Thursday 27 November 2008

Killer Opening Song (Silvio Rodriguez - Canción del Elegido)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Serenade)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2008

Friday 21 November 2008

Book Meme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Patti Smith - Gloria)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 18 November 2008

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

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

Alas, that was not the case this time around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2008

Sunday 16 November 2008

Happy Birthday My Grand Dame!

Excuse me, please, please, you, the 489-year-old lady sitting at the front, please! Yes, you! Would you be so kind so as to come on stage, please? There, let me give you a hand, I know, I know, it's the years, isn't it? Please, this way, yes, centre stage, that's it. Now, let me shine a light on you. Yes, a light, you heard me right. You deserve that light, you deserve to be centre stage. You deserve so much more.

You see, you and I have travelled together. But me being the much younger sibling, I've learnt more than I thought I would by being together with you, you and I, entwined at the hip for 26 years, the time I spent living in you. And now I would like you to relate to me, to us, to this audience, your experience in this almost 500-year jaunt.

I would like you to narrate to us how you felt about the move from Cuba's southwest coast up to the west of your now renowned bay, the one our Mother Goddess, Yemaya bathes in all its glory. Was it the mosquitoes that did not let you sleep? Or was it the swamps? I would like to know who planted the first ceiba tree around which it became a tradition to walk three times on your birthday's eve.

And you don't mind me writing to you in English, do you? After all this language is not alien to you. You withstood the siege by the British in 1762 fiercely and heroically, only to be betrayed by the Spaniards at the eleventh hour. We even got a song out of the conflict dedicated to the Guanabacoa Mayor, Don José Antonio Gómez, otherwise known as Pepe Antonio, the only one who challenged the European invaders with poorly armed troops and no military support from the incumbent Spanish government. Under the rule of the Brits you prospered economically, albeit on the back of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Africans brought to our country under the most appalling and inhumane conditions ever. And yet, where would we be without their influence? Where would we be without their rhythms, dances and languages? As our National Poet, Nicolás Guillén said:

Yoruba soy,

lloro en yoruba lucumí.
Como soy un yoruba de Cuba,
quiero que hasta Cuba suba mi llanto yoruba;
que suba el alegre llanto yoruba
que sale de mí.
Yoruba soy,
cantando voy,
llorando estoy,
y cuando no soy yoruba,
soy congo, mandinga, carabalí.
Atiendan amigos, mi son, que empieza así:
Adivinanza de la esperanza:
lo mío es tuyo
lo tuyo es mío;
toda la sangre
formando un río.
La ceiba ceiba con su penacho;
el padre padre con su muchacho;
la jicotea en su carapacho.
¡Que rompa el son caliente,
y que lo baile la gente,
pecho con pecho,
vaso con vaso,
y agua con agua con aguardiente!
Yoruba soy, soy lucumí,
mandinga, congo, carabalí.
Atiendan, amigos, mi son, que sigue así:
Estamos juntos desde muy lejos,
jóvenes, viejos,negros y blancos,
todo mezclado;
uno mandando y otro mandado,
todo mezclado;
San Berenito y otro mandado,
todo mezclado;
negros y blancos desde muy lejos,
todo mezclado;
Santa María y uno mandado,
todo mezclado;
todo mezclado, Santa María,
San Berenito, todo mezclado,
todo mezclado, San Berenito,
San Berenito, Santa María,
Santa María, San Berenito
todo mezclado!
Yoruba soy, soy lucumí,
mandinga, congo, carabalí.
Atiendan, amigos, mi son, que acaba así:
Salga el mulato,
suelte el zapato,
díganle al blanco que no se va:
de aquí no hay nadie que se separe;
mire y no pare,
oiga y no pare,
beba y no pare,
viva y no pare,
que el son de todos no va a parar!

In recent years I've heard visitors to your shores complain about the noise, the dust and the collapsing buildings. Sometimes, though, and call me a hopelessly romantic fool, we need the scratching sound of an old record to appreciate its value. Your imperfections make you human. You remind me of that line in Dulce María Loynaz' poem 'Ultimos Días de una Casa' where the author states:

La Casa, soy la Casa,
más que piedra y vallado,
más que sombra y que tierra,
más que techo y muro,
porque todo eso soy, y soy con alma.

