Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Thoughts in Progress

I am a writer. That was one of my conclusions when I left The Guardian’s offices recently. I had attended a masterclass by my favourite journalist/columnist, Gary Younge. Gary turned out to be a very engaging facilitator, even if I felt star-struck at the beginning and therefore found it difficult to concentrate. Very few times I am reduced to the role of weepy groupie who has just met her music idol, but that was me the first quarter of an hour. Minus the weeping.

I came away from the masterclass with a few conclusions. The first one was that it is OK to be egocentric as a writer. In fact, in a very subtle way, Younge encouraged his audience to go for a certain type of healthy solipsism. In talking about his family, especially his mother, Gary rendered our own personal stories universal. We all share a relative who is slightly awkward, overweight, eccentric, and at the same time lovable, trustworthy and enterprising.

The second conclusion I took from the workshop was that we writers are privileged. We get not only to experience the occasional, unique moment in history but also to capture it and transform it into a piece of art. An aesthetic truth can be expressed in non-fiction as well as or sometimes better than in fiction.

The third conclusion was the raison d’être of writing. Why write? Because I exist as a human being first and as many other mutations after. And each of these layers feels the need to leave traces of their existence behind. That, in a sense, is the essence of writing. To give a platform to each of these identity markers in order to share a truth with the world. Sometimes in a fictionalised way. Sometimes veracity-driven. Each of these layers makes up and contributes to my writer’s output and constitution. I exist, therefore I write. Or vice versa.

I mentioned the writer’s solipsistic nature before. A caveat, though. It may be our voice doing all the singing but we still play with a full backing band. The combination of these two elements, the writer’s (inner) motivation and the influence of her/his surroundings on their work, gives us a vivid and rich tableau vivant of the writer’s inner world and the way it interacts with the outer one. That’s the fourth conclusion.

The fifth conclusion involves the blank page or the act of killing it. Bump the blank off the page as soon as you can. Your draft should materialise within minutes, because we always have something to say (write).

Sixth and last conclusion: writing is never lineal. Your story has a thesis. It also has an antithesis. The job is to combine both to come up with a synthesis. Writing that takes place in an echo chamber is not writing. It’s self-congratulatory, back-slapping, flat-lining drivel. Write in order to challenge yourself. Only by pushing the boundaries of what we know, as far as possible, do we start to scratch, barely scratch the surface of our human condition.

Thank you, Gary.




© 2018

Monday, 9 July 2018

Thoughts in Progress

It is strange to think of a song like Tracy Chapman’s 1988 Behind the Wall in the context of the ubiquitous, free market-driven and fast-buck-making capitalism of that time. Not only that but also the fact that the track became one of her most listened-to on her eponymous debut album. At the time the charts were dominated – as they usually are – by inane pop of the Tiffany, Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley type. Behind the Wall was different. It had lines such as “And when they arrive/They say they can't interfere/with domestic affairs/between a man and his wife/and as they walk out the door/the tears well up in her eyes”. It was uncompromising pop by an uncompromising pop singer. Forget Tom Jones’s Delilah with those ominous but always crowd-pleasing words: “I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more”. In Behind the Wall, we are terrified because we know very well what will happen when the police “walk out the door”. The knife in the hand and the abrupt end to merriment do not trigger knicker-throwing hysteria. On the contrary, this is the reality of domestic violence. Domestic violence in Billboard magazine. Cheers, Tezza.

I have been thinking about Tracy Chapman lately. A trip down memory’s (slow) lane if you like. I did not become acquainted with Chapman until my first year in uni, circa 1990. A tape was passed around and I was immediately hooked by the combination of poetry, voice and musical arrangements. That was hard to find in pop music at the time. Most artists favoured just one of these elements. Add on the fact that in those days in Cuba we usually got the latest releases two or three years after they’d come out in the US and UK and it is less difficult to understand why many of us, freshmen, fell in love with the dreadlocked, folk singer from Cleveland. She was a novelty.

The other reason why this musical love affair blossomed between Tracy and me (not that she was ever aware, mind) was that every time she asked us if we didn’t know they were “talkin’ ‘bout a revolution”, I had a different type of revolution in mind. Mine was of the individual thinking variety. The consumption and interpretation of art is completely subjective and Chapman was a good example. We all took away a different message from her output.

