Wednesday 29 October 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About the Songs We Do Not Understand)

Adwa is the last track of Ethiopian singer Gigi’s 2001 debut album of the same name. It is a haunting melody that lingers long after the last note has faded away. It is also a song sung in Amharic, Gigi’s mother tongue. In fact, the whole record is performed in this language. Yet, it remains one of my favourite CDs ever more than ten years after I bought it.

Nice cover but can you understand the lyrics?
Adwa tells the story of the battle that saw the forces of the Ethiopian Empire overpower the army of the nascent Kingdom of Italy. I know all this, not because I speak Amharic, but because I looked the song title up online.

You’ve probably clicked the link to the track I embedded above, or maybe you will do it later, after you’ve read this post. Does it matter if we understand the words of a particular song? This is more relevant to enthusiasts of the genre known as “world music” (a bigger misleading appellation has yet to be invented by man) as we are constantly exposed to melodies from all over the world. Whereas Anglo-Saxon music – of the rock and pop variety – ruled my teenage years, my late 20s, 30s and now early 40s have been characterised by records from Azerbaijan, Mali and Malaysia, to name but a few of the countries whose artists fill up my ever-stretching CD shelves. What this means is that my musical borders have expanded and new horizons have been explored, in addition to developing a deeper understanding of other nations’ cultural make-up. What it also means is that I still find myself at a loss when it comes to attempting to decode the language in which many of these songs are performed. And still you will find me trawling the vast, borderless, faceless internet for the golden key that will unlock a particular song’s mystery.

Efforts like this is what I would like to believe Chris Moss had in mind when he penned that controversial article in Songlines magazine back in the summer. As a consequence of his “Soapbox” column, there was a discussion about people’s attitudes towards music sung in a language different to their native tongue. It also earned me a “Star Letter” award in the next issue.

Chris’s feature opens with three examples of songs that probably get people tapping and nodding along until you find out what they’re about. It’s something I witnessed myself in Cuba when I still lived there. Occasionally a freelance job would come up and as part of the experience I would take the person or persons to a salsa concert. As they shook their booty to the catchy Latin rhythm, I would whisper in their ear what the singers were saying in the chorus. Cue horror and surprise. I still remember on one occasion a Canadian woman who called herself a feminist grooving to the live band in actiona and stopping dead on the spot when I told her that what they were bellowing out from the stage was (literally) “I don’t want no broken c...s”. She got so upset that she asked me to take her to the venue manager immediately. To which I replied: “Are you really planning a) to make your way through this sea of people in the dark and b) try to stop the music because you find it offensive after I had to translate to you what they were saying because you can’t speak Spanish?” She calmed down but I doubt she listens to any salsa now.

Chris’s article is full of passion. The guy learnt Spanish in Buenos Aires and as he avers in the piece, that opened up a whole new world to him. I totally understand him. The same happened to me when I came across English. So, why don’t more people do this, open themselves up to new experiences through the medium of a foreign language?

As I wrote before the column stirred up some controversy, not least because Mr Moss seemed to take issue with his fellow English-speaking fellows. So, the next issue and the one after that – in which my missive was named Star Letter – were full of responses in the mould of “I didn’t know I had to speak the language to enjoy the music”. I can see the point of those replies, too. I don’t know how many times I have heard it said that music is universal. One correspondent’s comments chimed with me. She wrote that she listened to music (all music) with “an open heart”. This is a trait I have found amongst many of “world music” lovers. Perhaps it is the trait that unites us all and this niche mentality, this secret brother/sisterhood is the only reason why I still use the term “world music” despite the fact I hate it. But at the same time I can’t stop thinking of the composers and singers who write words for people to listen to them, understand them, analyse and discuss them. I’m not talking here of the easy-listening or dance-orientated approach of chill-out and salsa music respectively. In those two cases lyrics are sadly superfluous oftentimes. The intention is to get people to tap their feet and nod their heads as opposed to use their brains. I’m referring more specifically to songs from the likes of Angelique Kidjo, Habib Koite or MC Solaar. These are singers and singer songwriters whose compositions brim with social and political messages. I do feel that if you don’t grasp at least the essence of what they are saying you miss a huge chunk, not just of the actual song, but also of the context in which the song was written.

