Wednesday 31 December 2008

End of the Year's Message

2008 augured well. I was still working in the arts and my family and I had a holiday planned for Malaysia around Easter time; we were going to visit one of my brothers-in-law who had made that Asian country his permanent residence. We were all looking forward to this well-deserved break.

As the months passed by my company's financial situation became worrying. It had been so for some time up until then but there was no reason to suspect that we would lose our jobs. Unfortunately life sometimes deals one a very bad hand and the self-defence mechanism that we think we have in place to shelter us from this kind of adversity ends up tumbling down like sandcastles in a storm.

By summer 2008 I had been made redundant for the first time in my life. I felt numb and powerless. Although I had been given a month's notice it was not until I started gathering my personal belongings that it suddenly dawned on me that I was going, going from the place where I had worked for five years, going from the comfort of a permanent job, paid holidays and sick time. Going, going... gone.

What happened thereafter can only be described as a maelstrom of feelings and emotions. Anger became angst, hope traded colours with despair. I tried to remain strong, but even I could not fool myself: inside I was breaking slowly.

However, even as I was staring down the abyss, my family stood by me. My wife helped me out with application forms and as a result I had countless job interviews. Still, no offer was forthcoming. One day, on my way to yet another interview, I began to sob quietly and calmly on the tube. Two tears streaked down my cheeks whilst I was reading the paper. I realised then that I was probably on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

I finally landed a job at the end of July, just in time to go camping with my family as we usually do every summer. And throughout my whole ordeal a series of words kept popping up like a Jack-in-the-box: family, values, self-confidence, respect, trust, optimism.

That was what enabled me to get my current job. That strong infrastructure that my wife and I have built over the years propelled us to overcome what can be a very testing period for any couple. And we all (the children included) came out the other side as victors.

A couple of months into my new job I found a sheet of paper Blu-tacked to a cleaning cupboard (despite having been in my present employment for four months now, I still come upon 'surprises' every now and then) that contained the words below. I had seen them before on the net; countless versions abound. But never had they acquired such a strong meaning as on that occasion and I am not ashamed to write that they brought a tear to my eye.

A philosophy professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the rocks. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was. The students laughed.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous "yes."

"Now," said the professor, as the laughter subsided, "I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things-your family, your children, your health, your partner-things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else-the small stuff.”

"If you put the sand into the jar first," he continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out to dinner.

There will always be time to clean the house, and fix the disposal.

Take care of the rocks first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand."

This is my message to you on this, the final day of 2008. I also would like to finish this post with a clip from a movie I didn't like the first time I saw it (It's in Spanish, but fret not, my dear English-speaking fellow bloggers and readers, there are subtitles). My younger self was not able to understand the theory behind it. It was only a few years after, in the early to mid 90s, when Cuba was engulfed in an economic crisis, that I sat to watch this film again, this time with my best friend. And as the credits began to roll up at the end of the movie, we both hugged each other in silence. I had finally understood Rantes' plight. 'Hombre Mirando al Sudeste' (Man Facing Southeast)* became my 'comfort film', my way of making sense of the chaos and corruption around me. The scene I bring to you tonight is one of pure jubilence and elation, no wonder they chose Beethoven's Ninth Symphony 'Ode to Joy' to accompany it. Enjoy it and Happy New Year!

* There have been two Hollywood versions of 'Hombre Mirando al Sudeste' (Man Facing Southeast), one with Richard Gere (Mr Jones) and the other one with Kevin Spacey (K-Pax). Neither measures up to the original, in my opinion.

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Allegro Moderato)

Christmas has always posed a major problem for the bilingual in me. Until ten years ago most of the phrases I use in English now related to this particular December festivity were unknown to me even in my native Spanish.

Christmas in Cuba was always a hush-hush subject. The reasons were plain for everyone to see. Religion was taken out of the equation shortly after the incumbent government took control of the country. But as an ex-colony of the Spanish empire the main celebration before 1959 was always Christmas Eve or Noche Buena as we call it in our mother tongue. A big supper at 12 midnight marked the birth of one of the most controversial figures ever.

In my house my late Grandma did maintain the Christmas Eve big supper tradition and despite my cousin's links to the Youth Communist League and my late auntie's membership of the Communist Party's a shindig was held every 24th December with most of my relatives coming from far away in the countryside to eat the roast pork laid on the table.

When I arrived in Britain one of the first tasks I had to face was how to learn the new words that involved the Christmas festivities and translate them into Spanish for my offspring. No easy feat this, as many of these terms were not used in Cuba at all since they were clearly rooted in Castillian Spanish.

The gamble has paid off, though, Im glad to say, as my own children recognise that sometimes I'm lost for the meaning of a certain word in Spanish and we all strive to look up the more apposite translation in the dictionary.

In 2007, however, our Christmas celebration reached its zenith. The surprise arrived after devouring the tasty 'guanajo' (turkey) that Wife had cooked that day.

Wife had arranged a special 'Desert Island Discs' with Children, Mother-in-Law and Mother-in-Law's Boyf. We were to pick three tracks that had made a special impact on us in our childhood, younger years and adulthood. Of course, because Children have not been out of nappies for that long yet their choice was limited. However, as I mentioned before the songs they chose showed me how important the union of two cultures under the banner of respect and acceptance was. Amongst the tunes Son selected was Los Prisioneros' 'Estrechez de Corazon', featured already on this blog whereas Daughter went Brazilian and chose Tribalistas' 'Passe Em Casa', also included amongst my favourite Autumn Songs.

At some point during the velada (soiree) I could not help thinking what a marvellous phenomenon multiculturalism was. Here we were: Wife, born and bred in Britain, but of British and Gibraltarian ancestry, Mother-in-Law, born and brought up in Blighty but with some Irish blood in her veins and a whole career playing flamenco music behind her (her playing the guitar whilst accompanying Wife's Father was one of the songs we enjoyed that evening). Me, Cuban-born, of Chinese, African and Spanish ascendance and Son and Daughter with all this mix running through their young bodies.

And on the stereo amongst other types of music, rhythms from Spain and Latin America reminding us that we were just tiny particles in the immensity of this global multilingual universe.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Copyright 2008

Thursday 18 December 2008

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...

I blame Salva.

There I was, minding my own business a couple of Sundays ago when I decided to check the feedback on my last Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning. I was cooking at the same time and helping my children with their homework (yes, I can multitask, thanks for asking). Salva left me a link to a clip that used music by Martina Topley-Bird and suddenly my Sunday was turned upside down.

But in a positive way, mind you, so thanks, Salva. I was cooking lentil dahl, so that recipe became the theme for my regular Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum... and as for the music, the minute Salva mentioned Topley-Bird, my mouth began to salivate.

