Thursday, 17 October 2019

Thoughts in Progress


What I’d like to know first is who came up with the title and who wrote the standfirst. Maybe it was Jonathan himself. But from experience, those jobs normally go to a sub-editor. Did she or he know what they were doing?
Then, again, Jonathan Franzen has form in this area. The climate change area. And a few others that have earned him both criticism and detractors over the years.
I confess that I have never read a Franzen novel. I have, however, been exposed to the Franzenian contrarian through his contributions to The New Yorker. It was one of these recent articles that triggered off a big, online backlash. One that I imagine even Jonathan himself wasn’t expecting.
Global warming is a subject many people, from writers to politicians, avoid. Not our Jonathan, though. He has weighed in on it occasionally and his opinions, while contentious (at least some of them), are worth listening to and analysing.
Franzen’s argument focused on the big vs small. As in big subjects, like environmental destruction versus small issues like breakdown of local communities and money-driven gentrification. There’s nothing wrong about lobbying for and supporting worldwide causes like climate change and he’s clear about that. There is, however, something unwholesome about not investing the same energy on local projects.
Here Jonathan raises a point that I, too, raised with a couple of Extinction Rebellion volunteers when I went down to Trafalgar Square recently. How do you deal with the human concept of present and future? One of the challenges we, climate-conscious citizens, face is that the impending destruction of our planet will not happen overnight but in a few decades hence. Surely, there will be more wildfires, floods, landslides and human-made catastrophes along the way, but we will do what humans have been done since the beginning of time: adapt. Therefore, the picture painted by XR and similar groups remains abstract to many. By contrast, the closure of a local community centre is more immediate, visual and personal.
The key theme is Jonathan Franzen’s article is the finite nature of our existence and what to do while we’re still here, on planet Earth. To me this brings in a few elements: awareness of who we are as humans, the impact we have on our environment and our relationship not only to other human beings but also to ourselves.
I don’t think I need to explain at length the fact that there’s a selfish streak that runs through us all. Regardless of where we are born or what gender we are, we have the capacity to behave selfishly. Therefore, it goes without saying that when we become fully aware of who we are, we tend sometimes to focus more on areas that benefit us, while conveniently forgetting others. One of the immediate effects of this attitude is that our environment, for instance, might not get the same attention as our professional life. This imbalance usually results in a conflict between environment-caring people and those who seem not to care or just do not care at all.
But what if some of the people in the second group are directing their time and energy towards equally important, society-improving projects and ideas?
Here lies the crux of Franzen’s argument. And I can certainly identify myself with it.
For more than seven years I was a member of a local community group. After we received some money from Big Local to help us change our neighbourhood for the better, we, residents, came up with a series of programmes. These ranged from gardening to employment workshops. Seven years down the line, I can see the fruits of our voluntary work.
Since last year I have given up my free time to support a charity whose aim is to cut down food waste. Every time I hoist a Felix Project bag onto my back, I feel I am doing something useful. Every time I take unwanted food from cafes and restaurants to a community centre or school, I feel I am caring for our environment. I just don’t happen to be in Trafalgar Square in a tent with hundreds of protesters around me.
Some of the online commenters charged Franzen with having and promoting a pessimistic view of climate change. I disagree. For instance, somewhere in his article, Jonathan writes: “All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities.


I’d say that instead of pessimism this is a healthy dose of realism. Look at the Brexit-caused mess we are going through in the UK right now. One that has given us a racist, misogynistic, homophobic and xenophobic Prime Minister no one voted for and who panders to those who think the Great in Great Britain refers to this country’s supposed importance and place in the world (with the old colonial undertones thrown in) instead of the geographical meaning of “Great”, i.e., Britain is the largest island of the British Isles. Our functioning democracy, legal system and communities are in peril. Faced with this kind of immediate threat, Extinction Rebellion’s demands, welcomed as they are, are not the only pressing issues.

