Sunday 28 October 2007

Autumn Songs (1st Mov 'Andante', 2nd Mov 'Lento', 3rd Mov 'Andante' 4th Mov 'Lento'

As this unique palette of red, yellow and orange falls upon us and the sun dyes its hair a camp auburn, the music that mostly calls to me now is tango. A good old milonga from Uruguay or Argentina that carries with it the echoes of its Bantu ancestry. The term milonga comes from this African language and it translates as 'lyrics'. But words are not needed where music reigns supreme and this is the case with the first clip.

Astor Piazzolla was the indisputed 'King of the bandoneon' in Argentine, his birthplace. He transformed 'tango', incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. And it's because of his importance as a musician, composer and bandleader that I would like to open this week's Autumn Songs session with a clip of him playing one of his most famous pieces, 'Libertango'.

My second clip comes all the way from Portugal. Because we already have tango (see above), bolero and bossa nova in Latin America, it took me longer to understand and appreciate 'fado', that musical lament from that Iberian country that best conveys the word 'saudade; the one term I've asked countless Brazilians and Portuguese alike to translate to me into Spanish and/or English and which every single one of them have failed to do. And when you listen to 'fado' you understand why. So, no more explanations. Here's one of the better ambassadors of 'fado' nowadays.

Next up is a band that defies conventions. Those who want to package them up into a little chill-out bundle will have problems doing so as their latest album shows. This clip is from their first record and it always reminds me of the place we go to in Spain every year, up in the mountains near Granada. It brings back memories of early chilly October mornings watching my children playing with the two local cats whilst my wife and I have our breakfast in the front garden. Pomegranates drop to the ground and their splash creates a whole rainbow of reddish hues, incapable of being re-created by hand, expert painter notwithstanding.

Lastly, where would autumn be without a piano? Just like Astor's bandoneon, the piano is autumn's instrument par excellence. Little did Chopin know that when he wrote his Etude in E Op 10 'Tristesse' it would become the schmaltzy karaoke hit 'So Deep is the Night' belted out by drunkards in places like Blackpool. But here on this blog we like quality and therefore I have a lovely performance of this timeless autumn number for you my fellow readers/bloggers/posters.
And this is all for today. I hope you enjoyed this week's selection.
Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Prestissimo)

- La casa azul estaba en lo alto de una montaña...

- ... donde vivían tres osos que...

- ... se fueron a pasear...

- ... en eso entró una niña...

And then we mixed 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' with 'Little Red Riding Hood' and 'The Gruffalo'. My kids had just had their first dose of Keith Johnstone and they were lapping up every single minute of it. The only rule for the game was that they were not allowed to think. As an intransitive verb think cancels out your id, that part of the psyche which is regarded as the reservoir of the instinctual drives and the source of psychic energy. Think is what helps you arrive at conclusions and weigh something mentally. What I wanted Son and Daughter to do was the complete opposite, I wanted them to let go, forget about grammar and just let go. And boy, did it work! They were both grinning enthusiastically as we wove the story around the traditional setting of the Three Bears making dinner and leaving it on the table for it to cool down whilst they took a walk around the forest. But I threw a few spanners in the works and their comfort zone disappeared. That's why Keith Johnstone worked wonders. With Johnstone there's no such thing as a comfort zone.

I first came across this Englishman back in Uni when I was training with the Improvisational Theatre troop. His was the manual that Danielle Fauteaux, our instructor, used and which I managed to keep to this day when the group disbanded. And I fell in love with his technique. Little did I know that it was in the field of linguistics where I'd be making better use of his theatrical approach.

Children learn languages better and faster than grown-ups because with them there are no inhibitions to consider. Both Son and Daughter make mistake galore whilst speaking Spanish but since they're not conscious about them, it matters not one iota what people think about them. When they talk to Spanish speakers, their efforts are rewarded with smiles, back-slaps and hugs. We, adults operate in a different mindset. Since we tend to quesiton the world around us, when learning a foreign language our heads begin to fill up with whys and wherefores, whereas the natural and logical process should be one of absorption and submission to the new language. The minute I started to apply Keith Johnstone's methods of 'Don't Think' and 'Don't Try to be Clever' to English my linguistic skills grew tenfold, I was able to read faster and for the first time I was able to think in English. Funny, isn't it? By not thinking I arrived at thinking in a foreign language. Son and Daughter are halfway there by means of seeing the learning of Spanish as a fun activity rather than a chore.

