Tuesday 30 March 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 1 'Johann Sebastian Bach'

And to kick off this Greatest Hits tour whilst I am away on holidays (even if the tour's taking place only here in my cyber-house) I bring to you a post that first went out in June last year. By the way, youtube deleted the original playlist, so I had to go out and make up another one. As I write this post the playlist is still alive and kicking, but if it shows any signs of malfunctioning, let me know, please.

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 because of the usually snobbish notion 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 in this post. 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

Sunday 28 March 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

One of the funniest (funny as in 'strange') outcomes of the globalisation process in our darling blue world today is that whilst efforts are being made to erase boundaries and barriers between humans (although at a dear price quite often) in order to bring us closer together, one of the side-effects has been a fragmentation of the family unit. And by family I am referring to the modern and flexible concept of this ancient structure: married couples and their two children, single-parent households, gay partnerships and their offspring, and any other arrangement you might come across.

The upshot of economic development in the western world has been an increase in depression and loneliness, depreciation of basic human skills - social interaction, manners - and a gradual disintegration of values to which we once held dear.

I still remember meal times at my house when I was a child. They were quite a complicated affair. Since we were six in a one-bed flat, bang in the middle of Havana, space was always a problem. We were never able to accommodate ourselves around the only table in our minute lounge-cum-dining room, so we had to take turns. But since I was (and still am) a slow eater, I usually began having my dinner with my parents and ended up sharing the table with my auntie, who was usually the last one to eat. Regardless of these rather confining circumstances, though, the important, underlying element for my parents was to have our meal together.

Funny, then, that with that kind of background as soon as I relocated to the UK I began to enjoy eating on my own more, whilst reading the newspaper or watching telly. In my defense I would have to point at space as my primary motivation. As a child I never really did have a room I could call my own back home. And even though temporary accommodation and council flats get a lot of bad press in the UK, tell a Cuban person he or she will be finally getting their own space and see their smiles stretch from ear to ear.

In my opinion, what I was going through in those first few months of acclamatising to the British way of life, was the effect of delayed adolescence or early adulthood, the period when one supposedly leaves the nest (insert here any jokes about Italian men in their thirties still living at home with mama). Admittedly, I, too, underwent my non-family socialisation teenage stage in Cuba, but I had no door to slam when I had a row with my mum. You see, we shared the same bedroom. With my grandma.

What is fascinating and scary, too, in equal measure, is to see a peculiar phenomenon developing here in the UK and, I believe, in the rest of the western world. The gap between how people two generations ago spent their time together as a family has widened considerably compared with today's youngsters.

To be clear, the phenomenon is not new. Peer group interactions have been around since Homo Sapiens first used language to tell A that B was not a nice fellow on account of him not lending his tools to anyone. The difference is that B did not then go on Twitter to tell all and sundry that, actually, his accuser had slept with a mate's ex behind his back, and who was the charlatan now? So, the main driver in this change of social communication nowadays is technology and how we use it.

Whereas the standard mode of social interaction implies listening to the speaker and reading his or her facial expressions and mannerisms to interpret what is being said, that has now mutated into assessing what value the interlocutor's speech has, if any. The result is floor-staring, fidgeting and insecurity and the message conveyed is one that expresses an utter lack of engagement with what the other person is saying.

Part of the problem lies with us, parents. And in my case, if truth be told, it is chiefly down to my wife that we have two children capable of interacting socially with both other kids and adults. So, in that respect, we're lucky. We do have family time together, especially around the dinner table. But it hasn't been easy, it's not easy and it will not be easy. Whether you like it or not, technology is here and it's here to stay. Moreover, the period between the invention, mass production and marketing of a new gadget and the creation of the next one along has diminished considerably. That not only makes a dent in parents' pockets, but also on children's crania. Nowadays, when people eat together, they're merely interrupting their interaction with screens: Blackberries, television sets and mobile phones. Once the meal is finished, off they go to carry on playing on their Wii.

The other party to blame are advertisers. The level of brain-washing (for want of a better expression) has become so sophisticated that the other day I had to hold myself steady so as not to fall off my chair when both my children said that their favourite ad on telly now was the one for gocompare. It's also one of the most annoying ones I've ever seen in my life.

That leads me to governmental responsibility. Although I'm not a huge fan of 'Big Brother' state, I think that regulations bodies have a duty to enforce laws that clamp down on the amount of junk we consume, be it food or television. When culture minister Ben Bradshaw announced recently that the government was thinking of allowing products placement to be used on telly, he got a lot of flak from teaching unions, children's charities and even the British Medical Association. And quite right, I said to myself. Already we're facing an overflow of useless information. The last thing we need is to add more fuel to the fire.

What to do? As mentioned before, I'm guilty as charged. I read the newspaper at the table on weekends whilst talking to my family. My son and daughter are exposed to music (either my wife's, or mine) whilst they're trying to concentrate on their homework. Is this the type of multi-tasking I want them to learn?

One solution is boundaries. Ration television or computer games to an x amount of minutes or hours. Limit their time online when they're using a computer. No facebook or e-mail account until they show they can behave responsibly. The upshot is that you then become the status quo to your children. The person to fight against. Hmmm... not quite what I had in mind when I signed up for this father malarkey.

Another way out of this quagmire is to introduce a points system at home. You get your mobile if you complete a set of tasks around the house. The number of clips you can watch on youtube will be determined by the number of points you accumulate. Still, the downside is that this is more like a straight assets trade-off (with labour thrown in for good measure) and it will hardly contribute to rescuing those interaction skills to which I referred before.