I love Martina's music. I bought her debut album Quixotic a few years ago and it's never been out of my CD player. My favourite track so far is 'Soul Food' (this is the original album version). So, guys, fasten your seatbelts, this is going to be a bumpy and funky ride. And yes, this is another vegetarian dish, sorry my carnivorous brethren and sisters, dahl is one of the regular food staples chez moi.

Lentil Dahl


200g red lentils
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
150g runner beans
1 tin tomaotes (or 2 large, fresh tomatoes)
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon
About 1 litre water

Peel the onion. Chop it in half and then slice finely. Peel and crush the garlic. Crush the cardonom pods to remove the seeds. Discard the outer pods. Heat a thick bottomed pan on the hob until it is hot. Add the spices and cook for 2 minutes, stirring regularly. Put the spices in a pestle & mortar and crush. Heat the oil in the same pan as you heated the spices in. Add the onion and garlic and saute, covered, for 5 minutes. Add the spices and stir well. Cook for another 2 minutes. Add the lentils and about 3/4 of the water. Mix well. Cover and simmer gently for 1/2 hour. Check and stir regularly. If it looks like it's drying out, add a little more water.
Prepare the runner beans by trimming the ends and cutting off any stringy bits on the sides. Then slice diagonally into fine strips, about 5mm wide. Drain the tomatoes (if from a tin) and chop roughly. Once the lentils are softened, add the runner beans and tomatoes to the pan. Stir well and cook for a further 5 minutes.If it looks like it's drying out, add a little more water. Serve with rice or nice, crusty Tiger bread.

Now, a dish with so much heart and soul in it, deserves an equally ardent and spicy playlist. We kick off with Fatboy Slim's 'Praise You', purely because it's got one of the silliest and funniest dance routines I've ever seen in my life. This is followed by one of the most eccentric and charismatic Cuban singers ever to roam this planet, La Lupe, and her take on this old classic 'I Did it My Way'. She was too hot to handle for the Cuban government post-1959, which banned her music from commercial radio until the early 90s. My beautiful island is still present in the next track with Mongo Santamaria on congas covering 'Afro Blue'. Nick Cave's powerful lyrics give our bodies a much needed respite, but not our minds, though; the prisoner's plight is still ringing in my ears by the end of his masterpiece 'Mercy Seat'. And who can forget one of the better intros ever? That'll be The Temptations 'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone '. St Germain's one of my favourite musical outifts for when I am cooking, especially soups, dahls or any kind of broth. They fill me up completely and 'So Flute' is one of my favourite tunes by them. I love the video, too. Martina Topley-Bird follows quickly after and despite the sound not being top quality in this clip, I seriously recommend it, 'Soul Food' is contagious and catchy. We finish as we began, with Fatboy Slim and who has he brought with him this time? None other than Mr Christopher Walken, he of that famous monologue in 'Pulp Fiction'. Oh, yes, you know, the one about the watch. Mr Walken happens to be also one of my favourite actors (when he's in the mood to perform, mind) and his cameo on this video is a pleasure to watch. 'Weapon of Choice', ladies and gentlemen.

By the way, this is the music I was cooking dahl to. If you choose to eat it whilst listening to it and you end up holding your sides and in stitches, don't blame me, blame Salva. Thanks.

Copyright 20008

Monday 15 December 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Bob Dylan - Blowing in the Wind)

Open letter to Ms Germaine Greer from Killer Opening Songs:

Dear Germaine,

For a long time now I have followed your writing avidly, especially your regular column in The Guardian newspaper every other Monday. Your insight into arts and literature is fascinating and thought-provoking. Your book '
The Female Eunuch' is currently sitting on my bookshelf and it won't be long before it and I become a temporary item, wandering around the streets of London arm in arm, metaphorically speaking. I even felt sorry for you the other night when you cameoed on 'Have I Got News For You', the BBC's flagship political satire programme, because of the rough time, I believe, you were given by your (male) counterparts.

As a critic, you speak your mind and you do it, usually, in a coherent and intelligent way. That's why I was so surprised to find your recent feature on Bob Dylan so lackadaisical and ill-informed.

Please, note that I am not questioning your right to like or dislike Bob's music. What I am bringing to the fore, rather, is the futility of the arguments you used in order to back up your theory.

First one in line has to be your certainty (or belief) that Dylan 'thought that rhyme equalled reason'. I disagree on all counts. The example you give, 'Visions of Johanna' is a chronicle in musical form, rather than an attempt to pair up words that rhyme. How's this for an intro?

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?/We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it/And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it/Lights flicker from the opposite loft/In this room the heat pipes just cough/The country music station plays soft/But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off/Just Louise and her lover so entwined/And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.

Secondly, it seems to me that your aversion to Bob's music stems rather from the fact that he kept his fans 'waiting at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969 for three hours, from 9 o'clock till midnight, before he would sing a word'. Notice the use of the possessive pronoun 'his'. You were not amongst those fans, so this is really 'animus by proxy'.

You also aver that Dylan's texts cannot be considered verse, not even doggerel. You then go on to assert that his prose makes no sense. But then you compare him to Morrissey, he of The Smiths, towards the end of your article. To me that's a contradiction. Although, I am not a The Smiths person, even I cannot fail to notice the long tradition of good story-telling that both Dylan and Morrissey draw from. How else to explain the obvious and in-your-face pessimism underpinning 'Heaven Knows I am Miserable Now'?

What she asked of me at the end of the day/Caligula would have blushed/"You've been in the house too long" she said/And I (naturally) fled. By the way, does it make any sense, Germaine?

You then compare Dylan to that stalwart of the Romantic period, William Blake. Just to be on the safe side, Ms Greer, Blake's works were at first considered to be the works of a madman. It was only years after he died that his poetry and painting acquired the high status they rightly deserved. Dylan, too, suffered misunderstanding when he began his career on account of his early compositions. Not everyone 'got' him. I have no idea why you had to dig out Blake's 'The Sick Rose' from his 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' to put one over the American troubadour. Your analysis of the fragment quoted is flawless, but it adds nothing new to your argument because one is verse and the other one is a song (Visions of Johanna). As to the difference between lyrics and words, which seems to me to be you main gripe, the online dictionary I normally default to, defines a lyric as having the form and musical quality of a song, and esp. the character of a songlike outpouring of the poet's own thoughts and feelings, as distinguished from epic and dramatic poetry. So, song, first, lyric after. And therein lies the importance of both poet and troubadour. Their works are usually short, romantic (broadly speaking) and, if possible, humorous. Pope knew it, so did Shakespeare. Facetiousness is present throughout Dylan's oeuvre, as well as in other modern poets/singer-songwriters' work. Listen to Ursula Rucker and you will hear sarcasm mixed with pain. This is not poetry/music for the faint-hearted. Listen to Dylan's 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' and the line 'But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked' provokes both mirth and pensiveness.