This is the dilemma that confronts us. By us, I mean those who believe in human rights, social justice, equality, a fair society, a dogma-free education system that seeks to develop the individual as a whole. And yes, an environment-friendly mindset that places our planet at the top of our priorities.
© 2019

Photo of Jonathan Franzen taken from The Guardian website. All other images taken by the author.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Ninety One Living Room












It's funny how religion was all around me when I was growing up in (supposedly religion-free) Cuba. My late grandmother was raised a Catholic and never lost the faith. My father was a (closeted) Freemason and my mother was not averse to dropping Christian-themed snippets of wisdom while bringing me up. All this punctuated by regular visits by a babalawo (a priest in the Yoruba religion) to my flat in Havana. Yet, I became an atheist and still consider myself one.

Except when it comes to music. Music (and art by default) is the closest I've come to becoming a worshipper of any kind.

This has been the case with Ninety One Living Room. This is a venue in east London that has converted me. To what it has converted me is not the point, the point is the unorthodox nature of the programme that has converted me.

Ninety One Living Room's Jazz Lates is the brainchild of Cuban musician and promoter, Orestes Noda. In its short incarnation (it only got going in autumn/winter 2018) it has shone a much-needed light onto some of the more exciting talent the UK's up-and-coming jazz scene has to offer.

Based in the heart of hipster east London, Jazz Lates has hosted some of the finest contemporary jazz musicians. Along the way it has also contributed to some unforgettable sessions. This is helped by a format in which musicians play two sets; the first one usually featuring their own material and the second one showcasing a mix of original songs and covers of jazz classics.

The beauty of this set-up is that at the start the audience is exposed to a sound with which they might not be familiar. This builds a sense of trust from the word go, which allows lesser-known acts to grow into their performance on stage. It also ensures that the band or singer's own compositions are the focus, instead of how they tackle yet another version of Dave Brubeck's Take Five.


That was certainly the case with Sahra Gure, a Berlin-born, London-based, vocalist who has taken London by storm. She performed at Ninety One Living Room recently. Still very young but already showing lots of confidence and pizzazz, Sahra has collaborated with the likes of Dele Sosimi (he of Fela Kuti fame) and Kishon Khan (who fronts the ground-breaking, hard-to-box-in, award-winning Lokkhi Terra).

Variety is another key element of Jazz Lates. For instance, Luna Cohen, originally from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and now relocated to London, brought a harmony-rich repertoire. One that eschewed the usual middle-of-the-road, listener-friendly, Joao Gilberto-influenced, samba-lite sound and instead gave us a more challenging proposition. All this accompanied by soulful vocals and a magnetic stage presence.

Although music is the reason for us, jazz-lovers, to flock to Ninety One Living Room, there are also other components to factor in when assessing the venue's success. One is the atmosphere. The energy in the room is electric. Most punters are united by a shared appreciation of live jazz. Especially, the type that is unpretentious and at the same time intimate. The other element that makes Ninety One a win-win option for a Friday or Saturday evening (when most gigs take place) is the food. Although admission to the space is free, if you want to eat, you need to book a table. The grub is reasonable and good. They can certainly rustle up a decent burger and chips (there are both vegetarian and vegan options) and other dishes that are equally delicious.

Having been to Jazz Lates many times now, I have noticed a following that is almost of a cult nature. Ninety One Living Room has certainly racked up something of a football-like loyalty amongst jazz fans. This has helped promote the night as far and wide as possible, mainly through word of mouth.

While it is hard to deny that both Brick Lane and the surrounding area have suffered the effects of gentrification (as illustrated in the recent Akram Khan's documentary, Curry House Kid. Curry houses are closing down at an alarming rate), Jazz Lates, on the other hand, has provided a much-needed bridge between artists and their community. As I mentioned before, entrance is free and some of those performing on stage are locals, born within earshot of the Bow bells.

