Sunday 13 July 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

This is my last post before my customary summer break. When thinking of what to write today the words of Melvyn Bragg in a recent article in the New Statesman came to mind: “The rituals of walking are few but often seem essential. The garb, the route, the recognition of old favourites – trees, prospects, rivers. Once you are in the rhythm of those rituals what happens, to me at any rate, is that a non-self takes over. A non-drug-induced drift. And an expanding sense of inner freedom. And there are the inklings of sensations. Intimations? Shapes that could become thoughts that do not seem to obey mechanical laws. Maybe in time we will see that in fact they do. Maybe everything we feel will be settled by mathematics. But what if not? Might the known unknown of the universe and the brain surprise us all? And will we then lose this invaluable feeling of inner liberty?

I’ve included the whole paragraph to provide a bit of context. Writer, broadcaster and veteran presenter of the long-running South Bank Show (for those who don’t know who he is) Melvyn Bragg was musing about rituals, prayers, God and religion. He was, at the time of writing this article, in Cumbria. North West England. There were other submissions as well. From former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to philosopher Julian Baggini, contributors (and contributions) were varied and thought-provoking. It was Melvyn’s column, though, that really got to me.

The Big Ben: you don't need drugs to appreciate its beauty
I recognise that state he described. I have been under the influence of that “rhythm” he pondered over. My “non-self” has come out a few times as well. I call this the “gear” moment. As in all the “gears” slotting into place, well-oiled, fully functional, forward-motion gears, propelling, whatever device they are part of, onwards. Also, in my case like Melvyn’s, this is a “non-drug-induced” experience. Who needs drugs to appreciate David Gilmour’s guitar solo at the beginning of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, or the rich Cornish coastal landscape, or the majestic Big Ben, in the early evening after a whole day of rain in the company of someone you care about? Who needs drugs?

This is transcendence, not in a pantheistic way, but in a human one. As I mentioned before, the column Melvyn penned was part of a bigger debate on how we supposedly fill this “faith-shaped hole in modern life”. Whatever your take on God, religion and the like (and there are many, luckily), what can’t and shouldn’t be denied is that the moments Mr Bragg described above begin and end in the person, the human.

An anecdote is called for here to explain my line of thought. Almost a month ago the teacher of an Afro-Brazilian class in north London which I had been attending, rang me up out of the blue. He was stranded in Greece and needed someone to cover his workshop that night. I must admit that I felt flattered to be asked as up to then I had been only a student and found him to be a very engaging, knowledgeable and skilful tutor. He told me that I could work with the two percussionists who normally play in the class. Already this posed a challenge. Although Africa gave Brazil and Cuba similar cultures our dance traditions are very different. Throughout the day I could hardly concentrate on my work. My mind was on the workshop I was meant to deliver that night.

I took a gamble. I chose a type of dance from the extensive Afro-Cuban repertoire that resembled somewhat some of the moves this teacher had taught before and which could be executed without much difficulty by the two drummers. At the same time I added my own spin. After meeting and agreeing with the musicians on what rhythm they were going to play I felt more confident to go ahead with the idea I had in mind. It’s good to work with professionals who know what they are doing and these two drummers were top class. I began the warm-up.

After a few stretching and abdominal exercises with yogic influences, I asked the students to close their eyes and to stay where they were. I, then, went up to each of them and gave them the same instructions one by one, individually: Keep your eyes closed, don’t open your eyes, I want you to move to the music you are hearing now on the spot. I don’t care about technique, experience or anything, just move on the spot, move in whatever way you are feeling the music because this is your music, nobody else’s, it’s yours, you own it, so you dance it, you move to it. It was a full house, twenty plus students, but the “gears” were slotting into place. They were all moving in unison but in their own idiosyncratic way. This was what Melvyn Bragg called in his column “an expanding sense of inner freedom”. For them and for me. These people were free because they were not looking at each other. They couldn’t even look at themselves in the big mirrors the dance studio had. I had eliminated any source of inhibition and self-doubt that could have jeopardised my class and in its place brought in a primary sense of being. Being through a rhythm they had never heard. Being a human being in communion with the beautiful art of Afro-Cuban dance.

