Wednesday 29 February 2012

Let's Talk About...

... conferences, one-day workshops, fora, symposia and similar events. And the catering at these activities.

For almost ten years now, I've attended a great deal of events within the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. Some have been high profile, for instance, I still remember a lavish affair at the Tate Modern in 2003 with then Minister for the Arts Estelle Morris as main speaker. Some have been more modest, for example, there's a regular, bimonthly volunteers' forum in my area that's been going on since 2004. I feel like a Nam vet in there now, I tell you. The purpose of these gatherings differs from one to the other, but there's a common thread that unites them all. Guests have similar goals of pursuing a more equitable society and there's a congruence of interests in how to achieve this. For me the formula for the ideal conference is a lively facilitator, exciting workshops and specialists, who not only master their subject, but also possess the skills to convey the content to their audience easily.

Now, if I was to be utterly honest with you, my dear reader, I'll have to say that only a handful of events like the one I've just described above turn out to be that way. The rest are just a waste of time and money. Especially money. What with the catering! But more about that later.

First of all, a situation I've come across time and time again is the need or lack of it thereof for the conference/master class/symposium/insert your own one, to happen. Sometimes I don't think that the idea that people will miss work to attend a particular event - with cover being one of the major issues - crosses the organisers' minds. You can see it, sorry, you can smell it the minute you walk through the threshold, usually of a plush hotel in central London and you are greeted by a big, flashy banner bearing your host's logo. Because of the nature of these events (I'm referring to the ones I have attended), which tend to focus on how we can build a better society, or how we provide a better education for our children and young people, or what opportunities there are currently for adults to carry on learning in their mature years, the subjects to tackle should be less difficult to choose. And yet sometimes the waffle-waffle to justify the event  is so loud that it'd be better if they equipped guests with earplugs at the entrance.

Let's deconstruct then the standard conference in the third sector (and that includes education, too).

You first have the guest speaker(s). If they're any good, and sometimes they are, you're in for a ride. One of my favourite ones is Professor Charles Desforges, a specialist in education, more specifically in the relationship between parents, their children and school. He's a joy to watch and listen to and I've seen him in action three or four times. The opposite of Mr Desforges is the conference bore. Usually egocentric, he or she (although given that most speakers are male, the conference bore tends to be mainly a man) uses a voice that sounds as flat as the line indicating a patient's sad demise in an operating theatre. No matter how strong the coffee you had in the morning before coming to your event was, you will still catch yourself dozing off at nine-thirty am. The worst combination I've seen so far is a conference bore who happens to be also a government official and is the main speaker. Listening to him makes me want to roll my sleeves up and reach for my razor blade. Platitude after platitude falls out of his mouth onto a silent (we're all in trance) audience. Guests check their watches waiting for the magic words: "And now, we're going to have a tea/coffee break".

If the conference bore is... well... boring, then the technophile is even worse. This is the individual who prepares the PowerPoint presentation using every single function available to them and, to be fair, they make a decent job out of it. But then, they... read the whole bloody thing out to you! I thought I'd learnt how to read and write many years ago, but, no, it turns out that I still need to be coached on the spelling of "social enterprise" and "charity", while each single letter is yelling at me from the vastness of the screen onto which they are projected. To cap it all, the speaker often has a grating voice that is at odds with the content of his/her presentation, which, by the way, is sometimes very interesting.

All this is soothed by the imminent arrival of... LUNCH!  Now, can we agree on something here? People in Britain do like to eat. I know that that doesn't sound much of a statement to make, but back home the image we have of Europe is that of a gigantic gastric band where its inhabitants devour only un petite morceau of this and un petite morceau of that, all the time swearing by the diet they're following. No, my dear chiquilines,  that's all a façade. Lunchtime at a conference where like-minded people want to change, if not the world, at least their local community, is the equivalent of the Battle of Waterloo, with our own Blüchers and Wellingtons. The fight for the tomato and mozarella pizza swirls is as fierce as that between the Seventh Coalition and Napoleon's troops. Which, in a certain way, makes sense, as occasionally, one-day events are the equivalent of what bunking off school used to be for some of us in our teenage years. It should follow then that the consumption of vol au vents and sausage rolls feels like a transgression. Albeit of a naughty nature, truanting while getting paid for it, if you like. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the attendees even started their own food fights. It is the catering that defines a conference, or a symposium. Get it right and most guests will stay for the afternoon session, including the workshops. Serve rubbish food and some of them will leg it, especially if the event takes place in town around Christmas. Suddenly, "something I have to do back in the office", sounds more urgent, no matter if the "office" is in Newcastle and the conference is taking place near Piccadilly Circus, in London. I still remember a Film London event years ago at which some "alternative" film-makers ate their way through most of the vegetarian dishes on the table, including some yummy quiches, one of which I managed to get hold of before they ran out. When I returned to the table for a second helping, they were gone, the quiches, not the film people. They'd already began to "locust" their way through the meat plates. I thought you were all vegetarian, I said to them, naïvely. Oh, yes, we're lapsed ones. Run that one by me again, guv.

Once lunch is over, it's time for the afternoon session. Let's talk about the "graveyard" slot, so called, because there's usually a dead silence amongst the guests, the result of people dozing off, with the occasional snoring sound coming from a gentleman - or lady, they do snore, you know - who forgot to turn the volume of their soft palate down.

Again, it takes a magician of a facilitator to keep the audience's focused on the content they're delivering. Professor Desforges comes to mind again because once he had to speak straight after a heavy and nice lunch (none of that finger buffet malarkey, we're talking proper chicken and rice). His trick was to mix the anecdotal with the opinions of the public sitting in the large conference room. I remember us hanging on to his every word. The other day I attended a masterclass on fundraising delivered by a specialist and he was so good that I came away from the event wanting to sit down and write my next bid straight away.

