Tuesday 18 December 2007

Road Songs (Nocturne)

I was recently driving back home from Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, relishing a marvellous early winter sunset when I began to ponder on the joys of night-time driving. As the car headlights helped me cruise through the Ridgeway back to Enfield, nature's twilight hour brought a myriad creatures to the full beam of my front lights, thus, thrusting me into the whirpool of this lawless, carefree and unadultared animal world. Night-time driving music divests the listener of optical detours whilst ensnaring them in a type of Wild West grip.

Night-time driving music doesn't need/have to necessarily be slow, schmaltzy, ballad-type. Many a time I've caught myself humming quite loudly to a Fela Kuti's song or a track by Los Van Van. The only requirement(s) it must meet is leave you with that eerie and unearthly feeling of being part of the unknown, especially when driving in a motorway or in a countryside road.

The first clip is a testament to the wonderful world of networking. As social fora for like-minded folks, the internet and blogs, specifically, have become an essential part of the human existence and on this particular occasion I have fellow Cuban, journalist and blogger Ivan Darías Alfonso to thank for introducing me to the music of Souad Massi, an Algerian singer who has made inroads into French culture via her haunting and beautiful voice and, if the comments on youtube.com are anything to go by, the depth of her songs. Which I cannot understand as she sings in Arabic. I have just ordered her CD, 'Deb', after listening to a few tunes in the aforementioned website and I can't wait for it to arrive on my doorstep. Thanks Ivan and Merry Christmas to you and Elena.

This band should not have worked out. And the same goes for some night wildlife when you see it through the glass of your windshield. Some of it just doesn't make sense. Ditto with this group. The Doors had a guitarist rooted in flamenco music, a drummer with a jazz background and a keyboardist and pianist whose leanings were more towards Bach than The Beatles. And then they had Jim. And it worked. Beautifully. This song weighed on me in my teens and it still does. Pure musicianship.

The Cranberries took me by surprise when I first heard this album back in the mid 90s, just like night-time driving can throw up a few surprises hither and thither, sometimes not very nice ones. The opposite happens here. O' Riordan's voice is so delicate and yet so strong . Enjoy.

I've always been a Tori Amos' enthusiast. The passion with which she attacks the piano, her lyrics and the feeling of being on the edge of the unknown, or maybe the known unknown for I get a sense of comfort in being in her music's company. Just like when I'm driving at night collecting my son from Woodcraft Folk and we are both looking forward to the weekend. A known unknown which we both know will be worthwhile. And I want to set the mood for it right from Friday night.

Well, there ain't no sunshine at night, Bill. And how many times do you say 'I know' in that tune? It doesn't matter, it's the pure feeling wafting through the track, it's the guitar-playing skills, it's the heart-rending delivery, it's just pure, soulful, unadulturated music. Like night wildlife. Like night-time driving.

I was one of the lucky ones who managed to sneak into the Karl Marx Theatre in 1994 to see Manu Chao and Mano Negra in their only visit to Havana, as far as I know. And that concert has always stayed in my mind. The relentless energy, the camaraderie, the bond and the closeness of each and every musician on stage was mind-blowing. I must admit that I don't have all the songs I upload on this blog on CDs. I do have loads of CDs, but I also upload tracks which I would like to play in the car as I drive around the streets, roads and motorways of Britain and this is one of those songs.

And that's what night-time driving is about. The magnitude of the road, the smallness of the car, the infinite power of music.

This is all for this week. Have a Merry Christmas.

Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Vivo)

- Papi, tengo dos piezas de noticias que darte: una buena y una mala. (Dad, I have two pieces of news to give you: a good one and a bad one)

I just could not help it and burst out laughing incontrollably (caveat for parents who are teaching their children a second language, NEVER laugh AT the little cherubs, but WITH them!). Son looked at me puzzled and with eyes wide open. What had he said that had caused my giggle? Did I know beforehand what he was about to communicate to me? Was I able to read his mind?

After sitting down, having a drink of water and reassuring Son that I was laughing with him and not AT him, I finally let him know the cause of my sudden mirth.

- In Spanish we don't say 'dos piezas de noticias', I would say 'Tengo dos noticias, una buena y una mala'.

It's a common mistake that I will keep returning to in future posts. English and Spanish do cross roads sometimes. Words, phrases and grammatical constructions do sometimes meet in the middle. The other night as I was reading them another short story from that essential children's book called 'La Edad de Oro' we came across an expression that made the children feel relieved that sometimes a common ground can be found between their two linguistic worlds. It was 'terca como una mula' and it appears in the tale 'El Camarón Encantado' (The Enchanted Shrimp). Son was the first one to translate it and he was glad to find a direct conversion into one of his mother tongues, 'as stubborn as a mule'.

