Monday, 31 March 2008
Friday, 28 March 2008
What do we hear first? The shuffling of feet? The poet's voice? The musical note?
What do we see first? The arabesque? The written transcription? The keys?
What do we feel first? The fiddles? The dancer's angst? The poet's watchful eyes?
Rite of Spring
So winter closed its fist
And got it stuck in the pump.
The plunger froze up a lump
In its throat, ice founding itself
Upon iron. The handle
Paralysed at an angle.
Then the twisting of wheat straw
into ropes, lapping them tight
Round stem and snout, then a light
That sent the pump up in a flame
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.
Thursday, 27 March 2008
This is a run-of-the-mill journey. You have done it so many times. You’re going coffee-shopping. There’s only one supermarket in the entire borough that stocks the coffee you like and you go there at least once a month to purchase it. You know the route by rote. You could even drive there with your eyes closed. Every street, every traffic signal invites recognition. Even the people are the same. London can seem so provincial sometimes. As you come closer to your destination you stop at a set of traffic lights. Ahead of you the road curves upwards, thus, becoming the surname of this north London quartier. The light changes to green and you continue up that hill now, placidly, humming a tune or listening to the football on the car radio.
And suddenly it happens.
There, to your right there’s a road. Not just any ordinary road, mind. Or rather, it IS an ordinary road. But not anymore. This patch of asphalt has claimed your memory and left you speechless for a nanosecond.
Because it resembles another road, in another country, in another city.
The truth of the matter is that it does not really look like that foreign road at all. The architecture is different; for starters, the houses on either side point at human existence and the cars on the road betray drivers indoors. That other road, in that other country, in that other city, has fewer houses and a big fan on one side of the street, probably belonging to a factory.
But more importantly, one street is in London, and the other one is in Havana.
Yet you still want this road to look like that other one you left behind in November 1997.
I call this unbidden nostalgia. This is not the usual bittersweet longing for the past that the ancient Greeks labelled thus. This is not the gathering with friends that leads to ‘Do you remember…?’ sessions where tears are shed as photos are passed round. This is an uninvited feeling that overwhelms you wherever you are. It calls no one’s door and yet strolls through the front gate and by the time you realise it has sat down and shared your food.
Unbidden nostalgia is a frightening and yet wonderful feeling that tears through the fabric of your memory. It can be anything, someone moving an arm in an incongruous way on the tube, a starry sky at night or a… road.
Music is like that sometimes, too. Unbidden nostalgia in music is not the type that you carry around on your Ipod Nano or the one you stash away on your computer’s playlists. No, unbidden nostalgia will assail you whilst you are in the pub with a few of your mates and all of a sudden a track that you had forgotten about aeons ago comes on the jukebox. You did not even use to like it then to be honest, but never mind, it is eating you alive. And you stand up, walk down the carpeted floor and approach the machine. And by now, who cares? Someone has turned the tap on and your cheeks are wet and you know you can’t, you won’t, and you don’t want to stop it.
Although I am more jaded and cynical now, there was a time in the late 80s when I believed in a brighter future and this song became part of the sountrack accompanying that mood. To me it was also a song that helped me understand the racial prejudices that existed and still exist in Cuban society. I became so keen on Tracy that my mates quipped with me on whether I had a crush on her (I did) and on how dark-skinned she was. The barrage of epithets that I heard my fellow classmates from the Saúl Delgado College utter about this extraordinary singer laid the foundations for what would later become my quest for my own African roots. I remember copying her style of jeans and vest a little bit and being enthused by her songs 'Fast Car', 'Baby Can I Hold You Tonight?' and 'Behind the Wall'. Dazzling.
Sunday, 23 March 2008
Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Whilst one of my senses was suffering, my mood changed and a feeling of helplessness kicked in. I felt deprived, especially in the morning when right after waking up a sentiment of despondency overcame me. Finally on Wednesday last week I went to see the nurse and within 30 minutes I was back to normal. Caveat, though, I am not going back to have the same treatment. By law nowadays nurses and doctors must give patients a run-down of perilous side-effects that might occur after they undergo any type of medical procedure. Amongst the ones that cleaning a blocked ear can bring about are partial or total deafness and heart attack. So, next time it will be the olive oil.
