Sunday, 18 April 2010

Greatest Hits - Bonus Track 'Road Songs'

Yes, I know that last Thursday's post ought to have been the coda of this short Greatest Hits compilation. But... but... but... how to explain it? Certain events in life combine so many disparate elements and yet the end result is of such a unique and beautiful nature that not writing about them should be considered a criminal offense and the perpetrator forced to spend a whole afternoon with the shadow chancellor George Osborne whilst the latter attempts to explain his policies in regards to the British economy. Anyway, I digress. Why the bonus track?

Because a few weeks ago I was behind the wheel, driving through Ally Pally (that's Alexandra Park for non-London residents) en route to a school pantomime organised by a friend of my wife's, when a traffic jam forced me to ponder whether it was better to get out of the car and follow Kate Bush's advice ('Be running up that road/Be running up that hill') or wait for the congestion to die down in the comfort of my automobile and continue to listen to Alice Russell's marvellous and funky 'Under the Munka Moon 2'. I did the latter and was rewarded with one of those moments of pure, poetic beauty that you cannot predict. On my left handside, there was a splendid view of north and northeast London, behind me a female driver was shaking her arms frantically to the beat of a song. I tried to make out what she was singing but to no avail. Never mind what tune she was belting out, it was still great to see someone giving it all. And almost in front of me the sun was going down, a massive orange beach ball ready to plop! down an ocean of low-rise buildings. And then, this post came to mind. Because as if the absurdity and beauty of this moment was not enough, I was on a hill and had to juggle constantly clutch, gas pedal and hand-brake to keep the car either in motion or stationery. This post came out first in 2007, one of my very first ones and I have a soft spot for it. I hope you enjoy it. Many thanks, my holidays are almost over and I'm glad to be back.

One of the pleasures of driving I have found in my short life behind the wheel is the way inconsequential moments become enjoyable and trascendental even if they happen only for half a second. Or a couple of minutes, as it were.

Take reversing. Or reversing down a slope. Or reversing down a slope in your driveway. And now, cast your mind, if you will, to that split second, when you take the hand brake off, lift your foot off the clutch pedal and your car rolls backwards very slowly. There is no gas and you are allowing Newton's law to gently decide the motion. At the same time you keep checking your rearview mirror, your blind spot and you half-turn around to make sure that there is no one behind you. Yet that little instant registers in your mind as a magical moment, where all the gears conjure up a self-expressive movement. Like dancing. Or music.

And some bands have the same gear movement. Take Portishead. It was a fortuitous incident that led me to become acquainted with the music by this British band, so-called dinner party artists par excellence, a distinction that I suppose will not have gone down very well with Beth Gibbons et al. After all, Portishead exudes quality and élan. The way their songs ease in, unannouncedly and discreetly is bewitching. And in this live version you can see why. Whenever I watch this video, I think of the gears of my car rolling one into the other, moving forwards... or backwards. And though I'm not a smoker, that ciggie in Beth's hand is bewitching, to say the least.

Back in April 1997 when I visited Britain for the first time there was one artist everyone kept talking about. Very often my then girlfriend, now wife, had her album playing in the car wherever we went. Back in Havana a month after, my love for her music showed no signs of abating, contrariwise, it increased. And although she has not enjoyed the same success her debut album brought her, Erykah Badu remains an example of what R&B should be about, good lyrics, good rhythm and a never-ending desire to innovate. I saw her at Brixton Academy a few years ago and it was one of those concerts that lodge in your mind to stay and never depart. Smooth voice, just like a car's rolling gears.