But when these two very different languages lock horns the results can be very confusing. I've referred in the past to false cognate words. These are words that although spelled similarly they have different meanings. Take 'exit'. A Spanish speaker will think that it means 'éxito' (success), not realising that even the word 'success' is a false cognate as such, because a Spanish speaker will think it means 'suceso' (happening, event). Confusing? Yes. Amusing? You bet.

Son and Daughter do tend to force English constructions into Spanish sentences to my chagrin. But by now, they know my reply like the refrain to a very annoying song: 'Please, don't speak English in Spanish'.

Ah, and about those 'two pieces of news'. The good one was that they'd decided to watch the X Factor final another day after having recorded it last Saturday, thus not disturbing my Sunday evening newspaper-reading arrangements. The bad one was that they would be watching it on Monday evening in the lounge, which is normally the time when I come back from jogging and finish my work out and stretches. Oh, well, at least Son learnt a valuable Spanish lesson!

Copyright 2007

Monday 10 December 2007

Road Songs (Andante)

If you turn left and take the second exit at junction 5 of the M25 going westwards near Sevenoaks onto the A21 Tunbridge Wells-bound you are presented with a spectacle of breath-taking beauty. As the road bends down in a precise and mathematical curve the shrubs and bushes lining up on either side of the highway take on a deeper and darker shade of green and nature seems to become an architect in its own right. The British countryside looks welcoming and inviting and the traveller basks in the summer sun streaming through the window.

Recently in August I undertook my first trip behind the wheel down the M25 motorway in order to go to my father in law's. As I was soaking up the natural perfection of my surroundings I thought of long-lost melodies or strange musical combinations I've come across over the years. Duets that have been completely mis-matched, improvised sessions that have pulled it off, associations that would have been better left in the planning stages and alliances that have confirmed my faith in music.

The latter is my first choice today. Take fellow Zodiacal sign Scorpio Canadian folk and pop music doyenne Joni Mitchell. Her personal and self-consciously poetic song-writing is miles away from the more combatant and soulful style of Marvin Gaye's. Yet in this cover of 'Trouble Man' it works wonders and the otherwise demure Mitchell even sashays on stage as the bassline keeps the song together. Also, it's such a joy of the 'oh-my-God!' type to hear her saying the words: I come up hard, baby, but now I'm cool /I didn't make it sure, playin' by the rules /I've come of heart, baby, but now I'm fine /I'm checkin' trouble, movin' down the line /I come up hard, baby, but that's OK /'Cause Trouble Man don't get in my way

I heard about this singer back in the summer and found a few clips of her on youtube.com recently. Her delivery is good, her voice crystal clear and her songs, though pretty basic, strike a balance between lyrics and rhythm. The fact Ayo's still based in Germany is also a plus for me as most artists these days feel that if they don't reside in an English-speaking country they won't be able to break through. Well, Ayo proves them wrong.

When I became hooked on rock'n'roll there were three basic guitar riffs that determined pretty much the music we played in parties. The opening of 'Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zeppelin, the first notes of 'Smoke in the Water' by Deep Purple and the funky and sultry sound of 'Satisfaction' by The Rolling Stones. I'd hazard to say that these three, together with The Kinks' 'You Really Got Me' and latterly The White Stripes' 'Seven Nation Army' make up the bulk of the must-learn-by-heart melodies that any aspiring modern guitarist keeps working on over and over. However, my favourite guitar solo belongs to a group that escapes classification and this is purely on the merits of their music.

Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' album arrived in a hazy adolescent cloud and now, more than twenty years after I first listened to it, still makes my eyes water. Its complexity lies in its simplicity. The opening track 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' took on a deeper meaning when I found out who it was dedicated to. In fact the whole record was dedicated to one Syd Barrett, original member of the band and enfant terrible who went off the rails and died a year ago. With him the Floyd created a sound that defined psychedelic Britain. But that would be limiting the music prowess of a band that have always defied labels. Most people opt for the more commercial 'Dark Side of the Moon' album or 'The Wall'. To me 'Wish You Were Here' remains the stalwart piece of their career and personally a poignant memento for me. Also, the length of the opening guitar solo stretches in the same way as the M25 on a nice summer day.

