Tuesday 30 June 2009

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

I have already stated before how nuts I am about nuts. But I am also crazy about seeds. And what I really love doing is getting them all together on a pan and roasting them slowly.

So, this is a post about roasted nuts and seeds at which point I should also add the following warning: This post contains nuts. Nuts may trigger off allergies of which you are unaware, so, please, check with your GP before reading this column.

My love affair with this snack started recently after a trip to Spain four years ago. My brother-in-law's girlfriend served us roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds as a nibble and they were so yummy that I bought some after when we went to Órgiva, the nearby town. Back in the UK I began to experiment with Brazil nuts, cashew nuts and almonds. The results were great and a bond was formed.

Everyday after lunch I have a small plate of roasted nuts and seeds which I have prepared the night before and put in the fridge. They are a delicious dessert after my sandwich and bowl of fresh fruit. I do sprinkle some sugar on top when I am cooking them, but that's the Cuban in me, I like my nuts to be sweet... Oh dear, I just read that last sentence again and... all right, never you mind, I like my nuts to be sweet, yes.

Nuts and Seeds

A handful of the following:

Brazil nuts
Peanuts (I buy the redskin variety)
Cashew Nuts
Pecan nuts

Pumpkin seeds
Hemp seeds
Sunflower seeds
Sugar (a teaspoonful), this is optional and to be honest with you, not necessary. When I roast nuts and seeds at home, I have to be quick if I want to sprinkle some sugar on top because both my wife and I are very strict with our children's sugar consumption, therefore the last thing I need is one of them walking in on me and catching me red-handed. Yes, parental hypocrisy, who doesn't suffer from it? And did I mention the dollop of chocolate spread that I sometimes mix with the nuts and seeds and that I then justify to the children that it is nothing but the Brazil nuts getting a bit too burned? And how about the tiny, teeny... OK, the two scoops of Vanilla ice-cream I occasionally put in? Anyway, it's up to you.

You might think that roasting nuts and seeds is an easy task but my first few attempts met with failure. The results were quite, how to put it, charred instead of the sun-kissed colour I was expecting. And herein I would also like to mention what to me is a fundamental ingredient in the kitchen: patience. Slow cooking is my motto. In fact I was keen to start a food revolution called 'slowism' until someone told me that they had a similar movement in the States. Thieves, it was my idea! I was just too slow to patent it.

My cooker is electric which means it has numbers 1-8, with 1 representing low fire and 8 the temperature at which you usually boil water. So, I put my nuts and seeds to roast at mark 4, then take it down a couple of notches, toss them about the pan a little bit and then ratchet it up to 4 again until they are done.

Since I am posting this in summertime, even though this is a recipe for all seasons, the music that comes to mind is one that has a slow groove, that builds progressively towards a crescendo, or that stays steadily imperturbable within the parametres of its own tempo.

And so we turn our attention to an artist who, long before she tried to become Mama Africa and adopt every single child on that continent, was a very good performer indeed and made brilliant catchy pop tunes. Madonna has always been a package and this video, with its funky bassline and beautiful black and white photography, is evidence of her genius. And as I see those nuts and seeds mixing promiscously on my pan I can't help but think of singing out to them: 'Things haven't been the same/Since you came into my life/You found a way to touch my soul/And I'm never ever ever gonna let it go'.

The second tune is by a composer whose work I revere but who polarises music lovers down the very middle. Phillip Glass deserves his own post and I will make sure he gets one in due course, however in the meantime I would like to offer this piece to you, my dear fellow bloggers, readers and followers. In the same way that under the placid surface of the nuts and seeds I roast on my pan a turmoil seethes, this music reminds me of the old saying: still waters run deep. And that's actually the name of one of my homemade CD collections: Still Waters. And this tune is included. At 2:24 all I can think of is those peanuts popping all over the pan, they do pop loudly, don't they? Enjoy.

It seems to me that inadvertently I have turned my blog lately into a shrine dedicated to Bach and the truth is that there's another future post related to the famous composer coming up very soon. But when I was writing recently my post about Bach for the Killer Opening Songs section, I had his 'Violin Concertos' on in the background and then this particular movement came on and I had to listen to it twice more. For some reason in these two violins I could visualise the union of a hemp seed and a Brazil nut, or an almond and a sunflower seed. Wacky, maybe, but surely it's tasty. What really bowled me over was the tempo swings from 3:32 onwards. Amazing.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on 2nd July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 28 June 2009

Song for a Summer Sunday Morning - MTV Brasil by Diego's Umbrella

Well, a little bit of gypsy-punk rock never hurt anyone, did it? Also, that fiddle... that fiddle...

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...' to be published on Tuesday 30th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 25 June 2009

Britain, my Britain (Sawbridgeworth)

Halfway between Harlow in Essex and Bishop's Stortford in Herts, the small town of Sawbridgeworth decorates the English countryside elegantly.

With a railway station that links directly to Liverpool Street in London, this beautiful relic offers the visitor an immediate respite from the regular stress and pressure of daily life in the British capital.

And that was to where a few weeks ago a party of six decamped: my wife, our two children, my mother-in-law, her boyfriend and me. It was actually my mother-in-law's other half who had the idea of walking along the placid river Stort whilst admiring the lush surroundings and we could not thank him enough after our short trek.

