Thursday, 28 February 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Vivace)

I found this story in The Guardian on Tuesday and it made my day. To think that there are so many ways in which to stimulate the minds of young people who are keen to learn a language. That's why I am still trying to get my head around the fact that the government decided to drop foreign languages as a compulsory subject at GCSE level a few years ago.
However, I gather that if I was faced with the prospect of learning a language that was not one of the modern ones, that is Portuguese, German, Italian, English and Spanish, I would probably get cold feet and backtrack. This teacher's experience showed me that sometimes all you need is a little bit of adrenaline at the right time.

He also addresses other topics like the eternal dilemma of having to speak in a foreign language in front of a group of strangers. And yet, my experience, at least with English and German, is that natives are rather considerate and most of the time go out of their way to help out if they can.

French was a different matter when I was at the Alliance. Whether I am now merely playing by stereotypes or not is a moot point but I remember when I was learning French how I enjoyed my lessons, but less the environment I was in. There was a lot of snobbery and an anti-Anglo-Saxon attitude, understandable as there has always been bad blood between the UK and France. But this was Cuba! They should have called it quits! Playing music in English during breaks was frowned upon and when I went back to Havana after spending a month in Britain in 1997, except for my classmates, the staff was just not interested, nor impressed, and no, they were not French... they were... Cuban.

Luckily, I persevered and adapted to the school, thus, making it to intermediate level. When the author of The Guardian's article, Rick Jones, mentions his embarrassment of having to speak out loud as a teenager, I was instantly reminded of the time when I learnt that there were three types of 'e' in French and they were, of course, pronounced differently. After long periods going through the motions of learning how to pronounce each 'e' correctly I managed to achieve such high level of expertise that I am pretty sure that even the recently deceased Marcel Marceau would have been proud of me.

Copyright 2008
Illustration courtesy of Garrincha

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Road Songs (Largo)

Speed. It kills, doesn't it? That's pretty clear to me. So, why is it that when you are driving your car you can accelerate up to 100 - 120 miles per hour, if you so wish, even if the speed limit is 70mph on a motorway? That question has always baffled me, so if any of you has the answer, please, send it to me in a nice envelope with the Royal seal on it.

I sometimes go over the speed limit, but overall tend to drive slowly and defensively. The fact is that I love driving, I love going round bends as slowly as I can and soak up the perfection of a smooth turning.

Same with music. In my teens when I started to listen to rock'n'roll I realised little by little that as the 60s became the 70s and the 70s mutated into the 80s the music had at the same time turned faster. I stopped at Metallica. Slayer and the others who followed were too fast for me and my ears.

There is nothing more enjoyable than a song where the bass guitar kicks in nicely and rhythmically setting the mood for the entire piece, or where the lead singer will ease the whole band into a groove with a wave of his or her hand, in the same way a conductor does it with an orchestra. Music and driving are two pleasures that should be enjoyed without rushing the outcome. Could you imagine someone in a theatre belting out bang in the middle of a stage version of Hamlet: 'C'mon, mate, hurry up, when are you going to say the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy'? Me neither.

The songs that follow are unique in the sense that I am able to appreciate their full richness and beauty by means of the patience and focus shown by their performers. None of which is achieved by running around like a headless chicken.
Copyright 2008

Road Songs (Massive Attack - Safe from Harm)

It is the bass guitar that does it for me. Beautiful beyond beauty. Soulful beyond soul. A masterpiece.

Road Songs (Djavan - Samurai)

He was married to the 'Slave Isaura' and that is how he became part of our musical soundtrack in Cuba in our younger years. But the funkiness Djavan displays in his music are second to none. No wonder Manhattan Transfer made a whole record out of his songs.

Road Songs (Leonard Cohen - Tower of Song)

This is music at its best. When a band like U2 joins someone of Leonard Cohen's stature, you know that you're in for a fab time. And they do not disappoint. Slow, mellow and unhurried. Splendid

Road Songs (Rodrigo y Gabriela - Stairway To Heaven)

Not only did they have a stairway to heaven to climb, but also a huge task to overcome in versioning this classic. Let us just consider that this song became the signature tune of one of the better rock'n'roll bands to ever have prowled this world and now let us soak up the beauty that this Mexican duo is providing us with. Patience and dedication. No speed.

Road Songs (Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra- For Whom The Bell Tolls

It is only apposite to finish this week's 'Road Songs' column with this track based on the novel with the same name by Ernest Hemingway, an author who symbolised machismo and who probably enjoyed speeding (I have no evidence to support this claim and for all I know Hemingway might not have known how to drive). The combination of the string section of the SFSO with the rock band render this track a beautiful and masterful beat, hard to match in pop music.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Cast Them As Cousins (Vivo)

Joel Coen: maverick US producer and director.
Charly García: maverick Argentinian singer songwriter.
Joel Coen: one half of one of Hollywood's most creative duos (with brother Ethan).
Charly García: one of his bands included one of the most creative musicians of Argentinian music: Fito Páez.
Joel Coen: thorn on Hollywood's side.
Charly García: thorn on the former Argentinian dictatorship's side.
Joel Coen: brought up in a middle-upper class family. Father was an economist and mother an art historian.
Charly García: brought up in a middle-upper class family. Father taught mathematics and physics whereas mother produced radio music shows, mainly featuring folk music.
Joel Coen: born in 1954.
Charly García: born in 1951.
Anymore, anyone?
Copyright 2008

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Vivo)

Last week I received an e-mail from a dance student of mine regarding a couple of comments I made in this column a few days ago. Because I did not ask him for permission to reveal his name nor his correspondence I will keep his identity a secret. Yet, he is someone whose opinion I value a lot because his views come from a position of respect and understanding. The points he raised were all valid and I made it clear in my response to him that I agreed with pretty much he had written.

