Saturday 25 February 2017

Thoughts in Progress

If we do not work on our exterior, our internal characterisation as well as its conception will not reach the audience. Thus spoke Tortsov, theatre and school director whose collaboration with the great theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski formed the basis of the latter’s book An Actor Prepares. His words were on my mind recently as I watched a group of smokers carefully.

Observing them at a distance I came to the following conclusion: they all looked as if they wanted to hold something, anything, all the time. The cigarette in their hands was a mere prop. It could have been any other object, a glass, a dumbbell or a pencil, but I guess the effect would have been less dramatic. This was the second outcome of my observation: their cigarette-holding exercise was a performance.

As a race, we humans are prop-friendly or prop-obsessed (depending on how close we feel towards them). The current mobile phone craze has given us yet another excuse to handle an object. Never mind that the constant swiping and screen-glancing make mobile phone users walking hazards, all they are focused on is the public, unintentional, off-the-cuff (unasked-for) performance they are regaling to an uninterested audience.

This is not a new phenomenon. Go back a few decades and you will notice that cigarettes and alcohol were the go-to props of the day. I have just gone on You Tube to watch a collage of fag-filled clips of the unforgettable Bette Davis. At less than a minute long, the amount of smoke in the video is enough to make you cough. You even forget for a moment that you are watching the late American star … on your computer.

You might disagree with me on the following statement but I do believe that nobody held a ciggie like Ms Davis. Hand on hip, or looking intently in the other person’s eyes, or slowly walking down a set of stairs, or putting the stogy butt out, there was always class in her acting. Precisely what Tortsov insisted that his students have. In another chapter he talks about an actor’s presence on stage, how some have an aura that precedes them even before they utter a word. They could read the telephone book to the whole theatre and still no one would get up to leave. Props very often have a certain influence on this total control of actor over public.

Now, that's the way to hold it

When I was still doing theatre back in my 20s one of my main concerns was what to do about my hands. Not being a smoker or a heavy drinker myself, I did not have the habit of permanently holding an object. To this day I remember my lessons in each of the groups to which I belonged. Once we had a masterclass with a renowned professional Cuban actor. At the end of the session he approached me and said sternly: “I liked your performance. You have a good voice, perfect spatial sense and clear articulation. But your hands let you down. They are all over the gaffe. Rein them in. You are in command. Rein them in.”

I did not mind his comment, it was true. The issue was that I seriously did not know what to do with my hands. The most common mistake for two actors rehearsing a scene is to put their hands in their pockets (if they have them), cross their arms or adopt the teapot pose (hands on hips).

Perhaps this is what Shakespeare had in mind when he stated that “All the world’s a stage”. Now, I wonder what he ever did with his hands. Or perhaps, he was a smoker.

© 2017

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 1st March at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I recently cycled along the River Lee Navigation. For those of you who are not acquainted with one of London and Hertfordshire’s (a county just outside the British capital to the north) most picturesque routes I would strongly recommend that you keep it in mind if you ever visit the UK. The unbroken path is perfect for walking and biking. I have made this trip before but on this occasion I went much further up.

Travelling from someone near east London up to Cheshunt the journey took me through some of the most scenic open spaces ever. As it is the custom with me when I am cycling on a traffic-free route, I went into reverie mode, whilst at the same time paying close attention to the path and the people walking or cycling on it.

I do not know if poetry has the same effect on you, fellow bloggers and readers, but in my case I have always seen it as evocative. A poem like Ode to a Nightingale makes me think more of the feelings that led Keats to compose the piece and the sentiments it continues to trigger to this day. The bird in question becomes secondary or even non-existent.

This is exactly what happened that day on the towpath of the River Lee Navigation. Perhaps it was the peace around me, the calm water, the stationery boats, the slow pace, both amongst walkers and cyclists and the overpowering sense of history that triggered off a deep spiritual connection to my immediate environment. As I neared the Lee Valley White Water Centre I saw a wall (or the remains of it) on my right handside with a crack running down the middle. I stopped on one side of the path for a couple of minutes and watched the concrete entity closer.

In the context of everything I had seen so far the wall was ugly. It broke the harmony of the urban and rural mix I had cycled past up to now on my way to Hertfordshire. Yet, all the same I felt that there was a reason for that wall to be part of this bucolic landscape. All of a sudden, lines from Fleur Adcock’s poem Against Coupling came to my mind. I could not remember the whole piece (I very rarely remember entire poems by heart) but I did recall the following verses: “There is much to be said for abandoning this no longer novel exercise/for not’ participating in total experience’.