You, my dear old Havana, are like that. I cannot articulate your cracks, potholes and fissures. They have a language of their own. It's the language of unshaven quality. It's what makes the migrant long for your touch, it's what makes the current denizen create anthems that will be sung by future generations across the world wherever your progeny has been dispersed to.

Because, my beautiful dame, you have witnessed the exodus of some of your more doting sons and daughters. Never has a song sounded more truthfully than when it claims that 'if my eyes ever deserted you/if life banished me to another place on this Earth/I swear to you that I'll die of love and angst wanting to walk your streets, your parks and places.'

Personally, you gave me so much. You gave me a sense of safety and comfort when I was still a teeny weenie child roaming your streets, playing baseball or 'hide and seek', or 'it', or knocking on doors and running away after. You gave me 'Playita 16', the most imperfect and dysfunctional beach there can ever be, and yet, so inviting. You gave me parties in faraway places to which I went behind my mother's back. Luyanó, Santiago de las Vegas, Santos Suárez, Santa Amalia, Siboney, names that are forever enmeshed with my own flesh. One day I will have the same creases and crumples on my face as you have now. Let's hope I can bear them the same way you do yours.

You went from being the 'Key to the Gulf' to being 'one of the dirtiest cities in the Americas'. Why? We're the only ones to blame. We could not look after you. We let you down. We're like the teenagers who leave home only to return after a few years and litter it carelessly. You have not been protected.

But still, you persevere. I walked down your streets last year, with my wife and kids. And you welcomed them, too. We saw some of the blemishes, though. Those 'Night Flowers', sung to by our very own Silvio Rodríguez, still populate your famous roads, Fifth Avenue, 23rd Street, Malecón.

Ah, Malecón! Has there ever been a wall so loved? Emperor Hadrian would be jealous. The Chinese don't know what to do with theirs and the Germans got rid of their own partition. And you're still there, my little old friend, where so many revellers wind up, where dreams are splashed by sea water mixed with the oil from the ships entering the bay. So many songs we sang on your cold surface, so many nights on which we sat by your littoral and warmed your stones, so many early mornings that found us hoarse and voiceless, but satisfied and optimistic.

Happy Birthday my Grand Dame! I hope someday to walk three times around your big ceiba tree again, maybe this time with my wife and our very own offspring. I hope to be part of your Latin American Film Festival again, wander up and down 23rd Avenue, going from the Yara cinema to the Chaplin, and from there to the Riviera, before ending up at La Rampa, in the knowledge that my intellect has been challenged and that you contributed to its enrichment.

Above all, I hope that you're still there, confident, beautiful and welcoming.

From your doting Habanero Son.

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

Copyright 20008

Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning

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

Thursday 13 November 2008

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2008

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Allegro)

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 11 November 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playlist to go with this dish:

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

Monday 10 November 2008

Superior Scribbler Award

I have just been awarded the above prize by Willow from Life at Willow Manor for 'always elegantly written posts on everything from music to linguistics and food, he is one of
my daily "must reads" and always look forward to his interesting comments at Willow Manor. He's one of those intriguing people I would love to have dinner with someday
Thank you very much, Willow, likewise. For more info, please, click here.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Killer Opening Songs (He Loves Me by Jill Scott)

To bring to a close this little section within a section of melodies that have never made it to Killer Opening Songs despite having the wherewithal to achieve this category, K.O.S. showcases this week the outstanding female soul singer Jill Scott (K.O.S. refuses to be drawn into debates over whether Jill, Erykah and Angie are soul, R'n'B or neo-soul, to K.O.S., they are simply soul, thank you very much).

It was probably the line 'Queens shouldn't swing if you know what I mean/But I'm about to take my earrings off get me some Vaseline' from her hit single 'Gettin' In The Way' (album 'Who is Jill Scott') that did it for K.O.S. Or it was probably the singer's in-your-face appproach and bravado that made K.O.S.'s knees go wobbly because I will have you know that K.O.S loves strong, feisty female chanteuses. Whatever it was, since Jill released her first album K.O.S. has been hooked on her melodious voice and become a fan of this performer.

