Monday 29 September 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Vanessa da Mata - Vermelho)

This week Killer Opening Songs will concentrate on the oeuvre of a spectacular singer from Brazil: Vanessa da Mata.

Vanessa was born in Alto Garças, a small town in Mato Grosso, the central part of Brazil. From an early age she was exposed to the music of Brazil's foremost composers and performers like Luiz Gonzaga, Tom Jobim, Milton Nascimento and Orlando Silva. At just fourteen she knew what she wanted to do when she grew up: sing. Thus, in the early 90s she was part of a female reggae band, Shalla-Ball. A couple of years later she joined Black Uhuru, a Grammy-winner Jamaican outfit. After many musical collaborations that saw her pairing up with the likes of Maria Bethania and Daniela Mercury, Vanessa released her first album in 2002: 'Vanessa da Mata'.

The Killer Opening Song this time around comes courtesy of her 2007 record, 'Sim', an album whose essence is 'a positive response to life, a fighting response'. 'Vermelho', the introductory track, is a sultry, funky number that I am sure will go down very well with the readers of and visitors to this blog. Enjoy.

Copyright 2008

Friday 26 September 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Prestissimo)

- Why can't I have a mobile phone like my cousin?

- Because you're only ten. That's why.

- But with a mobile, you will always know where I am and if something happens, I can call you. And also my cousin's mobile can play videos and take pictures.

- I will always know where you are, you're ten, remember? And as for videos and pictures, how do they compare to a real video or photo camera?

- But...

- Enough! I've had it! We're not going to buy a mobile phone, and that's that!

That was Son, Wife and Me in the car recently. One of my biggest fears had arrived home and turned into the monster featured in Salman Rushdie's novel 'Shame' (review to follow soon). We had just been to his cousins' and whilst there he had come across the latest technology in mobile phones. The one function this little gadget was not capable of performing yet was taking your shoes off and ushering you to your seat in the lounge.

As modern, forward-thinking parents, Wife and I try to give Son and Daughter as much freedom as possible. We have set up family meetings on Sundays where serious issues are discussed without any fear of backlash (are you listening 'you know who'?). But this particular topic unnerves me no end.

It's not just the act of possessing an unnecessary accesory for his age, it's the fact that Son is a very articulate young child for a ten-year-old. And the biggest threat I see looming on the horizon is a linguistic debacle.

Back in 2003 there was a media scare about an exam essay that had been allegedly written in textspeak (txt spk). Within days, it had been picked up by both the tabloids and the broadsheets, and commentators and analysts alike were heard bemoaning how academic standards had slipped further down. The future of language, and specifically the English language was doomed.

The story turned out to be a hoax, but that fact still did not deter most people, including John Humphrys on BBC Radio Four, from arriving at the conclusion that the kids had really taken over the asylum.

And so, as a defender of language, not just the ability to speak it well, but the freedom to do so, I found myself in an interesting quagmire. Is text speak the new Esperanto, or is it a paltry excuse for the poor use of our rich vocabulary (I'm talking mainly from a Spanish- and English-speaking person's point of view)? Hv the kdz rlly tkn ovr the asylum? Is txtspk the ftr?

Well, according to David Crystal, one of the UK's leading linguistic academics, the debate (or should that be db8?) is far more complex than what it appears. In an interview with The Guardian he states that "almost every basic principle that people hold about texting turns out to be misconceived. Misspelling isn't universal: analysis shows that only 10% of words used in texts are misspelt. Nor are most texts sent by kids: 80% are sent by businesses and adults. Likewise, there is no evidence that texting teaches people to spell badly: rather, research shows that those kids who text frequently are more likely to be the most literate and the best spellers, because you have to know how to manipulate language,".

Fine, David, thanks, but sorry, mate, that still leaves out the fact that when you're texting you're compressing language, a process that occurs in the English lexicon every nanosecond, leaving us latecomers with the disadvantage that what we learnt back in Uni (and spent an awful lot of time wrecking our brains to figure out) is not applicable anymore due to a more laissez-faire linguistic attitude.

Don't get me wrong. I'm in principle with David that technology need not be a four-eyed green monster that spews yellow saliva everytime it utters a word in text speak, but I think that the long-term effects will be more damaging as the next generation will have very little or almost no contact with the beauty and vagaries of language as such.

As an example I bring to the fore the case of a young student who contacted me once in regards to a work experience opportunity we had at the company I used to work for until recently. His e-mail was peppered with text speak words which left me confounded and befuddled. As a consequence his correspondence went to the bottom of the pile, not without first (cruelly, I admit, but what can I do, I'm a Scorpio!) summoning my work colleagues to laugh our heads off at the content of the message, which, I am sad to say, we all struggled to understand.

That's why my biggest fear is not just that Son will become a zombie, walking around the streets of London texting left, right and centre, withouth paying any attention to the traffic (always perilous!) or without interacting with his fellow human beings; but it's also the apprehension that his well- and hard-earned linguistic skills will evaporate like molecules escaping in a mist of kinetic energy.

In the meantime, no mobile phone. And that's that.

Copyright 2008

Thursday 25 September 2008

Killer Opening Songs (The Beatles-Help!)

I can't believe that Killer Opening Songs has not included any The Beatles track yet in its weekly outing. It is embarrassing really and I intend to make amends straight away. It is with that idea in mind that I have chosen this introductory track which happens to be the title track, too.

'Help!' was released in 1965 at the height of Beatlemania and the only way I can describe this album is pop at its catchiest ever. Not wackiest yet, though. That would come later with the 'Rubber Soul' and 'Sgt Pepper' recordings. The songs are short (the whole LP lasts just over thirty minutes) but their life-affirming ethos is intoxicating. The Killer Opening Song finds John in confessional mood, struggling to open up to others. Whoever said that men were not emotional beings? In addition this K.O.P. was the soundtrack to a spoof James Bond movie.

