Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Road Songs (Nocturne)

I was recently driving back home from Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, relishing a marvellous early winter sunset when I began to ponder on the joys of night-time driving. As the car headlights helped me cruise through the Ridgeway back to Enfield, nature's twilight hour brought a myriad creatures to the full beam of my front lights, thus, thrusting me into the whirpool of this lawless, carefree and unadultared animal world. Night-time driving music divests the listener of optical detours whilst ensnaring them in a type of Wild West grip.

Night-time driving music doesn't need/have to necessarily be slow, schmaltzy, ballad-type. Many a time I've caught myself humming quite loudly to a Fela Kuti's song or a track by Los Van Van. The only requirement(s) it must meet is leave you with that eerie and unearthly feeling of being part of the unknown, especially when driving in a motorway or in a countryside road.

The first clip is a testament to the wonderful world of networking. As social fora for like-minded folks, the internet and blogs, specifically, have become an essential part of the human existence and on this particular occasion I have fellow Cuban, journalist and blogger Ivan Darías Alfonso to thank for introducing me to the music of Souad Massi, an Algerian singer who has made inroads into French culture via her haunting and beautiful voice and, if the comments on youtube.com are anything to go by, the depth of her songs. Which I cannot understand as she sings in Arabic. I have just ordered her CD, 'Deb', after listening to a few tunes in the aforementioned website and I can't wait for it to arrive on my doorstep. Thanks Ivan and Merry Christmas to you and Elena.

This band should not have worked out. And the same goes for some night wildlife when you see it through the glass of your windshield. Some of it just doesn't make sense. Ditto with this group. The Doors had a guitarist rooted in flamenco music, a drummer with a jazz background and a keyboardist and pianist whose leanings were more towards Bach than The Beatles. And then they had Jim. And it worked. Beautifully. This song weighed on me in my teens and it still does. Pure musicianship.

The Cranberries took me by surprise when I first heard this album back in the mid 90s, just like night-time driving can throw up a few surprises hither and thither, sometimes not very nice ones. The opposite happens here. O' Riordan's voice is so delicate and yet so strong . Enjoy.

I've always been a Tori Amos' enthusiast. The passion with which she attacks the piano, her lyrics and the feeling of being on the edge of the unknown, or maybe the known unknown for I get a sense of comfort in being in her music's company. Just like when I'm driving at night collecting my son from Woodcraft Folk and we are both looking forward to the weekend. A known unknown which we both know will be worthwhile. And I want to set the mood for it right from Friday night.

Well, there ain't no sunshine at night, Bill. And how many times do you say 'I know' in that tune? It doesn't matter, it's the pure feeling wafting through the track, it's the guitar-playing skills, it's the heart-rending delivery, it's just pure, soulful, unadulturated music. Like night wildlife. Like night-time driving.

I was one of the lucky ones who managed to sneak into the Karl Marx Theatre in 1994 to see Manu Chao and Mano Negra in their only visit to Havana, as far as I know. And that concert has always stayed in my mind. The relentless energy, the camaraderie, the bond and the closeness of each and every musician on stage was mind-blowing. I must admit that I don't have all the songs I upload on this blog on CDs. I do have loads of CDs, but I also upload tracks which I would like to play in the car as I drive around the streets, roads and motorways of Britain and this is one of those songs.

And that's what night-time driving is about. The magnitude of the road, the smallness of the car, the infinite power of music.

This is all for this week. Have a Merry Christmas.

Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Vivo)

- Papi, tengo dos piezas de noticias que darte: una buena y una mala. (Dad, I have two pieces of news to give you: a good one and a bad one)

I just could not help it and burst out laughing incontrollably (caveat for parents who are teaching their children a second language, NEVER laugh AT the little cherubs, but WITH them!). Son looked at me puzzled and with eyes wide open. What had he said that had caused my giggle? Did I know beforehand what he was about to communicate to me? Was I able to read his mind?

After sitting down, having a drink of water and reassuring Son that I was laughing with him and not AT him, I finally let him know the cause of my sudden mirth.

- In Spanish we don't say 'dos piezas de noticias', I would say 'Tengo dos noticias, una buena y una mala'.

It's a common mistake that I will keep returning to in future posts. English and Spanish do cross roads sometimes. Words, phrases and grammatical constructions do sometimes meet in the middle. The other night as I was reading them another short story from that essential children's book called 'La Edad de Oro' we came across an expression that made the children feel relieved that sometimes a common ground can be found between their two linguistic worlds. It was 'terca como una mula' and it appears in the tale 'El Camarón Encantado' (The Enchanted Shrimp). Son was the first one to translate it and he was glad to find a direct conversion into one of his mother tongues, 'as stubborn as a mule'.

But when these two very different languages lock horns the results can be very confusing. I've referred in the past to false cognate words. These are words that although spelled similarly they have different meanings. Take 'exit'. A Spanish speaker will think that it means 'éxito' (success), not realising that even the word 'success' is a false cognate as such, because a Spanish speaker will think it means 'suceso' (happening, event). Confusing? Yes. Amusing? You bet.

Son and Daughter do tend to force English constructions into Spanish sentences to my chagrin. But by now, they know my reply like the refrain to a very annoying song: 'Please, don't speak English in Spanish'.

Ah, and about those 'two pieces of news'. The good one was that they'd decided to watch the X Factor final another day after having recorded it last Saturday, thus not disturbing my Sunday evening newspaper-reading arrangements. The bad one was that they would be watching it on Monday evening in the lounge, which is normally the time when I come back from jogging and finish my work out and stretches. Oh, well, at least Son learnt a valuable Spanish lesson!

Copyright 2007

Monday, 10 December 2007

Road Songs (Andante)

If you turn left and take the second exit at junction 5 of the M25 going westwards near Sevenoaks onto the A21 Tunbridge Wells-bound you are presented with a spectacle of breath-taking beauty. As the road bends down in a precise and mathematical curve the shrubs and bushes lining up on either side of the highway take on a deeper and darker shade of green and nature seems to become an architect in its own right. The British countryside looks welcoming and inviting and the traveller basks in the summer sun streaming through the window.

Recently in August I undertook my first trip behind the wheel down the M25 motorway in order to go to my father in law's. As I was soaking up the natural perfection of my surroundings I thought of long-lost melodies or strange musical combinations I've come across over the years. Duets that have been completely mis-matched, improvised sessions that have pulled it off, associations that would have been better left in the planning stages and alliances that have confirmed my faith in music.

The latter is my first choice today. Take fellow Zodiacal sign Scorpio Canadian folk and pop music doyenne Joni Mitchell. Her personal and self-consciously poetic song-writing is miles away from the more combatant and soulful style of Marvin Gaye's. Yet in this cover of 'Trouble Man' it works wonders and the otherwise demure Mitchell even sashays on stage as the bassline keeps the song together. Also, it's such a joy of the 'oh-my-God!' type to hear her saying the words: I come up hard, baby, but now I'm cool /I didn't make it sure, playin' by the rules /I've come of heart, baby, but now I'm fine /I'm checkin' trouble, movin' down the line /I come up hard, baby, but that's OK /'Cause Trouble Man don't get in my way

I heard about this singer back in the summer and found a few clips of her on youtube.com recently. Her delivery is good, her voice crystal clear and her songs, though pretty basic, strike a balance between lyrics and rhythm. The fact Ayo's still based in Germany is also a plus for me as most artists these days feel that if they don't reside in an English-speaking country they won't be able to break through. Well, Ayo proves them wrong.

When I became hooked on rock'n'roll there were three basic guitar riffs that determined pretty much the music we played in parties. The opening of 'Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zeppelin, the first notes of 'Smoke in the Water' by Deep Purple and the funky and sultry sound of 'Satisfaction' by The Rolling Stones. I'd hazard to say that these three, together with The Kinks' 'You Really Got Me' and latterly The White Stripes' 'Seven Nation Army' make up the bulk of the must-learn-by-heart melodies that any aspiring modern guitarist keeps working on over and over. However, my favourite guitar solo belongs to a group that escapes classification and this is purely on the merits of their music.

Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' album arrived in a hazy adolescent cloud and now, more than twenty years after I first listened to it, still makes my eyes water. Its complexity lies in its simplicity. The opening track 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' took on a deeper meaning when I found out who it was dedicated to. In fact the whole record was dedicated to one Syd Barrett, original member of the band and enfant terrible who went off the rails and died a year ago. With him the Floyd created a sound that defined psychedelic Britain. But that would be limiting the music prowess of a band that have always defied labels. Most people opt for the more commercial 'Dark Side of the Moon' album or 'The Wall'. To me 'Wish You Were Here' remains the stalwart piece of their career and personally a poignant memento for me. Also, the length of the opening guitar solo stretches in the same way as the M25 on a nice summer day.

Afro-Cuban music has filled up my life since I became involved with the Conjunto Folclórico de la Universidad de la Habana back in 1994, but even before that I was already venturing in Yoruba territory. With a grandmother who wore sackclothes on the 17th of each month and on 17th December made the pilgrimage to El Rincón, St Lazarus sanctuary in Havana, there was no way that I could escape the African influence at home. Also, my late aunt used to invite babalawos for religious consultations and I grew up with her lighting a candle to Elegguá every Monday morning. And rest assured, I never ate his sweets! So, it was with a lot of gusto that I threw myself into the vortex of Afro-Cuban teaching in the UK back in 1997 when I first arrived in Albion. And over the years I have grown even fonder of my students at Jackson's Lane and at The Basement now and the musicians I work with. The level of respect and seriousness I've witnessed in my sessions and in other tutors' puts the London Afro-Cuban scene in pole position. This respect and professionalism was multiplied recently with the creation of the Lucumi Choir, under the guidance of both Marta Galarrága and Daniela Rosselsson. I went to their first performance and I admit that I was a bit apprehensive. Why? Well, the reasons is simple. Back in the summer of 1997 I performed with Olorun at UNEAC (National Association of Cuban Writers and Artists) and the experience was mind-blowing. I knew about their work through the recordings they made with the now late maestro Lázaro Ros (ibaé), but the level of preparation before the performance was beyond my expectations. I did Elegguá and I enjoyed it immensely. So, it was with some trepidation that I came to a pub, whose name escapes me now, in the winter of 2006 to witness the making of history. Because ladies and gentleman, the Lucumi Choir pulled it off. The fact that some of its members have been dance students of mine, restores my faith in the central tenet of Afro-Cuban culture, the singing-playing-dancing synergy. And when I now play 'Changó' in the car, sung by the great Lázaro Ros I know that his legacy, at least in this part of the world, is safe.

Lucumí Choir: Changó

And this is all for today.

Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Vivace)

- 'Explode'.
- E-equis (chuckle)-pe-ele (chuckle again)-o-de-e.
- ???
- The next one, please?
- 'Implode'.
- I-eme (chuckle)-pe-ele (chuckle again)...

Daughter was having me on. It was my turn to test her on her spellings and I was in reminiscence mode. When I used to teach at ISPLE back in the early 90s as an assistant teacher (still a student, though), this used to be one of my tasks. Dictation. And now I was replicating it with my younger one. But I was not prepared for what Daughter had in store for me. She spelled each and every single word I told her using the spanish ABC. And she was having fun.

This is an activitiy that both Son and Daughter are used to, though. Whenever Son is in a tangle with his Maths homework I come to the rescue but he knows what the caveat is: only Spanish, mate. Thus, he now knows what a square is (cuadrado), a rectangle (rectángulo) and a circle (círculo). We're now building up towards the hypotenuse (hipotenusa) bit.

Daughter, especially, sees the whole language shebang as a game, which is good. At least she's not afraid of bringing up the fact that 'my Dad is Cuban, he speaks Spanish and so do I'. Sometimes she reminds me of Sophie, the main character of the popular series by author Dick King-Smith, whose wisecrack makes her the delight of little ones and older ones alike.

Daughter carried on spelling out English words with the Spanish ABC. When I asked her if she was going to do that the next day at school, she looked at me very sternly and said: 'But of course, papi, of course!' I just hope her teacher has a bilingual dictionary nearby.

Copyright 2007

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Moderato)

To swear or not to swear? Esa es la pregunta (That's the question)

And what a question! Especially for someone like me brought up in a family where cursing was frowned upon and my limited childhood vocabulary included the two notions 'palabras feas' (ugly words) and 'malas palabras' (swear words). At age five or six I experienced my late Nana's wrath when I dared say the word 'jodi'ó' as in 'la bicicleta se jodi'ó' (the bike broke down). I cannot remember whether it was a clip round the ear or a 'tapaboca' (a slap in my mouth) but I got smacked pretty hard.

So, with these thoughts in my mind I ventured into unknown waters recently when I explained to Son the meaning behind a particular track he'd been humming to lately. It was 'Ciudad de Pobres Corazones' by the Rosarino musician Fito Páez. Son was already familiar with the Argentinian's music as I play his hits regularly at home, but this particular track has an intoxicating melody and beat that make it stand out from the rest of the songs that appear in the album.

- Do you know what he says in the song? I asked him whilst I was driving.
- No, what is it?
- I think he's talking about Buenos Aires, and the times when the military was in power. He's feeling despondent and angry.
- Uhhh...
- And he's using a word that is actually a four-letter word in that context.
- What do you mean?
- Well, the word 'puta' is used to convey the level of disatisfaction he feels towards the incumbent government.
- What's the equivalent in English?
- The f-word.
- (Gasps).

Did I do right or wrong? My intention was not to become 'Papi Cool', but merely illustrate to him how some of the songs in Spanish he listens to contain 'bad words' (a caveat, though, the Latin pop, rock and salsa I play at home is heavily sanitised). However, Wife and I have yet to have that important 'talk' about the use of certain words, especially as Son is fast moving forward to adolescence. He was nonchalant about the whole 'p' word but I was left restless. Have I opened a can of worms? Have I brought upon myself Claudius curse 'When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions' by opening this Pandora's box? As a Cuban I admit that swearing still stuns me, especially when it is done gratuitously. Some Spanish-speaking cultures are more expletives-prone, not least, the Spanish culture. Many years ago, Juan Echanove, a popular Spanish actor, went on the now defunct live television show 'Contacto' with the then presenter Hilda Rabilero. This was a programme which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people tuned into at 6pm every Saturday evening. Imagine people's reaction when Echanove innocently uttered the 'c' word (that's 'cojones' by the way and I apologise profusely to anyone who feels offended by the epithet, just writing it makes me squirm) and Hilda went silent. Ten seconds elapsed. And then Juan, realising his error, asked the now famous question: 'Oh, is it because I said 'c...'? Cue embarrassment, shame and Hilda's nervous smile. Other cultures in Latin America are more cautious about their cursing. In Cuba, words even like 'carajo' are scorned and the person uttering them admonished.

Yet, there is another side of me that would like to see Son, and Daughter, too, use these words constructively. I guess it is to do with pride and amor propio. Or just with the desire to see them using words that, although high in the cringe factor, are part of their own linguistic DNA.

And I hope they learn when, where and with whom to use them, too.

Copyright 2007

Road Songs (Andantino)

One of the pleasures of driving I have found in my short life behind the wheel is the way inconsequential moments become enjoyable and trascendental even if they happen only for half a second. Or a couple of minutes, as it were.

Take reversing. Or reversing down a slope. Or reversing down a slope in your driveway. And now, cast your mind, if you will, to that split second, when you take the hand brake off, lift your foot off the clutch pedal and your car rolls backwards very slowly. There is no gas and you are allowing Newton's law to gently decide the motion. At the same time you keep checking your rearview mirror, your blind spot and you half-turn around to make sure that there is no one behind you. Yet that little instant registers in your mind as a magical moment, where all the gears conjure up a self-expressive movement. Like dancing. Or music.

