Wednesday 30 July 2008

Automatic Vacation Response

I will be away for a week in gorgeous Dorset, southern England, camping with my family and a local group. Feel free to come in and peruse around. I have had to activate the comments moderator for obvious reasons. I will be incommunicado for seven days. No mobile phones, or television, just a couple of good books, my wife and children's company and songs by a campfire with the rest of the troop.

The scrobbler below works in the same way an Ipod or an mp3 player does. Just press play, sit back and enjoy. There are 200 songs covering a wide range of genres, from R&B to pop, from modern Brazilian music to jazz and blues.

Bye, bye for now.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Chopin 'Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op 66' & Etude in C minor 'Revolutionary' Op 10 No 12)

Classical music has bequeathed the world some of the most beautiful melodies known to man, but it has failed in its duty to provide it with Killer Opening Songs. This, in no way, is a shortcoming of the genre but a technological misfortune. LPs, cassettes and CDs did not exist when compositions by Haydn, Bach and Mozart prowled concert halls all through Europe. That is why it is left to people like yours truly, to figure out which song would open a record by someone like Chopin, for instance. Nocturnes or polonaises? Neither in my opinion. I think that had Chopin had the opportunity to choose the introductory song to an album he would have gone for one of his études or his Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Opus 66. And that is precisely the song that I will be uploading today on the blog. But not on its own. What do I mean? Well, my dear, just what I wrote. I will be uploading two Killer Opening Songs today. And if you think that’s cheating, yes, it is, and wait until you see the surprise I have for you two weeks hence.

You see, alongside the Fantaisie-Impromptu I had to include also the Polish musician’s étude in C minor ‘Revolutionary’ Opus 10 No 12, purely because it is a demanding piece, technically speaking, and also because of the feelings that it awakens in me. Chopin wrote this étude when Russian troops were about to crush the ‘November Uprising’ in Poland in 1831 and his patriotic feelings towards his fellow countrymen are as strong as they can be, especially taking into account that the musician was living in exile at the time. The inclusion of the Fantaisie, on the other hand, carries a sentimental motif. This was one of two pieces (Lecuona’s ‘La Comparsa’ was the other one) that my father always used to play as soon as his piano practice was over. And I grew up listening to both.

So, despite classical composers like Schubert and Tchaikovsky not having been able to release albums à la Rolling Stones, I promise to make up for that and every now and then suggest what to me would be the ultimate Killer Opening Song of a particular classical musician's oeuvre. And of course, my dear fellow blogger and reader, your opinion counts, too.

Copyright 2008

Sunday 27 July 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Aria)

- ‘Había una vez dos hermanitos: Juanito y Pedrito’. (Once upon a time there two brothers: Little Johnny and Little Peter), Daughter said.
- No, no, nena, the intonation is: HaBÍa una VEZ dos hermaNItos: JuaNIto y PeDRIto. (Once upon a Time, there were two BROthers: LIttle Johnny and LIttle Peter)

And so Daughter repeated the sentence accordingly with a clear and accentuated pitch.

One of the most overlooked aspects of teaching and learning a foreign language is the different intonation patterns people have. Please, note that I am referring to intonation, the melody of pitch changes in connected speech, namely, what distinguishes speakers from dissimilar linguistic cultures. Not stress, which is the emphasis in the form of prominent relative loudness of a syllable or word as a result of special effort in utterance (that will be the subject of a future column). Intonation and stress are sometimes mixed up, hence my explanation.

Both Son and Daughter have British accents and therefore their intonation owes a lot to that nasal twang so characteristic of north Londoners. Coupled with this is the influence of US and Australian cultures and the patterns that govern their speech and at times both Son and Daughter's voices reach that rising inflection so typical of the aforementioned countries (especially northeast United States where people seem to be asking questions the whole time when they are actually making statements). It has been a lovely battle to wage, though, teaching them the correct intonation patterns of Cuban Spanish, since when I explain this to them they pay attention closely.

Last year when we were all in Cuba, Son adopted a distinctive, melodic speech rhythm. Because he played and talked a lot with his Cuban cousin who is the same age he is (only a couple of weeks younger) he came back to the UK with a twang that resembled the Havana accent but with a ‘cantaito’ (singsong intonation) leaning heavily towards eastern Cuba, the so-called ‘Oriental’ patois. I teased him a bit about it, but not in a negative or derogatory way, just to show him the various forms in which people speak Spanish in the Ibero-Latin Diaspora.