However, on this Wednesday morning as soon as I steppped out of the clinic, the only effect I had was that I suddenly felt like the world had opened a new leaf from its ancient book to me and I was skimming through it studiously. True, I walked to work but later on that day and then two days after I was already behind the wheel.
'Do not use any type of personal stereo', said the nurse. Well, I don't need to, I would have replied. I've got me music in the car, luv.
My ears, unblocked once more, transported me through melodic canals as my hands steered the wheel through the streets of London. As the music breezed out of the car stereo my sense organs attuned themselves to the effects of both gravity and motion. The gravity was the outcome of all these musical notes falling softly on my lap. The motion was driver and vehicle choreographing adventurous (but not hazardous!) moves on the road. The result of that polyphony is below for everyone to enjoy.
Everyone else was sampling and using DJs and MCs and what have you, and then all of a sudden this guy appeared in the 90s and gave the word soul its soul back. I love the studio version and this live recording enhances the song potential. If my eyes don't betray me I think that's Angie Stone doing the chorus. Cheerful.
By the time she arrived in Havana in the early 90s, as I started my second year in Uni, her hair had fallen out, probably whilst crossing the Atlantic from Ireland. In my class we all fell in love with her carefree attitude and her voice. She has a very peculiar way of singing that is hard to match. High-pitched timbre with a good low register, too. Entrancing.
At a moment when everyone is talking 'green', this guy was already alerting us to the dangers of whaling. And this was back in the early 80s. Usually known as a crooner, parties in Cuba in the 70s and 80s always had to include one of his romantic numbers at the end of the night so that those without partners could at least pair up and feel content. Thoughtful.
Sunday, 16 March 2008
Saturday, 15 March 2008
Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Thursday 6th March. 8.30am. A street in London. I am driving the children to school. My wife's gone to Italy with Creative Partnerships and it's up to me to do the school run whilst she is away. I roll down the car window to let in some air, just a couple of inches, mind, and then it hits me. Spring's here. Well, almost.
It's a bright morning and the British birds' Commonwealth anthem is at full blast. Their singing accompanies the fluttering of wings. They look so busy, building or re-building their nests up in eaves.
The morning wind caresses my face. It is not a warm breeze yet, oh, no, but it is not a freezing one either. It is a chilly air, pleasant enough for me to withstand its strokes with a smile on my face. Outside, kids rush to school, cars zoom past, buses cut in in front of me. But inside, I am radiating the type of energy which, if discovered, could see me persecuted by countless thugs trying to patent it and sell it.
Streets curve seductively out of sight, houses stand tall and proud with binding ivy weaving its way around the building and people go to work carrying their sandwiches and newspapers, some of them with ciggies in hand.
On days like these, I remain silent and let the music in the car do the talking.
What if Dylan was booed during this performance at the Newport Festival? Try listening to this song with the wind sneaking into the car early in the morning and giving you that pleasant, mirthful feeling that everything is going to turn out all right, because you know what? I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more. Everytime this track comes on, my fingers work out a drumbeat on the steering wheel and the whole car merrily swings side to side. Poetic.
I have referred previously on this blog to my need sometimes to have a song telling a story playing in the car. And this track, composed by the Argentinian pop singer Juan Carlos Baglietto about God and the Devil working together in a workshop, fits me like a glove. A real jewel. Magnífico.
Many times I catch myself humming a song with political or social undertones in the car. Not surprisingly, more often than not it is a track by Maestro Stevie. This belongs to an era when musicians were allowed to roam free unencumbered by commercial pressures or record sales. Nostalgic.
In this song, as soon as the guitar kicks in, the car window goes down and my hands relax their grip on the steering wheel. No need for introduction here. Majestic.
Do not be fooled by the title of this track. There's no ire in this song, it's just about how we should all take it easy in life and days like these inspire me to follow Cerys' edict. Husky.
Wednesday, 5 March 2008
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me?
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine
But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only.