Of course, when I listened to the Tracy Chapman album recently the only melody that got stuck in my head was ForYou. For very personal reasons, the lyrics call to a part of my life at the moment that is part love declaration and part self-analysis. “Deep in my heart/Save from the guards/Of intellect and reason/Leaving me at a loss/For words to express my feelings”. What a crafty way of saying that love does not obey the laws of rationality.


© 2018

Sunday, 8 July 2018

The England football team has won hearts and minds. Can its fans do the same?

In 2012 the London Olympics united Britain in a unique moment of sports glory and showmanship. It was hailed at the time a watershed moment. Four years later, 52% of Britons voted to leave the European Union. Whilst the two events might not be related prima facie, there is, however, an element to take into account when drawing a line from Super Saturday to Brexit. Namely, multiculturalism - and its many benefits - was nothing but a mirage, an idea, that made us feel good about ourselves.

At the moment of writing England has not won the World Cup. They've yet to play Croatia and should they prevail, Gareth Southgate's team will face either France or Belgium in the final next Sunday, 15th July. However, a mainly young English team has captivated hearts and souls. Can England fans do the same?

I watched the England vs Sweden match in a bar in trendy Shoreditch, east London. The sort of establishment where a bit of nosh and a few drinks can set you back a few quid and make a big hole in your pocket, one that will last until payday. The atmosphere was friendly, the fans convivial. As the second goal went in, a couple standing behind me, hugged me. The security guard joined us, too. Yes, it was that kind of game. After the ref blew his whistle to signal England's victory, punters kept walking up to me and shouting (merrily) in my face: It's coming home! I smiled and repeated the (by now well-rehearsed) lines to them. For the first time in more than thirty years I, too, am getting behind the England team.

You see, I have always supported Brazil and Argentina. Let's skip this bit, though. Well, for the moment.

Why now? What is different about this England team? First of all, they have belief in themselves, an attribute that has often gone AWOL in previous squads. Secondly, Gareth Southgate is the dream manager every player would like to have. Supportive, driven and meticulous, he is all about football. No secret-lover distractions (Sven, I'm looking at you), or controversial comments on disabled people (please, don't hide, Glen). Also, the waistcoat helps. Thirdly, it is the team's ethnic make-up. 11 players out of 23 come from black or mixed-race backgrounds. This means that the young black kid from Tottenham or Brixton, can see themselves in Sterling or Alli (who scored the second goal against the Swedes). Speaking before the game, Southgate said: "We are a team that represents modern England and in England we've spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is... Of course, first and foremost I will be judged on football results. But we have a chance to affect other things that are even bigger." It is this attitude that has the likes of me, black, foreign and a non-native speaker, looking forward to celebrating England's World Cup success next Sunday.

And yet...

Ugly scenes unfolded in London last night. A group of fans invaded an IKEA shop and wreaked havoc inside. As I cycled away from east London yesterday, crowds of people blocked Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road chanting (you guessed it) It's coming home! I was left wondering whether they meant the trophy or the hooliganism from 70s and 80s British football. I felt exposed and vulnerable. A black guy on a bicycle at six o' clock in the evening. Why? I didn't feel the same way on Friday when I went to the same bar to see Brazil vs Belgium (I said, let's skip that bit, didn't I?). The few Belgians in the crowd came out after the game to enjoy the sort of sticky, summery night London has been treating us to for the last couple of weeks. To my left there was a group of Brazilians. They, too, joined the conversation. We spoke mostly in English, but there was also a bit of Portuguese and French. Above all, there was human, that language that unites us all, regardless where come from.

Do England fans speak human? Can they get behind their team and at the same time banish all that built-in aggression and reputation that has followed them for so long (not all fans, by the way. The majority are law-abiding and well-behaved)? Before the World Cup, all the talk was about the Russian supporters and the awful scenes of the Euros two years ago. Yet, word has it that the Russians have been better hosts than many had assumed them to be. Look at how gracious they were in defeat to Croatia last night.

Football is political. Anyone who tells you otherwise is living in la-la land. Maradona's hand of God was a riposte to Britain's invasion of the Falkland Islands. Every time France plays a former colony, the latter's players give just a tiny bit more and if they win, the celebrations are out of this world. There's nothing like putting one over a former master. Were England to beat Croatia and Belgium win over France, next Sunday will see a clash between Brexit-bound England vs often-labelled bureaucratic Brussels. Who said irony was dead?