So, if anyone has any ideas about how to organise the equivalent of a family's Sunday meal on facebook, including pudding, send your suggestions in. Time is of the essence.

And this is 'see you later' from me. I will be (almost) offline from next week until mid April. I might pop by your blogs before I set off, but I wouldn't bet on it as my time will be very limited. I have a lot to do before my forthcoming vacation in Malaysia, a country I first visited two years ago and with which I fell in love immediately. This time around, though, my wife and our two children have extra motivation for our sojourn: my brother-in-law and his wife have just had twins. We're all looking forward to meeting the newest members of our family.

My blog will not be idle, though. Starting this coming Tuesday and with the same frequency as before - three posts per week, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays - I will be uploading the equivalent of a 'Greatest Hits' for the next three weeks. So, stay tuned. The comments moderator will be off because I'm one of those lucky bloggers (touch wood :-D) who gets neither spam nor trolls. And because I trust you. Thanks for everything, for reading and commenting on my posts, for giving me the chance to read your very well-written articles and for existing. Above all, for existing. Happy Easter, everyone!

Thursday 25 March 2010

Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (Review)

According to the Cuban choreographer, Santiago Alfonso, 'when Cubans dance, they do it in the same cheeky and insolent way in which they live'. Small wonder, then, that I used that quote last summer to welcome visitors to my space. It sums up pretty accurately our passion for dancing.

And this is not just translated into predictable genres like salsa, cha cha cha or mambo for instance. But as demonstrated by the recent performances of Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (Cuba's Contemporary Dance Company) at Sadler's Wells, it is also transposed into more experimental and difficult styles. CDC's two nights at Sadler's Wells were a golden opportunity for dance lovers to become acquainted with the work of a company that has a reputation as a trailblazer.

The genesis for this notoriety can be traced back to the long vision of choreographers like Ramiro Guerra and Eduardo Rivero. The former introduced the Graham technique in Cuba as well as conducting extensive research into Cuba's rich African folklore and linking it to dance. The latter choreographed two of CDC's most famous works: Sulkary and Okantomí. The result is a company that is not afraid to be adventurous and the beneficiary of this daring approach last Saturday was a knowledgeable audience who rewarded the performers at the end of the show with the applause they thoroughly deserved.

Casi-Casa, a piece by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, explored the dynamics within a house. The beginning reminded me of Bob Geldof's character Pink, in the movie 'Pink Floyd The Wall', more specifically the scene where he invites a groupie to his trailer and remains motionless, plonked in front of the telly as the first notes of 'One of My Turns' are playing. In CDC's case, though, there was no room-wrecking, only a similarly alienated dancer whose face was lit up by the constant glare of the television set he'd been watching. The tempo and pace of this first piece were slow and measured. The dancers' movements smooth and almost gymnastic. Each turn was carefully performed like a peacock showing off its feathers. I was also glad to see the whole of the stage being used. There are dance companies that think that the only dancing you do is supposed to take place at the front. There was, too, a brilliant combination of grotesque and romantic elements: a couple arguing over - apparently - house arrangements and ending up with a burned baby (cue nervous laughs in the audience and coup de grâce for choreographer); dancers going bananas with Hoovers; a duet (man and woman) utilising a door as yet another phrase in their amorous interaction; a trio (all men) blending tenderly with each other until one of them decides to withdraw leaving behind scornful glances.

As a small nod to that part of the audience who were, maybe, expecting a slice of more 'authentic' Cuban dance (whatever that means), Mambo 3XX1, choreographed by George Cespedes, provided a free-style feast of bottom-wriggling, chest-flaunting and pelvis-thrusting. But underneath that veneer of mambo-suffused explosion and tropical heat, there lay one of the most thought-provoking narratives I've seen for a long time. The first 8-10 minutes presented seven lines of three dancers each who, in military-style, executed a mambo routine a couple of beats slower than the traditional rhythm. Any Afro-Cuban or Cuban popular dance tutor would have queried this novel way of performing a genre that is renowned for its syncopated beat. In contrast with Casi-Casa, the movements were sharp, angular and short. In addition, the steps and (hilarious) missteps were carried out robotically. The dancers' faces said it all, they were full of boredom, apathy and resignation. The release arrived in the second part of the choreography when the performers changed their black and white uniforms for ordinary clothes and indulged in free-style dancing. To me the message conveyed was about nations (or a nation, Cuba, as I interpreted it) getting stuck in a rut and not allowing its younger members the freedom to express themselves.

My only criticism is that the company did not bring more work from its extensive and rich repertoire to this UK tour (other than Folia and that piece was not part of the programme I watched last Saturday). I strongly believe that had CDC decided to pull out a piece like the aforementioned 'Sulkary' from its magical hat, or the Phillip Glass-sountracked 'Cuida De No Caer', then dance reviewers like Jenny Gilbert in The Independent would have had no reason to assume that, 'Danza Contemporanea de Cuba is surely misguided in looking to Europe and its glum conceptualist ways. Rather than hanker to be Rambert or NDT, it should stick with its own USP.'

Memo to Jenny: Danza Abierta, Danza Retazos and Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, three examples amongst some other Cuban contemporary dance companies that combine tradition with avantgarde successfully. Or as Santiago Alfonso would have it, cheekiness with insolence.

My thanks to Havana Cultura and especially Krista Booker for their support.

Photo taken from Como No

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 28th March at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Feminism: Has it Gone Wrong?

First of all let me say that this is a non-post post. And no, I'm not playing linguistic, mind tricks on you. I'll explain.