It is the curatorial savoir-faire of Orestes Noda (the man behind the Sambroso Sambroso Cuban-music-promoting brand) that we need to thank most of all. In conversation with the maestro recently he told me that the driving force behind whatever he did (like his Afro-Cuban-percussion-driven, Middle-Eastern-sound, electronica-powered project, Ariwo, for instance) was his curiosity. I am just a curious person, Mario, he told me, a smile beaming on his face.

That curiosity has given us performances by the likes of award-winning, musical collective, Kefaya (their name is Arabic for "enough"), Israeli-born, multifaceted and talented singer-songwriter Noga Ritter and ex-Bellowhead (remember them?) trombonist Justin Thurgur.

To this day I continue to call myself an atheist. Except when it comes to music. When it comes to music, venues like Ninety One Living Room and its weekly Jazz Lates convert me. To what they convert me is not the point, the point is the heterodox nature of what they offer. The stage is my altar and the audience my fellow worshippers.

All photos by Nadjib Le Fleurier

Friday, 5 July 2019

Meals on (Two) Wheels



Colombia may have gone out to England’s Eric Dier’s game-winning penalty in last year’s World Cup, but luckily, that temporary setback never affected its well-known cuisine. El Parador Rojo in Seven Sisters, Tottenham, is evidence of this.

Meals on (Two) Wheels has been to this restaurant a few times and it rocked up there again recently, gobbling down an overflowing plate of chicken, rice, chips, salad and beans (yes, cycling does make one hungry and the staff are familiar with our regular cycling-themed section, so the portions are usually generous).

What makes this establishment stand out in an area choc-a with international bars, cafes and restaurants is its atmosphere. El Parador Rojo is that very modern London combination of good music-filled atmosphere (no muzak here, thank you very much, just, mainly, Colombian salsa, as heart-warming as the food being served), clientele and staff. The restaurant sits on a popular corner, Seven Sisters Road and Tottenham High Road and it is well served by the Underground (Victoria Line), rail (all trains go to London Liverpool Street or Enfield/Cheshunt in the opposite direction) and an efficient bus network.

Cyclingwise (after all this section is bicycle-related), getting to El Parador Rojo is easy. This part of South Tottenham is almost incline-free and bicycle racks are dotted about. It is also part of the CS1 (Cycle Superhighway 1) and therefore full of quiet roads nearby on which to ride your two-wheeler undisturbed. Should you resume your travel eastwards, you will have Stamford Hill to contend with but that’s a small hurdle. The slope is easy to overcome and after that you have the flatter-than-flat space of east London under your feet (or wheels, rather). To the north lies Enfield and as long as you stick to the high road, including Fore Street and Hertford Road you will have a smooth journey to the sticks.

If you do encounter any hills or elevations, you can rely on the food you consume to take care of that. Whether we’re talking buñuelos (fried dough balls) or empanadas (pasties), you’re spoiled for choice at EL Parador Rojo. When Meals on (Two) Wheels last visited it found its chicken to be well-cooked, with the skin on and slightly crispy. The rice was loose and soft, just the way it should be. MoTW added a ration of plantains half way through its meal. They had a tempting, light-syrupy colour. The beans were tender.

After scraping the last bits off its plate, Meals on (Two) Wheels got back on its bike and as it cycled away, belly full and energized and with the echo of another salsa song in its ears, it thought: Now, where were we regarding hills?

© 2019

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana


Funny how some stories come about. In this one the main character has no name. Yet, that’s not by design, but because I never did learn this fellow’s name. All I remember is that he was as much a part of the urban landscape of my Havana as the famous El Morro lighthouse.  He was there as I manoeuvred my way through my late teens in the city of my birth.


Now, reader, picture this. I am seventeen or eighteen, tail end of the 80s. By now I have become a regular at the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza, an arts centre bang on the corner of Calzada and 8th Street, in the modern(ish) borough of Vedado, Havama. Every (or every other) Tuesday evening, there is a jazz session run by the famous Cuban musician, Bobby Carcassés. A multi-instrumentalist by trade, Bobby is a one-man show. His stage presence is magnetic. Whether playing trumpet or banging away on conga drums, this guy renders the night its beating heart.

