Sunday 10 January 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

If you have ever listened to Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major you might have noticed that at some point the piece becomes a musical game of 'It'. The melody starts off as a uniform unit; however, there's always a sense of expectancy in the background as the violinist prepares to perform his/her solo. Just before the first movement finishes, the soloist breaks free and the listener is led to believe that this cadenza will dictate the rest of the piece. But no, after a couple of minutes the orchestra catches up with the runaway and the soloist is forced back into the herd. This action is repeated until the end.

This melodic cat-and-mouse scenario came to mind recently over the holiday period for two reasons: spiritual enrichment and the significance of it. The former can better be explained as the effect the Beethoven concerto has on me, the latter is a muddled concept with which I am still grappling and which is the subject of today's post.

Supposing we are all functional human beings, the odds are that we have a spiritual side of which we might or might not be aware. And if we are, then we try to nurture it the best way we can. This immaterial trait runs counter occasionally to our - more, in my case - pragmatic self.

The ancient Greeks sussed this dichotomy out. Logos was the way whereby they could interact rationally with their physical environment and make decisions about it. Mythos, in the meantime, dealt with the phenomena they could not figure out, the meaning of life, for instance.

The introduction of mythos, thus, created a pantheon of symbols whose main function was to explore the part of the human psyche that could not yet be reached by the logical rationality of logos. But in today’s world that harmony is seriously under threat and I can see two reasons why.

The first one is based on the emphasis on belief in the Abrahamic faiths, which started approximately in the 1600s, and brought with it a mindset that demanded that believers accept a set of doctrines before adopting a religious way of life. And spirituality was at the centre of it as the tool to achieve this aim. In the intervening four-hundred-odd years, little has changed and even in totalitarian regimes like the Cuban one people still use spirituality as an instrument to achieve ‘enlightening’ rather than accepting it as yet another dimension of our humanity.

For example, up until the early 90s the default political and social mode in Cuba was pragmatic socialism. Although religion had been banned, it had never really gone away and people worshipped their gods behind closed doors. But overall, it was the socialist way of thinking that prevailed and the consequence was that two generations of Cubans were brought up to believe in the material world (broadly speaking, note, material not materialistic) whilst disregarding the spiritual side of it. In fact, it was no secret that if you were a man and declared an interest for the ethereal, an abusive term like 'poof' would be hurled at you without any second thoughts. Yet, with the fall of the socialist bloc and the beginning of the 'special period' in the largest island in the Antilles, Cubans found emotional refuge in the same source that been denied to them: religion. However, two others faiths challenged the Catholic doctrine so favoured by my fellow islanders: Protestantism and Santería (the synchretisation of African deities, mainly 'orishas' with their Catholic counterparts). And it was the latter that proved to be more popular, purely because it had been practiced since colonial times and thus, had survived Spanish rule, the pseudo-republic and Fidel's revolution. The main ingredient, though, which Santería supposedly brought to the table of forlorn hopes that was Cuba in the 90s, was spiritual enrichment.

I admit that I was then, and still am, dubious about any religion being a byword for spirituality, a trait that exists within human beings, regardless of creed or nationality, gender or skin colour. My suspicion grew tenfold when I heard some of my closest friends describing the process whereby they had been 'transformed' by the discovery of  protestantism/santería ('converted' was the word I preferred to use): 'This is the truth! I couldn't believe I had been so blind all my life!' or 'I needed order in my life, I needed a set of guidelines and I found it in...!' Hmmm... Out of Fidel's ideological frying pan and into... Oh, well, you catch my drift. But what put me at odds with them, and occasionally caused a kerfuffle was the belief (yes, fervent belief!) that by having found religion, they had found spirituality and no, would you believe it? My spirituality was not spirituality as such because... at that point I stopped listening.

