that day onwards which remains until now as fresh as ever.

From an early age Aziza was exposed to music via her two parents. Her father, Vagif, was a pianist and composer and her mother, Eliza, was a classically-trained singer from Georgia. Although Aziza was a Bach and Chopin enthusiast when she was little, she showed an inclination towards improvisation as she grew up. At 17 she won the prestigious Thelonius Monk competition in Washington DC playing the famous musician's compositions but in her own style. Around that time she moved to Germany with her mother and that's when she started to develop her distinctive musical direction.

This week Killer Opening Songs brings you the first track from her 1993 album 'Always'. This record earned Azia many accolades, amongst them: the ECHO Award and the German Phono Association's Jazz Award. This was followed in 1995 by 'Dance of Fire', another regular listen en la casa de Killer Openings Songs. A mild uproar was caused by Aziza's decision to appear with little more than long tendrils of hair on the cover of her follow-up album 'Seventh Truth'. Far from apologising and keeping a low profile, Mustafa Zadeh went on the offensive and in response to the public outcry (mainly in her native Azerbaijan) she retorted à propos de the risqué artwork: 'It means people are starting to wake up a bit. I'm so glad. Actually, I find it amusing! Why all the fuss? '

Returning to this week's offering now, the reason why K.O.S. finds this track so alluring is that on this clip the Azerbi composer has stripped the music down to just the piano. And believe K.O.S. when it tells you that although the album version is brilliant this live performance is a hundred times better. Her technique reminds K.O.S. of a river in that the notes meander around and curl their lips at our attentive ears. Just like a river, this song carries long-forgotten tales from the countries whence it originates: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. And above all, this tune, like a copious flow, makes us feel the same sense of magnitude and awe that overpowers us when we look at a river; the pleasure of boundless freedom. Enjoy.

For earlier editions of Killer Opening Songs click on any of the links below

Killer Opening Songs (D'Angelo's Brown Sugar)

Killer Opening Songs (Sinéad O'Connor's 'Fire on Babylon')

Killer Opening Songs (Queen's Mustapha)

Killer Opening Songs (Caetano Veloso-Haiti)

Killer Opening Songs (David Bowie - Unwashed and S...

Killer Opening Songs (Massive Attack - Safe From H...

Killer Opening Songs (Bob Brozman)

Killer Opening Songs (Vanessa da Mata - Vermelho)

Killer Opening Songs (The Beatles-Help!)

Killer Opening Songs (Souad Massi-Raoui)

Killer Opening Songs (Habib Koité - Batoumambé)

Killer Opening Songs (Mary Black - No Frontiers)

Killer Opening Songs (Chico Buarque & Milton Nasci...

Killer Opening Songs (David Gilmour - Shine On You...

Killer Opening Songs (Ernesto Lecuona - 'La Compar...

Killer Opening Songs (Chopin 'Fantaisie-Impromptu ...

Killer Opening Songs (He Loves Me by Jill Scott)

Killer Opening Songs (Tracy Chapman - Talkin' 'bout A Revolution)

Killer Opening Songs (Patti Smith - Gloria)

Killer Opening Song (Silvio Rodriguez - Canción del Elegido

Killer Opening Songs (Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit)

Killer Opening Songs (Fela Kuti and Jethro Tull - Jam Session)

Killer Opening Songs (Sting - A Thousand Years)

Killer Opening Songs (Rodrigo y Gabriela - Tamacun)

Killer Opening Songs (Susheela Raman - Ganapati)

Copyright 2009

Monday, 26 January 2009

L'Attentat - Yasmina Khadra (Review)

Am I not a Man and a Brother?

Original design of the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s.

You're a maverick, Yasmina Khadra, or should I call you by your real name, Mohammed Moulessehoul?. You are a maverick. But, no hard feelings from me, mate. Because you are also a very good writer. Correction, you're an excellent writer.

'L'Attentat' (in English, 'The Attack') deals with the aftermath of a suicide bomber's strike on a busy restaurant in Tel-Aviv. Dr Amine Jaafari, the main character, spends the next twenty-four hours on duty, operating on victim after victim until, completely exhausted he goes back home. A hard knock on the door in the small hours of the morning wakes him up and it is from that moment on that his restful sleep is replaced by a nightmare he could never have envisaged before. The police, on entering his apartment, tell him that he must come to the hospital immediately to identify one of the bodies found at the restaurant. Back at the hospital, amidst the pile of corpses, Dr Amine is told that the suicide bomber, the kamikaze who wreaked havoc in that busy restaurant in Tel-Aviv is his wife, Sihem, and that's why he has been asked to identify her body. Did I mention the word 'nightmare'? Nah, more like hell on earth.

There are three main issues this novel addresses, in my opinion. And they are all inextricably linked. The first one is the relationship between husband and wife, the second one is the Arab-Israeli situation and the last one is modern-day terrorism and its definition.