For instance, Andalusians and Canarians have a closer accent to Cubans than the rest of Spain. Cubans, on the other hand, share a more similar speech pattern with Dominicans (as in Dominican Republic), Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans and Colombians. Travel southwards and you will find Ecuadorians, Peruvians and Bolivians gravitating towards a similar standard of oral melodies. Argentinians, Uruguayans and Paraguayans, no matter what they say, have the Italian influence to thank for their musical speech. The only country that does not factor into this equal distribution communication standards is the Chilean speech pattern. The first time I heard a Chilean person speaking I was bamboozled. Their intonation, in my humble opinion, resembles more the northeast US and Australian accents already mentioned in this column than the more usual Spanish accents I come across and it’s a beautiful example of how misleading Spanish can be to the untrained ear (I must remark at this point that I am a sucker for accents and for me not one comes above another, whether I am speaking in English, Spanish, German or French). It’s a similar case in Central America with Mexico the nation standing out amongst countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras where the variation of tone shares more commonalities.

With Daughter and the story of ‘El Osito Boribón’ (Little Bear Boribón) it was not just a question of intonation but also of narration. Further down the page we were on, she read:

- Tenían una suiza… y la rompieron, les regalaron un trencito… y también lo rompieron, les regalaron una pelota… y la reventaron (they had a skipping rope… and they broke it, they were given a train set… and they also broke it, they were given a ball… and they burst it)
- No, no, nena. Try to give the audience a sense of anticipation so that they are left craving for more and desperate to know what the ending is, like this: they had a SKIPPING ROPE… and they BROKE it, they were given a TRAIN SET… and they ALSO broke it, they were given a BALL… and they BURST it.

You see, it is not just the intonation, but also the acting that goes with it.

Copyright 2008

Saturday 26 July 2008

Meditations on Britain (Motif Sportif)

It has taken me sixty-seven days to write this column. As John Terry's foot slipped on the Moscow damp ground, Chelsea's hopes of European glory were given a deadly blow.

I have never intended this blog to be about sport. As a fellow blogger remarked recently, the mix of literary reviews, reflections on my life in Britain, more pertinently in London, music sections and recipes (with music to listen to whilst eating) form the bulk of this space. But, even the most hardened of souls would have felt for the England and Chelsea captain when his shot flew wide of the intended target.

That's why when I was at Stamford Bridge recently (for the first time in my life) I was struck by the image that presented itself in front of my eyes. A tractor was flattening the ground on the pitch. And as the vehicle moved from right to left I could not help thinking that that was a metaphor for how our season went. One by one the chances to silverware came tumbling down like the mounds of soil on the pitch. The nail on the coffin was that night in Moscow.

Although I rarely write about sport on this blog that doesn’t mean that I am indifferent to it. I am passionate about both arts and sports equally, living to the core the Greek maxim: ‘Healthy mind in healthy body’. Both disciplines carry within them the ethos of enjoyment, resilience and narcissism. Where they both differ is in the pursuit of their goals. Whereas art concerns itself more with the process of creation (or it should, at any rate), for sportspeople, the result is everything. John Terry, on the night of Wednesday 21st May, 2008, probably left aside thoughts about the long road traversed by Chelsea to arrive at its first ever European final, especially after the most successful manager in the club’s history, Jose Mourinho, had walked out in September 2007. He probably excluded the facts and statistics that pointed at a club struggling to remain within sight of the champions, Manchester United, when its main players were either injured or on international duty. He probably chose to forget about players' discontent with Mourinho’s replacement, Avram Grant, who, by the way, was sacked by the club’s hierarchy following his defeat in the European Cup Final.

Art is more forgiving, though and so are its audiences. When on a warm Sunday afternoon I was in attendance at the Grand Theatre of Havana in the mid 90s nothing could have warned me that I was about to witness history being made. The bill promised a Swan Lake performed by none other than Lorna Feijóo, my favourite ballet dancer ever. Next to me sat my then German course teacher, an Austrian woman, with her boyfriend by her side. I had been raving about Lorna for so long that they both thought I was more than just a good acquaintance of hers.

The piece went smoothly and Lorna handled the various pas de deux with aplomb and vigour. But then came the strenuous and difficult role of Odile and the unexpected happened. Halfway through a spin, Lorna slipped and fell. The audience leant forward and covered their eyes with their hands and the atmosphere felt oppressive, as if someone had sucked the air out of the building. Lorna rose up once again and in a defiant, daring and challenging manner, dusted herself off (literally) and gave us a series of fuettés, each one of them improving on the previous one. The public went mad (not unheard of in Cuba) with cries and wild applause and the critics raved about the performance for a long time after.

Two top spectacles and yet what consolation can John Terry get from a game that was almost won, but wasn’t? And that’s that the sad reality of sport, almost counts for nothing. Who knows? Maybe Terry could learn a thing or two from Lorna if they ever ran into each other.

Copyright 2008

Thursday 24 July 2008

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

Up to now, except for the first one, all the recipes I have posted in this weekly section contain meat or fish. Well, now it's the time to give vegetarian food its opportunity to shine, too. And as I consider myself an omnivore, I feel that I've let the other half of me down. But as the old axiom goes: 'Better late than never'.