Further on in your feature you attempt to explain the differences between a singer-songwriter and a poet's creative process by pointing out how the former 'transforms his words in the way he writes the music and the way he sings his song' whereas the latter encapsulates this whole process in silence. What a lot of balderdash! To partially quote you, Ms Greer, 'fustian of this ilk' is what makes my blood boil. Poets also carry a musical voice inside. They might not use it in the same way a singer-songwriter does, but, believe you me, their poems have an innate musicality.

Lastly, these are your very own words in regards to the difference between lyrics and words of a song: 'The other aspect of a lyric is its mystery. A lyric does not explain itself, nor does it tell a story, except by implication(...)When Morrissey sings a Morrissey song, he knows exactly what colour every part of every word is meant to be(...)the music catapults the repetition towards us like a javelin. The music does what the words alone cannot do. To present the words without the music is to emasculate them.


You can still present the words without the music sometimes and they would still be considered lyrics. Two examples come to mind and both of them include repetition as a means to provoke a reaction in the listener. One is '
The Mercy Seat' by Nick Cave which includes the lines: 'They are sick breath at my hind/They are sick breath at my hind/They are sick breath at my hind/They are sick breath gathering at my hind' (notice that 'gathering' in the last line, a clever, little device from Nick, playing a mind game on the listener). The other example is Maya Angelou's anthemic poem 'Still I Rise' which contains the following verses: 'You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I'll rise(...)Just like moons and like suns/With the certainty of tides/Just like hopes springing high/Still I'll rise.

As for Bob Dylan, the American poet, singer-songwriter who is visiting the Killer Opening Songs lounge this week, I think it would be more fitting to allow his most powerful and inspiring K.O.S. ever to do the talk for him. And believe me, Germaine, there're no hard feelings from me to you whatsoever. Enjoy.

For earlier editions of Killer Opening Songs click on any of the links below

Killer Opening Songs (D'Angelo's Brown Sugar)
Killer Opening Songs (Sinéad O'Connor's 'Fire on Babylon')
Killer Opening Songs (Queen's Mustapha)
Killer Opening Songs (Caetano Veloso-Haiti)
Killer Opening Songs (David Bowie - Unwashed and S...
Killer Opening Songs (Massive Attack - Safe From H...
Killer Opening Songs (Bob Brozman)
Killer Opening Songs (Vanessa da Mata - Vermelho)
Killer Opening Songs (The Beatles-Help!)
Killer Opening Songs (Souad Massi-Raoui)
Killer Opening Songs (Habib Koité - Batoumambé)
Killer Opening Songs (Mary Black - No Frontiers)
Killer Opening Songs (Chico Buarque & Milton Nasci...
Killer Opening Songs (David Gilmour - Shine On You...
Killer Opening Songs (Ernesto Lecuona - 'La Compar...
Killer Opening Songs (Chopin 'Fantaisie-Impromptu ...
Killer Opening Songs (He Loves Me by Jill Scott)
Killer Opening Songs (Tracy Chapman - Talkin' 'bout A Revolution)
Killer Opening Songs (Patti Smith - Gloria)
Killer Opening Song (Silvio Rodriguez - Canción del Elegido)
Killer Opening Songs (Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit)
Killer Opening Songs (Fela Kuti and Jethro Tull - Jam Session)

Copyright 2008

Sunday 14 December 2008

Thursday 11 December 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Cantata)

'The Battle to Save the Semicolon'
Part of the current exhibition at the National Gallery
1st Oct 2008 - 1st Feb 2009
The National Gallery
Trafalgar Square
For more information on this exhibition click here.
Copyright 2008

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Fela Kuti and Jethro Tull - Jam Session)

This week Killer Opening Songs is not bringing you an introductory track, but rather, as part of our mini-series within a series of K.O.S. that became trailblazers in their own right, Your Weekly Column will be profiling the work of two of the most prolific musicians ever: Scottish-born Ian Anderson and Nigerian firebrand Fela Kuti.

Each artist developed his own revolutionary style, Anderson as leader of Jethro Tull, Fela as the backbone of Afrobeat, the rhythm he pioneered in the 70s with his band Africa '70. The Tull became one of the linchpins of the so-called prog-rock movement in the 60s and 70s despite the fact that their early recordings had a strong blues influence. Fela, meanwhile, brought his political activism to his music and, on returning to his homeland from LA in 1969, founded the Kalakuta Republic in Nigeria, turning it into a commune with a recording studio and home for those connected with the band.

The clip below shows these two artists' incredible musicianship. I hope you enjoy it. Killer Opening Songs certainly did.

Copyright 2008

Sunday 7 December 2008

Song for a Winter Sunday Morning

- No.

Act 1, Scene 1. London. Winter. Indoors. A fire is lit and two figures are stooping over it whilst rubbing their hands.

