Wednesday 29 January 2014

Killer Opening Songs (Heartbreaker Part 2 by Alice Russell)

She might be on the petite side body-wise, but when it comes to her pipes, man, her pipes speak for themselves! Of course Killer Opening Songs is referring to one of the most remarkable British soul artists in recent times: Alice Russell.

It’s true that Russell is not as widely known as she should be but that’s the fickle pop world for you. Luckily, she can always count on a loyal army of followers who continue to buy her records and enjoy her brand of booming, eclectic soul.

In fact when it comes to defining Alice’s music, it is hard to pigeon-hole it, which is the way it should be if you ask K.O.S. Whether accompanied by a big band or playing an “unplugged” session, Russell’s voice always sounds fresh and commands attention. Her fifth album ToDust is no different and that is partly thanks to the Killer Opening Song Heartbreaker Part 2 (funnily enough, this is the sequel to the track called simply Heartbreaker, which appears one song after. Convention-breaker, moi?). Wonderfully delivered vocals by Russell over a sparse Prince-like guitar, is what renders Heartbreaker Part 2 its melodic and funky power. The tempo is up and the bass hook is magnetic. The lyrics are simple but carry a strong message, especially the chorus: “If a broken heart is what you give/then a broken heart is what you get/if a broken heart is what you give/remember, then, a broken heart is what you get”. This is the sort of song that makes you want to get up and dance.

The rest of the album continues in the same vein. Alice Russell is a singer who can deliver in any style. She can do hands-in-the-air-and-sway-with-your-eyes-closed-like-there’s-no-tomorrow as in the title track (another excellent, furious, driving bassline), or she can slow the tempo right down and give you a thoughtful little number like I Loved You (great acoustic version here).

Comparisons with other more established R’n’B, soul and pop singers are unavoidable. But believe Killer Opening Songs when it tells you that the Essex-born, diminutive singer is a force of nature in and of herself. You will not find any yodelling à la Mariah Carey (what happened to the young woman who captivated K.O.S. with “Vision of Love” in the early 90s?) in any of her records. Her approach is more like a veteran all-rounder who knows exactly which buttons to press and when to take the listener to the bridge. Should she take ‘em to the bridge? Oh,you bet, Bobby, you bet! And it’s all thanks to that Killer Opening Song.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd February at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 26 January 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I’ve got two favours to ask you today, my dear readers: one is to, please, bear with me until the end of this first post (there are two this morning. Talk about getting two for the price of one!) before you comment; the other one is not to scroll down at any point until I tell you it’s OK to do so. Thanks.

Let’s imagine the following scenarios:

First scenario: a model sits upright on a chair, legs crossed. She is wearing a white blouse. She looks calm and she is not smiling.

Second scenario: a model sits upright on a chair, legs crossed. She is wearing a white blouse. She looks calm and she is not smiling. Incidentally, the “chair” is shaped like a white woman tied up.

Third scenario: a white woman who happens to be a gallery owner poses on a chair. She is wearing a white blouse. She looks calm and she is not smiling. Incidentally, the “chair” is shaped like a black woman tied up.

Which of these three scenarios shocked you most? Come on, be honest. I would bet my bottom dollar that it was the third one. Why? The answer to that question is exactly what I would like to explore with you today.

There was an uproar this week about the (questionable, you could say) decision by art gallery owner Dasha Zhukova to pose on a chair whilst having her photo taken for a Russian fashion website. The chair was shaped like a woman, naked, save for knee-high boots, elbow-length gloves and very small, tight pants. The woman was black.

Reader, you can scroll down now. But, please, come back up because I would like you to read on and let me know what you think of that image.

I confess I was shocked at first. Yet, the more I thought about the photo, the less convinced I was that the picture was racist or that the person taking it was racist, or even the model posing in it.

If we see art (art in all its forms, by the way, from photography to multimedia, from literature to knitting) as an edited, aesthetical interpretation of our unsynthesised world, then it follows that socio-politics should have minimum influence on the resulting artwork. Art, whether for art’s sake or as an act of provocation, is a two-way system: exposure and perception. Exposure by the artist, perception by the audience. That we also bring our own prejudices, morals, social values and political preferences to the mix should not detract from the fact that an artist, on creating a work of art and unveiling it, demands first and foremost a total shutdown on the part of the audience. Here, come and see what I have created, he or she will say, but first, turn off the “judgement” zone, then close the door behind you and enter my space.