I shall write no more now for what can one add to what's already been said about 'The Four Fab from Liverpool'?

By the way, what's that funny squabble going on between Paul, George and Ringo, all behind John, competing for the camera?

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Why is Leslie Caron Crying?

By Roberto Uría

The Institute of Meteorology said today will be a warm, sunny day. And, after juggling probabilities and percentages of rain, wind and surf, concluded that the maximum temperatures this afternoon will vary between twenty-nine and thirty-two degrees centigrade. It might have been a warm, sunny day, but I woke up feeling cold – that kind of cold that starts in your stomach - and windy, with a wave of panic running through my whole body. I’m practically rainy. Wintry.

After they brought me into the world, there were considerable family disputes over my name. Hector versus Alejandro, Enrique versus Jorge. How about Hugo? How about Javier? In the end, Francisco won out. But all these years I’ve been Panchito and, on occasion, Panchy (with a ‘y’ instead of ‘i’ to make it sexier)… Except that I’ve come to prefer Leslie Caron more than any other name. It’s so musical, so European. And besides, my bosom buddies admit that there’s quite a resemblance between the actress and myself. We have the same grace, the same celestial quality…

I belong to a ‘holy family, just about perfect, the kind you don’t find anymore. With a mother, a father, adorable little sister, a dog and lots of plants, it’s a close-knit bunch, foreign to me. The house, of course, is the classic little nest, decorated and decorous. So it seems I turn out to be the only gray cloud spoiling the prosperity of an oh-so-blue sky.

Because, it has to be said the dialectic didn’t work well on me, or else, it worked so well as to not comply with the imperfections of our time. I don’t know. The fact is that the members of my family, like almost everyone, are ‘useful beings’, ‘so-cial-ly-pro-duc-tive’, wage-earners of progress and conformity, saints and virgins, bastions of the economy. And I, for my own sad part, feel alone like a butterfly or a snail: I am a beautiful parasite. I take the time to make myself attractive and happy here and now and don’t think about the ever-so-revered tomorrow, which increasingly promises to be atomic or neutronic or I-don’t-know-what all…

I quit school because it bores me to tears spending five or six hours a day with specialists, cramming with diagrams, preconceptions, a succession of disasters and mistakes, false perspectives and redundancies. I got sick of it, that’s all. And screw the future.

And where could I earn my salt from the sweat off my brow? Where, without being cremated in the cold oven of timetables and meetings? These are such barbarous times! As Attila would say.

I choose to be ‘gay’. The most explosive gaiety is mine; each stretch of the street, the city, is my stage, and I am the most sought-after starlet. I bury myself under a heap of sequins and mercury lights, I hope I don’t perish under the weight of my own lights…. That’s why I adore bus stops, parks, shops and markets, lines at movie theaters. Of course, there’s never been a public bathroom on my resume. I’m too much of a hypochondriac and a romantic for that still. What I like are flowers, music – Barbra Streisand is my idol - ice cream, and a sunny beach, the ocean spray and all the people, especially the people, good heavens! Really, practically naked! What a charming little country! It’s the enchanted isle of gorgeous men. Everyone is beautiful. Everywhere I go, strong, young men of all shapes and colors encircle and devour me. They’re mammoths who crush you with all their vitality. They encircle me – like ‘a necklace of throbbing sexual oysters,’ as Neruda would say – and yet so few ever belong to me. Watching isn’t bad, but it’s better to touch.

To touch: to perish. An instant, a wing-beat and then swift flight, on the back a relentlessly epidermic era. What a way to inflict damage! But anyway…

The fact is that I stop in front of the mirror and always look at myself and end up asking, ‘What will become of this queen? What am I going to do with you, Leslie Caron? Why did I have to be like this?’ I’ve tried to change, but I can’t manage to find anything that truly interests me. Not anything or anyone. The majority of people I just feel sorry for. They’re empty, so fake, they just move through the narrow margins of the designs imposed upon them. I chose this bondage. I didn’t choose myself, but I accept the cards I’ve been dealt and play my own deadly game just like anyone else. It’s like eye color. I don’t like mine, but since I need to see there’s no choice but to use the eyes I’ve got. And oh, the things I’ve seen and will see!

I’ve seen a father who works too much and has ‘meetings’ even more; who, when he’s not off fishing with his work buddies, runs around with other women; a father who has never remembered his children’s birthdays.

I’ve seen a mother who works like a dog; who imprisons herself within her own cold-cream-slathered skin; who, when she’s not suffering the macho antics of her husband, sets her son to brushing her wigs and goes off to forget her woes. I’ve seen a sister who marries a guy just because he has a house in Miramar and a VCR and an exceedingly long et cetera; a sister who goes and leaves her queen brother without trousseau, practically naked. And how everyone envies her! Yes, I see it clearly.

And I’ll see a poor, crestfallen fairy, all wrinkled and lonely, with no family, no friends to speak of, perhaps surrounded by a few cronies as old and ostentatious as he is. A fairy hoping to someday see the end f this daily chain of deaths she has been subjected to. I’m not committed to the future and I’m not being dramatic and I hope to God it won’t really be quite like that. But what is to be done? What miracle could change the course of these visions?

And sometimes I say screw my fear of wrinkles and I let myself charge an exorbitant amount and (believe me) I cry and cry like a baby. Yes, I wake up cold and rainy, and that’s how I take my revenge on the perfect backdrop of a warm, sunny day and sadistic realities.

And if someone were to ask, ‘Why is Leslie Caron crying?’ the only answer would be, ‘Because life’s a bitch.’

Translated by Lisa Dillman.

This tale is included in the anthology of Cuban stories ‘The Voice of the Turtle’, edited by Peter Bush and published by Quartet Books Ltd.