So, with this experience in mind I asked them if there'd be another time for another made-up story and with a Cheshire-cat grin on their faces they both answered in unison:

- ¡¡¡Sí!!!

Copyright 2007

Sunday 21 October 2007

Meditations on Britain (Adagio Cantabile)

The emperor is angry. Very angry. Not because he's just realised his state of déshabillement whilst checking himself on the mirror, but because he's turned his back on it, still thinking he dons the clothes with which to show off to his opponents. The emperor is lecturing with his bare back to the mirror. And the lecture is on race. You see, the emperor does not like James Watson's views on race. The emperor has dictated that to allow this man to carry out his string of speaking engagements in Britain is tantamount to siding with the BNP. Further to his interview with The Sunday Times where Dr James Watson let it be known his views on black people (more specifically Africans) in relation to whites, the emperor has counter-attacked, got on his moral high horse and preached to the masses (especially those of us who can spot his nakedness) that indivuals like Dr Watson are not welcomed in dear old Blighty. And whilst doing this, he's trying to convince us of the beauty of his attire.

Who shall be the first one to yell: 'But he's got no clothes on!'? Where shall we start? And more importantly, who with? With Greg Dyke, ex BBC director-general, who claimed in an interview not so long ago that the corporation was hideously white? Or should we go back to a report by The Voice newspaper which found that the more foreign and/or African your name sounded whilst applying for a job the more likely you were to be rejected? Or maybe, we should ask ourselves why we assume black boys will go on to become sportsmen or entertainers (sometimes both, Ian Wright anyone?), but not scientists or CEOs? Dr Watson's comments, racist though they are, have their basis on a society that still measures people by the colour of their skin. The perception that black people, or rather non-whites, are inferior has gone unchallenged and accepted by the status quo for far too long. The Nobel Prize winner's apology, though intended to save his career, should not be acknowledged, not because of some kind of 'eye for an eye' vendetta, but because it is part of a bigger problem. That of the accepted view that black is low and white is high, African/Asian/American is inferior, European is superior. One needs only analyse Ron Atkinson's comments about French and Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly a few years ago and the stir they caused amongst the chattering classes to gauge how race is the constant elephant in the room, however everyone in the top political echelons refuses to acknowledge it. And when they do, they take to the middle of the road like ducks to the water. In a case of near 100% absolution, last year saw Ron Atkinson come back into the television world in a series highlighting the importance of learning a foreign language. How about a series highlighting the importance of learning how to use one's own language without putting down black players just because they've had a bad game?

The emperor cares so much about his clothes, that he wastes no time in lecturing the world about human rights violations (but torture and abuse by British troops in Iraq are brushed under the carpet), police excesses in other nations (however the Met is institutionally racist as the cases against Stephen Lawrence and De Menezes have shown) and corrupt regimes (just don't mention the BAE arms row, please).

If I was a 20-year-old black man instead of the almost 36-year-old I'll be in a few weeks, my main concern now would not be whether a Nobel Prize winner made a racist comment or not, but what is my government doing to show me that his remarks have no basis on reality? Not much, I'd hazard. Turn the telly on, or better, don't. Mostly white faces put there by white producers. Go to your local Tesco's. You'll see a few more black faces there... cleaning the floors, stacking shelves, usually with exotic-sounding African surnames. Go to the House of Commons. Or better, don't. You'll be depressed. And then you'll snap. And if/when you do, you'll become a figure, a statistic, just yet another way of showing that black people are... hey, hang on a sec, wasn't that what Dr Watson said from the very beginning? Wasn't that the reason why this whole brouhaha has taken pole position in the news after all?

And we are all part of it. We are the trusted men who went to see Guido and Luigi's creation (or non-creation) and reported to his majesty that the suit was ready. We were the townsfolk who were (are still) spellbound by his magnificent clothes and praised him for them. My question is, who will be the little boy breaking out of the crowd to yell:

But he has nothing on!

Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Vivace)

- ¿Cuánto' año' tiene'?

- ¿Uh? What is it again?

- ¿Cuánto' año' tiene'?

- ¿Cuuu... á año'...?