Chris writes about his discovery of the music of Violeta Parra and León Gieco (the latter was part of the soundtrack to my adolescent years) and how this led him to understand Argentina’s historical, cultural and socio-political narrative. The same happened to me when I began to listen to Anglo-Saxon rock and pop. As an experiment to find out if I could listen to and understand music with “an open heart” I dusted off my old copy of Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and played the third track, Masters of War. I imagined that I was someone who couldn’t understand a word in English; therefore Bob’s bitter indictment of the US establishment would most likely pass over my head. But, I said to myself if I just focus on the melody I should be all right, after all I could always “feel “it. So, that’s what I did, I tried to just “feel” the melody, just feel it for what it was, I concentrated hard, I closed my eyes, I scrunched up my face in a deep frown  and...  I failed. Don’t get me wrong, nice guitar chords, but if you can’t speak English the song becomes just a succession of samey-samey notes on a loop with a nasal voice singing over them. It was also disrespectful to Bob himself, my experiment, it was, because if Dylan had wanted someone to "feel" Masters of War rather than understand it, he would have written the song as an instrumental. With a different musical arrangement, for sure. This is the reason why, when someone tells me that they "feel", say, the Cuban singer songwriter Silvio Rodríguez's music, I always think that they're getting only half the picture. The half they are missing includes tracks like La Familia, la Propiedad Privada y el Amor (literally, The Family, Private Property and Love, a reference to Friedrich Engels' treatise calle The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State), where Silvio rages against the patriarchy, organised religion and so-called morality. Like Dylan's Masters of War the guitar chords are uncomplicated, but the words are some of the more powerful you will find in any song in Spanish.

What can we, world music lovers, do to overcome this language deficit? My advice is the same I gave in my letter in Songlines. It is impossible to speak the language of every single singer or composer in the world. But it is more manageable and realistic to master one or even two languages and through them explore the music of the culture to which they belong. In the case of Spanish, that means exploring the culture of more than 330 million people. No doubt you will find melodies as haunting as Adwa and singers as mesmerising as Gigi.

© 2014

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

Sunday 26 October 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As most of you know, because I posted a passage from it recently, I just re-read The Master and Margarita. If I were to tell you the plot in a nutshell I would say that the novel is about a visit the Devil and his associates pay to good, old dear Moscow during the Stalin era. As soon as they arrive they wreak havoc. However, even faced with the destruction of their city, Muscovites still refuse to believe that it is the Devil at work.

The scenes of chaos, disbelief and naiveté that Bulagakov so well describes reminded me of the debate about climate change.

Green taxes, renewable energy, carbon pricing, you name it, I have heard it. I have learnt a whole new vocabulary in the last ten years or so that my attention has finally turned to the issue of the slow, but ultimately unstoppable, global warming of our planet. I confess to having felt indifferent before. Seventeen years ago I was still getting used to the idea of not just travelling to another country but also looking to spend the rest of my life there with the family I was just about to form. Under these circumstances I am sorry to say that polar bears and their plight were not at the top of my priorities.

They are now, though. Climate change is real and it is here. But rather than a straightforward issue climate change is a topic fraught with squabbling and bickering. This is a subject that has the word politics emblazoned across its chest both with a capital and lower case “p”.

The future?
The way I have come to think about the damage we are doing to our planet is the same way I have come to see smoking. Apologies if I have already used this example but it is perfect for a post like this. Imagine if someone lit up next to you and straight after having that cigarette they dropped dead. Would you ever touch a ciggie? Hell you would! Because you don’t want to die. Simple as that. In this case the danger is real, it is palpable but above all it is immediate. Of course, we all know that smoking does not cause instant death (we’re talking normal, over-the-counter cigarettes here). That is one of the reasons why people keep smoking. This is a habit that brings pleasure (yes, I know it’s not everyone’s idea of “pleasure” but it is for most smokers and after an initial tough rite of passage, what with all that coughing, it becomes normal) and which provides a social network of like-minded smokers. As we also know, twenty or thirty years down the line, bar the odd exception here and there (Uncle Jim was a chain smoker and lived to one-hundred and ten. Yes, he was a rarity, not the rule), you finally confront your lungs on that X-ray in that cold, impersonal GP’s room. You also have to confront the terrible news about the “c” word. If, on the other hand, you don’t end up with lung cancer, your health will equally suffer from all kinds of ailments. Either way, that first ciggie behind the bike shed in school has metamorphosed into a chronic disease.

Climate change is no different. Like smoking, we cannot see the immediate effects of our lifestyles on the planet and similarly by the time we realise the harm we have done, we will be facing the equivalent of an X-ray in a cold, impersonal GP’s room.

