Sunday, 12 May 2019

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana


Funny how some stories come about. In this one the main character has no name. Yet, that’s not by design, but because I never did learn this fellow’s name. All I remember is that he was as much a part of the urban landscape of my Havana as the famous El Morro lighthouse.  He was there as I manoeuvred my way through my late teens in the city of my birth.


Now, reader, picture this. I am seventeen or eighteen, tail end of the 80s. By now I have become a regular at the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza, an arts centre bang on the corner of Calzada and 8th Street, in the modern(ish) borough of Vedado, Havama. Every (or every other) Tuesday evening, there is a jazz session run by the famous Cuban musician, Bobby Carcassés. A multi-instrumentalist by trade, Bobby is a one-man show. His stage presence is magnetic. Whether playing trumpet or banging away on conga drums, this guy renders the night its beating heart.

Casa de la Cultura de Plaza is also an institution. It is here that the first Jazz Plaza Internacional was held only a few years ago. The name itself conjures up memories: this is where I was converted to jazz by a friend of mine; a night when I went from hating the genre to falling in love with it, lost to the sound of Arturo Sandoval’s trumpet. This is where I have increasingly become less self-conscious of being part of the jazz tribe. This place is a sanctuary for a teenager who is beginning to doubt the political system in which he is growing up.

And then, there is him. Forgive me, reader, for I cannot provide a name. As I said before, I never did learn this fellow’s name. But he stands out. Especially, when he puts his flute to his lips.

Here we are, the jazz faithful, watching Carcassés move from trumpet to congas and from congas to bass. At some point, our friend strides on to the centre of the stage, flute in hand. A miniature of a man, he sports an unremarkable short-sleeved shirt (which he often wears, regardless of the weather). He mutters something under his breath, perhaps a few words of self-encouragement, perhaps a prayer.

We all have our ways of evidencing our existence in the world. Some of us have what could be termed “big stage presence”. Others have to create one if they are to be noticed. As the ultimate showman, Bobby Carcassés has no problem flaunting his skills as a musician. He looks like a giant under the theatre lights. On the other hand, our friend, the flute-player is a different kettle of fish.

His is the kind of performance you remember down the years. Even if you can’t see him (sometimes the venue is packed to the rafters and people stand in front of you), you know he is there. First, it’s the stumble. He hardly ever walks straight. The drink has put paid to any notion of him regaining an upright position and steady gait. He takes his spot, facing the mike, facing, the crowd, facing the world. And then, he blows.

When he blows, you forget about the rest of the band. In fact, you float in and out of a music-made haze. For the next four or five minutes (I’m certain he would like his solos to last longer, but Bobby rushes him to the other side of the stage) you no longer live in a physical world, but a deeply-spiritual, flute-driven one.

One night I spot him after the gig. He is nursing a pint, a very posh name for the Cuban perga. This is a tall, cardboard-made cup that can hold up to a pint and a half of lager. He is sitting, talking to other musicians. Every now and then someone comes over and pats him on the shoulder. Well done, mate! That was top! He smiles. A smile that accentuates the cracks on his face. Deep furrows running on either side of his nose. Crow’s feet branching out of the corners of his eyes. I, too, congratulate him. He grins. I mention that my father is a pianist. He asks me for his name. When I tell him, his eyes light up. I know Mario! He recalls sharing the stage with my father’s old band, Orquesta Astral once. His speech is slurred but still intelligible. Under the starry Cuban night two people, a generation apart, bridge the age gap through the power of music.

He stands to leave and keels over. I’ll take you home, I offer. At first he resists, but then, he can see the deep-seated sense of duty towards men like him reflected in my eyes. He puts his left arm around my shoulder and together we take off.

We walk a few hundred yards before he suddenly breaks into song. Actually, it’s more like a hum. It is a well-known bolero, and not one in which his instrument, the flute, is usually required. His voice sounds like a plaintive cry and it hardly cracks, which is strange, given the amount of drink he’s consumed. He is certainly no singer, but at least he can harmonise fairly well. At some point he turns his head towards me, expecting me to join him. Sorry, I don’t know the words, I mutter. I’m into jazz, I say. And I’m still a rocker at heart, I silently state in my head. It will be another two or three years before I re-discover my Cuban roots and rekindle my love for bolero.