Only recenlty I've been able to play the Buena Vista Social Club album again. And it is not a coincidence that this happened after I passed my driving test. When I arrived in the UK for good in November 1997, it seemed to me that wherever I went, the minute they found out I was Cuban, they would plug in the Buena Vista Social Club record as a way to show that they were in tandem with what was going on in my tiny island. Little did they know that many Cubans in Cuba DID NOT LIKE the record and thought it dated. Timba was the beat to dance to. Only when it started reaping prizes and rewards a little bit more of attention was paid to it back in my country. I even remember on one occasion when we went to someone's house in Highgate and the bloke had Lou Reed's 'New York' album on the stereo. That's probably my favourite Lou Reed's record ever and then I saw the neat pile of CDs resting near the stereo: 'Buena Vista Social Club', 'Introducing Rubén González' and 'Afro-Cuban All Stars'. Inside me I was pleading with him not to change the music and I could see the puzzlement in his eyes as to whether to switch to what he thought would make me feel more at home or dig his heels in and keep Reed on the stereo. In the end our little telepathic moment worked and he left Lou Reed on. Recently I was in the car with Dave Patman, one of the better percussionists this country has ever produced and someone I respect and whose work I appreciate a lot. Also we have worked together on many occasions. I had a song on by the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and we both noticed that the tune had the same melodic structure as 'Chan Chan' by Compay Segundo. If you can lay your hands on the title track of Baaba Maal's album 'Missing You (Mi Yeewnii)' you'll see what I mean. In the meantime, enjoy this musical alternative to the more traditional hand brake, clutch pedal and gas combination.

Copyright 2007

Just an update to let you know that I'm still currently in Kuala Lumpur and due to the volcanic ash cloud I won't be returning to London until next week. Therefore the debate about feminism scheduled for Tuesday 20th April will be moved to a later date. Apologies for the inconvenience. Thanks to all of you who have continued to visit me during my absence and whenever possible I will pop by your blogs.


  1. Well, no, I'm not back as my update at the bottom of this post indicates. It looks like I'll be in KL for another couple of days. In the meantime there won't be any new posts until further notice.

    Greetings from Kuala Lumpur.

  2. Hi Mr. Cuban,
    Though the youtube kept starting and stopping in Portishead, I got enough of the twang, the vitality, her vitality and those conductor's hands to see what you mean.... thank you.
    I haven't kept up with the music you've been leaving while on vacation because I still have only 6, maybe 7 good hours..(but I'm so glad to be alive! and getting well..)
    And thanks for your comment about Parker (I know you won't have the time to go back to the Sunday post, but...)
    I'm sure you had a grand trip..

  3. I've wondered about those who might be stranded by the ashen skies.

    I look forward to your return Cuban. In the meantime, I'm ashamed - almost - to tell you that my Australian family love Bueno Vista social club.

    A few years back we listened to it nearly everyday.

    I'm looking forward to your feminism and your autobiographical blogs.

  4. wow! Cuban,
    we're SO pleased that we decided to
    pay a visit {hey, Sunday happens}

    triple-homer, blood.

    your intro, is pure poetry,
    italics, or not. yes, we HAVE
    experienced those meta-sensory,
    non-chemically-induced moments.
    and YES we envy your ability in
    describing one such.
    many a time we've tried and failed to
    express a particular brain-itch. :-)

    we've put posting on hiatus because
    of the frustration caused by such failures,
    yet continue a mechanical presence
    in the blogosphere just so that we may
    experience posts such as yours from time to time.

    no disappointment here.
    you make for a sunday special,
    as usual.

    Portishead. what a discovery for us!
    we've avoided this group because of the name.
    always thought that it would be noisy.
    AND, though we'd heard Gibbons' voice as we
    skipped from wave to wave we never stopped
    long enough to shake off the impression of a whiny voice,
    until today, that is.

    Cuban, thank you for the recommendation.
    anal-retentive that we are, we are on a mission,
    to fill in the Portishead void. {ah, immediate
    gratification, a man-childs' obsession}.