Sunday 21 September 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Sostenuto)

Son (a few months ago): Es que hay muchas cosas que yo no puedo decir... (It's just, there are so many things I don't know how to say...)

Daughter (a few months ago, too): Hay algo que quiero decir... (There's something I want to say...)

Daughter ( a couple of weeks ago): Es la cosita que va dentro... (It's that thingy that goes inside...)

Have you noticed anything strange in the comments above? No? Then, brace yourselves, for you have already fallen prey to a devastating linguistic disease, somethingism and thingism.

THING AND SOMETHING defines the word thing as:

1. a material object without life or consciousness; an inanimate object.

2. some entity, object, or creature that is not or cannot be specifically designated or precisely described.

3. anything that is or may become an object of thought.

whereas something is:

1. some thing; a certain undetermined or unspecified thing.

2. an additional amount, as of cents or minutes, that is unknown, unspecified, or forgotten

However, what neither definition addresses is the condition that affects most of us at some point in our lives: the overuse of 'thing' and 'something'.

When I was in year 12 in college we learnt the name of this particular linguistic malaise: 'cosismo' in Spanish ('thingism', I made that word up in English) and 'alguismo' ('somethingism', yup, I made that one up, too). The cause is poor vocabulary, the consequences are far worse as this phenomenon will leave you with an even a poorer lexicon than the one you had (or did not have) before.

I am as guilty as anyone else of having indulged in this little linguistic peccadillo every so often. When one's mind is tired, the last thing (you see?) you want to struggle with is a word that will fit into your speech pattern ever so perfectly and cleverly at the right time and in the right situation. That's why we have 'thing' and 'something'. They are cushions for linguistic comfort. But I do remember that as a seventeen-year-old I was impressed by how many words we obliterate from our vocabulary so that 'thing' and 'something' could have their right of way.

And it's not just my children who bask in this linguistic extravagance, but as the examples below aver, national newspapers columnists revel in their 'thingisms' and 'somethingisms' just as, or rather, more than anyone else.

'Still time for President Bush to achieve something positive (...) Bush also needs to say something soon about whether, if taxpayers’ money is used to bail out banks (...) Bush’s instinct to do little is not the worst one around, in the chorus of calls to do something dramatic.... (Bronwen Maddox, The Times, 28th March)'

'The real elephant in the room, the massive thing we don't talk about (Jude Rogers, The Guardian, Fri 19th Sep)'

'Boris Johnson has publicised 'cost-cutting' since becoming Mayor of London. Now I'm told he's invited tenders for 'well-being workshops' to support staff in dealing with the cuts he's making. Isn't this the sort of thing he's supposed to find ridiculous? (Oliver Marre, The Observer, 21st Sep)'

Nor is this phenomenon confined to just English and Spanish. In French they have 'chose' and 'quelquechose' and in German it is 'etwas'.

something, thing, thingy (this last term is one of my pet hates). Is this the future of language? You might think that I am behaving like an old, grumpy linguist whose attire includes a tweed jacket and a pair of corduroy trousers, but no, my concern, primarily, is about the beauty of language, whether it be English, French or Spanish. Whilst we talk we are prone to repeating words for emphasis, leaving blanks in sentences for the other person to fill in, and using our hands and heads as substitutes for spoken phrases. That's fine. But, how about when we sit down to write letters, articles or posts on our blogs? How many of us have a thesaurus on hand to give us some help in order to embellish our columns? It's not about being bookish, it's about not throwing the book away. And if you don't believe me, I will use the examples I've given so far, including Son and Daughter's, to illustrate how there's no excuse for linguistic laziness.

It's just, there are so many things I don't know how to say... (change things for phrases/words/terms)

There's something I want to say... (How about: I would like to make a comment? Or: there's an issue I would like to discuss)

It's that thingy that goes inside... (Change thingy for tool, piece, or whatever it is that applies to the part that is being described)

In the case of the newspapers articles, my suggestions run thus:

The Times: In the case of the first 'something' I would write 'to achieve a positive arrangement/to have a positive outcome'. The second one I would change to 'Bush needs to come clear...' The third one is slightly more difficult to change, I think that 'something' does play an important role in this case because it emphasises the urgency of the issue discussed, so, I shall leave it the way it is.

The Guardian: I would change 'thing' for 'issue' or 'topic', 'problem', 'dilemma'.

The Observer: The minute I read it today two were words flashed up in my brain, 'situation and 'scenario'.

So, there you have it, easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Not a hard thing to do, eh? Beg your pardon! Not a hard... hard... hard... task to accomplish, eh?

Copyright 2008

Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning

The Great Gig in the Sky - Pink Floyd

Dedicated to Richard William Wright, ex-Pink Floyd keyboard player (28th July, 1943 - 15th September, 2008).


Thursday 18 September 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Souad Massi-Raoui)

The first time I came across the Algerian singer Souad Massi was via the blog of the other Cuban in London, Ivan Darias. Ivan is a journalist, currently working on a beautiful project that is directly linked to the Cuban presence in the UK. He also hosted a radio programme back in our homeland and apparently, for I never heard it, unfortunately, he used to play very unusual music. The post where he mentioned this North African performer name-checked other artists like Márta Sebestyén, Orquesta Baobab and Cesaria Évora.

After reading that article I set off to dig out as much information as I could about Souad. And I was rewarded for my efforts.

Massi's voice is like the rich, sweet aroma of ripe fruit that autumn brings: plums and figs on the ground, crimson and russet apples, and the opulent, almost decadent, perfume of fat pears. Her timbre is clear but not show-offy. She doesn't try to hit high notes like some of those R'n'B divas whose names had better remain in secret. The effect her voice has on me can only be compared to the same sensation butterflies probably have when blackberries ripen and turn black around this time of year, their warm fruit bursting, exuding perfume attracting these lepidopterans to gorge at the feast. All the songs I have heard so far by her have that heady, rich and deep autumnal feeling that I so much crave to be enveloped by at this time of year.

