Sunday 30 September 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflection and Music

I'm almost a third of the way through Middlemarch by George Eliot, a door-stopper of a book which I bought at a car boot sale (or was it a secondhand bookshop?) for a song. The novel is interesting and at times very, very funny, in that peculiar way in which some Victorian novels are. However, a few days ago, after reading a passage, I had one of those "moments" where different elements with no apparent relation to each other seemed to gel together all of a sudden.

The passage was about Mr Lydgate, the surgeon, and his thoughts on the kind of life famous people might have led before they'd become renowned. It went thus: "Most of us, indeed, know little of the great originators until they have been lifted up among the constellations and already rule our fates. But that Herschel, for example, who 'broke the barriers of the heavens' - did he not once play a provincial church-organ, and give music lessons to stumbling pianists? Each of those Shining Ones had to walk on the earth among neighbours who perhaps thought much more of his gait and his garments than of anything which was to give him a title to everlasting fame: each of them had his little personal history sprinkled with small temptations and sordid cares, which made the retarding friction of his course towards final companionship with the immortals..."

One of the disparate elements that latched itself on to the above passage was a flashback I had when I spotted an old classmate of mine from secondary school in a photo posted on Facebook.What's strange is that in the image she was in the background, in the midst of a group of people, the majority of whom were alien to me (except for the owner of the camera, who was of my acquaintance in university and was in the centre of the picture), and yet my former classmate stood out. Something she never did in class.

There are people whose invisibility is an open invitation to ask ourselves if they ever existed. We all know them. They are the quiet ones, those who're neither top of the class academically nor flunk out exams, the ones who shy away from contact with other classmates, even if they share the same interests. They're part of your life as a student, but you'd be hard pressed to name them. One day the teacher will say: So and So is not in class today because s/he has been taken ill and you will wonder who they are. My class throughout secondary school had more than thirty pupils. I think we were more like close to forty, or just over that figure. Believe me, in Year 9 it could get quite rowdy.

This classmate of mine sat at the back of the class. She spoke in a whisper (I once asked her to lend me a ruler, or a sharpener, I forget now. That's how I know what her voice sounded like). At the risk of sounding politically incorrect and undiplomatic, I must admit that in the looks department we, boys, didn't take much notice of her. It's not that she wasn't good-looking (she was, but then, again, I ignored that detail), but there were other girls who, we boys thought, scrubbed up better. And then there were also the Literature and Spanish (female) teachers on whom we, highly hormonal teenagers had a crush. Was that the reason why my former classmate apparently chose the mantle of impermeability?

I don't know. As for the fame to which the above passage refers, as far as I'm concerned, my ex-classmate hasn't discovered a new Uranus like Sir Frederick William Herschel did in 1781. But there she was, in that photo on Facebook, receiving her quarter of an hour, Warholian claim to notoriety. People like my ex-classmate are the small, imperceptible details in our lives. They make no big splashes, and yet years later, we stumble upon their faces on an old, yellow photograph, and as if by magic, we remember the clothes they wore, the phrases they overused, the way they walked. They're like autumn leaves, undistinguished and unremarkable when they all fall from the same tree in unison and pile up on the pavement. But, how many times have I not held an autumn leaf in my hand, its golden and orange hues announcing the arrival of one of my favourite seasons and marvelled at the beauty of it?

Some of us look back on our school days through the prism of those characters who stood out: the nerds, the bullies, the show-offs, the failures. Especially if they went on to become famous for whatever reason. But there's another group, smaller, perhaps, who never demanded any attention, in fact, they eschewed it whenever possible. They were like the proverbial still waters, whose depth we never really did find out. And then one day they suddenly turn up in our adult lives, like a song, performed a capella, whose words we never learnt and whose existence we never acknowledged, but whose melody becomes familiar as soon as the first notes kick in. These invisible classmates (or students, if you are/were a teacher) are the echo of an earlier life before Facebook gave them the fifteen minutes of fame they never sought.

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 3rd October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 26 September 2012

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

One of my favourite sections on this blog is making a comeback. Although I should say that it never really went away. But I wish sometimes I could post more articles about food. Especially about food in relation to music.

