Wednesday 30 January 2013

Killer Opening Songs (The Bold Fenian Men by Cathy Jordan)

Some voices arrive in one’s life without any fanfare or red carpet treatment. They’re not the type to be found at presidential inaugurations, miming or not. They’re rather the kind to offer a seamless, smooth and meditative transition from past to present. On their (sometimes) puny shoulders these voices carry a country’s cultural traditions, occasionally with a modern twist. Cathy Jordan is one of those voices.

Formerly of Irish band Dervish, Jordan’s debut album, All the Way Home, turned up on Killer Opening Song’s doorstep a cold morning last November. It has since barely left its stereo. The first track, The Bold Fenian Men, is even on K.O.S.’s mp3 player for when it goes out jogging.

Haunting and beautiful, The Bold Fenian Men is an old school Irish ballad that abracadabras the way into a record brimming with disarming intimacy. The melody, originally written by Peadar Kearny, is part of the canon of songs with strong Republican sentiments that permeates the Emerald Isle’s folklore. On the clip below Cathy performs the track a capella (click here for the album version), thus, bringing an otherworldly quality to lines like 'Tis fifty long years since I saw the moon beaming/On strong manly forms, on eyes with hope gleaming/I see them again, sure, in all my sad dreaming/Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.

Part of what makes All the Way Home a must-have album is Cathy’s sheer quality as a singer coupled with the musicianship of her collaborators. Obviously her voice takes centre stage; however, it is far from being the sole focal point. The arrangements are excellent, especially on tracks such as The Road I Go, In Curraghroe and The Jordan Jig, on which she plays the bodhrán, the Irish frame drum. Although All the Way Home is not as energetic a record as the ones she released with Dervish, the album still packs a mighty punch. Nowhere is this clearer than in the title track, a beautiful and rousing coda to a fine collection of songs.

It’s worth remembering at this point the reason why Killer Opening Songs exists. The genesis of this almost six-year-old section can be traced back to the Gospel according to Rob Gordon. Rob (played masterfully by John Cusack) is the lead in the movie High Fidelity. He is the saint patron of heart-broken, male thirty-somethings who still organise their record collection according to the date when they bought a particular record for a girlfriend or friend (And If I want to find the song "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn't give it to them for personal reasons). It was Rob’s last words in that movie that gave birth to K.O.S.: “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention.”

Just like The Bold Fenian Men as sung by Cathy Jordan. A Killer Opening Song.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 3rd February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 27 January 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Some years ago I was at a party talking to a fellow Cuban when an acquaintance of ours (another Cuban) happened to come into the room. We all greeted each other and I remember answering his question “How is it going?” with: “A la marchita” (Going). I don’t recall hearing myself using the phrase but the bloke who’d been sitting with me until that moment looked at me as if he’d just seen an alien.
A la marchita” is not a form of address we use regularly in the largest island of the Antilles. And my English translation doesn’t really do the phrase justice. It fails to convey the old-fashioned sense of it. The only other person I ever heard using it before was... wait for it... my father.
They f**k you up, your mum and dad/they may not mean to, but they do/they fill you with the faults they had/and add some extra, just for you”.

Philip Larkin got it almost right when he wrote This Be the Verse. Our parents’ approach to child-raising (as good-intentioned as it is) is probably the reason why many of us rebel in our teens. But then time marches on and one day we catch our reflection on the bathroom mirror and... Aaargh! Who’s that looking back at me? Could it be that...?  No, yesterday I had my own ears, mouth and mannerisms. And today they all look like... Even the way I scratch the back of my left leg with my right foot is just like... mum’s (or dad’s).

Enter middle-age despondence.

Up until that moment at the party I’d never realised how much I had metamorphosed into my father. There had always been comparisons between him and me, but of the normal kind and they were also easier to accept when I was little. But on closer inspection I noticed that my habit of bringing up song titles and linking them to random words in conversations and my current lectures to my fifteen-year-old-son (delivered with a professor-like, stern tone) were taken straight out of the Cuban In London Senior’s book.

In the novel I’m reading at the moment of writing this post, Life is Elsewhere, by the Czech writer Milan Kundera, the main character, Jaromil, aspires to become a poet but he cannot escape his mother’s ever-looming shadow. Kundera is a master at describing a person’s inner conflicts and Jaromil’s love-hate feelings, as a teenager, towards his progenitor sum up pretty much how we feel about our parents at that difficult age. Yet, once we arrive at middle age and find that we resemble somewhat those who are responsible for our existence and the good and bad in us (hopefully more of the former than the latter) we react with mild horror.