Seen in this light, those England fans who set out to destroy and cause chaos, represent everything that many - born here or not - fear: a feeling of superiority. Should Gareth Southgate's team lift the trophy seven days from now, I will be one of those punching the air and shouting: It's coming home! But, please, don't call it a watershed moment. After all, in less than a year, we will be exiting the European Union.



2018

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Thoughts in Progress

In the The Young Karl Marx August Diehl smirks a lot. He displays a smug smile when he meets his future comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels. It is there again when he takes on the apocalyptic- and evangelically-sounding rabble-rouser Wilhelm Weitling. And we come across Marx’s scornful expression again when he confronts a rich mill owner, friend of Engels’ father, on child exploitation. That such a dialogue-rich movie contains such strongly-conveyed facial messages speaks volumes about the quality of the direction, script and performances.

Whereas in I am Not Your Negrodirector Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated, James Baldwin-inspired documentary, the film-maker  uses the late civil rights movement writer’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House to put contemporary US society in the dock, in the The Young Karl Marx, he injects both Marx and Engels with a dose of much-needed humanity. The script suits Diehl’s bruising Marx and Konarske’s arrogant Engels, both of whom have plenty of scores to settle. Rounding up the leading roles are two actresses who rise up to the challenge posed to them even if their contribution is not as evident as the men’s. On one side we have Vicky Krieps, who was last seen poisoning Daniel Day Lewis (admittedly, with his consent in the end) in Phantom Thread, in the role of Jenny Marx. Although here the Luxembourg-born actress seems to play second fiddle, there’s still fierceness in her performance as a staunch defender of her husband’s ideas. On the other side we have Hannah Steele, she of Wolf Hall fame, as Mary Burns, Engels’ lifelong partner and a working-class, Irish woman who adopts both Marx and Engels’ ideas as her own.

The elephant in the room is the theory both thinkers come up with. Whilst Engels acquires first-hand knowledge of the conditions of the English working-class (chiefly with Mary’s help), Marx is busy polishing up his ideas on the inner workings of capitalism. Their findings are valid but their solutions controversial, and sadly history has not been kind to these men’s communist- or socialist-driven agenda (it is always amusing to find a group of western intellectuals locked in a verbal brawl over which system is the better antidote to modern-day capitalism).

In believing that the way to accelerate the demise of capitalism and usher in a new equalitarian society was by transferring power from the ruling elite to the working class, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels created unintentionally a virtuous oppressed Other. This oppressed Other was cast in an angelic and almost-perfect light. Nuance went out of the window, along with the power of the individual.

To be clear: the underage children slaving away in coal mines were real, the poor families with barely anything to eat and in constant fear of eviction were real and the workers deprived of their own rights and voice were real. It is just that the solution to their plight was not and should never have been Lenin, Stalin, Mao or Fidel. When these leaders introduced their own version of socialism, the last thing on their minds was that oppressed Other. The irony was that they used the nuance-free image created by the followers of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and manipulated it for their own power-grabbing purposes. This was not Marx or Engels’ fault, any more than the writer(s) who cobbled together those first passages of the Old Testament are to blame for the current situation with abortion in Ireland. Socialist dictatorships’ first step when they come to power is to wipe away any kind of joyful expression that does not match the incoming government’s revolutionary zeal. And if that includes self-satisfying, smug smirking, so be it.

What, smirking again, Herr Marx?

© 2018

Monday, 4 June 2018

Thoughts in Progress

I went to see a Polish movie recently at the ICA. It was called “Beyond Words” and at first sight it dealt with an issue close to my heart: a father-and-son relationship. Yet, as I thought about the feature and peeled the layers off it after I left the Institute of Contemporary Arts, I realised that there was an overarching theme: immigrants and how they see their host country. And how their host country sees them, which is just as important. Mirrors do talk back.