And some bands have the same gear movement. Take Portishead. It was a fortuitous incident that led me to become acquainted with the music by this British band, so-called dinner party artists par excellence, a distinction that I suppose will not have gone down very well with Beth Gibbons et al. After all, Portishead exudes quality and élan. The way their songs ease in, unannouncedly and discreetly is bewitching. And in this live version you can see why. Whenever I watch this video, I think of the gears of my car rolling one into the other, moving forwards... or backwards. And though I'm not a smoker, that ciggie in Beth's hand is bewitching, to say the least.

Back in April 1997 when I visited Britain for the first time there was one artist everyone kept talking about. Very often my then girlfriend, now wife, had her album playing in the car wherever we went. Back in Havana a month after, my love for her music showed no signs of abating, contrariwise, it increased. And although she has not enjoyed the same success her debut album brought her, Erykah Badu remains an example of what R&B should be about, good lyrics, good rhythm and a never-ending desire to innovate. I saw her at Brixton Academy a few years ago and it was one of those concerts that lodge in your mind to stay and never depart. Smooth voice, just like a car's rolling gears.

Only recenlty I've been able to play the Buena Vista Social Club album again. And it is not a coincidence that this happened after I passed my driving test. When I arrived in the UK for good in November 1997, it seemed to me that wherever I went, the minute they found out I was Cuban, they would plug in the Buena Vista Social Club record as a way to show that they were in tandem with what was going on in my tiny island. Little did they know that many Cubans in Cuba DID NOT LIKE the record and thought it dated. Timba was the beat to dance to. Only when it started reaping prizes and rewards a little bit more of attention was paid to it back in my country. I even remember on one occasion when we went to someone's house in Highgate and the bloke had Lou Reed's 'New York' album on the stereo. That's probably my favourite Lou Reed's record ever and then I saw the neat pile of CDs resting near the stereo: 'Buena Vista Social Club', 'Introducing Rubén González' and 'Afro-Cuban All Stars'. Inside me I was pleading with him not to change the music and I could see the puzzlement in his eyes as to whether to switch to what he thought would make me feel more at home or dig his heels in and keep Reed on the stereo. In the end our little telepathic moment worked and he left Lou Reed on. Recently I was in the car with Dave Patman, one of the better percussionists this country has ever produced and someone I respect and whose work I appreciate a lot. Also we have worked together on many occasions. I had a song on by the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and we both noticed that the tune had the same melodic structure as 'Chan Chan' by Compay Segundo. If you can lay your hands on the title track of Baaba Maal's album 'Missing You (Mi Yeewnii)' you'll see what I mean. In the meantime, enjoy this musical alternative to the more traditional hand brake, clutch pedal and gas combination.

Copyright 2007

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Road Songs (Andante)

Road Song: (n) 1 A brief composition aimed mainly at being played in a vehicle on an open, usually public way for the passage of other vehicles, people and animals. 2 A melodious utterance that serves as a companion on short, medium and long trips on such a public way.
Since I passed my driving test earlier this year (fifth time lucky!) I have discovered a new passion: listening to music whilst on the road. Now, I already had a similar leaning before, but more as a passenger than as the driver as it was my spouse behind the wheeel the whole time. But since May this year, I have been on my own a lot and whilst paying attention to what is going on before my eyes on the road, my ears have been digesting all kinds of rhythms and beats.

Thus, I discovered that there are songs meant for the house and there are others designed for the car. Mix them up and you'll end up with 'Atom Heart Mother' by Pink Floyd on a long journey to Frinton. Believe me, as much as I love the British quartet, it is not the appropriate time, nor place.

'Road Songs', then, is the name of this new section. To me road songs do not relate to the actual motorway, or street, or avenue, although some fellow poster/reader/blogger might disagree with me. They have much more in common with a particular track that makes you more alert and alive whilst roaming the roads of Britain or any other country (an experience yet to live) in your four-wheel automobile. Sometimes coincidences do happen and 'Highway Star' could be one of those occasions on which Deep Purple will be playing in the car stereo at full blast whilst I will be trying to control the urge to follow Ian Gillan's advice: 'Nobody gonna take my car/I'm gonna race it to the ground/Nobody gonna beat my car/It's gonna break the speed of sound/Oooh it's a killing machine/It's got everything/Like a driving power big fat tyres and everything. But generally the type of composition I choose to accompany me in my short jaunts to pick up or drop off my children are ear-friendly tracks that stimulate the mind as well as the body. And a big disclaimer now: I do not advocate speeding on the road.
My first choice is the result of the first part of the BBC series on the history of Brazilian music. Last week saw the beginning of a journey through that South American's country rich musical legacy and one of the performers who made up this first encounter was Tom Jobim. When I was growing up in Havana I was haunted by this melody which later on I found out was sung by the incomparable Elis Regina, one of my favourite singers ever. Enjoy.

My second track is by a natural performer who has quite rightly earned her moniker Queen of Soul. She has timeless anthems under her belt so you can imagine that picking up the one is a tough job, as it were. This is a song I first heard by that other great singer Carole King and when I 'discovered' this other version I just could not believe the emotion coming out through her voice. Meine Damen und Herren:

Salsa has a social conscience, a fact that seems to escape some people sometimes. It's not just shuffling your feet back and front, 1,2,3, 'Enchufla y castígala'. This song is a testament to that. Written on the back of the assassination of Archbishop Arnulfo Romero in El Salvador in 1980, it has since become a paean to freedom and independence in Iberoamerica.

And this is all for this week. As I gear up to go on the road once more I know which songs I'll be taking with me on my journeys. How about yours?

Copyright 2007

Living in A Bilingual World (Allegro)

One of the most difficult aspects when teaching children a foreign language is to enthuse them about a subject that is close to you. In my case it was Cuba's National Hero, Jose Martí.

Martí is omnipresent in the Caribbean island and from the age of 5 or 6 children begin to study his oeuvre. Not strange then, that many of us grow out of him by the time we hit our teens. His purer than pure and whiter than white hagiographic status marks him out as an object of ridicule for those who like a little bit of pepper in their food.

Yet, in my twenties I went back to El Maestro, as he is widely known in Cuba, to study him a bit closer especially after the 'special period' hit my country. I found him to be surprisingly honest and his writing to be remarkably prescient.

Thus, many years ago I introduced Son to this man's most famous work 'La Edad de Oro' (The Golden Age), a compendium of short stories, poems and essays aimed at the younger generation. The experiment backfired, but not badly, I hasten to add. And this is the caveat to bear in mind when sharing your enthusiasm with your offspring, especially in a different language. Work, Work, Work. It's not easy. Recently my patience paid off finally and for the last two weeks Daughter, Son and I have sat down to enjoy the wonderful world of 'Meñique', the story of a very small boy with two nasty brothers who set off to the king's castle on a mission that has unpredictable consequences. A magic tale with a strong moral. Wisdom beats Strength any day, a lesson that the current incumbent at the White House would do well to heed. I have had to polish off my performance skills and re-enact the story using body, limbs, mind, voice and whatever I've been able to lay my hands upon. The outcome has been that both Daughter and Son were talking to each other the other night as they were lying in bed and I could not help eavesdropping on their conversation. They were both giggling as one recounted to the other how 'Meñique' had beaten the giant with his shrewdness and the latter's embarrassment at having being defeated by such a minuscule mortal.
And I could not repress a smile either.
Copyright 2007

Monday, 19 November 2007

Autumn Songs (coda)

And so this is the end... for the Autumn Songs. As the fallen leaves on the ground wait to hibernate under the white carpet that will (hopefully) cover this city in the weeks to come, this little section changes season too.

I want to start with a singer whom I discovered via Radio Paradise, an internet broadcaster that has become my main source to discover new music, even when it's a few decades old (as I write this they're playing Big Mama Thornton's version of 'Hound Dog', made popular by both Elvis Presley and John Lennon). This singer's name is Gabriel Rios and the funky sound of this track reminded me of treading on crunchy leaves as I walk to work every day. As I usually have my CD player on, I can only imagine that any passer-by strolling in my direction will be bound to run for cover thinking that the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse is coming to take them with him. It's a nice, slow to mid-tempo number that defies this rainy weather and puts a little smile on my face everytime I hear it. And yes, you bet I'll be getting the record soon.