Me: No.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: But, why?
Me: Oh, I don't know, it's... it's... it's beyond my control.
Juan Antonio Pesetas (getting exasperated): Beyond your control? Who are you? Bloody John Malkovich playing Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, rejecting Michelle Pfeiffer?
Me: No, I mean it, it really is beyond my control. You see, I expected to find real winter in London when I arrived in the city eleven years ago. The kind they tell you about in fairy tales but the snow rarely materialises. And that's why I've always felt that winter in this city is fake. It gets cold, surely, very cold, but no snow.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: But you got it wrong, my friend.
Me: Don't call me your friend.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: I didn't call you 'your friend'. I called you 'my friend'.
Me: Yes, that's what I meant, 'my friend'. You're my alter ego.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: The dandy one.
Me: Yes, the dandy one.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Because in the absence of real taste you have to appeal to a man who knows how to dress properly.
Me: Hmmm...
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Don't 'hmmm' me. You know I am telling the truth and that's why you're reluctant to begin a new section of songs for winter Sunday mornings.
Me: No... I... it's hard to explain... I still don't believe in winter.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: That's not the point, is it? The point is, it has nothing to do with you believing in winter or not, it is to do with us, your alter egos, having some independence.
Me: Who's ever heard of alter egos being independent from the matrix?
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Have you seen 'The Matrix'?
Me: Yes, why?
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Because... ahhh, nothing... So, you are not going to budge, are you?
Me: I have no reason to.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: You have no reason to? How about the overwhelming response you had to your 'Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning' section?
Me: That was different. Autumn is different. It's full of delicate auburn hues, nostalgic sunsets and a sense of complete, melancholic abandon.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: And winter, on the other hand, carries its grey, white and blue very well. It's a far more elegant season. It lays bare landscapes' anatomies. It unearthes gardens' bones and through its microscopic eye we are able to see the various components that make up our surroundings without the distraction of those terribly garish summer colours.
Me: I take it that you're not a summer person.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: You know that very well, don't you? At the end of the day I inhabit your brain. By the way it's getting a bit crammed in these days up there, what with Autumn Songs, Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning, Road Songs and Food/Music arguing over space I can barely stand upright now.
Me: Sorry about that.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Oh, yes, and Living in a Bilingual World was complaining the other day about inappropriate working conditions. The word 'trade union' was muttered in Spanish, French and German.
Me: Thanks for the tip.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: You're welcome. Back to winter. Yes, or not?
Me: OK, what have you got for me, then?
Juan Antonio Pesetas (growing visibly excited): Oh, boy, you're going to love this. Songswise, I've got 'El Cóndor Pasa', 'Hallelujah', 'Angie', 'The Secret Life of Plants', the list goes on.
Me: And artists?
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Artists? The lot. I. Have. Got. The. Lot. From Beny Moré to Billie Holiday, Rufus Wainwright, Cesária Évora, Simon and Garfunkel, Chambao, Martine Girault.
Me: Well, it seems to me that you have everything pretty tied up.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Yes, none of your 'it's beyond my control' malarkey. And what's more, Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning did a little compilation for us, readers and fellow bloggers, of all the tracks it played recently, week in, week out. Scroll down to the bottom of this post and relive again those beautiful, orange-tinted mornings. The order has been altered, though. It's more like a random playlist.
Me: Well, that's it, then. (looking at YOU out of the computer screen) From today until the spring every Sunday morning you, my dear reader and/or fellow blogger, are invited to come in, sit down in my little cyber-house, kick your shoes off and enjoy watching a clip especially selected to withstand these cold winter mornings (only if you live in the northern hemisphere, mind). In the meantime I will be busy in my cyber-kitchen making us both a hot cuppa, coffee for me, though. I am not a tea person. And all thanks to one of my alter egos, Juan Antonio Pesetas. Thanks, Juan.

Silence. Juan Antonio Pesetas stares at me intently.

Me: What's the matter?
Juan Antonio Pesetas: There's something else...
Me: Yes?
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Have you made a decision yet?
Me: About what?
Juan Antonio Pesetas: About... you know... what you've been working on for a very long time...
Me: Ahhh! I almost forgot! No, I'm sorry, Juan, it's been hectic these days.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Yes, but you started it, seventeen years ago.
Me: I know, I know, Juan, and I am also aware that I had a stab at it about two years ago and I managed to squeeze a few ideas out of it.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: How many pages so far?
Me: Forty-seven at the last count.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Forty-seven? Forty-seven pages in seventeen years?
Me: Well, you know that I did not start it in Cuba.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Yes, but you conceived it there! Did you not?
Me: Juan, I don't need your aggro now, mate. It'll get done when it'll get done.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Really?
Me: Don't look at me like that. It'll get done.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: That's not what I would like to hear. I would like to hear the phrase 'it will be done'.
Me: OK, it will be done.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Fine, can you crouch down now, please? I need to go back in.
Me: Be careful.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Yes, I don't need reminding, though. The other day I almost fell on top of Road Songs' head.
Me: Can you give it a message from me, please? Tell it that I am preparing a one-off post to be uploaded very soon. It's a type of hootenany.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Consider it done. Cheerio.
Me: Cheerio, Juan. Chao.
'El Cóndor Pasa' - Performed by Drip Trio

'Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning' Compilation

Image by photographer Cornell Capa, from Life Magazine Archive.

Copyright 2008

Thursday 4 December 2008

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...

This is a little nod to my vegetarian readers and fellow bloggers. Thanks to Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi, the chef/patron of Ottolenghi in London. This recipe was first published in The Guardian's Weekend supplement.
Serves four to six.
Chickpea, tomato and bread soup

1 large onion, sliced
1 medium fennel, sliced
About 120ml olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled, cut along the centre and sliced3 sticks celery, sliced
1 tbsp tomato paste
250ml white wine
1 tin Italian plum tomatoes
1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp picked fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp caster sugar
2 bay leaves
1 litre vegetable stock
Salt and black pepper
160g stale sour dough bread (crust removed)
400g cooked chickpeas
4 tbsp basil pesto
1 handful fresh basil leaves

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Put the onion and fennel in a big pot, add three tablespoons of oil and sauté on medium heat for four minutes. Add the carrot and celery, and cook for four minutes, just to soften the vegetables, stirring occasionally. Stir in the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for a minute. Add the wine and let it bubble away for a minute or two. Add the tomatoes and their juices, herbs, sugar, bay, stock and season. Bring to a boil, then leave to simmer gently for 30 minutes.

While you wait, break the bread into rough chunks with your hands, toss with two tablespoons of oil and some salt, scatter in a roasting tray and bake for 10 minutes, until dry. Remove from the oven and set aside.

About 10 minutes before you want to serve, put the chickpeas in a bowl and crush them a little with a potato masher or the end of a rolling pin - you want quite a rough texture, with some chickpeas left whole and others completely mashed. Add the chickpeas to the soup and leave to simmer for five minutes. Finally, stir in the toasted bread, and cook for another five minutes.

Taste the soup, and add salt and pepper liberally. Pour the hot soup into shallow soup bowls, place a spoonful of pesto in the centre, drizzle with plenty of olive oil and finish with a generous scattering of freshly shredded basil.
Playlist to go with this dish
Amel Larrieux - Get Up
Esbjörn Svensson Trio - When God Created The Coffeebreak
Emiliana Torrini - Sunny Road
Mercan Dede - Istanbul
Talking Heads - Slippery People
Lhasa De Sela - Who By Fire

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit)

In 1991 Seattle conquered the world.

As statements go, they don't get more opinionated and boisterous than the one above. But Killer Opening Songs has a big mouth. Oh yes! And K.O.S. will demonstrate immediately why the caption decorating the top of this post is not just a display of cheap bravado.

By the time Nirvana broke into the pop charts with their sophomore album, 'Nevermind', the musical scene had totally changed. Glam metal was in freefall with bands like Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe almost collecting their pensions whereas rap was becoming comercially successful with the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul releasing ground-breaking records. This was also the year when Freddie Mercury, Queen's erstwhile singer, died of AIDS, prompting 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to top the charts once again sixteen years after its first release. It was this musical vacuum that grunge stepped into, turning Seattle into the hotbed of alternative rock'n'roll. And the song responsible for that? 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.

However, it would be totally irresponsible and unfair to claim that Nirvana invented grunge. This particular musical style had been doing the rounds since the mid 80s in the USA, a spin-off of hardcore punk and heavy metal. What happpened in the early 90s was that grunge stripped down its image and bared its teeth. Out went the big perms from the eighties, in came shorter hair, checked shirts and baggy trousers. Instead of the usual 30-second guitar solo so typical of bands like Poison and Whitesnake, bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains went for a sludgier and more distortioned guitar sound. The lyrics got angrier and so did the feelings expressed by what then began to be known as 'Generation X'.