Michael is a successful Polish-born lawyer. Yet for all his perfect-sounding German that makes him blend in easily in 21st-century Berlin, he is still looking for a real identity. This identity conundrum is further complicated when a man, claiming to be his father, turns up out of the blue. The two of them spend some days together trying to work out trust-related issues. Michael’s father, a Polish bohemian with very unorthodox ideas about life in general, brings chaos into his son’s otherwise orderly life. Whilst at the beginning we see resistance from Michael to this onslaught, little by little he begins to relent and finally surrenders to the only link he has to his native Poland. At the same time there is another narrative going on. One which is just as important as the father-son puzzle.  This subplot involves Michael and his employer and friend, German-born Franz. Asked by the latter to defend an African poet applying for asylum, Michael refuses on the grounds that the case is a lost one. In reality, it is Michael’s prejudices against the African man that stop him from taking his case on. In an ironic and sad twist, Franz reveals a hitherto hidden side of him. He doesn’t see Michael as an equal. Just like Michael doesn’t see the African man as an equal.

The film made me question my “Cubanness”. After 20-plus years in the UK, how much of Cuba is there still in me and how much of Britain has filtered through and settled in? As soon as I got home I scanned my new place for signs of “Cubanness”. Other than music and books, all I could find was a Cuban flag on the side of a jar of Cuban honey, kindly gifted to me by my friend D. For some strange reason I also suddenly recalled some lines from Paul Muldoon’s poem “Cuba”, in which he never mentions my country, but does allude to Kennedy, “nearly an Irishman/So he’s not much better than ourselves”.

This question of identity and belonging, to me, was the main theme in “Beyond Words”. The (almost) demand on an immigrant to conform to a pre-established concept of authenticity. This concept can be laid down either by the immigrant themselves, or the host country, or both, following a centuries-old unwritten agreement whereby we do not deviate from our pre-assigned roles. Yet, what happens when we do? This is exactly what makes Michael’s father run away from his son when the latter cracks a well-known Polish joke. The words are Polish and so is the wisecrack but the man telling them… what is he? Michael’s father is not the only person estranged from something or someone. Michael himself is estranged from his culture. I don’t think I have reached that point yet, nor do I think I ever will, but certain attitudes do set me apart from what would normally be labelled “Cuban culture”. And yet, isn’t there an incongruity in that very term? For what is culture but an ever-shifting, always-forward-looking phenomenon? Am I to be only salsa, sun and sand? Who decided that?

Later on as I fell asleep the last image that flashed in my mind was that of a pebble thrown with intent and purpose by a child across a lake. The stone left a choreography of uniformly-shaped outward-fanning ripples.

Who are you? Who am I?

© 2018

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About the Royal Wedding)


What is her name? I stressed the “her” as much as I could but my pre-entry ESOL students’ faces remained blank as they stared at a picture of Meghan Markle.

Like many people in the UK I had bought into the whole royal wedding shebang and planned a lesson around the Windsors and the Markles. In this case, the focus would be on introductions, a subject we had covered previously but to which I wanted to come back using the royal shindig as class material. I was really pleased with myself and the fact my lesson would be as student-led as possible. The lead-in would be a photo of the happy couple, Meghan and Harry, the hand-over to students would be swift and smooth and the practice stage productive. There was one element, however, I didn’t count on.

My learners did not know much about the royals.

There it was on the wall, the family tree diagram I had so carefully printed off the net showing the lineage from Queen Elizabeth II to the latest addition, Prince Louis. Yet, my students, spanning continents from Asia to America, and countries from Pakistan to Ecuador, only recognised William. I panicked in the same way a theatre director panics when their leading actor or actress falls ill on opening night and their understudy has lost their voice. What to do now?

Well, time for some improvisation – having been part of an impro troupe back in my uni days, I developed then very handy skills that have served me well over the years. For instance, how to turn a potentially failing lesson into a successful one with a simple sleight of hand and some thespian tricks – and concept checking questions. Is the woman’s name William? No, it isn’t (well, even Harry would have been surprised at that one!). Is her name Elizabeth II? (they knew who the Queen was) No, it isn’t and I for one can’t see the newly-minted Duchess of Sussex applying for the top job anytime soon.

Next it was a controlled practice activity. I chose a multiple-choice question with just one correct answer. Is the woman’s name a) Elizabeth II b)Meghan Markle c)William?

They all called out at the same time, in different accents and using various pronunciations: Meghan Markle! I carried on playing devil’s advocate for a few seconds, broad smile on my face. So, it’s not Elizabeth II (no). And it’s not William (no).

