"The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned." (Maya Angelou)
Sunday, 28 February 2010
Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music
Who would have guessed it? That at the eleventh hour and after Steve Jobbs's hagiographic treatment on the cover of The Economist recently, e-readers devotees would be so glib so as to quibble over colour preferences. Or lack of them thereof.
As users of modern reading gadgets such as Kindle and Nook have discovered, their new toys are far from the Avatar-like sophistication which trumpeted their arrival. I guess someone forgot to update the bugle's App. And if you note a dollop of Schadenfreude in my post today it's because I am still sceptical of the e-book phenomenon.
With a self-assurance more commonly found in cocky roosters, new reading devices arrived en masse almost at once. And straight after, police were called to the scene of the crime (or 'launch', as many still prefer to call it) to declare the traditional book dead. No autopsy, no second opinion. Dead. Asphyxiated by paper surplus. However, little did the experts know that some of us, real literature lovers - as in palpable, touchable literature -, were just getting ready for the long battle ahead. Oh, boy, and what a battle! Tony Blair and George W Bush still wonder where Saddam Hussein's WMDs are. They're under my bed! And they are already aiming at a few targets: Kindle, Sony e-reader and STAReBOOK to name but some.
And would you believe it? Before we've even shot the first salvo of this literary epic war, the e-book camp has had its first casualty: colour.
Unlike mobile phones and laptops where the latest LCD technology makes it easy for the reader to view content, e-books are dependent on E Ink displays. The biggest downside is (rubs hands in glee) slow updates as you turn the pages and colours; they are hard on the reader's eye. Well, change to LCD, I hear your beautiful chorus sing. Not so quick, my chiquilines. LCD gadgets are battery-hungry monsters that could harm your eyesight if you expose yourself to them for a long period. Other technologies are simply beyond financial reach.
According to Steve Haber, president of Sony's digital reading division, 'the ideal e-reader display would combine excellent battery life, a paper-like reading experience, full colour and a response-time fast enough to suppport video - while also being affordable' (The Economist, 12th December 2009). Wise words, but my response to his comment is: Paper-like reading experience? Whatever happened to real paper?
Luddite I'm not, just in case the image of a caveman struggling to make fire with two sticks flashes suddenly in your mind. My approach is more from the variety angle. I'm all for the e-book if it means wider choice, not if it comes bearing a hood and leading the traditional book by the elbow to the guillotine. And yet it's the latter example the one that'll become the likelier scenario. On the one hand, the e-book is easier to carry around (I bet you'll miss dog-eared novels and pages yellowed by the passage of time) and more financially viable in the long term, especially for students (Really? One word, well, two compound ones, second-hand bookshops). It is also a quicker and more approachable format for scholars to access content since it accommodates more text (that'll put antique furniture stores out of business. Plus IKEA. No more bookshelves). On the other hand the history of display technologies is not awash with successess. Only a handful of them have satisfied the market.
However, it seems that there's been a breakthrough. Mirasol is a new electronic display developed by Qualcomm, one of the leading companies in the mobile phone industry. It is similar to E Ink in reflecting ambient light but it uses two layers of mirrors instead.
Fine, I see you gathering your troops, e-reading gadgets. I, in the meantime, will sharpen my lance and sword, saddle up my old Rocinante and call upon my loyal Sancho Panza. Windmills, here we come!
Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Tuesday 2nd March at 11:59pm (GMT)
Thursday, 25 February 2010
Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum
The Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland advertises itself as the 'only cookery school in the world located in the middle of its own 100-acre organic farm...' I say, amen to that, but it makes no odds to me whether the building is in a farm or in a shopping centre. The following recipe looks so yummy that I was blowing kisses at it when I first spotted it in the Observer Food Monthly supplement a few weeks ago. Darina Allen, Ireland's best-known chief and owner of the Ballymaloe Cookery School came up with this delicious dish after she saw one of her students chucking out some over-whipped cream. In her own words she 'realised that most people, even those who came to learn at her school, had lost touch with the traditional skills of cooking – and proceeded to make pats of butter with that cream. Her Forgotten Skills of Cooking course was born that day, and her latest book of the same name includes 700 of those skills, from bread-making and fruit-preserving to compost, making sausages and how to cook a perfect steak'.
From that book, I bring you now one of those dishes that will make your winter nights all the more bearable.
Braised Lamb Shanks with Garlic, Rosemary and Cannellini Beans
By the way, she advises slow-cooking with this recipe. Absolutely my kind of chef!
4 lamb shanks, about 1kg
8 small sprigs of rosemary
8 slivers garlic
4 anchovy fillets, halved
salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the tomato fondue:
1 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
110g onions, sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
900g very ripe tomatoes, peeled
salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar to taste
2 tbs of any or a combination of the following: freshly chopped mint, thyme, parsley, lemon balm, marjoram or torn basil
a few drops of balsamic vinegar (optional)
30g duck fat or olive oil (remember the left-over fat from the Sunday roast I keep in the fridge? It would come in handy now, wouldn't it?)
225g streaky bacon
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 garlic head, halved horizontally
225ml bottle good red wine (as a teetotal, I skip this step)
300ml lamb or chicken stock (see below)sprig of thyme
2 sprigs of rosemary
2 bay leaves
2 strips of dried orange peel
1 x 400g tin cannellini beans, drained or 200g dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight then boiled rapidly for 30 mins
600ml homemade chicken or lamb stock
2 sprigs of thyme
leaves from 2 sprigs of rosemary, chopped
sprigs of rosemary, for garnish
Make the tomato fondue: heat the oil in a casserole or stainless-steel saucepan. Add the onions and garlic and toss until coated. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat until the onions and garlic are soft but not coloured.
Slice the tomatoes and add with all the juice to the onions. Season with salt, pepper and sugar. Add a generous sprinkling of herbs. Cook, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, or until the tomatoes soften. A few drops of balsamic vinegar at the end of cooking will greatly enhance the flavour.