The strange thing was that whereas Fleur was writing about the need for occasional alienation in a couple (temporary “uncoupling”, if you like), I was looking at the wall in a whole different light. To me it was an object that refused to conform to the beauty standards that the canal had unwittingly imposed. It was an unremarkable wall by any definition. One that could be found anywhere else in the world: South Africa, Thailand, Cuba. However, to me it only made sense in that moment, surrounded by cormorants, herons and oak trees.

I carried on, still thinking of the odd relationship between that wall’s ordinariness and inelegance and the canal’s exuberance. And how poetry married (at least in my head) the two of them somehow.

© 2017

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 25th February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 18 February 2017

Thoughts in Progress

In Denzel Washington’s latest film, as both actor and director, there is an unusual supporting character. Fences features a baseball hanging by a thin rope in the back garden of the house shared by Washington’s Troy, his wife Rose (played by Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo).  Though inanimate, this ball serves as a witness to all the tribulations of this black family in post-war US. Hit every which way by Troy and his son Cory, this baseball is also a metaphor for how we shape our lives and how far we can go in determining our own destiny.

To me this baseball also reminded me of the recent US election. Before you close down your browser sending my post in the process to the land of oblivion, I would like you to give me a few minutes of your time. I am fully aware that we are all now pretty Trumped-out (his latest press conference being a case in point. How low can the guy go? Well, you ain’t seen the bottom yet, I suppose). The dust has now settled. To quote Leonard Cohen: “Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich”. Except that it was not a good guy who lost but a woman.

It would be arrogant of me to attempt to figure out why Hillary Clinton lost to a misogynist, racist, sexist and xenophobe. Plenty of opinion pieces have been churned out since November. But what I cannot stop thinking about is the reasons why her manifesto might not have struck a chord with most voters. To recap, Clinton lost the election, but won the popular vote. You could say that electoral changes are needed urgently in the US and you would be right. Yet, that would be like trying to hit that ball in Troy’s garden out of the park. That ball ain’t going nowhere.  It’s still hanging on a rope.

Team Clinton bashed out a series of proposals and ideas that they thought would capture the public’s imagination. Overall, I thought, sitting comfortably on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, that they banked more on the Trump’s machine imploding than they themselves causing their explosion. Wrong. When your opponent realises that the ball you’re hitting is not moving, they grow stronger, not weaker. In order to get at Trump team Clinton had to untie that baseball and play real ball with it.

That would have meant casting your net much wider, beyond identity politics. I will not delve deep into identity politics in this post because I am in the process of drafting one up on the left and the case for/against identity politics.  The truth is, however, that Clinton got caught up in a feminist/multicultural/gay-friendly agenda. Nothing wrong with that. But what is eating most Americans right now is where the next dime is going to come from.

When Barack Obama entered office in 2009, one of his first actions was to summon the top banking executives. Remember that this was post-2008-crisis and Wall Street was on its knees. The usual villains, politicians, had been given a short-lived respite, to be replaced by bankers. At that point president Obama could have asked for the moon to be delivered on a silver plate and every single person in the room would have coughed up enough money for a space expedition leaving the next day. But Barack dithered and bankers smelled blood. Instead of the far-reaching economic reforms that were needed then, all bankers got was a slap on the wrist and, guess what, within a couple of years, the multi-million-pound bonuses made a comeback.

This was the financial situation Clinton inherited as the Democrat front-runner. Never mind the fact that under Obama more jobs were created than during Bush’s eight-year reign. Never mind that Obamacare became an immediate safeguard for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of families. The crux of the matter was still, a lot of rich people were getting richer and poor people poorer. Obama, for all his credentials as a liberal and the hope he represented, explicitly stated in that strikingly beautiful poster (remember?) was seen as part of the same machinery that had ceded ground to China and had allowed Putin’s Russia to start calling the shots on the international stage.

By the time Clinton entered the frame, the electorate was jaded. Cynical voters are the toughest to turn around, especially if one of the candidates comes from what could be assumed to be a dynasty (Bill Clinton served two terms as president. Chelsea Clinton has already been discussed as a possible candidate for 2024 or 2028). It was not Clinton’s fault that the election went to Donald. It was, as I said at the start, a combination of factors. One of them was the Democrats focusing on policies that might have gone down well with the already-converted but did very little to enthuse the fence-sitters, the refuseniks, the hard-to-reach.

Donald Trump is not infallible and he definitely is not unbeatable. I seriously doubt he will be re-elected in 2020. But, and this is an important “but”, for the Democrats to win the White House again, they will have to untie that baseball and take it to places where they are rarely seen, engaging voters whom they barely know or whose views they disparage. Clinton got the vote of mainly poor, young, Latin and black women (four different categories in themselves).  Trump’s camp was the beneficiary of chiefly white women from a working-class background and rural areas.