    Erikah has been a favorite from the very first
    taste of her Baduizm recording. are we projecting
    a slight overlap in phrasing style
    between Gibbons & Badu?

    good sequence. :-)

    Buena Vista Social Club,
    yes the music is dated, but in the way
    a Rag or Lindy is dated.
    in a very trustworthy way.

    we'll agree that Chan Chan,
    in particular needs a decade or two
    of storage to elicit the fresness of Cooders'
    initial production. still, oyeme tu, "rompe saraguey!"

    speaking of Cooder,
    a recommedation:
    Cooder's latest exploration of Roots
    is a collaboration with Ireland's
    The Chieftains,
    Los Camperos del Valle
    and other Mexican groupings
    that also functions as history
    lesson. ya like percussion,
    wait'll ye check out the combo
    of cajon -n- steppin'

    here's a piece of it

    hey, Cuban careful with the ash, 'kay?

    thanks for this sunday's offering,
    luvitt! and we'll come by soon again.


  5. Great post. I can see why it holds a special place in your heart. As for the Buena Vista Social Club? What can I say? That old music strikes a deep chord for me every single time. I don’t care how old fashioned it is. And Chan Chan? I smile every time I hear those opening chords. I’d better go find my own copy and listen to it again. I hope your travels are easy and safe.

  6. I liked that you shared you car 'moment'. Also thanks for exposing me to Beth Gibbons. I was transfixed by her moody intensity combined with the orchestra. WOW!
    My hubby is way-layed due to the volcanic ash too.
    Wishing you a experience rich few extra days in KL.

  7. this post makes me reminisce smile. :-)

    wishing you continued safe travels!

  8. Wow, talk about a blast from the past! I don't think I've heard a Portishead track for years. I love them!


  9. Oh yes, and I'm thrilled to have you back from holiday. I hope you had a brilliant time!


  10. I do so love the Bueno Vista Social Club. I saw them perform in Hyde Park. Magical! Perhaps I said this last time you posted it.

    Volcano woes! But if I had to get stuck, I would choose Kuala Lampur. Bee is stuck in Texas. Americans can't make it to the London Book Fair. I hope you are enjoying your extended vacation. It is amazing, nature's force. It just snowed here in Maine.

  11. Portishead. Deep, Bristolian and anything but dinner party music for me. I love them, so thanks.

    And we were playing the rolling-down-the-hill-handbrake-off game today!

  12. Many thanks for your kind comments. Jai Joshi, I'm still in KL. Still, we're being well looked after and are having a superb time with my brother in law and his family.

    Greetings from KL.

  13. Oh my goodness - that volcano has caused world wide chaos. Do stay safe. The risk of an air plane crash is too great right now, no matter what the airlines say. It makes me wonder why various governments aren't sending their navy ships to pick up stranded travelers. As far as Erykah Badu goes, I love her voice. However, I must confess that I also like Buena Vista Social Club although I realize that it's dated. But what can I say? I like the oldies but goodies. Does my love of Tito Puente and Cecelia Cruz redeem me at all?

  14. Always glad to fall in with your stream of consciousness..the fact that you can even think while on vacation!!
    Everyone here in NY loves Buena Vista..can't see that coming to an end...

  15. For some reason I can't make the videos play, but still I love this post and the intro is great.

    Stay safe and enjoy your extra few days in KL.

  16. Ay Cubano! What are you trying to do to me so early in the morning? You have managed to cram some of my favorite artists into one post-Kate Bush, Erykah Badu, Baaba Maal, Compay Segundo and I can't take it. Incidentally, I had to miss Baaba Maal's concert here last week because I was sick (and you know I was really, really, sick). Erykah continues to innovate and raise controversy. She has recently been pillared for filming her new video nude, on the spot where Kennedy was shot. Take advantage of the ash and enjoy Maylasia a little more.

  17. Thanks for the intro to Badu - what a great performer and stunning to look at too - hope you get back to London soon and safely - look forward to those Malaysia posts when you are able to deliver them...

  18. Cuban, I love Buena Vista Social Club, and your post is magnificent. And I hope you will make it back safely to London... such a strange event, this volcano spouting in anger. But, all the more time for you to spend in KL. Who wouldn't want that? Enjoy your time as much as you can, and I look forward to "seeing" you again, soon!


  19. It looks like I will be flying back home tomorrow. Will be in touch with everyone after.

    Greetings from KL.



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