Tuesday 29 April 2008

Road Songs (Misterioso)

Whilst in Malaysia recently I, alongside my wife and children, was driven everywhere by my brother in law and his wife. And it was a pleasure to see the city unveiling itself before my eyes from the passenger seat. Coupled with my hosts' dexterity behind the wheel and their ability to mix explanations about the history and social make-up of Kuala Lumpu and the country as a whole whilst keeping an eye on the road, the feeling was of pure joy. And dexterity is a must-have trait when driving on the streets of KL. As I commented on the Living in a Bilingual World column a couple of weeks ago, drivers there cut in in front of you at the last moment leaving you with either wet knickers or a red, angry face. Or both. Luckily there were no near-misses and as both my brother in law and his wife conveyed to me people are so used to driving in that crazy way that no one thinks much of it. Add to this the fact that the police seem to turn a blind eye on most traffic violations and you could have a recipe for disaster. But it seemed to me at the time that most people knew the ingredients to the recipe and nobody wanted to put them together. The motto could well have been 'live and let live'.

This put me in a pensive mood as it usually happens when I'm thinking of themes for this column. For starters, even if we were able to hire a car in KL or a similar city with such a crazy traffic system (my darling Havana comes to mind), would I risk driving there when I am so used to laws and regulations in London? And secondly, if I did end up by driving in that city, would I try to abide by the laws governing the traffic, or would I copy the locals?

Same with music. We get used to so many different rhythms when we are growing up that it is hard to pinpoint what will be our genre of choice by the time we hit our teens. I still can't believe that with a father who worked and still works as a pianist and whose main remit was Cuban traditional music and a mother who knows her 'boleros' from her 'guarachas' I became a rock fan. But yes, that's what happened. When I turned 13 I became hooked on rock'n'roll. Little outside this music interested me and except for some 'Nueva Trova' and 'Novísima Trova' singers and musicians, I was a firm follower of Anglo-Saxon rock with the later addendum of the Latin American version.

It was very strange then that as my college years moved towards its twilight, I suddenly found myself one day at the 'Casa de la Cultura de Plaza' in Vedado attending the International Havana Jazz Festival for the first time. I had gone reluctantly; my mate had talked me into it. It was the place where I first saw Irakere live (after having slagged them off for the most part of a decade) and they blew me away on the night. But really, nothing prepared me for the musician who brought tears to my 17-year-old eyes, Arturo Sandoval. This was 1989 and as most Cubans know he would leave for the US the next year never to return to the island, but when he played his trumpet that evening, I understood for the first time what people said about spring, blossoms, flowers, renewal and revival. For me it was an opening, a secret door that let me through to another space and dimension, one which I had been ignoring for a long time on account of my stubbornness and which I had now decided to shed.

So, risks, there you have it. Some are worth it. Some are not. In my case, most of them, musically speaking, have worked. The other day as I was driving to the supermarket, making sure that the car was still up to scratch after having been left on its own for a couple of weeks whilst we were on holidays, I was listening to Aziza Mustafa Zadeh's album 'Dance of Fire'. It was just a short trip to the supermarket, but I was able to squeeze in the first three songs, 'Boomerang', 'Dance of Fire' and 'Sheherezadeh'. The combination of the warm spring sun streaming in through the window and the delicacy with which this Azerbi pianist slides her fingers on the black and white keys made me feel just like that day when I listened to Cuba's foremost trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval. And just like on that day a nice, big grin appeared on my face.

Copyright 2008

Road Songs (Arturo Sandoval - A Night In Tunisia)

He was the one who started it all. 1989, Havana,Cuba. I was 17 going 18. I was about to enter uni and was still a typical rock'n'roll kid (although black) in a middle-class college (Saúl Delgado). My mate dragged me down to see Irakere and I will be forever grateful to him for that. And as they used to say then, it's not that he blows the trumpet well is how he does it. 100% Cuban.

Road Songs (Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh: Dreaming Sheherezadeh)

I mentioned her before and it's worth mentioning her again. Aziza breaks barriers where barriers should not exist and she creates a sound that is hard to pin down. Is it jazz, is it classical, is it folk? The verdict is yours, I took a gamble and it paid off. I am hooked on her music. Genius.

Road Songs (Billie Holiday - Lady Sings the Blues)

The only blues I listened to and knew about was that performed by Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. This was circa 1986, 87 when I was 15 or 16. Little did I know that with the passing of time John Lee Hooker, Billie Holiday and Mississippi John Hurt would become part of my CD collection. Enticing.

Road Songs Roberto Carlos - Los botones de la Blusa

Pity that there's no original clip accompanying this piece. Roberto Carlos went very quickly from being one of my idols when I was still a child to being a figure of ridicule by the time I hit my teens. Lately I have been looking through amazon.co.uk to see how much his CDs are going for. Timeless.

Road Songs El Guayabero: Amarren al perro (Faustino Oramas)

During those years in my rock'n'roll 'exile', music like the one performed by this star of Cuban culture, made me cringe. I turned my back on it all. Yet, when I came back from the wilderness and embraced my Cubanness again, this artist became one of my favourites due to his wisdom and humour. As I mentioned before, some risks are well worth taking and this was one of them.