I had to stop reading the newspaper right there and then, turn around on the bench I was sitting on and correct Son. And try to achieve this without laughing my head off. You see, we were in the park, and he was trying to tell a British man how to say 'How old are you?' in Spanish. The whole situation was comical, really, the fellow asking us where we were from after he overheard us speaking in Spanish, then after explaining to him that I was Cuban and Son had been born in the UK, but was fluent in Spanish, he attempted to dig out some old-forgotten Spanish expressions he'd long learnt, probably on a holiday to Spain. What caused my cackle was Son's accent. I had already noticed on our holiday to Cuba earlier this year that he'd taken on a little bit of the 'canta'o' (singing) we Cubans have when we speak, especially those coming from the east of the country (this is typical of me, old 'Habanero' prejudice, so, apologies to readers/posters/fellow bloggers). His voice pitch went up by a few decibels in tandem with my fellow countrymen and women and his vowels and consonants became less nasal and less explosive, for instance, the 't' and 'd' sounds. Once back in dear old Blighty he went back to his old neutral Spanish, but in the last few weeks, he has been going back to that Cuban 'canta'o' and I can perfectly notice the Cuban accent coming out in droves now. Not that I mind, no. But this put me on a crossroads. As mentioned before I take my linguistics seriously and after my children started rolling their 'Rs' I felt over the moon. It's hard enough to teach children Spanish in an English-speaking country, let alone get them to do the multiple Spanish 'r' when the Anglo-Saxon counterpart is softer. Unless you hail from Glasgow (love the accent, by the way). So, with this in mind, I've been explaining to Son the meaning of blending (unión), that syntactical phenomenon whereby the ending of words, mainly vowels, are joined up with the beginning of the next ones along, mainly consonants. In Spanish, my latest attempt has been to get him to realise that in sentences like 'Hay un gato en el jardín' (there's a cat in the garden), the best way to go about the pronunciation bit, is to combine the hay un into one main sound as in AYuN, with the 'u' taking the back seat. Ditto with gato en, this becomes gatEn, whereby the 'o' is dropped in favour of the 'e'. But I was not ready for his dropping his 'Ss' so quickly. We all do it in Havana. We shorten phrases, by chopping whole chunks off words and sentences alike. That's why it's so hard to understand us, Cubans. And all the while we expect our interlocutor to finish certain sentences for us, as in when we say: Así que... (So...).

Will Son grow up to speak like a Cuban? I doubt it. Despite his occasional incursions into my so-called patois, his is an accent that betrays Englishness underneath. Same with Daughter. Unlike Son, her 'Ts' and 'Ds' are still explosive. Ours are more open and non-dental. Basically, you spit more on people whilst pronouncing the English 't' and 'd' sounds than when doing it in Spanish. But both Son and Daughter will definitely acquire the equivalent in English of a Transatlantic drawl, that cross between Middle American and Middle British.

But now, I must apologise and leave you because I have to get back to those dropped 'Ss'.

Copyright 2007

Thursday 18 October 2007

Autumn Songs (Andante)

Autumn Sun has a peculiarity that it's not hard to discern. It's a cheat. You look through the window thinking that you can still wear that sleeveless T-shirt, left over from a summer that never was, only to find that Autumn Sun has other ideas in mind. It shines, yes, but coldy. Sometimes I feel its gaze on my bare legs whilst I'm on my bike and can actually hear it sniggering behind my back.

Autumn Sun reminds me of desert Sun. Not that I've ever been to a desert in my life before. But I recently read a book whose action took place in the desert. The book was rubbish, but the description of the Sahara was both poetic and inviting. If only the author had left the cliches out. And this idea led to another one, that of the blues. According to some experts the blues, that quintessential American product of early 20th century came via the griots, West African troubadours, mainly in the regions of Senegal and Mali, who entertained people whilst at the same time telling tales. some of them of a contemporary nature. In that sense, Ali Farka Toure (RIP), is the ultimate singer, narrator and in this following clip he also extemporises his views on Black Americans. Some food for thought here.

My second clip this week is yet another contradiction, but please, bear with me on this one. The beginning of the video shows the Chillies by a beach in the warm, early-morning Californian sun. And yet, to me it sums up what is great about the transition between summer and autumn. Maybe because of my Cuban blood but the atmosphere in the clip reminds me of late night/early mornings sitting on the Malecón, Havana, with a group of friends, with a guitar and a bottle of rum. October and November in Cuba have that special melancholy feeling of lethargy, idly sitting around a guy who can't sing and can barely play the guitar, but who knows the whole repertoire of Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés. And that's enough, you don't care. Like here, you don't care. The surfers, you don't care. The boat mooring on the beach. You don't care. And that's what autumn is to me. Care-free Sunday mornings soaking up the misty Autumn Sun through the bedroom window. Breathe it in, folks! And enjoy the video.