No, it is not, I said. Or no, it isn’t. I decided to throw in a bit of language feedback to ensure that their answers, whilst correct, still included the full structure.

First hurdle overcome I grew in confidence. I moved on to the productive stage. I normally use puppets in my lessons as ice-breakers and to make them more fun and entertaining. Also, to bring the child in us back out. William. Elizabeth and Meghan lost their titles and became plain Bill, Liz and Meg, a cat, a dog and a bear. Introductions were practised. Then, the new content was presented: This is my friend…His/Her name is… My learners took to it pretty well. Even the usually shy ones in the room contributed actively. My personal aim of maintaining a good pace and giving out clearer instructions was working.

Still in the productive and final stage, I marched on. Here is where most beginners’ level teachers stumble. Learners can easily get used to the teacher doing all the work whilst they only answer controlled practice exercises. Their attitude at times can come across as uncooperative. Yet, all they are doing is showing their lack of knowledge of the target language and their insecurity in acquiring said language. No wonder they refuse to leave their comfort zone. Hence the quick hand-over at the start of the lesson ensures both parties know what is expected of them. In my case, I had made up little cards, each with a (very) short bio of Harry, Meghan, William and Kate. After reading them, the students were expected to role-play between themselves.

Up stood the first two, a man and a woman. After the usual hellos, the introductions:

 My name is Henry Charles Albert David, but you can call me Harry, what is your name?
My name is Meghan Markle. Nice to meet you.
-         Nice to meet you, too. Where are you from?
-         I am from the United States of America. And you, where are you from?
-         I am from Great Britain.
-         OK, bye.
-         Bye.

We all clapped the pair and ended the lesson there on a high. I am sure that some of them went home desperate to show off to their family what they had learnt in class and what to answer if they were ever asked “What is her name?”, a picture of a beaming Meghan Markle in hand.

© 2018

Friday, 27 April 2018

Ariwo: where Afro-Cuba meets electronica


No wonder April was the cruellest month for T. S. Eliot. Just the temperature see-saw is enough to drive one bonkers. Perhaps the great poet, had he been alive, would have had a different view on the fourth month of the year, if only he had popped down to the Village Underground in Shoreditch to watch Ariwo on Monday 23rd April as part of the La Línea Festival. The quartet-turned-quintet on the night (saxophonist Binker Golding was a special guest) produced one of the most exhilarating and rousing sets I have seen for a long time.

More than mere fusion, Ariwo specialises in a hitherto little-explored musical phenomenon: that of the crossover of electronica and Afro-Cuban beats. Except for the Cuban maverick Edesio Alejandro in mid-to-late 80s Havana, this territory still remains semi-virgin. The band’s emphasis on sound (hence the name Ariwo, which translates as “noise” from Yoruba) is evident all the way throughout their set, rendering the concert a deep sonic experience.


With personal biographies boasting both musical virtuosity and critical acclaim, Monday night was always going to feel special. What nobody could foresee was how special it became with each song being lapped up by an ever-hungry and knowledgeable audience. Gahambar’s trumpet-driven, looped groove transported me back to Havana’s carnival, floats parading up and down the Malecón, feet and hips moving endlessly and beer flowing freely. Caldera presented us with the sight of Yelfris, stalking the stage like a panther, trumpet in hand and ready to launch into a mano a mano with Hammadi Valdes on drums. To Earth showcased Binker Golding’s mastery on saxophone; his drifting riffs a cross between Ornette Coleman and Steve Coleman and yet distinctive in their own complexity. The track Alafin brought a rousing solo on congas by Orestes Noda, not just one of the finest Cuban musicians in his own right, but also an outstanding promoter of Cuban culture in the UK and Europe. And holding it all together, whilst at the same time providing some of the more spiritually enriching melodies on the decks I’ve heard for some time, was Iranian-born Pouya Ehsaei. No mean feat when you have some of the better jazz cats in the UK today challenging each other and upping the ante to the nth degree. Not all tracks were dance-friendly, though. There were a few eyes-shut, fists-clenched, much-welcome meditative moments, too.

Yes, Tom, maybe, April is the cruellest month. But it needn’t be. Especially when you have Ariwo to warm up the most inclement of spring nights.