Hertforshire (is that first 'e' pronounced 'a' as in 'cat' or as in 'hunger'? It's the same 'a' as in 'Derby', thanks in advance), the county in which Sawbridgeworth is located is full of interesting places to visit. This town in particular has a very rich history dating back to Saxon times. Following the Norman conquest the area was bequeathed to the First Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville. The town centre is witness to the rich history of Great Britain; many of the buildings dotting its pavements hark back to Tudor and Georgian times.

Contrasting with this cultural legacy, the visitor will come across more modern developments nearer the river. The new buildings we saw there were architecturally beautiful but in my view rather impersonal. I wrote in a previous post about east London about a native's disillusion with the phenomenon of gentrification; in the same way these complexes had no allure to me, no personal signature.

Although it was a surprise for me at first to hear the nasal inflection of the typical Cockney accent when talking to the locals, this should not have been unexpected. As I mentioned before the town is very close to Essex, a place that has seen an influx of east Londoners. Some other areas in the Home Counties have had a similar inflow such as Luton and Bedford. There are people who argue that it was Thatcher's policies in the 1980s, trying to create a new 'middle-class' amongst the working-class that gave people the opportunity to buy their own council accommodation and 'trade up', whilst low taxes enabled new small and medium-sized enterprises to emerge. Suddenly it was not very hard to make money. The housing boom in the 90s was allegedly due to this laissez-faire attitude. I am not here to condone or condemn someone under whose rule I did not live but many people to whom I have spoken have showed their displeasure with the fatal effects caused by Lady Thatcher's agenda. In the end this pursuit of wealth implemented by her government did not generate the desired result since most of the members of her own party (Conservative) were dead against the nouveau riche and their inclusion in British society. As popular lore has it, it was the Falklands war that saved her premiership.

The walk as such was a treat and it is one of those activities I would recommend to anyone who loves the outdoors and wants to become acquainted first-hand with the exuberant English countryside. For starters we were welcomed by a delegation of swans belting out a great rendition of David Bowie's timeless classic 'Cygnet Committee'. After that we proceeded down a path stopping here and there to admire the flowers, the shrubbery and the animals. My son carried a book about British fauna and many a time he became our lecturer when we wanted to find out the name of a specific creature.

The temperature was nice, neither too warm, nor too fresh and the placid water along which we walked brought back childhood memories of swimming in the river whenever I went to the countryside with my school on our work experience.

The only sad sight was to see the legacy of our human presence in this place in the shape of empty Coke cans (the fact that they were Diet did not lessen the crime, fish do not diet), plastic bottles and similar detritus. On a couple of occasions what we thought at first to be an animal turned out to be yet another golden wrapper.

We finished the first part of our walk at a restaurant/pub where a short recess was called for. We wolfed down our sandwiches hungrily and after a short, luxurious and relaxing break, went back, this time taking a shorter route, but not less panoramic than the previous one.

This time around we came out to the back of an old church from where a road led us to a few local, picturesque shops selling all kinds of merchandise: antiques, jewellery, bric-a-brac and clothes. A real beauty was a store advertising French products. Most signs were in the Gallic language and the goods on display were exquisite. And quite dear.

By the time we returned to our car we were all feeling rather invigorated by the walk and by the visit to the local shops. I had another reason to be happy, my football team, Chelsea was beating Everton in the final of the FA Cup, although, I must admit that at some point I came to regret my decision of wearing my Chelsea shirt in a town where most locals root for the Hammers (West Ham) or Spurs. Believe me, in another time it could have got ugly.

In the end, the Hertforshire countryside, and Sawbridgeworth, specifically, did not disappoint. Another walk is planned for some time in the immediate future in an area nearby and I am already looking forward to it.

All photos were taken by the blog's author.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Song for a Summer Sunday Morning' to be published on Sunday 28th June at 10am.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Johann Sebastian Bach)

Disclaimer: Please, be aware that all anachronisms in the following post are intentional.

Whilst rummaging through the archive of Killer Opening Songs for tonight's section, I came across an interview that K.O.S. conducted with Herr Johann Sebastian Bach for the German newspaper Critische Nachrichten aus dem Reiche der Gelehrsamkeit (Critical News from the Land of Erudition) at some point in the 1730s on the eve of the release of the famous composer's groundbreaking album 'Violin Concertos'. I herein reproduce verbatim the conversation between the German maestro and Our Regular Section of Lethal Introductory Tracks.

K.O.S: Many thanks, Herr Bach for kindly accepting our invitation to discuss your upcoming album.Bach: Nein, nein, it's my pleasure. I read your publication avidly and I have become a member, too.

K.O.S.: Mr Bach, my first question is, why did it take you so long to put those violin pieces on record? After all, as in the case of our Killer Opening Song tonight, the Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV 1004, they date from a decade ago, give or take a couple of years here and there.B: Hmmm... that's a good question. I guess that my work in both Cöthen and Leipzig were geared more towards organ, clavicord and choral pieces. As you know, it was in the latter place where I achieved the distinction of Compositeur to the Royal Court Capelle. This position brought with it more responsibilities than the ones over which I had kept watch before and therefore my violin pieces were put on hold. And on top of that there was also my Clavierübung project to oversee.