'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)'
Bringing It All Back Home
Bob Dylan (1965)
I close the book and shut my eyes. I clench my fists and open my soul. The tears in my eyes well up. My pulse races. My breathing increases. Outside, my body is inert. Inside, my body is a volcano about to erupt. But it's alright, Ma, I am just bleeding. I do not want to cry here, though. I am at the hairdresser's. My long single twists have not been touched for a few months and the untangling process is claiming my scalp as a victim. But my pain is not of the follicle variety. It has to do with the death of roughly 30 million people. 'Is it hurting?' 'No, it's fine'. 'You shouldn't leave your hair unattended for so long'. 'Yes, I know, but you know, lack of time'. 30 million people. Or maybe it was 20 or 40. Who cares? One man, supported by mainly an idea contributed to the demise of millions of his compatriots. What prices paradise? What prices Heaven? How can you measure a panacea in human lives? And is there a measure unit to assess how many humans are needed in order to achieve someone's utopia? 'I hope those watery eyes are not the result of my comb'. 'Oh no, don't worry, you have to do what you have to do and I have been too careless with my hair'. No, my watery eyes were the result of reading someone's story about worshipping a leader whose actions brought suffering and devastation on her family. For the next three hours as the hairdresser continues to do my hair I carry on reading (a different book now) but my mind wanders back to the one I have just closed. As soon as she finishes ('Well, remember, don't leave your hair tangle up so much, come back in six or seven weeks', 'OK, I will') I go out into the London night. It is drizzling (or spitting, as they say here), perfect weather to let out my tears. I switch the taps on and allow my feelings for those victims of utopias everywhere to show.
Certain books have the capacity to ask us questions, others, aim at providing answers. And then there are books that just open themselves to us, untroubled but with problems, blithe, yet serious. They deliver the content in ways we are unaccustomed to.
Wild Swans is one of those books.
Written by a Chinese woman, Jung Chang, the book traces the history of that Asian nation in the twentieth century through the eyes of three generations of Chinese women, Jung's grandmother, her mother and herself. From the time when concubines were still a commodity down to Mao's last years, Wild Swans is not just a memoir, but also a literary documentary with even a photographic feel to it. Jung Chang's descriptions of the Chinese countryside provide the book with a sentiment of infinity and vastness. The sheer size of the land serves as a background for all the political and economic battles that roll out in the fifty-odd years the memoir covers.
As the empire is overthrown in 1911, there follows a succession of historical events culminating in Mao's Cultural Revolution upon which the Chinese people have very little say and direct influence, yet bear the brunt of the fallout.
Needless to say it is the section that covers Mao's years where my attention focused the most. The reasons stemmed from a desire to know more about an event whose significance was hardly ever discussed in Cuba when I was younger, but there was also an appeal that felt more personal, since Jung's life and mine mirror each other up to a certain extent.
Chang left China when she was 26 in 1978. I left Cuba when I was twenty-six years old in 1997. Jung majored in English language. So did I. The Chinese author found her 'knight without armour' in Britain. Although I found my 'lady under no distress' in Cuba, I can identify myself with her feelings for her other half. From an early age she showed a passion for books and it was this zeal that kept her sane throughout her hardship. In the early to mid-nineties as the Cuban economy nose-dived I was commonly found on buses, backs of lorries and any other means of transport reading placidly a novel by Jane Austen or George Orwell (the latter, in secret for reasons we all know) whilst all around me the world collapsed.
En brèf, Wild Swans was a reminder of a bigger truth. Whether it be a socialist, fascist or theocratic state, people's oppression and the means to carry it through changes very little. One of the most telling moments in the book is when Jung Chang, still a firm believer in Mao Zedong's policies, wonders how it is possible to whip up the frenzy that most of her compatriots seem to suffer from and that leads them to carry out violent acts. What is it that turns normal, law-abiding citizens into beasts whose thirst for blood overcomes even the minutest sense of respect for fellow human beings?
The only possible answer I have is a cynical one. We already have those traits and provided the puppeteer is capable enough, he/she will be abel to trigger off a series of emotions and feelings that will act as a catalyst for us to carry out these hideous deeds. That will irremediably lead to chaos and destruction. Recent events support my theory. Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Rwanda. The situation is probably all the more despondent if the main colluding element is the state, the one body in charge of protecting us.
According to Jung Chang, Mao Zedong did not have a secret police, Stasi-, G2-, or KBG-style. He did not need to. His own people acted as both aggressor and defender at the same time. This fact reminded me of a comment made by Milan Kundera in his outstanding novel 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', already quoted on my blog a few times. On referring to the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, when Soviet troops invaded the country and comitted all kinds of atrocities, the author says:
'Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they executed many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.'