My third choice this week comes courtesy of Mssrs Miles Davies and John Coltrane. The sound of jazz is the sound of autumn, or viceversa. Its crisp, clear notes sound like the crunchy leaves we tread on as we walk. And having these two maestros together is a relic from the distant past that we must dig out and listen to just like that old sleeveless woolie vest you insist on wearing over your shirt or blouse as soon as the first October winds announce autumn's arrival.

And that's all we have time for today. Expect some flamenco to come your way next week, plus a little bit of fado, a rhythm whose middle name is 'Autumn' and as the nights grow longer and the days shorter, my dear readers/posters/fellow bloggers, I think that Marisa's soothing voice will become our companion for the next six months, or so.

Copyright 2007

Friday 12 October 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (1st Mov 'Grave') (2nd Mov Allegro)

- Do not interrupt me when I'm talking, and DO NOT CORRECT ME!!!

Thus spoke Daughter recently, or rather shouted at me. And yes, my dear reader/poster/fellow blogger, I hold up my hand in shame. I suffer from severe linguistic obsession.

You see, it's difficult for me to let grammatical errors slide by and glide aimlessly into the void generated by half-said phrases, onomatopoeias and grunts which are actually words, only that they sound like grunts. I'm obsessed about my children learning good Spanish and on occasions I've been known even to correct Wife, who's a fluent speaker of the language I grew up with. I was aware that something was wrong when in a normal conversation I would be more attentive to her use of the subjunctive mood than the real content of the message she was trying to convey to me. And now, the problem has been compounded by my children's involvement in my condition. To their chagrin, I'd dare say. So, mea culpa. That's me.

How did it all start? And when? Well, the when I can point out. Uni. Yep, that's when all hell broke loose and I suddenly found myself immersed in this competitive environment from which I could not escape, nor did I want to. Because although it pains me to admit it, I loved linguistic competitiveness back in my Uni years. Over the years, and when I added German and French in that order to the cluster of languages I spoke fluently I developed a strong attraction towards both the minute details and the more noticeable aspects that made those two languages, plus Spanish and English so different from each other and yet so alike. I learnt that 'water' in English probably came from 'Wasser' in German, as the former is a Germanic language, too. Same with 'eau' (French) and 'agua' (Spanish), both romance languages. But when it came to in-laws, well, the situation got funny and both funny, ha-ha and weird. In German father-in-law is 'Schwiegervater', in French it's 'beau-père' and in Spanish 'suegro' or 'padre político'. So whilst in French they praise you and compliment you on your physical beauty, in Spanish they're thinking of snap elections.

The how is harder to explain. I guess that I was sucked into this linguistic vortex because of my natural inclination to question my surroundings, an attitude that as long as you restrict to languages in Cuba keeps you on the safe and sane side. And now I'm paying the price, because whereas Son is capable of translating entire books (posts passim) Daughter is beginning to go through the same motions he went through a few years ago. And we're clashing. Big time. I guess, I'll have to bide my time and be more patient because she's equally intelligent and capable as Son is. I am the one who have the problem. On the same note, living in a bilingual world in the UK makes me anxious. British culture is a very strong force with a strong identity (despite the alleged crisis) and language is one of the ways in which children with parents from different backgrounds, especially as in my case, with one of them born in Britain, can assert their individuality and build upon both sets of identities. The way we speak Spanish in Cuba is very peculiar and carries with it myriad cultural references that I'm positively sure will enrich my children's lives. And for that I'm prepared to change and be more patient.

Now, about that shouting...

Copyright 2007
Illustration courtesy of Garrincha

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Autumn Songs (Lento)

1996. Springtime in Cuba. I know, a discrepancy with the title of this post, but springtime in my beloved country feels like autumn in my adopted homeland. Temperature-wise at least. The suffocating heat has not kicked in yet and on some mornings you're forced to don a jacket to shelter you from a light chilly breeze. On this particular Sunday, I was lying in bed when my then girlfriend, now wife, came in, sat down and put two earphones in my ears. The sound that came through from her Walkman immediately severed my ties with this mortal world and transported me to an ethereal one where the voice of this marvellous singer was my sole guide. To this day I still shake all over when I hear the bassline coming in, then the keyboard/piano and her voice aaaaghing its way in and then the first line: Lift my knees from the ground/I will put my feet down/I will dance all my prayers...