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in The Guardian by the British journalist Charlotte Raven. In it she analysed the role of feminism today, not just in the UK but also worldwide, although her focus remained on British society and women within it. Her essay triggered off a whole set of feelings and emotions inside me which eventually threw up questions for which I, I'm sorry to say, had no answer. And yet I am glad I'm sorry. Is that a contradiction? No, I'm sorry that I did not find the responses to the various issues Charlotte raised in her article, however, that shortcoming has given me the opportunity to open up my blog to discuss her essay. And that's why I'm glad.

Let me tell you now how this will work. First, you need to read Charlotte's piece here. Then, if you want to take part in the debate about it, e-mail me at my address (it's in my profile). I have drafted five questions for the first five female bloggers who contact me after reading the essay. Five female bloggers, please. Why only women? Because I'd like to know your opinion about the piece. Of course, men are welcome to take part in this debate, but since the article concerns women, it's only natural that priority is given to femmes. Once I have received the message from the first five contributors, I will then respond to all of you at the same time. I will be using the Bcc field to avoid disclosing your e-mail addresses. The answers to the five questions will be published on Tuesday 20th April and Tuesday 27th April. Why almost a month after the original post, you're probably wondering? Because I will be leaving on holidays very soon and as a consequence will have very little access to my blog.

All replies will be unabridged. What you write is what I will post. I would really appreciate it if you could forward a very short bio, maybe just a couple of lines. Pics are optional, as I know some bloggers prefer to remain anonymous. If you do send a photo, please, do it in jpeg, tiff, giff or bitmap format, blogger doesn't accept pdfs. Your blogs will be linked at the beginning of each biography. If you want to reproduce the content of my two posts, plus this introductory one, feel free to do so.

Simple, isn't it? Well, get writing. As I mentioned before, I will only pick up the first five correspondents. That's why this post is coming out at 11:59am as opposed to 11:59pm when I usually publish my entries. This will give most readers the opportunity to take part if they so wish (there will sadly be people left out and I'm sorry for that). I'm already looking forward to your contributions.

Image taken from guardian.co.uk

Next Post: 'Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (Review)', to be published on Thursday 25th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 21 March 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

In almost three years as a blogger, I have come into contact with myriad people from different corners of the globe. Some have stood the test of time and are still in regular contact; others have departed, maybe to greener pastures. Some pop in, every now and then, like the friends we have in real life. Then, there are the ones who leave an indelible mark on you.

Renee, the blogger behind the 'Circling My Head' blog was in the latter category. She has sadly died of cancer at the age of fifty-three.

In vain have I tried to look for Renee's first comment on my blog. I couldn't find it, and that's because she was an omnipresent figure. Whether it was from her cyber-house, or commenting on other people's online posts, Renee was an inspiring woman. And as a mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, aunt, wife and friend, she drew us, fellow bloggers, into her rich family life. The way she wrote about her husband, Wahid, her children or her siblings will forever be etched in my mind because of the candour and affection in her posts. There are a handful of words, amongst many others, I could use to describe her and these were also terms I used many times when responding to her articulate columns: witty, humourous, strong.

I'm not the type of person who throws compliments around lazily. I mean what I say most of the time and say what's on my mind. If I praise a post or a picture, that's because I've felt touched. It seems to me, from the distance that this medium provides, that Renee and I shared that trait. Her online entries of 'Cancer – 50 Essential Things to Do', a book by Greg Anderson, were obligatory reading for anyone who, like me, was not necessarily acquainted with the brutal reality this condition represents. Her language, when referring to the illness that ultimately killed her, was blunt and very often beautifully honest. Here's a post from Wednesday 28th October, 2009:

'A Lump Is Not Necessary To Have Breast Cancer No.2

Since October is Breast Cancer month, and I unfortunately know that bitch too well, I would like you to read a post I did on Inflammatory Breast Cancer in February, 2008.


Know what you know and know what you need to know. Had I only seen this I would have known what I already knew.'

Likewise, Renee was a lover of all things beautiful. And you knew that from the moment you entered her blog with that marvellous header and the illustrations she regularly posted every week. That love for creativity influenced her own writing. One of the most heart-rending posts I've ever read in my life was the one about the bats tormenting her:

'Did I tell you that I have a colony of bats who hang upside down in my guts? Well I do.

All day long they fly around and hit the walls of whatever is inside those guts. Bang, bang, bang, BANG, BANG, bang, bang……..BANG, BANG…..

It is not comfortable to say the least.You know it is hard to maintain my girlish figure of 217 pounds and right now I am worried about doing so as I am always starving and can’t get things down my throat...' You can read the rest of this post here.

In January I thought of contacting Renee about a piece that had come out in The Guardian newspaper the weekend before. It was an article written by US author Barbara Ehrenreich where the controversial essayist laid into the 'positive thinking' brigade within the breast cancer movement. What's your take on it, Renee? I wanted to ask her, but never got the chance to, because her own mother was dying at the time and it would have been most inappropriate to approach her with such a trivial question. I wonder sometimes what her answer would have been, given the fact that her blog was so vibrant and welcoming, that her attitude to life was a big 'Fuck You Cancer, You'll Probably Take Me in the End, But You Won't Beat Me Whilst I'm Still Alive!' (That swear word is dedicated to you, too, Renee, with utmost respect). Barbara talks about the tone that surrounds breast cancer activism: upbeat, stoic and cheerful. I can't help feeling that Renee didn't fit any category. She was a totally unique person. Read her post published on Thursday 28th January and you will find a person deeply in tune with her aesthetic side. And although many people don't think too much of awards given to bloggers by other bloggers, in Renee's case every single one was justified.