However, we do live in a world where socio-politics play an important role and, sadly, art does not exist in a vacuum. My first reaction on seeing the photo below was shock, followed by disgust, followed by puzzlement (at my rushed conclusions), followed by a change of mind (I began to see the piece as sexist rather than a racist) and finally followed by both understanding and indifference. Understanding, because I could see the point of view of those who criticised the work. Indifferent because from an artistic point of view the chair made me feel nothing, represented nothing to me and will leave no lasting memories in me.

However, as I just mentioned I can see why some people were outraged. The answer lies in numbers: thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. That’s how many Africans were enslaved and taken to the Americas. The answer lies as well in the representation of the descendants of said Africans for centuries; usually as brainless sexual beasts or powerful sportspeople, but very rarely, if ever, as intellectually challenging beings. We have been clichés on two legs for as long as I can remember. That, believe you me, rankles a wee bit, my brethren and sisters.

And yet.

When the Sex Pistols released “God Save the Queen” with the famous defaced image of her Royal Highness on the single’s cover, the artwork was seen as provocation. The intention was clear and the message direct. This was an instance of art being used to subvert an idea, the British monarchy in this case. I doubt the “chair” is in the same category. To me the black element in the photo is random rather than intentional. Bjarne Melgaard, the photographer, could have used a model of any other ethnicity and I would have still seen randomness (in fact, methinks that if he’d used a Chinese or Indian woman there would have been less condemnation). You might as well have put a sign on the mannequin reading Ceci n'est pas une chaise. Incidentally, the piece references an earlier work by the American artist Allen Jones who, in the late 60s, had a sculpture made in the same position. The mannequin was a white woman, however. That is why I think it is a futile exercise to get worked up about a piece of art that will soon be forgotten. I normally vent my frustration on what I think are more worthwhile causes.

Last year when I went to Havana I paid a visit to the indoor market near the harbour. What first caught my attention was that unlike the open and wide space Old Havana provided before to the traders, this new venue was not propitious to a continuous traffic of tourists. Maybe that was the reason why almost every man (and it was mostly men) selling paintings, theirs or not, had a huge selection of images of naked and half-naked Cuban mulatto and black women in various sexual poses in their stalls. To me that was art imitating life, though, since you can walk into any tourist or travel agency, in Cuba or abroad and most brochures will contain the obligatory image of the Cuban woman (often black or mixed race) being sensuous and teasing. For the life of me I couldn’t really bring myself to blame the artist who painted these women. He or she had to make ends meet in a very difficult and competitive environment. I blamed the government-sponsored culture that created this problem in the first place.

This is the same logic I follow with the “chair”. It is hard for me to get angry at a black mannequin shaped like a woman tied up, sat on by a Russian socialite and snapped at by a white Scandinavian when there are scantily clad black women constantly parading their goods in hip hop and rap videos on our television sets before and after the watershed and hardly anyone bats an eyelid. If we are serious about messages, let’s talk about the latter first, shall we?

Art is born in that unedited world I described before. It is the artist’s job to pull it out, work on it, edit it and give it to us in a way that might sometimes defy our expectations. The judgement we should be making is if the final piece fulfils its function as, first and foremost, art itself. If we fail to arrive at that conclusion, or cannot acknowledge the existence of this work of art my advice is to walk away without making any assumptions about the author and her/his intentions (unless they are explicit. Imagine if Melgaard were linked to the Ku Klux Klan or a far-right organisation!). It is obvious that this particular artistic effort was not for you. Perhaps what you need is to go find a chair on which you can sit down and reflect.

Sitting comfortably?
Yet another accolade for my blog. There was first the mention in the book “Multilinguals are...? four years ago. Then there was the inclusion in the first anthology of the Cuban blogosphere called aptly “Buena Vista Social Blog”. Now, comes an invitation to join a panel with three other bloggers next week, on Saturday 1st February at Google Campus, where Tech City joins Hipstersland. We will be talking about our experience of writing blogs from a Hispanic point of view. Although the event is marketed to those Spanish-speakers who want to start their own online venture and could do with some tips from us, oldies (almost seven years blogging is the equivalent of fifty years on the same job, believe me!), I know that it’s open to everyone, Hispanic, Spanish-speaker or not. So, if you happen to be in Londontown next Saturday 1st February, pop by. It would be a good opportunity to meet your actual, real, physical selves. Please, click here to find out exactly what the programme will be on the day. I look forward to seeing you there.