However, you also have the others who come on the graveyard slot and seem to be more skillful at curing insomnia sufferers of their curse than at communicating effectively. Or they are failed clowns and they haven't realised it yet. Then, there are the well-meaning ones who adopt all kind of forward-thinking techniques only to miss their target badly. And not because we're difficult, mind. For example, I recall a bloke with a throaty voice who began to tell us a traditional tale from the Native American folklore. I swear that I was interested in his story but he went on for so long, that I fell into a deep slumber. I think his intention was to make us "levitate" mentally, take us on a journey, as spiritual gurus are fond of saying these days. But after eating one too many jerk chicken thighs at lunch, I felt as if I'd fallen victim of Don Vito Corleone's crooks and had gone "to sleep with the fishes". Pity, though, as I wanted to find out what had happened to Coyote at the end.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 4th March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 26 February 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A few weeks ago I found myself lying on my back on a stretcher, being wheeled into an operating theatre for the first time in life. An annoying and rather clingy sty had fixed its abode on my lower eyelid in July last year and despite trying to massage it off by pressing a warm flannel against it, the abscess proved quite stubborn to get rid of. I know that the housing situation in the UK is not in the best of shape at the moment, but surely this was not the kind of tenant I needed even if there'd been space for building a house on my lower lid.

It was a rather grey day with the first heavy snowfall of the season forecast for later on. I arrived at the hospital by bus and planned to return home using the same method of transport. At no point did I fret over the operation. In fact, I still recalled my GP's words when she first saw me last summer and the phrase "laser the sty off" kept coming back. So, I carried on thinking that the procedure would be quick and painless. A radio with the station Magic FM was on with Queen's We are the champions playing to the whole ward. The signs couldn't have been more encouraging.

And yet, life always has a card up its sleeve.

If you're squeamish about operations, please, look away now and come back in the paragraph after next one.

First my lower eyelid was numbed with local anaesthesia. Either I failed to see the size of the needle or the doctor did his best to hide it because at no point was I afraid about an area so close to my eye being lightly perforated. By the time he'd said: "You're about to feel a little prick", he was done. Thus, a wave of optimism  caught hold of me. This was going to be just fine. I would be home in time for Gillette Soccer Saturday. How wrong I was. The surgeon set to work and all throughout the process he kept talking to me, giving me encouragement and maintaining my spirits high. My upper eyelid was raised and held all the way back with a small clamp to prevent me from blinking. When it was touched lightly by one of the nurses, my whole body went floppy. I couldn't raise my arms nor move my legs. I'd passed out partially. Drifting in and out of consciousness I kept hearing the doctor and nurses calling out my name. An oxygen mask was placed on my face and a cold flannel on my forehead. My neck was lowered whilst the rest of my body remained flat on the stretcher to get the blood circulating again. My jumper was rolled up, including its sleeves, to allow cool air ventilation. At some point I mustered enough strength to signal to the surgeon and nurses to raise my legs so that the blood could circulate more easily but they couldn't understand what I was trying to communicate. As it was explained to me afterwards, my blood pressure and heart rate had plummeted to dangerous levels.

I was kept in hospital for about three and a half hours after under observation. During this time I had enough time to think about what'd just happened. I'd never been so close to... death? No, that's overplaying it a bit and besides, that's a subject for another column. But, indeed, I'd never been so close to... this state of dependency, of almost total immobility. To be clear, when I was a child, I was in and out of hospitals in my native Havana, but since becoming an adult and especially since getting so legless once, many years ago, when I went out to celebrate my graduation from university with my friends, I'd never experienced an episode so dramatic as this one. And yet, I also found a humourous side to it. Whilst semiconscious, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive blasted out on Magic FM. As soon as I came to, I asked the doctor if that was the track that was playing during my ordeal and he smiled at me and said: "Yup, you weren't totally out of it, were you?" I also reflected on my decision to watch a programme on Dali the Sunday before on Sky Arts whilst doing the ironing (it's a habit of mine, either arts or football, but nothing is better when you're pressing clothes than watching telly) and the first scene of Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalu, which as everyone knows opens up with someone slicing their eye. Yes, idiot, I'm an idiot. What next? Watch Airplane before flying to Cuba?

But of whom I thought the most that day as the afternoon put on its grey cape earlier than usual, was the personnel tasked with my well-being and us, the beneficiaries. From the - mainly - Filipino nurses who fussed over me as if I was a six year-old child to the doctor who talked me away from my trauma by discussing fishing in Cuba (including the ubiquitous legacy of Hemingway and his The Old Mand and the Sea) the staff were magnificent, caring in their approach and professional in their delivery. And we, the patients in that ward, reciprocated in equal measure. It made me think of the future of the NHS in this country and the current threat that the coalition government poses to it.

 As I write Prime Minister David Cameron and his gang are trying to push a bill through parliament which could alter irreversibly the way the National Health Service is run in the UK. Words and phrases such as competition, efficiency-saving (namely, cuts), choice, decentralisation of power and other jargon are being used as a carrot to entice practitioners to believe that they're being given more power.

In reality what's happening is that the government is bent on expanding private provision of our free health service, probably copying the US model. If the bill becomes law, the NHS will be torn open and left exposed for the vultures of the corporate sector to feast on its entrails. The juiciest contracts will go to the richest firms which will be in a better financial position to bid for them. Joe and Joanna Public will be left with a local hospital that will resemble the landscape in the novel The Road. We'll probably even get the cannibals as a side dish, too.

Cameron, Andrew Lansley (the health secretary) et al don't get it. When we, taxpayers and those who benefit the most from a free health system, hear ministers talking of value, trade-offs and deals, we fight back, sometimes even using methods that might be thought of unorthodox. A hospital differs from a hotel in that the former is driven by response to need and not by a desire for leisure as in the latter.