Monday 21 April 2008

Havana Graffiti (Symphony for Chamber Orchestra, Chinese Trumpet and Conga Drum)

Maybe he's got no one who can tell him right from wrong
Maybe he's hungry, like the rest of the throng
He never really did have anything and in his noble soul,
Dollars and dreams run close together whilst corruption digs a hole
The Wolves Get Together
Gerardo Alfonso

The Cuban playwright Antón Arrufat tells us in 'Virgilio Piñera in the Flesh', the unofficial biography written by Carlos Espinosa, that when he met the famous 'Matancero' writer, poet, essayist and playwright 'I had just come out of an exhibition by Wilfredo Lam at Havana University (...) I was descending the stairs of the institution, still with my eyes lit up by Lam's paintings. Rodríguez Feo had just parked his car nearby (...) I went into his car straight away and in there sat this person quietly in the front seat looking ahead without returning my gaze. "This is Virgilio Piñera", said Rodríguez Feo. He remained impassible, however (...) Suddenly Virgilio turned around and asked me: "Do you do anything with shit?".
Save the time, distance and status, this could be the same question I could ask el Yoyo and I am sure that his answer would be: 'Well, yes, I could write a novel'.

Because there should not be any doubt that el Yoyo has written a novel about shit. Please, do not confuse this with being a shitty writer. Two different things where the former is the analysis of a certain phenomenon, sometimes in a passive way, sometimes more actively. The latter is to aspire without qualifications. And there are qualifications aplenty in el Yoyo's writing.

And let's be clear, too, that the shit el Yoyo writes about is not the benign one that cleanses our intestines or serves as manure for soils. No, this shit is about the never-ending crisis, which in the words of the main character 'it was just one more within a long journey, so long it was that our life became an endless succession of crises and the crises became our lives'. For this is not mere stench that forewarns the appearance of shit. Rather, this shit works from inside out, gnawing at the insides until we are doped, peaceful and robotised with no intention to rebel or argue back.

'Havana Graffiti' leads us through three stages that are so close to each other that they could be taken as one, but luckily the novel is nuanced enough to explain the complex issues that surround the contemporary Cuban situation.

The book opens with the big crisis (and there's that word again!) of '94, when thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Cubans threw themselves into the open seas looking for a way out of the dire political and economic situation in their own country. The first image that came to me as I read through the description of this event was loads of rafts and homemade artifacts, moving in the high seas aimlessly running away from the scarcity of verbs, comparatives and superlatives that had kept them grounded in home soil.

In the middle of this brouhaha, Carmelo decides to stay and this decision is based on his inability to swim and his godfather's premonition that somethiing good will come his way, if he only can wait. Unfortunately his foresight cannot save his wife, who, pregnant with the couple's first child, perishes in the choppy waters of the Florida Straits, alongside the rest of her family. Although tinted with reality, these first pages still left me bruised and downtrodden. And this is yet another one of the author's achievements: to present his fiction as a documentary in a way that the reader feels they are witnessing a historical event and not just a made-up story. Throughout the novel I felt as if Carmelo was carrying a Digicam with him that enabled me to scrutinise his innermost thoughts, which I felt as mine, too. If this was a classical piece for orchestra, the strings section would have the main role at this point in the narration, thus, bringing the first stage of the novel to a close.

