Saturday 24 November 2007

Road Songs (Andante)

Road Song: (n) 1 A brief composition aimed mainly at being played in a vehicle on an open, usually public way for the passage of other vehicles, people and animals. 2 A melodious utterance that serves as a companion on short, medium and long trips on such a public way.
Since I passed my driving test earlier this year (fifth time lucky!) I have discovered a new passion: listening to music whilst on the road. Now, I already had a similar leaning before, but more as a passenger than as the driver as it was my spouse behind the wheeel the whole time. But since May this year, I have been on my own a lot and whilst paying attention to what is going on before my eyes on the road, my ears have been digesting all kinds of rhythms and beats.

Thus, I discovered that there are songs meant for the house and there are others designed for the car. Mix them up and you'll end up with 'Atom Heart Mother' by Pink Floyd on a long journey to Frinton. Believe me, as much as I love the British quartet, it is not the appropriate time, nor place.

'Road Songs', then, is the name of this new section. To me road songs do not relate to the actual motorway, or street, or avenue, although some fellow poster/reader/blogger might disagree with me. They have much more in common with a particular track that makes you more alert and alive whilst roaming the roads of Britain or any other country (an experience yet to live) in your four-wheel automobile. Sometimes coincidences do happen and 'Highway Star' could be one of those occasions on which Deep Purple will be playing in the car stereo at full blast whilst I will be trying to control the urge to follow Ian Gillan's advice: 'Nobody gonna take my car/I'm gonna race it to the ground/Nobody gonna beat my car/It's gonna break the speed of sound/Oooh it's a killing machine/It's got everything/Like a driving power big fat tyres and everything. But generally the type of composition I choose to accompany me in my short jaunts to pick up or drop off my children are ear-friendly tracks that stimulate the mind as well as the body. And a big disclaimer now: I do not advocate speeding on the road.
My first choice is the result of the first part of the BBC series on the history of Brazilian music. Last week saw the beginning of a journey through that South American's country rich musical legacy and one of the performers who made up this first encounter was Tom Jobim. When I was growing up in Havana I was haunted by this melody which later on I found out was sung by the incomparable Elis Regina, one of my favourite singers ever. Enjoy.

My second track is by a natural performer who has quite rightly earned her moniker Queen of Soul. She has timeless anthems under her belt so you can imagine that picking up the one is a tough job, as it were. This is a song I first heard by that other great singer Carole King and when I 'discovered' this other version I just could not believe the emotion coming out through her voice. Meine Damen und Herren:

Salsa has a social conscience, a fact that seems to escape some people sometimes. It's not just shuffling your feet back and front, 1,2,3, 'Enchufla y castígala'. This song is a testament to that. Written on the back of the assassination of Archbishop Arnulfo Romero in El Salvador in 1980, it has since become a paean to freedom and independence in Iberoamerica.

And this is all for this week. As I gear up to go on the road once more I know which songs I'll be taking with me on my journeys. How about yours?

Copyright 2007

Living in A Bilingual World (Allegro)

One of the most difficult aspects when teaching children a foreign language is to enthuse them about a subject that is close to you. In my case it was Cuba's National Hero, Jose Martí.

Martí is omnipresent in the Caribbean island and from the age of 5 or 6 children begin to study his oeuvre. Not strange then, that many of us grow out of him by the time we hit our teens. His purer than pure and whiter than white hagiographic status marks him out as an object of ridicule for those who like a little bit of pepper in their food.

Yet, in my twenties I went back to El Maestro, as he is widely known in Cuba, to study him a bit closer especially after the 'special period' hit my country. I found him to be surprisingly honest and his writing to be remarkably prescient.