It's very likely that the NHS will cost the Tories the next election (although bearing in mind that the next time we'll go to the polls will be in 2015, that might be a little bit of wishful thinking on my part) and that Andrew Lansley won't be in charge of the health system by then. He has conducted himself in a most unsympathetic and callous manner. My biggest fear is that by then it will be too late to reverse some of the changes that Cameron wants to introduce now.

Last week I mentioned my apathy towards marches and demonstrations and how it came about. I should have added, if only to balance things off a little, that I do have joined online campaigns and petitions. One of the reasons I feel proud to carry a British passport and call myself a "naturalised British citizen" is because this country has an efficient and fair health system where everyone, regardless of colour, sex, gender, sexual orientation or age can be treated without paying one single penny. Perfect, it is not, and I'd be the first one to say that a lot needs to be done. But let's not throw the baby with the bathwater. Increasing competition and changing the ways services are commissioned is not the solution. The result will be more inequality.

Thinking back to my experience in hospital, I imagined Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive as a response from the NHS to the Cameron-led government with each line being sung by a different member of the public to the Conservative-LibDem cabal: Go on now go walk out the door/just turn around now/'cause you're not welcome anymore/weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye/you think I'd crumble/you think I'd lay down and die/Oh no, not I/I will survive//as long as I know how to love/I know I will stay alive/I've got all my life to live/I've got all my love to give/and I'll survive/I will survive. I invite you, dear reader, to join me in this chorus.

© 2012

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 29th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Urban Diary

I reach the end of my road gasping for breath. It feels as if I'm walking with weights around my ankles. It's been tough making it as far as the Turkish shop today. The snow that fell so heavily last night is still about five inches deep. At the newsagents, the chap who runs it signals to me through the dirty glass door to indicate that The Observer has not arrived yet. His gesture is also a way of saying that I needn't bother coming into his shop, thus, letting the cold air in, even if it's just for a fleeting instant. I turn around and cross the road. As I head for another newsagents, I take my earphones off to capture better the sounds of the recent snowfall. Roy Ayers and the Nuyorican Soul's Sweet Tears are paused momentarily. An eerie silence descends upon me as I forge ahead, each foostep leaving a clue as to my shoe size on the white carpet.

The silence is interrupted intermittently by laughter and cries coming from children playing on the road and on the pavement. Hard to say which is which now. Snowmen are quickly propped up and eventually knocked down. The main thoroughfare, usually a combination of potholes and bumps, looks pristine and levelled under the slate grey light of the nowhere-to-be-found sun. A car drifts by, its engine a soft, muzzled roar, its dipped headlights dimly illuminating the road ahead like the eyes of an owl looking out from a tree.

I finally get to the second newsagents. The guy, who also knows me, opens his large arms widely and shrugs his shoulders. No paper there either. I turn around and make my way back home. En route, I walk past the new pub - the third one on the same spot in less than ten years - with its promising menu and enticing discounts, more groups of children having snowball fights and black African women with patterned headwraps and dressed to the nines on their way to church. I put my earphones back on and welcome the melodic voice of Roy Ayers as he wraps up Sweet Tears.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 26th February at 10am (GMT)

Image taken from flickr groups

Sunday 19 February 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

One day last summer my wife, our two children and I were walking near St Paul's Cathedral when we decided to sit down on one of the many benches scattered across the churchyard in order to have our packed lunch. I've always liked St Paul's, the outdoor area, that is. If you want to see what the inside of the cathedra looks like, you have to cough up at the entrance. Still, the exterior is beautiful with well-looked-after lawns and shrubbery, although on the day we went there were still some scaffoldings dotted around the premises. Outside, the visitor will also find useful information about the cathedral's history and some of the pieces that populate its grounds. A triangular relief describes the conversion of the building's patron saint to Christianity. St Paul himself stands above said sculpture, sandwiched between other religious figures. A statue of Queen Anne, the reigning monarch at the time St Paul's was built sits nearby. Accompanied by a soft, gentle breeze this summer day could not have been more relaxing. And I gather that the same thought crossed the mind of the many visitors streaming through the cathedral's gates.

I suppose that neither the church's authorities nor the families parading or playing on the building grounds that day would have been able to predict that a few months thence St Paul's would become another chapter in the global protest movement.

But before I carry on, a disclaimer. I haven't yet, at the time of writing, paid a visit to the Occupy movement at St Paul's Cathedral. I would like to, but, for reasons I will explain later on in this post, I still haven't made up my mind. I have, however, followed with great interest the wave of protests, uprisings and insubordination that has engulfed the world in the last twelve months.

It's sometimes hard to believe that we're living in one of the most radical(ising) times in history. The difficulty to understand this arises perhaps from the fact that we're used to listening to older people talk about past conflicts in such a  passionate and heart-rending way that only if we're able to put on the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia (the ones our elders are surely wearing as they tell these tales), will we able to to experience something akin to their memories. Another reason might be that our attention span has grown shorter whilst our technology has developed tenfold. The combination of these two factors has somehow eroded our ability to marvel at our own derrings-do. And yet, look at what's happened in the world in the last year socially, politically and economically and you'll come to the same conclusion as me: there's been a revolution.

I use the singular form on purpose, even if the popular unrest that has coursed through the globe in the last year has manifested itself plurally. North Africa has just seen an overhaul and overthrow of old regimes. Syria is the next stop surely. The Occupy movement which began life in Spain with "Los Indignados" (The Outraged) mushroomed instantly and took hold of other cities such as Toronto, New York and London. Online, groups like Anonymous are bent on embarrassing national governments with their pranks. Everywhere you look there's something happening or about to happen. However there's a single narrative running through these subversive acts that seem to have sprung up almost simultaneously: a fairer society where there's more respect and consideration towads our fellow humans. The question is: why now?

