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)


  1. I felt a bit uneasy when I heard his proposal, but I hadn't spent the time to examine my feelings in this much detail. Thanks for doing it for me! I don't go to church, but if I were looking for a temple, I think I'd go for the "gods of the hearth"; if I need a space to celebrate life and love and friendship, my home will do just nicely. And if everyone made their home a place of unconditional love and welcome... well, that's better than one big building in London, isn't it?

    On an only-slightly-related note, I think you might find this (by an academic I came across in the course of my research) an interesting and thought-provoking read:
    I don't think I agree with him, but there's an interesting logic there.

  2. Yes, I'm with you on this story too.

    De Botton gets so much press coverage it's really amazing. But then once I made a throwaway comment on my little old blog about one of his new books and he was round the blog before I could take a breath - commenting, persuading me to give the book a try! He's a formidable force in marketing if nothing else... I felt a bit dirty and used at the end of the encounter... even though he was so pleasant and charming. Perhaps because of that...

  3. Cuban, good to be here after so long!

    Great post. I feel that for any type of faith the true temple is always the heart.

    At the same time, that doesn't mean that there's no place for external temples. They act as places where people of like minds can meet and share which is always a good thing for any heart.


  4. Thank you very much for your comments and if Alain is in the neighbourhood and wants to pop in, we can certainly chew the fat over cyber-coffee.

    Rachel C (it's the first time that the two have coincided within minutes of each other), thanks for the link. I respect the author's feeling and I can see his point. His overall view, though, is more rooted in the "I'm English, don't tell me what to believe or what to think" attitude. It's true that the UK as a whole is steeped in Christianity but times change and as more people have given the CoE the heave-ho, other beliefs have stepped into the void. That's my twopence.

    Rachel F, you're right. Alain is a marketing machine. It was hard to avoid him at the beginning of the year. He was everywhere. Nice fella, though.

    Jai, nice to have you back! I've been swinging by your blog regularly to see what was happening so I knew that you were back in the UK. I'll pop over now.

    It's a grim, grey day in London today. I might play a little bit of Tchaikovsky. Just got a free CD with the latest issue of Classic FM magazine. 1812 Overture, here I come! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  5. I adore Classic FM. Have fond memories of marathon classic FM sessions while revising for GCSEs and 'A' levels! Some of my favourite cds are classic FM ones.


  6. Great beat in that music! You always have a way of picking music so nicely.

  7. Nina Simone, what can I say? One of the greats. One of my all-time favorite artists. The minute someone mentions her name I start going down my own mental list of favorites -- Cotton-Eye Joe, The Other Woman, etc. etc. Thanks also for the introduction to the London Lucumi Choir.



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