On the other hand, though, it would not be too far-fetched for K.O.S. to claim that 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' opened the floodgates of the grunge movement and brought it into the mainstream. DGC Records was hoping to shift a maximum 250 000 units of 'Nevermind'. In the event, the album was selling 400 000 copies a week in the US by Christmas 1991.

The song, as such, has become an anthem for young people around the world who feel disenfranchised, alienated and confined. From the iconic intro, the main feature why Killer Opening Songs has always regarded it so highly, to the guitar solo, which, in a blatant break from convention replicated the lyrics verbatim, only instrumentally, this is the track that encapsulated the movement's ethos.

'Smells Like Teen Spirit' has been covered by many artists over the years, Tori Amos and Patti Smith are but two of them. Without wanting to come across too snobbish, K.O.S. has not been always happy with the outcome. This is an angry song by and for an angry generation and the stripped down, acoustic versions that abound sap the energy that is so ubiquitous in the original piece. Only Kelis, in K.O.S.' humble opinion did it justice a few years ago when she played the Glastonbury Festival.

So, another week, another Killer Opening Song. Enjoy.

Copyright 2008

Thursday 27 November 2008

Killer Opening Song (Silvio Rodriguez - Canción del Elegido)

As part of our mini-series within a series of Killer Opening Songs that have become musical milestones in their own right, K.O.S. has invited the Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez to the lounge this week.

But before we set off on this musical journey together, a word of caution. This blog prides itself in being a paragon of common sense and respect. An open mind is a must-have accesory when you stroll through the doors of my small, but cozy, inviting and intimate cyber-house. Occasionally you won't like what's being played, shown or written, but the reader/blogger can rest assured that utmost care has always been taken before deciding to upload a particular post.

Why these cautionary words, maybe our non-Cuban friends are asking themselves? The answer is simple. Throughout his forty years of writing and performing music, Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez has become a byword for excellence in composition (an Ivor Novello would not go amiss) and political cowardice. His name provokes both admiration and anger. His masterpieces are highly celebrated around the Spanish-speaking world and derided in the same lofty way. Why this opprobium heaped upon this deft guitarist and marvellous lyricist? Because Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez at some point made the conscious decision to jettison the ideals that he sung to in his early years.

Which poses the following question: so what? Anyone born and bred in Cuba will be aware of the double-think process one is subjected to from day one. Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez has not been the only person to get into the bed with the same bureaucrats he used to lay into in his songs in his halcyon days, nor will he be the last one. Moreover, he is part of Cuba's cultural history, whether we like it or not and he will remain in that pole position, where we placed him decades ago, for years to come.

That cautionary note aside, let's allow K.O.S. to explain why he has invited such controversial musician to Our Weekly Session.

1969 was a roller-coaster for music in general: Led Zeppelin debuted their trail-blazing 'Led Zeppelin I' album, which paved the way for heavy metal whilst The Beatles gave an impromptu performance on the rooftop of Apple Records, which proved to be their last ever appearance in public. Other cultural events included: The Woodstock and Altamont Free Concert Festivals, the former is still considered a powerful symbol of the hippy era, the latter was viewed by many as the end of the make-love-not-war sixties. In the political arena the Vietnam war was still raging and causing uproar amongst the younger generation, spanning countless demonstrations in the process, whilst NASA and the Soviet Union were still in their 'swords-at-dawn' phase over control of outer space.

Away from these convulsions, but still with a heavy dose of political, ideological and social content in his songs, a Cuban singer was making inroads in the then nascent Nueva Trova (New Song Movement). This was a musical phenomenon that sprung mainly from Cuba's ever-inquisitive young people, who, although still sided with Castro's revolution, had already begun to question some of the narrow-minded decisions made on their behalf but without their consultation.

Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez was one of the movement's greatest spokespeople. His songs were full of the type of poetry that Night has always sought in vain to produce and which It can only achieve just as It's about to be swallowed up by the Sun, Its verses getting lost in the mist of dawn. Hence, it's always been the poet's job to collect those stanzas that have fallen off Night's bosom and stamp them on the empty page. Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez was that poet and singer. Because his lyrics were hard to understand the government chose to ignore him first and to censure him after. Thus, under these circumstances the Cuban singer-songwriter embarked on a journey bound for west Africa on board the Playa Girón fishing boat in September 1969. Nobody expected Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez back. And yet, he returned and the resulting album 'Al Final de Este Viaje...' ('At the End of This Journey...') laid the grounds for the further development of the Nueva Trova. From the Killer Opening Song, 'Canción del Elegido (The Chosen One's Song)' to the album title track, Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez touched upon issues like: social prejudices against women ('La Familia, La Propiedad Privada y el Amor/Family, Private Property and Love'), artistic integrity vs artistic compromise ('Debo Partirme en Dos/I Must Split Myself in Half') and his generation's eternal fight against the Cuban government's bureaucratic machinery ('Resumen de Noticias/News Round-up').

In his 1996 book 'Canciones del Mar/Seasongs' Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez wrote that 'Canción del Elegido (The Chosen One's Song') was an enigma to be deciphered. The truth is that many people thought it a reference to Che Guevara, whereas others firmly believed it was a paean to Jesus Christ. But that's Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez for you, an enigma. What cannot be denied is that this Killer Opening Song ushered in not only a whole catalogue of masterpieces ('Óleo de una Mujer con Sombrero/Woman with Hat', his homage to Chagall and '¿Qué Se Puede Hacer con el Amor?/What Shall We Do About Love'?, his questioning of love and its contradictions) but also a whole new era of song-writing.

The song as such is not without its imperfections. The last stanza seems to be an open invitation to wage war in order to achieve peace, a notion that the invasion to Iraq has already put paid to (Supo la historia de un golpe/sintió en su cabeza cristales molidos/y comprendió que la guerra/era la paz del futuro/lo más terrible se aprende enseguida/y lo hermoso nos cuesta la vida/La última vez lo vi irse/entre humo y metralla, contento y desnudo/iba matando canallas/con su cañón de futuro/He learnt about the history very quickly/and he felt as if his head was full of shards/it occurred to him that war was future's peace...), however, K.O.S. has to analyse the Cuban musician within the social and political context he was living in at the time and that was (and still is) the type of rhetoric one often hears in Cuba (no matter how anti-war the government portrays itself to be).