Thus, many years ago I introduced Son to this man's most famous work 'La Edad de Oro' (The Golden Age), a compendium of short stories, poems and essays aimed at the younger generation. The experiment backfired, but not badly, I hasten to add. And this is the caveat to bear in mind when sharing your enthusiasm with your offspring, especially in a different language. Work, Work, Work. It's not easy. Recently my patience paid off finally and for the last two weeks Daughter, Son and I have sat down to enjoy the wonderful world of 'Meñique', the story of a very small boy with two nasty brothers who set off to the king's castle on a mission that has unpredictable consequences. A magic tale with a strong moral. Wisdom beats Strength any day, a lesson that the current incumbent at the White House would do well to heed. I have had to polish off my performance skills and re-enact the story using body, limbs, mind, voice and whatever I've been able to lay my hands upon. The outcome has been that both Daughter and Son were talking to each other the other night as they were lying in bed and I could not help eavesdropping on their conversation. They were both giggling as one recounted to the other how 'Meñique' had beaten the giant with his shrewdness and the latter's embarrassment at having being defeated by such a minuscule mortal.
And I could not repress a smile either.
Copyright 2007

Monday 19 November 2007

Autumn Songs (coda)

And so this is the end... for the Autumn Songs. As the fallen leaves on the ground wait to hibernate under the white carpet that will (hopefully) cover this city in the weeks to come, this little section changes season too.

I want to start with a singer whom I discovered via Radio Paradise, an internet broadcaster that has become my main source to discover new music, even when it's a few decades old (as I write this they're playing Big Mama Thornton's version of 'Hound Dog', made popular by both Elvis Presley and John Lennon). This singer's name is Gabriel Rios and the funky sound of this track reminded me of treading on crunchy leaves as I walk to work every day. As I usually have my CD player on, I can only imagine that any passer-by strolling in my direction will be bound to run for cover thinking that the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse is coming to take them with him. It's a nice, slow to mid-tempo number that defies this rainy weather and puts a little smile on my face everytime I hear it. And yes, you bet I'll be getting the record soon.

Second track of this valedictory post comes courtesy of that Cuban jewel called 'Camerata Romeu'. Now, I have very vivid memories of this ensemble. The first time I saw them was in Old Havana, at the San Francisco de Asis Convent, a marvellous place near Havana Bay and where on Saturday evenings classical concerts were given. I even remember that the programme included Mozart's pieces for cello, violin and piano, Cuban composers such as Lecuona and a whole plethora of contemporary musicians like Lennon and McCartney. The piece I bring you today has been covered by just about everyone who's everyone in my neck of the woods, from 'La Negra de America', Mercedes Sosa to Paquito D' Rivera. Enjoy.

Call me schmaltzy, kitsch or whatever you can think of but when I was younger I was into Roberto Carlos. That was years before I became hooked on rock'n'roll, jazz, salsa and 'Trova'. Pre-teenage years I used to memorise the Brazilian singer's songs in order to perform them in front of my family and friends. Yes, I did possess a good voice then, which has since forsaken me. When I came across this clip on (where else but?) a little lump appeared in my throat and for just one instant I wish I could have been next to my cousin as she was the one who introduced me to the Southamerican crooner. This will bring a tear to the eyes of those Latin people who grew up in the 70s and 80s listening to singers like Julio Iglesias, Manzanero and Lupita D'Alesio and whose childhood will be irremediably linked to this forgotten era. And I mean that with pride.
And to sign off I've got a singer whom I heard the first time around via a CD I borrowed from my local library. It goes to show the little treasures you're bound to find in your local library if you look in the right places. The CD was called 'Women in Jazz' and her song stood out from the word go. It was named 'Marriage Suite' and it felt exactly like that, a passionate homage to the one you love and are about to marry, a celebration of that love. I bought her record shortly after and was glad that Aziza Mustafa Zadeh's music did not disappoint me at all. On the contrary, it went beyond my expectations and restored my faith in music. This is the title track of that CD and I hope you enjoy it, too.
Thanks for your kind comments and feedback.
Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Adagio)