Next, preheat the oven to 150ºC/Gas 2. Remove most of the fat from each shank and then scrape the meat away from the bone to loosen it.
Make two deep incisions in each joint and insert a sprig of rosemary and a sliver of garlic wrapped in half an anchovy fillet into each incision. Season the meat with salt and black pepper.
Heat the duck fat or olive oil in a heavy sauté pan or casserole and sauté the meat until it is well browned on all sides. Remove the lamb shanks from the pan.
Next add the bacon and cook until crisp, then add the carrots, celery, leek, onion and garlic and cook over a high heat until slightly browned. Add the red wine to the pan and bring to the boil, stirring for a minute or two.
Add the stock, herbs and orange peel to the pan, then place the lamb shanks on top. Cover and cook in the oven for 2¼ hours.
Remove from the oven and add the tomato fondue, cannellini beans, herbs and enough stock to half-cover the beans. Cover and simmer for a further 45 minutes to 1 hour.
When the lamb has finished cooking it should be falling off the bone. Remove the thyme, bay leaves and orange peel. Taste and correct the seasoning.
Serve the lamb shanks in a hot, deep dish with the beans and vegetables poured over and around. Garnish with sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme.
My first musical offering tonight is a slow-cooking number that suits perfectly this slow-cooking recipe. Listen to Cuban-born Mayra Andrade's 'Lua' (the equivalent of 'moon' in English) from her album 'Navega' and be ready to be blown away by her exquisite voice. I love the way the backing instruments are kept to a minimum, the better to highlight Mayra's vocal prowess. Yummy.
From clean-shaved heartthrob to public toilet predator, the career of Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou has been full both of highlights and pitfalls. But one aspect has remained unchanged throughout his ups and downs: George Michael is a brilliant pop artist. And the following track, 'Father Figure', from his debut album, 'Faith' should be enough evidence. Strong voice, a knack for song-writing and charisma (I guess you need lots of the latter if you are in the habit of prowling the restrooms of Beverly Hills) have made Michael a very unusual and versatile performer. If we were to draw a comparison with Darina Allen's recipe, even if you're a veggie, you can't help admiring the way that lamb meat comes off the bones so easily once it's been given the slow-cooking treatment. Just like Michael's voice. Methinks. Enjoy.
There are good tangos and top-quality ones. And then there's 'Nostalgias'. To say that it is a classic, it's almost like saying that 'Hey Jude' was an OK song composed by a quartet named after (including misspelling) an insect of the order Coleoptera. From the start, Enrique Cadicamo's composition became one of the most covered songs by tango and non-tango singers. In fact, my favourite version so far is Estrella Morente's, a flamenco performer whose delivery is pitch-perfect. And look at her hands are 4:37. My God, is it any wonder that I've been playing her two CDs 'Mi Cante y Un Poema' and 'Mujeres' back to back to back for the last few months? I strongly advise you, non-Spanish speakers, to seek out a full translation of the lyrics online. It's one of the saddest songs about a break-up I've ever heard in my life. And as usual: Buen provecho.
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 28th February at 10am (GMT)
Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Prova d'Orchestra (Orchestra Rehearsal) - Review
Made in 1978, 'Prova d'Orchestra' narrates the travails of a worldwide, famous conductor who arrives at a small oratorio to lead a rehearsal. From the outset he faces various challenges: the omnipresent union, the quarreling musicians and the impertinence with which he believes he is being treated by the members of the orchestra.
What makes the story so appealing to me is the quasi-documentary approach. The first thirty of forty minutes of the film involve a squabble between the union, a television crew - on site to film the renowned conductor - and the musicians. A union leader makes it clear to the performers that they will not get any extra money for talking to the reporters. Although his words act as a deterrent at first, little by little the musicians relax and the love for their instruments and the desire to talk and boast about them overcomes any apprehensions about payment. This is where the movie shines the brightest. Talking directly to the camera (that is to the viewer), each musician reveals what makes his or her instrument so special. Travelling the diapason of humour and melancholy, Fellini artfully crafts a tale where the love for music is palpably discernible. Here, is the first violinist bragging about his place at the heart of the orchestra. There, is the pianist looking bashful but shedding all vestige of coyness when she waxes lyrical about the black and whites. Banter ensues when the other musicians mention the bass tuba player.
Unlike the other two movies I mentioned before, in 'Prova d'Orchestra' Fellini avoids any type of aloofness and insouciance. Whereas in both '8½' and 'La Dolce Vita', Mastroianni is the epitome of cool and composure (though helped by Claudia Cardinale in the former and Anita Ekberg in the latter), in 'Orchestra Rehearsal' the roles are equally shared. Even Polish-born Balduin Bass, in the conductor's role, has to adhere to this democratic approach. Saying that, though, his time on screen is so captivating and magnetic that I couldn't take my eyes off him everytime he raised the baton and shouted out the famous - and dreaded amongst musicians - cri de guerre: Da Capo! His soliloquy at the end, where he mentions that nobody respects conductors anymore, could even be seen as a token of the even-handedness the film symbolises. At just 70 minutes long, this is one of those cinematic treats every one should watch, preferably on a cold winter's night with a cup of hot chocolate in hand.
Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 25th February at 11:59pm (GMT)
Sunday, 21 February 2010
Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music
Juan Antonio Pesetas (coming out from behind me): Hear, hear! I knew it! You're the equivalent of that old saying 'fair weather friend'. Only that in your case, that needs to change to 'cold weather fashionista'.
Me (perplexed): I wasn't aware that you were in today. I haven't got you down to appear on the blog until late April.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: C'est la vie, mon ami! You should pay more attention to what your alter egos are up to.
Me: Oh, well, never mind. I take it that you heard everything I said.
Juan Antonio Pesetas (giggling): Yes, every single word. You-are-a-closeted-toff. I take it that you've become quite fond of quilted country jackets...
Me: (looking down): Hmmm... yes...
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Where do you stand on Oxford Brogues?
Me (sighing): Love'em. Wish my feet weren't so broad. But I absolutely adore them.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Tweed?