My answer is: people got fed up. As anyone who has a cat will tell you, if you corner your feline pet, it will defend itself, with very ugly results. That cuddly, cute kitten will morph into a panther or tiger in less time than it takes you to say "Meow!". Same with people. Over the years we've seen the rich getting richer and very little of of that wealth trickling down to us, regardless of what New Labour promised when it came to power. The clearest message I've seen in the current protests, and the most explicit and bluntest one has been: "We're the 99%!". And as it happens, 99% is far more than 1%, so, you do the maths. Just like Seattle at the end of the 90s and beginning of the noughties, gave us a strong anti-corporation message, this time the Occupy movement, combined with the uprisings in Arab countries is providing a template for how future battles between the status quo and the electorate will be fought.

First of all, social media has played a very important role in the current stand-off between state and individual/collective. It's easy to big up Facebook and Twitter and overestimate their involvement in the toppling of Gaddafi and Mubarak but according to Paul Mason in his new book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, there are now nearly one billion FB users: two fifths joined since the start of the Arab spring. In about four days Paul reckons the 500 millionth Twitter account will be created; the 400 millionth one was opened four months ago. Whilst Mark Zuckerberg will find it difficult to convince people that he unseated the Egyptian dictator himself whilst wearing his PJs and slippers, it's fair to say that his creation did have an effect.

The second element that signals we're entering a new era in the relationship between government and people is the leaderless nature of the Occupy movement. Decisions are made following assemblies. Real consultations are carried out by talking to members. There's a sense of ownership that's hardly ever present when politicians turn up on the panel of Question Time or to answer questions on the Today programme. Furthermore, the roguish behaviour displayed in Seattle by some members of anarchist organisations are conspicuous by their absence at St Paul's cathedral. This lack of unlawfulness in the Occupy movement has endeared people with no political ties or motivation to the protesters' aims.

There's a third factor in the relative success of both the Occupiers and the progressive forces responsible for toppling down the dictatorships in north Africa. They haven't mentioned the "s" word as an option for governance. "S" as in "socialism", that is. The protesters taking over squares, parks or, as in London, cathedrals, want a different type of capitalism. They want a capitalism where profits do not end up in the shareholders' pockets - at least, not all of them - but benefitting society as a whole. By all means, keep capital, but do not capitalise on the human soul.

Could this new approach to politics and government triumph in the end? Not in the long term, in my humble opinion. But in the short one, what is doing very effectively is making people, politicians included, re-assess their priorities in life. In the same way Seattle '99 exposed the harsh realities of sweatshops and unethical trade, the consequence of the Arab spring has been a re-evaluation of the role of the West in propping up and knocking down dictators as and when it wishes. Not so long ago Tony Blair shook Gaddafi's hand. And lest we forget it was Mr Blair who joined George W Bush in the illegal invasion of Iraq. The less we see of that kind of attitude the better, and the Arab movement is contributing to that change of mindset. Another effect of the global protest movement is making people understand that the current state of affairs affects almost everyone: from small business owners to young people looking for work. There's a real drive towards creating a better and fairer society and it's encouraging to see the new guard partially leading the way. I wish I could join them, but having been born and lived in a country where demonstrations were ten a penny, had no real or political purpose and brought no change at all, I have sadly become inured to public displays of dissent.

I do confess, however, that leaderless movements with a loose agenda make me somewhat anxious. That way madness and anarchy lie. A hodge-podge of ideas as springboard for a more coherent and cogent arguments is very welcome. The danger is that historically out of the chaos come totalitarianism and autocracy, being led, ironically, by a charismatic demagogue. I don't think the Occupy movement is heading that way yet, but at some point, I think it should narrow down its political, social and economical demands to something we, the public, can recognise and vote for. Given the grim future facing many in the UK nowadays, even Jesus would have joined the protesters at St Paul's cathedral. Which, by the way, taking into account the church's attitude towards the Occupy movement, would have been very funny.

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 15 February 2012

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

Emboldened by my recent experience of cooking a roast pork loin for a large number of people on New Year's Eve, I'm gearing myself to repeat the experiment soon with friends and relatives. As you know I'm a big fan of the slow-cooking approach and nothing tastes better than meat coming off the bone at the first stab of my fork.

Although the words below are by Nigel Slater, the recipe isn't. It's by James Ramsden and judging by what I have read about him and his cooking methods, it looks as if this is one of many dishes to be shared with you, readers and fellow bloggers.

Moroccan slow-roasted shoulder of lamb

Serves 6

shoulder of lamb 1 x 1.5-2kg, on the bone
natural yogurt 350g
lemon juice of 1
ras el hanout 2 tbsp
smoked paprika ½ tsp
salt and pepper
red onions 2, peeled and sliced
garlic 1 whole bulb
red wine ½ a bottle
olive oil
couscous 300g
pomegranate 1, deseeded
coriander a big bunch, chopped

Chunks of meat are all well and good, but few things beat a whole joint, slowly roasted on the bone until the meat slides away at the slightest prod. Lamb shoulder is arguably the king of such joints. It's tough as old boots, but so perfectly fatty that when sympathetically cooked the fat melts through the meat, tenderising and oozing flavour throughout the flesh.

Using a sharp knife, slash the lamb a few times – no deeper than an inch – on the fatty side. Mix 250g of the yogurt, lemon juice, ras el hanout and smoked paprika in a bowl and season with pepper. Spread the onion out on a roasting tin, throw in unpeeled garlic cloves and place the lamb on top. Rub the lamb with the marinade, pour over the wine, cover and leave – 24 hours would be ideal, an hour will do.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 170C/gas mark 3. Season the lamb with salt and drizzle with oil. Cover tightly with foil and roast for 3 hours. Remove the foil and roast for a further half-hour. The shoulder blade should be peeking out from under the end of the meat.