The reason why this issue has been on my mind of late is that there is a new book out by the Canadian author Naomi Klein. Now, full disclosure is called for here. I have been a fan of Naomi’s writing since I read No Logo about twelve or thirteen years ago. The way she laid bare the exploitation of sweatshop workers in Third World countries was an eye-opener for me. The Shock Doctrine, a thorough account of how free market capitalism cashes in on natural and man-made crises for its own gain, was another book I devoured avidly. This time Naomi turns her attention to the plight of our planet and brings us This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. I will surely buy this volume but for the first time I have the uneasy feeling that perhaps Ms Klein is slightly out of her depth. I’m not one of those people who judge a book by reviews. I like to read the work, analyse it and arrive at my conclusions, but in this instance I have paid a closer attention to what critics are saying and writing.

There are many reasons why I feel that Naomi has bitten more than she can chew this time. For the first time I feel that the solutions she offers might fall way too short of the real changes we need to make in order to stop the destruction of our planet. There are many challenges to Ms Klein's theories. I will address three of them only, otherwise this would make for a rather long post.

Partisan politics. We’ve come to a standoff in contemporary politics in which neither left nor right is willing to budge. This impasse has led to a cultural war of which climate change has become a high-profile casualty. This is not just in the developed First World, but also in state-run, capitalist China and Russia. Attitudes to climate change have become as toxic as abortion rights or social welfare. The difference is that whereas the latter two belong more to a domestic agenda, global warming affects us all.

It is not hard to see why the traditional left-vs right struggle has met a barrier in regards to climate change. Countries are not run by governments, but by corporations. They are the ones with the wherewithal to raise funds in order to support the type of candidate who will respond to their corporate interests. That leads me to the second reason.

We used to make things, now we import them. Or, we have them made elsewhere. For corporations to be financially viable and stay competitive they have to reduce their production costs and maximise profit. If that means closing a factory in the Midlands and relocating it to Indonesia, laying off in the process a thousand workers, so be it. We, consumers, on the other hand have stopped asking where our stuff comes from and accepted that it is our right to buy it. For a mobile phone to reach our local retailer, it first has to go from Eastern Congo (the coltan in its capacitors is dug there by miners who are amongst the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of victims who have died in the “conflict minerals” wars) to India or China or another sweatshop where it is assembled. Now, try convincing that bloke who has queued up for two days in a row in the pouring rain to be the first to get the latest (insert model here. I want no trouble with lawyers) that in a certain way he is responsible for global warming. That leads me to the third and final reason.

Our lifestyles. They are hard to change because many of us have worked hard for them. And I will tell you what, reader, or maybe you will be the one telling me this, we will be loath to lose the standards to which we feel entitled. We work our fingers to the bones, some of you might even work unsocial hours. That telly from Japan (assembled all over the world), that new Mini (c’mon, it’s not a bleeming gas-guzzling SUV, is it?), the long-haul holiday to Australia (the first time you've taken a vacation abroad for five years). It’s my/your sweat in those choices, you might say to me. To which I will nod in agreement. This seems to be, based on the reviews I’ve read so far, the part of Naomi’s argument where she falters somewhat. It’s less difficult to rally support behind the plight of sweatshop workers or tsunami survivors. The cause is not just, but it is also distant. It is a whole different ball game when the issue is so close to home. To the point where we might be forced to change our lifestyles completely. That is why one of the solutions she offers, a network of activists organising mass action at summits and taking to the streets, will work short- or even mid-term. Long-term? Not a chance. It is also worth mentioning that what complicates this situation even more is that we also have populations in developing countries attempting to emulate the “western way of life” with devastating effects to their economies. Not only do they fall prey more easily to unscrupulous (western) investors, but also their governments are more prone to corruption.

Those of you who have been visiting my blog for a long time probably know that I am an optimist by nature. When it comes to climate change, however, I find a dark cloud looming over the horizon. This dark cloud is similar to the one in the last chapter of The Master and Margarita that presages a storm that threatens to destroy Moscow. Let us hope that for once fiction stays fiction.

© 2014

Next Post: “Living in a Multicultural World”, to be published on Wednesday 29th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Let's Talk About...

... housework. Or rather, let’s talk about how much housework chaps get up to do during the week.

Housework remains the last frontier to be crossed and conquered, the territory where we will plant our Male of the Species Flag once we have orbited around the sink and landed in front of the ironing board. This time, though, there will be no talk of conspiracy or dodgy images that might confuse viewers. We will have a dust-filled Hoover to prove our case.