Very often Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez has been compared to Bob Dylan, an artist K.O.S. will be inviting to Our Weekly Session in a few weeks. Insofar as we see both musicians as trailblazers, anti-establishment (at the beginning of their careers) and artistically prolific, K.O.S has no problem at all with this analogy. Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez also suffered a dip in his popularity when he sought to branch out into other genres. This not always reaped the creative rewards his many fans expected and the backlash arrived in no time.

There should be no doubt, however, that Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez' music belongs in the Cuban cultural pantheon, despite his political leaning and his subsequent servitude over the years to the same government that attempted to close him down at first. And it is for his artistic talent that Killer Opening Songs features this important Cuban singer-songwriter this week. Enjoy.

(Note: This clip is from a concert Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez gave in Madrid in 1979).

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Serenade)

I am still trudging through Simone de Beauvoir's feminist masterpiece 'The Second Sex' (see navigation bar on the right handside of the blog) and it's funny how I have fallen hook, line and sinker in the linguistic traps that the French writer has unintentionally placed on my path.

In Part 3, 'Myths', Chapter 1, 'Dreams, Fears and Idols', de Beauvoir addresses the feminine attributes that one usually sees cities, nations and abstract entities attired with. Obviously this bold approach set my linguistic pulse racing and with two dictionaries in hand (French and German) I ventured forth, attempting to understand the examples she numbers in her book.

Simone's exegesis includes the words: Church, Synagogue, Republic, Humanity, Peace, War, Liberty, Revolution and Victory. In her own words, 'Man feminizes the ideal he sets up before him as the essential Other, because woman is the material representation of alterity; that is why almost all allegories, in language as in pictorial representation, are women'. In short, the fact that man places these lofty ideals on a pedestal makes woman unreachable and unattainable, a perfect excuse to deny her her right to be a human being. What cannot be touched, cannot be experienced, other than through quasi-religious contact.

And is it any wonder that, in de Beauvoir's own words, this is a phenomenon encouraged mainly by the Christian world? No, it shouldn't be surprising because in Christian imagery 'Woman is the Soul and Idea, but she also is a mediatrix between them: she is the divine Grace, leading the Christian towards God, she is Beatrice guiding Dante in the beyond, Laura summoning Petrarch to the lofty summits of poetry' (op. cit.).

The curious element here, though, is that out of the four languages I analysed, three proved de Beauvoir's theory with a couple of exceptions.

The Church - La Iglesia (Spa) - L'Église (Fr) - Die Kirche (Ger)
The Synagogue - La Sinagoga - La Synagogue - Die Synanoge
The Republic - La República - La République - Die Republik
The Humanity - La Humanidad - L’Humanité - Die Menschlichkeit
The Peace - La Paz - La Paix - Die Friede
The War - La Guerra - La Guerre - Der Krieg (masculine, one of two exceptions to the rule)
The Liberty - La Libertad - La Liberté - Die Freiheit
The Revolution - La Revolución - La Révolution - Die Revolution
The Victory - La Victoria - La Victoire - Der Sieg (the other exception)

As you can see there's only one language that escapes this categorisation. And yes, my dear readers, you guessed it right. English.

This linguistic hybrid, the result of Anglo-Saxon-Jute migration from Denmark and northern Germany plus some French and Latin thrown in for good measure, is the only lexicon of the six more popular modern languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Italian and English) to have a neutral definite pronoun regardless of gender and number. A cause for celebration? Or a reason to despair? As a non-native speaker I find this fact comforting. It is a soft cushion aimed at protecting me against the grammatical rigour imposed by the other five.

And yet... yet... yet, as I continued to read 'The Second Sex' I could not help wondering whether despite this linguistic peculiarity English speakers still saw the nouns listed above in a feminine way rather than in their neutral natural form.

So, this is your homework for this week, my dear English speakers (and the rest, too, of course). When you think of 'Peace' and 'Liberty', just to use two of the examples above, do you see the female of the species or do you see neutrality?

Copyright 2008

Friday 21 November 2008

Book Meme

'A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.'
(Oscar Wilde)

I have just been meme-tagged by High Desert Diva and the task at hand is to provide a list of books falling into the categories below and write about their importance to me in no more than 30 words. So, here it goes:

-Non Fiction.
-A book of my choice from any genre.

If you notice a dose of cynicism in the books I have selected that's because over the years I have become less naive and more pragmatic. But, please, let us not confuse cynicism and pragmatism with pessimism and defeatism. I still believe in the power of the individual to contribute to society's improvement. If it wasn't for the faith I have in human beings and their power (our power, rather) I would have thrown the towel in the ring long ago. And the writers below, in my humble opinion, attest to human beings' marvellous capacity of producing valuable works of art even when the odds are stacked against them. You can kill the man or woman, but you cannot kill the idea.

Fiction: 1984 by George Orwell. Orwell's masterpiece arrived on my lap unannounced in my second or third year in uni. More than fifteen years after I am still haunted by this dystopian novel.

Autobiography: Malcom X as told to Alex Haley. Malcolm's U-turn in regards to white people is one of the many reasons I always come back to this book. It shows this charismatic leader's human side.

Non Fiction: Virgilio Piñera en Persona por Carlos Espinosa (Virgilio Piñera in the Flesh). Excellent Cuban playwright, poet and short-story writer. Silenced by the Cuban government for being everything they hated: a gay intellectual. A must-read for literature lovers.

Book of my choice from any genre: 'Oryx and Crake' by Margaret Atwood. Margaret is one of the few authors on whom I can rely to provide me with wisdom and humour in a book, without either genre harming the content. Amazing writer.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Patti Smith - Gloria)

'Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine'. If there's a more powerful opening line of a Killer Opening Song in a debut album, K.O.S. would love to know. Answers on a postcard, please. This opening salvo from Patti Smith's first album 'Horses' paved the way for punk rock. Although it would be a tad bit unfair to box Patti in this category. This is a performer who has always defied labels. She is a poet, a singer-songwriter, an activist and an artist. Through her music she has married two old American traditions on integrating beat poetry with three-chord rock.

Patricia Lee Smith was born in 1946 in Chicago, Illinois. She was raised in a religious household and as she was growing up she found the world depicted by the Bible too confining. Hence the aforementioned opening line in her version of the Them's Gloria was a response to her theistic upbringing.

Patti has often been called the 'Godmother of Punk', which K.O.S. finds somewhat limiting as Smith's music has always been slightly different from the DIY style favoured by bands like Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks. Also, Patti's dalliances with poetry and art have placed her musical oeuvre in a more aesthetically position, raw and feisty lyrics notwithstanding. In fact, K.O.S. would go as far as to claim that hers was a more experimental take on rock music that veered more towards the ecclectic British bands from the 70s prog rock movement (minus flowers on heads and flying pigs) than the amateurish attitude of most punk performers of that era.