This recipe comes courtesy of Paul Kirk, a man who has travelled the world training restaurant chefs in the art of the grill and in a second you'll find out why. He has a book out called '500 Barbecue Sizzlers' where you can delve a bit deeper and come face to face with the thrill of the grill.

Spicy Grilled Aubergine

1 large aubergine cut into 1.5cm (1 1/2in)thick slices
1 to 2 tsp salt, to remove the water from the aubergine
2 tbsp olive oil
2tsp red wine vinegar
2tsp fresh lemon juice
1tsp crushed dried chillies (as I am not a chillies person, I usually leave this ingredient out, but feel free to include it yourself)
1tsp herb seasoning mix
2tbsp olive, to brush aubergine for barbecuing
1tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1tsbp chopped fresh mint

Put the aubergine slices in a colander in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Leave to drain for 20 minutes, then turn, sprinkle the other side with salt and leave to drain for 20 minutes more.

While the aubergine drains, whisk together the olive oil, wine vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, crushed chillies and herb seasoning. Set the spicy sauce aside.

Preheat the barbecue to medium. Press each aubergine slice between two pieces of kitchen paper to dry them. Brush both sides with olive oil. Place the aubergine on the grill and cook for four to five minutes per side, rotating after a few minutes on each side if you want to get grill marks.

Watch the aubergine slices carefully because they go from gently browned to charred quickly. When the aubergine is cooked, remove from the grill and place in a large bowl. Stir in the spicy sauce to coat. Leave to cool slightly, then sprinkle the parsley and mint over the aubergine and serve warm or at room temperature.

Just as the recipe I've brought you this week, the playlist should be as smoky and crispy, too. As a music purist I believe that barbecue songs should be rooted in that old tradition of stoking and tending a fire, in this case, a melody. So, this week my selection comprises clips by:

Oi Va Voi - Refugee (Live)
Burning Spear - Jah Is My Driver (Live)
Rachael Yamagata - Worn Me Down
Habib Koité - Batoumambé
Me'Shell Ndegeocello - Boyfriend
Estrella Morente - Zambra
Sevara Nazarkhan - Gazli
Heather Headley - I wish I wasn't (Live)


Copyright 2008

Monday 21 July 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Caetano Veloso-Haiti)

When in 1991 Lieutenant General Raoul Cédras deposed the democratically elected president of Haiti, former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Caribbean nation was thrown into turmoil. The effects of that action are still being felt today, as Haiti has never recovered from that setback. It is ironic then, that one of the better Killer Opening Songs that came out of that conflict, although not directly out of it, was Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil’s ‘Haiti’, the opening track on their 1994 outing, ‘Tropicalia 2’. Both singers use the Haitian situation as a metaphor for the police violence aimed at black youth in Brazil, whilst raising important questions about the meaning of citizenship in Brazilian society. ‘Haiti’, thus, becomes a mournful lament to a country ravaged by poverty, racial tensions and economic hardship. The words are powerful and the repetition of some of the lines gives the listener a better opportunity to ascertain the seriousness of the situation in the South American nation: ‘Quando você for convidado pra subir no adro/Da fundação casa de Jorge Amado/Pra ver do alto a fila de soldados, quase todos pretos/Dando porrada na nuca de malandros pretos/De ladrões mulatos e outros quase brancos/Tratados como pretos/Só pra mostrar aos outros quase pretos/(E são quase todos pretos)/E aos quase brancos pobres como pretos/Como é que pretos, pobres e mulattos/E quase brancos quase pretos de tão pobres são tratados

This song became a classic in Caetano Veloso’s extensive repertoire and it is one of the tunes that people at his concerts always ask for. It is with pride and gusto (although tinged with sadness due to the motivation that led the Brazilian singer-songwriter to compose the melody in the first place) that I upload this marvellous Killer Opening Song this week. Enjoy.

Note: the word ‘preto’ is similar in spelling and meaning to the word ‘prieto’ in Spanish. They both mean black and are usually used to refer to black people, but of a darker hue. It is normally used colloquially, however when I thought of translating the text above from Portuguese to English I had second thoughts as I would have had to utilise words that might have been interpreted differently in the Anglo-Saxon language resulting in unintentional offence. That’s why I’ve left it up to you to find out the meaning.

Copyright 2008

Sunday 20 July 2008

Word, Movement, Sound, Music (Zero Degrees by Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui)


Question: If we are each other’s mirrors, why do we fight?
Answer: Because we break the mirror.
Question: But why?
Answer: Because we do not like the image it returns to us.
Question: But isn’t that a waste of time? The image is human; the function of the mirror is to make you look human.
Answer: Wrong question and pathetic analysis. The function of the mirror is to return the compliment, nothing less, nothing more.
Question: But…
Answer: No buts, time to go to your cell.


You raise your right hand at the same time I raise my left one. You speak my words and I speak yours. Your green skin blends with my turquoise one. You hoist your knee at the same time I hoist mine.