© 2018

Friday, 13 April 2018

Let Drum Beat: an all-female musical powerhouse

Two Brazilians, a Beninese, a Scot and an Italian walk into a bar and…

No, this is not the beginning of a bad, Jeremy-Clarkson-flavoured joke, but the all-female, musical set-up that has been lighting up London’s stages of late. Let Drum Beat is Alba Cabral, Béa Shantifa, Lizzie Ogle, Marta Riccardi and Tuca Milan. These superb musicians use a wide range of Afro-Brazilian percussion instruments to create their unique, fusion-powered style. Singing at times in Portuguese, French and Tupi-Guarani, Let Drum Beat uses vocal harmonies to establish a connection to their homelands, transporting their audience there in the process.

This link was much needed recently when they played to a very receptive and welcoming crowd at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, in Tottenham, north London. Rain-soaked and cold weather has pretty much been spring’s main contribution so far. Yet, in just over an hour-long set, Let Drum Beat brought the temperature in the room up to Brazilian-summer levels. I was impressed not only with the musicianship and compactness of the ensemble but also with their use of non-percussive instruments, like the rabeca, a north-eastern-Brazil-rooted, violin-like, stringed instrument that, unlike its close European relative, is supported either on the chest or left shoulder.


In a diverse, multicultural city like London, where world music aficionados have plenty of options available to them, Let Drum Beat stands out as a musical powerhouse in their own right. Energetic, innovative and risk-taking, these five women have already blazed a trail. The launch of their debut album this summer (announced on the night) heralds a new era, not just for Let Drum Beat but also for London’s music scene.



© 2018

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Thoughts in Progress


Three and a half months into the New Year, how are your resolutions going? Remember them? They’re the ones you thought up as you knocked back that fourth glass of cheap prosecco, bought from your local Lidl. The Lidl where you definitely do not wantto ever be seen by your fellow middle-classers, but to which you elopefurtively at almost closing time when no one’s looking and your pockets lackthe depth they once had. Anyway, back to my main point, how many resolutions have you kept? How many have you thrown overboard, into that big ocean called “Real Life”?

Late December and early January have that self-satisfying, fresh-start effect that animates many a New Year’s Eve shindig. It is that sense of finally, finally! beginning that much sought-after, new chapter in our lives. Yet, beyond this burst of motivation lies a not-always-perceptible threat: disappointment.

What killed Icarus? Hubris or failure to realise his New Year's resolution: flying as close to the sun as possible?

There are both mental and physical consequences as a result of this grandiose vision of the year ahead. Namely, we tend to overlook small but equally important changes in our lives. Hitting the gym and attempting to go from a size 16 down to a size 10 takes precedence over going for a brisk walk in the local park regularly. The former might burn more calories in a shorter time, but it is the latter that manages to leave us more fulfilled and complete as human beings in the long term. Another mental minus is that we set the bar for our resolutions so high that not even the former pole vault legend Sergey Bubka would have been able to clear it. The outcome? Frustration.

On the other hand, having low expectations does not help either. Based on close observation, I have noticed that pessimists or those prone to having a negative outlook on life, tend to have a body language that mirrors their attitude. Slouched shoulders, bent posture and solemn-looking faces are some of the signs I usually come across, even if they are not conclusive evidence.

We live in a world full of expectations, both made of us and by us. The problem is that constant target-setting is tiring and it takes the joy out of the life we, ironically, are trying to live well. My advice? Do not ever expect perfection. Give New Year’s resolutions the heave-ho. We are broken humans after all.

© 2018

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

post for my daughter, who has just turned 17


The post below was originally written in 2009. I have just updated it a bit but the core message remains the same.

my beautiful and darling cherub

as your enter the seventeenth year of your life today i feel like digging out and caressing one of my favourite mementoes from your earlier days the time when you grabbed my thumb for the first time there was so much energy and vim in that squeeze your mum and i laughed our heads off after because from then on you showed your passion for people by hugging them very tightly whilst sucking in your cheeks it is one of your trademarks gestures now i also remember when i used to sing to you that famous song performed by none other than bola de nieve drume negrita whilst tucking you in bed and you would make the motion of the pau pau with your hands in the air you were only two but you could already recognise a good tune