Casa de la Cultura de Plaza is also an institution. It is here that the first Jazz Plaza Internacional was held only a few years ago. The name itself conjures up memories: this is where I was converted to jazz by a friend of mine; a night when I went from hating the genre to falling in love with it, lost to the sound of Arturo Sandoval’s trumpet. This is where I have increasingly become less self-conscious of being part of the jazz tribe. This place is a sanctuary for a teenager who is beginning to doubt the political system in which he is growing up.

And then, there is him. Forgive me, reader, for I cannot provide a name. As I said before, I never did learn this fellow’s name. But he stands out. Especially, when he puts his flute to his lips.

Here we are, the jazz faithful, watching Carcassés move from trumpet to congas and from congas to bass. At some point, our friend strides on to the centre of the stage, flute in hand. A miniature of a man, he sports an unremarkable short-sleeved shirt (which he often wears, regardless of the weather). He mutters something under his breath, perhaps a few words of self-encouragement, perhaps a prayer.

We all have our ways of evidencing our existence in the world. Some of us have what could be termed “big stage presence”. Others have to create one if they are to be noticed. As the ultimate showman, Bobby Carcassés has no problem flaunting his skills as a musician. He looks like a giant under the theatre lights. On the other hand, our friend, the flute-player is a different kettle of fish.

His is the kind of performance you remember down the years. Even if you can’t see him (sometimes the venue is packed to the rafters and people stand in front of you), you know he is there. First, it’s the stumble. He hardly ever walks straight. The drink has put paid to any notion of him regaining an upright position and steady gait. He takes his spot, facing the mike, facing, the crowd, facing the world. And then, he blows.

When he blows, you forget about the rest of the band. In fact, you float in and out of a music-made haze. For the next four or five minutes (I’m certain he would like his solos to last longer, but Bobby rushes him to the other side of the stage) you no longer live in a physical world, but a deeply-spiritual, flute-driven one.

One night I spot him after the gig. He is nursing a pint, a very posh name for the Cuban perga. This is a tall, cardboard-made cup that can hold up to a pint and a half of lager. He is sitting, talking to other musicians. Every now and then someone comes over and pats him on the shoulder. Well done, mate! That was top! He smiles. A smile that accentuates the cracks on his face. Deep furrows running on either side of his nose. Crow’s feet branching out of the corners of his eyes. I, too, congratulate him. He grins. I mention that my father is a pianist. He asks me for his name. When I tell him, his eyes light up. I know Mario! He recalls sharing the stage with my father’s old band, Orquesta Astral once. His speech is slurred but still intelligible. Under the starry Cuban night two people, a generation apart, bridge the age gap through the power of music.

He stands to leave and keels over. I’ll take you home, I offer. At first he resists, but then, he can see the deep-seated sense of duty towards men like him reflected in my eyes. He puts his left arm around my shoulder and together we take off.

We walk a few hundred yards before he suddenly breaks into song. Actually, it’s more like a hum. It is a well-known bolero, and not one in which his instrument, the flute, is usually required. His voice sounds like a plaintive cry and it hardly cracks, which is strange, given the amount of drink he’s consumed. He is certainly no singer, but at least he can harmonise fairly well. At some point he turns his head towards me, expecting me to join him. Sorry, I don’t know the words, I mutter. I’m into jazz, I say. And I’m still a rocker at heart, I silently state in my head. It will be another two or three years before I re-discover my Cuban roots and rekindle my love for bolero.

We walk for what seems like a long time. I switch positions every couple of blocks. For some reason he feels heavier on my left side than he does on my right one. This is still my “skeletal” period, when being slim goes hand in hand with being a rock fan, so I am definitely no pumped-up Atlas attempting to hold up the celestial heavens. At some point, now walking on 17th St, past L St, Malecón-bound he points to a door on our right. It’s an old block of flats, a couple of storeys high. It is a rundown, derelict building that houses more families than it has room for. The paint on the walls has long gone, the stairs have no banister and the stench of urine reigns supreme.