There’s still hope.


There’s a man in the Immigration Control Office. He is trying to explain to the official there that he has got the correct documentation to cross the border. The official is not paying any attention. He is only focused on the man’s lips. Too thick. On the man’s hands. Too fine. On the man’s voice. Too articulate. On the man’s skin colour. Too different. On the man’s mannerisms. Too different. On the man’s hair. Too different. Everything about this man is different.

Finally the official rises and motions the man to stop talking. He leans over his desk, examines the man’s passport and stamps his thoughts down. ‘No Entry’.


Once there was a cricket that refused to rub his wings to make music just like the other crickets. One day he turned up in the middle of a crickets’ concert with a fiddle. He didn’t know how to play it but vowed to learn it. The only request he had was that he be allowed to join the orchestra once he finished his training. They refused to accept him and sent him away from their colony. Years after the cricket came back, already a famous violinist and gave a concert to the whole community. He was praised greatly, but at the crack of dawn he left, never to be seen again. Since then, everyone has been trying to find the cricket that plays the fiddle.

Copyright 2008

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Allegro)

- What my Dad is saying is…
- Hey, don’t translate now, nena, will you?

There we were again, in the same situation. Daughter had brought home a friend from school and whenever I made a comment to her in Spanish, she would translate it into English to her friend. Not that there was any harm in what she was doing, after all we don’t make any kind of negative remarks in front of strangers or acquaintances about them. That’s a no-no en la casa de CubanInLondon. But I would rather she was a bit more controlled in the whole translation bit. I can picture the following conversation when she grows up and she brings home her first date:

- (Me) And where did you get this Anthony Perkins lookalike?
- (Daughter) My Dad says that you looked like the guy from ‘Psycho’, especially the Mother bit.
- (Date) Ahem…
- (Me) You didn’t have to translate that, nena, did you?
- (Daughter) Yes, but I want them to know what you’re talking about.
- (Me) Well, it’s not really necessary, is it? At the end of the day you’re not doing a degree in Spanish translation.
- (Date, looking unsettled) Er… could I have some water, please?
- (Me) He probably wants the shower, too, preferably with you in it.
- (Daughter) Oh, papi, stop it now. You’re not Alfred Hitchcock, you know, and I’m not Janet Leigh.
- (Me) Yes, but still, he’s quite soft-spoken and looks a bit shy.
- (Date, looking around and trying to whisper to Daughter in front of me) What are you talking about?
- (Daughter) My Dad said…
- (Me) Enough! That’s enough translation for tonight.

Well, at least she finds translating Spanish into English fun.
Copyright 2008

Monday 14 July 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Queen's Mustapha)

Some artists manage just one Killer Opening Song in their whole musical career. Some others get to release just a handful. But there are performers and bands for whom Killer Opening Songs are part of their DNA. One clear example is the British rock and pop group Queen.

I must declare an expression of interest here. I am a Queen fan. I have been one since age thirteen and I’m about to enter my thirty-seventh year of existence in a few months, so that would make me twenty-four years listening to one of the top bands in the vast rock universe.

So, there, I’ve written that paragraph. Now, you can either stop reading this post or the blog altogether and make tracks (no charge will be levied, mind) or stay for a while and learn a little bit more about one of the most dynamic and forward-thinking groups in rock’s short life.

Queen fans come under two guises, those who are enamoured of the band’s Greatest Hits Volumes (and can quote most of their hits by heart) and those who listen to their albums in their entirety and really understand the group’s ethos. I guess that by now you know which team I am in.

The first element that attracted me to this band when I was still a teenager and living in Havana, Cuba, was their pure and unbridled creative energy. From their debut album, ‘Queen’, with its nod to Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, the band embarked on a never-ending experimental tour that brought them a huge following but also derision. It’s not strange that Queen never courted favour with British rock critics. In a country where self-effacement is the lifestyle of choice, captions like ‘No Synthesizers’ (plastered across the first seven albums) did not attract praise but mockery. And Freddie’s artistic vision (like for instance in the song ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ from their second album, ‘Queen II') did not find an enthusiastic audience amongst rock’s cognoscenti.

The other aspect that always appealed to me about this British band was their chutzpah. Theirs was a form of musical audacity that led them to see off more narcissistic rock styles, like punk, for instance, at a time when most people were writing their musical obituary.