- Papi, you know what? I'm going to sing that song about the little puppy that you and I sing before I go to bed?
- The one about the Chinese dog, nena?
- Yes, and I'm going to sing it to the whole class tomorrow.
- To the whole class? Won't you have to translate it?
- Yes...
- Do you know what it's about?
- Hmmm... well..., yes, it's about a dog.
- It's more than that.
And with that La Señora Nostalgia was off. This used to be one of my favourite children's songs when I was younger and it wasn't until recently that I came across the words again via Google. So, Daughter was sat there in front of me with the piece of paper containing the lyrics in her hand, whilst I was far away, being seven or eight again, about the time when I heard this song for the first time. I did not even know then, nor do I still know whether the child in the story is a boy or a girl.
'Cuando salí de La Habana
de nadie me despedí'
Why didn't 'it' say goodbye to anyone? Who or what was 'it' running from? What terrible danger threatened 'it'? And where was 'it' travelling to?
'solo de un perrito chino
que venía tras de mí'
First mention of the Chinese dog. Daughter came up with the idea that maybe the canine sniffed despair in the child and decided to try its luck with it, or maybe they were both feeling despondent and made up their minds to leave the big city together.
'Como el perrito era chino
un señor me lo compró'
Simplicity pays off in this song. In just two lines we learn that the child, who must have been quite attached to the dog, sold it off without second thoughts. Or maybe 'it' did have second thoughts. You see, the gentleman only buys the dog because it was Chinese, so therefore he must have paid a good price as we find out later in the song, but was the child's situation so desperate that 'it' preferred to sell its friend rather than starve with it to death? Wife interjected at this point that it was a good example of how a friendship is worth more than money, to which I responded quite cynically that it wasn't proved that the dog was the child's friend, only that they were on this jaunt together. Daughter agreed with Wife and the case was closed.
'por un poco de dinero
y unas botas de charol'
So, it wasn't just money the child received for the puppy, but also a pair of shiny boots. And now we can jump to the conclusion that the child had no shoes to wear either, presumably. When I was little my imagination would run wild picturing the look of surprise on the dog's face as the man took it away and the child rushed off. It probably felt betrayed by the minor. Now I am convinced that the child had a long way to go and could not make the whole journey barefoot. But still, selling your friend out?
'Las botas se me rompieron
el dinero se acabó
ay perrito de mi vida
ay perrito de mi amor'
The child's boots broke and the money ran out. Wife was right. The dog was the child's friend and the youngster's lament at the end of the song for its loyal canine friend proves that friendship last longer than money does.
A valuable lesson for Daughter.
Copyright 2007

Friday 16 November 2007

Happy Birthday my Grand Dame (Allegro Moderato)

Excuse me, please, hey, you, the 488-year-old lady sitting at the front, please! Yes, you! Would you be so kind so as to come on stage, please? There, let me give you a hand, I know, I know, it's the years, isn't it? Please, this way, yes, centre stage, that's it. Now, let me shine a light on you. Yes, a light, you heard me right. You deserve that light, you deserve to be centre stage. You deserve so much more.

You see, you and I have travelled together. But me being the much younger sibling, I've learnt more than I thought by being together with you, you and I, entwined at the hip for 26 years. And now I would like you to relate to me, to us, to this audience, your experience in this almost 500-year jaunt.

I would like you to narrate to us how you felt about the move from Cuba's southwest coast up to the west of your now renowned bay, the one our Mother Goddess, Yemaya, bathes in all its glory. Was it the mosquitoes that did not let you sleep? Or was it the swamps? I would like to know who planted the first ceiba tree around which it became a tradition to walk three times on your birthday's eve.

And you don't mind me writing to you in English, do you? After all this language is not alien to you. You withstood the siege by the British in 1762 fiercely and heroically, only to be betrayed by the Spaniards at the eleventh hour. We even got a song out of the conflict dedicated to the Guanabacoa Mayor, Don José Antonio Gómez, otherwise known as Pepe Antonio, the only one who challenged the European invaders with poorly armed troops and no military support from the incumbent Spanish government. Under the rule of the Brits you prospered economically, albeit on the back of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Africans brought to our country under the most appalling and inhumane conditions ever. And yet, where would we be without their influence? Where would we be without their rhythms, dances and languages? As our National Poet, Nicolás Guillén said:

Yoruba soy,
lloro en yoruba lucumí.
Como soy un yoruba de Cuba,
quiero que hasta Cuba suba mi llanto yoruba;
que suba el alegre llanto yoruba
que sale de mí.
Yoruba soy,
cantando voy,
llorando estoy,
y cuando no soy yoruba,
soy congo, mandinga, carabalí.
Atiendan amigos, mi son, que empieza así:
Adivinanza de la esperanza:
lo mío es tuyo
lo tuyo es mío;
toda la sangre
formando un río.
La ceiba ceiba con su penacho;
el padre padre con su muchacho;
la jicotea en su carapacho.
¡Que rompa el son caliente,
y que lo baile la gente,
pecho con pecho,
vaso con vaso,
y agua con agua con aguardiente!
Yoruba soy, soy lucumí,
mandinga, congo, carabalí.
Atiendan, amigos, mi son, que sigue así:
Estamos juntos desde muy lejos,
jóvenes, viejos,negros y blancos,
todo mezclado;
uno mandando y otro mandado,
todo mezclado;
San Berenito y otro mandado,
todo mezclado;
negros y blancos desde muy lejos,
todo mezclado;
Santa María y uno mandado,
todo mezclado;
todo mezclado, Santa María,
San Berenito, todo mezclado,
todo mezclado, San Berenito,
San Berenito, Santa María,
Santa María, San Berenito
todo mezclado!
Yoruba soy, soy lucumí,
mandinga, congo, carabalí.
Atiendan, amigos, mi son, que acaba así:
Salga el mulato,
suelte el zapato,
díganle al blanco que no se va:
de aquí no hay nadie que se separe;
mire y no pare,
oiga y no pare,
beba y no pare,
viva y no pare,
que el son de todos no va a parar!

In recent years I've heard people, who've visited you, complain about the noise, the dust and the collapsing buildings. Sometimes, though, and call me a hopelessly romantic fool, we need the scratching sound of an old record to appreciate its value. Your imperfections make you human. You remind me of that line in Dulce María Loynaz' poem 'Ultimos Días de una Casa' where the author states:

La Casa, soy la Casa,
más que piedra y vallado,
más que sombra y que tierra,
más que techo y muro,
porque todo eso soy, y soy con alma.

You, my dear old Havana, are like that. I cannot articulate your cracks, potholes and fissures. They have a language of their own. It's the language of unshaven quality. It's what makes the migrant long for your touch, it's what makes the current denizen create anthems that will be sung by future generations across the world whereever your progeny has been dispersed to.

Because, my beautiful dame, you have witnessed the exodus of some of your more doting sons and daughters. Never has a song sounded more truthfully than when it claims that 'if my eyes ever deserted you/if life banished me to another place on this Earth/I swear to you that I'll die of love and angst wanting to walk your streets, your parks and places.'

Personally, you gave me so much. You gave me a sense of safety and comfort when I was still a teeny weenie child roaming your streets, playing baseball or hide and seek, or 'it', or knocking on doors and running away. You gave me 'Playita 16', the most imperfect and dysfunctional beach there can ever be, and yet, so inviting. You gave me parties in faraway places to which I went behind my mother's back. Luyanó, Santiago de las Vegas, Santos Suárez, Santa Amalia, Siboney, names that are forever enmeshed with my own flesh. One day I will have the same creases and crumples on my face as you have now. Let's hope I can bear them the same way you do yours.

You went from being the 'Key to the Gulf' to being 'one of the dirtiest cities in the Americas'. Why? We're the only ones to blame. We could not look after you. We let you down. We're like the teenagers who leave home only to return after a few years and litter it carelessly. You have not been protected.

But still, you persevere. I walked down your streets earlier this year, now with my wife and kids. And you welcomed them, too. We saw some of the blemishes, though. Those 'Night Flowers', sung to by our very own Silvio Rodríguez, still populate your famous roads, Fifth Avenue, 23rd Street, Malecón.

Ah, Malecón! Has there ever been a wall so loved? Emperor Hadrian would be jealous. The Chinese don't know what to do with theirs and the Germans got rid of their own partition. And you're still there, my little old friend, where so many revellers wind up, where dreams are splashed by sea water mixed with the oil from the ships entering the bay. So many songs we sang on your cold surface, so many nights on which we sat by your littoral and warmed your stones, so many early mornings that found us hoarse and voiceless, but satisfied and optimistic.

Happy Birthday my Grand Dame! I hope someday to walk three times around your big ceiba tree again, maybe this time with my wife and our very own offspring. I hope to be part of your Latin American Film Festival again, wander up and down 23rd Avenue, going from the Yara cinema to the Chaplin, and from there to the Riviera, before ending up at La Rampa, in the knowledge that my intellect has been challenged and that you contributed to its enrichment.

Above all, I hope that you're still there, confident, beautiful and welcoming.

From your doting Habanero Son.