'Raoui' is the Killer Opening Song from her debut album of the same name and in it Souad mixes various styles and instruments; from guitars to guimbris and ouds. Some of the tracks in the record are slow and mournful whereas others are more up-tempo and rocky.

As a Killer Opening Song, 'Raoui' is a beauty of a track because it eases the listener into a very magical world, that of story-telling. The singer asks Raoui, who is the narrator, to tell her a story from 'The Thousand and One Nights' that will make her forget her own story. Apparently her heart is too full of her own narrative, so she'd rather hear a tale about a sultan's son and an ogre's daughter. Although an adult, the singer would sooner have the same imagination a child has and believe the story-teller's narration in order to forget her own pain and escape from her own present. Beautiful.

Copyright 2008

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Food, Movies, Food, Movies, Food, Movies, Food, Movies, Ad Infinitum...

Repression usually begets a strong desire to transgress what has been suppressed. If you starve someone of something coveted and yearned for, the person will stop to nothing to overcome the hurdles between the object of affection (or fixation) and him or her. Luckily my love for cooking has never had such pathological tendencies; the way I see it now is that it was an essential part of my quest for my personal freedom.

I grew up in a household where women outnumbered men. On the male side it was only Dad and I. The females were represented by my mother, grandmother, auntie and cousin. And from a very early age it was made very clear to me that the entrance to the kitchen was verboten for both my father and I. In Cuba we have a name for men who wander into so-called women’s affairs, ‘casueleros’, and so far I have never been able to find a translation in French, German or English. I must confess at this point that it never bothered me much for the first twenty-odd years of my life to be waited on by this large coterie of women, especially after my Dad left the family home when I was thirteen. Call it the alpha male effect, but I loved having my cake and eat it.

That all changed when I met my then girlfriend and now wife. Coming from a country like the UK with such liberal views on partnerships and the roles of both members of a relationship, she would not tolerate, I was sure, the argument that I was completely ineffectual in the kitchen. That I could not even break an egg properly (that will be another post, yes, it’s a real story). So, I pulled my socks up and decided to face up to the challenge. I began with my own house arrangements. I demanded (yes, dear reader/fellow blogger, I made my presence strongly felt) that I be allowed in the kitchen whenever it took my fancy. The first time I almost left with the mark of a frying pan on my bottom, courtesy of my late Nana and I won’t translate the words she used out of respect for you my dear readers, but if ever you’re studying Cuban Spanish and want to learn some slang words of the four-letter variety, drop me an e-mail with a link to this post and I will graciously comply.

Where was I? Oh, yes, attempting to break into the fortress, sorry, the kitchen. After many efforts, I was nicely rewarded with small dents on the solid and staunch wall here and there. The change did not happen overnight, but at least I was allowed to cook my own omelettes. I must mention now that as we’re referring to Cuba’s darkest period in the economic crisis in the 90s, eggs were scarce, so any mistakes on my part were admonished severely.

After I became more confident in the kitchen I started trying out more recipes, which due to the situation I just described above, turned me into a very imaginative cook. I loved mucking about with various ingredients and making do with substitues en lieu de the real product.

Thus, my then girlfriend and now wife and I never had any problems concerning cooking. She was and still is a great cook and loves trying new recipes, especially healthy ones.

The main reason why I’ve related this story to you is so that you understand why I like Nigel Slater’s cooking so much.

Nigel has been The Observer Newspaper’s cook-in-residence for over fifteen years and although I only came across his recipes about ten years ago when I started reading the paper, from the word go I knew I had found someone who liked food and the preparation of it as much as I did.
Nigel is a cook, not a chef. And there is an important difference between the two. The former is someone who cooks for pleasure and gets paid for that hobby. The latter is someone who swears on Channel Four (reference only for the dwellers of these isles).

He has authored seven cookery books, an autobiography and presented the BBC television series A Taste of my Life.

Moreover, Nigel is the type of down-to-earth person whom you would most likely invite to an away weekend with both your and his family and friends and whom you would probably catch red-handed at 2am in the downstairs kitchen tucking into the chocolate and banana toffee pie you had made hours earlier for dinner. With a guilty but naughty smile on his face he’d probably say something along the lines of: ‘I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself... and I’m sorry to be a pain, but do you happen to have a bit of cream anywhere? And, by the way, do you fancy some of this?’ And there you are, torch in hand and hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention because you thought it’d been an intruder that had broken into your house, and all you can do is laugh your head off and sit down on the floor, back to the wall, to finish the toffee pie with Nigel… plus the cream on top.

As you will see from the recipe I am uploading this week his cooking is understated, straightforward stuff that is easy to accomplish, without a trace of what he affectionately calls ‘cheffery’. He is not fond of fussy cooking and prefers simple suppers made with care and thought. He believes that making something good to eat for your self or for others can lift the spirits in the way little else can. “There is something quietly civilizing about sharing a meal with other people. The simple act of making someone something to eat, even a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread, has a many-layered meaning. It suggests an act of protection and caring, of generosity and intimacy. It is in itself a sign of respect.”

Sweet and sticky chicken wings

These little culinary wonders are strictly meant for picking up with your fingers, preferably while curled up on the sofa in front of the television. Although the mustard brings with it a certain amount of deep warmth, these are not at all spicy, and are for those who revel in an occasional sweet and extremely tactile supper.

Serves 2-3, depending on the size of your wings
chicken wings - 12 (about 600g)
grain mustard - 2 heaping tbsp
runny honey - a heaping tbsp
lemon - a large, juicy one
garlic - 3 large cloves

Heat the oven to 220 c/gas 7. Carefully check the chicken wings for stray feathers (they are often the least scrupulously plucked bit of the bird) then put them in a roasting tin.
Mix the mustard and honey with the juice from the lemon. You should get about 5 tablespoons from a large fruit. Peel the garlic, crush it and add it to the honey with a grinding of pepper and salt.