Remove from the oven and leave to rest, loosely covered with foil, for half an hour. Meanwhile, cook the couscous according to the packet instructions. Pull the meat apart with tongs, garnish with the pomegranate seeds and coriander, and serve with a spoonful of the cooking juices, the couscous and the remaining yogurt.

Soul. That was the first word that came into my head when I read Nigel's words above. And the first track I've chosen to accompany this dish is by new soul boy, Gregory Porter. I heard him on Jazz FM recently and his voice slashed through me like a knife cutting through the fatty side of the lamb's shoulder. It's a mix of good ol' Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye, but with his own style and groove. Can't wait to get my hands on his album. Bon appetit!

If Gregory Porter is soul, then Sivert Høyem is passion, plus soul, too. Prisoners of the Road came on the radio a few days and by the time it'd finished I had another browser open on youtube trying to gather information about this artist. Listening to this guy's voice is like watching the lamb roasting slowly. I hope you enjoy this song as much as I do.

Anoushka Shankar's album Traveller led me last year down a path of traditional India music and flamenco hybrids, of which Indialucia is one of the more skillful exponents. This little hot number called Rumba oozes flavour through every pore like that roast lamb's shoulder. Tasty.

Recipe taken from Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden.

Photograph taken by Jonathan Lovekin for The Observer

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 19th February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 12 February 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The first forty seconds of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" are probably the best intro in the history of music. I know, I know. Please, bear with me. I'm not someone who is in the habit of handing out superlatives like RSPCA volunteers on the high street giving out flyers informing you that dogs are not just for Christmas. Yet, the way that voice, that voice, breaks through the empty space a capella sends shivers down my spine. There's a steady and progressive build-up, like a bird of prey soaring effortlessly up high in the sky, spotting its future victim and hovering for just one nanosecond before dipping one of its wings and dropping down into the grass to capture its food. That food is you and me, reader: the listeners. Nina's version of Feeling Good is one of those rare moments when I abdicate the use of my mental faculties in favour of a much more raw and emotional rapport. This is the type of art that asks nothing of us, offers no explanations and still manages to hold us captive. The way Nina sings Feeling Good is as if someone were saying: Listen to this song if you want to know what the human voice can do. Enough for me to go down on my knees, place my hands together, lace my fingers and worship it at a temple. Any temple. Even one for atheists.

Alain de Botton is a nice fellow. I don't know him personally but I do seek out his pieces on philosophy and human behaviour. His byline photo conveys amicability, understanding and acceptance. I suppose that his recent book Religion for Atheists is a good read. But somehow his idea of creating a place of worship  for non-believers in the City of London doesn't really cut the mustard with me. According to Mr de Botton, he wants to build a 46-metre tower as an antidote of what he terms as an "aggressive" and "destructive" approach to faith. More specifically, Alain wants to counteract the effect Richard Dawkins has had on the conversation on religion.

His motives are laudable, albeit naive. First of all, is the cost of the building: £1m, in the middle of the worst cuts to public and voluntary sector organisations. The location of his project is understandable; bang amongst the international banks, hedge funds and private equity firms. The message couldn't be clearer: money is not the most importan thing in life, spirituality is. Therein lies his first fundamental flaw in my opinion. If you plan to fight Mammon, why use the same tool it wields against you, i.e, money? Why not utilise the best temple we have? This one (points at head), and this one (points at heart). I don't need an awe-inspiring building to worship a melody like Feeling Good. Everytime the song comes on, I open the doors of my own place of worship and allow the music to turn me into a believer once more for approximately one-hundred and eighty seconds.

The second mistake Alain de Botton makes is in supposing that the construction of a temple like the one he proposes is important in order to highlight human feelings such as love and friendship. Again, he overlooks the evidence around him. Parks in London in the summer fill up with happy families playing with frisbees, cycling or improvising a five-a-side. Go to the City of London to pay my dues to the God of Friendship? Nah, mate! I'd rather go down to my local. Even for a teetotal like me, there's still the food, the ambience and the camaraderie.

The third flaw in de Botton's project is that he falls into the same trap that's been laid before by those of a godly disposition. It's the one that has religion as almost the sole source of certain human feelings and emotions such as: amazement, perspective, sympathy, empathy and understanding. There are many more, but these are the ones that come to mind now. Religion is not responsible for any of these natural and innate traits any more than it is responsible for the wars waged in its name. We can do rituals, ceremonies and communing without believing that there's a supernatural force that created the world in six days (and rested on the seventh, although very often I feel as if it was the other way around; so messy it gets on planet Earth these days).

I really do wish Alain de Botton luck with his project. And who knows? Maybe when the centre opens, if it does open, in 2013, I'll pay it a visit. If only to find out what it's like. In the meantime, my piece of advice to Mr de Botton is to put the stereo on and allow Ms Simone's opening verses to unleash the spiritual power  within him: Birds flying high you know how I feel/Sun in the sky you know how I feel/Breeze driftin' on by you know how I feel/It's a new dawn/It's a new day/It's a new life/For me/And I'm feeling good. I'm already down on my knees, my hands are placed together and my fingers laced. Alain, I am worshipping at my own temple.