K.O.S.: And yet, the public will probably wonder why you kept us waiting all these years for a set of solo numbers that demonstrate your command of performing techniques. Do you think that there was some trepidation on your part as to how this album would be received?B: I wouldn't say trepidation, gar nicht. I would say that... meiner Meinung nach... erm... if I was to record an entire catalogue of previously unheard old pieces, I had to be sure that the fun and creative elements were both included in the final opus.

K.O.S: And your neverending desire to explore new sounds.B: Genau so! Yes, that too. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I must admit that the end result shows my ability to bring into play, without even an accompanying bass part, dense counterpoint and refined harmony with distinctive and well-articulated rhythmic designs.

K.O.S.: I would add to that that there's a joyful feeling to it, too.B: The joy you hear comes from that exploration you mentioned before and which took me through every facet of violin technique, including multiple stoppings. At the same time I experimented a little bit with some chords and the ability to produce through them contrapuntal textures that extend even to what you might call a fugue.

K.O.S.: Is it true, then, that to you music comes first and your personality second? The reason why I am asking is that in allowing someone of Gidon Kremer's stature to perform your Partita No.2 in D minor, you're in a way ceding centre stage to someone else.B: To me, music is the strongest link between God and us humans and I consider myself lucky enough to have served the Good Lord as his humble messenger so far. Gidon is to me another instrument through which to channel this divine blessing. Sometimes as I am playing at the St Thomas school, where I currently work, I look up and say to myself: Jesum, ich will hier bei dir stehen, which as you know is part of one of my most famous choral works included in the libretto of the St Matthew Passion BWV 244.

K.O.S.: Hence the austere expression on the album cover. Sorry, but I just had to get over that question. There you are, holding a sheet with three short lines of musical notation. Was there a statement in the choice of cover?B: I didn't want the frontispiece to be a distraction from the record's main objective: to introduce the public to a set of hitherto lesser-known works. Besides of what use would it have been if I had posed with a paper roll like a conductor or a keyboard like a performer? Simplicity is an attribute hard to earn and easy to lose.

K.O.S.: Let's go back to the introductory track. A 'Sarabande'? What made you choose such controversial style for one of the partita's sections?B: What do you mean by controversial?

K.O.S.: I'm sure that someone as knowledgeable as you are, will be acquainted with the history behind the Nsala-banda, to give this dance and music its proper African name.B: Vielleicht you could elaborate further on that point, bitte. To me the Sarabande is an elegiac, meditative and noble rhythm.

K.O.S.: Herr Bach, according to the writer, producer and musician Ned Sublette, the Zarabanda was the rock and roll of Spain in the late sixteenth century, a good one hundred years before you were born. Originally from the Congo this dance travelled on a slave ship to the Americas, especially to Cuba, went back to Europe - through Havana -, reached its peak in Sevilla during the annual May festival of Corpus Christi and then was watered down and became part of the classical music canon. Obviously, the clergy in Spain were appalled when they first saw it. A mimetic performance that simulated sexual action, with hips swaying and breasts touching was not the sacred idea in which the Creator was usually celebrated. By the time it spread across Europe, first to Italy, then to England, later to France and finally to Germany, it had become a rather tamed rhythm.B: And that's der Rhythmus you will be able to hear in the Killer Opening Song of the 'Violin Concertos' album.

K.O.S: Right, let me ask you another question. Is this album, maybe at a subconscious level, a riposte to Herr J. A. Scheibe's article in Der critische Musikus?B: No, Herr Scheibe is entitled to his opinion of my music.

K.O.S.: But the column was little less than a poisonous attack on both your persona and oeuvre. He even dared to draw Handel into his critique, when he mentioned that you had, and I quote, 'insufficient agreeableness when compared to a great master of music in a foreign country'. Other charges included: turgid and confused manner, obscuring beauty by too much art and removing the beauty of harmony.B: Danke schön, I am aware of his comments, you did not have to repeat them. I take it that you have also read what my friend J. A. Birnbaum, Leipzig resident and teacher of rethoric, had to say in my defense.

K.O.S.: Yes, I am. Still, to most music lovers the comparison with Handel will not have gone amiss. Have you ever met him?B: Nein, niemals. There was an attempt, abortive unfortunately because of a fever I ran at the time, to meet him many years ago when he was still living in Halle but since he has spent most of his life in England, I have never had the pleasure of his company. Now, all this talk of competition between Handel and me, and the fact that his pieces are more 'natural' than mine, whatever that means, look, I would like to put all this behind me. I am just interested in making music and of course music that appeals to mein Gott. Because that's what I am, one of God's creations.

K.O.S.: Finally, Herr Bach, how would you like to be remembered? As a performer, composer, teacher, scholar...?B: As a man who wrote mostly music for 'The Heaven's Castle'.

K.O.S: Danke schön, Herr Bach.B: Bitte sehr.