Afro-Cuban music has filled up my life since I became involved with the Conjunto Folclórico de la Universidad de la Habana back in 1994, but even before that I was already venturing in Yoruba territory. With a grandmother who wore sackclothes on the 17th of each month and on 17th December made the pilgrimage to El Rincón, St Lazarus sanctuary in Havana, there was no way that I could escape the African influence at home. Also, my late aunt used to invite babalawos for religious consultations and I grew up with her lighting a candle to Elegguá every Monday morning. And rest assured, I never ate his sweets! So, it was with a lot of gusto that I threw myself into the vortex of Afro-Cuban teaching in the UK back in 1997 when I first arrived in Albion. And over the years I have grown even fonder of my students at Jackson's Lane and at The Basement now and the musicians I work with. The level of respect and seriousness I've witnessed in my sessions and in other tutors' puts the London Afro-Cuban scene in pole position. This respect and professionalism was multiplied recently with the creation of the Lucumi Choir, under the guidance of both Marta Galarrága and Daniela Rosselsson. I went to their first performance and I admit that I was a bit apprehensive. Why? Well, the reasons is simple. Back in the summer of 1997 I performed with Olorun at UNEAC (National Association of Cuban Writers and Artists) and the experience was mind-blowing. I knew about their work through the recordings they made with the now late maestro Lázaro Ros (ibaé), but the level of preparation before the performance was beyond my expectations. I did Elegguá and I enjoyed it immensely. So, it was with some trepidation that I came to a pub, whose name escapes me now, in the winter of 2006 to witness the making of history. Because ladies and gentleman, the Lucumi Choir pulled it off. The fact that some of its members have been dance students of mine, restores my faith in the central tenet of Afro-Cuban culture, the singing-playing-dancing synergy. And when I now play 'Changó' in the car, sung by the great Lázaro Ros I know that his legacy, at least in this part of the world, is safe.

Lucumí Choir: Changó

And this is all for today.

Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Vivace)

- 'Explode'.
- E-equis (chuckle)-pe-ele (chuckle again)-o-de-e.
- ???
- The next one, please?
- 'Implode'.
- I-eme (chuckle)-pe-ele (chuckle again)...

Daughter was having me on. It was my turn to test her on her spellings and I was in reminiscence mode. When I used to teach at ISPLE back in the early 90s as an assistant teacher (still a student, though), this used to be one of my tasks. Dictation. And now I was replicating it with my younger one. But I was not prepared for what Daughter had in store for me. She spelled each and every single word I told her using the spanish ABC. And she was having fun.

This is an activitiy that both Son and Daughter are used to, though. Whenever Son is in a tangle with his Maths homework I come to the rescue but he knows what the caveat is: only Spanish, mate. Thus, he now knows what a square is (cuadrado), a rectangle (rectángulo) and a circle (círculo). We're now building up towards the hypotenuse (hipotenusa) bit.

Daughter, especially, sees the whole language shebang as a game, which is good. At least she's not afraid of bringing up the fact that 'my Dad is Cuban, he speaks Spanish and so do I'. Sometimes she reminds me of Sophie, the main character of the popular series by author Dick King-Smith, whose wisecrack makes her the delight of little ones and older ones alike.

Daughter carried on spelling out English words with the Spanish ABC. When I asked her if she was going to do that the next day at school, she looked at me very sternly and said: 'But of course, papi, of course!' I just hope her teacher has a bilingual dictionary nearby.

Copyright 2007

Saturday 1 December 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Moderato)

To swear or not to swear? Esa es la pregunta (That's the question)

And what a question! Especially for someone like me brought up in a family where cursing was frowned upon and my limited childhood vocabulary included the two notions 'palabras feas' (ugly words) and 'malas palabras' (swear words). At age five or six I experienced my late Nana's wrath when I dared say the word 'jodi'ó' as in 'la bicicleta se jodi'ó' (the bike broke down). I cannot remember whether it was a clip round the ear or a 'tapaboca' (a slap in my mouth) but I got smacked pretty hard.

So, with these thoughts in my mind I ventured into unknown waters recently when I explained to Son the meaning behind a particular track he'd been humming to lately. It was 'Ciudad de Pobres Corazones' by the Rosarino musician Fito Páez. Son was already familiar with the Argentinian's music as I play his hits regularly at home, but this particular track has an intoxicating melody and beat that make it stand out from the rest of the songs that appear in the album.

- Do you know what he says in the song? I asked him whilst I was driving.
- No, what is it?
- I think he's talking about Buenos Aires, and the times when the military was in power. He's feeling despondent and angry.
- Uhhh...
- And he's using a word that is actually a four-letter word in that context.
- What do you mean?
- Well, the word 'puta' is used to convey the level of disatisfaction he feels towards the incumbent government.
- What's the equivalent in English?
- The f-word.
- (Gasps).