What happened that night was magical. Recalling it now in the context of the New Statesman’s question on faith, I realise that he answer is, at least to me: there is no faith-shaped hole, there’s just a reclaiming of transcendence from a human perspective. We have come full circle, and this time we have the language to explain the phenomenon. But even if we can’t explain it, we can still feel it.

I am of the belief that our ancestors came across moments of pure magic, of “gears”. But lack of linguistic resources rendered these cavewomen and men almost speechless. Hence the tendency to export their (potential) analytical powers to forces that dwelled outside them. That way they didn’t have to worry about the answers. Sometimes, however, one doesn’t need to have any answers. Sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes there cannot be any answers, for the methods to get to this truth have not been invented yet, or we haven’t discovered them.

My answer to Melvyn’s question on the “known unknown of the universe and the brain” is, yes, it will surprise us. But it won’t mean the end of our inner liberty. If anything, we will acquire an extra dimension. An extra human dimension. Cheerio, see you in the second week of September. I hope you enjoy the music today. Music with which to unlock your non-self and inner freedom.

© 2014

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 14th September at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Killer Opening Songs (Thing of Gold by Snarky Puppy)

Is it funk, is it fusion, is it electronica, is it avant-garde, is it Latin, is it mellow, is it trad, is it experimental? What is it?
It’s jazz.
Moreover, it’s Snarky Puppy’s jazz and it is “the shape of jazz to come”, to quote Ornette Coleman.
Sometimes Killer Opening Songs makes his musical discoveries on his doorstep, as in when he picks up long-awaited CDs shoved through his letterbox, ordered from evil, tax-avoiding Amazon. But occasionally, K.O.S. travels far to dig out new melodies. Far as in going all the way to Glynde Place, near Brighton, in southeastern England, to the Jazz FM-sponsored Love Supreme festival.
Forget the hellish journey back home (more than three and a half hours on the road late at night, including a diversion that added an extra hour to the already long drive), the memories of Snarky Puppy’s performance more than made up for any inconvenience suffered. This US band that sprang into the jazz scene in 2004, has been making a lot of noise in the right way ever since, and they have the rich, eclectic and mind-blowing musical output to back up the buzz they have generated.
The driving force behind Snarky Puppy is bassist and composer Michael League, yet, it would be wrong to leave out the other band members. Drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, who has collaborated with the likes of Snoop Dogg and London-based Bill Laurance, who has just released a well-received debut album, Flint, are just some of the stars to be found in this combo.
Killer Opening Song Thing of Gold appears on Snarky Puppy’s 2012 record groundUP, a combined CD and DVD offer. The track showcases everything that makes this band the future of jazz to come. Beautiful piano and saxo join forces together at the beginning of the song to weave a spellbinding tapestry of rhythm patterns. Strings kick in shortly after and add gravitas to what is already a mesmerising piece of music. The coup de grâce is provided by Texas-born keyboardist Shaun Martin who leads the whole ensemble to a hymn-like finale.
Music like this is a joy to listen to. Watching the members of Snarky Puppy perform live at Love Supreme was equally a pleasure to see. And at the centre of it all lies the key: the Killer Opening Song.
© 2014
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 13th July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 6 July 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Fellow Cubans of a certain age will probably remember a mid-eighties Havana-set comedy called Los Pájaros Tirándole a la Escopeta (translation not provided, sorry). The movie was about a young couple who find out that their parents (her dad and his mum) are dating each other. Problems arise when the youngsters refuse to acknowledge their elders’ relationship. Although a comedy, the film explores serious issues such as family dynamics, romance between middle-aged people – and how they are perceived by a youth-obsessed society like the Cuban one – and the ubiquitous macho culture.