By making Dr Amine a Bedouin, Yasmina is already placing his main character in a sub-category, or as my journalist friend Yvonne Osorio put it all those years ago in the short-lived gay publication in mid-90s Havana, 'Huellas' (Footprints), he is the 'difference within the difference'. The difference here is the minority vs the majority. Dr Amine is an Israeli of Arabic origin. But he is also one of the 160,000 Bedouin who live in 'unrecognised' villages in Israel. He is the difference within the difference. His aspirations and ambitions are framed against this background and early in the novel we are witness to the prejudices and abuse he is subjected to by his colleagues at the hospital, by the police and ultimately by his neighbours when word goes around that it was his wife who perpetrated the attack at the restaurant.

Dr Amine refuses at first to believe that his spouse had anything to do with this violent act. He believes fervently in their relationship. He blames the coppers, the Israelis, society. Until he receives a letter:

'À qoui sert le bonheur quand il n’est partagé, Amine, mon amour? Mes joies s’éteignaient chaque fois que les tiennes se suivaient pas. Tu voulais des enfants. Je voulais les mériter. Aucun enfant n’est tout à fait a l’abri si’l n’a pas de patrie… Ne m’en veux pas. Sihem.'*

This missive, dated a few days before the sabotage, is the condemning proof that his wife was actually the assassin. Dr Amine's world is suddenly turned upside down. It's not just the fact that his wife led a double life that affects him but also the fact that she was capable of killing other human beings.

With the help of a fellow doctor, Kim, Dr Amine sets off to Bethlehem - the place where his wife was allegedly headed for before she immolated herself at the restaurant- to find out the roots of Sihem's conversion. Once there his arrival elicits a wide range of feelings and emotions from both relatives and locals; from warm effusion to downright hostility. In various places he is congratulated on his wife's heroic deed, a passage that for me brought back sad memories of seeing crowds in the Middle East cheering and chanting after the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001. This outpuring of well-meaning solidarity only heightens Dr Amine's frustration and on trying to explain to a next of kin that he'd rather his wife was alive than dead, he is given a lecture on the plight of the Palestinians. Events take a turn for the worse when his enquiries on his wife involvement with the local terrorist group lead him to the Grande Mosquée where he is made to wait for several hours after he asks to talk to the imam. His request being denied, he is given the first of two warnings of what will happen to him if he doesn't toe the local mob's line. Stubborn as he is, Dr Amine insists that he must talk to the imam, and unfortunately he is shown, physically, what happens to those who want to know too much. Even if they are only interestd in finding out about their consorts' role in murdering people.

Throughout the boook Dr Amine keeps questioning a person's right to maim others even if they have been affronted. Not all his encounters are with extremists, though. In Janin he runs into Shlomi Hirsh, a Jew whose opening sentence is: 'Sharon est en train de lire la Torah à l’envers'*, and later on he says: 'Il croit préserver l’Israël de ses ennemis et ne fait que l’enfermer dans un autre ghetto, moins terrifiant certes mais tout aussi injuste'*.

Yasmina's biggest achievement as a writer is to create a nuanced main character. At some point I expected Dr Amine to join, or at least show support for the Palestinian suicide bombers, especially after Israeli troops raze one of his relatives' house in front of his eyes. But no, he steadfastly refuses to condone the killing of another human being even when his ancestors' home is turned into rubble. The fact that we see the action developing from Dr Amine's perspective is a powerful tool that Khadra utilises effectively. For example his encounter with and imprisonment by one of the terrorist phalanges gives us a detailed account on the various types of Islamist groups operating in the Middle East and how they relate to each other. Another example of Yasmina's careful approach to this very sensitive issue is his use of flashbacks to narrate Dr Amine's relationship with his wife, Sihem.

However, it's the third issue I pointed out before, modern-day terrorism, which Yasmina nails down. And to analyse this, we ought to dig into the author's background. For some time Yasmina Khadra was considered the authentic voice of the Arab woman, mainly in France. When he 'came out' as a 'he' in 2001, there was a public outcry and his military past (he was an Algerian army officer with more than thirty years of service in the armed forces under his belt) came to the fore. Mohammed Moulessehoul remained unrepentant, though. In an interview with The Guardian in June 2005 he said that 'You see, I wrote six books under my real name in Algeria. I was happy with that until 1988, when they imposed on me conditions that were abominable. Unacceptable. The army required henceforth that I submitted my manuscripts to a committee who could censor my work. I refused and so I risked having to stop writing, but what could I do? It was my wife who proposed to write under her first two names - Yasmina Khadra.'

It is from his eight-year experience of fighting Islamist radicals where Mohammed draws most of his philosophy. A philosophy that not only condemns Islamic extremism but also Israeli state-sponsored terrorism (at the time of writing the child death toll in Gaza is close to the 300 mark). Because to Yasmina Khadra terrorism is not just a bunch of men speaking Arabic, but also the tanks and bulldozers marching into the Bedouin enclaves.

It is ultimately to religious fanaticism that the author directs his most acerbic criticism. Throughout the novel he presents us a series of characters who are slaves to a dogma and use that article of faith to carry out barbaric acts. However, it is through Dr Amine's voice that we hear Yasmina's loud cry for understanding, for appreciating that which makes us humans: Am I not a man and a brother?

* Apologies for not translating the passages quoted in my post into French. Although I am a translator/interpreter/linguist by trade my especiality is English to Spanish translation and viceversa. Had I attempted to transpose the scenes quoted in my post into English, I would have felt that I was letting French speakers down. Many thanks.