The introduction of the main character happens with no forewarning. I admit that I was getting used to the anonimity that el Yoyo had shrouded his leading characted in. That would have put him on a par with Ralph Ellison, an Afro-American author who used the same procedure in his masterpiece 'Invisible Man', thus rendering his leading man a universality upon which migrants the world have been able to reflect themselves. This universality is particularly useful in those cases of people, who forced by circumstances beyond their control, have to depart to alien cities where they can't speak the local lingo and face the double whammy of being seen as a burden and being victims of xenophobia and racism.Yet, el Yoyo eschews this universality and surprises the reader with a curveball when what was expected was a fastball. The umpire takes no time to call out strike. Thus, on page 30 we learn the main character's name: Carmelo. And with him, we also learn about his family. And it's worth stopping here for a moment since el Yoyo uses this typical Cuban family to illustrate the way their psyches operated in the 90s. In Carmelo's father we see the traditional 'true-believer', the dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary for whom nothing else is more important than to build the society dreamt up after 1959, house and family notwithstanding. The mother symbolises the fence-sitter. She loves her husband, but despairs for her son and the slow death he is dying. All around her the devaluation of the national currency results in the devaluation of the soul and she can't bear it, what's more, there's nothing she can do to save her offspring. Carmelo, on the other hand, represents what is new and fresh, an anti-Faustian young man who questions everything and gets no answers in return. There are echoes here of that masterpiece by the now deceased Cuban playwright, Alberto Pedro. In 'Manteca' (Lard), Alberto used three members of a Cuban family to depict a similar situation in early 90s Cuba. Jorge Cao, playing Celestino, was a hardcore revolutionary, who had just returned from the Soviet Union after spending some years there and was reluctant to any changes. His sister Dulce was candid, kind-hearted, but impartial. Pucho completed the trio displaying an intellectual prowess which was thirsty for answers and refused to conform to the miasma the society around was sinking in. El Yoyo keeps the tension running until the dénouement of the novel.
The second stage in the book introduces another character: a Dutch woman called Janet who works in Cuba. Through her relationship with her Carmelo enters a world where opulence and material wealth are on display everywhere, away from the prying eyes of his fellow countrymen and women who can barely survive. El Yoyo approaches the contradiction that arises within Carmelo, that of staying true to himself or joining the rest of the 'wolves pack', with sensitivity and accuracy. Janet and Carmelo's conversation attest to the futility of the construction of the 'socialist dream', a panacea that has resulted rather in a bureaucratic opportunism, epitomised by the myriad managers and foreign entrepeneurs Carmelo comes across. If there's a point this chapter proves is that in the equation that contemporary Cuban life stands for, mathematics is superfluous.
It is in Holland whilst staying with Janet that Carmelo finally awakens to the reality around him. The fact that he's being exploited sexually by the woman he chooses to spend his life with makes him run away to Spain. On the seat next to him his sits a corpse: it is his moral values.
I mentioned before the Afro-American writer Ralph Ellison and it's worth bringing him back to the fore. When Carmelo describes his vicissitudes that include living as an illegal immigrant in Spain, returning to Cuba to straighten out his papers and endure the penury that befalls those who want to leave the island for good, his description of what awaits him in Berlin goes beyond the street, the museum or the café that most tourists normally enjoy reminiscing upon. His description of his situation in the German capital satistifies a philosophical need to explain the unexplainable. Let's read first what the main character of 'The Invisible Man' tells us on the first page of the novel:
'I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus side-shows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination - indeed, everything and anything except me.'
And let's read now Carmelo's thoughts as he wanders around the streets of Berlin:
'I soon got used to walking around without asking for permission or seeking approval. I was careful not to disturb anyone with my presence and that's why I mistakenly accepted this silence as freedom. Us, Johnny-come-latelys, usually distort this concept; my supposed liberty was nothing but a mirage. It wasn't that they did not respect me, it was rather that they did not see me. I had become transparent, a person to ignore. I was turned into a ghost, an ethereal being drifting aimlessly around the city sharing only the same air with the rest of the citizens of this city.'
'The Invisible Man' es a book first published in 1952. 'Havana Graffiti' first saw the light in 2007. The former is a novel written by an Afro-American author. The latter was written by a Cuban man. The former depicts a society where the achievements of the civil war were undermined by the failure to grant basic human rights to a particular ethnic group. The latter is a description of a man's second-class-citizen status both in his homeland and abroad.
There are fatal consequences that result from Carmelo's invisibility and these arise from his mental and spiritual impotence. He lashes out against this society that won't allow him to prove his worth. That's his vendetta. Thus, he sheds what is left of his lamb's wool, baring the woolf's armour underneath. Yet, at this precise moment, el Yoyo, with an accurate dexterity normally found in a chef d'orchestre, silences the rest of the musical ensemble and allows the solo violinist to take centre stage, grab our hand and guide us with his instrument through Carmelo's quasi human recovery. After his internet massacre, in which he takes advantage of those poor souls searching for cheap thrills, he is moved by the tears of a young woman he sees apparently arguing with his boyfriend in a park. The result makes him 'go to my computer before putting the shopping away and wiping out all my victims' addresses and thus terminating my vengeance'.
With Carmelo's return to Cuba the third stage in the novel gets underway. His German passport acts as a shield with which to defend himself against the racial prejudices he faces daily when he goes into hotels or places for tourists.
El Yoyo does not shy away from describing Carmelo's sexual encounters, especially during his time in Holland and Spain. The reader might or might not be put off by this and this carnal element could well re-inforce existing prejudices about Cubans. To me Carmelo's foray into the lower echelons of the sexual world in Europe makes him an object of exploitation, satisfaction notwithstanding. This is a situation that repeats itself frequently both in North America and Europe nowadays and which is normally more debated in relation to women than men. However, in the UK, this issue has been discussed recently in television programmes, articles in the media and plays. The Rastas' case in Jamaica is a good example and Gambia has a hig percentage of male prostitutes.
In a separate e-mail el Yoyo asked me kindly to review his novel, even if I did not like and thought it crap. I replied to him in private and it's up to him whether he wants to make that letter public or not. I don't think that there should be any doubt left as to whether I liked the novel or not. Yet, there are two reasons why I refuse to comment negatively about 'Havana Graffiti'.
The first one is straightforward. I am not a critic. To quote el Yoyo, 'I am a normal Cuban, the one amongst you, the one you see every day, the one sitting next you in the bar, the illegal one with "no papers"; the one carrying the cross of watching his land die from a distance'.
The second reason is that books like 'Havana Graffiti' with its quasi-biographical subject matter are necessary to understand the intricacies of the situation in Cuba. 'Havana Graffiti' is not a dissident book, or a book for dissidents, or a book written by a dissident, though I don't know the author personally. It is a novel that points at a reality that, although surreal, is still reality. And what hurts more is that we can't stop living it, no matter how far we live.
There's a comment that I have left for the end because it has to do with a character in the book that although conspicuous does not attract the same attention as the others: the sea. The novel begins in a beach in Havana and winds up in Cadiz, another city by the sea. The sea robs Carmelo of his wife and brings him Janet. The sea welcomes him to Spain and signs off the book. To quote Alejo Carpentier in 'The Rite of Spring': 'La mer, la mer/ toujours recommencée'. This natural element is our Yemayá and it is a fundamental component in a novel that deals with isolation, alienation and disappointment.
That is why, Yoyo, I thank you for letting me read your novel about shit because the excrement that surrounds Carmelo must be explained until hopefully in the near future it can be annihilated.
Copyright 2008

Havana Graffiti (Sinfonía para Orquesta de Cámara, Trompeta China y Tumbadora)

Quizás ya no hay nadie que lo pueda aconsejar,
quizás tiene hambre como todos los demás,
jamás tuvo nada y en su noble corazón
corre Dólar, corren sueños
corrompidos por la corrupción...

