Sunday 25 May 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

At the time of writing it is not clear whether the six young Iranians detained this week over their performance of the Pharrell Williams’ song Happy were paraded on state television in the buff or not. What is known is that they were arrested, forced to do squats with no clothes on and humiliated. The nude appearance on telly might be apocryphal. Given the social mores that govern the Islamic republic the clerics would have had to reach for the smelling salts.

But can you be happy in Iran dancing to "Happy"?
It never ceases to amaze me the various reactions to the same phenomenon. Pharrell’s chart hit is as innocuous as it gets. A beautiful, catchy late spring/summer tune that makes you want to hop on one leg and sing out of tune.

Or that makes you happy.

On happiness, a few months ago I was reading about a study on this subject carried out by Warwick University. It found that on average people in the UK seem to be quite content with their lives. The jury is still out as to whether this is a result of economic stagnation (and knowing that you ain’t getting no more dosh for the foreseeable future) or because you know where you stand financially and adapt to this situation. You know you have less money but you are not totally poor. If I were to be completely frank and sincere and as you know I use this space on Sundays to expand on my (honest) theories, this outcome is a tad bit surprising. I mean no offence, my dear British brothers and sisters, but you do very often come across as a miserable lot. Take the simple question of asking someone about the time. In Cuba, you would probably say: what time is it? whilst pointing at the person’s wrist. Or you would use: do you have the time? with a similar accompanying action. In the UK the average person will ask: you don’t happen to have the time, do you? already setting themselves up for a response in the negative even if the person being questioned is sporting a massive golden Rolex on her/his wrist.

Yet, this approach to life is what makes the British British. It is what makes people (including yours truly) leap out of joy when Andy Murray – finally! – wins at Wimbledon and Mo Farah does the Mobot on the podium as a gold medal is placed aroud his neck. This is the attitude that makes Jack Dee and Charlie Brooker the great stand-ups they are. British miserableness is fertile ground for satire and mick-taking. Take away the misery and the comedy changes.

Happiness is a rather subjective and circumstantial issue. Back in 2011 we had a survey from the Office for National Statistics on happiness and well-being. Amongst the questions asked was: “How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” Two weeks ago my response would have been: “Not a lot. Thank you very much”, as Chelsea, despite finishing third in the Premier League won not one single piece of silverware, the Yankees, as usual in the last few years, were making me “a nervous wreck” (to quote Gil-Scott Heron), Cameron was still in No 10 (and will be until next year, alas) and I kept seeing Nigel Farage’s grinning mug with pint in hand all over the gaffe. Not a lot? Sorry, correction. Not satisfied at all. Ask me the same question now and I will answer in a rather more positive tone. My job is going well (I have been at this school for just over a year now. Love the head, my colleagues, the pupils and the parents), my family is fine and the weather has been glorious of late. That is the circumstantial bit. Someone else, however, might be going through hell. That’s the subjective part. What if you don’t like the sun or warm temperatures? Then, this weather for you is the devil incarnate.

With these thoughts swarming in my head I came to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, you, my British brothers and sisters are not that miserable after all. It’s all a façade. A façade to avoid disappointment. Whilst in Brazil football fans have already arranged the float on which they will parade the World Cup trophy over here the England manager, Roy Hodgson is psyching himself up for a quarter-final penalty shoot-out against Germany. And how not to lose it. Should Brazil crash out in the group stages of the tournament there will probably be suicides en masse in the carioca nation. Should England go and do the impossible, win the World Cup, journalists will stop mocking Roy Hodgson’s accent. It’s all to do with perspectives, subjectivity and circumstance.

In the same way that salsa-dancing (and being good at it) has platitudinously attached itself to the vision people have of Cubans, being a curmudgeon has become a byword for the British character. Scratch the surface, however, and you will find the reason why that Warwick university study found that many Britons are happy with their lot in life. They are indeed; they just don’t want you to know it. That is why the Happy video has been received so warmly on these shores. To the point where many schools, including the one where I’m based have done their own version with staff and students. Miserable, the British? Not a bit.

Occasionally I come across artists who leave me speechless, gob agape. Ahmed Dickinson Cárdenas is one of those artists. This Cuban guitarist has transformed one of my country’s oldest traditions: the filin. Originally from the English word “feeling”, this genre developed between the late 40s and early 50s, reaching its apogee at the same time as Fidel’s troops were entering Havana. Ahmed’s compositions draw from a rich, musical pool. He was also fortunate enough to work very closely with the late Cuban master José Antonio (Ñico) Rojas, a virtuoso of filin. I hope you enjoy this Sunday offering.

© 2014

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About...”, to be published on Wednesday 28th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Just listening to the filin. Thanks - its not a genre I knew about.

    That survey question, “How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” seems a bit vague, doesn't it? What's the National Office for Statistics coming to? It's just the sort of question I was taught not ask on the brief sociology module I did on a course once.

  2. I loved this, Cuban. Well I would, being a Brit. I always think the British are optimistic... sometimes we have to be when faced with politicians such as ours. Generally speaking though, we do seem to get on with things without too many complaints. Years ago I was 'one of the poor' but you would never have known to look at me because pride and perseverence kept my head above water. So I hope the Brits keep on cheering at the games and everywhere else too, God bless 'em all.

  3. I think the British are trained to be self deprecating and not to push themselves forward (unlike say Americans who are trained to be self confident and to push themselves forward). We're brought up not to expect too much, but also not to complain too much. I think we are realistic rather than anything but cvan easily come across as pessimistic and miserable. The lack of sunshine for much of the year doesn't help, both psychologically and due to the fact that sunshine makes Vitamin D which is a great mood enhancer.