Yes, Rachelle Ferrell appeared out of nowhere to occupy a place of pride in my music collection. Once in the UK I found out that my wife had bought her album after she first heard it in Cuba and Prayer Dance became a favourite of both of us to the point where she did a choregraphy to the music of the song with her students from Jackson's Lane a few years ago. Although I tried very hard, I could not find it on youtube (please, let me know if you do), however I did find a very good version of the classic 'Autumn Leaves', and it's apparently her first stage performance, so it has also that autumn-like sepia-tinted mood. Enjoy.

I mentioned in my previous Autumn Songs post that to me the season had a smell. Well, it also has a voice. It's husky, throaty and hoarse. It's Janis Joplin singing 'Summertime' or Leonard Cohen intoning 'Everybody Knows'. And no one proves this any better than the Brazilian Maria Bethania. Now, as in Rachelle's case, I tried very hard to find one of my favourite tracks by her, but to no avail. It seems that nobody has, so far, uploaded 'As Cançôes Que Você Fez Pra Mim' and that's a pity since that song represents to me the feeling of autumn as the season to jettison your old skin and grow a new one, tougher and more resistant to winter. But the one I did find I DID like! And a lot. It turns out that last year my fellow countryman and blogger, Iván Darías Alfonso and his girlfriend, Elena, burnt a CD for me with loads of Brazilian and Portuguese songs for my birthday and it had this little jewel by Maria Bethania, called 'Jeito Estupido de te Amar'. I first came across this tune many years ago whilst still living in Havana and still in thrall of singers like Roberto Carlos, D'Javan, Gal Costa and Elis Regina. Maria had not crossed my radar yet until I heard this song plus the aforementioned 'As Cançôes...'. Her voice captivated me and it still fascinates me in equal measure. Enjoy.

January 1989 was a peculiar year for me for many reasons. I was seven months away from finishing college, had done my work experience in the countryside for the second year running successfully (more about that later) and all around me were the first signs of the terrible crisis that would befall my country a couple of years later. On a mild weekday afternoon and following a nice lunch, I was lying down on my bunk bed whilst music poured out of the speakers of the camp. By way of explanation to some of you readers and fellow bloggers, in Cuba, in the old days, we used to do work experience in the countryside from the age of 12. In secondary school students normally went to what we call 'Habana campo' (countryside Havana) whereas in college/high school, pupils went further west to Pinar del Río, another province. Music was ubiquitous and tapes used to be carefully selected by the DJ(s). On this particular day I was resting in bed and my mind was somehow in a stupor when there arose a voice that propped me up on my bed and made me get off it. To this day I have never forgotten my introduction to Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song' and that moment ranks as a musical watershed for me. I immediately went outside looking for the guy who normally played the cassettes handed down to him by everyone (including moi) at the camp. When I asked him who this singer was, he simply shrugged and replied that that specific song was just a filler track in a tape by this or that band. It was only ten months after approximately when I had began Uni that I found out who the singer was. I struck up a friendship with a guy in Uni who was heavily into Bob and he got me hooked to his music, not just the Legend recording but also the lesser known Marley. However, to me, this song encapsulates what Bob Marley wrote about for most of his career as a spokesman for the rights of the underdog. To this day his words 'Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds' still reverberate in my temples and makes my body vibrate. I'm still trying, Bob, I know I've come a long way, but still have a long way to go.

Copyright 2007

Thursday 4 October 2007

The Good Terrorist (1st Mov 'Allegro') (2nd Mov 'Andante') (3rd Mov 'Grave') (Contains spoilers)