Talking of temples, music and spirituality there's a CD I've been playing nonstop for the last fortnight. As debut albums go, Un solo Palo No Hace Monte (A Single Tree Does Not a Forest Make) by the London Lucumi Choir, is one of the more promising ones I’ve come across in a long time. From their choice of tracks to the cover design, the record exudes passion and dedication aplenty. The opening salvo is Eleguá, the orisha that traditionally kicks off festivities in Yoruba culture in Cuba, played on both bata drums and güiro and led expertly by Daniela Roselson De Armas on vocals. The second track introduces us to Ogún, the second of the four warriors in Ocha and performed on bata drums again and bembé. The latter rhythm could have come straight out of a slum in Havana. Changó, the third song builds up slowly until it reaches a well-worked and upbeat climax; a strong reminder of the fire and thunder that are said to be owned by this orisha. The güiro returns for track number four, Oyá, a short melody that is charmingly sung by Sheila Ruiz and Nana Aldrin Quaye. The Yoruba presence, then, gives way to its Arará counterpart with Masé, the fifth number, the equivalent of Ochún in the Lucumi culture. Variety is the key word in the Choir’s output and this is evident in the guaguancó El Mayoral (The Foreman) with its strong message of rebellion and freedom and the yambú El Pan de Piquito, a nice musical spin on a popular Cuban phrase. The record’s coda Cantos Espirituales (Spiritual Chants) finds the aforementioned Nana alongside singers Mish Aminoff, Olga Baglay and Anita Chakraborty reviving a lesser-known genre of the Afro-Cuban canon.

The London Lucumi Choir (“Lucumi” is a Cuban variation of the word “Ulkumi” or “Ulcumi”, one of the former kingdoms in Yorubaland) was founded in 2006 and is one of the few community ensembles in the British capital that doesn’t audition future members. The choir is the brainchild of percussionist Jorge Amando de Armas Sarria, singer and arranger Daniela Rosselson de Armas and master drummer Javier Campos Martínez. The group focuses mainly on performing songs dedicated to the orishas (Yoruba deities), plus other rhythms belonging to the rich Afro-Cuban tradition. The London Lucumi Choir was recently shortlisted for the Folkloric Act of the Year by online magazine Latino Life. It will officially launch Un Solo Palo No Hace Monte on the 24th April at the Rich Mix as part of the La Línea Festival.

You can buy the record here.

© 2012

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum…”, to be posted on Wednesday 15th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Ripples of laughter undulate in the windless, stifling heat, carrying the mirthful tones of the two women's voices across each dwelling. Carmen is telling Mirta that Cuca's plans to go to Spain have been thwarted. The "gallego" she found on an online dating agency, courtesy of Pepe's wife, turned out to be disabled. Cuca - Cuquita to her close friends - is a "daughter of Changó" and therefore unable to accept boyfriends or partners who have physical impediments. After a whole year of online courtship, she has to go back now to square one and update her profile on the website. In order to do that she will depend once again on Yolanda, Pepe's wife, who works in an office that deals with foreign firms and in which there's only one PC with access to internet. Half Yolanda's colleagues already have profiles on the same or on other dating sites. Although Carmen and Mirta are laughing out loud, their voices lower when they talk about Cuca lest the "man from the CDR" finds out that she wants to flee the country. However, Carmen and Mirta needn't worry. Everybody knows the story.

Welcome to the "solar habanero". Where your business is everybody's business.

The Havana slum is one of those landmarks in the Cuban capital that never makes it to the tourist brochures but without whose presence my city would be a limping ghost; bereft of one limb. The slum is an entity in and of itself, a self-proclaimed republic of concrete and cement where Darwin's law has reigned supreme since time immemorial, with Marx's edict by its side. The "solar" is a direct descendant of the Indian "bajareque", "caney", "bohío" and "barbacoa", sometimes the four of them rolled into one. It's social promiscuity to the nth degree, Einstein's law of relativity stretched to the maximum. How many people live in a Havana slum? No one knows. Not even census-takers. Above all, the "solar" is alive. It lives in its stories, its (semi) (non-) houses, its lingo and social interactions.

The "solar" is a challenge to mathematics. Homes are not rectangular, or square, but amoebic, capable of changing shape because of the movement of its cells, viz., inhabitants. There's always room for one more. Or two. Or three. And with that comes the extension, a daring excursion into architecture. Venture into the "solar" through the makeshift front gate, fashioned out of a dirty white sheet that's seen better days, or if you're really lucky a piece of cardboard. Walk past María's house, the first one of a series of cavernous dwellings, where she will be plaiting someone's hair whilst the sound of Paulito FG and his band playing some hardcore timba blares out of her radio. María is one of the unofficial DJs in the "solar". Next to her lives Ismael, an elderly man in his 90s whose wife died ten years ago when she was seventy-four and for whom he always arranges a "toque" for Oshún with violins on the anniversary of her death. Ismael looks fragile but he's still able to help Clara's children with her homework because he used to be a teacher in his youth even if the way multiplication and division are done nowadays differ greatly from his own practice. Ismael always dresses in white. Rumour has it that he's had his "santo" done. Clara, on the other hand, is rarely seen without her uniform, now that she works at the new supermarket across the park, the one the locals call "shopping". Clara is a robust, mixed-race, strong-minded woman in her early forties. She is kind and giving but if she has to put someone in her place she will do so without a second thought. That's what happened to Virginia who fell out with Clara badly some time ago over a shirt left behind, hanging on the washing line. Virginia thought the item of clothing belonged to one of her three boys, whilst Clara was completely sure that it was Enriquito's, her ten-year old son. Strongs words were exchanged and accusations made: "You know why you're so bitter? Because your husband left you and nobody wants you." "Look who's talking, the one who's always flirting with the butcher so that she can get a little bit of extra meat". "At least, it's the butcher and not a bunch of teenage boys who're always peeking through the broken slats of your front window to see you taking your clothes off. And you know they're there. That's why you do it. Bitch!" And the hands became fists and the neighbours had to pull them apart. But soon after the two of them made up, because Virginia's fridge broke down and she needed a place to store her durofrios in. The ice-cubes that calm the thirst of the children of the "solar". And of some of the adults, too. The flavours vary from vanilla to strawberry, the sugar is the quick fix the little ones need to carry on playing baseball, football or hide and seek. Virginia also sells "raspaduras", the creamy toffee that is so sweet you have to eat it bit by bit. She used to be married to a very abusive husband, who used to wake up the entire solar in the middle of the night everytime he beat Virginia up. Despite Virginia's constant black eyes, he never went to jail. Prison only caught up with him when he broke into Domingo's shop.