"Are those my mum's shoes?"
"Are those my dad's trousers?"
I thought of this movie recently because I was reading a column by The Observer’s agony aunt Mariella Frostrup. I’m not a fan of agony aunts but for some reason, chiefly because of her writing style, I see Mariella more as a columnist in the same vein as a Barbara Ellen or Suzanne Moore than a mere dispenser of questionable advice – one of the reasons why agony aunts are not my cup of tea. On this occasion the dilemma facing Ms Frostrup’s correspondent concerned a mother who was dating her daughter’s fiancé’s father. To make matters more complicated both parents brought their relationship into the open in the same year their children were getting married.

Unlike the Cuban comedy this situation elicited no laughs at all, at least, I reckon, for those caught up in it. And Mariella was right when she brought up the fact that should one of the two relationships go belly-up (and who’s to say that couldn’t happen) there would be complications to contend with. You can bet your bottom dollar that the annual Christmas family gathering would become a rather awkward affair.

However that same point provoked in me a different reaction, of a more antipodean nature. What was at stake here in this mini-crisis, in my opinion, was not mum and dad’s relationship, dodgy as it might have been perceived by others, or daughter and fiancé’s fears and misgivings. What was at risk here was trust. Simple as that, trust in the person you are about to pledge your life to, “till death do us part”.

That “what if” scenario is the human in us. No matter how many romantic novels are written, how many tear-jerking films are made or how many plays are staged about star-crossed lovers, there usually is a little voice in our heads crying out: “Yes, but what if...?” Maybe this feeling doesn’t manifest itself in the same way as the case Mariella was dealing with (circumstances were different), but it does exist. Separate bank accounts for each spouse but one main joint account for house bills and the like, prenuptial agreements enforced by law and a circle of friends, mutual enough to invite to dinner parties, but still loyal to one of the two consorts. It is almost like designing an escape route before the wedding cake has been sliced. In fact, forget romance, this trust issue turns up uninvited when we think of going into a business venture with our best friend or if we give a good reference of a close mate for a job. Again, there's that annoying "what if..." they let us down?

You might be thinking that I am being cynical. I am. However, do not take my words as a rejection of the existence of romantic love; I am just merely trying to keep it more grounded in reality. The mother who wrote to Mariella about her predicament with her daughter’s fiancé’s father was probably thinking only about her future with le beau-père but her offspring was being far more practical. Mum, what if you and X split up? Who gets to keep the Michael Bublé CDs?

Joking aside, this is what life is really made of. Which is probably the reason why that woman wrote to Ms Frostrup in the first place. And we haven’t even considered what would happen if the mum and dad decided to have another child. That could happen. That would mean that daughter would have a brother who would double up as a step-brother. If the couple were to have a child before that, their little one would be the nephew of a much younger uncle. The possibilities are endless.

So, romance or practicality? A little bit of both, methinks. It’s all right to give flowers, serenade your paramour and walk along the Thames holding hands. That’s love, pure and simple. Meanwhile, keep a separate bank account. Just in case.

Oh, and before I forget. How does the title of that Cuban film translate into English, you might still be wondering? It is literally “The Birds Shooting the Gun”. Now, work that one out. Cheerio!

© 2014

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on 9th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Urban Diary

Most of the flags have come down, a sea of paper on the ground. My neighbours no longer talk up Hodgson and his team; too far behind they are for the tag “cream of the cream”. There is a new fast food joint just up the road, a lonely St George’s cross on its front looks like an ode. To what? To whom? You might still wonder, forget it, mate, there is no answer.

And yet, three weeks ago, all those illusions! Yes, it’d be hard, but no confusion. The English team would plough ahead, using their feet, tactics and heads. Of course, there were the Italians, and Balotelli the main stallion. There was also the small matter of Luis Suárez, the skilful master. But against the odds the fans did bet, sadly an unlucky fate they met. The Gunners fans opposite mine, bright red cross on their car; it lost its shine. The window cleaner from five doors down: “2-1”, “To England?”, “You’re mad? Nah, to the toothy clown”.

Last week I walked from house to station, my barrio a mini United Nations. Flags of all colours festooning streets, faces beaming smiles so sweet, that even cynics would find hard, to give this World Cup the red card.

Still there lay, right on the ground, the paper flag that makes fans frown. It is a puzzle, a future tense, to be resolved four years hence.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 6th July at 10am (GMT)


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