Toss the wings in the honey mixture and roast for 40 minutes by which time they will be a healthy colour. Turn the wings over and continue cooking for a further 10 minutes. They will now be dark and intensely sweet and sticky.

Such a yummy recipe deserves an equally reputable playlist. The only difference is that this week I've chosen movies over music. Find below clips from the movies I would be watching whilst tucking into this marvellous and scrumptious dish.



Esperando la Carroza

In the Line of Fire

La Muerte de un Burocrata

Glengarry Glen Ross

This photo was taken from the masak-masak blog

For earlier editions of Food, Music, Ad Infinitum columns click on any of the links below:

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum... (Cat's Crumbs/Migas de Gato)

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum... (Garlic Prawns)

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum... (Cashew, Prawn, Brazil Nuts and Lemon Rice)

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum... (Black Bean Soup)

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum... (Spicy Grilled Aubergine)

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum... (Chocolate, Banana and Toffee Pie)

Copyright 2008

Sunday 14 September 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Moderato)

Well, well, well, now it's the French's turn to drape themselves in linguistic smugness. I have already discussed here how Spain is in turmoil over the decision by some of its regions to attempt to eliminate the teaching of Spanish in schools and for it to be replaced by the learning of the autonomous tongue. It seems that their Gallic cousins have similar problems of their own.

For years France's regional languages have been seen by Paris as a threat against national unity. The fact that children were punished for speaking Breton, or Occitan or the Alsatian dialect in the playground or inside school should not be overlooked or addressed glibly. But now, just as the French parliament has decided to recognise minority languages in the constitution, a new war of words has broken out.

L'Académie Française, the institution that defends the purity of French, recently issued a furious warning that recognising regional languages in the constitution would be "an attack on French national identity". It goes without saying that the reaction from the regional quarters was swift and to the point. They criticised the academy for being such a ridiculous relic of outdated nationalism.

Which poses the following question: Just what is it with regional languages and dialects that gets up people's noses so much?
The French example is very different from the Spanish one. In the former, people want their local lexicons to be recognised as an essential part of the French language, and culture I suppose. In the latter, local authorities want to do away with Spanish altogether.
To me the French experience is the one that would reap the better results. The Breton, Occitan and Alsatian languages and dialects feed into the French language, thus making it richer. The fact that they could be recognised in the constitution would render them more valid, an aspect that I am sure their many speakers would appreciate.

Yet, once again, the busybodies from the French Academy, like those interlopers from the Academy of the Spanish Language, find fault with what is no business of theirs. I say, get rid of these two meddling institutions and allow both Spanish and French to soar away to the heights we know they are capable of! English is always my favourite case study. No central linguistic body to report to and look at how it's become the lingua franca par excellence. A lesson for both academies to learn.

Copyright 2008

Blogaccion por Cuba (Blogaction for Cuba)

En una Blogacción por Cuba, los organizadores del evento Blogueando a Cuba queremos apoyar a los cubanos que lo han perdido todo, o casi todo, tras el paso de los huracanes Gustav y Ike.
¡Divulga en tu blog la iniciativa! ¡Házte eco de la misma y AYUDA en lo posible!

Reproduzco a continuación el texto completo de la campaña, ya publicado en Bloggers por un sueño:

El pueblo cubano necesita ayuda.

Tras la situación desastrosa que han dejado a su paso los huracanes Gustav e Ike, después de las inútiles posturas sostenidas por los gobiernos de Cuba y EE.UU, que no se ponen de acuerdo en cómo socorrer a un pueblo que ha perdido sus hogares y esperanzas, creemos que es el momento de no esperar más por quienes anteponen la política a las razones humanas y hemos iniciado una campaña solidaria.
¿En qué consiste nuestra Blogacción por Cuba?
Blogueando a Cuba vamos a divulgar todas las iniciativas de solidaridad con el pueblo cubano de que tengamos conocimiento, siempre que cumplan dos requisitos: que sean a través de organizaciones no gubernamentales (ONG) y que tengan credibilidad. De este modo, facilitaremos a los internautas -blogueros y no blogueros- de todo el mundo, tener a mano las diferentes opciones para hacer llegar su ayuda..
El poder aglutinador de los blogs y sus redes afines es cada vez mayor. Los blogueros cubanos hemos visto demostrado recientemente cómo, con nuestra acción conjunta, hemos sido capaces de lograr cambios en Cuba. Pensando en esto, desde
Blogueando a Cuba convocamos a todos los blogueros cubanos y de otras latitudes para que se hagan eco de esta "Blogacción por Cuba" que consiste en reunir en este blog todas las iniciativas solidarias posibles, para que todos aquellos internautas interesados en colaborar puedan informarse de las vías más efectivas para canalizar su ayuda al pueblo cubano.
Si no te has decidido aún a echar una mano, ésta es una buena oportunidad para hacerlo. Ponemos a tu disposición un listado de instituciones que trabajan en la isla, lo que te facilitará la tarea de aportar tu granito de arena para la reconstrucción del país.
Puedes colaborar de diversas maneras: enviando dinero a través de una de las cuentas que las ONG ponen a tu disposición, enviando ayuda material y hasta con tu propia presencia en los lugares donde se necesite.
Todos podemos ayudar un poco más. No sólo a nuestras familias sino a todas esas familias cubanas que han perdido sus hogares.
Blogueando a Cuba agradece cualquier colaboración en materia de difusión que puedas brindarle a esta iniciativa, ya sea enlazándonos, enviando este texto por correo a tus contactos, o colocando en tu blog o web el texto de nuestra campaña.
Pedimos ayuda a los bloggers e internautas de TODO EL MUNDO, para que divulguen en sus páginas esta "Blogacción por Cuba".