Los Lobos se Reúnen
Gerardo Alfonso

Cuenta el dramaturgo cubano Antón Arrufat en el libro "Virgilio Piñera en Persona" del autor Carlos Espinosa que el día que conoció al afamado escritor, poeta, ensayista y dramaturgo matancero "Yo salía de una exposición de Wilfredo Lam en la Universidad de la Habana (...) Queda en pie que yo descendía la escalinata de la Universidad, la pupila encandilada por la pintura de Lam. Parqueado al lado de la acera se hallaba el convertible de Rodriguez Feo (...) Entré mecánicamente en el auto y Rodríguez Feo me indicó a una persona que lo acompañaba, que siguió mirando al frente y no se movió para mirarme. 'Este es Virgilio Piñera'. Pero el aludido permaneció impasible (...) En eso Virgilio se volvió, y escuché su voz preguntarme: 'Usted hace cosas con la mierda?'

Salvando tiempo, distancia y status es la misma pregunta que yo le podria hacer al Yoyo. Y la respuesta estoy seguro que seria: "Pues, si, escribo una novela".

Porque lo que esta claro para mi es que el Yoyo ha escrito una novela sobre la mierda. Y que no se confunda esto con ser un escritor de mierda. Son dos cosas diferentes. Lo primero corresponde a la observacion, a veces pasiva y a veces activa de un determinado fenómeno. Lo segundo es la aspiración sin la calificación. Y al Yoyo le sobran calificaciones.

La mierda de la que escribe el Yoyo no es la benévola que arrastra nuestros desechos intestinales, o la que fertiliza el suelo campestre en forma de abono. No. La mierda a la que se refiere este autor cubano es la otra, la de la crisis constante, que como dice el personaje principal de "Havana Graffiti" "era una más dentro de un viaje muy largo, tan largo que la vida se convirtió en una sucesión infinita de crisis y la crisis se nos había hecho vida". Esta mierda no avisa su entrada con la hediondez a la que estamos acostumbrados. Una vez que se apodera de uno, se le va metiendo adentro hasta que lo pacifica, lo endroga y lo vuelve en un robot doméstico listo para recibir órdenes sin rebelarse.

"Havana Graffiti" nos nos conduce a través de tres etapas, que de ser tan cercanas pudieran parecer como una misma. Sin embargo los matices que introduce el Yoyo en la obra se encargan de ilustrar la complejidad de la situación cubana y de diferenciar los tres niveles en los cuales opera la novela.

El libro abre con la gran crisis (esa palabrita de nuevo!) del '94 cuando miles, sino cientos de miles de cubanos se lanzaron al mar buscando una salida a la situación económica y política que los ahogaban en Cuba. La descripción de este fenómeno me produjo una visión de balsas y artefactos construidos con apuro moviéndose en alta mar con una rima asonante, porque ya se habían acabado los verbos, comparativos y superlativos con los cuales convencer a estos cristianos. En medio de todo este barullo, Carmelo decide quedarse. Presionado por el hecho de que no sabe nadar y por lo que le ha dicho su padrino, quien actúa como su oráculo, sobre su futuro y los buenos augurios que este le traerá, él opta por permanecer en el mismo pantano que ahoga todo y a todos. Su larga visión lo salva, pues su esposa, embarazada con su primer hijo, perece en alta mar junto con el resto de la tripulación. Estas primeras páginas, no por ser tan reales, dejan de ser dolorosas y la narración y descripción de estos hechos tienen que ver más con un documental literario que con un trabajo de ficción. De hecho, a través de la novela sentí que Carmelo llevaba una cámara de video en el hombro por la cual nos permitía escudriñar de cerca sus alegrías y pesares, que en varios momentos sentí como mis propios infortunios y placeres. En una composición musical para orquesta, este movimiento sería grave con mas peso para la sección de cuerdas. Se cierra así la primera etapa de la novela.

La presentación del personaje central ocurre de una forma imprevista, ya que confieso que en algun momento pensé que el Yoyo dejaría a su narrador anónimo como lo hizo Ralp Ellison en su obra maestra "El Hombre Invisible", vistiéndolo así de una universalidad en la cual se pudieran reflejar los emigrantes que empujados muchas veces por circunstancias ajenas a su voluntad terminan en ciudades donde no pueden hablar la lengua natal, se les tratan como pestes y el racismo y la zenofobia se convierten en su realidad diaria. Pero no, el Yoyo, le lanza al lector una curva cuando lo que se le esperaba era una recta supersónica de 90 millas por hora. Y el umpire no se hace de rogar y canta el strike. Es asi como en la página 30 nos enteramos del nombre del personaje principal: Carmelo. Y con él, su familia. Y detengámonos por un momento en la familia de Carmelo ya que el Yoyo, a través de estos tres simples personajes, penetra en la psiquis del núcleo familiar cubano en los 90 de una forma orgánica. En el padre de Carmelo vemos al "comecandela" tradicional, el revolucionario intransigente para el cual no hay otra labor más importante que la de ayudar a construir la sociedad que se trató de erigir despues del '59. A un lado quedan familia y casa, la Revolución lo necesita a él, no hay nada más. No puede haber nada más. La madre simboliza la persona en el medio, ama a su esposo, pero también a su hijo, le duele que a éste se le esté yendo la juventud en un país donde con la devaluación de la moneda nacional, llega la devaluación del alma y lo peor es que no sabe como socorrer a su cría. Carmelo representa lo nuevo, lo fresco, no porque tenga razón en todo lo que dice, sino porque como el anti-Fausto que es, su objetivo principal es cuestionar y razonar basado en los argumentos que se debaten. Hay ecos en este conflicto de la obra cumbre del dramaturgo cubano Alberto Pedro, tristemente fallecido hace algunos años, quien a principios de la década del 90 precisamente llevó a escena un dilema similar en su obra "Manteca" en la cual el actor cubano Jorge Cao encarnaba el papel de Celestino, un veterano de la Revolución, educado en la antigua Unión Soviética y renuente al cambio. Lo seguía su hermana Dulce, cándida, buena, inocente pero imparcial. El trío lo completaba Pucho, el cual con su intelectualismo cuestionaba la sociedad que lo rodeaba y renunciaba a hundirse en las mismas miasmas en la que se clavaban todos. El Yoyo, por su parte, mantiene esta tensión familiar hasta el mismo final de la novela.