The flute-player thanks me, dismisses me at the entrance and starts to climb up the stairs slowly. He looks so unsteady that I rush over and catch him just in time before he falls down. C’mon, I’ll take you to your room, I say. My voice surprises me. It sounds stern, reassuring and authoritative, despite my still-wet-behind-the-ears look. Luckily he lives on the first floor. His hunched form disappears in the darkness as soon as he opens the door. Uninvited, I step inside, too. My hands cannot detect the presence of a light switch. Don’t! He shouts. There’s no light switch, he adds. For a split second his inebriation fades and instead a moment of lucidity makes him bring two loose wires together on a nearby wall. I realise that in the same way I have been his reliable, human crutch on the way here, he has just saved me from getting electrocuted.

The light is so weak that we might as well go back to being in the dark. It beams from a single, bare, bulb in the middle of the room. Sorry, he slurs, as he scans my face. It’s very damp, he adds, as if any confirmation is needed. In the eerie half-light, ashen-coloured patches are dotted randomly on the walls.

Standing in the middle of his room, the flute-player looks less like a musician and more like an actor in a one-man show. His flat could not be a more fitting stage. The four-hob cooker that sits silently in a corner. The fridge, almost empty and, thus, rendered useless. The floor, riddled with stains. The bottles of rum under the sink, one next to the other, some full, some half-full.

How can you live like this? I ask him. I’m genuinely concerned. My late-adolescent self, although no longer a true believer, still clings a little onto Fidel’s socialist utopia. There should be help for you, I say, as I make (a futile, as it turns out) attempt to tidy up his room. There is a part of me that’s raging. Perhaps, because I have just seen this man playing his heart out on stage and now he stands here, looking lost like a Cuban version of King Lear.

My naiveté makes him laugh. Eventually his laughter transitions to hiccups-interrupted sobs. He pulls a chair and sits on it. I perch up on a tiny corner of the only couch in the room, avoiding the big stain covering much of it. I am the oldest of five children, he starts. My father was an alcoholic and my mother found it difficult to bring us all up. I married young myself but my wife couldn’t cope with my drinking problem. I spent more time in the bar at El Conejito restaurant than I did with her and our children. In the end, she got fed up and left me. My children only see me when I pay them a visit. They never come around. They’ve turned out OK, though.

I am overcome by an uncomfortable mix of feelings: anger, sadness and hopelessness. I leave after three quarters of an hour, aching with pain but relieved to be out of there. Before I go, I promise him I’ll do something. What I’ll do, not even I know. I just want to make things right. It’s only when I reach the bottom of the stairs that I notice the saltiness on my lips. I’ve been crying all along.

But, to my shame, as the days of my last year in college roll by, I begin to forget about the flute-player. I start university in the autumn. Suddenly there are fewer opportunities to go back to Bobby Carcassés’ jazz night. My time is taken up by coursework and countless assignments. It is four years before I return to the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza and it is not even for the same reason as before. By now I am an amateur actor and member of a theatre troupe that rehearses at the arts centre every week, not far from the space where the flute-player first cast his music-made, hazy, magic spell on me.

One day, many years after that night at the old man’s flat, I find myself behind the wheel in a hired car with my wife and two children in Havana. I happen to drive by the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza and unconsciously, I take the same route I did when I accompanied the flute-player home on that occasion. Past L St, I point to what is now a rubble-strewn, empty space in between two buildings (his came down some time ago. A hurricane did the job). I tell my spouse and offspring the old musician’s sad story. My daughter asks me what his name is. And I begin to laugh. Because reader, it is funny how some stories come about. In this one the main character still has no name.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Meals on (Two) Wheels