We walk for what seems like a long time. I switch positions every couple of blocks. For some reason he feels heavier on my left side than he does on my right one. This is still my “skeletal” period, when being slim goes hand in hand with being a rock fan, so I am definitely no pumped-up Atlas attempting to hold up the celestial heavens. At some point, now walking on 17th St, past L St, Malecón-bound he points to a door on our right. It’s an old block of flats, a couple of storeys high. It is a rundown, derelict building that houses more families than it has room for. The paint on the walls has long gone, the stairs have no banister and the stench of urine reigns supreme.

The flute-player thanks me, dismisses me at the entrance and starts to climb up the stairs slowly. He looks so unsteady that I rush over and catch him just in time before he falls down. C’mon, I’ll take you to your room, I say. My voice surprises me. It sounds stern, reassuring and authoritative, despite my still-wet-behind-the-ears look. Luckily he lives on the first floor. His hunched form disappears in the darkness as soon as he opens the door. Uninvited, I step inside, too. My hands cannot detect the presence of a light switch. Don’t! He shouts. There’s no light switch, he adds. For a split second his inebriation fades and instead a moment of lucidity makes him bring two loose wires together on a nearby wall. I realise that in the same way I have been his reliable, human crutch on the way here, he has just saved me from getting electrocuted.

The light is so weak that we might as well go back to being in the dark. It beams from a single, bare, bulb in the middle of the room. Sorry, he slurs, as he scans my face. It’s very damp, he adds, as if any confirmation is needed. In the eerie half-light, ashen-coloured patches are dotted randomly on the walls.

Standing in the middle of his room, the flute-player looks less like a musician and more like an actor in a one-man show. His flat could not be a more fitting stage. The four-hob cooker that sits silently in a corner. The fridge, almost empty and, thus, rendered useless. The floor, riddled with stains. The bottles of rum under the sink, one next to the other, some full, some half-full.

How can you live like this? I ask him. I’m genuinely concerned. My late-adolescent self, although no longer a true believer, still clings a little onto Fidel’s socialist utopia. There should be help for you, I say, as I make (a futile, as it turns out) attempt to tidy up his room. There is a part of me that’s raging. Perhaps, because I have just seen this man playing his heart out on stage and now he stands here, looking lost like a Cuban version of King Lear.

My naiveté makes him laugh. Eventually his laughter transitions to hiccups-interrupted sobs. He pulls a chair and sits on it. I perch up on a tiny corner of the only couch in the room, avoiding the big stain covering much of it. I am the oldest of five children, he starts. My father was an alcoholic and my mother found it difficult to bring us all up. I married young myself but my wife couldn’t cope with my drinking problem. I spent more time in the bar at El Conejito restaurant than I did with her and our children. In the end, she got fed up and left me. My children only see me when I pay them a visit. They never come around. They’ve turned out OK, though.

I am overcome by an uncomfortable mix of feelings: anger, sadness and hopelessness. I leave after three quarters of an hour, aching with pain but relieved to be out of there. Before I go, I promise him I’ll do something. What I’ll do, not even I know. I just want to make things right. It’s only when I reach the bottom of the stairs that I notice the saltiness on my lips. I’ve been crying all along.

But, to my shame, as the days of my last year in college roll by, I begin to forget about the flute-player. I start university in the autumn. Suddenly there are fewer opportunities to go back to Bobby Carcassés’ jazz night. My time is taken up by coursework and countless assignments. It is four years before I return to the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza and it is not even for the same reason as before. By now I am an amateur actor and member of a theatre troupe that rehearses at the arts centre every week, not far from the space where the flute-player first cast his music-made, hazy, magic spell on me.