To back this up, readers and fellow bloggers need only look at the cover of Patti's already mentioned opera prima, 'Horses'. The photo was taken by Patti's long-time friend, Robert Mapplethorpe using natural light in a penthouse in Greenwich Village. It has since become one of rock's iconic images.

Patti continues to tour, compose, paint and her activism shows no signs of abating either. A couple of years ago she curated London's Southbank's Meltdown Festival, where she performed the album 'Horses' in its entirety.

Killer Opening Songs is proud to profile this artist as part of its series about musicians whose introductory tracks have become musical landmarks.

Note: It was hard getting hold of a clip of the song 'Gloria' on youtube. So, on this video Patti Smith performs two songs, 'Gloria' and 'We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together' by The Velvet Underground. I hope you enjoy it.

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Ballet Rambert on Tour: The Torturers Impress But the Victim Underperforms

'What cannot be said can be sung, and what cannot be sung can be danced.'
Martha Graham, American choreographer
Ballet Rambert was founded on the basis of a dynamic triangle: its body of dancers would create choreographers who would then be introduced to the more outstanding composers and designers of their time. This triumvirate was at the heart of their theatrical outlook and it still dazzles today.

Alas, that was not the case this time around.

Last Saturday 15th November I took my seat at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in Islington, north London, expecting to be swept away by the same bravura performance which has characterised my previous exposures to Ballet Rambert.

The programme consisted of two pieces, 'Swansong', Christopher Bruce's timeless 1987 classic and a new choregraphy, 'Eternal Light', a post-modernistic Requiem for the 21st century. Before each piece, though, Mark Baldwin, Rambert's current artistic director, took it upon himself to give us a little insight into the company's modus operandi. This was very welcomed as he had a group of contemporary dancer and classical ballet performers demonstrate to the attending public (including many children and youngsters) the main differences between both disciplines. It was only when his light-hearted and humourous approach permeated the seriousness of the first piece that I foresaw the disaster looming ahead.

'Swansong' is a three-men choreography that deals with torture, although it could also be taken as an allegory for any type of abuse or bullying. The first time I saw this piece was on video, my wife had an old copy of one of the first performances ever and I remember getting butterflies in my stomach as the choreography built towards its tragic finale.

On Saturday the torturers danced magnificently. Their sadistic homo-eroticism towards the hapless victim was believable and it was further punctuated by the repetition of tap dance steps which they then got the prisoner to replicate against his will. Their bent hands, supple limbs, stuck out backsides and sinuous figures seemed to mock the status quo, possibly because it was the status quo that had conferred upon them the right to behave (or misbehave) in such a sadistic way. The interaction between torturers and prisoner brought to mind pictures of 'A Clockwork Orange', the movie I have never been able to watch in its entirety in one sitting. Other images and thoughts that flashed through my mind were linked to Abu Ghraib, the Nazis, Pinochet's junta and Cuba's very own Villa Marista, a jail for mainly political prisoners in Havana, because it's not only in the US-controlled area of Guantanamo where innocents are castigated unjustly. Excesses do happen on the other side of the fence. The dancer performing the victim was not bad but he was not outstanding either. His solos were, in my opinion, devoid of vim and vigour and that ultimately affected the piece as a whole. It is not good to compare performers but it was only a year ago that I saw the same piece with a different dancer in the victim's role and I could not hold back the tears during the finale.

After a short break it was the turn for 'Eternal Light'.This was a piece based on, according to Mark Baldwin, the choreographer, Remembrance Day and hope. And you could hardly fault him for trying to convey the symbolism of these two powerful ideas. It started ever so promising. Eryck Brahmania soloed in front of the corps de ballet, who remained on the floor. His movements were slow and lethargic. After a few minutes he joined the rest of the dance choir. Suddenly a curtains crawled up whilst letting a tenuous green light in. The whole body of dancers moved at the same time in what seemed to be some sort of Oriental dance or martial art. So far, so promising. But then it all went downhill.

Set to a score that incorporated a choir singing in English and Latin and two soloists (one male, one female), 'Eternal Light' did not appear on the bill with the tag 'Underachiever' attached to it. And in my opinion that was the main cause for its ultimate undoing. Too much (self) indulgence. With its quasi-religious Christian imagery and marvellous music, the piece raised my expectations too high and failed to deliver them. There were a few moments of consolation, but too scant to mention: a duet here, a solo there, but overall, Eternal Light was a razzmatazz of disparate pieces that did not connect very well.

Thus, on analysing this last piece I can only think of paraphrasing Martha Graham's words: 'What cannot be said can be sung, and what cannot be sung can be danced, although sometimes it's better if the latter is avoided.'

Note: The soundtrack of the clip below is one of the ten movements of the aforementioned choreography 'Eternal Light'.

Copyright 2008

Sunday 16 November 2008

Happy Birthday My Grand Dame!

Excuse me, please, please, you, the 489-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 I would by being together with you, you and I, entwined at the hip for 26 years, the time I spent living in you. 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 visitors to your shores 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 wherever 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 after. 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 last year, 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.

Note: This column was first published on 16 November 20007 and it has since been amended.

Copyright 20008

Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning

Marisa Monte, Carlinhos Brown, Bebo Valdés and Cézar Mendes - Músico (many thanks to Adriana for this lovely birthday present)

Thursday 13 November 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Tracy Chapman - Talkin' 'bout A Revolution)

So, where were you when Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States of America? That is one of the two questions that future generations will be asking us in years to come. The other one will be: What were you doing whilst history was being made?