It's only fitting that I finish my little tribute today to this remarkable woman with a clip of another equally extraordinary artist, Lhasa de Sela, who died on 1st January 2010, at the age of thirty-seven of breast cancer. You can read her obituary here. This, I don't need to say, is not how I would have preferred to write about cancer, and specifically breast cancer, but by remembering Renee and Lhasa, I know I am contributing to raising awareness of this terrible, devastating plague. May they always be remembered. After all, those bats cannot win all the battles.

Next Post: 'Feminism: Has It Gone Wrong?', to be published on Wednesday 24th March at 11:59am (GMT)

Thursday 18 March 2010

Synecdoche, New York (Review)

Is a movie good because the rest are rubbish? When the regular stream of films offered by Hollywood feels so repetitive and cliché-ridden, does that give a left-of-field flick a golden chance to break through regardless of its quality?

That and many other questions were crossing my mind as the final credits of 'Synecdoche, New York', rolled up on my television screen. The brainchild of Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind cinematic gems such as 'Being John Malkovich', 'Adaptation' and 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', 'Synecdoche' had a lot to live up to. The movie works in a similar way to the aforementioned ones, blending the mundane with the surreal. In this case we have hapless theatre director Caden Cotard's (played impeccably by Philip Seymour Hoffman) chasing the Holy Grail, his magnum opus: the play everyone will talk about. By chance he gets a MacArthur grant which enables him to hire a group of actors and actresses who will re-enact their own banal lives inside a gigantic warehouse. But Caden has his own problems and his life is far from dull. He and his wife have been distant for some time (hilarious and cracking scene at the counsellor's office), his health deteriorates rapidly and when his wife leaves him to begin a new life in Berlin, she takes their daughter with her, thus, plunging him into a crisis.

'Synecdoche' functions as a meta-representation of New York and modern society in general, with its neuroses and existential angst. The flaws, and in my opinion there're just a few, are self-inflicted. A movie like this, carrying so many metaphysical motifs in an already crammed plot, will either delight or disappoint audiences. At times I felt bombarded by symbols: the burning house Hazel (Caden's estranged girlfriend) purchases, the blurring of lines between dream and alert states, Adele's (Caden's ex-wife) miniature paintings. And at just over two hours long, I felt that the editor's shears should have come out more often.

But the main theme in 'Synecdoche', that of the play (a part) representing New York, or even the US (the whole), makes for compelling viewing. Caden, as the director intent on creating a piece full of gritty realism, is an example of artistic integrity, especially in our times, when mediocrity triumphs over uncompromising art so often. His medical condition, which makes his body shut down its basic functions gradually, raises questions about our lifestyle and its consequences. And the wordplay combining Schenectady, an actual place and the film title is a stroke of genius.

Coming out as it did in the same year 'RocknRolla' and 'Sex and the City' were also released, 'Synecdoche' is a bold cinematic step in the right direction for Charlie Kaufman, and I can't wait to see his next film. As for my two opening questions: not applicable on this occasion, but still relevant, I think.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 21st March at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Can you taste books? Can you perceive the flavour of sentences, metaphors and similes? Does a particular passage in a novel make you lick your lips?

Well, apparently 'Rayuela' by Julio Cortázar made me lick mine.

I'll explain. Some days ago I was in the staff room, immersed in Horacio Oliveira's love saga (review to follow soon) when I was suddenly interrupted by a colleague. What are you reading? 'Rayuela' by Julio Cortázar, it's translated as 'Hopscotch' in English. Why were you licking your lips? I was what? Yes - her, chuckling - you looked as if you were eating a pineapple and the juice was running down your chin and you were lapping it with your tongue.

'... sus ojos verdes de una hermosura maligna...' ('his green eyes of an evil beauty'). That was the passage that - apparently - made me lose all sense of decorum in front of my colleagues. Cortázar uses the same phrase seven times in the space of five pages, thus, adding an element of aesthetic elegance to what is already an absurd situation (Oliveira turning his room into a fortress in order to pre-empt his friend Traveler's alleged retaliation, in the middle of the night at the mental institution where they have both started working). When I read that scene I thought of my comforting 'mate caliente' with a dash of honey, slowly journeying down my throat; the bitterness mixed with the sweetness. So, yes, my colleague might have been right (in fact, she was right, why else would she have told me then?), I licked my lips. But, then again, when presented with first-class writing, I tend to cast aside all my inhibitions. And above all, my palate becomes more acute.

Am I the only one who finds Atwood's writing the equivalent of a Sunday roast? Eagerly awaited and elegantly presented, you know that no matter which bit of the chicken you choose, you will always be satisfied. And any puns involving her novel 'The Edible Woman' are verboten. The roast potatoes will be crunchy, the greens will be soft and the Yorkshire puddings will be well cooked. Margaret is to me the epitome of a family gathering. I crave her writing style in the same way I crave my wife's roast dinners.

With Milan Kundera the flavour that comes to mind is rich and creamy cheesecake. Put too much on your plate and you'll be sick. But allocate yourself the right amount, especially after a yummy dinner and you'll be licking your lips. 'The Joke', 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting' and 'Immortality' come to mind. Plus, toffee cheesecafe.

But the question I want to ask you, fellow bloggers/readers/authors, is: do you feel the same when you write? Regardless of whether you're a professional writer or not, a published poet or an aspiring one, a blogger, or a freelance journalist, is there a moment in the writing process, when a turn of phrase, a trope or a 'deliberate accident' makes you want to lick your lips and say to yourself: 'This is good, this-is-so-good, this tastes absolutely divine'. I didn't ask you about your agent and editor, thank you very much, but much obliged for the reminder.