That’s why it is a pleasure to bring to this column this week a song that encapsulates everything I have described above. Never released as a single, yet it has the same quality as ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Play the Game’ (two other anthemic Killer Opening Songs by Queen). Not sung live very often, however in a moment you will see footage of a very rare performance of it. The words are not in English, bar a few ones, but any real fan familiar with Queen’s music will know by now that the band sometimes indulged in French, Japanese and Spanish in their compositions. In short, ‘Mustapha’, the song I am uploading this week, was a very creative and challenging outing for his writer, Freddie Mercury. Sung in Persian, the song was very popular in France due to the large Muslim population in this European nation. The fact that I’ve selected this track from a plethora of songs used by Queen to open their albums with, attests to the brilliance and intelligence this band displayed for their entire twenty-year career (yes, to me they were finished after Freddie died in 1991, so that means 1971-1991 R.I.P.). Just to give you fellow bloggers and readers an idea of what else to find within the ‘Jazz’ album, where this song first appeared here’s a roll-call: ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’, ‘Bicycle Race’, (yes, the one with the naughty video), ‘Let Me Entertain You’, (a real camp-fest with words like ‘I've come here to sell you my body/I can show you some good merchandise/I'll pull you and I'll pill you/I'll CrueladeVille you/And to thrill you I'll use any device) and one of their stadium anthems, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, currently used in a car ad.

So, do you see my point? ‘Mustapha’ was nothing but the introduction to a huge musical extravaganza, the likelihood of which is hard to find these days amidst the anodyne and formulaic pop that gets churned out by production companies so often. What other songs from the album did not make it to singles or hits? Oh dear, you got me on a roll now: ‘If You Can’t Beat Them’, (the male rock version of ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor), ‘Dead On Time’ (heavy metal anyone?), ‘Dreamer’s Ball’ (Freddie said of this song in the ‘Live Killers’ album: ‘The things you have to do for money’) and ‘Fun It’ (precursor to Queen going disco in the 80s, but still a brilliant tune).

Now that I’ve held your attention for all this time, allow me to explain what you’re about to witness. The first clip is the original intro from the ‘Live Killers’ album, the Paris leg, which, as I have already explained, had the whole crowd asking for the song. The second clip is that aforementioned rare performance and the third video is just the album version, no funky visuals or anything.

I hope that you come away from this week’s column with a different idea about this British band that broke every single barrier there was out there in terms of creativity and originality.

Copyright 2008

Saturday 12 July 2008

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

This offering comes courtesy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and more recipes can be found on his website I cooked this the other day for my family and everybody cleaned their plates, including the children, who, I must admit, don't find onions appealing. This can be served as light supper, which is what I did, although it can also be a side dish.

Broad beans (or peas) with bacon and onion

2 tbsp oil - olive or sunflower
3-4 rashers unsmoked bacon
2-3 fresh little onions, sliced
500g (podded weight) fresh
broad beans (or peas)
Freshly ground black pepper
10 fresh sage leaves

Warm a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan, add the bacon and fry for a couple of minutes, until it's just crispy. Put away in the oven at a low temperature to keep it nice and crunchy.

Add the onions to the pan and cook gently until soft and just turning golden. When they're just about done, bring a pan of water to the boil. Add a pinch of salt and the beans (or peas), cook for a minute, then drain. Stir the beans into the onions, add the pancetta and cook for a minute, shaking the pan. Grind on a little pepper.

Tip into a warmed bowl while you prepare the sage leaves. Warm the remaining oil in a small frying pan and quickly fry the sage leaves until crisp - this takes a matter of seconds. Throw these over the peas and serve immediately.

Now, the music to go with this dish. Although this is light food the playlist is heavy, really heavy.

B.B. King - Let the good times roll
Seu Jorge - Carolina
Aimee Mann - Wise Up
Raphael Saadiq - Ask Of You
Keith Jarrett - Summertime
Pato Fu - Eu Sei
Sneaker Pimps - Destroying Angel (Live)
El Guayabero - Marieta

Copyright 2008

Friday 11 July 2008

Road Songs (Fiesta) 2nd Part

Let it be known that a year ago today just as I was about to finish my driving test the examiner asked me to pull over and uttered the magic words: 'Congratulations, you have passed'. To say that I was over the moon would be putting it too mildly as this had been my fifth attempt to overcome this hurdle. And no, I was not a novice behind the wheel, I just did not have a valid licence, only a temporary one. Without that moment, though, this weekly column would not exist. It was the desire to share with fellow bloggers and readers the music I listened to whilst on the road that led me to begin a series that has been welcomed by all of you and that now comes to an end unfortunately (sniff, sniff). Sporadically I will do special 'one-offs' (like an autumn's hootenanny, for instance) but no more 'Road Songs' extravaganza. Which does not mean that I will stop now listening to good music whilst driving through the streets of London or any other city, village or town. Contrariwise, m'lud, I vow to carry on. I've picked some columns from this long series; they are not my favourite ones, there are no favourite ones because I love them all, but I just chose some at random.

The Beginning

The Pleasure of Reversing

The Joy of Uphill Starts

The Mechanics of Driving

So, which performers have I invited for my farewell party? Well, have a butcher's at the playlist below and pick up what you like (Note: butcher's is a Cockney rhyming slang word, butcher's hook=look)

Nitin Sawhney & Sharon Duncan - Eastern Eyes
So Flute - St. Germain
Faith Evans - Love Like This (live )
Manu Chao - Clandestino (live)
Afro Blue -Mongo Santamaria
Chico Buarque - Vai Passar
Stevie Wonder - Superstition (live)
Agua-Los Van Van

Copyright 2008

Thursday 10 July 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Prestissimo)

- Papi, what's this word?