Me (looking sheepish): Tick. That's why I bought a secondhand tweed jacket at the Brick Lane market recently.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Which seems to have become embedded in your skin. You never take it off. Town and Country wellies, too, I presume?
Me: Yup, you presume right, although I have yet to be the proud owner of a pair.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: OK, listen, mate. I know that sometimes we don't see eye to eye when it comes to fashion. So be it. I am the dandy to your scruffy self. However, I can't believe that I saw you buying a pair of slim jeans from Topman and a pair of boot cut ones from Next the other day. As we say in good Cuban Spanish: ' O te peinas, o te hace papelillos'. Make up your mind, my old boy. If you aspire to be admitted in the realm of poshness, consistency must become your cri de coeur. You have to feel it in the same way your ankles feel the tight hug of a pair of Moleskin Stretch Breek.
Me: Well, I was in need of a good pair of jeans and there was a sale.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Fine, fine. Just a faux pas. We all have them. I made the mistake of going out the other day wearing a pair of low-slung jeans. I almost froze my a**e off. Plus, low-slung, even if they were purpose-made Versace? In 2010? Hello? Chinos are still in. Never gone out of fashion, come to think of it. Anyway, your problem is not unique.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Of course not! Boy, wake up and smell the hot mate! Have you seen how this country has slowly - but surely - been sleepwalking towards toffism? It's the hunter-wellies at Glastonbury, the tweed being claimed back from Geography teachers (yes, including the elbow patches), the trousers tucked into boots, hunter-style (watch Marvin from JLS on their latest video here, at 0:43), the waistcoats...
Me: I've always been into waistcoats...
Juan Antonio Pesetas: I know, I know and that's one of the reasons why I haven't given up on you yet. The only item in this current trend I won't be caught dead wearing is the bow tie. No way am I putting one of those on, unless I'm meeting Lizzie II for high tea at Egg'n'ham Palace. And would you believe it, it's not just in the clothes department, where this whole drive towards belonging to the smart set can be found. On telly Estuary English is ceding ground to posher inflections. And of course with the Beeb defaulting to period dramas to hike up ratings, the upper classes losing their famous devilish image - which both bankers and politicians have adopted now instead - and the new concern about the environment (closely related to locally grown organic food, I know, I know, spare me the acres, don't be picky); when you take all these elements into account, clearly, the way has been paved for Team Cameron to sweep to power shrouded in a cloud of Oxbridge education and private school vowels.
Me: Well, in my defense, I'll say that I am a seasonal toff but I can't afford the clothes. Not only would they bankrupt me but also I like music and books too much to part with my hard-earned money in order to satisfy a craving that arrives in autumn...
Juan Antonio Pesetas: Ahhh... autumn, the herald of good taste!
Me: ... and leaves as soon as coats come off and short skirts begin their quest towards scantiness.
Juan Antonio Pesetas: I understand you. And I'm proud of you. But come 4th June, don't be surprised to see a new Prime Minister wearing a monocle and trying to get rid of the hunting ban.
Next Post: 'Prova d'Orchestra (Orchestra Rehearsal) - Review', to be published on 23rd February at 11:59pm (GMT)
Thursday, 18 February 2010
Road Songs (Special Edition)
I'm in a dilemma. I discussed the art of braking here and the beauty of bends here. What, then, should I call the ability to turn round a bend whilst braking (do you see what I did there? :-D) and letting the steering wheel slide through my fingers? Wheel-sliding? No, that sounds like an activity in which Dennis Hopper's creepy Frank Booth would indulge. Possibly with an oxygen mask on.
No, the manoeuvre I'm trying my best to describe involves the smooth process whereby a driver guides the movement of a vehicle as he or she turns a corner, for instance. Once the turn is accomplished - and you have neither cut the lane into which you drive nor gone wide into the opposite one either - you allow the wheel to come back to a straight position. However, how many of you perform this operation without barely touching the wheel, as you turn, I mean? It's almost as if you were letting this circular frame its own moment of freedom. There it is, shifting back as your hands act like a magnetic field, close to it but not on it.
When I was still learning how to drive, my instructor insisted that my arms' position was fundamental, not just in going on straight roads, but also turning around bends. My arms should neither be too tense nor too limp. This would enable me to negotiate any unpredictable hazards, like sharp corners.
What I also discovered was one of those untapped pleasures that linked directly to one of my passions: music.
In my first clip tonight you will be introduced to Camarón de la Isla, accompanied on guitar by Tomatito. These two legends of flamenco music are singing a poem originally written by Antonio Machado, 'La Saeta', and set to music by Joan Manuel Serrat (the gentleman at the beginning). When I began to write this post, this clip immediately came to mind because it encapsulates that feeling of freedom I am overcome by when the steering wheel of my car runs through my fingers without touching them. As further information, 'saetas' are compositions in their own right, commonly sung - a cappella - during Easter and other religious festivities. And you can feel the passion and fervour in Camarón de la Isla's voice. The song mentions both Christ (or Gypsies' Christ, to be more specific) and the Andalucian people. Enjoy.
And because this blog likes to celebrate all musical instruments alike, in the same way that it blows the horn for all aspects of driving, the second clip tonight has the bass guitar as the leading character. Often overlooked, a good bassist will render a band a solid foundation upon which the other members can build the remaining layers of a particular melody. Just like the joint triumvirate of driving around bends, braking softly and wheel-gliding (no, that name didn't work either, I'm still searching). In the meantime, Kings of Leon.
And to wrap things up tonight and kiss this section goodbye for good ( I actually did it a couple of years ago but brought it back after driving through northern Spain last summer, who knows? I'll probably revive it again some time soon) I bring to you Anna Ternheim's 'Girl Laying Down'. She - Anna, not the girl - is a Swedish singer-songwriter, who's had me tapping my foot ever since this song made it to Radio Paradise's playlist. It is dark and grim, but I love the piano. It reminds me of the firm grip on the steering wheel as you are about to turn a corner and the momentary loosening of it after both your hands slide down on either side of the wheel. Bliss. And if you have a funky, catchy name for that manoeuvre, do not hesitate to send your suggestions in (you can scribble it now on the palm of your hand, preferably bracketed with "lift Cuban in London's spirits"), it will be most welcome.