Copyright 2009

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Daughter and Prepositions)

- ¿Qué es esto para?

That was Daughter.

- ¿Qué es esto para?
- Pardon?
- ¿Qué es esto para?
- Hmmm... I don't understand, nena.
- ¿Qué. Es. Esto. Para?
- I. Do. Not. Understand.
I did understand, mind, but I was playing dumb. Because the mistake Daughter was making was the same slip-up I had often borne witness to whenever I was in the presence of British children speaking either Spanish or French.

To be honest with you, my dear fellow bloggers and readers, Daughter's error was a baby blunder. Daughter was placing the preposition 'para' at the end of the sentence rather than at the beginning. Whereas that would be common practice for an Anglo-Saxon speaker, in romance languages we keep to a strict structure whereby prepositions are usually placed before nouns, pronouns and other substantives to form phrases functioning as modifiers of verbs, nouns, or adjectives.

In English, as well as German, prepositions can be used at the beginning of a sentence (For whom are we waiting?) or at the end (Who are we waiting for?). Note the difference of 'whom' and 'who'. That's another post. In Spanish the question Daughter was asking me made no sense whatsoever because that 'para' must be placed at the beginning of the sentence. That's why I did not translate the phrase; it would have made sense to an English-speaker. I know for a fact that there are some exceptions in French (any Francophone reading this post, please do get in touch) but I cannot vouch for either Italian or Portuguese; I think it's the same structure as in Spanish.

However Daughter was not totally wrong.
Apparently this habit of ending sentences with a preposition in English is not very old. Schoolchildren used to be told by their teachers (probably influenced by Latin) that finishing their phrases with a preposition was a no-no. This was famoulsy satirised by Winston Churchill who said: 'this is the sort of English up with which I will not put'.

And if we analyse the etymology of this word, preposition, we see that in Latin (praepositiōn) the term meant 'a putting before'. What happened, in my humble opinion, was that English syntax, lax as it's always been, allowed for final placement of the preposition, as in 'We have much to be thankful for' or 'I asked her which course she had signed up for'. A little Teutonic influence should not be ignored as in German 'split verbs' are very common and they tend to place the preposition at the end: 'Wen wartest du auf?' (Who are you waiting for?)
So, yes, Daughter was not totally incorrect. She just chose the wrong language.
Image taken from Bogglesworld.

Copyright 2009

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Sting - A Thousand Years)

You get home at the end of a hard-working day. You remove your shoes, take your clothes off, put some music on and make a beeline for the bathroom to have a cold/hot shower (depending on which part of the hemisphere you live). As the water runs down your body you find yourself singing at the top of your lungs to the chorus of a Killer Opening Song.

Imagine that you come out of the bathroom, towel wrapped around your midriff or upper body depending on your gender. And you find that Killer Opening Song spreadeagled on your bed. It's bathing you in its sexy stare, its hair remaining still whilst the wind caresses the curtains of your bedroom wildly. You remove the rectangular piece of absorbent cloth from your (insert body part here) and the Killer Opening Song, still in bed, still staring at you, beckons you over.

Have you ever made love to a Killer Opening Song? Have you ever canoodled with an Introductory Album Track?

In case you haven't, let me tell you what it feels like:

Your heart makes a funny sound; a rapid succession of light beats or taps, like rain. You, curiously, feel liberated, strange, though, you never felt imprisoned before. This is music that sneaks into your brain under the door. This is a song that fills you with glee, it makes you jump high in the air and execute a split mid-flight. This is a K.O.S. that casts a spell on you and for days, sometimes weeks, to come you will be in its sole company. Musical promiscuity is a big no-no. This is a tune that causes a mild outburst of OCD (Obssessive Compulsion Disorder) in you. From now on, your regular walk to work, your commute on the train, your meals even, will be dictated by this track's duration. 3:53; 4:02; 3:20. They are numbers to others, they are magical digits to you.

Moreover, this is a song that sends you straight to the album's lyrics section.

A thousand years, a thousand more/A thousand times a million doors to eternity/I may have lived a thousand lives, a thousand times/An endless turning stairway climbs/To a tower of souls/If it takes another thousand years, a thousand wars/The towers rise to numberless floors in space/I could shed another million tears, a million breaths/A million names but only one truth to face/A million roads, a million fears/A million suns, ten million years of uncertainty/I could speak a million lies, a million songs/A million rights, a million wrongs in this balance of time/But if there was a single truth, a single light/A single thought, a singular touch of grace/Then following this single point , this single flame/The single haunted memory of your face/I still love you/I still want you.

Notice the simplicity and yet, oh, the beauty of this Killer Opening Song. Thousands vs single, million vs one. The dichotomy that lies within us, humans. We're a tiny particle, we're that single, minute, Lilliputian particle in the midst of many, thousands, millions, and yet... I still love you, says the singer.

Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner has written many a fine Killer Opening Songs before but with this 1999 outing, Brand New Day, he took pop music to another level. Sting found fame with the British band The Police in the late 70s and early 80s and when he decided to become a solo artist after the trio disbanded, many thought (and hoped) his career would falter. It has luckily turned out to be the opposite and he has confounded his critics time and time again with albums full of cross-cultural forays. Enjoy.