An average baseball game lasts nine innings. We are barely in the bottom of the first. Hitting a baseball on a string makes good practice but it is not the real game. The real game is won by the team with most runs. Already team Trump has made a few gaffes. What Democrats need to do now is to capitalise on those players who have reached base. What’s the next step: steal or sacrifice bunt, or both? How about going for the big swing? Whatever happens, it is about putting runs on that scoreboard. Untie that baseball and hit it hard. Just hit it as hard as you can.

© 2017

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 11 February 2017

Birthday Post

This post and video are dedicated to my mother, who turns 80 on Tuesday, 14th February. I love you, mum, always have, always will. The poem was written by the late Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish.

Next Post: "Thoughts in Progress", to be published on Saturday 18th February at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Diary of Inconsequential Being

Saturday 26th November

A sequence of events not connected to one another and yet eerily linked. Early morning and intertwined limbs (my wife’s and mine) disentangle slowly. I get up to go to the toilet and as I sit down the phone rings (simultaneously. Now, that’s what I call a coincidence). I return to the bedroom to find my spouse handing me the blower: “It’s from the BBC”, she says. I grab the telephone and sit on the edge of the bed.

Fidel Castro Ruz has died. The female voice on the other side is calm and reassuring as if she were concerned about my wellbeing. She would like me to come to the BBC World Service studio and do a series of interviews throughout the day. I remember that I have guests coming tonight for my birthday gathering, ten days after I turned forty-five.

I agree to come in but only until twelve noon. After all, no bearded geezer will stop me from indulging in one of my favourite pastimes: cooking for a group of friends. I jump in the shower. A taxi, paid for by the corporation, picks me up.

Later on, as I’m mixing paprika, coriander and other herbs and spices in the pan, I think back to the events of the day. The naïve Dr and writer who alternated slots with me and whose comments were cliché-ridden; the “expert” on Cuba who refused to give straightforward answers to questions related to the socioeconomic and political situation in my island and opted instead for the well-used formula of highlighting deficiencies in British polity to cover up for Castro’s mistakes. I look back on the crowds in Miami dancing on the streets and the poisonous, right-wing Fox News-driven one-sided reports on American television. And I think to myself: Not to offend non-Cubans, but if even a fraction of those Fidel-supporting westerners had thrown their lot with my people decades ago when we needed them, upping sticks in the process and going to live on the island like Cubans, depending on a ration card for their next meal, maybe, just maybe, we would have arrived at the much-vaunted socialist paradise long time ago. Same with those who disparage our right to make our decisions. If, instead of sniping from the sides, they had ended their ineffective blockade decades ago, maybe, just maybe, Fidel’s grip on power would not have lasted that long and he would have not repressed his own people whilst using the embargo as an easy, go-to excuse.

The meal is a success.

Sunday 27th November

My wife has put some seeds out for the birds and through the lounge window I see them eating them. This gives me an idea: perhaps I could film the scene in a sort of Blair Witch Project-style format. Handheld camera capturing nature at its purest and most innocent in metropolitan London. But not today, it’s cloudy and there is not much light. You can barely tell the birds from the trees. It is so overcast that only when the flutter of wings becomes obvious can you be sure that there is animal presence in our back garden. Of the feather variety. Definitely tomorrow.

Monday 28th November

I give up on the Blair Witch Project idea. There aren’t that many birds in our garden and the ones that pay a visit are, how to put it nicely, rather boring. Only when one of the cats tries its luck by hiding in the dry and sparse grass, something interesting happens. But the cats are clumsy and the birds are quick.

Tuesday 29th November

Whilst getting my bike from the side passage I see a couple of wood pigeons behaving strangely. The one I take to be a male pigeon is pushing its beak in between the other’s legs (which I assume it is a female). At first it looks like some sort of game or courtship. But, then I think I spot a look of disgust and fear in the female’s eyes. As if it did not ask, nor want to be a part of this. I stay still, watching the male attempting once more to peck at or grab something from between the female’s legs. The female starts to retreat. I think, rather amused and shocked at the same time: who knows, maybe in the same way I have been watching the birds through the lounge window, they have been watching my telly, following the US election, faces and beaks stuck to the glass, without me noticing them. It might explain also some of the bullying behaviour when it comes to seeds consumption. I consider the Blair Witch Project idea once more.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 11th February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 4 February 2017

Thoughts in Progress

In David and Goliath’s famous tale, little, plucky David uses just one single slingshot to slay the 9-foot, 9-inch, Philistine giant. The story came to my mind last week when I saw some of the football scores of the English League FA Cup.

This is one of the oldest, or probably the oldest soccer cup knockout competition in the world, stretching all the way back to the 1871-2 season. Most fans and pundits alike look forward to rounds three and four in early and late January when teams, usually from the lower leagues, face their counterparts from the Premier League and the Football League Championship. The main attraction here is to see the cash-rich, bon-vivant “Goliaths” slugging it out against the more money-conscious, thrifty “Davids”.