Son’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. His index finger was pointing at a word in italics bang in the middle of a long sentence. All the other words were in English, but this one in particular stood out amongst the others. The reason? It was in Spanish.

The dreaded 'c' word had arrived in Son’s world.

Living in a Bilingual World has very limited patience for pretentious newspapers columnists with lofty linguistic ambitions, but my eye has been caught recently by certain articles I have read both in print and on the internet where the ‘c’ word has been included gratuitously.

Of course, there is a chance you are already familiar with the ‘c’ word. If you speak Spanish, that is. And if you hail from Latin America as I do, you will find it as offensive as I do. I can’t even bring myself to write it so I will have to do the same they do sometimes in written publications; to place asterisks strategically; do not fret, though, you will recognise it immediately.

C stands for c******. Got it? Seven letters. Seven gratuitously offensive letters (Spaniards do not count as I know that they love cursing left, right and centre).

So, why? Why has it become a habit to band this four-letter word about (admittedly, it is actually seven letters, but let’s not get too picky about it, shall we?) as if it was Angelina Jolie’s latest adopted Third World orphan?

I think the reason stems from the desire to sound cool in another language. Given the shortcomings in the learning and teaching of foreign languages in the UK and to which I have referred before here in this space, there’s a zeal to prove that at least when it comes to swear words, British journalists are up to scratch. Timothy Garton Ash, one of my favourite columnists in The Guardian, has used it (sin asteriscos, mind). Catherine Bennett, from The Observer and another features writer I worship, can’t let go of it (or them, and no, no pun intended). Over at the holier-than-thou Daily Telegraph, Andrew Grimson reminds readers that even Liberal Democratic leaders must remember where they have theirs. In case they lose them, maybe. Even The Times is at it with them. And it is not only the Brits; their German counterparts are guilty of the same crime, too.

It is a sad situation when you have to explain to a ten-year-old (Son), that no, this is not a nice word, that a man’s private parts are usually asterisked in the British media (except in The Guardian and The Observer where they delight in using all kinds of expletives without covering them up) and that some words sound very strong to certain cultures.

And what about Son? Well, what about Son?

- How do you pronounce this word, then, papi?

- Well, as you know, the ‘j’ sounds like the English ‘h’. But I bet they don’t know that.

N.B.: For non-Spanish speakers, just in case it has not been obvious to you, either by the tone of the column or by the photo included in it, the 'c' word I alluded to in the above post is a swear word for 'testicles' in Spanish.

© 2008

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Sinéad O'Connor's 'Fire on Babylon')

Killer Opening Songs act like musical versions of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. They entice and mesmerise you and you can’t help but carry on listening to the whole record as you are led away from your comfort zone. That is exactly what happened to me the first time I heard ‘Fire on Babylon’. The ferocious musical onslaught at the beginning of the album ‘Universal Mother’ is provided by a bassline that neither changes its rhythm nor allows its vim to wane throughout the whole track. It remains constant, indomitable, rebellious and solipsistic. This is coupled with some of the angriest lyrics you can ever find in a Killer Opening Song. Sinead O’Connor sings about betrayal, abandon and abuse and does it with the same impetus that saw her shedding a couple of tears at the end of that memorable video ‘Nothing Compares 2U’ (and saw some of us doing the same).

I have uploaded both the original video clip and a live performance on Jools Holland’s show. Enjoy.

NB (There's an intro before 'Fire on Babylon' in the album and as a ground rule I will not upload intros as I don't think they are songs per se. However it is worth noting that the words at the beginning of 'Universal Mother' are by none other than Germaine Greer, she of 'The Female Eunuch' fame and I kindly reproduce them for you, my lovely, gentle and polite readers and fellow bloggers.

'I do think that women could make politics irrelevant. By a kind of spontaneous cooperative action, the like of which we have never seen. Which is so far from people's ideas of state structure and vital social structure that seems to them like total anarchy. And what it really is is very subtle forms of interrellation which do not follow sort of hierachical pattern which is fundamentally patriarchal. The opposite to patriarchy is not matriarchy but fraternity. And I think it's women who are going to have to break this spiral of power and find the trick of cooperation.'

Copyright 2008

Monday 7 July 2008

Animal's People (Review) (Adagio)

When in the early hours of the morning of 3rd December 1984 fumes emanating from the Union Carbide India, Limited plant, killed more than 3,000 people and injured thousand others, India was waking up to one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. The number of those dying immediately from exposure to the deadly gases and from their lethal effects later is roughly estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

It is against this backdrop that ‘Animal’s People’ is set. But instead of Bhopal we have the imaginary place of Khaupfur and au lieu de Union Carbide, we have the ‘Kampani’, a faithful replica of the former.