And before I forget, the question again: Have you ever made love to a Killer Opening Song before?

Copyright 2009

Monday, 19 January 2009

The Big Box by Toni Morrison (Review)

Toni Morrison's novels have always combined a deep psychological insight with a vigorous critique of society. It is not surprising then that this approach is replicated in her lesser-known work, The Big Box. This book, aimed at children eight-years-old and up, is a thoughtful exposé of what happens when adults attempt to determine children's limits. Told from the points of view of three 'feisty kids' who just can't handle their freedom, the book addresses issues like the generational gap, the meaning of innocence and the stifling of children's individuality nowadays.Through Patty, Mickey and Liza Sue's eyes, we learn of the world that has been created for them by adults. It's a big brown box with swings and slides, and a canopy bed but the door only opens one way. It has carpets, curtains and beanbag chairs but the door has three big locks. The children's parents visit them frequently and bring them presents, but how can that compare with actual freedom?

The book's two other major collaborators are Slade Morrison, Toni Morrison's son, who was only nine when he devised this story and Giselle Porter, whose illustrations transport the reader vividly to the enclosed world that awaits Patty, Mickey and Liza Sue inside the Big Box. This text is a must-read not just for children but also for adults who sometimes think they know better and end up limiting children's individuality.

This review appeared first on Catch a Vibe, a new online alternative guide to black culture in London.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Song for a Winter Sunday Morning

I Can't Stop Loving You - Kem

Note: Please, bear in mind that Warner Brothers has fallen out with youtube over music copyrights and therefore bloggers like me who depend on the availability of certain clips will be affected. If you notice any irregularity with the videos I post, do not hesitate to let me know either by leaving me a comment in the space provided or sending me an e-mail to the address in my profile. Many thanks.

Friday, 16 January 2009

From Father to Son

I was rummaging through my older posts the other day (yes, I sometimes do that, I don't like repeating myself unless I intend to) when I came across a column I penned in September 2007 about the first trip my son and I undertook together on our own. And on the eve of his birthday I have dusted this post off and presented it to him, that is, if he ever gets to read my blog.

The coach finally got underway a quarter of an hour later than planned. The sun, streaming through the windshield, bifurcated the vehicle in two. I remained in the section kissed by it. I read my book whilst my son talked to his friend J. My son. It was the first time that father and son would be on a holiday together, although only for a weekend. To me it felt like a rite of passage, like a secret fraternity that we both suddenly found ourselves in. Father and son. The phrase, cliche-tainted, had never occurred to me before. After all, we've always been a compact family together and I try to not make distinctions between son and daughter, age gap and gender notwithstanding. As the coach smoothed down the A406 eastbound, I suddenly thought of Steve Biddulp's book 'Raising Boys'. 'Sport offers a boy a chance to get closer to his father, and to other boys and men, through a common interest they might otherwise lack'. Well, this was our chance. Woodcraft Folk had arranged a whole weekend full of activities at Shadwell. These included kayaking and canoeing. I was looking forward to seeing my son interacting in a different medium almost on his own.

We arrived at the centre just after eight and immediately we were shown our sleeping quarters. These consisted of nothing more than a long room where we had to lay our sleepings bags and mats. Boys and men would sleep in this room, whilst women and girls would take over another room opposite to ours. The excitement coursing through our bodies was palpable to all present there. Games were produced, pizzas were cooked and the joie de vivre did not leave us until the small hours when I finally realised that I had to pump both my son and mine sleeping mattress and steer him to bed. The latter was difficult to achieve as he was high on energy but once he fell in the bed brought to life by me, but deficiently, Orpheus cuddled him and fed him the beautiful dreams we all want our offspring to have. I watched him in silence as his tiny curls moved hither and thither and suddenly it dawned on me that I was the happiest father in the world. I was witnessing innocence asleep. I kissed him on his forehead and sneaked into my own sleeping bag on my very deficient and below par mattress.