In my case it’s not just my father’s phrase “A la marchita” that has made me wonder if it was worth me running away, metaphorically speaking, all those years ago from my parents’ overprotective mantle. The first time I chastised one of my children, I remember using exactly the same words my mother used to utter when she gave me a tongue-lashing. What was weird about it was that, unlike my father’s old-fashioned greeting which I can’t recall saying, I plagiarised my mum’s words on purpose. Has that ever happened to you, my dear fellow bloggers and readers? Has any of you started to resemble your parents yet? And, is this (un)conscious copying one of those facts of life that we must resign ourselves to accept, like the assumption that our offspring will one day get married, have children, a good job and a house, although not precisely in that order?

Maybe it is fear what we’re dealing with here. And this fear of behaving like our parents is deep inside a fear of not being original. After all, part of our success in life (and I’m not talking of the economic side of it) is based on the idea of creating. Creating a family, creating a home, creating an experience for ourselves. And the fact that perhaps behind each act of creation we’re involved in lies the ubiquitous presence of mum and dad is sometimes too much to bear. Larkin, then, was on to something.

© 2012

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 30th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 23 January 2013

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

Chestnut and chorizo soup
  The chestnut and chorizo soup from Sam and Sam Clarke's Moro The Cookbook. Photograph: Yuki Sugiura for the Guardian
At the moment of writing this post the weather forecast is announcing snow for London. Unsurprisingly, I’m thinking of soup and meat, preferable the latter in the former. So, excuse me my veggies and vegan fellow bloggers, but tonight we’re going for Spanish sausage. I have made a similar dish before but bearing in mind that my youngest is allergic to dairy products and sometimes chorizo has either milk or traces of it, it’s not fair to cook this recipe veru often at home.
Chestnut and chorizo

4 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 celery stick, diced
120g mild cooking chorizo, cut into 1cm cubes
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tsp ground cumin
1½ tsp fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
2 small dried red chillies, crushed
2 tomatoes, fresh or tinned, roughly chopped
500g cooked peeled chestnuts (fresh or vacuum-packed), roughly chopped
20 saffron threads, infused in 3-4 tbsp boiling water
1 litre water
Salt and black pepper

In a large saucepan heat the oil over a medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, chorizo and a pinch of salt and fry for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until everything caramelises and turns brown. Now add the garlic, cumin, thyme and chilli and cook for 1 more minute, followed by the tomatoes and, after about 2 minutes, the chestnuts. Give everything a good stir, then add the saffron-infused liquid, and the water, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and mash until almost smooth but still with a bit of texture. Season with salt and pepper.

Any recipe with chorizo in it is a badass recipe in my book. That’s why I need to open the set tonight with a badass song by a badass singer. I first saw Beth Hart on Jools Holland some months ago and was won over by her passion. Plus she’s an excellent pianist. Great melody and as spicy as my dish tonight. Enjoy.

From Mexico comes a groovy and funky band making a timely political statement. I love the powerful lyrics and the video. Mexican Institute of Sound's Mexico reminds me of those 2 small dried red chillies. They give a bit of a kick to my musical choices tonight. Fresh.

Just like cooking is all about beginnings (the smell of onions, chorizo, carrot and celery is mesmerising) Gomez's How We Operate is all about those first guitar chords. They stay with you long after the song is finished. Just like chestnut and chorizo soup. Magnetic.

Poland gave us the great Chopin and now it gives us Warsaw Village Band's. I love the clip In the Forest and the zany creativity behind it. It’s just like the saffron threads releasing that wonderful aroma once they’re in water. It’s the extra ingredient with the oomph factor. Terrific.

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 27th January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 20 January 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

In February 1992 I found myself waiting outside a room in the students’ club that belonged to the then Pablo Lafargue Faculty of Foreign Languages, or ISPLE, as it was known to us. Inside the room were two women, one originally from Boston and the other one from London. The Bostonian was a theatre instructor whilst her sidekick, the Londoner, had plenty of stage experience. I wasn’t alone. There were about a dozen other people with me, too. Some of them were students and one was a teacher. We were all about to audition to become members of the first improvisational theatre workshop in our uni.

My short career as an amateur actor was about to be born.

Not even in a million years could I ever have imagined that my encounter with the petite, blond “American” (as people used to call one of our instructors, despite the fact that by then there were about three or four more Americans teaching postgraduate courses at the institute) was to change my life forever. The main reason why I auditioned was to improve my English, since the workshops, the rehearsals and the performances would be in that language. I had done a lot of drama and public poetry-reading when little but it’d been a few good years since I’d been in front of an audience. Plus, I was twenty years old at the time so self-consciousness was part of my burgeoning young adult persona.