The second reason for the break-up of the duet logos/mythos was a phenomenon I came across here in the UK when I arrived. I call it the 'commodification of spirituality'. And it is better understood through the growth of the aromatherapy and massage oils industry, the proliferation of self-help/positive thinking 'guides' and the propagation of disciplines such as yoga towards physical improvement but without necessarily taking into account the alliance of mind and body, upon which, for instance, yoga is based. We work the longest hours in Europe and yet we expect to buy spirituality over the counter.

By the way, I don't mean to say that every time someone buys a bottle of Divine Calm Relaxing Massage Oil (retailing at £7.80 at Bodyshop at the time of writing) he/she is indulging in that commodification of spirituality. The message I am trying to convey is that spiritual attainment occurs most of the time when we least expect it. Which is why you cannot prescribe it through religion or the retail industry. When I sing out loud - and punch the air, and shake my short twists wildly as if they were long dreads - the line: 'Exodus: Movement of Jah people!' by the late Bob Marley, I'm not doing it because I'm a Rastafarian or because I buy into the Rastafarian faith but because both melody and lyrics collude to make me feel that another sensitive human being is present, if only on my stereo. Maybe mythos will frame the words as an explanation about Babylonian dogma, but I have the option to believe the tale or not. When Mahalia Jackson intones the verses: 'One these morning soon one morning/I'm gonna lay down my cross get me a crown/soon one evening late in the evening/Late in the evening I'm going home live on high/Soon as my feet strike Zion… ', the feeling I get is pure euphoria, mainly from an aesthetic perspective, but at no point I'm thinking of the Lord, or Jesus the Saviour. My brain remains in Logos country, whereas my soul is sailing on a ship named Mythos.

Spirituality is too big a concept (and as I mentioned at the beginning I'm still grappling with it) to be hemmed in under the same guidelines that govern religious belief or consumer-led business plans. Although, a more conspicuous, easily accessible, pill-format type of spirituality might go some way to stop fanatics from flying planes into buildings, soldiers from killing innocent people waving white flags and extremists from murdering doctors who provide abortions.

Above all, spirituality is personal, a definition that is anathema to religions or corporations that treat their followers and customers as a homogenous group. At an individual level, I am usually touched by the crunchy sound of dried leaves on the ground in autumn, the sight of the sea in Brighton or a violinist attempting to break free from an orchestra.

This last example leads me to spirituality’s discriminatory nature. It is Beethoven's Violin Concerto that moves me, not Mendelssohn’s famous Violin Concerto in E minor. Nothing against the latter, but whereas in Beethoven’s piece the soloist is prefaced by the orchestra (a technique called ritornello) and therefore is allowed to add new themes of his/her own eventually, with Mendelssohn the soloist appears from the start and therefore there's no surprise, there's no game of 'It'. Saying that, though, I adore the Concerto in E minor's third movement, which you can watch here.

Small difference, you might think and one that would put me on the pedant’s side. But that’s spirituality for you, or for me, at least. Pedantic, capricious, personal and above all, necessary.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'The Scent of the Green Papaya' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 12th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Good morning darling Cuban.

    Religion has nothing to do with spirituality as far as I am concerned. Not a thing.

    When I die I want the full Catholic Mass and that is only for the pomp and circumstance. I would even go for black horses and walking miles but that won't happen.

    The music in the church will be the spiritual part and so will the love.

    When I listen to Mahalia I melt.

    Bob Marley I melt in a different way 'one love'.

    I can't listen to the songs yet or I will wake up Wahid and believe me he won't think it either religious or spiritual.


  2. Oh my, London. I was longing for some meaty fare this morning and I got it here. Your prose is most gratifying to read, in part because of its elegance and definitely because of its substance.

    Having dispensed with the cheerleading, I agree with you (at the risk of seeming sheep-like) 100%. Well said!!!

    If I had anything to add to your post, it would distract me from other things I've set my mind to do today, but as it is I really think you've said it all.

    I really enjoy your Sunday mornings.

  3. Does the big concept of spirituality includes belief in God? This spirituality, I see, is a natural dimension of every human being.

  4. Why is it that so many of us think we are embracing the mystical or spiritual, when in fact we are wearing the weighted boots of The Word (logos)?