The morning found me in high spirits. In the absence of curtains in the room where we were sleeping, we were all woken up by a sun curious to know how our night had been. My son was playing cards with his friend J on his bed and upon seeing me awake he jumped onto my mattress and gave me a huge hug. After my morning exercises we both helped make breakfast for everyone in the centre. Later it was time to get in the water and I could not wait to see him donning his wetsuit and manoeuvring his kayak. After an introductory session from his tutor, who turned out to be a very no-nonsense kind of fellow, all the children went into the water. Bar a few mishaps at the beginning, he got the hang of it pretty soon. At some point they formed a circle and watching him laughing and so full of mirth I was compelled to ask myself: 'How am I turning out as a father?' And more pressing, how am I turning out as a father to a boy? Questions that could look lofty and pretentious for some take on a special meaning when you are born in a different country and the colour of your skin seems to be an excuse for abuse rather than mere pigmentation. Black, Afro-Caribbean fathers have long had a stigma attached to them that makes it hard to argue for individual analysis rather than the lump-them-all-under-the-same-umbrella dissection. As my son spun around on his kayak and joked endlessly (without falling in the water once) I wondered what my expectations were when I was his age. True, we look at our childhood through the eyes of nostalgia and melancholy most of the time. Sometimes with rage, sometimes with candour. But we always look back. What we don't do, what we can never do, is look at the present as we're living it. On the one hand we lack the capacity to apply many of the concepts we'll develop in later years to our infantile understanding of the world. On the other hand, even if we were to question the functionality of our surroundings, we would need a catharsis to effect change. My father never played with me, there was never a throw-around with a baseball, or a kick-about with a football. It was piano from the age of five, school homework to be completed by the end of the day and a strict system at home in order to attain academic achievement. In a way my son's own short life so far has mirrored mine, piano from an early age, good reading skills and an avid reader, good sportsman, talkative, confident, shy at times. During that weekend at the Shadwell Centre, two of the three girls there took to playing with his curls and sought him out more often than his mate J. This demonstrated his social skills and his popularity with people. Everyone was amazed at his bilingual abilities. I could see myself in that nine-year-old. Even down to his overbearing Dad. Am I? Yes, it pains me to admit, but yes. I am. But the main reason is that I love him, I love him to bits and when the time came to jump into the water and get soaked, he wouldn't do it at first (who knows, stage-fright maybe?), until I re-assured him that it would be OK, that he could, that he would love it. And he did. He just did. And I was laughing. And so was he.

On the way back we occupied the same seats, with the sun playing shadow play. Its illuminated backdrop was the perfect setting for us opaque moving images. My son was reading a book in Spanish before turning to his mate J to pick up the thread of the conversation they'd left unfinished back at the centre. I listened in whilst pretending to read (I swear I can do both) and the innocent tone of it brought back memories of chats under mango trees in my uncles' and aunties' when I was a teeny weenie prepubescent boy. It brought back the smell of September mornings in Cuba as summer still lingered behind for a little sleep-in but autumn was already announcing its grand entrance. There were not coming-of-age ceremonies over that weekend at Shadwell, no titanic feats to accomplish, but on that late summer afternoon and on the two days that preceded it, my son and I grew to the same height together, hand in hand, together.

Copyright 2007

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Rodrigo y Gabriela - Tamacun)

Certain songs buzz along like the sound of cicadas in hot weather; a rapid vibration that descends upon the listener unannounced. These tunes drift through the air like a cloud of midges in the warm August sun (I know, I know, it's January, it's cold, very cold in London, but Killer Opening Songs has its own body temperature and it is right now in the mood for some fevered summertime musical madness) dripping icy drops of anticipation on your forehead.

These songs are liquid, they escape through your fingers; they play 'it' with you, helpless listener, and no matter how hard you try to catch them you won't be able to.

'Tamacun', the Killer Opening Song from Rodrigo y Gabriela's self-titled sophomore album is one of those tracks.

This Mexican duo has specialised in a style that is fast and rhythmic at the same time. Having met in Mexico City while the two of them were playing in a thrash metal band called 'Tierra Acida' Rodrigo y Gabriela soon grew frustrated with the domestic music scene and moved to Europe, where they have met considerable acclaim.

'Tamacun' is a musical wolf whistle, a song in heat melting in the listener's ear. From the outset, in the performance shown in the clip below, Rodrigo y Gabriela let rip and by the end of the track you'll be holding on to the edge of your seat, hands clammy, head shaking from side to side, clothes clinging to your skin and inside them, sweat running down your body.

And back on stage, smiling triumphantly yet another Killer Opening Song. Enjoy.

Copyright 2009

Monday, 12 January 2009

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (Review)

This is a man's world/This is a man's world/But it would be nothing/Nothing without a woman to care

‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’

James Brown

It’s difficult to review a 741-page book like ‘The Second Sex’, Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist literary landmark. But this milestone, first published in 1949, needs to be championed by and passed down from generation to generation since many of the issues that Simone addressed at the time are still relevant today.

‘The Second Sex’ is divided into two books: ‘Facts and Myths’ and ‘Woman’s Life Today’. The former focuses on the biological, historical and mythic aspects of women’s situation since the primitive communal system. The latter concentrates on woman as an individual within society, placing her in different categories and analysing each category in depth. Holiday reading material, this ain’t.

‘The Second Sex’ appeared at a time when Europe had just come out of a bloodthirsty conflict and was trying to come to terms with the devastating effects of Nazism. Ironically it was mostly women who had kept the Old Continent going in the absence of men. It is in this context that we ought to analyse this treatise.The thesis that underpins the book is based on the fact that man (as in the male of the species) is not only in control of most of the social, political and economic structures upon which modern polity is based, but also that he models this society according to his whims and tastes. In order to prove this, de Beauvoir conducts a thorough analysis, delving into the biological, psychoanalytical and historical aspects of woman’s life from ancient to contemporary times (at least until 1949). However two caveats: Simone does not see woman as a powerless victim (even if sometimes it feels exactly like that) and she does not come across as a pessimist (at least to me). In chapters like ‘The Independent Woman’ she avers that woman can indeed gain a degree of autonomy which would free her from economic dependence on man.