Copyright 2007

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Grave)

- Hi (with Spanish accent).
- Hola (Son).
- What's your name? (still a strong Spanish accent)
- Me llamo... (still Son)
- How old are you? (I gather she's from Madrid)

At that point, Son gave up. He told the lady his age in English. This is one of my pet hates and I confess that I lose my patience very quickly when a situation like this arises. Spanish-speaking people who default to English when confronted by a child speaking to them in their mother tongue. The issue becomes even more exasparating for me when the person in question has fluency problems in their adopted language and rather than using words that come to them naturally in the lingo they were brought up with, prefer to switch to a tongue full of sounds they are not equipped to pronounce even to a basic level.

But that's not the end. Cue the lady's child. I told Son to go and try his luck with her offspring instead and see if his linguistic thirst could be quenched with the younger kid. Well, I guess you know the answer to that one. The Spanish lady's boy (she turned out to be from Madrid, you see, I told you!) could not utter a word in her Mum's tongue, let alone communicate with Son. Is that the sound of an ol' chip climbing up my shoulder? You bet. When I quizzed this woman on her boy's lack of basic linguistic skills to get by in the country of her birth, her answer could not be more obtuse: 'We rarely go to Spain and we live in England now, anyway, he never wanted to learn the language in the first place and his dad is British.'

Can you hear that noise? That was my jaw hitting the floor. Since when have babies decided which language to speak? 'OK, Mum and Dad, I know that I'm only three months old, but I don't fancy the dialect that the natives of Albion speak, can I go for French instead, please?

Any language, whether it be Sanskrit, Gujurat or Portuguese is nurtured through a mix of games, communication and active participation. Maybe my ire is based on the centuries of exploitation, pillaging and looting that my continent has suffered and therefore the fact that language is one of the elements that define who we are as a Diaspora makes me defensive/aggressive against those whom I perceive to be selling out. I know parents from Mexico, Spain and Columbia just to name but three nations well represented in GB, who speak to their children in broken English, struggling to string two sentences together and their offspring, born in the UK and fluent, of course, in their mother tongue unfortunately find themselves at the losing end of this supposedly cultural exchange.

Maybe, too, I'm being unfair to some of these parents. It's daunting to open your mouth and utter a word in a foreign language in some public places here in the UK, especially in the present climate of fear and mistrust of immigrants. Sometimes the drive to be understood overwrites the need to present your child with the marvellous gift of a different culture and a different language. But, please, don't turn your back on our beautiful Spanish.

When we were leaving the park, Son looked up at me and asked me:

- Why was that lady speaking to me in English if she's Spanish, papi? Could she not understand me?

I hugged Son very hard and told him: 'No, nene, she's just confused.'

Copyright 2007
Illustration courtesy of Garrincha.

Autumn Songs (1st Mov 'Allegro', 2nd Mov 'Lento', 3rd Mov 'Moderato'

Hi, don't stay there, outside, it's a bit nippy these days, chilly mornings and misty windows. Come in, passe em casa.

Autumn Songs wraps up this week as the clocks have moved back one hour and the nights have begun to ramble forwards hungrily, seeking out early evening shadows to feed on.

My first clip comes courtesy of Tribalistas, a band whose work I cherish. Amongst the many jewels in their self-titled album 'Tribalistas', this piece stood out from the very beginning. It's about (I think, as I don't speak any Portuguese, but do understand it fairly well) welcoming people who pass by your house. And that's what I feel like doing in these days of grim skies and plummeting temperatures. Offer someone a bowl of hot soup. Chicken and onion anyone?My second song is a classic, and yet never ceases to amaze me. The album version begins with a sublime, delicate brushing of guitar strings and then Mick Jagger's tremulous voice initiates the passage of rite to the supplicant's world. Marvellous and it always leaves me speechless.Haydée Milanés is one of those Cuban singers with a lot of baggage in her life and a big reputation to live up to. None of this is her fault. Daughter of the famous Cuban singer-songwriter, Pablo Milanés, Haydee's solo effort has been playing endlessly on my stereo at home and on my CD player everywhere I go. The reason? One of the better-produced albums to have come out of Cuba in the last few years. This clip serves as a reminder (as if it was necessary to remind anyone) that Cuba is not just salsa and Afro-Cuban, but different layers of an onion that if you come too close to will leave you in a lachrymose and befuddled state of mind.For winter songs I will be traipsing through Asian, African and Latin American nations unearthing those hidden gems that give us shelter against this inclement weather. Yes, do expect a few songs in English, too.