This time around results did not disappoint. For round five we already have a couple of non-league sides that, I am confident, will give a fair amount of headaches to the teams (several places above them) that play them.

The David vs Goliath story calls to the inner hero inside us. The person who, regardless of the circumstances, rises up against power. That the power in this instance is represented by a three-metre-tall Brobdingnagian renders the legend more visually striking. We can almost touch Goliath’s bronze helmet and be dazzled by the javelin he carries on his back. This is an all-too perfect narrative of little guy against mighty foe.

Or little guy against the state. The government. The status quo. The elite.

You can delete as appropriate in the above sentence but to me the message is the same: something strange has happened to the David vs Goliath story. The roles have been reversed and the message blurred.

To carry on with my football analogy, let’s imagine now that that non-league side, conqueror of a Premier League or Championship behemoth, is not as helpless as it looks. Yes, it might still play its home games in a 10,000-seat-maximum-capacity stadium but it has recently been bought by a Thailand- or Singapore-based billionaire with a very clear vision: to turn the club into a money-making venture.

Suddenly there is no David against Goliath scenario, but a Goliath against Goliath one. This is a tough sell to pull off which is why the figure of David is always invoked at some point.

We live in times when the Goliaths of this world keep telling us that they are actually Davids getting their slingshots ready to hurl stones on our behalf. Personally, I do not want anyone to protect me whilst hurting others. I want to have a say on how the slingshot is used, against whom and if it is needed at all. The more we cast doubts on those Goliaths dressing up as Davids and expose them as the frauds they are, the less we will live to regret foregoing our precious and hard-earned liberties.

One way to fight back against this false narrative of little guy against powerful state is by highlighting Goliath’s weaknesses. When he addresses the Israelis, he is all boast and pomp. Same with some of our alternative-facts makers. They cannot stop obsessing about size (crowds, hands, you name it). It is worth remembering what happens to David after he defeats Goliath. He marries one of King Saul’s daughters but eventually falls out of favour with the monarch to such an extent that even Jonathan, Saul’s son, is asked to end David’s life. This means that those Goliaths-as-Davids are also prone to internecine fighting. Their weakness is our strength. If not, ask Samson. Oh, well, that one is for another day.

© 2017

Next Post: “Diary of Inconsequential Being”, to be published on Wednesday 8th February at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Killer Opening Songs (Cubano Chant by Roberto Fonseca)

Hot on the heels of its musically horizon-expanding predecessor, Yo, comes Roberto Fonseca’s new album ABUC (Cuba, spelled backwards). Once again, the young Cuban pianist delivers a high-quality product full of rhythmical gold nuggets.

Whereas Yo was brawnier and gutsier, from the (perhaps D’Angelo-inspired?) naked-torso front cover to the dizzying piano riffs, ABUC, by comparison, is a much calmer affair. There are still heavy and maddening piano riffs, but the production overall is more balanced. It is also more inward-looking. While Yo looked towards Africa as a bridge-building musical link in the well-acknowledged Afro-Cuban chain, ABUC focuses more on Cuban traditional rhythms.

A good example of this is the Killer Opening Song, written, not by a Cuban, but by an American pianist. Ray Bryant was born in Philadelphia and gained notoriety when he played with the likes of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. Cubano Chant was one of his more popular compositions.

The way Roberto tackles the tune is so cleverly done that the resulting melody sounds as if it has just been written now instead of more than sixty years ago. Rather than going for speed, as Oscar Peterson famously did when he covered Cubano Chant, he goes for compactness. Horns, percussion and piano jump in from the outset, hand in hand together, each performer taking turns to shine in their own right. Fonseca is not just a very skillful pianist; he has also surrounded himself with very good arrangers. That much is evident from the different layers that peel away as each musician does their solo.

K.O.S. mentioned differences between Yo and ABUC at the beginning of this post. One of the more obvious ones is the guests list. Afro-centric Yo had singers Fatoumate Diawara, Algerian Faudel Amil and Senegalese Assane Mboup. By contrast, UBAC boasts Cuban legends such as Eliades Ochoa, the Aragón Orchestra and Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal.

Listening to Fonseca’s latest album is almost like taking a history lesson on Cuban music, especially in the 20th century. From the intensity of Afro Mambo to Asere Monina Bonco (with its nod to the oft-misunderstood Abakuá culture), this is an album that wears its Cubanness on its sleeve. The final piece, Velas y Flores is perhaps the perfect example. A mid-song monologue by Roberto Fonseca about what being Cuban means is the sort of life-affirming incantation that makes the denizens of the largest island in the Antilles so proud of their country.

Once more, the Killer Opening Song is the one that opens these richly-textured musical floodgates.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 4th February at 6pm (GMT)


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