Has literature got a flavour? And if it has, what does it taste of? When I first read Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children', I felt the same way I do whenever I have my favourite brand of crisps: Kettle Chips. I call them grown-ups' crisps: mature, intelligent (none of that half-full/half-empty pack shenanigans like Walkers') and addictive. Same with Salman's fiction. It's full of a silliness that is trascendental and lyrical at the same time. He clearly has fun writing, ergo, I have fun reading him. And I have fun, too, eating Kettle Chips.

A poet I 'discovered' a few years ago gave me the best definition of coffee I've ever read in my life. First Mahmoud Darwish mentions the beverage in his poem 'My Mother': 'I long for my mother's bread/My mother's coffee', then we have a longer explanation about the meaning of coffee to him in his memoir, 'Memory for Forgetfulness'. I confess that not a single day has gone by since I first came across the passage below without me brewing coffee at home (I usually have instant, but occasionally I like drinking the real McCoy) and thinking of Mahmoud's words:

'I know my coffee, my mother's coffee, and the coffee of my friends. I can tell them from afar and I know the differences among them. No coffee is like another, and my defense of coffee is a plea for difference itself. There's no flavor we might label "the flavor of coffee" because coffee is not a concept, or even a single substance. And it's not an absolute. Everyone's coffee is special, so special that I can tell one's taste and elegance of spirit by the flavor of the coffee. Coffee with the flavor of coriander means the woman’s kitchen is not organized. Coffee with the flavor of carob juice means the host is stingy. Coffee with the aroma of perfume means the lady is too concerned with appearances. Coffee that feels like moss in the mouth means its maker is an infantile leftist. Coffee that tastes stale from too much turning over in the hot water means its maker is an extreme rightist. And coffee with the overwhelming flavor of cardamom means the lady is newly rich.

No coffee is like another. Every house has its coffee, and every hand too, because no soul is like another. I can tell coffee from far away: it moves in a straight line at first, then zigzags, winds, bends, sighs, and turns on flat, rocky surfaces and slopes; it wraps itself around an oak, then loosens and drops into a wadi, looks back, and melts with longing to go up the mountain. it does go up the mountain as it disperses in the gossamer of a shepherd’s pipe taking it back to its first home.
The aroma of coffee is a return to and a bringing back of first things because it is the offspring of the primordial. It’s a journey, begun thousands of years ago, that still goes on. Coffee is a place. Coffee is pores that let the inside seep through to the outside. A separation that unites what can’t be united except through its aroma.'

Reader, I ask you again, what does literature taste of to you? In the meantime, I'll put the kettle on.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Synecdoche, New York (Review), to be published on Thursday 18th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 14 March 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

When I'm not contributing to my local community's wellbeing via my nine to five job as an education coordinator, I can be found joining the virtual one, through my blog, or submitting a review to an online mag (or trying to get them published in the national press, sometimes to no avail). Alternatively people can also spot me on the board of the Association of Modern Cynics, a somewhat loose and informal (dis)organisation with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of followers. From people who strive towards moral excellence to those for whom nihilism is the ultimate goal in life, the AMC has it all.

How and why did I become a cynic? The answer is rather easy: the economic and social class division to which I woke up in my teens in Cuba. If you're born in a society where from the outset you're told that everybody is equal, only to find out later on that the government was telling porkies the whole time, the result will surely be disillusion. But rather than adopting a combative position towards this newfound reality, I opted to stay on the margins. Don't rock the boat. Look at what happened to Orlando Zapata Tamayo. And if you think that maybe cowardice got the better of me, consider for a second that a cynic sometimes does more damage to a dictatorship in the long term than a dissident who's more vocal in his or her opposition to the government. The latter is scapegoated by the regime and shown to future human rights campaigners as an example of the fate awaiting them if they persist in their efforts; the former is harder to engage politically and can corrode the status quo from within.

But what happens when cynicism becomes your default more to deal with the world? When it loses its original meaning, that of the pursuit of virtue?

Accusations of bullying, expenses claims (including that channel), non-dom status, alleged tax-evading and inchoate policies. When it comes to the political scene in the UK nowadays there's no shortage of reasons that could go some way towards explaining why young people are frustrated and their elders feel shafted. At least, though, we have moved from Carole Caplin, Cherie Blair and Bristol flats (and no, the latter is not rhyming slang for anything).

But, I think there's a difference between an MP using the system to his/her advantage to claim for a duck island/moat and a company like BAE being let off the hook after alleged bribery charges. And no, I'm not excusing those who abused the expenses structure but selling jet fighters to dictatorships around the world is far worse in my book than dodgy accounting. Plus it gives more ammunition to us in the Doubters Brigade. At this point it's worth recalling Oscar Wilde's famous words in 'Lady Windermere's Fan': 'a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing'.

And it is the second part of that quote that interests me more. What the current political situation translates as is lack of faith (broadly speaking) in everything, from country to party. Cynicism, when allowed to grow disproportionately, goes beyond rational and constructive criticism and it ultimately becomes a self-destructive weapon. And yes, I am aware that I mentioned at the beginning that I was a cynic. Overall, though, there are certain topics that bring the cynic out in me more than others. And one of those is charity, both the concept and ethos.