This post could never have been written had I not consulted the following books and article:

'The Life of Bach' by Peter Williams, published by Cambridge University Press

'Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician' by Christoph Wolff, published by Oxford University Press (my colon)

'Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo' by Ned Sublette, published by Chicago Review Press (my colon), more specifically, Part II, Chapter 6 'By Post from the Indies'

'Divine Inspiration', article written by JH Elliott and published in The Guardian's Saturday Review, 4th April, 2009.
'The Life of Bach' focuses mainly on his obituary and offers a snapshot of his life and character. 'Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician', on the other hand, is not only a detailed account of the composer's personality and his approach to work but also a fascinating insight into Germany's cultural, political, economic and social life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 'Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo' is a thorough analysis of the genesis, development and influence of Cuban music. Having studied the works of Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera and Natalia Bolívar, I cannot recommend Ned's text enough, not just to those who are interested in finding out why Cuba has been making the world dance for so many years but also to those who are keen to explore the contribution of African rhythms to the canon of European classical music. At best this is an area that has been largely downplayed, at worst it has been completely ignored with the usual snobbish position that classical music is superior to African harmony. 'Divine Inspiration' gave me a sense of what the baroque world brought to 17th- and 18th-century Europe especially its sophisticated displays of religious images.
It is this last element to which I would like to refer briefly before wrapping up this post: religion. As a person who wears his atheism on his sleeve, I might have surprised some of my friends and acquaintances, mainly those who know me personally, in my use of religious terms and idolatry. But there was no way in which I could have written about Bach without including his pious devotion to God. Nor did I have any inclination to do so. To me religion is a phenomenon that existed before I was born and will continue to exist long after I am gone. That's why, for many years now, I have approached it from a cultural perspective. And this has given me the benefit of meeting people from various religios backgrounds (I line-manage a Muslim man, for instance) and learn from their lives, customs and traditions. In his final days, even when he knew he was about to die, Bach performed one of his most ambitious works, the cantata 'Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir' (We thank you, God, we thank you). With such strong faith like the one he displayed throughout his life it would have been puerile, not to mention immature, of me to edit that facet out of his life. Besides, Bach was a product of his time and as such was raised within the boundaries of the four main institutions of his time: church, court, town hall and school. Needless to say, he incorporated all of them in his exceptional body of work.

I hope you enjoy tonight's column, I had a lot of fun writing it. Many thanks.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Britain, my Britain (Sawbridgeworth)', to be published on Thursday 25th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 21 June 2009

Song for a Summer Sunday Morning - Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot by Sting

Well, we had a cover version last week, how about having the master himself singing one of those uplifting tunes that make you want to slide back the roof of your car, roll down your windows and shout out: 'Yes, I am alive and I am glad to be alive!'

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs (Johann Sebastian Bach)' to be published on Tuesday 23rd June at 11:59pm

Thursday 18 June 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Linguistic Entente)

Daughter (arms crossed, neck stretching out and eyes wide open): ¿Puedes dejar de hablar y oírme, por favor? (Can you stop talking and listen to me, please?) Estoy tratando de explicarte por qué me estoy demorando con la... con la... con la... (I am trying to explain to you why I'm taking so long with the... with the... with the...) (turning to Son) How do you say 'wart' in Spanish?

Son: Verruca.

Me: Verruga.

Son: OK, gracias.

Me: Sí, pero de todas formas no me has dicho todavía por que te has demorado más de diez minutos con la verruga cuando tú sabes que vamos a leer en un rato (Yes, but still you have not said why it's taken you more than ten minutes to deal with your wart when you know that it's our reading time).

Daughter (raising her voice): Sí, pero no me estás dejando hablar. La razón porque... (yes, but you have not let me finish. The reason for why...)

Me (serious): Por la que... (why)

Daughter: ... por la que me estoy demorando es que primero tengo que... que... que... (the reason why I have been taking so long is that first I have to... to... to...) (turning to Son), how do you say 'soften' in Spanish?

Son (frowning): 'Soften'? Ahhh... 'suave', no, no thats 'soft'. Let me look it up in the dictionary.

One part of the Linguistic Entente dashes off to his room. An awkard silence ensues between the other part and Me.

Daughter (looking at me): Tú nunca escuchas a nadie (you never listen to anyone)

Me (looking away so that she canot see the smile that is about to become laughter): Sí, yo te escucho, pero hoy te has demorado demasiado (yes, I do listen to you, but tonight you've taken too long).

Son (shouting from his bedroom): ¡¡¡'Ablandar'!!! (Soften!!!)

Daughter (picking up thread of conversation): La razón por la que me estoy demorando tanto es que primero tengo que ablandar la verruca... (the reason why I'm taking so long is that first I have to soften the vart...)

Me: Verruga (wart)

Daughter: Verruga (wart). Y después tengo que limarla y después es que tú puedes poner la medicina en el dedo. ¿Entiendes? (And then I have to file it, and then you can put the cream on my toe. Right?)

Me: Sí, entiendo, diez minutos más y ya (yes, I understand, ten more minutes and that's it).

I go down the stairs and when I open the kitchen door I see Wife doubled up with laughter. I join in, too.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Song for a Summer Sunday Morning' to be published on Sunday 21st June at 10am

Tuesday 16 June 2009

London, my London (Brick Lane)

Pushed down by Swanfield Street in the north and cushioned by Osborn Street in the south, Brick Lane is that kind of area that rarely makes it to tourist brochures, yet it's a must-go place for those interested in finding out what the real, contemporary London looks and feels like.