When the moment arrives, we will be able to say that we, men, have finally claimed true ownership of housework. The glass ceiling has been broken. And whilst you are there, smashing that menacing and ubiquitous overhead surface do us a favour and get rid of the cobwebs, please. You know what spiders are like at this time of the year.

Joking aside (well, only just and that’s half-joking, by the way), what is it with us, blokes and housework? We have crossed other boundaries, for instance, our open-minded approach to grooming gave us the “metrosexual” years ago who has now metamorphosed into the “spornosexual”. With a full Brazilian. No problems with sharing girlfriend/wife’s night cream but sorting out the dirty laundry? You might as well book a place in the next “watching paint dry” avant-garde art show (possibly a future Turner prize?).

Your blog host has a confession to make. I am fond of some house chores. Cooking, cleaning (including vacuuming), doing the washing-up, ironing and mowing the lawn (I know it’s an outdoor activity but still inside the home, so it is technically speaking, housework)? Count me in. Doing the laundry, tidying up and dusting? Don’t like them. Especially the tidying up as a lot of the mess in our house is my responsibility.

It wasn’t always thus. If I were to attempt to chart my evolution in the housework chain in a scale of one to ten, one representing minimum housework and ten maximum, I’ve gone from zero (years lived in Cuba) to seven or eight (years lived in the far). The reason is simple: I grew up with four women in a one-bed flat in downtown Havana. Until thirteen the only other man in the house was my dad and when he finally got kicked out by my mum I remained as the sole beneficiary of my late Nan, late auntie, mum and – to a lesser extent – cousin’s attentions. If I ever picked up a broom to sweep, my grandma asked me with a straight-looking face: “Are you ill?” and snatched the broom away from me.

A fellow fighter in our campaign
That is why my form of rebellion arrived in the form of housework. Whereas some of my male contemporaries still have a laissez-faire attitude to domestic chores, I am of the opinion that this is where the next revolution will come from.

Let’s talk about housework, fellas, because this will be our first wave of “masculinism” (it’s not a proper words, by the way, I’ve just made it up. Sorry, I’m still working on the marketing side of this campaign. It’s not even a good word, I confess. Unlike “feminism” with three, “masculinism” has four syllables which makes it not catchy at all). So women fought for the vote, and then for their reproductive rights and later on for their right to wear whatever they wanted to wear? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet, because we, men, will fight against the myriad prejudices, still rife in our society, that tar us with the unfair brush of being anti-housework. We shall fight these misconceptions on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing grounds... Sorry, wrong speech. We shall fight them at the sink (not with fists, but with our Marigolds on), we shall fight them behind the couch, we shall fight them with an ironing board; we shall never surrender.

Let’s talk about housework. And let’s also talk about the first wave of “masculinism”. Now, fellow male bloggers and male readers, who of you will side with me? You can start by helping me find a new name for the campaign and get rid of the cobwebs.

© 2014

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

Sunday 19 October 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The changes arrive slowly. First it’s the early morning chill that makes you realise all of a sudden that it is not enough to don just a Lycra vest and shorts to cycle to work. Next it is the jumper one throws on to nip out to the shops or the tweed jacket bought in Brick Lane for a tenner that becomes our companion on informal outings. Tea goes back to its usual hot state instead of the iced variety favoured in summer (either way I am not a tea drinker, so that one does not apply to me). Hot chocolates and mochas, on the other hand, become my poison of choice.

It's autumn again.

Autumn is nature’s way of frowning upon the landscape. An auburn, orange, golden and red type of frown. A multi-coloured mist that descends upon us all. All the merriment of summer is drowned out by the early October showers. This is swiftly followed by an ankle-deep swamp of fallen leaves on the ground. By early December the autumn brown becomes winter brown until eventually it turns a winter white with the first snowfall.

But this year autumn has not shown its face in my part of London. We have had the washouts, oh, yes, we’ve had those. However, leaves remain a stubborn green, the seasonal crimson not yet a reality. I wait patiently until the front wheel of my bike parts the sea of leaves on my way to work turning me into a Moses for the day, as I do every year. I long for the dramatic sunsets, earlier, yes, but still dramatic. I feel jealous of you, country dwellers, witnesses to berry-gorging birds and filling up your lungs with the scent of heather.

Autumn is a season of longing, or as the Portuguese would put it, a season of saudade, one of my favourite words ever. My preference for this time of the year does not stem from the date on my birth certificate. No, even if I had been born in a different month of the year I would still have willingly changed the date in my certificate to September, October or November. I’m an autumn sign, regardless of the Zodiac. Central to this is the question of nostalgia, melancholy and remembrance. The way tree branches, pregnant with green leaves, grow thin in a matter of weeks reminds me of loss. Autumn’s music is a bandoneón, a fiddle, Bach’s “Italian” period and the wind softly whispering in my ear. What is it saying, you might wonder? Nature’s frown is on its way, kid, fret not.