Second track of this valedictory post comes courtesy of that Cuban jewel called 'Camerata Romeu'. Now, I have very vivid memories of this ensemble. The first time I saw them was in Old Havana, at the San Francisco de Asis Convent, a marvellous place near Havana Bay and where on Saturday evenings classical concerts were given. I even remember that the programme included Mozart's pieces for cello, violin and piano, Cuban composers such as Lecuona and a whole plethora of contemporary musicians like Lennon and McCartney. The piece I bring you today has been covered by just about everyone who's everyone in my neck of the woods, from 'La Negra de America', Mercedes Sosa to Paquito D' Rivera. Enjoy.

Call me schmaltzy, kitsch or whatever you can think of but when I was younger I was into Roberto Carlos. That was years before I became hooked on rock'n'roll, jazz, salsa and 'Trova'. Pre-teenage years I used to memorise the Brazilian singer's songs in order to perform them in front of my family and friends. Yes, I did possess a good voice then, which has since forsaken me. When I came across this clip on youtube.com (where else but?) a little lump appeared in my throat and for just one instant I wish I could have been next to my cousin as she was the one who introduced me to the Southamerican crooner. This will bring a tear to the eyes of those Latin people who grew up in the 70s and 80s listening to singers like Julio Iglesias, Manzanero and Lupita D'Alesio and whose childhood will be irremediably linked to this forgotten era. And I mean that with pride.
And to sign off I've got a singer whom I heard the first time around via a CD I borrowed from my local library. It goes to show the little treasures you're bound to find in your local library if you look in the right places. The CD was called 'Women in Jazz' and her song stood out from the word go. It was named 'Marriage Suite' and it felt exactly like that, a passionate homage to the one you love and are about to marry, a celebration of that love. I bought her record shortly after and was glad that Aziza Mustafa Zadeh's music did not disappoint me at all. On the contrary, it went beyond my expectations and restored my faith in music. This is the title track of that CD and I hope you enjoy it, too.
Thanks for your kind comments and feedback.
Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Adagio)

- Papi, you know what? I'm going to sing that song about the little puppy that you and I sing before I go to bed?
- The one about the Chinese dog, nena?
- Yes, and I'm going to sing it to the whole class tomorrow.
- To the whole class? Won't you have to translate it?
- Yes...
- Do you know what it's about?
- Hmmm... well..., yes, it's about a dog.
- It's more than that.
And with that La Señora Nostalgia was off. This used to be one of my favourite children's songs when I was younger and it wasn't until recently that I came across the words again via Google. So, Daughter was sat there in front of me with the piece of paper containing the lyrics in her hand, whilst I was far away, being seven or eight again, about the time when I heard this song for the first time. I did not even know then, nor do I still know whether the child in the story is a boy or a girl.
'Cuando salí de La Habana
de nadie me despedí'
Why didn't 'it' say goodbye to anyone? Who or what was 'it' running from? What terrible danger threatened 'it'? And where was 'it' travelling to?
'solo de un perrito chino
que venía tras de mí'
First mention of the Chinese dog. Daughter came up with the idea that maybe the canine sniffed despair in the child and decided to try its luck with it, or maybe they were both feeling despondent and made up their minds to leave the big city together.
'Como el perrito era chino
un señor me lo compró'
Simplicity pays off in this song. In just two lines we learn that the child, who must have been quite attached to the dog, sold it off without second thoughts. Or maybe 'it' did have second thoughts. You see, the gentleman only buys the dog because it was Chinese, so therefore he must have paid a good price as we find out later in the song, but was the child's situation so desperate that 'it' preferred to sell its friend rather than starve with it to death? Wife interjected at this point that it was a good example of how a friendship is worth more than money, to which I responded quite cynically that it wasn't proved that the dog was the child's friend, only that they were on this jaunt together. Daughter agreed with Wife and the case was closed.
'por un poco de dinero
y unas botas de charol'
So, it wasn't just money the child received for the puppy, but also a pair of shiny boots. And now we can jump to the conclusion that the child had no shoes to wear either, presumably. When I was little my imagination would run wild picturing the look of surprise on the dog's face as the man took it away and the child rushed off. It probably felt betrayed by the minor. Now I am convinced that the child had a long way to go and could not make the whole journey barefoot. But still, selling your friend out?
'Las botas se me rompieron
el dinero se acabó
ay perrito de mi vida
ay perrito de mi amor'
The child's boots broke and the money ran out. Wife was right. The dog was the child's friend and the youngster's lament at the end of the song for its loyal canine friend proves that friendship last longer than money does.
A valuable lesson for Daughter.
Copyright 2007

Friday, 16 November 2007

Happy Birthday my Grand Dame (Allegro Moderato)

Excuse me, please, hey, you, the 488-year-old lady sitting at the front, please! Yes, you! Would you be so kind so as to come on stage, please? There, let me give you a hand, I know, I know, it's the years, isn't it? Please, this way, yes, centre stage, that's it. Now, let me shine a light on you. Yes, a light, you heard me right. You deserve that light, you deserve to be centre stage. You deserve so much more.

You see, you and I have travelled together. But me being the much younger sibling, I've learnt more than I thought by being together with you, you and I, entwined at the hip for 26 years. And now I would like you to relate to me, to us, to this audience, your experience in this almost 500-year jaunt.

I would like you to narrate to us how you felt about the move from Cuba's southwest coast up to the west of your now renowned bay, the one our Mother Goddess, Yemaya, bathes in all its glory. Was it the mosquitoes that did not let you sleep? Or was it the swamps? I would like to know who planted the first ceiba tree around which it became a tradition to walk three times on your birthday's eve.

And you don't mind me writing to you in English, do you? After all this language is not alien to you. You withstood the siege by the British in 1762 fiercely and heroically, only to be betrayed by the Spaniards at the eleventh hour. We even got a song out of the conflict dedicated to the Guanabacoa Mayor, Don José Antonio Gómez, otherwise known as Pepe Antonio, the only one who challenged the European invaders with poorly armed troops and no military support from the incumbent Spanish government. Under the rule of the Brits you prospered economically, albeit on the back of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Africans brought to our country under the most appalling and inhumane conditions ever. And yet, where would we be without their influence? Where would we be without their rhythms, dances and languages? As our National Poet, Nicolás Guillén said:

Yoruba soy,
lloro en yoruba lucumí.
Como soy un yoruba de Cuba,
quiero que hasta Cuba suba mi llanto yoruba;
que suba el alegre llanto yoruba
que sale de mí.
Yoruba soy,
cantando voy,
llorando estoy,
y cuando no soy yoruba,
soy congo, mandinga, carabalí.
Atiendan amigos, mi son, que empieza así:
Adivinanza de la esperanza:
lo mío es tuyo
lo tuyo es mío;
toda la sangre
formando un río.
La ceiba ceiba con su penacho;
el padre padre con su muchacho;
la jicotea en su carapacho.
¡Que rompa el son caliente,
y que lo baile la gente,
pecho con pecho,
vaso con vaso,
y agua con agua con aguardiente!
Yoruba soy, soy lucumí,
mandinga, congo, carabalí.
Atiendan, amigos, mi son, que sigue así:
Estamos juntos desde muy lejos,
jóvenes, viejos,negros y blancos,
todo mezclado;
uno mandando y otro mandado,
todo mezclado;
San Berenito y otro mandado,
todo mezclado;
negros y blancos desde muy lejos,
todo mezclado;
Santa María y uno mandado,
todo mezclado;
todo mezclado, Santa María,
San Berenito, todo mezclado,
todo mezclado, San Berenito,
San Berenito, Santa María,
Santa María, San Berenito
todo mezclado!
Yoruba soy, soy lucumí,
mandinga, congo, carabalí.
Atiendan, amigos, mi son, que acaba así:
Salga el mulato,
suelte el zapato,
díganle al blanco que no se va:
de aquí no hay nadie que se separe;
mire y no pare,
oiga y no pare,
beba y no pare,
viva y no pare,
que el son de todos no va a parar!