Summer is on its way out finally (honestly, my gente, I can't stand it! I know, I know. I was born in Cuba, tropical country with warm weather. But I'm a sucker for autumn... and spring). Anyhoo, as I was saying, or rather, writing, summer is taking its final bow and what better way to sign it off than with this tasty pork recipe? By the way, I didn't use pak choi when I made this. I don't even know what it looks like, but I think it's something like this.  Pork has a natural strong flavour, although my experience in the UK is that unless you go to a butcher's, you will be very disappointed by what they sell in supermarkets. The recipe is by Angela Harnett, who's slowly become one of my favourite chefs. I just hope she doesn't dethrone Nigel Slater. He's still my número uno.

Pork escalope with peppers and pak choi

(Serves four)
50ml olive oil
2 red romano peppers, thinly sliced, seeds removed
2 pak choi, sliced, thick roots and green leaves separated
1 tbsp sage, chopped
Pinch of salt
8 pork escalopes, approximately 80g each
2 tbsp of lemon juice

Put 30ml of the olive oil into a large frying pan. Add the sliced peppers and saute for 10 minutes on a low heat.

Add the pak choi roots and saute for two minutes, throw in the green leaves and continue to cook on a low heat for a further two minutes. Add the sage and check seasoning. If the vegetables look as if they are drying out, add a little hot water.

Remove the vegetables, dry the pan with kitchen roll and add the remaining oil. Get your pan nice and hot, season the escalopes and fry on a medium heat for two minutes on each side.

Remove the pork, deglaze the pan with the lemon juice and add the vegetables for long enough to ensure they are hot through.

Rest the escalopes on top of the vegetables to serve.

As for the music I chose to go with this dish it mirrors the season. The transition from summer to autumn, which means that the melodies I selected move from an upbeat tone to a more subdued mood. When Angela writes about sage and peppers that makes think of seasoning. Just like Chila Lynn's Real Woman makes me think of cool, catchy pop. She's a Cuban-born singer who performs in both Spanish and English. I hope you enjoy this track from her debut album, Real Woman.

Ex-Cranberries, post-Cranberries, still-Cranberries? I've no idea, all I know that the first time I heard the lilting, strong Irish accent of Dolores O'Riordan, I was smitten. I still have a tape where a friend of mine recorded a couple of tracks by The Cranberries as fillers. This song, Black Widow, might well represent the first leaf that falls from a tree as soon as August gives way to September. The song is apparently about Dolores's mother-in-law's death. O'Riordan's voice reminds me of cooking on a low heat. Although normally high-pitched, she can bring her tone down to a husky whisper. Now, that's what I call singing.

My last musical offering tonight comes all the way from Brazil. I "discovered" Criolo back in the summer through a compilation CD that came with my copy of Songlines magazine. This track, Não Existe Amor em SP (There's no love in Sao Paulo) is about the lack of love and hope in that city. Criolo is actually a rapper but he can also put his soul hat on and belt out a heartfelt tune like this. I recommend that you check out his other clips on youtube. Brilliant performer, and the band ain't 'alf bad either, innit? Just like that simmering pork, I hope you enjoy the music. Ta.

Angela Hartnett is chef patron at Murano restaurant and consults at the Whitechapel Gallery and Dining Room, London. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

© 2012
Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 30th September at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 23 September 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

How was it for you? The question whose answer ( in a sexual context) sometimes demands a white lie, could well have been asked by Londoners of each other after the end of the recent Olympic bonanza.

Did the earth shake for you? If not, then, all those years of preparations were for naught. If it did, then, join the club. I have a confession to make: I loved the Olympics and the Paralympics. They cheered me up no end. My usual cynical self left the countyy along with the hordes of other people going abroad and looking for an alternative to the Games.

Of course, it helped that the national mood demanded that ecstasy become the duty of almost every citizen to display. An alternative had the potential to be thought of unpatriotic and nihilist.

Just to give you an idea of how proud I felt of my adopted city being on the world stage, I will admit to feeling chuffed to bits when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour of France, prior to the Games. I've never followed the Tour, nor am I really interested in cycling as a competitive sport (although I do ride a bike). But such was the fervour that took hold of the country that I allowed myself to be carried away by the waters of chauvinism. I, too, was a Briton at that moment.

The next time that patriotic feeling was on display took place during "Magical Saturday",4th August, in the evening, when, in less than an hour Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all decorated their chests with gold medals.

What was pleasant about the Olympics and Paralympics as well was that the support from the public was spontaneous and truly heartfelt. In fact, whenever a politician (except for clown Boris) tried to piggyback on the success of Team GB, they were rightly shown up. Both Osborne and Theresa May were booed during one of the Paralympics events and I remember thinking then: "Blimey, don't Brits (and non-Brits) sing well in unison?"