So, I wait. Still, I wait.

© 2014

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About...”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 15 October 2014

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

While still the colour of the leaves hasn't changed, nor have they fallen to the ground en masse, autumn is here. And with autumn comes comfort food. If you are a veggie, please, scroll straight down to the music. This post smells and tastes of bacon. As soon as I read the Cook supplement that comes with The Guardian every Saturday last weekend I knew I had to post this recipe. The music to go with it was easy to find. It's music with soul because this is a dish with plenty of soul. By the way, you can eat this as a mid-week light meal or as weekend lunch. All credit goes to Jason Atherton, author of Gourmet Food for a Fiver (Quadrille)

Grilled sardines on toast with bacon, basil and tomato

8 butterflied sardine fillets (opened out flat, bones removed)
A bunch of basil, leaves picked, stalks reserved
400g cherry tomatoes, about 35-40, halved
2 tbsp finely diced red onion
4 tbsp sherry vinegar
120ml olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1½ lemons, in halves ready for squeezing
Sea salt and black pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying
4 rashers of streaky bacon
120g tin sardines in tomato sauce
4 slices of thick country bread (such as ciabatta or sourdough)
1 garlic clove, peeled and halved
Put the basil leaves (reserving a few for garnishing) into a bowl with half the cherry tomatoes. Add the onion, vinegar, oil and the juice of ½ a lemon. Toss and season with salt. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat a little vegetable oil in a small wide pan and fry the bacon rashers until crisp. Remove, drain on kitchen paper and set aside. Into the same pan, tip the tinned sardines, basil stalks and remaining tomatoes. Simmer over a medium heat for 10 minutes or until the tomatoes are cooked, stirring often. Remove from the heat and stir in the juice of ½ a lemon. Puree in a blender until smooth, press through a sieve into a bowl and season. Char the bread under a grill, drizzle with olive oil and rub with the cut garlic clove. Heat a good splash of vegetable oil in a large frying pan. Pan-fry the sardine fillets, skin-side down first, for 1–2 minutes on each side until cooked. Season and add a squeeze of lemon. Drizzle a little sardine sauce on each plate and lay a slice of toast in the middle. Top with the tomato salad, followed by the sardines, bacon and basil. Finish with a drizzle of the sardine sauce and a little olive oil.

I mentioned music with soul. You don't get much soul than The Wailin' Jennys' Storm Comin'. I like to think of this melody as synonymous with the colour of bacon as it turns crisp. Love the way the song builds up. Enjoy

Second track up is this beautiy which I discovered recently on the KCRW channel to which I am subscribed. What half-nelsoned me to the ground immediately was Hozier's honest delivery. Did I say soul at the beginning of this post? Just like honest comfort food (all that simmering) Take Me To Church is pure musical bliss. Soak up.

Rough, earth-shattering, raw. There are many ways to describe Koko Taylor's singing. And they all go hand in hand with that bread you charred under the grill. And the tossing and drizzling that tonight's recipe requites.. Waaaaaang Dang Doodle for you, ladies and gents! Happy eating.

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

Sunday 12 October 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

What is the true nature of the UK as a country? By which I mean what is the natural disposition of the inhabitants of these islands? I don’t just mean in a political sense, although politics does play a part in our social and cultural make-up, but also from an identity point of view.

It is a tough question to ask and even tougher to answer. It is the kind of question that circles my head like a vulture flying up above eyes always ready in case it spots carrion. In my case the prey is a better understanding of the country in which I chose to live many years ago. One of the stages in the process of integration for immigrants is to cast off old prejudices. Though exciting, this is also a daunting exercise. Prejudices sometimes provide a comfort zone even if in the long term they cause untold harm. Rid yourself of them and you suddenly have to deal with a different mind-set. As it is the case for me now.

One of the myths I always heard about Britain when I still lived in Cuba was that it was a hard-core, right-wing, individualistic society with very little space for liberal ideas. True, these notions were based on a narrow, Castro-led, ideologically-driven agenda that sought to masquerade socialism’s excesses with capitalism’s flaws. My lectures in uni on history, life and culture in the UK reinforced this thesis, ramming home the point that the United Kingdom was all about hooligans, the monarchy and the stiff upper lip.