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 21st February at 10am (GMT)
Tuesday, 16 February 2010
The Trouble with Islam (Review)
'I propose that, as a guiding value, we in the West agree on individuality. When we celebrate individuality, we let most people choose who they are, be they members of a religion, free spirits or both. For a lot of Europeans, individuality might ring too much of American individualism. It doesn't have to. Individualism - I'm out for myself - differs from individuality - I'm myself, and my society benefits from my uniqueness.'
Very few times I find articulate answers to a particular conundrum in a piece which, at first sight, might be unrelated to my initial dilemma. But this paragraph, included in Irshad Manji's highly controversial book 'The Trouble with Islam', had me wondering whether the Uganda-born Canadian writer was addressing the Cuban Parliament instead of her fellow Muslims.
'The Trouble with Islam' is an open and impassioned letter written by a woman who feels her religion is in peril. It's a wake-up call for Muslims everywhere to move away from what she calls - rightly or wrongly, it's up for you to decide - 'foundamentalism', that is, the accepted assumption that the only Islam to be practiced is that one coming from the Arabic states, specifically Saudi Arabia.
Irshad Manji doesn't mince her words. Her language is emphatic and provocative. In chapters such as 'Operation Ijtihad' this works wonders:
'Here's what I'd picked up so far. Muslims constantly exhibit a knack for degrading women and religious minorities. Could both of these troubles be tackled at the same time? (...) First, trade has always helped grease the wheels of the good relations among Muslims, Jews and Christians. Second, there's no prohibition in the Koran against women becoming businesspeople. My tentative conclusion: God-conscious, female-fueled capitalism might be the way to start Islam's liberal reformation.'
However in other passages I found her approach too Michael Moorish without the effectiveness that makes the American documentary-maker so feared and reviled by rightwing commentators. For instance, Irshad's visit to Israel in 2002 lasted only a couple of days but takes up more than sixty pages. Her comparison between her treatment at the hand of her Jewish hosts and that of their Muslim counterparts comes across more as a rant than as a balanced analysis, even if it's her experience that informs the two chapters.
Born in Uganda in 1968, Irshad Manji arrived in Vancouver, Canada in 1972 at the age of four with her family and settled in a middle-class suburb in Richmond. The first encouraging sign in 'The Trouble with Islam' that Irshad's view of the world and specifically of her past, is far from dim is her blunt criticism of how the black natives were treated by her fellow Muslims in her country of birth: 'like slaves'. Throughout her career, whether as host of Toronto-based Queer Television or Director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, Manji incessantly has asked difficult questions on matters of race, religion and human rights. No wonder she has received several death threats. She has become in the words of The New York Times: 'Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare'.
'The Trouble with Islam' can also be included amongst a group of books about religion that will make atheists such as me ponder the importance of faith for believers. Here's Manji on how distancing herself from tradition helped her reconnect with Islam:
'The more the mosque felt like the madressa, the less I attended. I started to decentralize my faith, cultivating a personal relationship with God rather than assuming it had to be mediated through a congregation. In that spirit, I prayed in solitude ("bowing alone", as the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, might say).'
Atheists will read that last sentence and probably cringe at the level of submission involved. We often wonder why one would need religion at all. Yet, if there's a lesson I've learnt in the last ten years or so is that many believers (and I'm referring to the three Abrahamic faiths here) reject the 'bearded men' wholeheartedly. Read the reaction from the Catholic community recently to the Pope's comment about the new equality bill being debated in the British parliament. Or the support from the Jewish community for the recent ruling by the supreme court on the Jewish Free School's admission policies. On both occasions, the moderate and reformist voices shouted down the traditionalist ones. And the key to that stand? That personal relationship with God that Irshad mentions in the passage quoted above.
'The Trouble with Islam' is a very relevant book for our times. Especially when Switzerland, that paradise of calmness, grazing cows and hand-painted landscapes, has voted against the building of minarets and Sarkozy, in France, is thinking of banning the niqab in public. Manji's proposal, that the Muslim Diaspora embark on what she calls 'Operation Ijtihad', is timely. More so, when one learns of the many technological and scientific advances achieved during Islam's golden age, between the 8th and 13th centuries. For Irshad this means taking the phrase 'Allāhu Akbar' more personally, maybe even changing it to 'I'm the greatest'.
Note: The clip below is part of Irshad Manji's film tour for 'Faith Without Fear', a documentary charting the Canadian author's journey through the Arabian peninsula and the Netherlands in an attempt to debate with fellow Muslims about Islam's place in our world today. It was my first brush with Irshad's oeuvre and although it did not result unfortunately in a public screening at my previous workplace (an arts centre) it did motivate me to buy her book and seek out this documentary. I recommend both.
Next Post: 'Road Songs (Special Edition)', to be published on Thursday 18th February at 11:59pm (GMT)
Sunday, 14 February 2010
Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music
The love kiss. Once we succumb to its might, are we ever the same?
It lies dormant for many years, this kiss, this rebel, this harbinger of bliss and misery. It finds shelter in your relatively cool interior until it's time to come out and hunt and feed.
The love kiss. The process. The eyes, pleadingly searching for a sign, any sign. Will it be a yes or a no? The palpitations. The pulse racing. The date in the park, after school. The song in your head: 'espera a un muchacho de secundaria/en casa no dejan que vea a nadie' (waits for a secondary school boy/back home she's not allowed to see anyone). And now here he/she comes. And you both laugh, and relax. And laugh and relax. And laugh. And relax. And you look in each other's eyes. And you know, everybody knows, even the Martians know. The pincers come out, the heads will tilt (clumsily at first, and you both giggle). And then, the exploration, you two in your own world, guided only by Christopher Columbus. Have we arrived yet? Is this the route to India? No, but who cares, there's only one ship, one crew, you're it. You are the love kiss. Lips first, rubbing, seeking. Eyes. Are they open? Are they closed? Can your remember? Does anyone give two hoots? Let's go back to the lips. Fleshy folds which you clumsily press against your human replica. The abracadabra that will make the drawbridge fall down. And then you enter the castle.