In recent years I've heard people, who've visited you, complain about the noise, the dust and the collapsing buildings. Sometimes, though, and call me a hopelessly romantic fool, we need the scratching sound of an old record to appreciate its value. Your imperfections make you human. You remind me of that line in Dulce María Loynaz' poem 'Ultimos Días de una Casa' where the author states:

La Casa, soy la Casa,
más que piedra y vallado,
más que sombra y que tierra,
más que techo y muro,
porque todo eso soy, y soy con alma.

You, my dear old Havana, are like that. I cannot articulate your cracks, potholes and fissures. They have a language of their own. It's the language of unshaven quality. It's what makes the migrant long for your touch, it's what makes the current denizen create anthems that will be sung by future generations across the world whereever your progeny has been dispersed to.

Because, my beautiful dame, you have witnessed the exodus of some of your more doting sons and daughters. Never has a song sounded more truthfully than when it claims that 'if my eyes ever deserted you/if life banished me to another place on this Earth/I swear to you that I'll die of love and angst wanting to walk your streets, your parks and places.'

Personally, you gave me so much. You gave me a sense of safety and comfort when I was still a teeny weenie child roaming your streets, playing baseball or hide and seek, or 'it', or knocking on doors and running away. You gave me 'Playita 16', the most imperfect and dysfunctional beach there can ever be, and yet, so inviting. You gave me parties in faraway places to which I went behind my mother's back. Luyanó, Santiago de las Vegas, Santos Suárez, Santa Amalia, Siboney, names that are forever enmeshed with my own flesh. One day I will have the same creases and crumples on my face as you have now. Let's hope I can bear them the same way you do yours.

You went from being the 'Key to the Gulf' to being 'one of the dirtiest cities in the Americas'. Why? We're the only ones to blame. We could not look after you. We let you down. We're like the teenagers who leave home only to return after a few years and litter it carelessly. You have not been protected.

But still, you persevere. I walked down your streets earlier this year, now with my wife and kids. And you welcomed them, too. We saw some of the blemishes, though. Those 'Night Flowers', sung to by our very own Silvio Rodríguez, still populate your famous roads, Fifth Avenue, 23rd Street, Malecón.

Ah, Malecón! Has there ever been a wall so loved? Emperor Hadrian would be jealous. The Chinese don't know what to do with theirs and the Germans got rid of their own partition. And you're still there, my little old friend, where so many revellers wind up, where dreams are splashed by sea water mixed with the oil from the ships entering the bay. So many songs we sang on your cold surface, so many nights on which we sat by your littoral and warmed your stones, so many early mornings that found us hoarse and voiceless, but satisfied and optimistic.

Happy Birthday my Grand Dame! I hope someday to walk three times around your big ceiba tree again, maybe this time with my wife and our very own offspring. I hope to be part of your Latin American Film Festival again, wander up and down 23rd Avenue, going from the Yara cinema to the Chaplin, and from there to the Riviera, before ending up at La Rampa, in the knowledge that my intellect has been challenged and that you contributed to its enrichment.

Above all, I hope that you're still there, confident, beautiful and welcoming.

From your doting Habanero Son.

Copyright 2007

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Grave)

- Hi (with Spanish accent).
- Hola (Son).
- What's your name? (still a strong Spanish accent)
- Me llamo... (still Son)
- How old are you? (I gather she's from Madrid)

At that point, Son gave up. He told the lady his age in English. This is one of my pet hates and I confess that I lose my patience very quickly when a situation like this arises. Spanish-speaking people who default to English when confronted by a child speaking to them in their mother tongue. The issue becomes even more exasparating for me when the person in question has fluency problems in their adopted language and rather than using words that come to them naturally in the lingo they were brought up with, prefer to switch to a tongue full of sounds they are not equipped to pronounce even to a basic level.

But that's not the end. Cue the lady's child. I told Son to go and try his luck with her offspring instead and see if his linguistic thirst could be quenched with the younger kid. Well, I guess you know the answer to that one. The Spanish lady's boy (she turned out to be from Madrid, you see, I told you!) could not utter a word in her Mum's tongue, let alone communicate with Son. Is that the sound of an ol' chip climbing up my shoulder? You bet. When I quizzed this woman on her boy's lack of basic linguistic skills to get by in the country of her birth, her answer could not be more obtuse: 'We rarely go to Spain and we live in England now, anyway, he never wanted to learn the language in the first place and his dad is British.'

Can you hear that noise? That was my jaw hitting the floor. Since when have babies decided which language to speak? 'OK, Mum and Dad, I know that I'm only three months old, but I don't fancy the dialect that the natives of Albion speak, can I go for French instead, please?

Any language, whether it be Sanskrit, Gujurat or Portuguese is nurtured through a mix of games, communication and active participation. Maybe my ire is based on the centuries of exploitation, pillaging and looting that my continent has suffered and therefore the fact that language is one of the elements that define who we are as a Diaspora makes me defensive/aggressive against those whom I perceive to be selling out. I know parents from Mexico, Spain and Columbia just to name but three nations well represented in GB, who speak to their children in broken English, struggling to string two sentences together and their offspring, born in the UK and fluent, of course, in their mother tongue unfortunately find themselves at the losing end of this supposedly cultural exchange.

Maybe, too, I'm being unfair to some of these parents. It's daunting to open your mouth and utter a word in a foreign language in some public places here in the UK, especially in the present climate of fear and mistrust of immigrants. Sometimes the drive to be understood overwrites the need to present your child with the marvellous gift of a different culture and a different language. But, please, don't turn your back on our beautiful Spanish.

When we were leaving the park, Son looked up at me and asked me:

- Why was that lady speaking to me in English if she's Spanish, papi? Could she not understand me?

I hugged Son very hard and told him: 'No, nene, she's just confused.'

Copyright 2007
Illustration courtesy of Garrincha.

Autumn Songs (1st Mov 'Allegro', 2nd Mov 'Lento', 3rd Mov 'Moderato'

Hi, don't stay there, outside, it's a bit nippy these days, chilly mornings and misty windows. Come in, passe em casa.

Autumn Songs wraps up this week as the clocks have moved back one hour and the nights have begun to ramble forwards hungrily, seeking out early evening shadows to feed on.

My first clip comes courtesy of Tribalistas, a band whose work I cherish. Amongst the many jewels in their self-titled album 'Tribalistas', this piece stood out from the very beginning. It's about (I think, as I don't speak any Portuguese, but do understand it fairly well) welcoming people who pass by your house. And that's what I feel like doing in these days of grim skies and plummeting temperatures. Offer someone a bowl of hot soup. Chicken and onion anyone?My second song is a classic, and yet never ceases to amaze me. The album version begins with a sublime, delicate brushing of guitar strings and then Mick Jagger's tremulous voice initiates the passage of rite to the supplicant's world. Marvellous and it always leaves me speechless.Haydée Milanés is one of those Cuban singers with a lot of baggage in her life and a big reputation to live up to. None of this is her fault. Daughter of the famous Cuban singer-songwriter, Pablo Milanés, Haydee's solo effort has been playing endlessly on my stereo at home and on my CD player everywhere I go. The reason? One of the better-produced albums to have come out of Cuba in the last few years. This clip serves as a reminder (as if it was necessary to remind anyone) that Cuba is not just salsa and Afro-Cuban, but different layers of an onion that if you come too close to will leave you in a lachrymose and befuddled state of mind.For winter songs I will be traipsing through Asian, African and Latin American nations unearthing those hidden gems that give us shelter against this inclement weather. Yes, do expect a few songs in English, too.


Copyright 2007

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Allegro)

Humour is one of the ways in which children learn a foreign language more easily. It is also one of the elements that make the pupil more conscious of actually 'thinking in the new tongue' without resorting to translation all the time. And it was with this thought in mind that I introduced Son to the wonderful world of Cantinflas, the famous Mexican comedian who crossed borders (literally) with his wisecrack and popular puns.