© 2014

Photograph: Buro 24/7screen grab

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 29th January at 11:59pm (GMT

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Urban Diary

I come out of Halfords and as soon as I sit behind the wheel the first drop lands on my windshield. A solitary drop, snaking down the glass, presaging a visit from its sisters (and/or brothers). What follows is an onslaught. It takes only a couple of hundred yards before my wipers swing back and forth at full speed.

When they were little my children learnt the equivalent of the word “snow” in Spanish from a little made-up song I invented. The rhythm owed more to ad lib than to a lullaby template – if such thing exists – and the lyrics consisted only of one word: nieve. “Nieve, nieve, nieve, nieve, nieve. ¡NIEVE, NIEVE! Nieve, nieve, nieve. Were they the same age now I would not be able to create a tune like that. It has not snowed in London this winter yet.

But, my God, has it rained!

The usual metallic, azure winter sky has given way to a monochrome, monotonous grey. The white, fluffy stuff has been replaced by continuous cascades, urban waterfalls without a precipice from which to fall.

I turn left at the roundabout and drive on. The clouds keep getting milked (by whom? I don’t know) and the road slowly disappears as it gets swallowed up by the heavy downpour. My route takes me along the industrial estate. On either side stand the monuments to our modern life: warehouses where people of different nationalities and languages are in charge of making our dreams come true. The dreams of quick service, fast collection and delivery. I turn left at the end of the road and climb up the hill under which a train seems to have regurgitated its passengers. Out of the corner of my eye I see the crowd rush outside the station before realising they will probably need a boat to cross the road. I bet that was not included in the train fare. The street to my right dips away from the train station. That is my short cut. I can see, however, that other drivers have had the same idea. I suddenly think that there is no antonym for short cut when confronted by traffic. Long cut?

I reach home and welcome the comfort it brings. I know that in other parts of the UK people will not have the same romantic view of the rain, nor will they sit down tonight to write a post about it. I consider myself lucky, but I do wonder if someone somewhere is watching a single, solitary, drop snaking down its windshield.

© 2014

Photo taken from the Evening Standard website

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

Sunday 19 January 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Sometimes I read two articles in the press, that at first sight contradict each other despite the fact that they both address a similar topic. A good example of this was a recent essay by the novelist and short-story writer Sara Maitland entitled “Why do we have such a problem with being alone?” In it, Maitland explored the pros and cons of living in isolation. After more than twenty years of dwelling on her own she is probably a specialist in the subject. Her house is in a remote part of Scotland with distant shops, no mobile phone connection and very little traffic.

Idyllic, I hear some of you say. Well, it depends on how you see this almost total withdrawal from the world. To Sara there is a question about identity and belonging that appears as soon as some chooses to live in these circumstances. However this question of identity and belonging is being posed to someone who has used his or her personal freedom to select their lifestyle. It’s a valid theory and one I had never considered, perhaps because I am still on a Cuban mindset and my upbringing was rather dogmatic. Why do people fear living on their own?

There are myriad inconveniences to cutting oneself from the world and Maitland explains them in detail. Some of them I heard in a recent conversation with someone who is looking to relocate back to Britain from abroad. We touched on those middle-aged people who have saved all their lives and finally can afford to buy a small house in a picturesque village in Devon, Cornwall or Dorset. It is not long before they realise that having a car is indispensable in their new area because the only bus in town runs every hour and there’s a rumour that the service will stop soon due to local budget cuts. Hmmm... for some reason the estate agent forgot to mention that. In addition there is old age to think of. What if one half of the couple suddenly pops off leaving the other half facing an empty, big house with all the challenges that come with it? The dream home turns into a nightmare. But Sara’s essay does not just deal with this hellish scenario. It also highlights the positive of leading a hermit-like life.

For starters, a person’s individuality is reinforced in these circumstances. It is almost like running back to an earlier period in one’s life when one was allowed to be her/himself and the world accepted them, warts and all. A toddler/child state, I would say, but with a full, mature, working brain. Secondly, opting for a solitary existence demonstrates fortitude. You not only have to face the many challenges life will throw at you, but also people’s perception of you as a “castaway”. Maitland touches on some of these misconceptions: women are spinsters and men are seen as sociopaths or “not well up there”.