Is terrorism ever a viable option to achieve a fairer society? Can acts of terrorism leave the perpertrators emotionally unscathed? Can a terrorist separate, right down the middle, the emotions that spur them to fight against the status quo and the emotions that make them human? Can socialist ideas flourish, or even survive in a consumerist society? At what point does the individual become more important than the collective? At what point does it happen in reverse? How much are we willing to give up to achieve the ultimate goal of an equitable society? And what happens when we realise that it's too much? Is it too late, too?
Alice's call to the Samaritans in the final pages of The Good Terrorist, by Doris Lessing, is the catharsis of one of the most poignant fiction books I've ever read on the subject of leftwing European politics. Its ending reminded of the movie 'The Last King of Scotland' which came out earlier this year in the UK when Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker, tells Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvoy, 'So you thought this was a game, uh?'. Politics is not a game. It's never been. It never will be. And acts of sabotage do not just harm state property, but people, human, beings, individuals with flaws and virtues, vices and merits. And that is the main theme in 'The Good Terrorist'.
Through Alice's eyes and her middle-class bourgeois upbringing Lessing details a left-wing movement desillusioned with the incumbent Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, the state of the former Soviet Union and the lackadaisical attitude of many of their peers. The layers of their frustration, once peeled, reveal a strong desire to do. What? Anything. And it's that anything that proves fatal. Unfortunately for innocent bystanders, too.
Lessing manages to capture the spirit of a squat, its quibbles and quips, its flights of fancy and disappointments. Central to the novel is Alice as the character who holds it all together, and I mean that literally. She rescues the squat from the hands of the local council. She offers her shoulder to one of the occupiers when she needs it. She does the chores around the house and gets the money to get by (stealing it on one occasion even). She's the heroine, but more than that, she's the living proof that an individual's power should never be underestimated and thus, unwittingly she points at the failure of the state all the squatters are in awe of, namely, The Soviet Union.
Another interesting aspect of the novel is that there are not supporting roles, and I mean in the traditional sense that once one of the leading characters disappears, nothing is ever heard about them again. Whether by name or image, all original squatters appear all the way through the book until almost the very end.
Pivotal to the novel is the question of whether in a country like the UK, where there exists the rule of law, accountability, a judiciary and a free press (OK, don't smirk at the back, please), if there are enough conditions for a Cuban- or Soviet-style revolution to take place, or even to triumph. In my humble opinion the answer is a rotund no. Despite this, sometimes Alice's conversations with her mother, with whom she has a love/hate relationship, made me remember the slogans heard (and still seen and heard) in my childhood and youth in Cuba. Ultimately it's Alice's mother who serves as a powerful reminder that you can take the girl out of the 'class', but you can't the 'class' out of the girl. And by 'class', I mean social and economic status. When Alice sees the flat her Mum is living in after she vacates the house she shared with her father for so many years, she breaks into to tears. It's this kind of moment that Lessing is so good at depicting, the innermost feelings of a person for whom class is the source of all evil in the country she was born and brought up in.
The Good Terrorist is a good fiction read for anyone interested in the internal turmoils of the British Left. I gather that nothing much has changed since the mid 80s, although you, my dear fellow poster/reader/blogger would beg to differ.
Copyright 2007

National Poetry Day (Moderato)

It's Poetry Day today. I remember when I wrote my first poem. I was about nine years old, inspired by our National Hero José Martí and willing to fill up the page in front of me with metaphores and similes. Alas, the piece had a short life. I tore it up into smithereens because that other me believed that poetry was for gays.

Many years would go by and countless literature lessons assimilated before the full appreciation of verse and rhyme reached me. And it was Benedetti who did the trick. Admittedly, my first love, rock'n'roll, had already contributed to it, what with Queen, The Beatles, Dylan and The Stones, the road to Milton's Paradise Lost had already been well paved.

During my years in college (this is the equivalent of sixth-form in the UK and if you're reading this in the US, they call it high school over there), I became an ardent fan of Mario Benedetti's oeuvre. His conversational style suited my adolescent self and whilst my peers continued to salivate over Pablo Neruda's lyrical exultations to the point where the most common chat-up phrase in those years would start with: Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche (I can write the saddest verses tonight), I always preferred the most direct fashion of the author of 'Hagamos un Trato' (Let's Make a Deal). This was years before the Uruguayan author became trendy, caused mainly by the release of the movie 'El Lado Oscuro del Corazón'.

And as today it's Poetry Day, I wanted to share a couple of poems with you my dear readers, posters and fellow bloggers. The first one is an old favourite 'Táctica y Estrategia' by Mario Benedetti. The second one is by my favourite female poet, the Mexican Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun who has gone down in the Latin American narrative as the first feminist to question the prevailing ecclesiastical view in 17th century Mexico. She's also been hailed as a lesbian icon due to her close relationship with the viceroy's wife, who was in fact the person who encouraged Sor Juana to write in the passionate way she did.

The first poem has no translation and I make no apologies for that. It's hard finding good translations in the vast realm of the internet. The second one has what to me is one of the finest translations I've ever come across and as a language graduate I am very fussy when it comes to linguistics and translations. I also reproduce the original poem for those of you who straddle both ends of the linguistic spectrum. You can draw your own comparisons.