One day, many years after that night at the old man’s flat, I find myself behind the wheel in a hired car with my wife and two children in Havana. I happen to drive by the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza and unconsciously, I take the same route I did when I accompanied the flute-player home on that occasion. Past L St, I point to what is now a rubble-strewn, empty space in between two buildings (his came down some time ago. A hurricane did the job). I tell my spouse and offspring the old musician’s sad story. My daughter asks me what his name is. And I begin to laugh. Because reader, it is funny how some stories come about. In this one the main character still has no name.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Meals on Two Wheels



When it comes to music, Jamaicans are never short of a banger (or more), so it goes without saying that when it comes to their cuisine they favour a zinger there as well. Rudie’s in Dalston, east London, is that kind of place where you can get a piece of real Jamaican grub at a decent price in comfy and homely surroundings.
Meals on Two Wheels rocked up there recently and after struggling to find a parking space for its bicycle (this is east London after all!), it rested its muscular behind on one of the establishment’s straight-backed seats. A gloomy and nippy winter Saturday afternoon was the only excuse needed to tuck into a plate of Peppered Shrimps and a (as it turned out) very generous portion of plantain (by the way, the correct pronunciation of "plantain" might be reason enough to start WWIII. If you don't believe me put a West-Indian and an African in the same room.). The prawns were king-sized and bathed in Boston sauce. They were accompanied by a welcome committee, made up of cherry tomatoes and avocado salsa.
Whilst over the years Meals on Two Wheels has gone from no-hot to vindaloo-hot, nothing could prepare our regular, bicycle-powered section for the might of Jamaican hot. The Old Jamaican Ginger Beer that was ordered with the bite was not enough to quell the fire. Luckily, a very helpful Italian waitress brought over a glass of milk. This went some way to mitigate the inferno caused by the Peppered King Prawns.

However, do not let this small incident put you off Rudie’s. Pound for pound, it is one of the better eateries in east London today. The shrimps were well-cooked and tender. They were also plentiful. The plantain was of the as-Mama-cooks-them-back-home variety. And at just under fifteen quid for a dish that could have been a main (their platters range from £7.50 to £12. They also cater to vegans), Rudie’s is a snip. Meals on Two Wheels has since been back with a couple of friends.
Just a piece of advice, though. Make sure that if you do go to Rudie’s, you’re not out marathon-training the next day. Your stomach might disagree with your choice.

© 2019

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Thoughts in Progress


It must have happened about a third into my run a few days ago. I was listening to my mp3 player as I usually do, my training getting more Brighton-Marathon-focused these days, each song propelling me up, incline after incline. Then, all of sudden a particular track kicked in and I felt a strange sensation. For some reason, the lyrics seemed to unveil a secret hitherto buried: Way over yonder/Is a place that I know
Where I can find shelter/From a hunger and cold/And the sweet tastin' good life/Is so easily found/A way over yonder, that's where I'm bound.

I must have listened to Carole King’s Way Over Yonder a thousand times before. One of my favourite records is the Tapestry album. But on this occasion King’s timeless composition took on a different meaning.

January has come and gone and for those who make New Year resolutions, a fresh start along with practical strategies is de rigueur. How to identify and maintain willpower, stick to a plan, set one goal at a time and learn from failure, are some of the elements that make up this “New Year, New Me” approach.

Not for me, though. For starters, I do not make New Year resolutions. Secondly, for the last four or five years, I have begun to reach more into myself, to attempt to deepen an understanding of who I am. This is where King’s song comes into the picture. A first listen (and multiple ones after, perhaps) might make one think that Way Over Yonder is a religious-themed tune. All this talk of “garden of wisdom” and “the land where the honey runs” invites a Bible-friendly reading of the song.

And yet, for me, this garden of wisdom is to be found within myself and not in a holy book. It is the place where I would like to believe I have planted myriad plants, flowers and trees throughout my forty-seven years (and counting) and which I need to tend to regularly.

Last summer I began to impose a social media curfew on myself. There was a strong reason for it which I will not discuss here (no, there was no addiction. It was more creativity-related). There were such positive side-effects, however, that I decided to extend the curfew beyond my six-week-long, annual leave. Add the meditation I have been doing for the last three or four years, plus mindfulness, plus a more positive attitude in general (less anger, more thinking) and my body and mind together have become Carole King’s land where the honey runs.

Without wanting to sound too preachy, sometimes we look at external elements to help us keep a healthy equilibrium of brawn and brains. We tend to forget – and that’s happened to me – that the real balance lies within. Start from within and everything else falls into place. Well, most of the time.


© 2019

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