Domingo is the grocer. He is a direct descendant from gallegos, who arrived in Havana in the early years of the 20th century. He likes living in the solar. He has a big moustache and a round belly and there's always a smile on his face. Although he was born in Cuba, he affects a Galician accent. His house is probably the most modern-looking one. He has a little business on the side, selling the surplus of fruit and vegetables in his state-run shop out of the back door. But if you ask him, he will say that he's doing nothing wrong. In fact, he'll tell you that at least he's being honest; he makes sure everyone takes their share on the ration card before working out how much he can get out of a pound of carrots or a kilo of potatoes. Domingo is good friends with Pedro, the caretaker. Nobody gave Pedro the job title, or the position, come to think of it, but the only water pump in the solar happens to be located in his house and he's the only one who knows how to work it. Every two or three days, depending on the water level, he will tell the neighbours to turn their taps on at 6pm, or 7 pm to fill up their tanks, buckets and bowls. You could say that Pedro is more considerate than Domingo. Once, when he found out that Fefa was not coming home from work at the usual time because she had a Party meeting, he didn't turn the water mains on until she arrived. He made sure everyone knew why he was doing it. The Sunday after, Fefa took a plate of rice and peas with chicken fricassee she had just cooked to his house to thank him for his gesture. Fefa's abode is also one of the least dilapidated. Everyone knows why. She's a member of the Communist Party and you can see the evidence the minute you walk into her house. A huge picture of Fidel Castro Ruz in military fatigues greets the visitor. Korda's image of Che Guevara stares at guests from one wall, whilst Camilo Cienfuegos's ever-smiling face beams down from another one. Two rocking chairs, a couch and a set of one table and four chairs make up the furniture. Fefa has a guest staying with her these days. A German guy who's interested in finding out how Cubans really live. He pays rent to Fefa for the small room in which he sleeps but it's a token amount. In his mind, however, he's the winner. All his theories about the dictatorship of the proletariat, all the ideas he embraced back in his native (formerly West) Germany have turned out to be true. Never mind that his passport and wallet got stolen as soon as he arrived at the solar (and mysteriously re-surfaced within a couple of days) or that he can't speak much Spanish, or that the scheduled blackouts still catch him unawares. He looks on the bright side, this Teutonic idealist, he does. He's taking percussion classes with Puchito, on an old conga drum that's usually wheeled out everytime there's a bembé in the slum. He's also attempting to learn Spanish with one of Felipito's sons. Felipito came all the way from Oriente some years ago and little by little he brought his whole family, including two uncles and a great-great-auntie. People in the solar call his family, "los muchos" (the many). At the beginning Cuquita tried to ensnare the German guy, but when she was told by her neighbours that he looked more as if he was atoning for past sins supposedly committed by capitalism than a one-way ticket to El Yuma, she gave him a wide berth.

There's only one person in the solar who doesn't get on with the German guest: Francisca, Panchita to her neighbours. She's an old, black woman who had just one son. He got killed in Angola in '84. When the German guy found out about her he told her that  her son's death had not been in vain, that in the end everyone was going to be free and that there would be world peace. Maybe it was the fact that he couldn't say it in Spanish properly, maybe it was the mix of English and German, maybe it was his body language, but Panchita told him to f... Well, the whole solar shook to the ground. And no amount of "Entschuldigen Sie, bitte, Ich verstehe nicht" could calm her down. Straight away all the neighbours were reminded of the day when the television cameras rolled into the slum and Francisca's hands trembled convulsively as she held the mike that was thrust in her direction. They wanted to know how it felt like to be a martyr's mother. She couldn't utter one single word. She burst into tears and the cameras were switched off immediately. It was the last time there was a live broadcast on the subject on the telly. Until then, Panchita'd had a bad (unfounded) reputation for being thought a descendant of "congos". Rumour had it that she was into witchcraft. But after the television incident, everyone changed their attitude towards her. One person who's always got on with Panchita, however, is "China man" Wong. Wong lives across from her, in a run-down house where the lounge, the dining room, the bedroom and the kitchen are one single room. He uses the communal toilet and bathroom outside. Nobody knows how old Wong is. He looks as old as Methuselah. He had arrived from Canton, China, probably sixty or seventy years ago and ran  his own pharmacy until 1959. After having his business confiscated by the government he ended up in the solar, married to a mulatto woman and producing half a dozen children. Wong is still the person to go to, if any of the children falls ill and conventional medicine fails to cure the ailment.

On Sundays there's usually rumba in the solar. And sometimes there are fights because of the alcohol being consumed, past grievances and misunderstandings. For instance, Angelito, who is "entendi'o", accepts and is happy with his homosexuality but can't put up with people making fun of it. In the same way that his conversations are peppered with "darlings" and "dears", he pulls a knife on anyone who dares question his masculinity, campness notwithstanding. Same with Rafael and his girlfriend Rebeca, the two rockers of the solar. Their hair is long and sometimes it's hard to tell them apart, what with being blond and blue-eyed, the two of them. But the minute Papito starts taking the mickey out of him and his girlfriend, Rafael jumps him. By Sunday evening, or Monday morning, however, everyone is back to saying hello to each other and whatever happened the day before stays there.

The zinc roofs, the DIY-ed doors that barely guard people's privacy, the dirty water that often runs down the concrete corridor en route to the road, the aroma of the fresly-made coffee, brewed at three in the afternoon regularly, the barefooted children eating sweets and memorising salsa songs, the congregation of neighbours in Domingo's house every Saturday night whenever he gets a new movie on video (he used to show them for free on his VCR years ago until he found out that he could charge a small amount and now the weekly or fortnightly video experience has become another business on the side), the sound of the wooden boxes being hit with bare hands or bent metal spoons on Sunday afternoons and the smell of pork scratchings. That's the solar habanero, the Havana slum. And as I venture back out, those ripples of laughter undulating in the windless, stifling heat, carrying the mirthful tones of the two women's voices, travel with me.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music” to be published on Sunday 12th February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 5 February 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The recent news of Kodak going bust took me by surprise. Apparently the photographic film pioneer couldn't keep up with the challenge posed by digital cameras and has had to file for bankruptcy protection.