There is no doubt that Mao was a murderer. Whether he knew what was happening in China or not (the excuse that some apologists and revisionists like to hang on to) under his mandate, the truth is that many innocent people died as a result of his narrow-minded and totalitarian attitude. But what about those who helped him? Let's go back to Kundera:
'Whether they knew or not is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn't know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?'
And now let's read Jung Chang's comment on Mao's 'success' as a leader:
'He was, it seemed to me, a really restless fight promoter by nature, and good at it. He understood ugly human instincts such as envy and resentment, and knew how to mobilise them for his ends. He ruled by getting people to hate each other. In doing so, he got ordinary Chinese to carry out any of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by professional elites. Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship.'
From which my conclusion is, in the making of a dictator we all collude. Some, more passively than others, but we are all in it together. And no, this is not a pleasant thought. Because when I was reading Wild Swans (which I had to put aside a few times as there were parts too painful to read) I was suddenly reminded of the time when I could have done something. And yet, I remained silent. Or rather, I sat on the fence.
In 1992, on my way to my twenty-first birthday and half-way through my English course, I came across the subject Scientific Socialism, already downgraded from Scientific Communism, in uni. The lecturer was affable and friendly and we did not think much of the content of his classes. He was a joker and that was enough. One day, my classmate Luis Gustavo, who had been at El Saúl Delgado College with me and whom I knew very well, stood up to answer one of the teacher's questions: Was there freedom of speech in Cuba? Luis had a brilliant mind and he gave him a really thorough reply as to why he did not think that people in Cuba enjoyed the benefit of discussing and debating their ideas freely. The lecturer's reaction was curt and abrupt. I was called next to comment on Luis' remarks. Since year 12 when I spoke against one of my classmates' expulsion from college I had garnered a reputation for being something of an articulate and rational person. Now it was my big moment of showing the same capacity for oratory to defend my friend. However, I failed. I chickened out. At the eleventh hour I looked into my future and forgot his. I babbled incoherently about a different matter, thus, diverting attention from the real important issue my friend had just called attention to. The lecturer understood, my class understood, I think that even Luis Gustavo understood. There are many tales like mine in Wild Swans and this was partly the reason why Maoism triumphed where other systems had failed. Because they had people like me who put their personal interests above the ideals they cherished: the rule of law, independence of mind, rationality, accountability and respect for human and civic rights. As a consequence of his remarks, Luis Gustavo was expelled from uni. The lecturer was never the same again. I was never the same again, either. A sense of guilt overwhelmed me for a long time thereafter. After a while, though, that feeling of culpability subsided. Wild Swans brought to mind what happens when we all become bricks of the same wall. Our solid surface provides the façade against which everyone crashes. And those who crash today will probably be bricks tomorrow.
The ending of Wild Swans serves as a reminder that sometimes happiness is found elsewhere, even if one is separated from one's country of birth. Even if one, Ma, is still bleeding.
Tuesday, 4 March 2008
During our stay at summer camp as every year we had a lot of fun; we went on walks, swam in the ocean and built bonfires in the evenings. But as it is also customary during this time there was no music blaring out from stereos. Recorded music is not allowed and it has always been a ground rule that I unwittingly challenged the first time I went when I decided to listen to my CD player on my own. No one said anything except for my wife who called this matter to my attention.
Cue three years later and our fourth stay and I was really craving C minors and arpeggios by the time we were about to come back to London. So, whilst I was sat there on the minivan I pondered upon the songs that would have accompanied me on this musical odyssey if I had been driving the same route. Several traffic jams helped me reach my decision and I feel tempted to write about them, too, but I think that these phenomena deserve a post themselves.
So, here they are, songs to listen to whilst driving back from summer camp.
When I am driving and especially if I had been driving down the M3 on that summer day last year, I tend to have anthems playing on the stereo. You know, the kind that makes you want to thump the air. You raise your fist and feel like taking on the whole world.
This track is a relic of my teenage years. Suddenly I feel like it is 1986 again and I am in El Vedado neighbourhood and this song comes on and we are all on the dance floor swaying side to side, moving our heads in sync with the drum and screaming our lungs out: 'I don't want to lose your love tonight!!!' Nostalgic.