This musical prowes, by the way, was demonstrated in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and in the same events in the Paralympics (although in the latter, there was too much Coldplay for my liking). And not just the scores, but also the performances, the creativity, the incredible energy. It was an odd act to watch, too. The famous Britsh stiff upper lip had finally collapsed. Replaced by Mo Farah's unmistakable hands-to-head "M " gesture.

However, patriotic histrionics aside, I'm looking forward to the report on the Olympics and Paralympics finances. That's not to detract from the spectacle presented to us, after all, just Paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds' smile was worth the £9bn the Games allegedly cost. But we do need to look into the long-term legacy of the summer sports celebrations because as tax-payers we have the right to count our pennies and make sure that those pennies were well spent and will contribute to the development of future generations. Especially in a modern world that is so bent towards short-termism and dependent on the free-market mantra. The G4S security fiasco was a reminder, if any was needed, that private companies venturing into the public sector realm brings many challenges, not least accountability.

So, how was it for you? Worry not, for I won't be looking into your eyes and thinking that, strangely, your words have suddenly taken on a whiter shade of pale. Be honest, be you, I can take it.

© 2012

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 26th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Killer Opening Songs (More Than Money by Seth Lakeman)

The barrel was truly scraped for this gem of an album. And that's meant, naturally, in a nice way. Killer Opening Songs just wanted to get that pun out of the way before going on to describe how it was blown away by one of this year's most precious releases. Precious because "Tales from the Barrel House" contains some of the most innovative British music to which K.O.S. has been exposed for a long time.

Seth Lakeman is a well-known singer-songwriter in the world of folk music. His album "Freedom Fields" sailed pretty well in pop chart waters back in 2006 and gave Lakeman a rare opportunity to appear on Top of the Pops. But "Tales from the Barrel House" is a different musical proposition altogether. It's a going-back-to-basics approach.

That's literal, by the way. Guitar, banjo, viola and violin, amongst other instruments, are all played by Seth. They render the record raw and stark. So, from that perspective "Tales..." is truly a solo album. At the same time there's a magical thread weaving all the tracks together. And it's the Killer Opening Song the one that provides that first salvo.

"More than Money" was recorded in the George and Charlotte mine, in Devon, southwestern England. Its lyrics are a homage to those grafters who spent their whole lives working underground. The sound is rough, the edges unpolished, the result, an acoustic beauty.

The surroundings were as important in the making of the song as the words and melody themselves. The mine in which Lakeman recorded is a living museum nowadays. Visitors get a glimpse of the conditions in which these workmen laboured in past times. In the same way outsiders are exposed to this intense and rather unusual experience, Seth sought to open himself to and make use of all the tools and objects around him. Including the coffin room, where he placed his laptop. As he said to Songlines magazine in this year's April/May issue: "We went right into the heart of the mine, set up a mic, and away I went."

"More than Money" is the first beat of that heart. What follows after is a group of songs that reinforce Seth Lakeman's position as one of the UK's foremost singer-songwriters today. "The Blacksmith's Prayer" is a haunting melody about the life and work of a blacksmith (you can watch a very good performance of it by clicking here). There are tracks about cider-making, carpenters and a grandfather clock. Above all, "Tales of the Barrel House" is an album about craftsmen and artisans, miners or otherwise. Small wonder, then, that it came from the pen of another artisan, Seth Lakeman.

© 2012

Next post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 23rd September at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 16 September 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

This is worth the airfare alone, I suddenly thought to myself.

It was almost ten o' clock at night and I was walking up the steep road that led to our apartment when a full moon threw its silver beam down the open sea and split the water into two. On one side lay the well-lit coast with its distant, diminutive houses and street lamps; the only sign of human presence. On the other side was the vastness of the sea, looking both inviting and threatening.

My first time in Italy was full of magic moments like this.

It'd been many years since I had seen a full moon lighting up the sea. It's funny how we often forget moments that we otherwise take for granted. I have lost count of how many times I sat on the seawall in my native Havana watching a full moon become a morning sun.

My introduction to Ravello, and Italy by default, had taken place a few days before that magic moment and it was full of surprises, too. We flew to Naples from Heathrow via Milan, one of the world's "fashion capitals". We'd already arranged a car hire in London and after picking up our motor we headed off to the Amalfi coast straight away.

