Sunday 13 November 2011

Birthday Q&A and Other Pearls of Wisdom

Since it's my birthday in three days (16th November) and since I'll be turning forty (cue drumroll and fireworks) I feel in the mood to do pretty much what takes my fancy these days. That's why recently I put my Zorro mask on, adjusted my cape, pulled my boots on and with a Z on my chest glowing in the dark night, I carried out a small heist near King's Cross train station. I broke into the offices of The Guardian and The Observer newspapers and nicked their Q&A and "This much I know" sections. These are insights into celebrities' lives and obligatory reading for me whilst having my breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays. For a sample of the sort of guests they have, click here and here.

Anyway, I thought, what better way of celebrating the arrival of my fifth decade (did I get that right, I'm rubbish at Maths. Let's see; 0-10; 10-20; 20-30; 30-40; 40-50. Yes, I think I got it right) than by sharing some snippets of my life with you, my dear readers and fellow bloggers? 31 questions (and answers) and 9 statetements to be more accurate. Hence, my daring attempt to steal the Q&A and "This much I know" in the middle of the night. When I called the newspapers, both editors-in-chief, were reluctant to let me use it. I had no other recourse that to play the Cuban Antonio Banderas and the result appears below for you to read. Hurry up, though, for I can hear sirens wailing and the slammer beckoning. Oh, well! One doesn't turn forty everyday. I hope the judge will understand my predicament.


1-When were you happiest?
Today (whenever that today is).

2-What is your greatest fear?
Losing my mind, behaving in a way that is completely unlike me and being unable to do anything about it.

3-What is your earliest memory?
In hospital, aged five, and my mother teaching me patiently how to read and write. I was in and out of hospitals when I was a child due to a stomach condition. My mother wasted no time and went from reading me children's stories to teaching me how to read them myself. By the time I started Year 1 in primary school I was able to read and write much better than the other children. I believe that my love for literature comes from those early years.

(left) A younger version of me, forty years ago

4-What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Not listening to other people enough. I sometimes rush through things too quickly without taking into consideration the other person's opinion. I can also go from one extreme to the other very swiftly. Then, again, I'm a Scorpio, what did you expect?

5-What is the trait you most deplore in others?
To answer this question I need to quote Whoopi Goldberg. In an interview on the programme "Inside the Actors Studio" some years ago she mentioned two types of ignorance she'd come across: voluntary and involuntary. I suffered from the former in Cuba due to the regime's censorship on books, music and films. But I hate the latter and it's the one that I encounter more often here in the UK. People who have access to a wealth of culture and information and prefer to remain dumb. Not only that, but also they feel entitled to express their uneducated opinions even when they have no basis to do so. I'm still involuntarily ignorant, and who isn't? Knowledge is infinite but our capacity to acquire isn't. However, I still remain as inquisitive and curious as ever.

6-What was your most embarrassing moment?
There have been so many. But one has stuck in my mind for many years. It's a long story, so in order to cut it short, I'll go back in time and place myself on the corner of 23rd Avenue and L St, bang in the heart of the borough of Vedado, Havana, in the mid 90s ('94 or '95). It's early December and therefore the Latin American Film Festival is in full swing. I've just finished watching my fourth flick that day and I'm trying to hitch a ride from the Yara movie theatre to the Charles Chaplin cinémathèque. It's early evening and a Cubanacán taxi stops at the traffic lights. I know it's very unlikely the driver will allow me in, but then I notice that on the front seat is Danny Glover. Danny Glover! Sitting comfortably on the front seat of a Cuban taxi (albeit for foreigners). His family is in the back, the lights are about to change, I need to get to the Chaplin pronto, I'm still gobsmacked and out comes the fateful phrase: "Danny, man, I love you!" Yes, me, cinephile, long-time admirer of one half of the "Lethal Weapon" franchise, makes a fool of myself right there on the corner of 23rd Avenue and L St. I mean to say, obviously: "Danny, man, I love your movies", but the famous US actor just smiles, the taxi driver revs up the engine and as soon as light changes to green, he disappears, leaving a twenty-something-year-old man wondering whether Danny Glover thought for a moment that I was coming on to him.