I have a confession to make. I did not like Radiohead. Until I saw them on this show. Jools Holland hosts probably one of the better if not the best music programmes on British television and when you watch this video you can see why. He gets the best out of people. And although I have not got round to buying any Radiohead records yet, I have warmed up a little more to their singles now. Explosive.
Mercedes, our Mercedes, our 'Negra de América'. I do not care who she has supported or has not. To me politics and arts live separate lives. You keep your politics, I will keep 'Carito', 'Cuando Tenga la Tierra' and 'Cristal'. Let's see who lives a more fruitful and richer life. Heartfelt.
I bought this albumn a few years ago and it is one of those records that you can only play on certain occasions. Last summer it was one of them. Jackson's voice is so crystal clear and so inviting. West Coast music at its best. Enticing.
I listened to this album the day after we came back from summer camp. It was a nice clear Saturday morning and I was making breakfast for the whole family. This is the opening track in his 'New York' album. Above all what I craved the most all this time was a song that told a story. Neil Young has that knack. So does Tom Petty. And Leonard Cohen. They are all story-tellers. But Lou Reed is almost perfect with ciggie in mouth whilst intoning the unforgettable lines:
I'll take Manhattan in a garbage bag/With Latin written on it that says/It's hard to give a shit these days/Manhattan's sinking like a rock/Into the filthy Hudson what a shock/They wrote a book about it/They said it was like ancient Rome.
And then the guitar strums away... Magic.
Saturday, 1 March 2008
‘And "Memories of Underdevelopment"
it’s strange that twenty years later
Thus sang the Cuban singer songwriter Carlos Varela in his paean to the trail-blazing movie ‘Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) made in 1968 by the also Cuban film-maker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (aka Titón). But what stood out the most in the film was the performance by the then 29-year-old actor Sergio Corrieri who has just died aged 68 in Havana.
Although in later years Corrieri was better known as the chairman of ICAP (The Cuban Institute for Friendship Between Peoples), it was theatre and more importantly cinema and television that brought him fame and the love of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Cubans of all ages.
Corrieri had his stage debut at the age of 16 and went on to develop a prolific career in theatre that landed him roles in plays by authors as diverse as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Anton Chejov and Bertolt Brecht. In 1968 he founded the Escambray Theatre Group, with whom he toured the island, bringing the stage experience to the remotest places in Cuba. With the same company he also travelled abroad to both Angola and Nicaragua. In that same year, 1968, he played Sergio in the aforementioned ‘Memorias del Subdesarrollo’ (Memories of Underdevelopment), a film that explored a bourgeois man’s existential crisis when his family departs to the US afraid of the social changes made by the incumbent revolutionary government. Alone, Sergio ponders the pluses and minuses of the society he has decided to stay in. Years later, in the early 90s as the Cuban economy entered a period of recession first, and then crisis, the movie became an apocalyptic and prescient tale whose main message did not escape those of us who stayed behind.
But it was as double agent Fernando/David that Sergio Corrieri really caught the public’s imagination in the 70s. In this role for the TV series ‘En Silencio Ha Tenido Que Ser’ (It Has Had To Be In Secret), whose title came from a phrase used by Cuba’s National Hero Jose Marti in a letter to his friend Manuel Mercado, Corrieri excelled as a Cuban security agent who infiltrated the Miami counterrevolutionary world, thus destroying various plots to wreak havoc on the Caribbean island.
The only time I met Sergio Corrieri was in the summer of 1996. By then he had already been at the helm of ICAP for six years. At that time I was working as a free-lance interpreter and translator and had just been employed by a group of Canadians and Americans who wanted to find out about the economic crisis in Cuba. Corrieri had made it possible for the garden in the ICAP building to be used for outdoor concerts and on summer evenings, singer-songwriters and acoustic sets served as entertainment for visitors. Despite being a very busy man, Sergio agreed to meet us and I remember very clearly calling him Fernando throughout our conversation. When I finally realised my mistake and apologised to him, he just smiled and said: ‘Never mind, it happens all the time.'
Sergio Corrieri’s acting career spanned three decades and for this he was rightly acknowledged with the Félix Varela Order and the Alejo Carpentier Medal amongst other distinctions. But it was mainly the respect and affection shown by the Cuban people that mattered to him most.