But then a few days later I read an article about farmers around the world sharing their “felfies”, a “selfie” taken on a farm. I know, I know, I also had to check the calendar to see if I’d fallen into deep slumber and woken up on 1st April.

By the way, I am not equating living in isolation with living on a farm. But many of those who take “felfies” live in remote areas with hardly any regular contact with another human being.

So, what is it? This “felfie” idea? Just a laugh, or a cry for company, albeit of the virtual kind? The irony was not lost on me. Whilst Maitland has swapped gregariousness for loneliness, these farmers post felfies on social media, including blogs and Twitter. To me it seems that despite the joy they derive from living on their own they also see need this lifeline as a way to anchor themselves to the world. On discussing crops, fertilisers and floods they are reaching out to like-minded farmers around the world.

Can we, as human beings, ever turn our backs totally on the world? By the same token should we, then, recast solitude “solitude”? Sara Maitland has neighbours (true they live in five miles away so she can’t just pop in unannounced for a cuppa), she knows her postman by (first) name and she can count on a cheerful young farmer to come to her house and work on her sheep. That is why when I read about Maitland’s isolation the first thing that came to my mind was Mario Benedetti’s love poem Rostro de Vos: Tengo una soledad tan concurrida/tan llena de nostalgias y de rostros de vos/de adioses hace tiempo y besos bienvenidos/de primeras de cambio y de último vagón. Mario’s solitude did not travel alone. It had companions: his memories, his beloved’s many faces and their goodbyes. In our globalised world we are never truly alone no matter what the average population density is in our neck of the woods. If in doubt, check those farmers’ “felfies.

© 2014

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

Wednesday 15 January 2014

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

I am writing this post a day after Christmas just before one of the usual Boxing Day football fixtures. The turkey has been eaten and its remains put away in the fridge. What to do with them? There are only so many sandwiches I can make using my new pickle (a Christmas present, with the rather self-explanatory name the Green Fire, whose ingredients include Green Kenyan chillies and mint). Besides, I’m a bone man; I leave the white meat to my wife and kids. I usually go for thighs and legs. That’s why there’s a gigantic carcass looking at me from inside the fridge. Waiting to be, either disposed of, or experimented upon.

I choose the latter. Every Christmas I find myself in the same dilemma. What to do with the leftovers? I belong to the “never chuck away food” brigade. But what happens when the turkey you’ve bought is so big that it could very well pin you down to the ground and execute a half-nelson on you?

Red kidney beans soup. I just found half a packet stashed away which I’d completely forgotten about. My plan is to slice some onions, mash up some garlic, heat them up on a large pan, add paprika, salt, pepper, a couple of bay leaves, coriander, cumin, mixed herbs and oregano. Let this combo sizzle on the pan before you drop a tablespoonful of red wine vinegar in and let the smell hit you. Add some tomato puree and after a couple of minutes mix in the beans. I usually stir them and let them get acquainted with the spices. Match-making, if you like, at Christmas time. In the meantime I boil some water to get my vegetable stock ready. Once the stock is in, I ramp up the fire until the water is boiling. I let it boil nicely for a couple of minutes and then I bring the fire down to the minimum, number 1 in our case. I keep the pan going for three hours, stirring the beans every now and then and tasting them to see if they are soft enough.

For vegetarians what I tend to do is replace the turkey or any other kind of meat (in Cuba I would be using pork, beef and lamb if available) for sweet potatoes, carrots, celery and potatoes. Next time I am planning to add corn to the mix.

My personal twist for those who like their soups thick and rich is simple: the oven. Half an hour before the three hours are up, I switch the oven on to 200°. Still steaming hot, I place the pan inside the oven and leave it there for thirty or forty minutes. The liquid thickens and the result is a filling dish that will keep your hunger away on these dark winter nights.

The music to go with this recipe ought to be equally rich. That’s why my first offering tonight is a band I first heard recently as a result of an article in Songlines magazine. Lady Maisary is a new folk trio with two albums to their names and powerful vocals as the clip below shows. They are also expert musicians with a craftsmanship that belies their ages. Enjoy.