To which Killer Opening Songs will reply... will reply... will reply...
Psssss, psssss... K.O.S., come out from under the bed, mate, it's all right, people will understand, you don't have to be ashamed of anything. See, we all have a soft, romantic, idealistic side and you, as part of me, but without being totally me which makes you a third of you with two thirds of me thrown in for good measure... Oh, I digress. Anyway, we all have moments when we are swallowed up by the surrounding euphoria and dare to dream. And that's what you were doing last Tuesday 4th November in the evening whilst washing up. Dreaming. That was the day the USA had chosen to vote. That was the day that the USA had picked up to make history. But you did not know that because you are five hours ahead of those who live in the East Coast and eight of those who dwell in the West Coast, so in your own way and guided by your subsconscious mind (capricious human artifact whose spell we fall under once in a while) your hand reached for that CD that many years ago had shaken you to the core. Those 36 minutes, 11 seconds of pure and blissful paradise. And you dared to do the impossible in these times of political cynicism and social misanthropy. You dared to dream. And as the first lines of 'Talkin' 'bout a Revolution', the Killer Opening Song from Tracey Chapman's eponymously titled debut album, blared out of the stereo in your kitchen, you felt as if the verses were clinging to your skin and you were being enveloped in a feverish embrace. Tracy Chapman's voice manages to capture that 80s angst caused by Reagan and Thatcher's laissez-faire market policies. And you couldn't find a more appropriate time to play this masterpiece than on that night:
Finally the tables are starting to turn/Talking about a revolution/Finally the tables are starting to turn/Talking about a revolution oh no/Talking about a revolution oh no
There are Killer Opening Songs that become trail-blazers in their own right. Their other-worldly nature strikes the listener as much an allegory as a melody. And tonight K.O.S. will be opening another mini-section within a section: tracks at the beginning of an album that have become either trendsetters or generational benchmarks. Some of them might feature famous guitar riffs, whereas other will boast powerful lyrics. There will be tunes whose delicate delivery will be the equivalent of venturing into a magical realm, maybe reminiscent of the Aztecs' cultural exuberance or the enchantment of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales.
These weekly Proustian memories (although on this subject the late French writer might have disagreed with K.O.S. as these souvenirs will be retrieved by intelligence, rather than by accident. My riposte would be that on being the object, K.O.S. turns the listener into the subject and therefore the effect of listening to a Killer Opening Song that has become a musical milestone in its own right is an involuntary act, pretty much the essence of the Proustian memory) will unlock episodes of our past lives which will produce elation and joy on being relived. So, a stiff upper lip and self-restraint are called for. K.O.S. would not like its beautiful bloggy-house to be flooded by readers' tears. Oh, all right, go on, bring out your hankies, let's all have a good ol' sob, shall we!
In the meantime, let's enjoy once more this epic song from a bygone era (a more innocent one, I would hazard to add) and let's sing together: Finally the tables are starting to turn/Talking about a revolution/Finally the tables are starting to turn/Talking about a revolution oh no/Talking about a revolution oh no.

Irreverent note: In nine months' time will we be able to say that Obama also contributed to the growth of the world's population (although inadvertently, mind)? And how many of those babies will be called Obama? Just a thought.

Copyright 2008

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Allegro)

- But I don't want to do it that way, papi. It's... it's... it's... boring.
- Yes, I understand what you're saying, nene, but there's no other way of learning a foreign language.
- Yes, but that's what you used to do in university, I don't have to do the same.

I was fighting a losing battle. For months now I thought I had talked Son into writing down the words he did not understand everytime we read together in Spanish. I firmly believed that he had realised the importance of scribbling hitherto unknown terms and phrases and going over them later. But I could see now that my attempts had been futile. Son had pretended all this time to agree with me whilst covertly wishing to flee this so-called linguistic prison I had placed him in. A younger version of the Count of Montecristo perhaps.

The fact is that I learned English by both imitiation and perseverance. The former was through copying the accents of various actors I came across on telly or at the pictures, usually American and always very well-known. Thus I had my Steve Martin phase (The Man with Two Brains), my Dustin Hoffman phase (Kramer vs Kramer), my Denzel Washington phase (Malcolm X) and my John Malkovich phase (Dangerous Liaisons). There were others, surely, like Murphy (Boomerang), Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) and John Cusack (High Fidelity). At home I used to cover the subtitles on the screen everytime I was watching a movie on my own (unlike in Spain where films are dubbed, in Cuba they are subtitled, which makes it easier for foreign languages students to grasp at least a little of the content of the movie and practise their listening skills).

Perseverance was even more rewarding. I used to walk around Havana with a pen/pencil and a notepad and whenever I had a chance I sat down and scribbled on my little notebook the words and phrases I had learned that day, be it at uni or after going to the pictures. I, then, proceeded to place them in differente contexts from the one I had just seen them in. This resulted in me amassing a large vocabulary through the end of my second year in uni. I had hoped that Son would follow in my footsteps with Spanish. How wrong I was.

And the issue is that he is his own little person with a different personality to mine. Whereas I fret over words I don't understand and whose origin is obscure, he prefers to sit on my lap and ask me directly and without the interference of a dictionary the meaning of the words he doesn't understand. Wife said to me: 'Leave him be, he's only ten and he's not you'. Daughter also joined in the chorus of disapproving voices and articulated her opinion: 'Sometimes we just want to play, not learn'. In the end, I gave up. He no longer brings down his dictionary, notepad and pencil. He no longer gets off my lap momentarily to jot down the terms which I hope will be flouncing out of his mouth in a lively and bouncy manner in the immediate future. Instead we both sit together by the light of the lamp in our lounge and we read in silence, occasionally interrupted by the sound of his young, ten-year-old voice asking me: Papi, what's the meaning of this word? But instead of sending him straight to our bilingual hardback friend, I just look into his eyes and say: It means so and so, Son.

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...

What I love about this dish is the comfort it brings to my soul. The combination of chorizo and cayenne pepper is one spicy duet that I can never say no to. And now that autumn is about to forsake us until next year (cue tears) and winter is finally making its presence known, I need this type of cozy dish to keep me warm during these long cold nights.

Pinto bean, black bean and chorizo soup courtesy of Allegra McEvedy in The Guardian

75g dried pinto beans
75g dried black turtle beans
250g good-quality raw chorizo sausages
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 red pepper, medium diced
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes
1-1.5l chicken stock
1/5 savoy cabbage, chopped
A big handful of coriander, chopped
Salt and pepper
Soak the pinto and black turtle beans in cold water overnight. Next day, drain them, cover them with fresh water and cook them in their own pots. Cook them all the way through but not to total collapse. Dice the chorizo into medium cubes and get your oil warming in a deep, thick saucepan. Sizzle the chorizo until it has browned and that red oil starts to seep out but beware: the golden brown sausage and lustrous red oil can quickly turn to brown-black in an instant if the heat is too high.

Stir in your spices, red pepper, garlic and onion; turn the heat up a bit and cook until translucent and all well mingled together. Season with sea salt.

Add the tomatoes, let it all burble together for around 10 minutes, then add a litre of stock and reduce on a well-maintained simmer for 20 minutes.

Drain the beans, keeping about half a litre of the cooking liquor, and then stir the beans, liquor and the cabbage in well. Cook for another 20 minutes, letting the soup simmer down to a pleasing thickness, and turn off the heat for a bit of a rest. Give it five minutes with a lid on to let the flavours settle.

Check the seasoning and consistency, letting it down with the remaining stock if you fancy, and stir in the chopped coriander before serving.

• Extracted from Leon: Ingredients and Recipes, by Allegra McEvedy, published by Conran Octopus.
Image taken from Roshani's website.

Playlist to go with this dish:

Breaking the Girl-Red Hot Chili Peppers
Police and Thieves- Juno Marvin
Lisa Loeb - Stay (I Missed You)
Maxwell - This Woman's Work
Corinne Bailey Rae- Put Your Records On
Jose Feliciano - Ain't No Sunshine


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