As with everything in life, I had to start from a very simple English-speaking film as I was aware that Son was not used to the Mexican Spanish norm with its 'changos' and 'cuates'. The film we chose, 'Around the World in 80 Days' was a UK production, winner of five Academy Awards and easy to understand. Well, easy to understand for me, who'd already seen it when I was younger. Son was a little bit floored by the plot and I had to explain certain parts of it to him. However, when I saw the excitement on his face about sharing this piece of Father's life with him, all I could think was: Thank God for foreign languages!

And this was corroborated by a report showing that the French and German languages have almost perished amongst the options for students doing their GCSEs this year. One of the secondary schools Wife and I went recently to have a look at for Son, had just scrapped its Spanish course.

Why? Well, the reason is simple. English remains the lingua franca in the world today, a landscape shaped mainly by the aftermath of the Second World War, when the US took over from the ex-colonial powers as the ultimate economic force. Yet, with 44m Spanish-speakers living on US soil now, el Castellano is fast becoming the language to speak if you want to make inroads in business. Currently most presidential hopefuls have to at least make a third of their speech in Spanish if they're to have a chance at the polls with the fastest growing community in that Northamerican country.

Because the UK hasn't got the same pressing case (although it boasts the largest Columbian community outside Columbia) it can afford to be more complacent. The most commonly used phrase on Spanish shores is 'Quiero dos cervezas, por favor', which explains both the age group that travels to the Iberian nation and the fact that Brits buy everything in pairs.

Son did find the first part of 'Around the World...' amusing and I'm sure that in weeks to come I'll be able to show him the other films, with the same Mexican actor, I was lent in pure and unadulturated Spanish. And that, readers/posters/fellow bloggers, is the beauty of delving into another culture without the need for translation: enjoyment and self-enrichment!

Copyright 2007

Autumn Songs (Tempo Commodo)

With autumn now on the verge of becoming winter and my synaesthesia producing only dark reds and yellows whenever I hear the soft rustle of a well-played guitar, I open this session with one of the most under-rated singers this country has ever produced. When I purchased her debut album my DiscMan would not let it go away for a single minute. Martina Topley-Bird's voice can be soulful, rocky and playful, sometimes the three at once. My favourite song from her record 'Quixotic' is not available on you tube yet (Soul Food), but I found this little gem that attests to her wonderful voice.

And so, we plough on. And so we arrive at the majestic erstwhile The Police frontman, Sting (reunions count, but only as money-makers) and a dilemma as to which song to choose from his prolific music career. You see, I'm a Sting fan. I've seen 'Bring on the Night' approximately twenty times and I can quote some of the dialogues by heart. But nothing prepared me for the second track on his album 'Brand New Day'. The inclusion of the Algerian raï isinger Cheb Mami was a wise move for the northeastern bassist and the result, 'Desert Rose' helped internationalise raï sounds, plus catapulted the song to the top of the charts. And I just love it. Really. I do.

Lastly, this man's voice drips with pastel shades, yellow chromes and nostalgie. Ignacio Villa (Bola de Nieve), our very own show-man, was born in the legendary town of Guanabacoa, Havana, a hotbed of Afro-Cuban culture and one of the first few places where the Carabalí culture from southeastern Nigeria settled down and created its first cabildos, thus becoming the Abakuás, the only surviving secret African society in the Americas. Bola's voice was seductive, mirthful and full of joie de vivre, even when singing sad songs like the one below. The video is a collection of photos of him rather than a performance, but still that voice is incomparable.

As autumn is drawing to a close, I've been thinking about doing a similar series of winter songs. Just do not expect Christmas tunes. Thanks for your feedback, it's always appreciated.

© 2007

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Autumn Songs (1st Mov 'Andante', 2nd Mov 'Lento', 3rd Mov 'Andante' 4th Mov 'Lento'

As this unique palette of red, yellow and orange falls upon us and the sun dyes its hair a camp auburn, the music that mostly calls to me now is tango. A good old milonga from Uruguay or Argentina that carries with it the echoes of its Bantu ancestry. The term milonga comes from this African language and it translates as 'lyrics'. But words are not needed where music reigns supreme and this is the case with the first clip.

Astor Piazzolla was the indisputed 'King of the bandoneon' in Argentine, his birthplace. He transformed 'tango', incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. And it's because of his importance as a musician, composer and bandleader that I would like to open this week's Autumn Songs session with a clip of him playing one of his most famous pieces, 'Libertango'.

My second clip comes all the way from Portugal. Because we already have tango (see above), bolero and bossa nova in Latin America, it took me longer to understand and appreciate 'fado', that musical lament from that Iberian country that best conveys the word 'saudade; the one term I've asked countless Brazilians and Portuguese alike to translate to me into Spanish and/or English and which every single one of them have failed to do. And when you listen to 'fado' you understand why. So, no more explanations. Here's one of the better ambassadors of 'fado' nowadays.

Next up is a band that defies conventions. Those who want to package them up into a little chill-out bundle will have problems doing so as their latest album shows. This clip is from their first record and it always reminds me of the place we go to in Spain every year, up in the mountains near Granada. It brings back memories of early chilly October mornings watching my children playing with the two local cats whilst my wife and I have our breakfast in the front garden. Pomegranates drop to the ground and their splash creates a whole rainbow of reddish hues, incapable of being re-created by hand, expert painter notwithstanding.

Lastly, where would autumn be without a piano? Just like Astor's bandoneon, the piano is autumn's instrument par excellence. Little did Chopin know that when he wrote his Etude in E Op 10 'Tristesse' it would become the schmaltzy karaoke hit 'So Deep is the Night' belted out by drunkards in places like Blackpool. But here on this blog we like quality and therefore I have a lovely performance of this timeless autumn number for you my fellow readers/bloggers/posters.
And this is all for today. I hope you enjoyed this week's selection.
Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Prestissimo)

- La casa azul estaba en lo alto de una montaña...

- ... donde vivían tres osos que...

- ... se fueron a pasear...

- ... en eso entró una niña...

And then we mixed 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' with 'Little Red Riding Hood' and 'The Gruffalo'. My kids had just had their first dose of Keith Johnstone and they were lapping up every single minute of it. The only rule for the game was that they were not allowed to think. As an intransitive verb think cancels out your id, that part of the psyche which is regarded as the reservoir of the instinctual drives and the source of psychic energy. Think is what helps you arrive at conclusions and weigh something mentally. What I wanted Son and Daughter to do was the complete opposite, I wanted them to let go, forget about grammar and just let go. And boy, did it work! They were both grinning enthusiastically as we wove the story around the traditional setting of the Three Bears making dinner and leaving it on the table for it to cool down whilst they took a walk around the forest. But I threw a few spanners in the works and their comfort zone disappeared. That's why Keith Johnstone worked wonders. With Johnstone there's no such thing as a comfort zone.

I first came across this Englishman back in Uni when I was training with the Improvisational Theatre troop. His was the manual that Danielle Fauteaux, our instructor, used and which I managed to keep to this day when the group disbanded. And I fell in love with his technique. Little did I know that it was in the field of linguistics where I'd be making better use of his theatrical approach.

Children learn languages better and faster than grown-ups because with them there are no inhibitions to consider. Both Son and Daughter make mistake galore whilst speaking Spanish but since they're not conscious about them, it matters not one iota what people think about them. When they talk to Spanish speakers, their efforts are rewarded with smiles, back-slaps and hugs. We, adults operate in a different mindset. Since we tend to quesiton the world around us, when learning a foreign language our heads begin to fill up with whys and wherefores, whereas the natural and logical process should be one of absorption and submission to the new language. The minute I started to apply Keith Johnstone's methods of 'Don't Think' and 'Don't Try to be Clever' to English my linguistic skills grew tenfold, I was able to read faster and for the first time I was able to think in English. Funny, isn't it? By not thinking I arrived at thinking in a foreign language. Son and Daughter are halfway there by means of seeing the learning of Spanish as a fun activity rather than a chore.

So, with this experience in mind I asked them if there'd be another time for another made-up story and with a Cheshire-cat grin on their faces they both answered in unison:

- ¡¡¡Sí!!!