I used to be human once. So I’m told. I don’t remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being’. This opening sentence in the novel is the first snowball that sets in motion the powerful avalanche of feelings, emotions and conflicts that slaps us across our face and shakes us to our very core. The reader is invited to a true feast of what human life becomes once hope is almost gone. Throughout the three hundred and sixty-pages of the book, Indra Sinha introduces us to a whole array of characters full of flaws and virtues and whose lives are intertwined by what happened on that night.

Animal, a boy with a crooked back as a consequence of the chemical disaster that befell the village, narrates the book and it is his mix of Hindi and broken English that draws the reader in immediately. First, by trying to decipher the words he uses, afterwards this changes to an attempt to understand his feelings.

The other characters include Zafar, a romantic revolutionary who spearheads the Khaupfuris’ struggle for justice. His girlfriend Nisha is another strong personage, torn between her Hindi identity and Zafar’s Muslim roots. Her father, Somraj, a firm and law-abiding citizen is a singer whose voice was affected by the events of that night. Elli, an American doctor, who arrives in Khaupfur all of a sudden and unannounced with the purpose of making a difference to its inhabitants is a victim of the emotional roller coaster the villagers suffer from. Ma Francis, a French nun who has looked after Animal since he was a small child, completes the cast.

Indra’s main achievement is to weave a story that has social and political overtones with a love triangle. Animal, a twenty-year old who has been walking on all fours like a quadruped since he was a child, is besotted with Nisha; he loves her more than anything in this world. Nisha wants to marry Zafar, but she is aware of their cultural differences. Zafar wants nothing more than justice for Khaupfur, whose inhabitants are still suffering the consequences of the ‘Kampani’s’ negligence and abandon. He also loves Nisha but knows that the future is nothing but a chimera until the perpetrators pay their dues in a court of law.

Sinha’s use of humour (especially the sexual situations Animal finds himself in) is a welcomed relief in a novel that is politically charged. The narrative follows a series of tape recordings that Animal makes for an Australian journalist (Ostrali jarnalis) and far from following a set structure, some chapters are longer than others. The novel, thus, flows like a river.

The author’s other achievement is his use of political rhetoric. Far from falling into self-indulgence he constructs his characters around the disaster caused by that night and its aftermath. His prose is carefully weighted and beautifully embroidered across the pages of the novel. A metaphor here, a harsher tone there. Instead of using Khaupfur as a tool for emotional and aesthetic effects, he chooses to build hope out of the mud huts and the poisoned water.

Primo Levi, in his memoir ‘If This is a Man’ wrote: ‘Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealisable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realisation of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition, which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day ’.

In ‘Animal’s People’ Indra Sinha proves that uncertainty can well become a weapon to make hope come true.
Copyright 2008

Saturday 5 July 2008

Road Songs (Fiesta)

Starting today and carrying on next week I will be celebrating my first year behind the wheel. More to come in seven days. In the meantime, I will leave you with a small selection of clips that better explain my mood.

First off we have the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, with a classic, 'I Feel Good' and you know what, after a year on the road with a valid driver's licence in my pocket, that's how I feel. This is soon followed by a Cuban band that has reaped countless awards in its short existence. Orishas is a rap group with a unique sound and inimitable charisma. Third down the playlist is Bob Marley's son, Ziggy Marley, covering his father's timeless anthem' Punky Reggae Party'. I have always loved dance routines in videos and this is as good as it gets, Michael Jackson's 'Remember the Time'. Pity that the original clip cannot be embedded. Celia Cruz, the Queen of Latin Music, comes up next with 'La Vida es un Carnaval' because life is a carnival, ladies and gentlemen and we had better parade behind and alongside the float whilst we can. Marvin Gaye's errant lover served as the inspiration for a song that has defied time, 'I Heard Through the Grapevine' and we, his fans, are the beneficiaries of his musical mastery. Released in 1990 and danced all the way throughout Cuba, Gerardo's 'Rico Suave' was the summer track of that year. And it has made it to the list. Last but not least is a clip that is not a music video per se, but a scene from a film that encapsulates how I feel at the moment (despite being jobless). 'Hombre Mirando al Sudeste' (Man Facing Southeast) was one of Eliseo Subiela's masterpieces and by incorporating Beethoven's Ninth Symphony into the plot he freed his main character and the supporting ones (literally). Please, even if you can't speak Spanish, stick it out until the end, you won't regret it. I will be back next week with a fresh bout of feel-good and air-punching tunes for everyone to sink their teeth into.