This street derives its current name from former brick and tile manufacture, using the local brick earth deposits, that began in the 15th century. After successive waves of immigration that included Huguenots, Irish and Ashkenazi Jews it is now a hotbed of Bangladeshi culture, hence its nickname is 'Banglatown'.

The first time I was on Brick Lane I was unaware of both this rich history and the significance of the place. Returning there recently on what was a very warm day gave me a better sense of the hustle and bustle that engulfs this part of east London.

The first sight that greets the visitor is the Brick Lane fruit and vegetable Market, developed in the 17th century. With produce coming from all over the world, it could easily compete with the Brixton market, another outdoor retail/wholesale venue in south London.

There's also a Sunday market which originated with the Jewish community. I would say that it is a far better option than the Camden market, another place about which I posted recently. For starters, there's less repetition and more creativity. The prices are lower and the quality of the products higher. I bought me a coat for fifteen quid. That would have normally set me back fifty pounds, but as the temperatures rise the price for winterwear plummets. I also purchased a second-hand jacket that cost me three quid. In Camden that would have probably been tenner. The shops have an air of uniqueness to them. And luckily for the visitor, most of the boutiques have emigrated to nearby renovated and regenerated Spitalfields, leaving Brick Lane with a true feeling of authenticity. On the pavements musicians play; blues, reggae or rock fill up the air with exuberant sounds.

Take Eastside Bookshop, for instance. I bought a few books in it: a collection of poems by William Blake as a present for my wife, an updated edition of Shakespeare's sonnets published by Cambridge University Press and a selection of poems by John Keats printed by Oxford University. But Eastside goes beyond that. It organises poetry readings and competitions, the staff is kind, friendly and helpful and they actually talk to you and ask you questions on what your literary tastes are. As someone who spends quite a lot of money buying books from amazon.co.uk, it was a pleasure to leave the store with those poetry collections under my arm. Unlike online shopping, where you cannot touch the merchandise, the physical contact with novels, essays and memoirs brings my inner child out in a jiff and I had to hold myself back from parting with yet more money for more books.

There's another place I strongly recommend, especially when you are hungry as my wife and I were. Avoid the overpriced restaurants on either side of Brick Lane and head for the Sunday Upmarket. It is located inside The Old Truman Brewery and it currently hosts hundreds of stalls offering you any product from fashion to food. Wander around the kiosks here and you'll come across charm vintage jewellery, handmade greeting cards, printed garments, hot Ethiopian coffee, Spanish tapas (I got me some paella, nice!) and luxurious, jewel-coloured eel skin bags.

Unfortunately, there's another reason why Brick Lane is (in)famous these days. In 2003, Monica Ali's novel of the same name saw the light. It depicted the tribulations of a Bangladeshi woman recently arrived in the country with no command of the English language and feeling isolated. She had been married off to a man many years her senior and had been separated from her sister whom she loved dearly. What came to be seen as a cultural war started when Monica sold the book rights to a film company and the latter decided to shoot the movie on site. A 'Campaign Against Monica Ali's Brick Lane' was formed by some of the elders of the Bangladeshi community and the area acquired a notoriety that I'm sure was not what most dwellers of this deprived part of London had in mind. Once more, two of the UK''s intellectual stalwarts, Germaine Greer and Salman Rushdie, locked horns. Greer defended the local community's decision to ban Ruby Films from shooting in situ since, according to her, the depiction of this disadvantaged community was a caricature that conformed to the stereotypes most British people had in regards to this ethnic minority. On the other hand Rushdie argued for freedom of expression, probably based on his own experience from a few years before, after his novel 'The Satanic Verses' was publicly condemned and burned by hysterical fanatics. In the end, the film was shot in another part of London. Having read both the book and watched the movie, I can honestly aver to the quality of the former whilst bemoaning the poor narrative of the latter.

Cultural differences apart, Brick Lane is one of those necessary stops for the visitor to London. Whether you are keen on antiques, or on flea markets, this is an area that will appeal to you. A sound system nearby blasting out dub and roots reggae, is also a strong reminder that when the sun comes down, it's time to dust off your dancing shoes and get with the rhythm.

All photos by the blog's author.

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World' to be published on Thursday 18th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copyright 2009

Thursday 11 June 2009

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

I admit that when I first cooked this dish I realised too late that I was missing two valuable ingredients: spring onions and shell-on raw prawns. I did have peeled prawns, though, but it was not the same. Since then I have made amends and now I can vouch for this recipe's delicious taste. And my favourite bit, besides eating it, of course? The aroma whilst it's cooking. It's just superb. And yes, it's yet another Nigel Slater's recipe. This blog, and this section in particular, is a fervent follower of Nigel Slater. The full description below has been copied and pasted from his regular column in The Observer newspaper, a publication for which he has written for sixteen years.

Prawns with Sichuan peppercorns and spring onions

2 fresh hot red chillies
a tsp Sichuan peppercorns
a large pinch of sugar
2 tsp of finely minced (or very finely chopped) ginger
4 cloves of garlic
6 spring onions
6 tbsp groundnut oil
400g large, shell-on raw prawns

Halve the chillies, scrape out the seeds, chop the flesh finely, and put into a small bowl. Put the peppercorns into a non-stick frying pan and toast for a minute or two until fragrant. Tip them out and grind to a fine powder using a spice mill or a pestle and mortar. Add to the chillies with the sugar, minced ginger and a teaspoon of sea salt.