What conclusion, then, did I arrive at after I finished reading the last word of the last page of this literary behemoth? Can woman ever achieve the freedom and independence that Simone believed she had the right to? Could that be accomplished in our lifetime?


There are various reasons why, in my humble opinion, woman will remain at the bottom of the ladder at least for some time to come. These reasons are political, economic and social and in no way invariable, but at times they are difficult to alter. Let’s deal with each one briefly.

Politics dictates that whenever there is a change of government in a modern democratic nation the new status quo will address the issues which formed the agenda that brought it to power. Because woman sits at the bottom of the exploitation table, she is discriminated against not just for being a woman but also for belonging to the groups that occupy the echelons above her. A classical example is a gay, black, disabled woman. She will face discrimination for being gay, for being disabled and for being black, but her strongest identity marker, her femininity, will be airbrushed. If the government of the day decides to advance her agenda on account of her disability she might find herself arguing against other campaigners who disapprove of her homosexuality or her skin colour. Therefore, the result of political tepidity is disadvantegeous to the female of the species because she finds herself at the mercy of decisions and laws which she has not lobbied for or voted for in any way. Also, in modern democratic nations, government bodies are usually male-led and male-dominated.

The economic factor can better be explained through the times we are living now. The credit crunch was brought about by a combination of reckless banking and imprudent investment. This was chiefly carried out by men. Those who reported the news, those who appeared on the news, those whose opinions were sought after by avid journalists, were men in their majority. Those who ‘saved’ the day were mostly men. Women were mainly shown shopping desperately in an attempt to take advantage of sales, discounts and offers in major shopping centres. Jump to your own conclusions. Woman is the ultimate spendthrift, the media seem to say, despite the fact that woman’s economic planning at home is the kind of template that would have saved Lehman Brothers.

The social aspect is harder to pin down. This is one area where woman has been more visibly in recent decades, mainly in western societies with the second wave of feminism in the 70s. But just like woman has managed to make inroads socially in Europe and North America, man has upped the ante at the same time and prevented her from entering areas that are still considered men-only. Or even worse, like determining which areas are OK for her to trespass and which ones remain off-bounds. I think that the root of this malaise can be traced back to the absence of a social cataclysm that has seen the female population threatened with extinction just for being female. The important phrase here is ‘for being female’, a point I touched upon briefly in my review of Marilyn French's 'Women's Room'. I’ll explain. Jews had the pogroms in Nazi Germany and the concentration camps in WW2. The whole world shook its fist at such injustice and it vowed that never again would it let a similar event happen. Black people in the US had the civil rights movement to thank for their right to vote and to desegregate educational establishments. Milosevic’s trial was a display of judicial integrity in the midst of one of the worst conflicts Eastern Europe has ever seen. People sympathised with the Jewish women from the concentration camps, with the black women from the South of the US and with the Muslim women from Kosovo, but above all, they felt compassion because there was already an identity marker, an adjective preceding the noun: Jewish, black, Muslim. The fact that these women were being killed, raped or assaulted for being women did not occur to them, or maybe it did, but was secondary to their nationality or race. Both in Sudan, the Congo and Rwanda, rape has been used as a weapon; yet, we still refer to these actions as ‘side-effects’, 'collateral damage' of a terrible conflict. Actually, it’s anything but. The reason for women to be systematically abused and assaulted in those places is that there is already a social mindset that precludes any in-depth analysis of women’s delicate situation. And we are all part of that frame of mind. That’s why with every social gain that woman has made: the right to vote, the Abortion Act, employment rights, comes a backlash provided by a society that feels queasy about the leeway it gives to woman.

And there's a still another barrier that includes the other factors: the political and the economic ones. It's the elephant in the room, it's the uncomfortable issue that no one dares to discuss but on which we all have an opinion: immigration.

Globalisation has brought about a large displacement of people, relocation and mass migration. And we have not had time to come up with ways to solve what has turned out to be a time bomb. And the minority (majority) that has more often borne the brunt of the failure to set up effective systems to deal with immigrants is the female population. In the UK, at least, the rightwing press blames new arrivals for every single social malfunction. On the other hand, the liberal, leftwing media appease wife-beaters and mollycoddle so-called 'community leaders' who are nothing but covert mysoginists bent on keeping women down; this is usually called 'community cohesion'.

And lest I forget, within the social factors that work against woman we also have to name female antagonism towards her own gender. Rachida Dati anyone?

Then, that’s it. Woman will never ever be able to shake her shackles and get what she really deserves in a society that is so mysoginist.

Hold your horses, my chiquilines. I haven't finished yet.

Woman, in fact, can achieve a degree of parity with man, not as an adversary but as an equal. Simone pointed at economics and how independence in this area would put woman in an advantageous position. The other element is education.