meine liebe tochter mi chiquipeque ma chère fille i also remember the first word you uttered like your brother you went for the practical agua thus making sure that you would never die of thirst in a spanish speaking country and it made me so proud because you like your brother are the product of this globalised world of ours my dear daughter with your hebrew first name your french middle one and your spanish surnames yes you have big blond curls reaching down your shoulders now yet you are also cuban african chinese spanish english irish gibraltarian yes you are that and a lot more you are my daughter my balletic ballet ballerina expressive and graceful daughter the one who sasses back at me when we are both angry and the one who rushes to someone when they are in need of a cuddle

and the horses did i mention the horses the ones as little as your thumb thumb horses they are trotting about in your bedroom solid equus caballus tamed by your dainty hands brown horses and black and white long haired ones which you love like your mami you love unlike your papi who has never been on one you have touched their mane and fed them and that is why you looked after that toy stable we gave you for christmas years ago because you love horses galloping on their four hooves and you dream about them and you tell us about your dream the next day whilst you laugh and your laughter is clear and loud because you laugh with your entire tiny body from the tip of the longest hair follicle in your head to the tip of your big toe mi hijita querida on this day your birthday you remind of the song you liked me to sing to you about the boy who leaves havana and comes across a chinese dog that decides to follow him and how the boy falls for the dog and how he trades the dog he loves so much for a pair of shiny boots and some money and how he is sad after his money runs out and his boots break and how you ask me to explain the song to you and i tell you that it is a song about holding onto what you love and that no amount of money in the world can buy that precious thing that precious thing that is love



Friday, 9 February 2018

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana


Mid 90s, Havana. With a little help from Allen Ginsberg

Howl

(Cuban cover version of Allen Ginsberg’s original poem, with percussion, double bass, piano and horns)


That night I saw my generation reflected on the face of that 62-year-old German woman

dragging itself through the jineteros-filled streets at dawn, looking for an answer to the collapse of ideals

angel-looking girls looking for a heavenly connection to take them away in the machinery of night

who, poverty-affected and fidelismo-struck sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of the “wall”, minute dinghies across the water and the sound of timba in the background

who bared their – already semi-naked – bodies to José from Valencia, or François, from Quebec, staggering down poorly lit potholed roads.

who, having graduated from state-funded universities, hallucinated Paris, Madrid and Rome among wannabe western socialists scholars of marxism

who were expelled from these state-funded universities for crazy and obscene odes that turned the gun against its owner

who showed off their half-shaved thighs burning the eyes of salivating tourists fleeing from their so-called terror after the fall of the wall

who got busted by salivating coppers freshly arrived in Havana

who ate the fire offered in purgatoried hotels, expiating their sins before going to heaven, or room 1901

with broken condoms, limp cocks and hairy, shrunken balls

incomparable chevroned-lit neighbourhoods of shuddering, faltering lights, casting shadows on the sub-fauna between the 1830 restaurant and the La Punta fortress

who never knew kabbalah but sought visionary madrinas beaming in supernatural ecstasy on San Rafael, Colón and Águila

who jumped in tur cars on the impulse of a faux winter midnight-fuelled trip to Comodoro Hotel’s disco

who met a 62-year-old German woman vanishing into nowhere Zen, leaving a trail of unambiguous happiness behind, without noticing the happiness-smeared sword of Damocles following her across the ceiling

who had to pull out the sword of Damocles from the 62-year-old German woman’s body when she realised her paramour couldn’t tell the akkusativ from the dativ

II

What sea-facing statues bashed open the 62-year-old woman’s skull and ate up her brains and imagination?

Sat opposite me, facing me, laughing/crying/breaking/questioning/debating/pondering/challenging/demanding

Sag mir mal, warum?

And the weil hangs, hangs from the ceiling like the same sword of Damocles that has now been taken down and driven through her heart

There is no weil you say there cannot be as long as she doesn’t understand the pain stashed away under the stairways, out of the way of punters visiting the illegal paladar

There is no weil as long as she refuses to understand the incongruence of a twenty-two-year-old black male body and that of a Berlin Wall whose eyes are a thousandblind windows

Breakup on the roof, roof overlooking the city, city forced to sleep by scheduled powercuts but awakened by epiphanies and despairs

III

62-year-old German woman, I’m with you on San José Street where you’re madder than me

I’m with you in your incomprehension of my history which even I cannot understand either

I’m with you as the impromptu interpreter as warums and weils bounce from accuser to accused and back

I’m with you as you walk away, down the dark stairs, the sound of reggae music receding from your ears and increasing in mine

I’m with you as you reach your own casa particular and collapse in bed in the same way your “wall” collapsed seven years before

I’m with you as you wake up the next morning and look at yourself in the mirror, my generation reflected on your face


© 2018

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Post for my son, who has just turned 20

I first wrote this post back in 2007 when my boy was nine-and-half-years-old. It was the first time that we shared a weekend on our own. As the same boy, adolescent until a few minutes ago, becomes a young man, I have decided to re-post it. Here's to a happy and fruitful adult life!