Mario Benedetti

Mi táctica es
aprender como sos
quererte como sos
mi táctica es
y escucharte
construir con palabras
un puente indestructible
mi táctica es
quedarme en tu recuerdo
no sé cómo
ni sé
con qué pretexto
pero quedarme en vos
mi táctica es
ser franco
y saber que sos franca
y que no nos vendamos
para que entre los dos
no haya telón
ni abismos
mi estrategia es
en cambio
más profunda y más
mi estrategia es
que un día cualquiera
no sé cómo
ni sé
con qué pretexto
por fin
me necesites

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer, sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis;
si con ansia sin igual
solicitáis su desdén,
por qué queréis que obren bien
si las incitáis al mal?
Combatís su resistenciay luego, con gravedad,
decís que fue liviandad
lo que hizo la diligencia.
Parecer quiere el denuedo
de vuestro parecer loco,
al niño que pone el coco
y luego le tiene miedo.
Queréis, con presunción necia,
hallar a la que buscáis
para prentendida, Thais,
y en la posesión, Lucrecia.
¿Qué humor puede ser más raro
que el que, falto de consejo,
él mismo empaña el espejo
y siente que no esté claro?
Con el favor y el desdén
tenéis condición igual,
quejándoos, si os tratan mal,
burlándoos, si os quieren bien.
Opinión, ninguna gana,
pues la que más se recata,
si no os admite, es ingrata,
y si os admite, es liviana.
Siempre tan necios andáis
que, con desigual nivel,
a una culpáis por cruel
y a otra por fácil culpáis.
¿Pues como ha de estar templada
la que vuestro amor pretende?,
¿si la que es ingrata ofende,
y la que es fácil enfada?
Mas, entre el enfado y la pena
que vuestro gusto refiere,
bien haya la que no os quiere
y quejaos en hora buena.
Dan vuestras amantes penas
a sus libertades alas,
y después de hacerlas malas
las queréis hallar muy buenas.
¿Cuál mayor culpa ha tenido
en una pasión errada:
la que cae de rogada,
o el que ruega de caído?¿
O cuál es de más culpar,
aunque cualquiera mal haga;
la que peca por la paga
o el que paga por pecar?
¿Pues, para qué os espantáis
de la culpa que tenéis?
Queredlas cual las hacéis
o hacedlas cual las buscáis
.Dejad de solicitar,y después, con más razón,
acusaréis la aficiónde la que os fuere a rogar.
Bien con muchas armas fundo
que lidia vuestra arrogancia,
pues en promesa e instancia
juntáis diablo, carne y mundo.

You Men

Silly, you men
so very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you're alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman's mind.
After you've won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave
you, that coaxed her into shame.
You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame.
When it comes to bravely posturing,
your witlessness must take the prize:
you're the child that makes a bogeyman,
and then recoils in fear and cries.
Presumptuous beyond belief,
you'd have the woman you pursue
be Thais when you're courting her,
Lucretia once she falls to you.
For plain default of common sense,
could any action be so queer
as oneself to cloud the mirror,
then complain that it's not clear?
Whether you're favored or disdained,
nothing can leave you satisfied.
You whimper if you're turned away,
you sneer if you've been gratified.
With you, no woman can hope to score;
whichever way, she's bound to lose;
spurning you, she's ungrateful
succumbing, you call her lewd.
Your folly is always the same:
you apply a single ruleto the one you accuse of looseness
and the one you brand as cruel.
What happy mean could there be
for the woman who catches your eye,
if, unresponsive, she offends,
yet whose complaisance you decry?
Still, whether it's torment or anger
and both ways you've yourselves to blame
God bless the woman who won't have you,
no matter how loud you complain.
It's your persistent entreaties
that change her from timid to bold.
Having made her thereby naughty,
you would have her good as gold.
So where does the greater guilt lie
for a passion that should not be:
with the man who pleads out of baseness
or the woman debased by his plea?
Or which is more to be blamed
though both will have cause for chagrin:
the woman who sins for money
or the man who pays money to sin?
So why are you men all so stunned
at the thought you're all guilty alike?
Either like them for what you've made them
or make of them what you can like.
If you'd give up pursuing them,
you'd discover, without a doubt,
you've a stronger case to make
against those who seek you out.
I well know what powerful arms
you wield in pressing for evil:
your arrogance is allied
with the world, the flesh, and the devil!

And as a PS, I did start writing poetry again when I was in Uni, thus challenging my own preconceptions and prejudices.