7-What is your most treasured possession?
Now, most interviewees in the actual section reply very often that their children and/or their spouses are their most prized possession(s). I always find those responses disconcerting because family is not property. So I will break the rule and say that my most treasured possessions are the bookcases and CD racks in my house.

8-What would your super power be?
It's not a superpower at all. I would like to be able to play the piano again. I miss playing it but I daren't sit at it. I never learnt how to read music, nor was I ever interested in doing so. Ear was what led me to the blacks and whites and I hope one day to recover that super power again and be guided to the piano by my ear.

9-What makes you unhappy?
Rudeness, bad manners, gratuitous swearing, dog owners not cleaning up after their pets, walking through the woods and finding litter all over the place, bigotry and ignorance.

10-What do you most dislike about your appearance?
At almost forty? Nothing. I used to dislike my ears and my forehead. My ears stuck out when I was twelve or thirteen and my forehead was too broad. With the passing of time I found out that the reason my ears stuck out was because of my ability to appreciate good music and my forehead was ample because I thought problems through.

11-If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would you choose?
Old, ancient languages that evolved into our current lingoes. I'm not just referring to Latin, but also to obscure dialects, like for instance, the Basque language, whose origin remains uncertain. I hasten to add that Basque is not dead, contrariwise, it's alive and kicking and as mysterious as ever.

12-Who would play you in the film of your life?
In an ideal world, I would get an actor to access a portal in my brain and I would play myself looking through that portal, like John Malkovich in the movie based on him, or his head, as he remarked to John Cusack whilst smacking it repeatedly.

13-What is your favourite word?
In Spanish, English, French or German? You know what, I'll go for Portuguese, one of my favourite words (there are plenty) is "saudade". Click here to find out why.

14-What would you wear to a fancy dress party?
I would go as the newborn baby on the cover of Nirvana's "Nevermind". Minus the one-dollar note.

15-Is it better to give or to receive?
Are we talking in life in general or...? Oh, forget it. To give, of course, to give.

16-Which living person do you most despise?
It's been such a long time that I don't think it's worth despising her anymore.

17-Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Another question that is difficult to answer. If I leave anyone out, I'm sure that I'll cause offense. So, here's the shortlist (living and dead combined) of what would be a veeeeeeeeeeeeery longlist: first of all, I would invite my family (including in-laws, of course) and friends. Then, Virgilio Piñera, Alberto Pedro, Maria Luisa Bemberg, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Chico Buarque, Elis Regina, Mario Benedetti, Mercedes Sosa, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Beny Moré, Lázaro Ros, Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Santiaguito Feliú, Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, Nicolás Guillén, Gigi (the Ethiopian singer), Susheela Raman, Lila Downs, Nelson Mandela, Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Rachelle Ferrell, Fiona Apple, Ben Webster, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Freddie Mercury, Beverley Knight, a few fellow bloggers who are regular of this parish, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X... the list goes on. That would be a hell of a party, I can assure you.

18-Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
In Spanish, "¿(me) entiendes?", in English, "you wiv me?" (a lil' bit of London accent there), in French (whenever I get to speak it, very rare these days), "ah, c'est vrai", which comes out as a cross between a question and a statement; and in German (even less frequent than French), "nicht wahr?".

19-What is your favourite smell?
White musk.

20-What is your guiltiest pleasure?
God, I haven't had any since I used to listen to Twisted Sister and the rest of the poodle rock brigade (Poison, Mötley Crüe) back in the 80s. I don't have any guilty pleasures because I don't have any guilty feelings.

21-What song would you like played at your funeral?
Songs. Let me make that clear. Sábanas Blancas by Gerardo Alfonso, Havana's unofficial anthem; To Be Continued by the Azerbi pianist Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, because death doesn't signal end but transformation. And I just love the energy in the piece. Because by The Beatles, a song that has some of the better harmonies the Fab Four ever came up with and whose lyrics are some of the saddest ever written. Águas de Março by Tom Jobim and sung by Elis Regina (the live performance on youtube, though, not the studio version) because it showcases Elis's talents brilliantly. And last but not least, we come full circle back to Cuba. La Comparsa is one of those melodies that you will never forget after hearing it for the first time, especially when executed by two of the best pianists my beloved island has ever produced, Chucho Valdéz and his father, Bebo.