Yet what happened during my audition and my later membership of the impro group had profound repercussions. To the point where a couple of years after and freshly graduated from university, I tried to become a professional actor. Along the way I got involved with another amateur theatre company, did Scene 1 of the First Act of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (I still remember the “Now, for the love of Love and her soft hours/Let's not confound the time with conference harsh/There's not a minute of our lives should stretch/Without some pleasure now/What sport tonight?” It took me ever so long to learn my lines and “live” them! ) and was a member of the Tomas Piard’s experimental video troupe for about a year (think Passolini minus excrement, violence and sex). When I look back on those years, I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons why I blog so confidently now is because of the self-esteem and trust in myself I built up during that time.

Amateur dramatics used to be (I don’t know now) quite popular in Cuba. I know at least half a dozen actors and actresses who came from the non-professional world and they were terrific on stage as salaried performers every time I saw them after. In fact, one of my closest childhood friends began his artistic career in an amateur troupe for teenagers and youngsters.

My reminiscence about my years as an amateur actor was prompted by a recent six-week-long series on Sky Arts that was shown at the end of 2012. Sadly, I was only able to catch snippets of each episode without seeing an entire programme. My aversion to so-called “reality shows” was partly to blame for this.  However, from what I was able to see, Nation’s Best Am Dram was serious business. The three judges, Miriam Margoyles (who, amongst other roles, has excelled as Dickens’ Miss Havisham), Quentin Letts (insufferable, never liked him) and Bill Kenwright (producer and chairman of Everton Football Club) were fair and objective. The biggest winner was amateur dramatics itself.

When people think of non-professional actors and actresses, the first idea that usually comes into their heads is that of unskilled and old wannabe thespians, dusty old rooms that double up as rehearsal spaces and lack of craft amongst the cast. Nothing could be further from the truth. In most amateur ensembles, it’s common to find members with plenty of abilities and the knack of multi-tasking. From making their own costumes to creating their own props, am-dram is all about dedication, motivation and commitment. In fact, I would go as far as to say that those three terms are the raison d’être for most non-professional actors and actresses. Plus, there’s very little of the “luvvie” culture that permeates Theatreland. I forgot to mention at the beginning that prior to my audition for the improvisation theatre workshop I’d seen a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the same students’ club in which one of my teachers was involved. She was absolutely fantastic. The play, directed by the blond “American”, became another reason for me try my hand at drama.

There’s a danger, though, of taking one’s non-professional activity too seriously. As I wrote before, I auditioned once to become a fully paid actor. I’m sorry to say that my endeavour didn’t meet success. I was rubbish. In vain I tried to blame the friend who was meant to help me out on the day with the props and the music but never turned up. The monologue I’d prepared – Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart – didn’t come up to scratch. For a few weeks after I kept wondering if I had perhaps overplayed my triumphs as an amateur. The acting bug never died, though. It’s still alive. In the last fifteen or sixteen years it’s come out mainly in my other career as an Afro-Cuban dancer and story-teller.

Very often we equate quality in art with professionals, be they painters, photographers or dancers. And yet, there remains in most human beings the extraordinary capacity of pledging our time and resources to an art form without remuneration of any kind. Just for art’s sake. It goes with writers (hello, bloggers, that’s us!), singers, of course, actors and actresses and other non-salaried artists. There might not be any monetary transaction involved but we do get a great payback: the public’s honest appreciation and sincere applause as the curtain comes down.

© 2012

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 23rd January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Urban Diary

The absence of sound is eerie. Here it is, the long, (almost) straight queue of football fans leaving the stadium on a semi-dark winter Sunday mid-afternoon. Through my car window (rolled up to avoid the cold wind) I watch them shuffling along quietly. I interpret the smiles on some faces as success on the pitch. Suddenly I am curious. I might not support this specific football team but their current manager used to coach the club I follow until a year ago and opinions on his performance so far have been divided. I open the car window a few inches. A chilly breeze, that feels as soft on my face as a taffeta handkerchief, steals in. I ask a man carrying a boy on his shoulders what the score was. One nil to them. The white cockerel on the left of his jacket is covered by one of the boy’s legs. My attention turns back to the road. The traffic builds up quickly and what should have been a half-hour round trip to the barber’s becomes a three-quarters-of-an-hour return journey home.

The crowd might be muted (by the cold weather, perhaps? Or maybe by the fact that a Belgian defender who played in Holland until last summer scored the winning goal under the careful gaze of a Portuguese manager in the English Premier League? Perhaps fans are still coming to terms with football’s globalisation phenomenon, its pros and cons?), but I am sure their stomachs are rumbling. As befits the modern, standard post-match routine the nearby takeaways and fast food joints beckon. Still holding plastic cups with lukewarm, watered down, tasteless and colourless tea in their hands, many fans pay a visit to Jerky’s (Caribbean grill), Tennessee Express (chicken & ribs) or McDonald’s (…and the little folk/who share a joke/who nudge and poke/about that bloke/who slurps his Coke/and gives his goatee beard a stroke/were just passing by…). There are also those who opt for a pint and stay behind at The Coach and Horses.