Esta segunda etapa es tan amplia como la tercera y nos presenta a otro personaje, Janet, holandesa de origen pero que tiene intereses profesionales en Cuba. A través de ella, Carmelo se adentra en un mundo que le está prohibido a la mayoría de sus compatriotas, el de la opulencia y abundancia material, apoyados, claro está, por una corrupción estatal que lo cubre todo. La contradicción entre la inocencia de este cubano que sabe que es diferente de los demás "lobos" de esta camada y su deseo de progresar aunque en ello le vayan algunos de sus principios es uno de los puntos que el Yoyo toca con más sensibilidad y agudeza. Los diálogos entre Janet y Carmelo son un testimonio que bajo la tela social cubana nunca hubo ni habrá esa sociedad colectiva socialista que se trató de forjar y que costó tantas vidas, mas bien, hay un oportunismo, el cual lo epitomizan bastantes gerentes y empresarios, tanto cubanos como extranjeros, con los que se topa Carmelo. Este es un capítulo en el cual se prueba que en la ecuación de la vida cubana contemporánea, la matemática no tiene cabida.

Es su estancia en Holanda lo que despierta a Carmelo del todo cuando sabe que su pareja se está aprovechando de él por medio del sexo. Es un momento de singular importancia, ya que en el tren que lo lleva de Holanda a España no solamente viaja un hombre desilusionado con una mujer, sino también a su lado viaja el cadáver de su moral.

Mencioné antes al escritor afro-estadounidense Ralph Ellison y vale la pena traerlo de nuevo a colación porque la descripción que nos da Carmelo cuando llega a Alemania después de haber pasado vicisitudes en España como emigrante ilegal, después de regresar a Cuba para poner en regla sus papeles y pasar por todos los problemas que pasan aquellos que se atrevan a abandonar ese verde caimán, esa descripción va más allá del simple detalle de una calle, un museo o una cafetería en Berlín, elementos que en los que siempre reparamos cuando viajamos a otro país, a otra ciudad. No, su descripción obedece a una necesidad filosófica de tratar de comprender eso que se nos escapa de las manos. Leamos primero lo que dice el personaje central de "El Hombre Invisible" en la primera página de la novela:

"Soy un hombre invisible. No, no soy un fantasma como los de Edgar Allan Poe, ni tampoco un ectoplasma a lo Hollwyood. Soy un hombre de sustancia, de carne y hueso con fibras y líquidos en el cuerpo, incluso diría que poseo una mente. Soy invisible porque la gente se niega a verme. Como las cabezas sin cuerpos que se ven en los espectáculos circenses a veces, me parece que estoy rodeado de espejos con un cristal duro que me devuelven una imagen que no es la mía. Es solo mi silueta lo que ve la gente cuando se acerca, o a ellos mismos, o fragmentos de su imaginacion, cualquier cosa, menos a mi."

Y ahora leamos los pensamientos de Carmelo mientras vaga por la calles de Berlín:

"Pronto me acostumbré a transitar sin pedir permiso o buscar aprobación, sin perturbar con mi presencia y por eso no dar explicaciones llegué a confundir este silencio con el hallazgo de la libertad que me había lanzado fuera de mi tierra. Los recién llegados solemos confundir este concepto; la libertad era sólo un espejismo. No es que me respetaran, es que ellos no me veían, me había vuelto transparente, la gente simplemente me ignoraba. Me convirtieron en un fantasma, en un algo etéreo que se movía por la ciudad compartiendo con sus habitantes exclusivamente el aire que respiraba".

"El Hombre Invisible" es un libro que fue publicado por primera vez en 1952. "Havana Graffiti" vió la luz en el 2007. Uno es una novela escrita por un autor afro-estadounidense. El otro por un cubano. En uno se retrata una sociedad que a pesar de haber conseguido hacer las paces consigo misma despues de una terrible contienda civil, le niega el derecho de ser humano a un grupo étnico. En el otro el retrato es el de un hombre que es un ciudadano de segunda clase tanto en su país de origen como en la nación a donde emigra.

Hay consecuencias fatales que salen de la invisibilidad de Carmelo. Con una impotencia espiritual y mental que lo ciega arremete con todas sus fuerzas contra esta sociedad que no lo deja probar su valía. Es su venganza. Y en el proceso muda lo poco que le queda de piel de cordero que todavía tenía hasta ahora por una armadura de lobo que lo protege contra todo el que él piensa que viene a hacerle daño. Sin embargo, es en este momento cuando el Yoyo, con precisión maestra de conductor de orquesta silencia al resto de la banda y deja al violinista solista, el cual, parado en medio del escenario nos toma de la mano y nos guia con su melodía por el mismo camino por el cual Carmelo recobra parte de su humanidad (es imposible recuperarla toda) en la pagina 288. Después de su masacre en internet donde se aprovecha de cuanto inocente pone anuncios buscando desahogos sexuales, este cubano se impresiona con las lágrimas de una chica que aparentemente ha estado discutiendo con su novio y el resultado de esta escena hace que "al llegar a casa y antes de organizar la compra, me fui al ordenador, borré todas las direcciones de mis víctimas y di por terminada mi venganza".