I'm not opposed to generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill or helpless of this world. But I would stop at embedding those actions into a written constitution or similar document. Right now one of the debates doing the rounds on these shores is how much the arts will suffer with the impending cuts; regardless of whether Labour stays in power, or we get a Tory government. One of the ideas bandied around by the Conservative party is to have a more US-style philanthropy-based system, to which my reply is thanks, but, no, thanks. Like it or loathe it, the Arts Council functions as an independent entity whose commissioning process is not jeopardised - usually - by party politics. Scrap it, or downsize it and you'll be staring at a lifeless puppet, ready to move to where its owner tells it to.

Moreover, the concept of charity and the word as such carry with it (and this is my personal opinion) a stigma that is hard to shake off. If it's alms on which you depend, regardless of whether you are an individual or a nation, the way people see you will be coloured by that fact. My position, again very personal, is thanks for the crumbs, but I can make my own bread, thank you very much.

Thirdly, the innate power people have - and this has long been a topic of discussion with acquaintances à propos de the word 'empower' - is undermined by other individuals or organisations acting on your behalf. I call this the 'Bob Geldoff phenomenon'. When the former musician organised the Live 8 concert in 2005 in London, he 'forgot' to include African musicians both in the planning of the event and in the final line-up (Youssou N'Dour was only brought in after a public outcry), despite the fact that he said repeteadly that the aim of the event was to raise awareness of issues in Africa. How do you say 'Give us yer f*****g money' in Swahili, again, Bob? Or maybe, as a failed musician, you didn't fancy being upstaged by the likes of Baaba Maal and Souad Massi and went for bland pop instead, along the lines of Keane and Snow Patrol. Just a thought, a cynical thought.

The reasons I've stated so far as to why charity makes me feel cynical sometimes are not indicative of my position towards the act of giving. To me giving, when well meant enhances one's place in the world. But the problem for me is when we confuse who's supposed to benefit more from the act. And sadly, the evidence I come across more often than not is that it is the donor's comfort that takes precedence in this (sometimes unfair) exchange.

On a less cynical note I'm glad to be the emissary of good news for those who enjoy the rich cultural life London has to offer. Next Saturday, 20th March, I will be joining the sell-out crowd at Sadlers Wells to enjoy the spellbinding and majestic Compañía Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (Cuba's Contemporary Dance Company). At a personal level, it will be a most romantic occasion - thus, this second part of my Sunday post is the opposite of the first one - for it was thirteen years ago when I last saw this dance troupe. If you are visiting the British capital and fancy watching innovative and original works, then contact Sadlers Wells on 0844 412 4300 or pop by its website, http://www.sadlerswells.com/show/Danza-Contemporanea-de-Cuba. If you reside in London, then this is an opportunity not to be missed. Many thanks to Krista Booker and Havana Club for the complimentary tickets.

Copyright 2010

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Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts', to be published on Tuesday 16th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 11 March 2010

Killer Opening Songs (Where the Streets Have No Name by U2)

This week, Killer Opening Songs has a very tough task. What track should it choose to highlight the career of one of the better rock and pop bands ever? Because when it comes to Introductory Melodies with Murderous Tendencies, U2 is second to none. Should K.O.S. choose 'I Will Follow' from the Irish band's debut album 'Boy'? Or how about 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' from their 1983 record 'War'? All excellent tracks, with a heavy mix of punk, Celtic folk and a sliver of new wave. But K.O.S. has made up his mind and Our Favourite Regular Session Dedicated to Lethal Opening Harmonies has plumped for what he believes to be the watershed in U2's recording career: 'Where the Streets Have No Name'.

Underpinned by a desire 'to tear down the walls/that hold me inside', the song explores the religious division in Belfast, Northern Ireland where both Catholics and Protestants were easily identified by the streets on which they lived. The Edge sets the tone from the outset with a succession of rapid notes if somewhat portentous whilst Bono's voice sounds like a plea ('I want to feel sunlight on my face/I see the dust cloud disappear/Without a trace/I want to take shelter from the poison rain/Where the streets have no name').

But this K.O.S.'s merit doesn't end there, in the melody itself. 'Where the Streets Have No Name' also ushers in three more tracks that are Killer Opening Songs in their own right. Any of the following tunes could have very well been used to announce the arrival of 'The Joshua Tree' album: gospel-influenced 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For', stadium anthem 'With or Without You' and bass-driven 'Bullet the Blue Sky'. With their fifth studio album, U2 had suddenly achieved the maturity they had craved for. More importantly, they had gone from being a very good live band - albeit, pretty average in the studio - to becoming a household name.

And the essential ingredients in their success were (are) their musicianship and fellowship. U2 remains one of the few rock groups that can still boast their original members. And despite being found more often these days supporting just causes or allegedly evading taxes in his native Ireland (note to lawyers, 'allegedly', I hope that's clear) Bono is still the ultimate front man. The Edge has been hailed by Rolling Stones magazine as one of the better guitarists in the world. Keeping a low profile, but being instrumental in providing U2 with a powerful backdrop, is bassist Adam Clayton whilst on drums Larry Mullen excels at serving militaristic beats every now and then ('Sunday Bloody Sunday').

There is no way that one Killer Opening Song can summarise U2's thirty-four-year-old career yet, 'Where the Streets Have No Name' deserves its place of honour in the Irish band's musical canon.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 14th March at 10:00am (GMT)

Tuesday 9 March 2010

'Nation' (Review)

If, like me, you're a fan of Mark Ravenhill's fortnightly columns in The Guardian and were wondering what the acclaimed playwright's been up to, I advise you to make your way down to the National Theatre, located in London's popular South Bank. There, you will be able to enjoy the quadragenarian venue's latest family show, 'Nation'.