I have always been a believer in education as the main factor in the formation of an individual. That entails not just state education (or private for that matter) but parental education, too, which to me is one of the most important pillars underpinning a child's upbringing. Woman is not determined by her hormones anymore than man is ruled by his penis. The abyss that separates both man and woman is created in early childhood and carried forward in their teenagehoood. By the time they both become adults the theory that justifies the abyss has taken full form and serves as the only reference to interact with the outside world. Only through a thorough, comprehensive, inclusive and encompassing education can the gulf between man and woman be bridged. It's not easy. Humans are individual beings who resist outside pressure most of the time. We believe ourselves to be owners of our destinies. Any government that tampers with this trait is in for a good kicking. However, a girl who is raised with the same demands and rewards as her male counterpart will cast aside any Oedipus complex, become a more fulfilled individual and serve society better as a whole. I believe that modern, secular and open-minded societies are better placed to achieve this, so theocracies and totalitarian regimes are out of the equation in my opinion. The former respond to a set of laws ouside the human realm, the latter might improve living conditions for women in the short term but end up subjugating them and leaving them in a worse state than they were before.

If we are to render the first two lines of James Brown's song obsolete (read the beginning of this post) we have to stop seeing woman as an Other and include her in humanity's historical development. After all we're more than just a mere species; we're men and women.

Copyright 20009

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (Portuguese State of Mind)

There are words in some languages that are enticingly built for pleasure. These are terms that roll off the tip of our tongue with no brakes on, falling blithely into a realm of self-indulgence and hedonism.

The Portuguese word saudade is the only term I know of whose meaning escapes the borders of linguistics and enters the kingdom of emotions and feelings. For starters it is an ambiguous term, as in it hasn't a definite meaning. Depending on the context it is used in it can convey different ideas. I have seen it translated as 'longing' in English, but even that is rather misleading as it can also signify 'joy'. Everytime I hear it, it catches me unawares in the same way someone who steps on the back of my shoe in the underground does.

In order to write this post I e-mailed my dance students (many of which speak Portuguese) and fellow dance tutors (some of which come from Brazil, Angola and Portugal) and asked them to give me their definition of saudade. I have included some of their replies below (no contribution has been altered or edited). As you will see their responses are not clear-cut and exact. And how can you be with a word whose significance is chiefly affirmed by the speakers who utilise it? And by those of us who, though not able to speak the language fluently, appreciate the feelings evoked by one of its linguistic jewels.

This is from Mireilla, a long-standing dance pupil of mine:

What about nostalgia or a yearning,nostalgic longing?

Francesca, on the other hand, has one of her co-workers help her out with my enquiry:

My Brazilian colleague says: it can mean positive but also negative feelings, such as missing somebody or something from the past, feeling blue or nostalgic. There is no such word in English.

Mariana could hardly contain her enthusiasm when she received my electronic missive:

hello, what a lovely email to receive

i'm half brazilian and half english, born in sao paulo raised in london, bilingual and work in theatre and dance. i think you touch on the wonders of bilingualism. i think i once read or someone once told me that with every new language we learn a new way to see and experience life, new ways to live and as a theatre practioner interested in multi lingual performance i discover something new in this way every day, but the best thing about it is that there is no absolute. language changes according to the meaning needed at the point in time, by who speaks it and where they are, and how beautiful is that!

anyway im sure you know or have you own views on this as a linguist, but i thought id write these words down as i feel the beauty of what you hit upon is that we dont always need to rely on one definition, conflicting and differing ones can also be valid.

Saudades Carinho and Companero are my favourite words in portuguese. Saudades to me in brief is the feeling you feel when you miss someone, therefore it can be however that feeling manifests to you.We dont have a descriptive word for that feeling in english, we have the past action i missed or i am missing which suggests the action that occurs now, and we understand the feeling associated in this way, but we dont actually have a word for the feeling, i dont think. Perhpas longing? but thats not exactly it cos it applies want, and is perhaps melancholy, with sad notionsSaudades is an arduous feeling, we love and hate, i think saudades cements what you feel for someone, your love you friendship you concern with another morfs into another version of itself whilst the other is distant. another one for you just for the hell of it, i thought i understand companero but i was being too alternative is 'the one you part bread with', few of my english, conservative, capitalist extreme friends could not get their heads around that. i guess our lived experiences no longer reflect that action so much. thank you for a lovely email and giving me an outlet to rant about something im passionate about.

Zela, though not fluent in Portuguese, contributed to the discussion:

I have never spoken a word of Portuguese but now that you share this with me I think its great to know that one word could mean so much that it cannot be explained in English except that we accept it for what it is/ the feeling it brings you when you say it .....The true meaning of love is ultimately the great feelings of joy and prosperity and divine inspiration that comes with so much more that you cant quite put your finger on defining it.

Maybe it is the thought that love (Saudade) if it stands for all those things; tenderness, affection and care it is most definately overwhelmingly magnificent!

I have left for the end the reply I got from Iris de Brito, an Angolan choreographer and fellow tutor who describes this Portuguese word thus:

Saudade- You are right, its quite difficult to describe in one word.I would say it describes the act of missing someone or something, but it can also be implying a certain melancholy mixed with tenderness and love for the familiar and things we hold most dear.Its present in many songs of Fado in Lisbon, Morna in Cabo-Verde or Kilapanda in Angola, it became a word that described a longing, a sentiment deep set in our hearts.At school we were also told that this word/feeling evolved from the time of the Portuguese Discoveries when women lost their man to the sea and were waiting for them to come back indefinitely.