Es a partir de esta parte donde comienza la tercera etapa de la novela y donde Carmelo, con una familia hecha ya en Berlín, viaja a Cuba de nuevo, pero esta vez como residente en la nación teutónica. La realidad que lo espera no es mas que un engaño más, donde el color negro de su piel despierta una reacción negativa que luego desaparecerá cuando el consabido pasaporte alemán aparece.

El Yoyo aborda con gusto los encuentros sexuales de Carmelo, un elemento que puede o no predisponer al lector y puede o no darle más sustento a los tantos estereotipos de los que sufrimos los que nacimos en Cuba. Para mi fue un caso más de explotación sexual, un hecho que ocurre con frecuencia tanto en Europa como en Norteamerica y al cual se le da mas énfasis en el caso de las féminas que en el caso de los caballeros. Sin embargo, en Gran Bretaña han habido programas de televisión, artículos en la prensa y obra de teatro que se enfocan en este tipo de industria sexual y en la que participan mujeres y hombres. El caso de los 'Rastafarians' en Jamaica es archiconocido y Gambia tiene un alto porciento de "jineteros".

En un correo separado el Yoyo me pide que dé una opinion sincera de su novela, incluso si hubiera pensado que no servía. Mi respuesta se la hice saber privadamente y queda con el si quiere hacerla pública o no. La sinceridad de mis argumentos sobre la novela me parece que serán suficientes para eliminar cualquier duda que pueda haber sobre si me gustó el libro o no. Sin embargo, hay dos razones por las cuales me niego a dar comentarios negativos sobre "Havana Graffiti".

La primera es muy simple. No soy crítico. Para citar al Yoyo de nuevo, "soy un cubano normal, uno que está entre ustedes, al que ves cada día, el de la mesa contigua en el bar, el que trabajó sin papeles; el que lleva la cruz de ver morir su tierra desde lejos".

La segunda es que libros como "Havana Graffiti" con su carácter quasi-autobiográfico son necesarios para poder comprender la complejidad de la situación cubana. "Havana Graffit" no es ni mucho menos un libro gusano, ni para gusanos, ni escrito por un gusano, aunque no conozca al autor. Es una novela que apunta a una realidad que no por ser surrealista deja de ser realidad. Y lo más pesaroso es que no podemos dejar de sentirla y de vivirla, no importa cuán lejos vivamos.

Hay un comentario que dejé para el final porque tiene que ver con un personaje de la novela que es tan obvio, y sin embargo se le puede perder al lector por su presencia discreta durante todo el libro. Es el mar. La obra empieza en una playa habanera y termina en el puerto de Cádiz, la capital de la provincia del mismo nombre y que forma parte de Andalucía. Es el mar quien le roba a Carmelo su esposa, el que destruye sus pocas posesiones durante las abundantes lluvias del '96, el que le trae a Janet, el que lo recibe en España, el que marca con puño y letra el final de la novela. Al decir de Alejo Carpentier en su libro "La Consagración de la Primavera": 'La mer, la mer/ toujours recommencée', este elemento natural, agua que puede ser mansa o revuelta, imagen fiel de una de nuestras más adoradas orishas, Yemayá, es un componente fundamental en una obra en la cual temas como aislamiento, enajenación y decepción se abordan con pasión y conocimiento.

Es por eso Yoyo que te agradezco de todo corazón que me hayas brindado la oportunidad de leer tu novela sobre la mierda porque incluso la podredumbre que rodea a Carmelo merece ser explicada y quien sabe, en un futuro no muy lejano, aniquilada.

Copyright 2008

Sunday 20 April 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Malaysian symphony)

Tandas. The word snapped me out of my reverie in front of the restrooms Wife and Daughter had just walked into. Tandas. Toilets. But it was more than that. Tandas was a word that had a deeper meaning in my mother tongue, Spanish. Tandas. As in 'tandas infantiles' (children's shows) and with that my memory let out a torrent of images, sounds and smells.

Malaysia had welcomed me with a word in my own language.

After Brother-In-Law picked us up from the airport, my eyes began to devour the greenery that stood up to greet us on either side of the wide motorway. Already from the air when our plane was about to land I started to witness the dominant colour of this Asian nation, a deep, dark, raw green that was almost inviting me to dive in headfirst into its shrubs, bushes and forests. In the meantime, Brother-In-Law explained to us some basic facts about the history, economy and culture of the country we were about to stay in for a fortnight. Son decided to make the trip with me while Wife, Daughter and Brother-In-Law's Wife journeyed in another car. The air-conditioner in the car and the soothing scenery combined together to rock me softly and gently from side to side as if I'd been on a hammock.

So, my first day in Malaysia was full of peace, quiet and calm. And linguistically welcoming.

Over the following the days I was able to glimpse several more 'coincidences' like the one with 'tandas'. At the same time I enjoyed a hospitality that was all the more appreciated because it arrived unbidden. Street vendors, waiters and waitresses, shop attendants and security staff smiled at us, openly. Their features reminded me of that poem by our National Poet, Nicolas Guillen that calls to our Cuban identity so well: 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. They were Chinese, Malay, Indian. They came and went, unconcerned and untroubled. They drove wildly, cutting in at the last moment without signalling and without so much as giving you the international sign of apology (palm of right or left hand facing forward and raised at shoulder level). They stared at me like staring at an oddity, the tropical Caribbean man recently arrived in the tropical Asian land. My five feet, nine inches that normally makes me puny in London, dwarfed most denizens here. My single twists moving hither and thither in blithe abandon elicited compliments from all quartiers. Son was praised on more than one occasion for his lovely curly hair. Daughter was told many times that her hazel eyes were beautiful. Wife was equally appreciated, her long blonde hair leaving behind jealous looks. Apparently most rituals remained the same. A lady failed to make the most of me purchasing one of her kites because it was the time for her to go to pray. Calls from a nearby mosque drew little musical notes in the early evening breeze. Shopping malls erupted here and there and underneath their high ceilings the old and the new mixed in harmony.