Fellow male bloggers will agree or disagree with me vehemently on the following assertion. Probably cyber-shoes will be hurled at this transgressor for stating the bleeding obvious: from the minute we enter the kissing game we (men), most of us, I hasten to add, are playing catch-up. We focus more on the prize at the end of the contest and not the journey there. We think more of the forbidden fruit and less of the time it takes for it to ripen. 'Wordplay is the best foreplay', someone famous said once and in those wise words the term 'kiss' should be inserted somewhere conspicuosly.
But catching up we do and depending on how open-minded with and willing to learn from our other half we are, the results are all the more enjoyable: 'A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh/The fundamental things apply/As time goes by '. Note the word 'fundamental'. Bergman's Ilsa fell for Bogart's Rick not just because he was handsome but also because the guy could kiss.
For Klimt it wasn't just the act of kissing but the before and after, the liberation of the id. Look at the couple's contours: they dissolve. Can you sit there at your computer and tell me that you have never ever dissolved as a result of a kiss? That you have never melted utterly to the point of liquidness, only to be scooped up, rushed to hospital and put in a freezer until you recover your solid form again? It happened to me. And reader, I married her.
I can't end this post today without acknowledging one of the most romantic songs ever written about the love kiss. In the space of three stanzas - plus a refrain - the Spanish singer songwriter Victor Manuel describes the beauty and contretemps, the desire and wrath caused by this act. There's a nostalgic undertone in 'A Dónde Irán los Besos' (Where Will Kisses Go?) in lines such as this one: 'A dónde irán los besos que guardamos, que no damos/donde se va ese abrazo si no llegas nunca a darlo' (Where will our ungiven kisses go/What about that hug if your answer's also no). Have you ever wondered if the love kiss you were meant to give, fell into a big void and it went
until it was rescued by your new lover? And then you probably sang: 'te vi, te vi, te vi/yo no buscaba a nadie y te vi' (I saw you, you, you/ I was not looking for anyone and yet I saw you)
Next Post: 'The Trouble with Islam' by Irshad Manji (Review), to be published on Tuesday 16th February at 11:59pm (GMT)
Thursday, 11 February 2010
Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Daughter and the Shouting)
Thus spoke Daughter recently, or rather shouted at me. And yes, my dear reader/poster/fellow blogger, I hold up my hand in shame. I suffer from severe linguistic obsession.
You see, it's difficult for me to let grammatical errors slide by and glide aimlessly into the void generated by half-said phrases, onomatopoeias and grunts which are actually words, only that they sound like grunts. I'm obsessed about my children learning good Spanish and on occasions I've been known even to correct Wife, who's a fluent speaker of the language I grew up with. I was aware that something was wrong when in a normal conversation I would be more attentive to her use of the subjunctive mood than the real content of the message she was trying to convey to me. And now, the problem has been compounded by my children's involvement in my condition. To their chagrin, I'd dare say. So, mea culpa. That's me.
How did it all start? And when? Well, the when I can point out. Uni. Yep, that's when all hell broke loose and I suddenly found myself immersed in this competitive environment from which I could not escape, nor did I want to. Because although it pains me to admit it, I loved linguistic competitiveness back in my Uni years. Over the years, and when I added German and French in that order to the cluster of languages I spoke fluently I developed a strong attraction towards both the minute details and the more noticeable aspects that made those two languages, in addition to Spanish and English, so different from each other and yet so alike. I learnt that 'water' in English probably came from 'Wasser' in German, as the former is a Germanic language, too. Same with 'eau' (French) and 'agua' (Spanish), both romance languages. But when it came to in-laws, well, the situation got funny, and that 'funny' was both ha-ha and weird. In German father-in-law is 'Schwiegervater', in French it's 'beau-père' and in Spanish 'suegro' or 'padre político'. So whilst in French they praise you and compliment you on your physical beauty, in Spanish they're thinking of snap elections.
The how is harder to explain. I guess that I was sucked into this linguistic vortex because of my natural inclination to question my surroundings, an attitude that as long as you restrict it to languages in Cuba keeps you on the safe and sane side. And now I'm paying the price, because whereas Son is capable of translating entire books (the easy ones, mind), Daughter is beginning to go through the same motions he went through a few years ago. And we're clashing. Big time. I guess, I'll have to bide my time and be more patient because she's equally intelligent and capable as Son is. I am the one who have the problem. On the same note, living in a bilingual world in the UK makes me anxious. British culture is a very strong force with a strong identity (despite the alleged crisis) and language is one of the ways in which children with parents from different backgrounds, especially as in my case, with one of them born in Britain, can assert their individuality and build upon both sets of identities. The way we speak Spanish in Cuba is very peculiar and carries with it myriad cultural references that I'm positively sure will enrich my children's lives. And for that I'm prepared to change and be more patient.
Now, about that shouting...
Tuesday, 9 February 2010
Yesterday by the Jasmin Vardimon Company (Review)
This fleeting aspect of dance's make-up should not, however, be taken as a sign of failure. A good choreographer's observational experience will influence his or her audience, sometimes leaving them marked by a particular piece. And that was the case with Jasmin Vardimon when I recently saw her insightful work 'Yesterday' at The Place in Euston, London. Jasmin used her latest choreography to look back on her company's ten-year career. Along the way she revisited characters from previous pieces, which resulted in a tour de force where amazing duets and dazzling solos combined with video and animation to regale the spectator a passionate, physical and intellligent story.
Although it was the first time I had seen the Jasmin Vardimon Company - and it won't be the last one, I hope - the retrospective element did not floor me. On the contrary, dance has a peculiar way of exercising collective memory; thus, some of the themes explored by 'Yesterday' were familiar: the woman who self-harms, the über-patriotic Englishman, the couple whose burning house symbolises the collapse of their domestic bliss. These are topics that are addressed in both a dramatic and humorous way.