Based on the novel of the same name by Terry Pratchett and adapted for the stage by Mark Ravenhill, 'Nation' tells the story of Daphne and Mau, two children on the cusp of adolescence who meet in very eventful and extraordinary circumstances. Daphne sails off from Britain to see her father, when a gigantic tsunami wave overthrows the ship on which she is travelling. Suddenly she finds herself on what appears at first to be a deserted island in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, on the same island, local boy Mau is in the middle of his coming-of-age ritual when the same wave catches him unawares. The meeting and eventual interaction of these two beings become the main plot in both novel and play. For Daphne this means changing her posh ways and getting used to the natives' culture. For Mau, on the other hand, it signifies premature leadership; the wave has destroyed his country and the few survivors feel desperate and hopeless. Danger comes in the form of Cox, Daphne's former butler, who is now the chief of a rival tribe and treated like a god. The ex-servant, still traumatised by the death of his five-year-old son many years before, has focused his hatred on Daphne, whom he blames for many of the ills he has suffered. In reference to 'Nation' Terry Pratchett has said that it deals with 'a boy and a girl and a parrot, and about how people tend to be very similar to other people once you get past a few insignificant differences. At one point it was a book about how the Archbishop of Canterbury might have been a cannibal chief, if he had been born in another place at another time.'

Though I bought the book at the theatre, I have yet to read it so this review is mainly focused on the play. As a spectator, I found it to be teeming with several themes, subtly presented. For instance, the big wave is a reference to the tsunami wave that brought chaos and devastation to many countries in the Indian Ocean in 2004. Creation myths are analysed through the powerful and ubiquitous presence of Imo, the God of Mau's people. Colonialism is also examined through the relationship between Daphne (the name she adopts on the island) and Mau; and also between the rest of the shipwreck survivors and the island's inhabitants.

Above all, 'Nation' is a play that moves easily between humour and tragedy and does so with quality and panache. This is down, for the most part, to excellent performances and a superb mise en scène: a rotating stage that allows multiple settings, an ingenious use of new media, imaginative props (the vultures and the giant boar are spectacular) and live music. In the leading roles both Gary Carr (Mau) and Emily Taaffe(Daphne) stand out, even if sometimes they're both overshadowed by Jason Thorpe (Milton, the foul-mouthed parrot).

That this family show premiered last year, just before the annual Yuletide jamboree should be an indication that Christmas needn't be a time to switch your brain off. At the National they're already taking care of that.

Copyright 2010

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Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Thursday 11th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 7 March 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

We continue this week with our series (sporadic, I know, but that's the way things are around here, sorry) on the biggest Zoo in Londontown: the Underground. And today we'll discuss the platform. Please, note the platform not the train. The latter will be the subject of our third and last part.

Unlike the escalator where most species are terrestrial (sightings of Archaeopteryx Pressurisus during rush hour at Euston station last year remain unconfirmed at the time of writing even if witnesses reported seeing a large reptile-like person hovering above passengers on the escalator and moving its? his? her? long, feathered tail from side to side) both on the London Underground's platforms and trains, water, air and earth creatures mix together.

For instance, take the Boidae punctualis. This is the type of commuter who will stop to nothing to get to his/her favourite spot everyday, every week, every year at the same time. The exactitude with which this animal works is astounding and leading scientists from Imperial College in London have already pointed at possible links with the legendary Giant Anaconda, featured more recently in the 1997 film 'Anaconda' starring Jennifer 'from the block' Lopez and Ice Cube. Connoiseurs are particularly fascinated by this creature's sideways swinging movements as they move down the platform towards the point at which the train will open up its door. The same door through which, upon arriving at their destination, the Boidae punctualis will exit and without wasting any time, for he/she has big tasks ahead, will follow the 'Way Out' sign with its big yellow letters. I once saw a member of this group crying desolately on the platform floor after a train arrived carrying the sign 'Door Does Not Open, Please Use Another One'. Paramedics were on the spot and police officers were restraining the commuter after he had tried to strangle a Tapirus indicus, whose only offence was to be visiting London from Malaysia and taking photos of the aforementioned sign.

Another animal whose nature makes him/her stand out amongst the members of the Underground's fauna is the Strigiforme traynyn tempus, commonly known as 'Tube owl'. His/her main characteristic is a silent flight along the platform and an obsession with train times. The Tube owl will normally take up their position near the small overhead screen displaying the countdown between trains. He/she will look up at it with its large eyes and wait...

... and wait...

... and wait, all the time standing still, with his/her forward-facing eyes looking up at that small screen, their flat face betraying no emotion whatsoever and they will continue to wait...

... and wait. Until the train comes. You might think I'm lying but I've seen tube owls letting trains go just for the sake of waiting for the next one. And famous, though apocryphal, is the story about a Strigiforme traynyn tempus who became rich within the space of a few hours when he was confused with one of Covent Garden's famous living statues and people kept putting money in front of him. Twice two commuters, who happened to be GPs, checked his pulse to see if he was still alive. On finding out he was, they were so impressed with his act that both left their savings accounts details. It should be noted that this incident happened on the Northern Line.