  4. A great post, Cuban...really made me take a long look at myself and those around me.
    Yes, we probably do often come across as pessimists. I think we are a culture that is secretly terrified of failure...I know I personally do have the tendency to expect the worst in situations of uncertainty...well, "if you expect the worst, you won't be disappoint
    ed" was my late Grandmother's philosophy!*Smiles*

    These days, I do try hard to have more confidence in my endeavours...but it really doesn't come easily...I grew up confusing confidence with arrogance - a lesson extremely difficult to unlearn!:/

    Love the music, by the way! :)

    Happy Sunday

  5. Many do have a different outlook depending on where they are it seems. I'm always positive, as I am positive things will go negative too lol

  6. The calm, peaceful and beautiful music in the filin is incredible. Particularly when I think about the hard work and probably blood sweat and tears which have gone into achieving the mastery.
    Happiness? For me it comes from simple things. A rainbow, a smile... The big issues are out of my control (and more likely to make me sad or angry).

  7. This was a a joy to read --

  8. "My line" regarding happiness for a number of years has been this: "Happiness is momentary."

    Put most simply, it comes and goes, it rises and falls, it climaxes and bottoms out -- just like the weather. And, like the weather, most often we have no control over it and over the ingredients which make us happy or sad. Add to that, many people will feign happiness when they are the saddest: They like to put on a happy face, especially when in public.

    In any case and wearing any face, I enjoyed your post, CiL.

  9. happiness is def subjective...and in the moment as well...our happiness seems so fleeting at times...our world can be a high, and then life happens....kinda glad that i am not naked on tv though...ha...

    the music is very cool...enjoyed the listen....

  10. I am like Pat--I try to be positive as much as possible. Sounds like I would be a great addition to across the pond. But, I think my good attitude is needed too much here haha.

  11. I think we can be several things at once - I think of myself as content - I have everything I need, enough to live on and family and friends to love, books to read, and my curiosity intact.

    And I can rage - at all the plonkers who voted UKIP - at the missing schoolgirls in Nigeria - Michael Gove ...

    (And I saw some wonderful salsa dancing in Cuba - it's not only a myth!!)

  12. "A vulgar clip that offends public chastity" - what's not to like? (I ask myself quietly. My typical British reaction? )

    I agree it's a lovely song and I have even been known to dance to it myself :)

  13. Thanks for your comments. I, too, differentiate between being happy an dbeing satisfied. I am more of the latter than the former. To me happiness is fleeting. Blink and it's gone. But satisfaction is long-lasting and worth working for.

    Greetings from London.

  14. Very pretty music! I think the Brits simply understate their happiness. Thanks!


  15. Maybe happiness come and go, in a moment you have and other don't who knows. We live happiness by moments Lovely music!

  16. yes - i too think that happiness is subjective. i have met people that were going through rough times and they still managed to keep up a good spirit - i find this admirable

  17. Believe me - compared with the Swedes, the Brits are very outgoing and happy!!

  18. What a great post. I have always thought the Scandinavians were the most morose people of all, or a least have the best facade, but now I wonder!
    Thank you for introducing "filin" to me: I really enjoyed the video.

  19. Que Linda! Such a beautiful song. As for the British capacity for happiness, I never look at it as being crotchety. Brit society is extremely self-deprecating, there are few personal things presented in a direct and forthright way, especially emotions. It's not very British to announce I'm happy! But it doesn't mean they don't feel it. In my experience, Brits appear pretty satisfied with life in general.

  20. The song "Happy" never fails to cheer me up. As for husband was originally from Britain and he often found Americans to be annoyingly loud and "boisterous". He also thought it entertaining that Americans always seemed surprised that he had a sense of humor. :-)

  21. I love the music! It's a sad world when Happy is illegal. My life isn't perfect but I'm a happy person. When basic needs are met, I think happiness mostly has to do with your outlook on life, more than your circumstances.

  22. Wonderful music!!!
    My life is mostly happy and in those times when it's not I never let it get me down as tomorrow is a brand new day that I always look forward to!

    Great post!
    Thank you.

    Greetings from beautiful Colorado

  23. 'Happy' always cheers me up as well, despite my ambivalence towards Pharrell himself. I have warmed a little to him since he released it, I must admit, his casual sexism notwithstanding. Anyway, strangely enough earlier today a colleague showed me a sheep she knitted. 'It's a philosophical sheep' she said. Stuck to it was the quote (unattributed) 'Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be', As familiar as it is, I couldn't help but agree. As has been pointed out happiness is fleeting and circumstantial and sometimes too much can be made of its pursuit. Not everything that makes you happy in the short term is beneficial in the long term. That said, a positive outlook (which can be interpreted as happiness) is a choice and a matter of perspective. Some people are more naturally inclined to this than others although it's a habit the rest of us can cultivate, challenging as it might be. (For those with a tendency towards perfectionism and/or control freakery like yours truly it takes concerted effort) It's not about avoiding reality but about focusing on the things that are going right. I picked up a wonderful tip from one of the reviewers in the New Statesman. A gratitude journal; making a short list of all that went well that day, from the trivial to the monumental. Her suggestion didn't come from a faith perspective but I decided to use it as an opportunity to thank God for all that is good in my life and the world rather than constantly whinge at Him about what is wrong. Count your blessings; an oldie but a goodie. It really helps keep perspective.

    Above all contentment should be the goal; learning to be satisfied (not complacent) wherever you find yourself. Again, not easy but a more worthy pursuit than happiness in my humble opinion. You don't need everything to be perfect to be content whilst if you believe you need 'X' to be happy, it'll always allude you as there'll be something else to covet or complain about. I'll finish with a quote from someone who managed to put it more pithily...

    ''...I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength....' The Apostle Paul, Philippians 4 v11-13 (New Living Translation)

    Shalom x



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