Jasmin grew up in Israel and for many years trained as a gymnast. It was only by chance that she was spotted by a ballet teacher and from then on her love affair with dance started. Having being conscripted for two years' compulsory military service, she trained as a psychological interviewer. This task allowed her to develop a very observant nature which has served her well in developing her own work. As she herself has stated: '... the fascinatign reality of this job was that it exposed me to an incredible wealth of human stories and personal histories; harrowing, haunting, jubilant - a melting pot of real human experiences.'
That these experiences have informed her work well is beyond dispute. However, if we take into account the debate going on in the dance world in the UK nowadays about women's role in this art form, the future presents many hurdles for the likes of Jasmin Vardimon were they to get the recognition they rightly deserve. This situation reached its apogee recently when Dance Umbrella, Britain's flagship dance festival, hosted a debate entitled, rather ominously, 'Where Are All the Women?'. It was a sell-out.
It is a strange situation, though, because dance's profile in the UK has grown considerably in the last few years. And at the time of writing this review, one of the more popular programmes on telly on Saturday evening is BBC1's 'So You Think You Can Dance'. But look closely and the male names will start jumping at you like wild salmon leaping out of a river. Matthew Bourne (and his innovative all-male 'Swan Lake'), Russell Maliphant and his extensive, experimental collaborations, Mark Baldwin and his highly influential Ballet Rambert; these are some of the figures leading the way currently in the UK'S dance sphere. The main reason for their success is not just their quality, for they have it aplently, but also the type of work they produce: bombastic, bona fide box-office-hit and large-scale.
In contrast, female choreographers such as Jasmin Vardimon focus more on personal life stories, with a lower profile and a more emotionally-driven agenda. Is this a gender issue? Maybe, there are some indicators I can see: physicality (men are more willing to rip off their clothes to show off their six-packs), marketability (men are better at promoting themselves to choreographers), ratio (with more women than men taking up dance as a career it doesn't take a genius to figure out who will reap better results in the long-term) and opportunism (many of the trailblazers of the early 20th century were women, but it was men who took over and cashed in on the success of their female counterparts' experimental styles). There are many more indicators of which I can think, but these will suffice for now. Also, I am not passing any judgement on the ones I mentioned before.
The Jasmin Vardimon Company, however, goes some way to redress this imbalance. 'Yesterday' had a very proportionate amount of brawn and brain and you'll notice that when you watch the clip below. Its lack of central narrative was, in the words of the choreographer, the biggest challenge. And yet, as Jasmin stated:'... in turn, this allowed a freedom in itself. In 'Yesterday', the location is my memory'.
And mine. And yours.
To find out more about the Jasmin Vardimon Company's current UK tour, click here.
Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 11th February at 11:59pm (GMT)
Sunday, 7 February 2010
Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music
But one day a competition was organised against a nearby school, which happened to be also the place one of my closest mates attended. That's when my principle of unselfish concern for others (unbeknownst to me until then) made an unexpected appearance.
My friend used to be bullied at his school and many people, including me at that tender age, were of the opinion that his personality was partly to blame for this. I knew this because even amongst my close circle of pals, he was also abused every now and then. Apparently he was a 'softie'. Although he sometimes stood up for himself against the bullies, he ended up on the ground very often, overpowered by other children who were physically stronger than him.
On that day the stakes were high. If we beat his school, we would progress in the competition and consequentely we would be entered in a draw at borough level. Tell that to a year 4 student and watch him dream about the victory and glory success brings. What I didn't know at the time, until we almost positioned ourselves on the start line, was the fate awaiting my friend.
We had been pitted against each other. He was a good runner, but I knew I could beat him, having already done it many times when we played after school. Then, minutes before we were poised to begin, he whispered: 'They'll beat me'. What? I asked, what was that you said? 'They'll beat me if I lose'. And then he, surreptitiously, pointed at a group of three or four pupils standing nearby. Thoughts raced through my head. Was he having me on? After all, he knew I was a better runner. I looked at the bunch of thugs again and by the time one of the teachers shouted out: 'Go!', I had already made up my mind. We were supposed to run two laps around the park. I took the lead straight away and cheered on by my classmates I sped up. However, by the time I was three quarters into my second lap and on the way to victory, I pretended to fall. I tripped myself up and ended up on the ground, face down; unhurt but feigning injury. My friend, who was lagging way behind me, overtook me, not without first looking in my eyes and realising what I'd done. I limped towards the finish line and was warmly hugged by my mum and my teacher. The 'Never mind, that happens' and 'We're still proud of you' phrases rang in my ears like a scratchy record. At some point I turned around and saw my friend being lifted on the shoulders of those who, moments before, had been bent on inflicting damage on him.
Almost thirty years after I stuck out my neck for my mate, I am on the touchline on a warm summer day with myriad parents and carers. We are all looking at our offspring racing and skipping. Only this time there's no bullied kid to stand up for, but bullying parents to cope with.
Welcome to School's Sports Day.
If someone had told me when I was a teenager that one day I would become a pushy parent when sports day came calling at my son and daughter's school I would have laughed their comments off. After all, both my wife and I have fostered a non-competitive approach to activities that demand more brawn than brain since our children were young. But I guess some things never change in life. My surprise was that I thought I was an isolated case. Well, far from it.
Let me just get back to that touchline for a second. And what's that I hear? 'C'mon, son, you can do better' (I swear that wasn't me), 'Get stuck in, luv', 'Oh, sweet'eart, you grazed your knee, never mind. Now get back up and run!', 'Wha' you rollin' on the ground for, son? Cross the ball, mate, cross the ball!' Ah, love it. And that was just the grandparents. Just joking. Well, just.
What is it about seeing our children, as in my case, engaging in physical activity that brings out the animal in our otherwise placid homo sapiens existence? And that makes us discard the sapiens from the equation, too, in the process?
