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


(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


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


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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