A visit to a butterfly garden coloured our jaunt both in soft and strong hues at the same time. These lepidopteran insects fluttered their wings at ease, resting for a few moments, and sometimes for a few hours, allowing visitors to photograph them and thus to make up their own postcards. Inside the main building a myriad scary-looking creatures awaited us to remind us that the jungle is more beautiful seen from above than once you're in it. Another park, this time for birds, gave us the same coloured rainbow that we all were getting used to by now. Flamencos with their majestic long necks seemed to dance in the distance whilst cockatoos, parakeets and parrots formed a welcome committee at the entrance to the park to usher us in. Nearby and whilst sitting down to eat some ice cream, a few peacocks tried to make our acquaintance, though we all divined their real intentions.

The subsequent days were full of more sightseeing trips. To get to an elephants' sanctuary we drove down a motorway wherefrom we took a detour through a real country lane. Small houses with thatched roofs and on stilts sprung on both sides of the road. Suddenly we came across a small lake that was surrounded by the same type of dwellings, only that these ones seemed to be on the water. Brother-in-law explained to us that these were the real indigenous people, the Malays, and though some of them were getting used to modernity, the majority was still using traditional methods to obtain food. That meant agriculture and fishing.

At the end of this journey the sanctuary awaited us with open doors and countless shoes at the threshold. Both Son and Daughter enjoyed caressing these majestic pachyderms and we all donated some money towards the preservation of the building.

Tandas. On account of the stifling heat, toilets were always a prominent feature in our itinerary. The amount of water drunk had to be dispatched somehow and our sweat could hardly cope with the litres we downed in the house and whilst being out and about. A few days later after we arrived we found ourselves inside a tiny four-engine plane bound for Redang island and its four-star hotel the Berjaya Resort. The exuberant vegetation that greeted us from the air was all the more attractive once we landed. A sea, draped in turquoise colour, waved at us from a distance. The sun was at its zenith which meant for Son, Daughter and Wife to avoid the outdoors and to remain in our room. The hotel staff were courteous, polite and gracious. They always smiled and at the sight of my single twists the nickname 'Ronaldinho' was coined by one of the members of the reception team. We all, Son, Daughter, Wife and I practised our bilingual skills with the locals and the appreciation in their eyes said more than a hundred words could express. Excursions to the jungle, turtle-watching and an encounter with a cute little squirrel, whose daily cleaning routine included polishing its gigantic penis and testicles with its tongue, brought a much-deserved rest from the hustle-bustle of modern life. Mornings usually found me standing in the balcony with the rising sun in front of me ignoring the imaginary 'No Tresspassing' sign on the door and strolling into the room. El Yoyo's book 'Havana Graffiti' lay behind me. At that moment I felt like a conduit bridging the greenery in front of my very eyes with the description of eastern Cuba that Carmelo gives in 'Havana Graffiti'. This was not linguistic bilingualism, but geographical.

Back to Kuala Lumpur on the same plane and our last few days were spent in a frenzy of shopping, more sightseeing and chilling out in the evening by Brother-In-Law's swimming pool.

The departure date arrived and as we boarded the Air Malaysia flight that would take us back to London I looked around and from a distance was able to make out the sign that had greeted me a fortnight before: Tandas. And without a second thought I said in a low voice: Terima kasih, Malaysia! Thanks.

Copyright 2008

Thursday 3 April 2008

Automatic Vacation Response (Frank Delgado - La Isla Puta)

I will be away for a fortnight on holidays. I have activated the comments moderator for reasons that are too obvious to explain, so your remarks might take tad bit longer to appear. Thanks to you all, the Cuban Diaspora in Germany, Canada, Spain, US and to the others, the ones who live in this wonderful country called UK for livening up this humble blog. I leave you with a veteran of the protest song in Cuba and whom I once saw at the Acapulco cinema giving one of the most memorable concerts I have ever attended in my life. Thanks.

Saludos desde Londres.

Word, Movement, Sound, Music (Oda a Walt Whitman-Federico García Lorca)


High-pitched voices mix with husky tones. Singing intonations blend with posher lingoes. Bookish talk renders vulgar language silent. The cacophony of various discourses converges in a unique incantation, representative of the confusion this generation is undergoing in this time and place. You are part of this dialect; however one aspect sets you apart.


The shuffling of feet indicates the arrival of the man responsible for the queue. In this place, the Mecca of ice-cream, people quilt the city with their sweat and flesh, hoping to at least be able to gulp down a couple of scoops of the cold product at some point during the long hot day. For the few it will be an after-dinner option, for the many, it will be their breakfast, lunch and dinner. Necks turn to one side, scrutinising the man with the tickets in his hand, the man who holds their future (at least today) in his hand. You also shift forwards. And so does your girlfriend. And so does your friend. And so does his boyfriend.

