Sunday 14 December 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A rolled down car window open to the elements on a cold autumnal evening might not be the first place one thinks of when it comes to finding a common bond with our fellow humans. But that was exactly what happened a few weeks ago as I was cycling home from work. For a fleeting instant and for less than twenty yards, a car and my bike found themselves almost side to side. Just as the vehicle was about to turn left, through the rolled down window I caught the notes of a melody I had not heard for many years...

“... my lips search for your lips/and I’m hungry for your touch/there’s so much left unspoken...

... and I’m falling apart all around you/and all I can do is surrender... I automatically finished the rest of the verse in my head as I cycled on.

Queen’s One Year of Love was the third track on their highly successful album A Kind of Magic from 1986 (it was also part of the soundtrack of the movie Highlander). Perhaps less known than the record’s standout hits One Vision, Friends Will Be Friends and the title track, it is still a beautiful song in its own right. It is also a cheesy melody. Even I, long-time Queen fan (as in real Queen fan, album tracks Queen fan as opposed to Greatest Hits Queen fan), have to admit that One Year of Love has “cheesy” written all over its schmaltzy face. But I never cared before and I still don’t. And on this chilly November evening I cared even less. The serendipitous combination of car and bike pulling up together at the junction, turning to the same side and the open window through which the lines “...and no one ever told me that love would hurt so much/and pain is so close to pleasure...” wafted into the cold early evening air made me believe that here was another human being connecting with me somehow on a deep musical level. It is not that I was surprised that someone was listening to Queen, it is simply that not many people would listen to this particular track at all. Most of the music that blares out of car stereos, flats and shops in my little patch in London, falls under two categories: chart/hip hop music or non-Anglo-Saxon tunes. The latter are usually Turkish, Kurdish, Somali, Hindu, Greek and in recent years Eastern European songs. Occasionally some reggae joins the chart/hip hop duopoly, played mainly by the guy who runs the bike shop just down the road.

An open car window, a handshake of the soul
I couldn’t see if the driver of the car next to me was a man or a woman, what s/he looked like or even what type of motor s/he was driving. The one, single element that stayed with me was this song that united us both for a few precious seconds. When people ask me what makes me a humanist I point at examples like this one. They might be seen as simple, but in their simplicity lies a more complex understanding of the ties that bind us, humans, together. A few days after my musical experience I came across a column by the priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington church, Giles Fraser, on humanism. I like Giles’ writing and I tend to agree with a lot of what he says but on this occasion I thought he was slightly wide of the mark. He cast doubts on humanism’s ability to value irrational beings in the same way as rational ones. I do not think that his comments were fair on humanism or humanists. To me humanism seeks to establish a common identity amongst all those who inhabit this planet, rational or irrational. Of course, we, humans, can make sense of this/these identity marker(s) consciously whilst cats cannot, or willows for that matter. That does not mean we think less of then; it only means we see them in a different light, but we still value their contribution to our world.

It is strange what a rolled down car window open to the elements on a cold autumnal evening can do to one’s intellect. But combine that with an unexpected song and you have yet another reason to believe that we have more traits in common as humans than some might think. Let’s have a toast to that, shall we?

This is my last post before I disappear for a month as I always do at this time of the year. It has been a very good twelve months during which I have listened to some fantastic music, read some great books and watched some very interesting and thought-provoking movies. Of course, I have also visited many good blogs on which I have seen some breath-taking photos, read some amazing poetry and well-crafted, entertaining posts. One of the reasons why I continue to blog after seven and a half years is that I feel part of a big family, an accepting family that keeps growing and getting stronger. Thank you all for your continuous feedback and support. And thank you for existing, too.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 11th January at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Taking the Plunge)

It is that time of the year when I think of the books, music and movies that made a deep impact on me in the previous twelve months. I usually share this information with you, my dear fellow bloggers and readers, in my last post of December but tonight I would rather use the space where I regularly muse on our multilingual world to promote two books I know some of you might enjoy. One of them I read over the summer just before I got on the plane to France. The other one I have just started and I can’t put down. Both volumes are my must-reads of 2014.

The first book is a novel called Heureux les Heureux. The title is taken after a line in a poem by the late, renowned Argentinian poet, essayist and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges. What catches the eyes immediately is the way this roman is structured: each chapter is a monologue through which the reader gets acquainted with the characters whilst the plot unravels. Bearing in mind that the author, Yasmina Reza is also a playwright, I found myself at times wondering where the bracketed and italicised stage directions had gone. The second book is called D’Autres Vies que la Mienne and deals with the aftermath of the terrible tsunami that devastated South East Asia ten years ago in 2004. It was an interesting and intriguing interview with the author, Emmanuel Carrère, in The Observer that made me want to investigate his writing further.