As soon as we left the A3 motorway near Salerno we were blown straight away by the landscape. Perilous as it was, driving up the narrow, winding roads, we couldn't stop marvelling at the azure colour of the sea and the elegant gardens and villas.

If truth be told I must admit that on that first encounter I was more focused on the road than the greenery around us. I know it's not good to generalise but if that first experience was anything to judge by, my conclusion was at the time that Italian drivers were not very patient. Or at least many weren't. Being behind the wheel in a foreign territory to which I had just been introduced, I was being cautious and travelling at 20 or 30 kilometres per hour and as a consequence I'd acquired an unwanted and rather restless "tail". Well, you can imagine the chorus of horns being tooted in unison and the obscenities screamed at me in Italian, when my fellow drivers finally overtook me. Swearing that eluded me completely because I couldn't speak their language.

However the linguistic element became one of the salient aspects of my holidays. Readers and followers of this blog know about my passion for languages. So, how could I pass up the chance of learning a few words in a lexicon that is so close to my native Spanish? My wife bought a phrasebook before leaving London and every morning I made it my task to learn a few terms that I later on used with the locals. I hardly had any communication problems and when the need arose I defaulted to Spanish but with an Argentinian lilt. It's a well-known fact that many Italians migrated to the South American nation at the turn of the 20th century and Argentinian Spanish (as well as the Uruguayan variant) sounds a lot like Italian. Some words still threw me off, though. "Burro" in Italian translates as "butter", whereas to us, Spanish speakers, a "burro" is a "donkey". So in Hispanoamerica we ride it and in Italy they spread it on their toast. Bonkers. Languages are.

What led us to Italy was the wedding of my wife's niece. And what a beautiful affair it was! From the choice of the garden where the bride and groom exchanged vows, to the terrace where the reception was held, everything was carefully planned. The latter, especially, was an occasion to remember. We were up on the roof of a villa, overlooking the charming Amalfi coast on a cloudless, starry night. Just magical.

The wedding took place the day after we arrived which left us with plenty of time to busy ourselves with a daily programme of activities. We paid a visit to the aforementioned Amalfi coast and swam in one of its crowded beaches. We also went to Positano, a nearby picturesque town, to which we travelled by ferry. The journey only took us twenty-five minutes approximately and on the way there we were able to soak up the unbelievable coastal scenery from our boat. The rest of the time was divided between beach (including the less fashionable, but very enjoyable, Minori) and a visit to Villa Cimbrone, where, incidentally, I had the best pizza I've ever had in my life. In fact the food in general was pretty good, albeit quite salty at times for my taste. At night we wandered around the piazza in Ravello, which filled up quickly with the sounds of children playing.

It's not hard to see why the Amalfi coast and places like Ravello and Sorrento became the favourite hideways of celebrities such as DH Lawrence (apparently he wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover there), Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy (a photo of her hung prominently on one of the walls of a nearby hotel). It also goes some way to explain the exorbitant prices that seem to be the norm in the area. Plus the hard stares from some shop owners, waiters and waitresses who size you up and decide within one fraction of a second whether you have bottomless pockets or not. There are ways, however, of having a good time without having to break the bank. Use buses and boats, instead of taxis. Even if, like me, you're driving, it's better to take public transport in order to save money on car parking costs. Leave your motor for longer and more urgent journeys.

Whenever I think back on that full moon, on the turquoise of the water and the warm evenings in the piazza, I say to myself: Just those moments were worth the airfare alone. Magic Italy, I shall be back.

© 2012

All photos taken by the blog author.

Next Post: "Killer Opening Songs", to be published on Wednesday 19th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday 9 September 2012

Coffee and Music

End of my holidays and I'll be back on blogging duties next week. In the meantime, let's sign this brief summer break off with a top tune by a top artist, accompanied by a constellation of stars. Catch John Lee Hooker from 2:55 onwards. Brilliant. I hope you had a nice and relazing summer, too.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Coffee and Music

Well, the lady's got it. If you remember Rachelle from her debut album First Instrument you won't recognise this Rachelle Ferrell. She's still got the voice, hell, no, let me correct that. SHE'S STILL GOT AN AMAZING, MINDBLOWING VOICE! But I think that these days she's doing what she always wanted to do. That the album on which this track appears is called Individuality (can I be me?) says it all. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.


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