Copyright 2007

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Meditations on Britain (Adagio Cantabile)

The emperor is angry. Very angry. Not because he's just realised his state of déshabillement whilst checking himself on the mirror, but because he's turned his back on it, still thinking he dons the clothes with which to show off to his opponents. The emperor is lecturing with his bare back to the mirror. And the lecture is on race. You see, the emperor does not like James Watson's views on race. The emperor has dictated that to allow this man to carry out his string of speaking engagements in Britain is tantamount to siding with the BNP. Further to his interview with The Sunday Times where Dr James Watson let it be known his views on black people (more specifically Africans) in relation to whites, the emperor has counter-attacked, got on his moral high horse and preached to the masses (especially those of us who can spot his nakedness) that indivuals like Dr Watson are not welcomed in dear old Blighty. And whilst doing this, he's trying to convince us of the beauty of his attire.

Who shall be the first one to yell: 'But he's got no clothes on!'? Where shall we start? And more importantly, who with? With Greg Dyke, ex BBC director-general, who claimed in an interview not so long ago that the corporation was hideously white? Or should we go back to a report by The Voice newspaper which found that the more foreign and/or African your name sounded whilst applying for a job the more likely you were to be rejected? Or maybe, we should ask ourselves why we assume black boys will go on to become sportsmen or entertainers (sometimes both, Ian Wright anyone?), but not scientists or CEOs? Dr Watson's comments, racist though they are, have their basis on a society that still measures people by the colour of their skin. The perception that black people, or rather non-whites, are inferior has gone unchallenged and accepted by the status quo for far too long. The Nobel Prize winner's apology, though intended to save his career, should not be acknowledged, not because of some kind of 'eye for an eye' vendetta, but because it is part of a bigger problem. That of the accepted view that black is low and white is high, African/Asian/American is inferior, European is superior. One needs only analyse Ron Atkinson's comments about French and Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly a few years ago and the stir they caused amongst the chattering classes to gauge how race is the constant elephant in the room, however everyone in the top political echelons refuses to acknowledge it. And when they do, they take to the middle of the road like ducks to the water. In a case of near 100% absolution, last year saw Ron Atkinson come back into the television world in a series highlighting the importance of learning a foreign language. How about a series highlighting the importance of learning how to use one's own language without putting down black players just because they've had a bad game?

The emperor cares so much about his clothes, that he wastes no time in lecturing the world about human rights violations (but torture and abuse by British troops in Iraq are brushed under the carpet), police excesses in other nations (however the Met is institutionally racist as the cases against Stephen Lawrence and De Menezes have shown) and corrupt regimes (just don't mention the BAE arms row, please).

If I was a 20-year-old black man instead of the almost 36-year-old I'll be in a few weeks, my main concern now would not be whether a Nobel Prize winner made a racist comment or not, but what is my government doing to show me that his remarks have no basis on reality? Not much, I'd hazard. Turn the telly on, or better, don't. Mostly white faces put there by white producers. Go to your local Tesco's. You'll see a few more black faces there... cleaning the floors, stacking shelves, usually with exotic-sounding African surnames. Go to the House of Commons. Or better, don't. You'll be depressed. And then you'll snap. And if/when you do, you'll become a figure, a statistic, just yet another way of showing that black people are... hey, hang on a sec, wasn't that what Dr Watson said from the very beginning? Wasn't that the reason why this whole brouhaha has taken pole position in the news after all?

And we are all part of it. We are the trusted men who went to see Guido and Luigi's creation (or non-creation) and reported to his majesty that the suit was ready. We were the townsfolk who were (are still) spellbound by his magnificent clothes and praised him for them. My question is, who will be the little boy breaking out of the crowd to yell:

But he has nothing on!

Copyright 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Vivace)

- ¿Cuánto' año' tiene'?

- ¿Uh? What is it again?

- ¿Cuánto' año' tiene'?

- ¿Cuuu... áan..to... año'...?

I had to stop reading the newspaper right there and then, turn around on the bench I was sitting on and correct Son. And try to achieve this without laughing my head off. You see, we were in the park, and he was trying to tell a British man how to say 'How old are you?' in Spanish. The whole situation was comical, really, the fellow asking us where we were from after he overheard us speaking in Spanish, then after explaining to him that I was Cuban and Son had been born in the UK, but was fluent in Spanish, he attempted to dig out some old-forgotten Spanish expressions he'd long learnt, probably on a holiday to Spain. What caused my cackle was Son's accent. I had already noticed on our holiday to Cuba earlier this year that he'd taken on a little bit of the 'canta'o' (singing) we Cubans have when we speak, especially those coming from the east of the country (this is typical of me, old 'Habanero' prejudice, so, apologies to readers/posters/fellow bloggers). His voice pitch went up by a few decibels in tandem with my fellow countrymen and women and his vowels and consonants became less nasal and less explosive, for instance, the 't' and 'd' sounds. Once back in dear old Blighty he went back to his old neutral Spanish, but in the last few weeks, he has been going back to that Cuban 'canta'o' and I can perfectly notice the Cuban accent coming out in droves now. Not that I mind, no. But this put me on a crossroads. As mentioned before I take my linguistics seriously and after my children started rolling their 'Rs' I felt over the moon. It's hard enough to teach children Spanish in an English-speaking country, let alone get them to do the multiple Spanish 'r' when the Anglo-Saxon counterpart is softer. Unless you hail from Glasgow (love the accent, by the way). So, with this in mind, I've been explaining to Son the meaning of blending (unión), that syntactical phenomenon whereby the ending of words, mainly vowels, are joined up with the beginning of the next ones along, mainly consonants. In Spanish, my latest attempt has been to get him to realise that in sentences like 'Hay un gato en el jardín' (there's a cat in the garden), the best way to go about the pronunciation bit, is to combine the hay un into one main sound as in AYuN, with the 'u' taking the back seat. Ditto with gato en, this becomes gatEn, whereby the 'o' is dropped in favour of the 'e'. But I was not ready for his dropping his 'Ss' so quickly. We all do it in Havana. We shorten phrases, by chopping whole chunks off words and sentences alike. That's why it's so hard to understand us, Cubans. And all the while we expect our interlocutor to finish certain sentences for us, as in when we say: Así que... (So...).

Will Son grow up to speak like a Cuban? I doubt it. Despite his occasional incursions into my so-called patois, his is an accent that betrays Englishness underneath. Same with Daughter. Unlike Son, her 'Ts' and 'Ds' are still explosive. Ours are more open and non-dental. Basically, you spit more on people whilst pronouncing the English 't' and 'd' sounds than when doing it in Spanish. But both Son and Daughter will definitely acquire the equivalent in English of a Transatlantic drawl, that cross between Middle American and Middle British.

But now, I must apologise and leave you because I have to get back to those dropped 'Ss'.

Copyright 2007

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Autumn Songs (Andante)

Autumn Sun has a peculiarity that it's not hard to discern. It's a cheat. You look through the window thinking that you can still wear that sleeveless T-shirt, left over from a summer that never was, only to find that Autumn Sun has other ideas in mind. It shines, yes, but coldy. Sometimes I feel its gaze on my bare legs whilst I'm on my bike and can actually hear it sniggering behind my back.

Autumn Sun reminds me of desert Sun. Not that I've ever been to a desert in my life before. But I recently read a book whose action took place in the desert. The book was rubbish, but the description of the Sahara was both poetic and inviting. If only the author had left the cliches out. And this idea led to another one, that of the blues. According to some experts the blues, that quintessential American product of early 20th century came via the griots, West African troubadours, mainly in the regions of Senegal and Mali, who entertained people whilst at the same time telling tales. some of them of a contemporary nature. In that sense, Ali Farka Toure (RIP), is the ultimate singer, narrator and in this following clip he also extemporises his views on Black Americans. Some food for thought here.