22-What has been your biggest disappointment?
That I'm not a good swimmer. I try to make up for it with my running, but it's not the same. Water is my element.

23-If you could go back in time, where would you go?
Tricky question because I have to take into account my skin colour. In some of the places I would like to travel back in time to I would be chased out of town or shackled into submission. So, in order not to spoil my own birthday post, I will choose the moment when Chopin composed his Étude Op. 10, No. 12 in C minor, known as the Revolutionary Étude because it was written against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of his native Poland in 1831. I would like to be in the same room as him, see his face and attempt to decipher what was going through his mind as he magicked the score onto paper.

24-What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I'm married to a woman I love dearly and we have the two most beautiful, sweetest and polite children on earth. That's good enough achievement in my book.

25-Tell us a secret.
When I'm out running with my mp3 player on I sometimes imagine that I'm playing the piece I'm listening to on the piano and all the notes are coming out the way they should. It helps me jog faster but I've had a few scares and close encounters with cars. Occasionally, I add a harmonica to my daydream.

26-How do you relax?
Reading, listening to music, doing the ironing whilst watching (these days) interesting programmes on Sky Arts 1 or 2 (I know they're Murdoch-run, but they're really good) and running.

27-What is the closest you've come to death?
When I was thirteen I dived into a natural pool by a rocky beach in western Havana without finding out first how deep it was. I couldn't swim at the time and I almost drowned. I was saved by two of my mates; incidentally I almost drowned one of them, too.

28-How would you like to be remembered?
As a bloke who lived life to the full and who always had a smile on his face.

29-What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
In the grand scheme of things we're this insignificant particle in the firmament. Yet, each of us has a unique personality that allows to achieve feats that, though not great in that grand scheme of things, contribute to our and each other's well-being. Just saying hello with a smile to someone else on the street could make that difference. We're all born with two languages: our mother tongue and a smile; the latter needs no translation.

30-Where would you most like to be right now?
Where I am as I write this. At home.

31-Tell us a joke.
(The Chancellor of the Exchequer) George Osborne knows exactly what to do with the economy.

This much I know about myself

I fell in love with rock aged thirteen and never looked back. The groove, the energy, the rebellious attitude, they were all part of the same package that seemed to stick two fingers up to the establishement in 80s Cuba.

The only time I've ever smoked in my life was a couple of joints on two occasions in the same house. This Swedish? Danish? Norwegian? actor went to Cuba and he and I struck up a good, short, but solid friendship. He threw two parties in a row and every single person there was someone I trusted. Still, the weed did nothing to me, so I haven't touched it since.

I like to think that I've managed to get the better out of both my parents, personalitywise. From my mum, I've developed a strong parental instinct, a bit overwhelming sometimes, I know (ask my children), but based on unconditional love and an indomitable character. From my dad, I've probably acquired a more analytical, cynical and pragmatic view of life.

Talking about marijuana, I've only broken the law a few times in my life. And on every single occasion I've been fined for petty transgressions. Once, when I still used to commute to West Hampstead I sat in the first class carriage on the overground, although I had a standard economy travel card. At the next stop an inspector got on and asked me to show him my ticket. I thought of pretending not to understand English, but I had a copy of The Guardian (the old version) sprawled on my lap.

I have had to learn how to manage my temper over the years. Time was when I would fly off the handle at people over anything. But my wife taught me to trust human nature more. She definitely is patient, I must admit.

The most alluring and mysterious part of the human body for me is the brain. I'm fascinated by it. Not in a scientific way, although I do do my fair share of reading from a layperson's point of view. I'm more attracted to the idea that we still don't know how capable and developed our brains are and it's very unlikely we ever will.

I'm an atheist but a very peculiar one. Other than organised religion, you won't hear me raising my voice against believers just for the sake of it. Each to their own. I think that religion as a cultural phenomenon is an interesting subject matter.

Deep inside I'm a softie. But you have to work through the layers. Recently I went out for a jog very early on a Sunday morning. I was working my way up a steep hill when the sun began to rise and all of a sudden Bach's "Air" came on my mp3 player. By the time I came down the hill on the other side my eyes were watered.