As soon as I arrived in London and after an initial cultural shock I made it my mission to try to get under the skin of this country. Even if it took me a lifetime. By the looks of it this will take me three or four more lifetimes and I don’t believe in re-incarnation (at least re-incarnation in the sense of coming back as a human being. The soul and all that, let’s leave it for another post, shall we?). That meant that I had to confront my old prejudices head on and expose myself to concepts with which I might not feel comfortable.

The first idea I chucked away was that Britons were inherently right-wing. There is a strong liberal tradition in this country. From John Stuart Mill and his defence of the freedom of the individual to Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan who introduced the National Health Service in 1948 the UK has a progressive tradition of which to boast. That brought me some solace as I particularly found myself on this side of the social and political spectrum.

Yet, with each passing year I noticed a phenomenon that continues to this day to puzzle me, hence this column. At the same time that I noticed a forward-thinking and left-of-centre tendency in British society I also spotted a similarly conservative mind-set. This conservative trait was small “c” conservative and not linked necessarily to Tory/Conservative party values. It is rather conservative-lite. A low-level, unobtrusive, tucked-away-in-a-corner type. More related to the Latin “conservatus”, meaning someone disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions than Cameron’s privatisation-obsessed political manifesto. In fact, many of these small “c” conservative attitudes were sported by people who would otherwise call themselves liberals.

Take the monarchy, for instance. If there were to be a vote tomorrow on whether the UK should become a republic or carry on being led by a queen or king, I think we could see a similar mood to the recent one in Scotland on the Yes or No vote. However, in the absence of a plebiscite of this kind (and I can’t see one happening in my lifetime) most people in this nation, even those who hate the monarchy and what it stands for, are happy to coast along with it. This is the sort of conservatism I am referring to. I know there is a pro-republic movement in Britain but I do not think this has necessarily translated into an overt call for the immediate termination of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor’s reign and the abolition of royalty. For some reason it is OK to keep Lizzie on the throne. After all she is only there in the background, quiet most of the time, keeping herself to herself, not butting in. Put your placards down (if you went as far as to make one), calm down and have a cuppa.
Beautiful contradiction: liberal and conservative

Another example of how this small “c” conservative attitude manifests itself is the way the UK sells itself to people from abroad. Both to visitors to GB and when it exports its culture  to other countries. In this case what gets trotted out straight away are stereotypes, of which the mumbling, stammering Hugh Grant figure is the more easily identifiable. Implicit in this cultural offering is the class system, a structure that although politically many of us (born here or not) oppose, socially we accept.

For what are we doing when we lap up the Downton Abbeys, the Upstairs Downstairs and many other period dramas of similar DNA? We are tacitly agreeing with a status quo that is more interested in preserving the same power structure than in bringing in much-needed radical changes.

There is no right or wrong in this post. Small “c” conservatism is prevalent even amongst those of us who were not born here. Every time an independent shop or a small café closes down I mourn their disappearance as if they had been part of my childhood landscape. One of the reasons why I think there is an in-built conservative trait in the UK is due to the cultural and historical wealth this country has. If I may touch briefly on Politics (capital “P” there) and with the recent Clacton-on-Sea result still fresh on my mind, this is one of the reasons why the far-right UK Independent Party (Ukip. I know that some will disagree with me on the “far-right” bit but to me Ukip is the BNP with suits instead of boots. Thugs with suits, you could say) has done so well in the last year. They have managed to tap into that area of the British psyche that is still firmly moored to that distant past.

As are the hipsters of Shoreditch and Dalston and the “spornosexuals” of Essex. Though modern-looking, they, too, are moored to a past that perpetuates the “upstairs” and “downstairs” structure. That past is present in the vintage fixed-gears bikes that populate the roads of Hoxton and Hackney (irony included in the ride) and the last night of the Proms and its sea of Union Jacks celebrating Britain. The same sea of Union Jacks celebrating the marriage of Kate and William. The same sea of Union Jacks rising in unison to cheer on Mo Farah at the London 2012 Olympics. As I mentioned before, there is no right or wrong in this post. The small “c” conservative attitude is about preserving institutions (even when sometimes people might not agree with them) and keeping certain traditions alive. For me personally it is another small step in understanding the United Kingdom. Now, if only I could rely on those three or four more lifetimes to finish the job.

Occasionally I like sharing passages of the books I read in the same way other posters do on their blogs. This time I would like to bring to your attention a beautiful sentence I read recently in The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel. For me this was a re-read as I had already devoured the text in Spanish when I was a teenager. However, on reading the novel a second time now I realised that my younger self had perhaps missed out on some of the book’s better-known traits, i.e., its humour and lyrical language. I hope you enjoy it. Have a good week.