My second musical offering tonight is a bluesy melody by a band that was more often than not labelled prog-rock. Yet, those of us who are acquainted with Jethro Tull’s back catalogue know that Beggar’s Farm, the track below, was the Tull’s way of saying that this was the music they wanted to make in 1968 when their debut album was released. And the name of that record? This Was. Amazing.

Rokia Traoré is one of those singers who bring passion to any performance. That’s the same approach I have to cooking (and eating!). That’s why she is the third artist I would like to present to you tonight. Zen’s groove stays with the listener long after it finishes. Magnifico!

Lenacay is the offspring of two members of the now defunct hip hop flamenco band, Ojos de Brujo. The energy and experimentation are still there and that’s why I am closing this post with them tonight. If this musical number had a smell it would be the same smell that will be wafting out of my kitchen in a little while. Happy eating!

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

Sunday 12 January 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A few weeks ago I popped by my local Tesco. On my way back home I found myself behind a man out walking his dog. Due to the weight of my shopping my usual brisk pace was somewhat slowed down. This allowed me to observe the way the man and his dog interacted with each other and the environment around them. First, there was a stop for the canine to raise one of its legs and water one of the trees that populate the road on which I was walking. A few blocks further and still weighed down by my shopping I saw the dog and its owner make a second stop. This time for a number two. The dog, mind you, not the man. Again, the repository of this physiological need was a tree. Similar to the previous one, tall and with a strong trunk. I caught up with the pair as they were about to cross a busy road. Whilst waiting for the lights to change the man patted his pooch on its head. I asked myself silently: “I wonder if someone will be patting those trees we left behind”.

It seems to me that we humans have a funny – as in strange, funny – relationship with our environment. Especially when it comes to animals and plants. One of the reasons, I think, is because animals, pets mainly, are capable of interacting with us and responding to our actions. Imagine if those trees had been able to tell that dog off for peeing and pooing on them. This is a topic that has fascinated me for many years: motion versus stillness. Purely because when the need has arisen I have also behaved in a similar fashion to that dog. However, I would never dream of defecating on a cute kitty or using a guinea pig as the repository for my urine. Is it, I wonder, the lack of motion and conspicuous responses from plants and trees that leads us to believe that we can do with them as we like?

One of the most hilarious cartoons I’ve ever seen in my life was in The New Yorker a few years ago. Two trees were giggling together with a speech bubble above one of them reading: “They (humans) smell our gases, how sick is that?”. The anthropomorphic nature of the joke could not hide the fact that we would never consider two trees immersed in conversation, let alone cracking a very good joke like that one.

But whilst I am not suggesting that we start adopting bushes as pets and walking them in the local park (where they could be watched enviously by other bushes without the same luck) I do think that the way we discriminate against plants says a lot about our attitude as humans to our environment. Whether you believe in climate change or not, we know that our planet is in peril. More than half of plants and trees could see dramatic losses in the next half century and this could have a knock-on effect on animals as many habitats will become unsuitable for them. The collapse of eco-systems would have a huge impact on the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and the lands we visit as tourists. Funny that the air we inhale comes from trees like the one pooed on by the cute dog I mentioned earlier. We are part of a universal chain and yet our actions are dictated by an individual mindset.

In the grand scheme of things the dog I saw weeing and pooing on those trees would have no more significance than a toddler running joyfully around in my local park. That is what animals do. But when you take into consideration that plants and trees are not at the front of our minds (unless you happen to be an avid gardener whose fruitful labour is evidenced by the photos you post on your blog or website regularly. Ta muchly!) and that we could prevent the danger they face by scaling down our carbon emissions and behaving more responsibly, then that dog takes on a more sinister meaning. We can crap (pardon my French) on our green environment all we want with impunity.

Coincidentally one of the songs I was listening to earlier on my mp3 player that day was The Secret Life of Plants by Stevie Wonder but performed by Gilberto Gil. The first verse could not be more appropriate for what I witnessed later: I can't conceive the nucleus of all/Begins inside a tiny seed/And what we think as insignificant/Provides the purest air we breathe. All sung beautifully in a Brazilian accent. As for the dog and the man, forget about – up to a certain point - disrespecting the two trees. That I can put up with, muse over and write about. What I can’t stand is pet owners who do not clean up after their darlings. But I will leave that for another column.

© 2014

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 15th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


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