Peel and finely chop the garlic. Trim the spring onions and chop them into fine pieces then add, with the garlic, to the chillies.

Pour the oil into a wok and get it smoking hot. Lower in the prawns and let them cook for a minute, then lift them out with a draining spoon. Add the chilli mixture to the wok and stir it round for a minute or less as it sizzles, so it does not burn.

Return the prawns to the pan, continue cooking for a couple of minutes, then serve immediately and eat while hot and peppery.

The music I selected to go with this dish is also full of aromas. Give me Azam Ali's voice any time. It brings much solace and warmth to my soul, just like this dish.

Cassandra Wilson's take on this Bob Marley's classic is, in my humble opinion, a classic itself.

Frank Black, who is one of the few performers I have heard doing an excellent version of 'Dirty Old Town', regales us a tune that burns your insides in the same way those chillies and ginger seethe on the pan.

And last but not least, a good old tango, because whenever I'm cooking a simple dish as the one above I have simple but deep music on in the background. And Astor Piazzolla is one of those artists who is capable of bringing the full flavour of music to any song he performs, just like spring onions and garlic. Enjoy.

Next post: 'Song for a Summer Sunday Morning' to be published on Sunday 14th June at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Mississipi John Hurt)

OK, let the game start. Killer Opening Songs calls and you respond. You see? It's a simple game. He shouts out:

- Blues!

And you answer:

- Sonny Boy Williamson!

Right, that's not what our Regular Section of Introductory Songs with Homicidal Tendencies had in mind. Let's try again, shall we:

K.O.S.: Blues!
You: Buddy Guy! Important figure in the Chicago scene.
K.O.S.: (frowning) Blues!
You: Muddy Waters! 'Hoochie Coochie Man' and 'Got my Mojo Working'. Anything else?
K.O.S.: (getting more and more exasperated) Blues!
You: Robert Johnson! The blues Faust. Made a pact with the devil: 'I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please/Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Ain’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.'
K.O.S.: (almost screaming at the top of his lungs) Bluuuuuues!
You: (calm and composed): Howlin' 'six-foot-six almost three hundred pounds size seventeen shoes raging-chainsaw voice' Wolf, Elmore 'King of the Slide Guitar' James and John Lee 'I lent my "Boogie Chillun" to Led Zeppelin for their special BBC session "Whole Lotta Love" blues medley' Hooker.
K.O.S.: (Face red like a ripe tomato resembling one of Noel Coward's Englishmen) Right, you Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms Wise, this is for you: Mississippi John Hurt.
You: What? Who? Where? When? Why?
K.O.S.: (smiling like a Cheshire cat) Yes, you heard me right. Mississippi John Hurt.
You: What the f...?
K.O.S.: Oi! Mind your language! No swearing on this blog, right? You don't know, do you? Sit down, dear and enjoy the ride.

In order to offer readers, fellow bloggers and followers a tasty three-course musical meal tonight Killer Opening Songs had to travel to the hill country town of Avalon, Mississippi. This, at the time K.O.S. visited it in the early 1920s, was a region without much importance beyond its own natural boundaries. The only note of interest was the railway going north towards Grenada. It was there that K.O.S. first came across Mississippi John Hurt's music, the artist featured tonight in our regular section. In a town whose inhabitants barely reached the hundred Hurt was the equivalent of a radio, or the as-yet-to-be-invented television.

There is a remarkable element in this musician's oeuvre. And it is the fact that he has always been classified as a folk singer. Now, there's nothing wrong with that label, as long as it is not detrimental and limiting to the artist, which, sadly, in John Hurt's case, is. This guitarist represented one of the rare examples of household music, that is, music performed by an amateur with no interest in financial gain. His art, as you will see from the clip shown below was non-conventional in that it employed no gimmicks and was not manipulative. John Hurt's music was as distant from self-pity or sexual innuendo as today most mainstream pop artists are from making good, challenging and meaningful music.

Although Mississippi worked the dance circuit, his music was not designed for public performance in the same way a Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf's song was. His was music to be listened to whilst chilling out and shooting the breeze, preferably whilst lying down on a hammock and downing a cold beer (you, not K.O.S., he is teetotal, so, maybe a cold lemonade would be better).

Mississippi John Hurt was born on 3rd July 1893. His dignity, humor, peculiar guitar style and tender, expressive voice made him the most popular artist of traditional country blues. Unfortunately he had to wait until the sixties to be 're-discovered'. Although John Hurt never pursued success he did land a recording session in New York in 1928 after an Okeh scout came to Avalon searching for new talents for Narmour and Smith. The depression in 1930s USA led to a reduction on the pressing of records and as a consequence Mississippi's promising start stalled. He went back to his farm where he lived quietly with his wife Jessie and their fourteen children. Then a few decades later the unexpected happened. Having heard and been impressed by 'Avalon, My Home Town', the folklorist Tom Hoskins decided to go and meet John Hurt in 1963. The result of that meeting was a revival of the forgotten musician's catalogue and public performances at the Newport Festival, college campuses and folk clubs in Washington D.C. followed.