The thunderstorm had passed without leaving a trace, and a multicolored rainbow had formed an arch over the entire city and was drinking water from the Moscow River.

© 2014

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

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Killer Opening Songs (Oganaich Uir a Rinn M' Fhagail by Julie Fowlis)

Killer Opening Songs knows exactly what it likes: lie-ins on Saturday mornings (and Sundays, too, but especially Saturdays), watching films at home as a family (although its choices have been restricted for the last couple of years. There is only so much Tarkovsky and Truffaut K.O.S.’s mucky pups are willing to put up with) and the feeling of the sea caressing its feet.

Killer Opening Songs also likes beautifully expressive singing. The type that unfolds slowly like a journey through mystic lands where the destination matters less than the journey itself. This mystic nature fits perfectly the oeuvre of Scottish singer Julie Fowlis. Since her debut album, Mar A Tha Mo Chridhe (As My Heart Is) she has been at the forefront of the revival of folk music in the UK in recent years. What sets Julie apart from many of her fellow folk musicians is the fact that she sings in Gaelic, plays the pipes, the whistles and delivers her songs with a precision that has more to do with Kate Bush than with the world of  jigs and reels.

Julie’s debut album put her part of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides (usually thought of as a bleak landscape) on the UK musical map. Her record is a beguiling and at the same time upbeat offering. Part of that it’s due to the Killer Opening Song Oganaich Uir a Rinn M' Fhagail (Oh Noble Youth Who Has Left Me), a mesmerising and jolly melody that incorporates various traditional Celtic and non-Celtic instruments. Key to the success of the piece are the arrangements made by Julie’s husband and bouzouki player Eamon Doorley, mandolin player John Doyle and Julie herself.

Versatile instrumentalist, excellent arrange and expressive singer. It is no surprise that Julie’s artistic career goes from strength to strength. Her fifth album came out this year to wide acclaim, both from critics and audience alike. And K.O.S would like to believe that it all started back at the beginning, with a Killer Opening Song.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 12th October at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 5 October 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Sit on the floor, cross your legs, close your eyes, rest your forearms on your thighs with the palms of your hands facing up and... let the app on your smartphone do the rest.

Yes, you read that right. Let an application that you downloaded prior to your meditation session tell you when it is time for you to be calmer. Should it be before or after you go to see your boss to ask her/him for a payrise? Or will it be when you are asked to come to your child’s school to talk to his/her teacher on account of an “incident” in which your little Johnny spat on a classmate’s face and called him that word that begins with “c” and has four letters? It has been the third time this term, mind you, so you will need that app badly.

We are in the middle of a boom, apparently. No, not that type of boom, the economic one on which George Osborne so smugly keeps insisting despite a long queue of unemployed people making a racket outside Westminster. I’m talking about mindfulness boom, the next step up from meditation, which was a step up from yoga, which was a step up from... what? Sorry, I lost count.

Suit is optional
The irony of modern life is that in order to maintain the standards to which we have grown so used over the years we have to stress ourselves out in the process of achieving them. The only way to de-stress, it seems, is to cough up for courses that promise us inner peace. Because these sessions cost a fortune (as well as gurus and the like) we need to raise that money somehow. Which means we need to work harder and longer hours. Which means more stress. And so the cycle continues.

I am not slagging off yoga or Pilates or meditation or the new kid on the bloc, mindfulness. As I mentioned in my last post before going off on my summer blog-break, I teach Afro-Cuban dance and have incorporated yoga techniques in the last ten years or so to my practice. But I'd be the first one to confess that I have taken the bits from yoga that match my teaching and left the philosophy bits out. In doing this I have copied unintentionally the usual western approach to spiritual practices.

From the hug-a-stranger initiative to alternative relaxation techniques the message is the same: listen to your body, be at one with the world, leave judgments out and accept yourself, your emotions and sensations. Sometimes I find all this to be a lot of baloney, to be honest. Not the act of meditation per se but the marketing side of it. Once again, a discipline which is part of a bigger system whose aim is to live a full, rich spiritual life is diluted and sold piecemeal to an audience always on the lookout for the latest fad.

The downside of this is that people become more docile and “tuned out”. Whatever danger they might pose is cancelled out. For the government this is handy especially in times when the gap between rich and poor is widening up. First it was Mother’sLittle Helper (Valium), now it is meditation.  Either way the mantra is the same: you don’t need to change the system, just relax and switch off. It will be all right. Now, hand over the cash and go back to working harder for it, will you?