It was also the fact that both books were available in French.

I don’t read in French as much as I used to years ago and this has always been a cause for regret in my case. After spending three years learning the language and becoming fluent in it, I lost many of my oral and listening skills when I relocated to the UK. That is the reason why going back to the Gallic lexicon feels usually like travelling to another country, a familiar and friendly land, if only in my mind.

One of my two books of the year

Those of you who speak more than language and are fluent in it/them will probably recognise this phenomenon. It has probably been a while since you dabbled in unusual grammar and syntax constructions, so you get a book in the language in which you want to regain your fluency and you dip your big toe in the water first. No headfirst plunge, mind you, just a shy re-acquaintance. If the water is too cold, you close that first page and go back to your warm comfort zone. I did it a few years ago with a novel in German and I regret it now. My advice is, plough on, and make sure that you understand the reason why the water feels cold. You see, you have not swum in this beach for a long time. So, you must wade in the water first, and then little by little, ensuring you have got a firm footing (i.e., a good dictionary) you carry on, until the water level reaches your waist. It is only then, that you dive headfirst.

That is how reading in a foreign language, especially French and German (and more the former than the latter) feels to me. Like immersing myself in the vastness of a great big ocean. Along the way I am helped by friendly winks and nudges that reassure me I’ll be supported on my journey. In the case of books written in French I feel as if there is always an ellipsis hanging over the pages. Not a clear-cut omission of items in order to avoid repetition, but rather a mark or marks along the lines of  “...” that signify the sentiments and emotions left unexplained. Both Heureux les Heureux and D’Autres Vies que la Mienne are full of examples. In the former there is a character called Paola Suares, who is sleeping with a married man, Luc Condamine. Since his wife is not home, he decides to take Paola to his house. The scene that follows is full of small, descriptive details that render the situation absurd. Whilst he is taking his clothes off, ready to have sex with her, Paola is showing more interest in the house décor: “Luc a défait sa braguette. J’ai attend un peu. Il a libéré son sexe et tout à coup j’ai réalisé que le canapé était turquoise. Un turquoise chatoyant sous la lumière artificielle d’alcôve, et j’ai pensé qu’au milieu de reste était assez surprenant d’avoir choisi cette couleur de canapé. Je me suis demande qui était responsable de la décoration dans ce couple.” There is humour in the scene as well. The man unfastens his trousers but his female companion is more interested in the couch and its colour. The chapter ends on a more serious note, though, with Paola stating the obvious: you will never leave all this, will you? Luc’s elliptical response indicates that there is a suppression of thoughts. Thoughts that will come out in his monologue, pages later, but which, for the time being, will remain under wraps.

Those of us who live in a multilingual world, even if we forsake one of the languages in which we are fluent for a while, always have the opportunity to come back and take the plunge. But do not be afraid to dip your big toe in first. Should the water be cold, plough on, please, do plough on.

© 2014

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

Sunday 7 December 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Dear Britain,

I never intended to make this letter public. You see, you and I have had our disagreements over the years but on the whole our relationship has been rather solid. I love you, Blighty, royal warts and all. But this latest twist of events in your current social affairs has got me worried.

I thought that the tide had turned against working class people. In my innocent Cuban mind, to call someone “working class” in 21st century Britain was to liken them to skivers, benefits fraudsters and scroungers. In this respect I had come to the conclusion that the Cameron-led coalition had unfortunately won.

How wrong I was. Not on the working class bit, mind you. They are still seen as “chavs” with all the negative bias that that word conveys. No, I was wrong because it is not just hoi polloi who are despised, but also posh people. Who would have thought that the very upper class so admired – envied, some might say – by many denizens on this pleasant and beautiful land are also derided and mocked?