However, out of all the compositions that made up her debut record, it was track number 7 'He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)' that Our Weekly Musical Section on Killer Opening Songs loved to delirium. How many times did K.O.S. played that one track? Too many to remember. And which bit of the song did K.O.S. like best? Well, where should it start? The musical arrangement? Her voice? The words? The words! Oh my God! The words! They are the poetical and mythical musings of a true artist. These lyrics will run smoothly down your skin like Bodyshop's Cocoa bodybutter (yes, you can tell that K.O.S. is a member), especially the beginning:

You love me especially different every time/You keep me on my feet happily excited/By your cologne, your hands, your smile, your intelligence/You woo me, you court me, you tease me, you please me/You school me, give me some things to think about/Ignite me, you invite me, you co-write me, you love me, you like me/You incite me to chorus...

After this, can anything else be written? No, so, enjoy the clip of a melody that could have been a Killer Opening Song but was not. Who cares, though? It's still a monster of a tune.

Copyright 2008

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Return of the Native by Margaret Atwood

We all have them: the building with the dome, late Victorian, solid masonry, stone lions in front of it the brick houses, three-storey, with or without fretwork, wood or painted iron, which now bear the word Historic on tasteful enamelled or bronze plaques and can be visited most days except Monday; the roses, big ones, of a variety that were not here before. Before what? Before the ships landed, we all had ships landing before the men in beaver hats, sailor hats, top hats, hats anyway, got out of the ships before the native inhabitants shot the men in hats with arrows or befriended them and saved them from starvation, we all had native inhabitants.

Arrows or not, it didn't stop the men in hats, or not for long, and they had flags too, we all had flags, flags that were not the same flags as the flags we have now. The native inhabitants did not have hats or flags, or not as such, and so something had to be done. There are the pictures of the things being done, the before and after pictures you might say, painted by the painters who turned up right on cue, we all had painters. They painted the native inhabitants in their colourful, hatless attire, they painted the men in hats, they painted the wives and children of the men in hats, once they had wives and children, once they had three-storey brick houses to put them in. They painted the brave new animals and birds, plentiful then, they painted the landscapes, before and after, and sometimes during, with axes and fire busily at work, you can see some of these paintings in the Historic houses and some of them in the museums.

We go into the museums, where we muse. We muse about the time before, we muse about the something that was done, we muse about the native inhabitants, who had a bad time of it at our hands despite arrows, or, conversely, despite helpfulness. They were ravaged by disease: nobody painted that. Also hunted down, shot, clubbed over the head, robbed and so forth. We muse about these things and we feel terrible. We did that , we think, to them . We say the word them, believing we know what we mean by it we say the word we , even though we were not born at the time, even though our parents were not born, even though the ancestors of our ancestors may have come from somewhere else entirely, some place with dubious hats and with a flag quite different from the one that was wafted ashore here, on the wind, on the ill wind that (we also muse) has blown us quite a lot of good. We eat well, the lights go on most of the time, the roofs on the whole do not leak, the wheels turn round.

As for them, our capital cities have names made from their names, and so do our brands of beer, and some but not all of the items we fob off on tourists. We make free with the word authentic . We are enamoured of hyphens, as well: our word, their word, joined at the hip. Sometimes they turn up in our museums, without hats, in their colourful clothing from before, singing authentic songs, pretending to be themselves. It's a paying job. But at moments, from time to time, at dusk perhaps, when the moths and the night-blooming flowers come out, our hands smell of blood. Just the odd whiff. We did that, to them.

But who are we now, apart from the question Who are we now? We all share that question. Who are we, now, inside the we corral, the we pallisade, the we fortress, and who are they? Is that them , landing in their illicit boats, at night? Is that them, sneaking in here with outlandish hats, with flags we can't even imagine? Should we befriend them or shoot them with arrows? What are their plans, immediate, long-term, and will these plans of theirs serve us right? It's a constant worry, this we, this them.

And there you have it, in one word, or possibly two: post-colonial.

(C) OW Toad. From Bottle, by Margaret Atwood, published in a limited edition by Hay Festival Press on May 28, 2004 (


I would like to thank
The Saturday Review team from The Guardian, especially Ginny Hooker, for kindly allowing me to reproduce this text.

Image taken from Wikimedia. No permission was sought for its reproduction. Should the copyright holder(s) want me to remove it, I will comply with their request immediately.

And of course, I would also like to thank our dear Canadian literary wonder, Margaret Atwood, without whose intellect, wit and creativity the world would be a poorer place.

Sunday 2 November 2008

Song for an Autumn Sunday Morning

Bettye Lavette - Talking Old Soldiers

This song was included originally in the album 'Tumbleweed Connection' (1970) by Elton John. To watch the British singer performing the same track, please, click here.


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