Copyright 2007

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Allegro)

Humour is one of the ways in which children learn a foreign language more easily. It is also one of the elements that make the pupil more conscious of actually 'thinking in the new tongue' without resorting to translation all the time. And it was with this thought in mind that I introduced Son to the wonderful world of Cantinflas, the famous Mexican comedian who crossed borders (literally) with his wisecrack and popular puns.

As with everything in life, I had to start from a very simple English-speaking film as I was aware that Son was not used to the Mexican Spanish norm with its 'changos' and 'cuates'. The film we chose, 'Around the World in 80 Days' was a UK production, winner of five Academy Awards and easy to understand. Well, easy to understand for me, who'd already seen it when I was younger. Son was a little bit floored by the plot and I had to explain certain parts of it to him. However, when I saw the excitement on his face about sharing this piece of Father's life with him, all I could think was: Thank God for foreign languages!

And this was corroborated by a report showing that the French and German languages have almost perished amongst the options for students doing their GCSEs this year. One of the secondary schools Wife and I went recently to have a look at for Son, had just scrapped its Spanish course.

Why? Well, the reason is simple. English remains the lingua franca in the world today, a landscape shaped mainly by the aftermath of the Second World War, when the US took over from the ex-colonial powers as the ultimate economic force. Yet, with 44m Spanish-speakers living on US soil now, el Castellano is fast becoming the language to speak if you want to make inroads in business. Currently most presidential hopefuls have to at least make a third of their speech in Spanish if they're to have a chance at the polls with the fastest growing community in that Northamerican country.

Because the UK hasn't got the same pressing case (although it boasts the largest Columbian community outside Columbia) it can afford to be more complacent. The most commonly used phrase on Spanish shores is 'Quiero dos cervezas, por favor', which explains both the age group that travels to the Iberian nation and the fact that Brits buy everything in pairs.

Son did find the first part of 'Around the World...' amusing and I'm sure that in weeks to come I'll be able to show him the other films, with the same Mexican actor, I was lent in pure and unadulturated Spanish. And that, readers/posters/fellow bloggers, is the beauty of delving into another culture without the need for translation: enjoyment and self-enrichment!

Copyright 2007

Autumn Songs (Tempo Commodo)

With autumn now on the verge of becoming winter and my synaesthesia producing only dark reds and yellows whenever I hear the soft rustle of a well-played guitar, I open this session with one of the most under-rated singers this country has ever produced. When I purchased her debut album my DiscMan would not let it go away for a single minute. Martina Topley-Bird's voice can be soulful, rocky and playful, sometimes the three at once. My favourite song from her record 'Quixotic' is not available on you tube yet (Soul Food), but I found this little gem that attests to her wonderful voice.

And so, we plough on. And so we arrive at the majestic erstwhile The Police frontman, Sting (reunions count, but only as money-makers) and a dilemma as to which song to choose from his prolific music career. You see, I'm a Sting fan. I've seen 'Bring on the Night' approximately twenty times and I can quote some of the dialogues by heart. But nothing prepared me for the second track on his album 'Brand New Day'. The inclusion of the Algerian raï isinger Cheb Mami was a wise move for the northeastern bassist and the result, 'Desert Rose' helped internationalise raï sounds, plus catapulted the song to the top of the charts. And I just love it. Really. I do.

Lastly, this man's voice drips with pastel shades, yellow chromes and nostalgie. Ignacio Villa (Bola de Nieve), our very own show-man, was born in the legendary town of Guanabacoa, Havana, a hotbed of Afro-Cuban culture and one of the first few places where the Carabalí culture from southeastern Nigeria settled down and created its first cabildos, thus becoming the Abakuás, the only surviving secret African society in the Americas. Bola's voice was seductive, mirthful and full of joie de vivre, even when singing sad songs like the one below. The video is a collection of photos of him rather than a performance, but still that voice is incomparable.

As autumn is drawing to a close, I've been thinking about doing a similar series of winter songs. Just do not expect Christmas tunes. Thanks for your feedback, it's always appreciated.

© 2007


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