Mississippi John Hurt died on 2nd November 1966, Grenada. He was probably one of the strongest and possibly the last link, in K.O.S.'s opinion, between the griot, the bard commonly found in West Africa and the nascent blues story-teller in the American South who had developed between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth. His amateurish yet very skillful approach to guitar-playing, his lack of a signature song and his emphasis on the guitar as an accompanying instrument were all elements that contributed to Mississippi's rich and smooth music.

So, why is 'Spike Driver Blues' a Killer Opening Song? Because in the absence of a real album or actual discography K.O.S. gets to choose which melody would have made it to the top of the trackslist had John Hurt had the opportunity to put his compositions in a formal record. Although, saying that, when it came to choosing tonight's offering, this particular tune had fierce competition from "Stack O' Lee Blues"; that's another very good outing by this much underrated troubadour. In the meantime, though, sit back and enjoy this musical gem.

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum' to be published on Thursday 11th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copyright 2009

Sunday 7 June 2009

Song for a Summer Sunday Morning (Le Ballet by Celine Dion)

So summer is finally here. Or so they say. We have had scorching temperatures in London the last few weeks. Climate change or rebellious weather? I don't know, but yours truly is not a happy Bunny.

Now, I have nothing against summer but after living twenty six years in a country where there's sun almost 24/7, a thermometer shooting up to 30 degrees Celsius ceases to be an out-of-this-world experience and becomes routine instead. That's the main reason why I like the weather in Britain. Note, I am not saying I prefer the British weather to the Cuban one, I'm just stating that having four distinct seasons as we have here in GB, makes a big difference. Plus, unfortunately for the last seven or eight years I have become another victim of hay fever, a condition of which I was unaware when I lived in Cuba (and here's a tip for you fellow summer-allergies sufferers: someone said to me that in order to lessen the effects of hay fever I should drink geranium tea, starting as early as February. I thought, what the heck, having geranium tea cannot be that bad, can it? So, I went to my local Holland and Barrett but they'd never heard of it. What they did have was geranium oil and would you believe it? The woman behind the counter had heard the same advice being given in relation to the oil. So I bought some a couple of years ago and I'm happy to report that although geranium oil does not rid you of hay fever it does alleviate your suffering, you know, the itchy eyes and throat, the constant sneezing, Why is that? I've no idea, but put a couple of drops in the bath, no more than a couple of drops, please, and voilà, come summer there's still hay fever, but less sneezing, less itchiness... Oopsie daisy, I just realised that I'm still in brackets, puts right foot out and then the left one). Sorry about that, I got carried away. Where was I? Oh, yes, summer. That's why when it comes to my least favourite seasons, it is winter and summer I think of, the former gives me dry skin and no snow (except for this year when there was some) whereas the latter shakes all that pollen off like a dog that's just come out of the water. And where do these powdery, yellowish spores finish? Up my nostril. Nein, give me the crunchy sound of dry, auburn leaves in October and November or green shoots in April and May anytime and I'm happy in the same way one of the Jonas brothers will be on his wedding night.

But it's summer and we can't ignore it, so from today until September I'll be uploading tracks that are, in my humble opinion, summerish. As usual, there'll be a wide selection. Some of the performers are recent, pleasant discoveries and obviously there'll be a few oldies to balance things off. There will be salsa with a social conscience, salsa with no social conscience and salsa with not even a salsa conscience. There will be rock'n'roll, pop, R'n'B, jazz, classical music and gipsy punk.

And also, I take advantage of this first post of the 'Song for a Summer Sunday Morning' to let you know that as the warmest season of the year fast approaches I will be absent from the blogosphere quite often. Between family commitments and trips to other parts of the British Isles, I will have less time to be online. So, I hope you enjoy this musical selection that kicks off with an amazing singer and a song from her pre-Titanic and pre-weight issues era. Enjoy.

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs' to be published on Tuesday 9th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copyright 2009

Thursday 4 June 2009

Ballet Rambert (Dance Review)

One of the aspects of dance that appeals to me the most is the opportunity it gives its practitioners to transform themselves into any object or person they want to be by merely using their bodies. Whilst this is also true of theatre on certain occasions, it is in dance and its emphasis on physical expression sans mots where one can best appreciate the body as a talking tool.

And Ballet Rambert is to me an apposite example.

Unlike my previous post about the famous troupe where I felt that the performance by Britain's 'premier contemporary dance company' (according to the programme notes) was under par, the matinee I attended with my wife and our two children a couple of weeks ago had everything you wanted from a dance spectacle, and still a bit more.