You know how much I love the UK and London specifically, my home for almost twenty years. But sometimes that love is tested. One of the first traits I learnt about the British personality is that they moan a lot. And that they enjoy doing it in a sort of love/hate way. Sometimes their complaints are justified (anything that involves slagging off Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is welcomed) but many times my lovely British comrades do not really know how good they have it. Take queues, for instance. I have lost count of the number of times in which someone has said that they hate queuing or that the queue for the cinema was too long (about twenty yards long) or that they had to queue up for  a long time ( a quarter of an hour).

My fellow Brits, as a Cuban-born and bred person, I am telling you, you don’t know how lucky you are. Babies have been made in queues in Cuba, I kid you not. Fortunately we have never had a case where the future mother has spent her whole pregnancy in the same queue going from conception to labour and birth. Perhaps someone is already working on that. If only for the Guinness World Records. If it does happen, you will be the first ones to know. In the meantime, stop moaning, queues in the UK are quite well organised, with a system and everybody knows their place most of the time. Remember, if that queue makes you feel a bit tense and despondent, there's always mindfulness to help you out. Enjoy your week.

© 2014

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 8th October at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Urban Dictionary

Staycation: (n) a vacation spent at home or near home, doing enjoyable activities or visiting local attractions.

Or what you do when you are skint. A little bit of honesty sometimes will not go amiss. Of course there’s more to “staycation” than finances and luckily, nowadays it’s a choice most of us can make. It’s even been recognised as an official word by the Oxford English Dictionary. So, all those holidays in the Wirral finally paid off.

But going back to choices for a second, I have often been told by people born and raised here in Blighty that many years ago low-income or working class families didn’t have many (choices, that is). Therefore, it was always a few days away in Blackpool in the summer every year. Or a day trip to Frinton- or Southend-on-Sea. Or whatever money allowed. Sometimes not even that. Two or three years would go by before a trip in the old banger was arranged hastily the night before for the morning after.

Blackpool, UK. But would you not rather be in Minorca?
But in recent years, low budget holidays abroad have changed that. Cheap flights, all-inclusive accommodation and a more moneyed (and money-minded) working class have contributed to the exploration of boundaries beyond Dover. Even if this still means some stereotypical British tourists trying to make themselves understood using the old method of SPEAKING IN A VERY LOUD VOICE, PRONOUNCING EACH WORD VERY CAREFULLY. Mind you, at least you lot are better than my lot. Cubans can’t even travel freely. And what to say of the pioneers of staycation, the denizens of the old socialist bloc? Yes, some were allowed to travel from the former Soviet Union to East Germany, for instance (as long as they toed the party line and they were considered to be model citizens), but the landscape in both Moscow and Berlin was coloured by the KGB and the Stasi respectively. Bearing in mind that most eastern European socialist countries were thought as extensions of the Kremlin’s back garden; staycation is an appropriate term to use. So, my dear Brits, please, do carry on ASKING WHERE THE EIFFEL TOWER IS. Clue: it’s right behind you!

This boom in short- and long-haul holidays left the UK tourist industry depending more on tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the Queen or castle-hopping. Suddenly Ayia Napa was far more interesting than Lyme Regis. Until 2008.

With the financial crisis of 2008 many habits changed. Holidays were amongst those activities that underwent a makeover. Because when you think of it, no matter how cheap your flight to Rome is, you still have to find accommodation. Maybe you want to incorporate car-hire, and how about the insurance? Suddenly that hundred quid holiday turns into a thousand –pound one. Compare that to £299 for a two-bedroom cottage in Devon that sleeps four. That’s the annual family summer holiday sorted. Yes, of course, there’s still the petrol to factor in and the catering, but does anyone really include petrol costs in their vacation planning?

Staycation is here to stay, pardon the tautology. I have always been of the opinion that one should (must, even) know one’s country like the back of one’s hand first before venturing out to explore other lands. I, unfortunately, have never been to eastern Cuba and that’s been in my to-do list for many years now for when we go back. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps the economic collapse of 2008 will have inadvertently a positive effect on the younger generation and will awaken their desire to discover the wealth of culture, history and nature the UK has to offer. Who knows? Maybe it will be French-speakers they will come across, asking: OÙ EST LE CHÂTEAU ACTON, S’IL VOUS PLAÎT? Clue: it’s right behind you!

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 5th October at 10am (GMT)


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