Lunes 15 de septiembre de 2008.


Ivis Acosta, blog Memorias de una Cubanita

Aguaya Berlín, blog Desarraigos Provocados

GaviotaZalas, blog Cubadice

Beatriz Matías, de El blog de Betty

Al Godar, blog Algodar

Abraham Laria, blog Papas x Malangas

A Cabrera Rey, blog Papelbit

Jacques de Sores, blog Tierradentro

1) Cáritas:
Teléfono de información y donaciones: 902.33.99.99
Número de cuenta

2) La ONG
Solidaridad Española con Cuba difunde en Internet una Guía para ayudar a los afectados por el huracán Gustav en Cuba..
La Guía ofrece información acerca de las zonas afectadas y la ayuda que se necesita. Puede descargarse gratuitamente en:

3) Cruz Roja
Llamamiento urgente para la temporada de huracanes 2008

Centro Memorial Martin Luther King. En su revista Caminos donde explica que:
"La ayuda puede expresarse financieramente realizando ingresos en la cuenta del Banco Financiero Internacional bfi030000003347323 huracanes- restauración de daños o recopilando y trayendo hasta Cuba (pues el país no puede pagar fletes) donaciones en especie sobre todo de materiales de construcción (materiales eléctricos, muebles sanitarios, entre otros) y avituallamientos diversos sobre todo calchones, lencería, ropas y calzado (hay muchas familias que han quedado sin nada sólo con la ropa que traían puesta) y alimentos no perecederos."
Más datos de la cuenta bancaria:
Banco Financiero Internacional
Código Swift: bficcuhh
cuenta: bfi030000003347323 huracanes- restauración de daños

Si conoces de otras iniciativas solidarias, envíanos la información, de ser posible un link, para colgarlo en esta Blogacción por Cuba.

[Continuar leyendo en el post original]

Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning

Yesterday my alter ego, Juan Antonio Pesetas, and Mother Nature went out shopping in the West End (that's central London). Together they paraded around Covent Garden, stopping by renowned boutiques and shops, checking the market stalls in the Piazza and trying on clothes hither and thither.

Now, let me declare a conflict of interest here. Whereas I am inclined more towards the scruffy look, my alter ego, Juan (by the way, I'm the only one authorised to call him plain Juan, or Antonio, or Pesetas, everyone else must use the full name and surnames as dictated by the rules that govern the code of fiction characters) is a Cuban dandy. He is utterly rubbish at dressing between the months of June and September. Whereas I love denim jeans and Birkenstocks in the summer months (not that we had much of that in GB this year) he is all for chinos and loafers. Whilst I love my vests (tank-tops for Americans) and short-sleeved T-shirts, he adores polo shirts.

Where we both coincide is in our love for autumn and the autumnal anticipation of winter. And that's how Juan found himself sashaying around The Mall (a place in London and not a shopping centre) with Mother Nature perched on his arm yesterday.

Mama Natura was wearing a beautiful dress made up of auburn leaves with a slightly chill wind for shoes. She confessed to my alter ego that on opening her wardrobe on September 1st, an elegant amber scarf slithered to her neck pleadingly. She just could not reject it. Her shades and hues were symbiotic with a British autumn that this year has come a bit too early (not for me, though, or for Juan, we both love it!). Pesetas, on the other hand, was wearing a beautifully tailored, plum-coloured three-piece suit, a multi-stripe double-cuff shirt and an appropriately complementary tie. And a pair of tasselled moccasins, of course.

They also found time to visit Kew Gardens in the outskirts of London. And as they walked under the weeping willows and cypresses, hugged by the reddish brown vegetation around them, Mother Nature broke into a beautiful poem by William Butler Yeats, 'The Wild Swans at Coole':

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth

Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water

Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

As you may imagine, their trip was very rewarding for both, but especially for me. When he got home displaying that huge grin of his on his face like the legendary Cheshire cat, Antonio told me that Mother Nature had spent a lot of money on music and that from today until November, every Sunday morning there would be a special melody awaiting the readers of this blog (no commentary will be provided, just the clip). So, enjoy Mama Natura's songs selection every week at the same time on the same day.

Miles Davis - All Blues

Miles Davis - trumpet
Wayne Shorter - tenor sax
Herbie Hancock - piano
Ron Carter - bass
Tony Williams - drums

Copyright 2008

Thursday 11 September 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Habib Koité - Batoumambé)

After the onslaught of Anglo-Saxon music we had last weekend (with some Spanish thrown in for good measure) as part of Radio Freekinternational, Killer Opening Songs will be focusing mainly on instrumental music, as well as performers from non-English speaking nations for the next few days.

And what better way to make this wish come true than to start with Malian guitarist Habib Koité?

Habib is one of Africa’s most popular and recognized musicians. Born in 1958 in Thiès, a Senegalese town situated on the railway line connecting Dakar to Niger, Koité comes from a noble line of Khassonké griots, traditional troubadors who provide wit, wisdom and musical entertainment at social gatherings and special events. He grew up surrounded by seventeen brothers and sisters, and developed his unique guitar style accompanying his griot mother. He inherited his passion for music from his paternal grandfather who played the kamele n’goni, a traditional four-stringed instrument associated with hunters from theWassolou region of Mali. His sound sometimes is very close to the blues or flamenco, two styles he studied under Khalilou Traoré a veteran of the legendary Afro-Cuban band Maravillas du Mali (hmm... you see? There's an expression of interest here). Habib's uniqueness lies in the fact that he brings together different styles, thus, creating a new pan-Malian approach that reflects his open-minded interest in all types of music. Koité has played at most of Europe’s major venues and festivals, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, WOMAD, and the World Roots Festival.