'Hush', the opening choregraphy of a two-piece programe, focused on a family of six: mum, dad and their four children during their night routine. The title hails from a famous lullaby that was included in a collaborative record by Bobby Mc Ferrin and the Japanese cellist Yo-yo Ma. The choreographer, Christopher Bruce, who was in charge of Ballet Rambert for eight years, sought inspiration for this piece on the album sleeve notes: 'Hush is a musical celebration of life - from youth to old age. While in so many ways this album speaks to children, it is equally true that perhaps its central goal, to use Bobby's (McFerrin) phrase is "to release the child in the adult"'. And it was this philosohy that underpinned the choreography. From the parents' struggle to juggle their responsibilities with their own 'me/us-time', to the children's nocturnal activies, this was a soul-warming piece. My favourite moment was the duet (at first, then turned into a trio) performed by the two brothers who were intent on catching a fly that had mysteriously sneaked into their bedroom. Bobby and Yo-Yo's infectious take on 'The Flight of the Bumblebee', had the audience enraptured whilst the skills and dexterity displayed by the two dancers on stage had us all on the edge of our seats, sweating profusely in admiration. After the two brothers chase the minuscule intruder for a long time they eventually give up, only for their younger sister to steal from behind them, jump up and bang! swallow the fly up in one gulp. Magical stuff indeed.

If 'Hush' rang true with many a parent in the audience (during the interval we all exchanged that kind of look that shouts out more than we can ever express with words) then the frantic razzmatazz that was 'A Linha Curva' (A Curved Line) was a welcome sight for those, like me, for whom sometimes dance is just about the pleasure of moving one's body until the last drop of sweat has been extracted. Twenty-eight dancers (including mum, dad and children from the first piece) filled up the stage at Sadlers Wells to give a fantastic demonstration of what happens when an Israeli choreographer travels to Brazil, comes back to work with a UK-based company and employs a Dutch quartet to play percussion. And if that is also a reflection of the multicultural city in which I live, I'm sure it was unintended, but I cannot have been the only member in the sell-out crowd who felt proud to live in such a wonderful city like London.

Twenty-eight rippling torsos, fifty-six muscled legs, twenty-eight rotating pelvises and twenty-eight mini-micro, little, lychra unisex pants in an assortment of bright colours with black gauzy tops. That was 'A Linha Curva'. It was the closest you could get to a version of the Rio carnival in the month of May bang in the middle of London. Shaking, stomping, jumping, swirling, pirouetting. This piece had it all. What was the 'message' behind it? None. Correction, there was a message. Dance is life, and life is to be lived, so, let's live our life, together and in full view, preferable whilst wearing hotpants. If 'Hush' left parents in the foyer winking at each other metaphorically, 'A Linha Curva' had us all line-dancing in our heads long after the curtains had come down.

I will leave you with two clips. The first one is the aforementioned piece, 'A Linha Curva'. The second one is Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma singing 'Hush'. I could not find a good clip of the actual choreography but I'm sure the music will still leave you in the same high spirits as the dance piece left me. Many thanks. Enjoy.

Next post: 'Song for a Summer Sunday Morning' to be published on Sunday 7th June at 10am (GMT)

Copyright 2009

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Exercises on Free Writing

He, She and Time

As the Cambridge-bound train pulled out of King's Cross station at 14:52, he gave his last sigh in a hospital in south London. His wife, now widow, was called two and half minutes after he’d died and broke down in tears by his bedside. The funeral was arranged for four days hence at 15:32 the way he had always wanted it.

Theirs had been a fruitful if methodical life. Ruled always by the ever ubiquitous Lord Time their existence had been full of minutes, seconds and nanoseconds. They, however, did not care one jot.

He was born at 05:09am in the year the Third World War finally came to an end and the electric car became a must-have fashion accessory.

She was born at 06:09am in the year people finally drove to work in their trendy, dynamo-charged vehicles and Eurasia, Oceania and Eastasia put their weapons down once and for all.

They met on the 16th day of the 11th month at university at 17:12 as they came out of the building. He was eighteen years, eleven months, twenty-nine days, eleven hours, fifty-seven minutes old. She was eighteen years, eleven months, twenty—nine days, twelve hours, fifty-seven minutes old. They both smiled at each other for twelve seconds before being pushed roughly aside by the exiting crowd.

From that moment on, they both grew fond of each other. He was so gentle, always caressing her hands, ten seconds flat each. She was so demure and dainty, usually stroking his handsome face and pinching his chubby, rosy cheeks. For three seconds each.

Sex was an activity in which they delighted. His penis always lay coiled like a spring, waiting to be awakened fifty-three seconds after her skilful hands fondled it. Likewise, her own sex became moist a whole two minutes and twenty-two seconds after he initiated foreplay. Penetration+orgasms= four minutes thirty seconds always. On one occasion he came two seconds earlier than usual and refused to talk to his sexual organ for a month as punishment. His penis limped off in abject sadness.

Their children arrived eighteen years, eleven months, twenty-nine days, eleven hours, fifty-seven minutes later. And of course they were twins. Born with an hour's difference. They all had a marvellous life together. Father worked for a software company and mother was a lecturer at a nearby university.


The pallbearers got underway at 15:20. Twelve minutes separated the coffin from the hole. Eight legs (one of them prosthetic) supported the bodies of four men carrying the wooden box to its final destination. With one minute left and nearer his final resting place, one of the men tripped up (not the one with the prosthetic leg) causing the coffin to slide down and fall into the hole sixty seconds before it was due to be placed inside it. At the same time the delayed 15:22 Peterborough-bound train was leaving from Kings Cross station. Inside the coffin an eyebrow raised.

Written by the blog's author

Image of the King's Cross Clock taken from www.flickr.com

Next Post 'Baller Rambert (Dance Review)' to be be published on Thursday 4th June at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copyright 2009


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