    Religion infantalizes - telling us we need its rules and guidelines and rewards.... and we fall in step as obedient little children, gladly handing over our freedom and ability to think for ourselves.

    Oh the joy of discovering one's own mythos - within and without.

    Beautiful, relevant, timely post Cuban.

  5. Where does a Beethoven find the inspiration to write a piece like this one which makes permeable our usual cognitive barriers? Is it the same source which permits the creation of a masterful piece of literature or of brilliantly designed fashion apparel et al.? Should we call that inspiration spirituality? Can we define it? I just know that it exists and that it enhances our lives individually and collectively. Indeed, it is often in the attempt to reduce that experience deductively that we both fail in our attempt and also create fertile ground for violence as competing definitions claim absolute certainty and hegemony over what spirituality is. History is replete with examples of bloodshed over this question. Is it cowardice to abstain from that dissension by affirming the individuality of spirituality? Or is it wisdom? I’d like to think that, instead of retreat into a defensive cocoon, assertion of the ultimately individual understanding of spirituality is in keeping with the fact is that existence may itself be essentially non-understandable.

    Thank you for a wonderful post. Wow what a return, Cuban!

    Incidentally, if you’re interested, you can find an essay I wrote about the influence of the Yoruba religion on The New World at

  6. I found this post very thought provoking. You're absolutely right, I think, in saying that spirituality is not the same thing as religion. A person who is religious is not necessarily spiritual and a person who is spiritual is not necessarily religious. But I feel that on some level every person is spiritual, whether they think about it or not.

    The link between music and spirituality is deep. I can't speak of it with the same level of depth and knowledge that you have, I just know that I "feel" a piece when I "feel" it. One of my favourites is Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. Every time I hear it I feel my whole being is uplifted and I'm soaring inside.


  7. Many thanks for yo wonderful comments and this bit in particular made me smile:

    'assertion of the ultimately individual understanding of spirituality is in keeping with the fact is that existence may itself be essentially non-understandable.'

    I have just had a very spiritual afternoon watching 'Some Like It Hot' with my family. It was the first time for my two children and we sat there eating chocolates and seeingt he snow fall through the window whilst laughing at Jack lemmon and Tony Curtis's antics. It was one of those moments we all need but you can never predict.

    Greetings from London.

  8. When the soloist breaks free, so does the spirit and that is, perhaps, mythos. And when the spirit is herded back into the fold, so, too is mythos turned to logos. Do I make sense. This was a deep and intense post and I will think about it for days. I loved the music, all of it.

  9. Fine post, Cuban, and it has made me think hard. The moments you describe as spiritual I think I would call rapture, though there is frequently an element to it when one aware of something beyond words inside oneself, and most importantly, outside oneself. The problem for me comes with the querying of religion. In their purest forms, religions are deeply spiritual, but unfortunately generations of (predominantly) men have applied Logos to the original holy writings and turned them into a practice, rather than a state of being and believing.

  10. Although I was raised in a very religious household, I don't consider myself to be religious today. I am, however, a deeply spiritual person.

    Moving piece, the Beethoven.

  11. This is a wonderful post, Cuban. You move from music to spirituality and back again so smoothly and with such resonance.

    I am one of those people who shy away from notions of spirituality for all the reasons you mention, both the current commodification of spirituality al la 'New Age' pressures and also and this probably more particularly because of the effects on me of growing up under the weight in institutionalised religion.

    Reading you here puts me in mind of a book you might be interested to read. It's called The Rooms in My mother's house, by an Australian expat Cuban who moved to Miami as a child and then later to Australia. She paints a vivid picture of Cuba some 30-40 years ago. Her writing is exquisite.

    Thanks again for your wonderful and thought provoking writing. I also enjoyed listening to the music you recommend here. It's uplifting.