Did I do right or wrong? My intention was not to become 'Papi Cool', but merely illustrate to him how some of the songs in Spanish he listens to contain 'bad words' (a caveat, though, the Latin pop, rock and salsa I play at home is heavily sanitised). However, Wife and I have yet to have that important 'talk' about the use of certain words, especially as Son is fast moving forward to adolescence. He was nonchalant about the whole 'p' word but I was left restless. Have I opened a can of worms? Have I brought upon myself Claudius curse 'When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions' by opening this Pandora's box? As a Cuban I admit that swearing still stuns me, especially when it is done gratuitously. Some Spanish-speaking cultures are more expletives-prone, not least, the Spanish culture. Many years ago, Juan Echanove, a popular Spanish actor, went on the now defunct live television show 'Contacto' with the then presenter Hilda Rabilero. This was a programme which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people tuned into at 6pm every Saturday evening. Imagine people's reaction when Echanove innocently uttered the 'c' word (that's 'cojones' by the way and I apologise profusely to anyone who feels offended by the epithet, just writing it makes me squirm) and Hilda went silent. Ten seconds elapsed. And then Juan, realising his error, asked the now famous question: 'Oh, is it because I said 'c...'? Cue embarrassment, shame and Hilda's nervous smile. Other cultures in Latin America are more cautious about their cursing. In Cuba, words even like 'carajo' are scorned and the person uttering them admonished.

Yet, there is another side of me that would like to see Son, and Daughter, too, use these words constructively. I guess it is to do with pride and amor propio. Or just with the desire to see them using words that, although high in the cringe factor, are part of their own linguistic DNA.

And I hope they learn when, where and with whom to use them, too.

Copyright 2007

Road Songs (Andantino)

One of the pleasures of driving I have found in my short life behind the wheel is the way inconsequential moments become enjoyable and trascendental even if they happen only for half a second. Or a couple of minutes, as it were.

Take reversing. Or reversing down a slope. Or reversing down a slope in your driveway. And now, cast your mind, if you will, to that split second, when you take the hand brake off, lift your foot off the clutch pedal and your car rolls backwards very slowly. There is no gas and you are allowing Newton's law to gently decide the motion. At the same time you keep checking your rearview mirror, your blind spot and you half-turn around to make sure that there is no one behind you. Yet that little instant registers in your mind as a magical moment, where all the gears conjure up a self-expressive movement. Like dancing. Or music.

And some bands have the same gear movement. Take Portishead. It was a fortuitous incident that led me to become acquainted with the music by this British band, so-called dinner party artists par excellence, a distinction that I suppose will not have gone down very well with Beth Gibbons et al. After all, Portishead exudes quality and élan. The way their songs ease in, unannouncedly and discreetly is bewitching. And in this live version you can see why. Whenever I watch this video, I think of the gears of my car rolling one into the other, moving forwards... or backwards. And though I'm not a smoker, that ciggie in Beth's hand is bewitching, to say the least.

Back in April 1997 when I visited Britain for the first time there was one artist everyone kept talking about. Very often my then girlfriend, now wife, had her album playing in the car wherever we went. Back in Havana a month after, my love for her music showed no signs of abating, contrariwise, it increased. And although she has not enjoyed the same success her debut album brought her, Erykah Badu remains an example of what R&B should be about, good lyrics, good rhythm and a never-ending desire to innovate. I saw her at Brixton Academy a few years ago and it was one of those concerts that lodge in your mind to stay and never depart. Smooth voice, just like a car's rolling gears.

Only recenlty I've been able to play the Buena Vista Social Club album again. And it is not a coincidence that this happened after I passed my driving test. When I arrived in the UK for good in November 1997, it seemed to me that wherever I went, the minute they found out I was Cuban, they would plug in the Buena Vista Social Club record as a way to show that they were in tandem with what was going on in my tiny island. Little did they know that many Cubans in Cuba DID NOT LIKE the record and thought it dated. Timba was the beat to dance to. Only when it started reaping prizes and rewards a little bit more of attention was paid to it back in my country. I even remember on one occasion when we went to someone's house in Highgate and the bloke had Lou Reed's 'New York' album on the stereo. That's probably my favourite Lou Reed's record ever and then I saw the neat pile of CDs resting near the stereo: 'Buena Vista Social Club', 'Introducing Rubén González' and 'Afro-Cuban All Stars'. Inside me I was pleading with him not to change the music and I could see the puzzlement in his eyes as to whether to switch to what he thought would make me feel more at home or dig his heels in and keep Reed on the stereo. In the end our little telepathic moment worked and he left Lou Reed on. Recently I was in the car with Dave Patman, one of the better percussionists this country has ever produced and someone I respect and whose work I appreciate a lot. Also we have worked together on many occasions. I had a song on by the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and we both noticed that the tune had the same melodic structure as 'Chan Chan' by Compay Segundo. If you can lay your hands on the title track of Baaba Maal's album 'Missing You (Mi Yeewnii)' you'll see what I mean. In the meantime, enjoy this musical alternative to the more traditional hand brake, clutch pedal and gas combination.

Copyright 2007


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