I would love to travel more with my family. I would love us to go to west Canada and ride on horses (I wouldn't know how to, though, for I've never done it), backpack our way through South and Central America, especially since we all speak Spanish and I have a fair grasp of Portuguese. I would like us to cycle through Europe (my wife would take some convincing, though, and even I would have to train hard for it as I haven't cycled since my bike got nicked back in the summer). I would love us to drive from coast to coast in the States, visit Africa (the whole continent, actually. I'm very keen to get to know Africa as a solid entity made up of different nations and not just a generic name). I would like to spend more time than we usually do in Malaysia and pop by the neighbouring countries. I would like to explore more my Chinese ancestry by staying in Canton. Australia is a destination that's always fascinated me. It's that whole expanse of land that captivates me. Oh, yes, I would like us to travel more indeed. In the meantime, I'm just breezin' through life, ploughing on the best I can.


Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Sunday 20th November at 10am (GMT)


  1. Happy happy birthday! And thanks for sharing these wonderful, fun insights into your life. Enjoy your special day!

    Mama Shujaa.

  2. So nice of you to share on your birthday! Happy Day! Now, about that piano playing you wish you could, etc..., get cracking, my young friend. You are only forty! With a few lessons, you'll be taking off without much assistance.

  3. Genius!! Y feliz cumple adelantado!!!

  4. Thanks a lot for your kind comments. Although my b'day is still three days ahead I had a small celebration today with friends and family. It was great to go see Zoo Nation at the Peacock Theatre and afterwards go for a meal at Nando's. Exactly the kind of day I was looking forward to: cracking show, surrounded by family and friends and excellent food.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Well, Happy Birthday, Cuban! This is quite a feast you have shared of yourself. I'm particularly fascinated with your comment about your religious preference (or your lack of a religious preference). Most people launch into an oratory of what that means for them. You kept it short, simple, and quite comprehensible, I must say.

    Again, Happy Birthday and good luck with your new decade!


  6. Cuban, you never cease to amuse me! This is a wonderful piece you shared with us. They say, ''Life begins at 40!''Happy Birthday Bro.
    Greetings from Tanzania.

    Tram Almasi

  7. You're so young! My 40th is getting to be an old memory...

    Love the photo. But Twisted Sister... eek!

  8. Happy Birthday from Eat Hackney! Quite agree that your children are beautiful, sweet and polite...

  9. Happy Birthday Cuban. You are as adorable today as you were forty years ago, a perfect little child. At least that is how I imagined it! :)

  10. Get back to that piano at once! Don't wait for any power, you have it, it's in your head. Oh, to play by ear and be free of the notes...learn a few chords to jump start you if necessary.

  11. Happy Birthday! 40 sounds like a good year if you are happiest today (and tomorrow!) Family makes it all special. That baby photo is adorable. I loved the movie Being John Malkovich too. Keep smiling! I am, after reading this. It was fun getting to know you better.

  12. Belated Happy Birthday! As always, yours is a luminous voice that lights the path for all of us.

  13. Happy birthday to youuuu...Happy birthday to youuuu...and that photo of Baby Cuban is just so adorable (especially with the ears which are, I agree, perfect for listening to good music!)I have to give the screen a quick birthday kiss!!!

    I loved the interview! And 40 is only a number...admittedly quite a BIG number, but really, it's just a number! (Only joking, 40 is so long in my past it actually looks a pretty small number from where I'm standing!!) Hope your day today was terrific and that the coming year brings good music, good friends and many good days into your life.

    Have a wonderful day!
    Judy, South Africa

  14. I'm sorry to be a couple of days late (I've been awfully busy) so I missed your birthday. Happy Belated Birthday to a gentleman who writes one of the most insightful blogs around. Your birthday questionnaire is quite extraordinary. You have an insight into yourself that few people do.
    ps - I adore that photo of you as a little baby. Adorable.

  15. Feliz Cumpleanos Cubano! 11/16 is also mi esposo's b-day so I think I know what kind of Scorpio you are, lol! I would love to be at that dinner party and suadade is also one of my favorite words.

  16. Thanks a lot for our kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  17. Happy Birthday, Cuban, a few days late! I loved reading this entire post, learning about you a bit more, marveling at how you connect to so many from so many different walks of life. I'm grateful to have gotten to know you a bit through blogging -- you've taught me so much about music and life in London -- thank you.

  18. LOL @ question 16.
    What a great post: thank you!



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