I wasn't aware of Kodak's travails, to be honest. For me George Eastman and his yellow boxes were always there, as part of the background. Even in Havana, where the brand was not as ubiquitous as it was elsewhere in the world, we knew about the "Kodak moment".

But on finding out about the demise of this company that once boasted 90% of sales of film in the States, I didn't think of "Kodak moments" in my life. That's because I never had any. What I did have were "Soviet moments".

My cousin had an old Russian camera which she was given before she started her university degree. It was the beginning of a process that I still remember after all these years. Snap away, give the film to her mum to be developed (my auntie used to work next door to a photo studio and she knew everyone there), count the days (it usually took a fortnight) until the photos were ready, head for the studio to pick up the envelope and voilà! enjoy the often chaotic images: too much light, or none at all, red eyes due to the flash effect, heads lopped off, ears à la Van Gogh, little finger and forefinger sticking out from behind someone's head and drowsy eyes pleading with the photographed not to be papped. And yet, we all loved those images.

These yellowed, family photos when placed to their modern counterparts, which can be taken either on a digital camera or mobile phone, are the equivalent of the drunken uncle dancing his head off at the wedding banquet whilst embarrassing his hipster nephew sitting in the corner. They really did that? With that? My generation will have fuzzy images to remember, greasy fingerprints revealing the spot where many hands left their mark before. My children's generation will have "files" instead of photos - with names such as jpgs, gifs and bitmaps - and will depend on a hard drive to keep them safe for their own progeny. Back then, all photos, regardless of their quality, or lack of it thereof, were put into albums. That ephemeral "Soviet moment" was preserved for eternity. Those snaps became part of our heirloom, passed down from grandparents to parents to offspring. In my case, these amateur images were one of the reasons why I fell for photography as an art.

I know some people who don't think much of photographers, especially if they're of the weddings/birthdays/graduation ceremony variety. After all, what's so hard about mounting and adjusting a  shutter? Anybody can do that. Well no, I beg to differ. Even though photography is more reality-based than, say, painting, it's still an art that demands high skills of its practitioners. I'm not just referring to the light and space symbiosis, which is important, but also to the subject (what or who to photograph?) and background. Some of my favourite photos look like paintings and carry a heavy historical baggage, despite the fact that they're nothing but the result of an instant. And this is without the undesired added effect of Photoshop. A good photographer is like an archaeologist. He or she will help you discover a treasure of which you were not aware. It could be an angle or a shade. A brilliant photographer will go beyond that; he or she will expose the soul of their subject.

Eventually my cousin's camera fell into my hands. By then, I was already in university. Looking at those old pictures now, the majority of which are on Facebook (there you go, I'm just doing my bit to help Mr Zuckerberg sell shares in his seven-year-old "baby". How much will you give me of the total $100bn, Mark?), I marvel at the innocence and candidness they convey.

Some people had "Korda moments". In my case, those initial "Soviet moments" (random family occasions snapped by a Russian device) changed into "Havana moments" - my uni years, my barrio and my friends. Whether you call them Korda or Havana, these are moments. Ours to cherish.

© 2012

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 8th February at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Killer Opening Songs ("David" by Nellie McKay)

It's been a good beginning of the year for Killer Opening Songs, the regular music section on this blog that deals with those album melodic starters that display murderous tendencies. All the CDs K.O.S. bought recently had the right combination of creativity, inspiration and quality.

As an example of the above Killer Opening Songs brings you Nellie McKay's 2004 debut record "Get Away From Me", an eclectic collection of eighteen songs, in a two-CD set, showing off the influence of at least a dozen different music styles. K.O.S. hasn't been this excited since listening to the Malay singer-songwriter Zee Avi's self-titled album back in 2010.

What catches the listener's attention straight away on Get Away From Me (apparently a wordplay on Norah Jones's Come Away With Me) is Nellie's talent for music-playing and songwriting. She's not only an excellent pianist, but also dallies deftly in vibes, organ, chimes, recorder, glockenspiel, xylophone, and synthesizer. Her lyrics are witty, humourous and sassy, just like a very clever teenager, which is what she was when the album came out. She was only nineteen. This mix might come across as a tad chaotic, as if a child's just been given a watercolour set and a piece of paper and he or she has set to work without a clear idea of what they want to achieve,

Yet, the result at least for K.O.S is not mess but the opposite: musical maturity that belies Nellie's years. Hers is unbridled energy that oozes innovation and risk-taking on almost every track.

It's always refreshing to see a young person escaping to our musical past and paying respectful tribute to styles that might not be other artists' cup of tea. In Nellie's case, this approach comes in songs such as It's a Pose and Manhattan Avenue. Both tracks have the right mix of bluesy 50s New York with a more contemporary, urban touch.

The Killer Opening Song sets the right tone for the rest of the record. David is a tirade against... David? (who else?) that takes on aspirations, politics (Mister Bushie says/I'm your president/I have lots to say/Hey hey hey/And click goes the remote/There you have my vote/Catchin' the next boat out of here) and disappointment. It's probably the most "straight-pop" song of the whole set. It's also a good  introduction to Nellie's idiosyncratic approach to song-writing. What follows thereafter is enough to make you believe in the power of popular music again, even if it means that you have to press the "mute" button of the remote control as soon as X Factor starts on the telly. Quality, not quantity, that's what K.O.S. wants. And this song shows how to do it.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 5th February at 10am (GMT)


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