Copyright 2007

Monday 1 October 2007

Autumn Songs (Adagio)

The car window is rolled down a little bit allowing some fresh air to caress my face. In the back my two children are reading, whilst my wife is sprawled on the front seat with her shoes off after teaching an exhausting soul-jazz class. Outside, the landscape is a combination of shades that remind me of ripe lemons, golden syrup, melting butter and thick honey. Leaves have not started to fall off trees yet, not at least in this part of London, but it can't be too long before we are assailed with a flood of the crunchy, dry and rhomboid-shaped foliage.

I like autumn. I like the smell of it. It has this particular scent of chilly mornings (chilly, not cold), pure air that fills up your nostrils and slows down your step. It's a season of colour. Yellow-tinted. Unlike spring, my other favourite season, the hues are not strident, but calmer, they don't stare at you, but doggedly let you soak them up. It's a transition period, it's preparation for a harsher stage. It's watered-down amber. And it's, above all, music.

I'm an autumn sign and my favourite music has that autumn touch to it. Starting today I will post what I consider to be essential listening during autumn season, or when feeling in an autumn mood (similar, but very different). I would like to know your opinion on it. Unlike most media lists in the UK of the 'The 100 Best...' or 'The 50 Most...' variety, this one will have not language barriers, and will cross over into many different cultures, including the Anglo-Saxon one. When possible, a link will be provided, usually to youtube, but occasionally to Amazon, myspace or any other website where I believe you can enhance your knowledge.

I'll kick off with an all-time favourite. Sinéad O' Connor's 'Thank You'.This track appears on her album Universal Mother and closes what, to me, is a paean to the human condition of being Irish and female. The record is as intense as it can be, probably as a consequence of Sinéad's decision of tearing up a photo of the Pope on US television two years before. Ever the confrontational performer, O' Connor opens with an excerpt of a speech by feminist writer Germaine Greer, followed by a feral and passionate musical onslaught called 'Fire on Babylon'. The anger and ire do not abate, but change and become more nuanced. The perfect coda is 'Thank You', with its haunting strings and strong bassline, this track is a flawless exultation to the power of love. And for that I thank you, too, Sinéad.

My second track today concerns my city, but it's not about my city. Long before Gerardo Alfonso came up with 'Sábanas Blancas', Havana's unofficial anthem, many songs had been written about the Cuban capital. Yet, to me it was the beautiful voice of Barbra Streisand, first, and Billy Joel, afterwards, singing to New York that gave me that sense of pride that comes from being born in such a marvellous place as my Scorpionic city.

The first time I heard 'New York State of Mind', it caught me off-guard. I had just turned 15 or 16 and I was at my friend's when he played the Barbra Streisand's cover version. Having being acquainted with her oeuvre before, I knew what to expect, but the sheer emotion coming out of the opening lines left me speechless. It also helped that I was able to understand the words, Barbra's voice being so crystal clear, though slightly nasal. A few years later, and already in Uni, I got the chance to listen to the original by Billy Joel, included in his album 'Turnstiles' and I realised that he man who gave us 'Piano Man' and 'It's Still Rock and Roll to Me' had just written a song to my city, Havana. Yes, because, 'New York State of Mind' goes beyond its borders. It's not just about the Hudson, but about the Almendares, filth and all, it's not just about the Greyhound leaving the city, but about route 67 in 80s Havana, going to Saúl Delgado college and me hanging from outside the door. 'New York State of Mind' is for the person who loves the city they've been born in, warts and all.

The third track to close this first round of autumn songs was one which I e-mailed out a few months ago and provoked an overwhelming positive response to the point where a student approached me at the London School of Dance when I did Jackie's workshop in the summer to tell me how much she had enjoyed that clip. And I can understand why. It's got everything in it, or as we say in good Cuban Spanish 'todo como en botica'. It's Chucho Valdéz with his father, the great Bebo Valdéz, reunited after many years in the US and improvising on a Cuban classic, 'La Comparsa'. There is a reason why to me this is a typical autumn song. It's got that reddish-hue, nostalgia-tinted mood (at least, to me, I grew up listening to my Dad playing Lecuona and Chopin first thing in the morning), in this clip it's about two generations coming together, one passing the baton to another, just like leaves fall off trees, so that new ones can be born on their branches. And lastly, this track envelops you like the scarf that you, yes, you, my dear reader, have just brought down from the attic and dusted off and wrapped around your neck to keep you warm.

And I must dash off now, since it's not only autumn that makes precipitation increase, my keyboard is starting to get drenched now.

More to follow.

Copyright 2007


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