And in order to demonstrate with images what this word cannot explain in writing I shall leave you with a clip by the Portuguese singer Mariza singing 'Meu Fado Meu'. This is also this week's 'Song for a Winter Sunday Morning. Enjoy, com muita saudade.

Copyright 2009

Thursday, 8 January 2009

London, My London (Camden Market)

I first read about Camden Town and its famous markets before setting my eyes on them. It was the autumn of '89 and I had just started my degree at the former ISPLE (Higher Institute of Foreign Languages Pedro Lafargue) in Havana, Cuba. Our writing teacher had given us an article to discuss in class and the piece was about Camden Town.

When I finally made it to this renowned part of north London in April 1997 whilst spending a month's holiday in the UK , my first reaction was amazement at seeing so many different people dressed in such extravagant and fanciful clothes and displaying a narcissistic attitude that confounded my expectations about British people (and some non-Brits, too) in general. My second reaction was wonderment at the array of goods on display in stalls and shops, especially when the Habana Vieja and Malecón markets were my only references of outdoor retail and wholesale activity. Because it was Sunday when we visited Camden Town, the market was open and the pavements were overflowing with Londoners and tourists alike. To say that I fell in love with the area would be an understatement. When I came to live in Britain in November of the same year, it was one of the first places my wife and I went back to. And what was not to love about it? The market teemed with shops, clubs, theatres, restaurants, bars, pubs and cinemas.

Walk down any of its arteries and you will be exposed to an incredible variety of goods: antiques and collectables shops, art galleries, palmistry (a feature you will come across very often), piercing and body art, jewellery, alternative fashion and holistic products. The fact that there are so many outlets often selling similar merchandise works in the customer's favour, especially over the Christmas period, when one is pressed for time trying to find the perfect present for those one cares about. Like the Spitalfields Market (soon to feature on this blog) where vendors attempt frenzily to undercut each other, Camden Market offers the same opportunity to those of us who don't mind haggling a little bit.

The market is parcelled out into four areas: Camden Lock, Camden Stables, Camden (Buck Street) Market and Inverness Street Market.

Camden Lock Market was originally a craft market in the 70s but has since branched out to include all kinds of goods. Although it's open most days, it is at the weekend when it springs fully into life with multitudes of shops and restaurants spilling out onto the streets. A caveat, though, if you're with little ones, be aware that it's not a very child-orientated area and parental paranoia can set in very quickly. The throng that files past stalls and shops can swallow up your offspring in no time and what at first seemed to be the perfect day out can very quickly become your worst nightmare.

Camden Stables, on the other hand, cater to those adventurous enough to dabble in the latest fashions. The Stables display a good selection of vintage clothing, including gothwear.

Camden Market is a hodgepodge of some 200-odd stalls flogging everything from footwear to T-shirts (whose captions and slogans you will have to explain to your little ones patiently).

On Inverness Street the visitor will find mainly stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables. This section of the market dates back to 1900 approximately when it fulfilled the same function: to supply the area with fresh produce.

The best way to get to Camden Town, if, like me, you don't live in the area, is by public transport. Despite the numerous complaints I hear so often from British people regarding public transport, I still choose it over driving, especially when parking fares are so expensive in Camden Town (applicable on weekends, too). You can either alight at Chalk Farm tube station or even get off at Regent's Park and walk along the canal (highly recommended).

So, if you ever come to London, make sure you leave a space in your busy schedule for this little jewel in north London.

Note: All photos were taken by me. I am not a photographer, not even an amateur one, therefore you will have to overlook the quality of the images, or lack of it thereof, and enjoy (hopefully) the morsel of London I am bringing to you this week. Thanks.

Copyright 2009

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Susheela Raman - Ganapati)

Without a doubt, this globalised world of ours has brought us many calamities: unfair trade between First World nations and their counterparts in the developing regions, a cultural empire spearheaded by McDonald's et al and an erosion of moral and civic values that we once held dear and nowadays have fallen victim to the MTV generation. However, amidst the rubble a few voices still make themselves strongly heard. And Killer Opening Songs has one of them in the lounge this week.

Susheela Raman was born in London to South Indian parents. Her life so far has been a cultural journey which could very well serve to exemplify the pros of our globalised polity. At still a young age she and her family moved to Australia where they kept their Tamil roots alive. She grew up singing traditional South Indian classical music and giving recitals. Blues arrived in her teenage years and it wasn't long before she began to think of ways in which to bring these different musical strands together. An apprenticeship with the great Hindustani vocalist Shruti Sadolikar ensued and the result was the ground-breaking record 'Salt Rain'. The album brought together people from different backgrounds and musical styles who resided mainly in London and Paris.

'Ganapati' is the Killer Opening Song of 'Salt Rain'. It's a lovely melody that celebrates the elephant-headed Hindu God Ganesha. Ganapati is one of the many names this deity is known by. The lyrics are rich and full of that spirituality music from the subcontinent is renowned for: 'I meditate on Ganapati/Worshipped by the great sages/Vasishta and Vamadeva/Son of Shiva/adored by his brother Guruguha...' Enjoy.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Song for a Winter Sunday Morning

Against All Odds - Phil Collins (Yes, I know, but deep down inside, I'm just a hopelessly romantic fool)


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