Don’t believe me? Exhibit A: Andrew Mitchell. Now, if you are resident in the UK, you probably remember what got Andie in hot water last year. Apparently the former Conservative cabinet minister called a policeman a “pleb” after a verbal spat with the officer outside the Downing Street gate. Let’s forget for a moment the rather patronising comment by the high court judge who oversaw the case. To quote him verbatim, our learned friend opined that the officer in question was not the sort of man “who had the wit, the imagination... to invent in the spur of the moment what a senior cabinet minister would have said to him”. Make of that what you will. But what to say of Andrew Mitchell? Or rather, what did the papers say of him? They went for his jugular. At the centre of their attack on Mr Mitchell was that word, “pleb”. Like a swearword let out accidentally in a roomful of children in a nursery, this is one of those terms that has the label “toxic” scribbled all over it. It is also a word that carries with it a sense of superiority and entitlement on the part of the user.

I've made my point, you pleb! Now, I shall cycle off.

Sense of superiority could be the link to our Exhibit B: David Mellor. Another Conservative former cabinet minister, Mr Mellor found himself recently in a black cab with his wife leaving Buckingham Palace. Following a disagreement with the driver over which route to take, David Mellor proceeded to give the taxi driver a piece of his toff mind. What ensued was a volley of insults from the politician to the cabbie, from calling him a “smart-arsed little git” to that old do-you-know-who-I-am chestnut “I’ve been in the Cabinet, I’m an award-winning broadcaster, I’m a Queen ’s Counsel. You think that your experiences are anything compared to mine?” Unfortunately for David, the cab driver was recording him all along. On finding out that his arrogant tirade had been captured on record, Mr Mellor told a tabloid: “I will leave the public to judge his actions”.

I will leave you readers to judge his actions, too. And those of Andrew Mitchell. Two specimens who suffer from the same self-delusional illness that apparently makes its victims behave like total idiots. Idiots with a sense of superiority.

But Britain, back to you. I thought, I honestly thought that you would side with these two “sweaty, stupid little shits” (to use David Mellor’s words when confronting the cab driver. Don’t you love it when a supposedly erudite man stoops so low to show off his power?). After all, according to a recent documentary called Posh People: Inside Tatler, we are apparently fascinated by the lives of those who live “upstairs” whilst laughing at those who live “downstairs”. Yet, this is not what happened to David and Andrew. They were taken apart by both right-wing and left-wing media. Could it be that we are witnessing a grand occasion in the history of class in this nation? The moment when the playing field is finally being levelled? Or, could the reason be a more mundane one? Editors need to sell more newspapers and both stories were too good to take into consideration decades-old political allegiances. Let rip and rake in the profits.

Still, Britain, you owe me an answer. Proles or toffs? Plebs or posh? Who is really Public Enemy Number One?

Yours truly,

Your Favourite Cuban In London

© 2014

Photo taken from The Daily Telegraph

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 10th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Killer Opening Songs (Song For My Father by Horace Silver)

Kind of Blue is the go-to album for people who are first introduced to jazz. Whether initially averse to the genre or curious about its intrinsic musical patterns, neophytes are usually given Miles Davis 1959 masterpiece as a way to join the ever-expanding jazz community. That is why Kind of Blue has remained such a powerful symbol of the coolness of jazz.

This is not fair on other equally ground-breaking records, however. There’s Alice Coltrane’s harp-driven, lyrical and sublime third album, Ptah, the El Daoud, Mary Lou Williams’ groovy and blues-infused Free Spirits and ass-kicking (pardon K.O.S.’s French) Horace Silver’s 1965 LP Song forMy Father.

Killer Opening Songs will concentrate on the third of these three albums tonight. Inspired by a trip Horace Silver made to Brazil, Song for My Father was one of Blue Note’s signature records from the sixties. Silver’s mother was of Irish and black descent, and his father was originally from Cape Verde. The influence of this ethnic mix on Horace is what makes Song for My Father such an enjoyable record.

Equally, part of what makes the record successful is the Killer Opening Song, the title song that is dedicated to Horace’s father, John Tavares Silva. This melody is quintessential hard bop with a funk element added in for good measure. Uncharacteristically it is not the binomial of drum and bass that kicks off the track but Horace’s deeply, swinging, groovy piano accompanied by tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson (although in the clip below both trumpet and saxophone come in at the same time at the outset). The feel of not just the Introductory Track with Murder Tendencies but of the whole album is one of ebullience and optimism. Calcutta Cutie has an air of eeriness about it whilst Que Pasa is a foot-tapping, catchy little number.

Now that Christmas is almost here, maybe it’s time to revisit your gift lists (if you are in the habit of making them up) and include this gem of a record. After all, it is not only Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue that has the knack to express the coolness of jazz, but also Horace Silver’s Song for My Father. And once again it is partly down to the Killer Opening Song.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 7th December at 10am (GMT)


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