The track Killer Opening Songs brings you this week appeared in his 2001 album, 'Baro', a musical crusade on behalf of traditional Malian instruments like the harp-like kora, the lute-like ngoni, the balafon and the wooden xylophone. 'Batoumambé' is a beautiful melody by an impressive performer with one of the most enthralling voices I've ever heard. Enjoy.

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Of Language and Other Topics

ish: Approximately; somewhat, as in greenish.

No, that can't be. Or rather, it can, but then again, online dictionaries are cold-blooded and emotionless entities. Ish is the quintessential, distinctive element of modern-day Britain. It's the surrender of values long-heralded as representative of UK culture. Punctuality and promptness, stiff-upper lipness and pragmatism. Ish is the corrupting element that has eroded a whole culture with the same patience and dedication shown by the sea in its gentle and slow obliteration of the hard and rough rock.

Before moving to the UK, my acquaintance with ish was based on its use as a suffix. Not so in good ol' England! Fast forward to ten years later and I'm one of those people who will agree to meet someone else at '11ish'. Like most Britons, I use this ish as a friendly, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, relaxed and laid-back part of my everyday language, displaying signs of informality akin to my culture, but assumed to be at odds with the Anglo-Saxon social make-up everyone around the world is so accustomed to.

What makes people use this at-first-sight harmless and innocent-looking/sounding affix at the end of words like old, new, OK and so many others that I would need Moses' two stone tablets to write down the myriad ways in which people use them?

Take old, for instance. You have young, young adult, middle-aged and then old or elderly. What's wrong with this classification? Since when has it been politically incorrect to say that so and so is old? Ah, but there it goes, our wee, little friend ish to meddle in affairs that are of no concern to it. By saying oldish you're knocking a few years off the person in question. Not that they would object to that, mind. They are neither passé, nor spring-chickenish (you see?) anymore. They are just oldish.

Ish has come to save situations where a more direct response would have led to conflict. Take OK. By saying that something is OKish, along with the corresponding shoulder-shrugging movement and chirpy, cheeky smile possessed nowadays by any self-respected shop assistant, she/he will have made a powerful disclaimer. Should the 'something' (item of clothing, personal stereo, bike helmet) be faulty, they could lawfully claim to having advised the customer correctly in that their choice was not totally up to scratch, just OKish. Flip the coin to the other side and you'll have a happy client marching out the shop satisfied with their ishiness.

In the end, ish is here to stay. It's part of the cappuchino culture apparently inherited from the US and mainland Europe. It indicates coolness and urban chic. And I, for one, will continue to join the masses who display their ishiness loud and proud. Or should that be loudish and proudish?

Copyright 2008

Sunday 7 September 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Aria)

To sound, or not to sound--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of letters

And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more--and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That non-sound is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud letter's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When it itself might its quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those non-sounds we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus muteness does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. -- Soft you now,
The fair Spanish 'h'! -- Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

Copyright 2008

Friday 5 September 2008

Radio Freekinternational

Nostalgia (n): From Greek nostos, 'a return home'. A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life, to one's home or homeland, or to one's family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

Hello, everybody and welcome to the first Radio Freekinternational, live from London.

What is Radio Freekinternational? For non-Cubans, who might be puzzled by this hybrid of a word, half bastardised English and half Cuban, the explanation is simple. RFI is the brainchild of one of the better blogs on the Cuban blogoshephere nowadays, generacionasere. It is a valuable and laudable attempt to unite those of us (and those before us) who grew up in the 60s, 70s and 80s when music in the Anglo-Saxon lexicon was frowned upon by the Cuban government, if not outright banned.

The word ‘freeki’, ‘friqui’, or ‘freaki’ denoted a person who was keen on rock music. Another version that I saw on people’s school bags when I was younger was ‘Free Kiss’. What cannot be denied is that originally the word had a pejorative meaning, aiming to offend the person being addressed. This changed with the passing of time and ‘freeki’ was reclaimed quite justly by the rock community in the Caribbean island.

There’s a lovely if also sad story behind Radio Freekinternational and what it stands for and at the risk of coming across as a boring, old fuddy-duddy I will try to sum it up in a few paragraphs.
After the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Cubans left the country, the government clamped down on anything English. Not even Huckleberry Hound and Yogi the Bear were saved from the cull. They were replaced by Zé Carnero and 'El Rancho del Pájaro Amarillo'. I was 9 at the time and felt the change straight away. It would be two more years before the situation went back to ‘normal’. By then my generation was coming strong as a group of people who started to question their surroundings and did not take no for an answer. By the time I started secondary school in ’83, the country was gripped in an Oscarmania frenzy. This was as a result of the popular Venezuelan salsa musician Oscar D’ León’s visit to Cuba after which even the local music scene had to pull their socks up and catch up with the times. Visually, Oscar D’ León represented to many Cubans a carefree and blithe way of performing, not tied to dogmas or prejudgments. At that time the musical spectrum in Cuba was still dictated by whatever orders came from above and radio stations had very limited resources, ergo, music in English was poorly promoted. If you can imagine a plug blocking a water tap and water accumulating inside the tap (or faucet, whichever way you want to call it), that’s what the situation was like. And as it usually happens in real life, nature won. The tap burst out.

First it was Madonna. Then, Cindy. Or maybe both at the same time. Michael had already been popular for a long time as well as Kool and the Gang and Earth, Wind and Fire. There were other artists the generation before mine used to listen to clandestinely, like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. My peers, though, caught the Zeitgeist of rock and pop from the 80s. And the result put paid to the government’s efforts to control a youth that used to pump up condoms as if they were balloons and tossed them in the air every Friday evening in front of the Havana University Alma Mater whilst listening to Moncada (a local pop band).