The last species I will discuss today is the Delphinidae vīvāx, a very dangerous species, though not at first sight. Known more often by its common name, the 'Underground dolphin', this animal is the eternal joyful, optimistic, daredevil who jumps into the carriage just as the door is closing. The risks they pose come mainly from their selfish persona and their physical (albeit unintentional) clumsiness. The Underground dolphin's reputed intelligence disappears once he/she perceives that there is a train on the platform. From that moment onwards the only thought crossing his/her mind is: 'I must get on, I must get, I must get on' even if that means leaping above the crowd at Oxford Circus, surfing through the heavy morning rush-hour traffic at Green Park or performing acrobatic jumps at Waterloo station in order to sneak through an open door. Needless to say, the Delphinidae vīvāx is sadly involved in a number of unfortunate accidents and a culling initiative was brought to parliament last year. We have yet to hear the outcome of it, though as it is election year in the UK, maybe the traditional whistling sound of the Underground dolphin will be heard less and less. I once saw one specimen somersaulting (I swear, I'm not exaggerating) all the way from the Häagen-Dazs cafe in Leicester Square into the tube station and onto the platform just because she thought she'd heard a train approaching. Her movement was so elegant that it looked as if she was leaping in slow motion, her bottlenose high in the air, a fixed smile on her face. Alas, she wasn't able to get on the train. An Ursidae statikós stood in her way. But that's a topic for another day. Enjoy your week.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Nation (Review)', to be published on Tuesday 9th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Thursday 4 March 2010

Danton (Review)

There's a pivotal scene in 'Danton', Andrzej Wajda's 1983 cinematic analysis of the French Revolution, where the eponymous figure explicitly states what the priority of the nascent First Republic should be: 'Without bread, there's no law, freedom, justice'. Liberation movements everywhere, please, take note.

'Danton' is not just a film. It is also an excellent dissection of the politics in end-of-18th-century France at a time when Jacobins and Girondists tussled for power. And at the centre of this conflict lay the popular and pragmatic Maximilien Robespierre against the more down-to-earth and fallible Georges Jacques Danton. The plot focuses on the Reign of Terror, a period during which many so-called enemies of the state were tried and executed in public. Upon his return to Paris from his country retreat Danton finds that rumours about a possible conspiracy led by him against Robespierre have spread; a charge which, if proved, will send him straight to the guillotine. After unsuccessfully pleading directly with the man whom supporters call 'The Incorruptible', Danton realises that his only hope lies in convincing the National Convention that he is not a plotter, yet, at the same time he can't agree with the bloodshed unleashed by Robespierre and his henchmen. Then, in a moment of pure cowardice, the revolutionary tribunal passes a law whereby if a prisoner is considered to behave in a disrespectful manner towards the Convention, he or she can be sentenced immediately. Needless to say, Danton disobeys the unfair decree and pays with his life.

It is thought that Wajda chose to make this film as an allegory to what was happening in his native Poland at the time. The Soviet Union had just sent troops (again!) to Warsaw and martial law had been declared. Whether that was his motivation or not, the truth is that he took liberties with historical facts.

For a start, there's hardly any evidence that the conversation between Robespierre and Danton (clip below, in French with English subtitles) took place in reality. Both men avoided each other as much as they could. Also, Wajda's depiction of Danton as a 'man of the people' contrasts with more veridical accounts of his excesses and privileges. However, the role does suit a young, thirty-five-year-old Depardieu who, at the time, had more films under his belt, including 'Novecento' by Bernardo Bertolucci, than candles on his birthday cake. For a master-class in acting, click here (in French, with no subtitles). Rumour has it that the French actor went hoarse during filming and far from taking a break to recover his voice, he carried on, rending the scene linked above the emotional gravitas it needed (from 04:46 onwards). In addition to orchestrating that apocryphal meeting between the two leaders and portraying Danton in such a positive light, Wajda paints Robespierre (excellently played by the also Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak) as a bed-ridden dilettante instead of the morally confused demagogue he became.

Not that any of this 'artistic licence' matters, though, 'Danton' is still a terrific movie to watch, highlighting as it does the schisms in one of the most radical, social and political periods in history.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 7th March at 10am (GMT)

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About 'La Mujer Lobo')

She might currently be in disguise 'Coming out, coming out, coming out' and the talk of lycanthropy might slightly confuse listeners at first, but when it comes to raising awareness of the Spanish language the Colombian pop singer Shakira rightly deserves the kudos she's earned.

It turns out that a record number of students will have the option of doing Spanish GCSE this year, the result of more secondary schools teaching the romance language as opposed to, for instance, German. And the key to that switch? A Barranquilla-born popstress whose introduction to performing was via a group of belly dancers at a Middle eastern restaurant.

But it's not just Shakira who has caused this volte-face. Over the last decade Spain has gone from being just a holiday destination to becoming permanent residence for many British people. And as the government from that Iberian country continues to clamp down on illegal settlements (villas, chalets and the like), the newly arrived sons and daughters of Albion have had to pull up their socks and learn the language in order to fit in quickly.

Another factor is students' gap year. Many youngsters prefer to volunteer overseas before starting university. And Latin America features highly on their list.

However, this explanation is not meant to take the gloss off Shakira's achievement. She has made a difference. And no, I'm not stupid. It's the Colombian singer who has made Spanish popular by singing in English. For some reason 'Una loba en el armario/Tiene ganas de salir/Deja que se coma el barrio/Antes de irte a dormir' doesn't sound as cool as the version in English. And also, let's not forget one of the reasons why la Colombianita has captured the imagination of teenagers and adults alike: she is one of pop's pinups (albeit with a good voice, as demonstrated in the clip below) whose 'hips don't lie' and who is lucky 'that my breasts are small and humble/So you don't confuse them with mountains'. Still, a victory for the bilingual world. I await Germany's response. Wölfin, wo sind Sie, bitte?

About the clip tonight: This song is a classic in the Ibero-Latin Diaspora originally written and performed by the Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez. In this video you have the Argentinian Mercedes Sosa, who sadly died last year (read my tribute to her here) and our new Ambassadress of the Spanish language. Enjoy.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Danton (Review)', to be published on Thursday 4th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


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