I confess that throughout that whole sports session that day I tried to remain calm and cheerful, shouting out encouraging words not just to my two children but to the rest of the team of which they were part. But when my son and his classmates came up second in one of the races, it was hard to disguise my disappointment. And the funny, ironic, unfair aspect of it was...? That I was blaming another kid. Oh, yes, I was! Self-righteous, smug, little pushy father that I am (was, was, sorry, it happened only that day, I swear!). I zeroed in on this other young chap and began to watch him closely and as soon as the other games resumed I started to cheer on him rather than my son, to his parents' surprise - oh, yes, they were both there and that must have looked odd, to say the least.
That's why it's only now, as an adult, that I can understand how the experience of playing sports, competing in them and participating in an open school day where you have your next of kin watching you closely, can leave damaging scars for life sometimes. I've met people for whom the experience of playing for their school's football team was too awful to bear; the tackle came too late, they did not react quickly enough, the teacher's criticism was too harsh and the jibes from his or her teammates were cruel.
And yet, is this winning vs losing quagmire not a reflection of the life my children will have to face at some point? A basic lesson on the pros and cons of teamwork and individual effort? My pragmatic self would say that, yes, indeed that's reality, but, at the same time I hope someday they both learn the importance of tripping themselves up for the sake of somebody else.
Next Post: 'Yesterday' by the Jasmin Vardimon Company (Review), to be published on Tuesday 9th February at 11:59pm (GMT)
Thursday, 4 February 2010
Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum
For a few months now the most-requested recipe chez moi has been a hearty, filling, delicious concoction that came in a cookery book for children. It is easy to prepare and the whole family has reached a unanimous decision: Thursday is sausage hotpot day. Saying that, though, my wife and children were not very impressed a couple of weekends ago when I revealed that I used the left-over fat from the Sunday roast to pan-fry the onions, garlic, sausages and the rest of the ingredients. Cue cringeing faces all round the table. Sometimes the Sunday roast left-over fat has been in the fridge for a few weeks. Or months. But, as I explain to them, that's what we do in Cuba, so, get used to it, my lovelies, it's just a lesson on multiculturalism.
Back to this tasty recipe and the music to go with it. Here're the ingredients, preparation and melodies I recommend you listen to, as the warmth of this superb dish serenades your belly with an ardent culinary lullaby.
2 eating apples (fruit provides a natural sweetness and an extra vitamin boost)
2 tbsp olive oil
6-8 sausages (we use Linda McCartney ones)
1 onion (chopped)
1 carrot (diced)
2 garlic cloves (finely chopped)
1 tbsp mixed herbs
110g (4oz) lean bacon cut into bite-sized pieces (optional)
400g (14oz) tinned borlotti or pinto beans (drained and rinsed)
400ml chicken or vegetable stock
4 tbsp tinned chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
Salt and pepper
Carefully remove the skin of the apples using a vegetable peeler. Quarter them and remove the cores. Cut the apples into bite-sized pieces. Preheat the oven to 200C (400F/Gas 6). Heat the oil (or Sunda roast left-over fat in my case, oh, yes, I'm sticking to it) in a large saucepan or ovenproof pan and cook the sausages for 5 minutes, or until browned all over. Remove the sausages from the pan and set aside. Put the onion and carrot into the pan and fry over a medium heat for 5 mnutes, stirring frequently. Next, add the garlic, bacon and herbs, stir well, and cook for 6 minutes. (Transfer to a large casserole dish if you aren't using an overproof pan). Add the beans, tomatoes, tomato purée, apples and sausages and stir. Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Add the beans and stir well. Cover with a lid and place in the preheated oven. Cook for 25 minutes. The sauce should reduce and thicken and the apples will become tender. Take care when removing the casserole dish from the oven as the hotpot will very hot. Season with salt and pepper. I serve this with rice for my daughter and me and jacket potato for my wife and son.
My first track to go with this yummy recipe is one of my favourite songs ever. And no, it was not originally written by Manhattan Transfer, although it was part of their 1987 album 'Brasil'. Djavan is one of those composers whose music is difficult to label, but not hard to like. He's got the lyrics, the rhythm and the voice, oh yes, the voice. Enjoy.
And if we're discussing voices, I dare you, my fellow blogger/reader to listen to the next track and not to be carried away. I challenge you to remain passive and blasé. What's that I see in your hand? A lighter? And why are both your hands in the air now, waving from side to side? I knew you would succumb to this melody in the same way we all do at home to the might of the sausage hotpot every Thursday. Just, please, don't set the house on fire. As for you, sir, step forward, David, or Ziggy, I don't care what you call yourself anymore, to me, tonight, you're Mr Voice.
And to round this post up, I bring you a heavy, funky, sultry dose of acid jazz courtesy of one of the better bands out there, St Germain. You loved them last summer when I uploaded Rose Rouge. This number is more laid-back but it still exudes musicianship and togetherness. Many thanks and as we say in Spanish: Buen provecho.
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 7th February at 10am (GMT)
Tuesday, 2 February 2010
London, my London (Cuban Stories at the Rich Mix)
A new arts centre in a metropolis like London should not make the news. But when the arts space in question is made up of five floors that teem with creativity, then one ought to stop and pay attention.
The Rich Mix, located in Shoreditch, east London is a good example. With a varied programme that encompasses films, performing arts and exhibitions, it has quickly become a first-stop for those who enjoy the British capital's cultural and vibrant diversity.
It was to this centre where I made my way last Wednesday 27th January. I had been invited to the private view of the centre's new exhibition, 'Cuban Stories', an excellent and inspiring collage of images by three very talented photographers: Claire Boobbyer, Angel Gil and Helena Smith. And whilst at the centre I also had the privilege to chat with the three exhibitors about their work, their motivations and their inspiration*.
Helena Smith’s black and white images capture the Cuba of 2009, 50 years on from the Revolution, with reportage-style portraits and cinematic street scenes.