When it comes to music, Jamaicans are never short of a banger (or more), so it goes without saying that when it comes to their cuisine they favour a zinger there as well. Rudie’s in Dalston, east London, is that kind of place where you can get a piece of real Jamaican grub at a decent price in comfy and homely surroundings.
Meals on Two Wheels rocked up there recently and after struggling to find a parking space for its bicycle (this is east London after all!), it rested its muscular behind on one of the establishment’s straight-backed seats. A gloomy and nippy winter Saturday afternoon was the only excuse needed to tuck into a plate of Peppered Shrimps and a (as it turned out) very generous portion of plantain (by the way, the correct pronunciation of "plantain" might be reason enough to start WWIII. If you don't believe me put a West-Indian and an African in the same room.). The prawns were king-sized and bathed in Boston sauce. They were accompanied by a welcome committee, made up of cherry tomatoes and avocado salsa.
Whilst over the years Meals on Two Wheels has gone from no-hot to vindaloo-hot, nothing could prepare our regular, bicycle-powered section for the might of Jamaican hot. The Old Jamaican Ginger Beer that was ordered with the bite was not enough to quell the fire. Luckily, a very helpful Italian waitress brought over a glass of milk. This went some way to mitigate the inferno caused by the Peppered King Prawns.

However, do not let this small incident put you off Rudie’s. Pound for pound, it is one of the better eateries in east London today. The shrimps were well-cooked and tender. They were also plentiful. The plantain was of the as-Mama-cooks-them-back-home variety. And at just under fifteen quid for a dish that could have been a main (their platters range from £7.50 to £12. They also cater to vegans), Rudie’s is a snip. Meals on Two Wheels has since been back with a couple of friends.
Just a piece of advice, though. Make sure that if you do go to Rudie’s, you’re not out marathon-training the next day. Your stomach might disagree with your choice.

© 2019

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Thoughts in Progress


It must have happened about a third into my run a few days ago. I was listening to my mp3 player as I usually do, my training getting more Brighton-Marathon-focused these days, each song propelling me up, incline after incline. Then, all of sudden a particular track kicked in and I felt a strange sensation. For some reason, the lyrics seemed to unveil a secret hitherto buried: Way over yonder/Is a place that I know
Where I can find shelter/From a hunger and cold/And the sweet tastin' good life/Is so easily found/A way over yonder, that's where I'm bound.

I must have listened to Carole King’s Way Over Yonder a thousand times before. One of my favourite records is the Tapestry album. But on this occasion King’s timeless composition took on a different meaning.

January has come and gone and for those who make New Year resolutions, a fresh start along with practical strategies is de rigueur. How to identify and maintain willpower, stick to a plan, set one goal at a time and learn from failure, are some of the elements that make up this “New Year, New Me” approach.

Not for me, though. For starters, I do not make New Year resolutions. Secondly, for the last four or five years, I have begun to reach more into myself, to attempt to deepen an understanding of who I am. This is where King’s song comes into the picture. A first listen (and multiple ones after, perhaps) might make one think that Way Over Yonder is a religious-themed tune. All this talk of “garden of wisdom” and “the land where the honey runs” invites a Bible-friendly reading of the song.

And yet, for me, this garden of wisdom is to be found within myself and not in a holy book. It is the place where I would like to believe I have planted myriad plants, flowers and trees throughout my forty-seven years (and counting) and which I need to tend to regularly.

Last summer I began to impose a social media curfew on myself. There was a strong reason for it which I will not discuss here (no, there was no addiction. It was more creativity-related). There were such positive side-effects, however, that I decided to extend the curfew beyond my six-week-long, annual leave. Add the meditation I have been doing for the last three or four years, plus mindfulness, plus a more positive attitude in general (less anger, more thinking) and my body and mind together have become Carole King’s land where the honey runs.

Without wanting to sound too preachy, sometimes we look at external elements to help us keep a healthy equilibrium of brawn and brains. We tend to forget – and that’s happened to me – that the real balance lies within. Start from within and everything else falls into place. Well, most of the time.


© 2019

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