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, albeit weekend-long. To me it felt like a rite of passage, like a secret fraternity in which we both suddenly found ourselves. Father and son. The phrase, cliché-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 my son and my 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 in the morning and immediately we were shown our sleeping quarters. These consisted of nothing more than a long room where we placed 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 collapsed in the bed brought to life by me, somewhat deficiently, Orpheus took over 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 also very deficient and below-par mattress.

The morning found me in high spirits. In the absence of curtains in our room, we were all woken up by a sun curious to know how our night had been. My son was already 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 workout 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 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. 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-like reaction 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. 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.

© 2007

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Meals on (Two) Wheels

Cycle from Drayton Park, down Holloway Road to Highbury Corner and you will be treated to a slice of the broad culinary life London has to offer. From Mexican takeaway Amigos to purpose-built boozer The Lamb, in this short stretch of Islington, someone like me, a navel-gazing, metropolitan, two-wheel-enthusiast (or whatever recent appellation Nigel Farage and his gang of merry Brexiteers have come up with to describe us, Remain-supporting city-dwellers), is never far away from top quality nosh.

Choosing an eatery where to rest my forty-something-year-old bones while avoiding the Christmas razzmatazz recently proved to be a bit of a hard find. I finally settled for Mesi’s Kitchen, a restaurant that billed itself as the hub of authentic Ethiopian cuisine.

Mesi’s did not disappoint at all. I had the azifa as a starter. Served cold, this was a beautifully presented vegan-friendly dish consisting of whole lentils cooked, mashed and blended with onions, jalapeño and vegetable oil. A hint of garlic and lemon juice provided a much-welcomed touch of zing. The lentils were tender and had a nice kick to them.

This was followed by the main course, awaze tibs. Lamb cubes marinated and sautéed with onion, tomato and seasoned butter. All served with salad on a bed of Injera, a large wheat-and-rice-made pancake that lined the whole plate on which the lamb was served. The meat was cooked to perfection, including the edges (I’m certainly not a fussy eater, but one of my gripes with Turkish cuisine, for instance, is that their grills char the sides of the meat all too often). The awazw tibs was hot but not too hot. It was the sort of spiciness that normally leaves a lingering, pleasant aftertaste long after the last piece of meat has been digested.

Outside, London had turned a winter-crackling, soft-grey colour. I am not a fan of winter at all (give me autumn and spring any time), especially the snow-free variety that the British capital offers, but I do like the renewal-like feel this season brings. This is the time of the year when the falling leaves from autumn become fallen leaves on pavements, rooftops and awnings. On the latter two, very often leaves take the shape of birds. A beak-looking one here, an is-it-or-is-it-not flutter of wings there. Dark-brown leaves whose gentle motion is caused by a cold-snap breeze that forces pedestrians to zip up and rush on.

Inside, even the music didn’t disappoint. Instead of the usual, season-specific Mariah Carey letting everyone know several times a day, week in, week out, what she wanted for Christmas, Mesi’s Kitchen offered a varied selection of Ethiopian music, some of which I was familiar with through my love of Gigi. Old-time Ethiopique recordings mixed with modern pop in a smooth blend that sounded nothing like the muzak you usually get in more upmarket (and pricier) places.

Two expressos later (very good, by the way. Strong as I like them.) it was time to saddle up and go. The bill came at £18.90. Not bad for a part of London where you would normally cough up two thirds of that just for the starter. As I got back on my bike and cycled down Drayton Park, the day’s earlier crispiness had become an early-evening ice-cold snap. I pedalled away finding myself humming, surprisingly, a melody by Tèshomè Meteku.

© 2018

All photos were taken by the blog author

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