Yes, his boyfriend. You and your girlfriend lean against the rails now that the man responsible for the food of so many has gone back inside. Your girlfriend rests against your thighs, caressing your face as she looks away from you, absent-mindedly, in utter motionlessness. Only her hand glides around your face as your friend, your best friend looks on. He wants to do the same to his partner, his other half, his love, but he’s afraid that the same incantation will point him out and chastise him. He smiles. Not at you, though. At his boyfriend. That’s all he can do.


The crowd shuffles forward again. Not because of some physical law, but because of hunger. During this split second your best friend’s hand brushes against his boyfriend’s and a moment of instant elation is shared by both. Their eyes connect for one second too long, for an infinite instant too short. The ice-cream is secondary now. Their breaths quicken and their grip grows stronger. They hold and let go of their hands as swift as it takes the mêlée around them to dehumanise themselves in this very common scene of mid 90s Havana. Rows erupt, fists are raised, necks crane, suddenly it is the choreography of the oppressed against the oppressed. Up above someone is laughing. Your best friend is laughing, too. But his is a different laughter. He has stolen a moment and only he knows precious stolen moments like this are.


Ice-cream eaten. Plates emptied. Bellies full (of ice-cream). Stairs trodden. Hands held (you and your girlfriend’s). Eyes staring at other eyes (your best friend and his boyfriend’s). Silence amongst your four as the outside din turns a couple of notches up. You four venture into the night as its mantle descends on the city. On the corner of L and 21st Street you go your separate ways. Rightwards a bed awaits you and your girlfriend to be unmade under the approving eyes of society. Leftwards your best friend and his boyfriend will disappear into the urban jungle as what they are to polity’s watchful gaze: ‘los pájaros de la Habana’.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Road Songs (Dolce)

Kids. Cars. Kids and cars. Kids in cars. For some, a lethal combination. Screaming, rows, tantrums. For others, total nonchalance.

Children can be a distracting force of incalculable consequences when you're sitting behind the wheel of a car and trying to concentrate on the road ahead of you. Minor quibbles, insignificant squabbles and petty quarrels can drive the most open-minded parents in the world up the wall very quickly.

That's why I say: thank God for music in the car whilst driving!

My children love a mix of songs both for their age and for older audiences. And as the proud father of two bilingual youngsters their tastes go from US hip hop to Ibero-American pop and rock. That does not mean that they do not have the occasional fight in the back of our Nissan Micra but prevention is better than cure as the old adage goes and we all have turns choosing our favourite melodies to accompany us in our frequent jaunts in this lovely country.
So, hooray for music, hooray for driving, hooray for children and hooray for children in cars whilst driving and listening to music!

Copyright 2008

Road Songs (Mad Dog Mcrea " Raggle Taggle Gypsy " )

This is an old traditional Irish song that brings back memories of going camping with the Woodcraft Folk. This tune gets played at campfire at night with the men taking on the women's role and viceversa. I love this version and so do my children. Enjoyable.

The Raggle Taggle Gypsy

There were three gypsies a come to my door
And downstairs ran this lady, O!
One sang high and another sang low
And the other sang bonny, bonny, Biscay, O!

Then she pulled off her silk finished gown
And put on hose of leather, O!
The ragged, ragged, rags about our door
She's gone with the raggle taggle gypsies, O!

It was late last night, when my lord came home
Enquiring for his a-lady, O!
The servants said, on every hand
She's gone with the raggle taggle gypsies, O!

O saddle to me my milk-white steed
Go and fetch me my pony, O!
That I may ride and seek my bride
Who is gone with the raggle taggle gypsies, O!

O he rode high and he rode low
He rode through woods and copses too
Until he came to an open field
And there he espied his a-lady, O!

What makes you leave your house and land?
What makes you leave your money, O?
What makes you leave your new wedded lord?
To go with the raggle taggle gypsies, O!

What care I for my house and my land?
What care I for my money, O?
What care I for my new wedded lord?
I'm off with the raggle taggle gypsies, O!

Last night you slept on a goose-feather bed
With the sheet turned down so bravely, O!
And to-night you'll sleep in a cold open field
Along with the raggle taggle gypsies, O!

What care I for a goose-feather bed?
With the sheet turned down so bravely, O!
For to-night I shall sleep in a cold open field
Along with the raggle taggle gypsies, O!

Road Songs (Joaquín Sabina - La del Pirata Cojo - 1994 Las Ventas)

I couldn't leave 'El Flaco' out. My son really rocks to this tune and he knows the refrain by heart, with me explaining to him the bits he does not understand. I'm not too sure what I would say if he decided to become a photographer for Playboy magazine, though. Nostalgic.

Road Songs - (Charly Garcia - Raros Peinados Nuevos)

If someone was to tell me nineteen years ago, when I first came across Charly that my very own daughter would have the words to this song plastered on the walls of her bedroom, I would have laughed in their face. But she loves this marvellous song which is a paean to people who want to be who they really want to be despite society's conventions. Masterful.

Road Songs (Passe em Casa - Tribalistas)

Both my children's first brush with the Portuguese language. After this, my daughter grew fond of Elis Regina's 'Aguas de Março'. But I still remember the first time I played this in the car and they both went: Wow! Nowadays they always jump in during the refrain. Carioca.

Road Songs (Los Prisioneros - Estrechez de Corazón - Viña del Mar 2,002)

My son has really taken to this song. It was the first track ever he became fond of in my native Spanish and as a long-time fan of Los Prisioneros I was ever so glad that he developed a passion for this Chilean band, too. Another song he loves is '¿Por qué no se van?' by the same band. Thoughtful.

Road Songs (Manu Chao - Bongo Bong)

This came in a children's CD and it stood out from the word go. My two kids love it. Funky.


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