My second clip this week is yet another contradiction, but please, bear with me on this one. The beginning of the video shows the Chillies by a beach in the warm, early-morning Californian sun. And yet, to me it sums up what is great about the transition between summer and autumn. Maybe because of my Cuban blood but the atmosphere in the clip reminds me of late night/early mornings sitting on the Malecón, Havana, with a group of friends, with a guitar and a bottle of rum. October and November in Cuba have that special melancholy feeling of lethargy, idly sitting around a guy who can't sing and can barely play the guitar, but who knows the whole repertoire of Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés. And that's enough, you don't care. Like here, you don't care. The surfers, you don't care. The boat mooring on the beach. You don't care. And that's what autumn is to me. Care-free Sunday mornings soaking up the misty Autumn Sun through the bedroom window. Breathe it in, folks! And enjoy the video.

My third choice this week comes courtesy of Mssrs Miles Davies and John Coltrane. The sound of jazz is the sound of autumn, or viceversa. Its crisp, clear notes sound like the crunchy leaves we tread on as we walk. And having these two maestros together is a relic from the distant past that we must dig out and listen to just like that old sleeveless woolie vest you insist on wearing over your shirt or blouse as soon as the first October winds announce autumn's arrival.

And that's all we have time for today. Expect some flamenco to come your way next week, plus a little bit of fado, a rhythm whose middle name is 'Autumn' and as the nights grow longer and the days shorter, my dear readers/posters/fellow bloggers, I think that Marisa's soothing voice will become our companion for the next six months, or so.

Copyright 2007

Friday, 12 October 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (1st Mov 'Grave') (2nd Mov Allegro)

- Do not interrupt me when I'm talking, and DO NOT CORRECT ME!!!

Thus spoke Daughter recently, or rather shouted at me. And yes, my dear reader/poster/fellow blogger, I hold up my hand in shame. I suffer from severe linguistic obsession.

You see, it's difficult for me to let grammatical errors slide by and glide aimlessly into the void generated by half-said phrases, onomatopoeias and grunts which are actually words, only that they sound like grunts. I'm obsessed about my children learning good Spanish and on occasions I've been known even to correct Wife, who's a fluent speaker of the language I grew up with. I was aware that something was wrong when in a normal conversation I would be more attentive to her use of the subjunctive mood than the real content of the message she was trying to convey to me. And now, the problem has been compounded by my children's involvement in my condition. To their chagrin, I'd dare say. So, mea culpa. That's me.

How did it all start? And when? Well, the when I can point out. Uni. Yep, that's when all hell broke loose and I suddenly found myself immersed in this competitive environment from which I could not escape, nor did I want to. Because although it pains me to admit it, I loved linguistic competitiveness back in my Uni years. Over the years, and when I added German and French in that order to the cluster of languages I spoke fluently I developed a strong attraction towards both the minute details and the more noticeable aspects that made those two languages, plus Spanish and English so different from each other and yet so alike. I learnt that 'water' in English probably came from 'Wasser' in German, as the former is a Germanic language, too. Same with 'eau' (French) and 'agua' (Spanish), both romance languages. But when it came to in-laws, well, the situation got funny and both funny, ha-ha and weird. In German father-in-law is 'Schwiegervater', in French it's 'beau-père' and in Spanish 'suegro' or 'padre político'. So whilst in French they praise you and compliment you on your physical beauty, in Spanish they're thinking of snap elections.

The how is harder to explain. I guess that I was sucked into this linguistic vortex because of my natural inclination to question my surroundings, an attitude that as long as you restrict to languages in Cuba keeps you on the safe and sane side. And now I'm paying the price, because whereas Son is capable of translating entire books (posts passim) Daughter is beginning to go through the same motions he went through a few years ago. And we're clashing. Big time. I guess, I'll have to bide my time and be more patient because she's equally intelligent and capable as Son is. I am the one who have the problem. On the same note, living in a bilingual world in the UK makes me anxious. British culture is a very strong force with a strong identity (despite the alleged crisis) and language is one of the ways in which children with parents from different backgrounds, especially as in my case, with one of them born in Britain, can assert their individuality and build upon both sets of identities. The way we speak Spanish in Cuba is very peculiar and carries with it myriad cultural references that I'm positively sure will enrich my children's lives. And for that I'm prepared to change and be more patient.

Now, about that shouting...

Copyright 2007
Illustration courtesy of Garrincha

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Autumn Songs (Lento)

1996. Springtime in Cuba. I know, a discrepancy with the title of this post, but springtime in my beloved country feels like autumn in my adopted homeland. Temperature-wise at least. The suffocating heat has not kicked in yet and on some mornings you're forced to don a jacket to shelter you from a light chilly breeze. On this particular Sunday, I was lying in bed when my then girlfriend, now wife, came in, sat down and put two earphones in my ears. The sound that came through from her Walkman immediately severed my ties with this mortal world and transported me to an ethereal one where the voice of this marvellous singer was my sole guide. To this day I still shake all over when I hear the bassline coming in, then the keyboard/piano and her voice aaaaghing its way in and then the first line: Lift my knees from the ground/I will put my feet down/I will dance all my prayers...

Yes, Rachelle Ferrell appeared out of nowhere to occupy a place of pride in my music collection. Once in the UK I found out that my wife had bought her album after she first heard it in Cuba and Prayer Dance became a favourite of both of us to the point where she did a choregraphy to the music of the song with her students from Jackson's Lane a few years ago. Although I tried very hard, I could not find it on youtube (please, let me know if you do), however I did find a very good version of the classic 'Autumn Leaves', and it's apparently her first stage performance, so it has also that autumn-like sepia-tinted mood. Enjoy.

I mentioned in my previous Autumn Songs post that to me the season had a smell. Well, it also has a voice. It's husky, throaty and hoarse. It's Janis Joplin singing 'Summertime' or Leonard Cohen intoning 'Everybody Knows'. And no one proves this any better than the Brazilian Maria Bethania. Now, as in Rachelle's case, I tried very hard to find one of my favourite tracks by her, but to no avail. It seems that nobody has, so far, uploaded 'As Cançôes Que Você Fez Pra Mim' and that's a pity since that song represents to me the feeling of autumn as the season to jettison your old skin and grow a new one, tougher and more resistant to winter. But the one I did find I DID like! And a lot. It turns out that last year my fellow countryman and blogger, Iván Darías Alfonso and his girlfriend, Elena, burnt a CD for me with loads of Brazilian and Portuguese songs for my birthday and it had this little jewel by Maria Bethania, called 'Jeito Estupido de te Amar'. I first came across this tune many years ago whilst still living in Havana and still in thrall of singers like Roberto Carlos, D'Javan, Gal Costa and Elis Regina. Maria had not crossed my radar yet until I heard this song plus the aforementioned 'As Cançôes...'. Her voice captivated me and it still fascinates me in equal measure. Enjoy.

January 1989 was a peculiar year for me for many reasons. I was seven months away from finishing college, had done my work experience in the countryside for the second year running successfully (more about that later) and all around me were the first signs of the terrible crisis that would befall my country a couple of years later. On a mild weekday afternoon and following a nice lunch, I was lying down on my bunk bed whilst music poured out of the speakers of the camp. By way of explanation to some of you readers and fellow bloggers, in Cuba, in the old days, we used to do work experience in the countryside from the age of 12. In secondary school students normally went to what we call 'Habana campo' (countryside Havana) whereas in college/high school, pupils went further west to Pinar del Río, another province. Music was ubiquitous and tapes used to be carefully selected by the DJ(s). On this particular day I was resting in bed and my mind was somehow in a stupor when there arose a voice that propped me up on my bed and made me get off it. To this day I have never forgotten my introduction to Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song' and that moment ranks as a musical watershed for me. I immediately went outside looking for the guy who normally played the cassettes handed down to him by everyone (including moi) at the camp. When I asked him who this singer was, he simply shrugged and replied that that specific song was just a filler track in a tape by this or that band. It was only ten months after approximately when I had began Uni that I found out who the singer was. I struck up a friendship with a guy in Uni who was heavily into Bob and he got me hooked to his music, not just the Legend recording but also the lesser known Marley. However, to me, this song encapsulates what Bob Marley wrote about for most of his career as a spokesman for the rights of the underdog. To this day his words 'Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds' still reverberate in my temples and makes my body vibrate. I'm still trying, Bob, I know I've come a long way, but still have a long way to go.

Copyright 2007


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