The traffic is still moving at a snail’s pace when I make up my mind to turn right at a mini-roundabout ahead of me in order to cut through the back streets of this typical London urban area. The low-rise houses flanked on either side of the road look ominously silent on the drivers who follow a similar course to mine. On the pavement, a smaller group of supporters clad in dark blue tops and jackets continue to shuffle along quietly as the moribund winter mid-afternoon turns into early evening.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 20th January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 13 January 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A recent, marvellously written essay by the US-based, British writer Zadie Smith had me reliving memories of how I discovered and became keen on rock in mid to late 80s Havana. Smith’s article, entitled Some Notes on Attunement: A voyage around Joni Mitchell, was published in The New Yorker and was part of my holiday reading. Although I only came across Joni’s music some a few years after I found rock'nroll, I came across via Big Yellow Taxi, Some Notes on Attunement… dealt with themes with which I was able to identify.

For instance in Zadie’s household her parents “loved music, as I love music, but you couldn't call any of us whatever the plural of "muso" is. The Smiths owned no rare tracks, no fascinating B-sides (and no records by the Smiths). We wanted songs that made us dance, laugh, or cry”. Likewise in my house, my parents played music (mainly traditional Cuban music) that was mainly uncomplicated and had a beat to it. My father, being a pianist with his own band when I was little, would segue from a piece by Chopin (a composer with his own groove in my humble opinion) to one by the late Cuban virtuoso Ernesto Lecuona seamlessly. So, like Zadie and her family who had Ella and Aretha, we had Benny Moré and the Martí sisters.

It was whilst at secondary school that my musical landscape was altered forever. A girlfriend, her sailor father, an old record player and a bunch of albums by the likes of Queen, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were the launchpad from where I dived headfirst into the world of rock’n’roll. With the passing of time I came to the realisation that this was the music my younger thirteen-year-old-almost-fourteen was searching for then. It was different for the college girl Zadie Smith, though. She had Blackstreet and Aaliyah, but couldn’t quite dig Joni the first time around. Nor for many years after for that matter.

It was during a trip to Wales that the British author – already in her early thirties and accompanied by her poet husband – “got” Ms Mitchell. But not without first putting up a fight. Joni’s music had been an unwelcome companion throughout much of the journey. In vain she had pleaded with her consort to let her change the “bloody piping” that was getting on her nerves so much. And then it happened. The driver stopped at Tintern Abbey. The change of scenery, the quietness of the place and the closeness to nature all contributed to Zadie’s epiphany:

We parked; I opened a car door onto the vast silence of a valley. I may not have had ears, but I had eyes. I wandered inside, which is outside, which is inside. I stood at the east window, feet on the green grass, eyes to the green hills, not contained by a non-building that has lost all its carved defences. Reduced to a Gothic skeleton, the abbey is penetrated by beauty from above and below, open to precisely those elements it had once hoped to frame for pious young men, as an object for their patient contemplation”.

Nowadays Ms Smith cries when she hears Joni Mitchell. She’s usually overcome by emotion, which means she doesn’t think she’s capable of listening to the Canadian singer songwriter in a room with other people or on her iPod whilst walking the streets. Just imagine the spectacle! The author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man reduced to tears over her love of a singer she used to hate.

This kind of musical epiphany tends to arrive when our defences are down. I had a similar one to Zadie. Aged seventeen, a friend of mine took me to the International Havana Jazz Festival in 1989. I, reluctantly, agreed to go with him. At the time, though, my world was more Guns’n’Roses than Irakere. However, with my defences down, jazz not only broke through but also fixed its abode inside me and became overnight one of my favourite genres. It still is. One of my most vivid memories from that first night at the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza was watching the great trumpeter Arturo Sandoval (a year before he defected to the US) blowing the audience away with his prowess. It helped that back in those years my mind was focused on other kinds of beauty as well. I was beginning to find my own voice through the literature I read and the movies I watched. Music, therefore, was the next logical addition.

Zadie’s piece is not just about Joni Mitchell’s presence in the Brit’s life. Smith also discusses Seneca and Kierkegaard, the latter’s Exordium (Attunement) providing the title for the essay. However, you could say that the essence of her article is an attempt to explain why sometimes we’re overcome by epiphanies, like the one she underwent with Joni Mitchell and the one I experienced with jazz.

Many people come up with resolutions for the New Year. I have never, to my knowledge, adopted a similar approach but if there’s one goal that I’ve inadvertently set for myself for many years – ever since that first night at the International Havana Jazz Festival – it has been to keep an open-mind about life, specifically art, in the same way Joni Mitchell’s open-tuned compositions changed Zadie Smith’s mind. In her case, though, with a little help from a Welsh abbey.

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 16th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


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