  12. Wonderfully on target Cubano. Spirituality is definitely not the same thing as religion and too often the two don't even connect. I believe that anything that is created from the spirit hold an aspect of spirituality, including music, art and writing. However, I have never connected spiritually with classical music at all.I connect mostly to African rhythms and melodies, whether they take the form of blues, gospel, rock or samba.

  13. Thank you for this interesting post (instruction for me) on how you appreciate and listen to classical music.. I have never been able to appreciate it eventhough my dad played it often enough..He loves it.
    And you have woven in the subject of spirituality into it, that I can get..because somehow when I am in a prayerful mood, I don't mind classical music.. it helps. I always learn something from you. TY

  14. I am here at your door smiling. Always smiling.

  15. Welcome back, Cuban! I missed you in your absence, that is for sure. But down time is down time and we all need it, don't we.

    To start off, and to answer your question, I must say that I am partial to Beethoven above all other composers, so comparing anything by Beethoven to anything by anyone else is just anathema, as far as I'm concerned. Secondly, I agree with the concept of spirituality and religion being two different things. I consider myself a spiritual person, though I am definitely not religious. I think spirituality can be found in more than the conventionally accepted ways we're used to hearing about. As you mentioned, the crack of leaves. For me, it is things, yes, such as music by Beethoven, a single moment where I understand something that has haunted me forever, hearing the voice of a loved one speaking to me from far away... such things are spiritual, and hardly religious. But this is where, for me at least, true joy is found, and high spirituality, thus, is attained.

    What a great way for you to come back to the blogging world, Cuban! Excellent in every way...


  16. Cuban, thanks so much for your comments on my blog. Beethoven is one of the greatest, I'd rather say the greatest.I used to listen to his magnificent symphonies since my 18s.I'm a classic music lover and as about spirituality, I consider myself as a deeply spiritual human being , what would be a human being without soul and spirit? Just a corpse.
    Great post! thanks for the mental food.

  17. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments. It's a pity that blogger is playing up once again and you can't maximise the screen. Apologies to all for the inconvenience. Normally a playlist's dimensions are already set, so you can't muck about with them, but usually the 'maximise' function is visible.

    Oh well, at least all the clips are still playing.

    Greetings from London.

  18. I'm not entirely sure how to respond to this post. Anything that I could say would sound inadequate. However, Beethoven brings out the best in me and sweeps me away from the dullness of life. Only one who does. I'd be lost without his music.

  19. This is superb writing, as befits the content. I was trans-something-or-other. I couldn't help the odd Alleluia here and there, though. The violin Concerto was inspired writing. Yes, it has been one of my great favourites since forever and you put it to work quite remarkably, i thought. What put me off the conversion crowd was going to hear Billy Graham speak. He brought Roy Rogers along with him, who told all us kiddies to saddle up our hosses and ride hard for the Lord!

  20. The Beethoven Concerto always fills me with joy, I hear the last movement, da da da da da, it is my very favorite music. (Mozart, ignore this). My soul is in spirit born aloft. I have no doubt that I possess these attributes..the music tells me so. And Perlman at Avery Fisher Hall,perfection!

  21. Gosh, this really made me think! I'm really not sure if there is anything I could add to all the comments above... as a very rational person (after all, I'm a lawyer) I always had slightly condescending attitude towards spirituality. At the same time I love music, I play it, and I'm a practicing Catholic. I don't know why I never stuck a label of spirituality to any of those! Very interesting.

    I had a wonderful time in Poland, I hope you had a good break as well. And guess what, my copy of Changing My Mind arrived today, I'm looking forward to starting my reading!

  22. Many thanks for you kind comments.

    Greetings from snowy London.

  23. I loved your description of the cat-and-mouse play between soloist and orchestra. You make a good point when you say that the element of surprise is gone if the soloist starts before the orchestra. Also gone is anticipation. I am breathless when I wait for the soloist to start.

  24. Hola Cuban, I have "transformed" :)

    I thought I leave a note here to let you know, that I am one and the same but do not wish to be known or referred to to the other.

    Greetings from wet Kuala Lumpur.



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