Then in 1987 (or ’88, my memory fails me) a second huge cultural phenomenon occurred. This one would turn the Cuban youth upside down and blaze the trail for a lot of Cuban musicians who were trying to find their voice, far from the normal conventions. A 24-, or 25-year-old Argentinian musician from Rosario arrived in Cuba armed only with a powerful repertoire of songs and a pair of trainers, of different colour each. By the time Fito Páez left, he was a legend and Havana was never the same. Wherever you went you were sure to find people offering their heart out, singing about a girl with a horn under her heart or chastising rushed decisions, especially the ones that cost lives. Through Fito Páez, I learnt about León Gieco, Charly García, Espinetta, Baglietto and many more Argentinian artists. I did not stop there and came face to face with Los Prisioneros for the first time. My younger self remembers a time when despite the fact that we were still getting the music out of date, at least we were getting it.

The media caught on the act and certain radio and television programmes appeared on the horizon with a bolder musical agenda. ‘El Programa de Ramón’, ‘En Confianza’, ‘A Capella’, Juanito’s Camacho’s daily outings on Radio Ciudad de la Habana and on Sundays evenings on the same station. Carlos Figueroa and Alfredo Balmaseda both promoted home-grown talent on their daily cultural timetable ‘Hoy (Today)’. It was an intoxicating time that shaped the generation I belonged to then and still belong to.

Because this generation, whether they were born before 1959 or after is united by a unique desire to express themselves in a coherent way. We are Jackson Pollock’s paintbrushes, dripping different hues onto our empty canvas, Cuba, ignoring the master’s instructions. We’ve foregone the hand guiding us through the blank space and have chosen to design that space ourselves. And that’s what the Cuban Blogosphere has become, a formidable force of debate, discussion, acceptance and respect.

Some of you, my dear non-Cuban readers will watch the clips below and will probably think that this is guilty-pleasure music. Well, no, this is just pleasure, there’s no guilt involved. The music below represents a stage of our lives that, thanks to this marvellous medium, the internet, can be relived and experienced again through the collective memory of a nation in exile.

I also know for a fact that many of you will watch the clips and will reminisce upon your own halcyon days of yesteryear. For that’s what nostalgia is about, reminiscing about the past with both feet planted in the present and looking determinedly to the future. And yes, you’ll probably shed a tear; I know I have these last few days whilst collating the list.

So, once again, this is just pleasure, no pain.

And the playlist, I hear you ask? Ha, ha. No, no playlist, my lovely little puppies. I am playing Cruella de Vil tonight and will delight in keeping you guessing as you sift through the almost one hundred clips included in this collection.

I would like to thank two blogs without whose help I would not have been able to host Radio Freekinternational tonight, nor would I have met the fantastic people who make up the Cuban Blogosphere. And they are Algodar for his blog ‘Blogs Sobre Cuba (Blogs about Cuba’ and generacionasere for coming up with the idea of Radio Freekinternational.

So, let’s enjoy this ride together, we all deserve it.

Disclaimer: Some clips contain some swearing, so readers/fellow bloggers, you have been warned.


This post is dedicated to ‘El Plátano’, exceptional Cuban photographer who died earlier this year. R.I.P.

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Of Language and Other Topics

Synchronicity (n): Coincidence of events that seem to be meaningfully related, conceived in Jungian theory as an explanatory principle on the same order as causality.

Example of synchronicity.

Tuesday 29th July. Pack up books to take to summer camp. 'If This is a Man/The Truce', 'Down and Out in Paris and London', 'Telling Tales', 'Mario Benedetti: Antologia Poetica' and Mahmoud Darwish's 'The Butterfly's Burden'.

Wednesday 30th July - Wednesday 6th August. Read through Mario Benedetti and Mahmoud Darwish's poems in order to select one that will make it into my wife's birthday card.

Friday 8th August. Write chosen poem in card (it's Darwish's 'Sonnet IV') . Wrap it up and put it away until next day.

Saturday 9th August. Give card to my wife for her birthday. She is deeply touched by the poem.

Sunday 10th August. Change blog's header. Insert quote by Mahmoud Darwish included in his book, 'A State of Siege'.

Monday 11th August. Read Mahmoud Darwish's obituary in the paper.

Sometimes synchronicity can be cruel.

Mahmoud Darwish, poet, born March 15 1941; died August 9 2008

I Come From There

I come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.
I come from there.
I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word:

Copyright 2008

Monday 1 September 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Mary Black - No Frontiers)

'Heaven knows no frontiers
And I've seen heaven in your eyes'

The first time I came across the music of the Irish singer Mary Black was by means of a compilation of songs by artists from the Emerald Isle. The title of this collection of tunes, given to me by a couple of acquaintances, was ‘Craic Agus Ceoil’ (it roughly translates as ‘fun and music’ from Gaelic) and it featured the likes of The Chieftains, Christy Hennesy and The Pogues. Yet there was also this very distinctive and velvety voice that caught my attention immediately. It took me some time to work out who she was, though, as the tape (yes, tape, no CDs at the time!) did not have the tracks and their performers numbered down. Once I found out, though, I discovered an artist whose music was hard to pin down.

This compilation led me to listen to a few records by this singer, who, by the way, comes from a rich musical tradition. Father played the fiddler, Mother was a singer herself, Brothers formed their own band and Sister is a singer, too. Can you imagine Sunday afternoons chez les Blacks?

The tune Killer Opening Songs is uploading this week, ‘No Frontiers’ (same title as the album), is pure poetry. It is as powerful a statement as they come. It eases the listener into a maelstrom of feelings and emotions, the equivalent of walking into a maze and liking it so much that after we’ve come out we want to go back in straight away. Critics would normally file this type of music away under ‘folk’ genre, but to me it is just good pop. I’m not surprised that the album this track is included in spent fifty-six weeks in the Irish Top 30 and went platinum.

I hope you enjoy this week’s selection. Thanks.

Copyright 2008


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