Angel Gil explores the relationship between people and place. We follow 27-year-old Michel Palacio Colina as he discovers a passion for rearing and training messenger pigeons for racing, and finds his peace within the hustle and bustle of Cuban life.
Claire Boobbyer recently made a 5000-kilometre road trip round Cuba, in the process capturing striking propaganda images that adorn walls, billboards, workplaces and roadside hoardings across the cities and fields.
(Artists' profiles taken from the Rich Mix website)
A Cuban In London (ACiL): Thank you very much for kindly giving me the opportunity to talk about your work. My first question would have to be: Why Cuba? Why did you choose Cuba as the theme for your exhibition?
Helena (H): I had a set of black & white images I wanted to show and by serendipity Angel approached Rich Mix at the same time. They decided to mount a joint show, and I brought in my friend/colleague Claire who was my road-trip buddy and tour guide in Cuba.
Claire (C): We had all travelled in Cuba in 2009 and Helena and Angel first approached Rich Mix with the idea for an exhibition. Cuba is a highly photogenic country and I have been fascinated with the country and its culture and history ever since I first went there in 1998.
Angel (A): This was my first visit to Cuba and I was looking for a project to photograph, something or someone special. Cuba is one of the most photogenic places I've visited and even though I did arrive with a couple of ideas for projects, I tried to keep an open mind and see what was beyond these ideas.
Bar in Santiago de Cuba by Helena Smith
Christlike Che by Claire Boobbyer
ACiL: You obviously have travelled extensively. Do you have preconceived ideas when it comes to photographing a place and its people or do you have a more flexible and relaxed attitude to it?
C: Well, I have photographed Cuba from many different angles but I particularly wanted to document, if you like, the political billboards as they are unique to Cuba and ubiquitous and some are already disappearing so there is almost an historical urgency about it now too.
H: I was extremely relaxed in Cuba as I was on holiday and not taking photos on assignment for a travel guide, which is my usual job. For that I have to follow the brief provided by the author, whereas in Cuba I had my very old Olympus camera and a stack of film, and no worries about taking pictures to order. I did no research before I went. It was a bit like going to a film when you don't want to know the story so everything is fresh and a surprise. I had no preconceptions.
A: I think that the more you travel, the more you learn not to have any preconceived ideas of what you would like photograph. Even after doing some research and reading guides before visiting a new place I try to keep an open mind, I like being surprised.When I arrive somewhere new I enjoy mixing in with its people; I talk to them, stay with them, and I ask them about what it feels like to be from there and what life is like there. I often find that this stimulates creativity.
Red Car, Red Mural by Claire Boobbyer
ACiL: When I've said to some people in the past that I love photography, sometimes they have reacted by saying that that's not real art because the photographer already has his or her work cut out for them. It exists, so they don't have to make it up. What's you take on this assumption?
H: That the three of us went to the same country and came back with three varied sets of images. I think Angel's work shows a sensitive and observant quality in him, Claire's demonstrates her interest in and knowledge of Cuban history, and mine reflects a nostalgic love of old cinema and early/mid-twentieth-century photography. In fact Claire and I photographed the same subject at the same time - the headless statue at La Guarida, and came up with two very different images.
A: I think people that say that may not necessarily know much about photography. Just like a paintbrush or a chisel, the camera can be a creative tool too, its all about where you aim the lens. Some people don't understand that the difficulty with photography is to try to see right through all the visual clutter.
C: As Angel said, the camera is a tool. Three people could look at the same scene and view it differently. In fact, a guy at the private view who lived in Havana for three years said of the headless marble statue figure in La Guarida that he had photographed that courtyard many times but he had never seen the angle I had photographed before. The photographer always needs an 'eye' for a picture in the first place otherwise he/she is lost.
ACiL: I recently read an interview with the artist Chris Ofili in which he said, in reference to his 1998 Turner prize 'No Woman, No Cry' that he thought this painting 'might say something'. Did you ever feel like that when you were taking photographs in Cuba? And if you did, what do you think that (those) photo(s) said?
H: I don't feel my pictures have a particular agenda, but that they depict a cinematic quality in Cuban streetlife. Coming from a culture where so much is thrown away, I was struck by how many things in Cuba have been nourished and have survived from a more glamorous past - I'm thinking of the beautiful cars and the architecture. I felt that using film rather than digital technology was a way or mirroring this. Also that darkroom prints have a handmade and archaic feel that seemed appropriate.
C: I think mine speak of the power of widespread political messaging.
A: I did, I constantly thought if it was possible to capture the passion I saw in what Michel was doing. I felt it whilst I was there and that's what drove me to share it with everyone. If the viewer feels something whilst looking at the photographs then it has been a success.
Girl with Sausage Dog in Havana by Helena Smith
Messenger Pigeons by Angel Gil
ACiL: And finally, is there any other theme you would like to explore in Cuba in the future?
C: I have some lovely images of older Cuban men who seem to be particularly photogenic and I would like to continue with that theme as well as general portraits in Cuba. I also particularly like photographing the Art Deco and modern architecture and signage in Cuba.
H: I would love to go back to Cuba, and I concentrate entirely on portraiture, perhaps focussing on dance, or photographing one community.
A: I find Cuba and specially Havana very photogenic, there is so many subjects I would like to explore photographically.People are what make a place so I would love to start there again and see what adventure this will lead to again.
*This conversation was actually taped and a transcription of it would have formed the backbone of my post tonight. Alas, technology let me down and I had to e-mail the same questions through to Helena, Claire and Angel. They very kindly responded promptly and, thus, saved the situation. Many thanks to you three, Claire, Helena and Angel, it was a pleasure meeting you and seeing your exhibition.
Celebrating Cuba VISUAL ARTS / Cuban Stories by Angel Gil, Helena Smith and Claire Boobbyer Date: 27 Jan - 27 Feb 2010 Venue: Rich Mix (Mezzanine / Free)35-47 Bethnal Green RoadLondonE1 6LATel: 020 7613 7498
Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 4th February at 11:59pm (GMT)