Copyright 2008

Thursday 3 July 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Symphony for Tenor and Orchestra)

- Papi, why is it that not many people in our school speak another language? (this was Daughter) - What do you mean?
- Well, like we speak Spanish but the other children go to Spain for holidays and all they can say is 'Hola'.
- I am sure that they learn other words but they forget them as soon as they step off the plane after they arrive in the UK.
- Other children in my class always ask me what we are talking about when you drop me off at school and we are having a conversation. (this was Son)
- And what do you say?
- I just translate what we've been discussing because it is not like it is a secret or anything, is it?

This is a constant topic of conversation around the table with Wife contributing as much as I do. Many times whilst in Spain I have entered a bar only to find a handful of British expats leaning on the counter and bellowing out:

“Dos cervezas por favor.” (Two beers, please)

You could be forgiven for thinking that those are the only words a British tourist will manage to utter whilst on holiday in Spain or any other Spanish-speaking country. And you could be right.

The UK lies at the bottom of the league of European nations whose citizens can master two or even three other languages. A typical Scandinavian will speak English and French besides Swedish or Norwegian for instance. Go to Germany and most people will speak English as a second language, sometimes as fluent as their own mother tongue. Move over to Spain , and you will find many locals conversing in French effortlessly.

So, are British bad at languages? Al contrario. In defence of my adopted land, I have to mention some factors that have conspired against their taking up the learning of foreign languages more seriously.

The first one is that English is the recognised international lingua franca and this has created a sense of linguistic complacency amongst Anglophones. Travel to Nepal or Brazil and the chances are that you will come across someone who can muster a few words in Shakespeare’s language.

The second reason was the ill-fated decision in 2002 to make the learning of foreign languages optional after age 14.

The third and final explanation could have something to do with Britain ’s national sport: self-deprecation and self-effacement. Speaking a foreign language demands a type of mettle and exposure that could very easily be undermined by self-disparagement.

Still, there is room for hope. Following a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which showed that 84% of primary schools now teach children another language, the government is planning to encourage the take-up of languages overall. And as the proud father of two bilingual children I cannot vouch enough for the benefit the learning of a foreign lingo brings to a little one.

And who knows, maybe you will be able to take that conversation further than just two beers.

Copyright 2008

Illustration courtesy of Garrincha

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Meditations on our 'Contemporary Society' according to Akram Khan (Metamorphosis for Ten Performers)

'I feel we live in a society that is evolving at great speed, and it is because of this momentum of shifting that we still call it a ‘contemporary society’. All traditions were once contemporary; it is just a matter of time when something is regarded as old or part of a tradition.'

With this introductory note in the programme Akram Khan unleashes a barrage of fidgety, energetic and inspiring dance moves onto the unsuspecting public in attendance at Sadlers' Wells to watch his latest choreographic work, Bahok.

A departure lounge is the setting for all the chaos that ensues. Amidst notices like ‘Delayed’ and ‘Rescheduled’, the performers (or would that be passengers?) map swiftly across the vast stage the main theme the piece addresses: globalised isolation.

Akram Khan has been here before. In his 2005 work ‘Zero Degrees’ which he performed alongside the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the target was identity and the lack of it thereof. His follow-up, ‘Sacred Monsters’, saw him breaking down barriers (literally) with the magnificent dancer Sylvie Guillem in the pursuit of a common language (and we are not thinking linguistics here). Bahok, on the other hard, combines guest artists from the National Ballet of China and performers from Spain, South Korea, Slovakia, India and South Africa. United Colours of Benetton? You bet. The result is a prism through which themes like intolerance, despair, bitterness, elation, hope and optimism are explored in both theatrical and danceable forms.

If we think of each performer on the night as a small entity in themselves and not just as yet another group of dancers, we arrive, then, at the conclusion that they are human crotchets, dissimilar parts of a bigger whimsical notion, one that becomes the final product: HOPE. This is the word that flashes up on the screen as the show wraps up and it is the word that leaves everyone in the auditorium clapping to the dancers’ dextrous versatility.

Akram Khan patterns the choreography in the same way a grammar teacher prepares a lesson. Whereas the former will go for up and slow tempos the latter will go for rising and falling intonation standards. Khan's is a piece full of the slithering interplay between performers, with some of them bickering with one another and others falling into freestyle ballet dance blithely. These pairings, of which there are various combinations, act like a dynamic device, speeding the piece up or slowing it down.

Ultimately it is Akram Khan’s mastery of the unsaid that works wonders. The piece does not seek to explain or tell why and how our ‘contemporary society’ became this way. Yet, Bahok implicates all of us, observant audience, in its doing.

In another part of the programme, Khan writes: ‘The stage is usually the place where I can reveal not only an image from my head, but also what I feel is missing or needed in the contemporary society around me, but somehow I believe it is not about me preaching to others of what is missing in their lives but mostly what is missing in my own… so the whole approach to my work is about acquiring new knowledge by reviewing the old knowledge that the new does not have.’

Wise words and ones that make me already look forward to his next piece.

Copyright 2008


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