This put me to think about how Spanish is viewed by non-natives. So far this space has been concerned more with bringing up two British-born children (mine) as bilingual. I have also touched upon the difficulties that some foreigners in the UK face when trying to speak to their offspring in their language, and I have also discussed my experience as a translator and interpreter, mainly back in Cuba. What has been absent so far is the other side of the coin. English-speaking people and their approach to Spanish.

My student not only has a good command of this romance language but also spent some time in Spain, specifically in Madrid. And this also led me down another road. Imagine, if you wish, a river flowing downwards towards the sea. The river represents a particular language, whereas the sea is the amalgamation of the different lexicons in the world. However as we all know rivers have a tendency of begetting small brooks that branch out in various directions, some of them taking short cuts to make it to the same sea the river is bound for. These little streams are the different norms that exist in both modern and ancient languages. Please, note that I use the word ‘norm’ and not ‘dialect’. They differ. Norm is the standard that governs the rules and structures of a given language in a specific nation. Hence British English is different from American English, a fact that threw me into despair when I first arrived in this country as I had studied the North American version in uni. A dialect is a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language. Can you now imagine this English-speaking person dealing with the 'vos' from Argentina, the 'cuate' from Mexico, the 'chévere from Cuba and Columbia and the myriad diminutives used in Peru and Bolivia for instance? No, neither can I.

With these ideas in mind I understood a bit better what my student was referring to. I began to see my linguistic world, that is, the Spanish one, from his perspective and that is why I would like to thank him for it.

Spanish is a heck of a language to learn and speak and sometimes we, natives, take for granted grammatical constructions and syntactic structures that others take years to understand. So, thanks to my student and I hope to see you on the 1st March when I will be teaching a master class at the Bar Andalucia in the West End.

And if you have a similar experience, why not share it? That is what this space is for. Para conversar.
Copyright 2008

Friday, 22 February 2008

States of Exchange: Artists from Cuba (Review) (Adagietto)

A red bean breaks away from its brethren and starts wriggling blithely nearby. Away from the crowd it stands on its own dictating its own teeny weenie bean’s fate. At first some of its ‘comrades’ feel apprehensive about joining him. Finally, a handful of them shed their inhibitions and follow the lone fun soul. For the next ten or fifteen seconds they all enjoy the newfound freedom. Suddenly we hear a thud. A hammer has just smashed the leader. As all the others quickly go back to the ranks wherefrom they had just decamped seconds before, the camera zooms in on the lone fun soul. We seen the bean’s innards, shattered to smithereens. The name of the film is: “El Que No Sabe Es Como El Que No Ve (Not Knowing is Like Not Seeing)”.

A woman ties her tongue with a piece of thread. Round and round she winds the cord. She continues to do this until it is impossible for her to speak. The name of the film is: “Autocensura (Self-Censorship)”.

A long canvas projects an image of the sea. From a distance the visitor is treated to the vision of waves crashing against the shore, some rougher that others. On closer inspection, the waves turn out to be fish hooks poking out of the canvas. A gallery assistant cautions people against coming too near the piece. You may get hurt. In the same way you may do if you take to the sea on your own trying to surmount those ninety miles that separate your daily grind from your utopia. The name of the panel work is: “Isla (Island)”.

Welcome to the exhibition ‘States of Exchange: Artists from Cuba’.

It has been a topsy-turvy week for me. Parallel to the events taking place in Cuba, I have been reading Jung Chang’s vivid memoir ‘Wild Swans’ and my mind has been flying rampantly through those Chinese fields that have gathered so much history, sweat and tears. And blood, too. Through three generations of Chinese women, including hers, Jung relates the travails that the population of that Asian nation have had to endure under emperors, Kuomintang soldiers and Mao’s Red Guards. So the last thing I needed was to torment my feeble mind even more with an exhibition about dissidents in Cuba.

Yet, it was worth it. Every single bit.

Political dissent in Cuba is a four-letter word. Some people, mainly from the state’s apparatus, claim it does not exist, those of us who were born and raised in the Caribbean island, say otherwise. So, it is refreshing to attend a display of intelligent works by artists who experience the daily drudgery of Cuban life in London.

The gallery Iniva, situated at Rivington Place, in fashionable Shoreditch is the perfect venue for this exhibit. Greeted by warm and friendly front of the house staff, we made our way in and from the very reception the works of art start telling a story of their own.

First one up (literally ‘up’) is “Cambio de Estado (Change of State)” a piece by Jeannette Chavez where the whole ceiling is covered by military epaulettes, evoking, for me, at least, the military power yielded by the Cuban government throughout almost five decades.

Once inside the first exhibition room, the spectator will see different works that function not only as a parable of what is happening in Cuba at present, but also as an analogy with current events in other nations. “Historia (History” is a mechanical sculpture with a pen attached to one circling arm and an eraser attached to the other. As one arm leave a mark on the glass, the other one wipes it out quickly. Historical revisionism? Unlearned historical lessons? You decide.

The aforementioned “Isla (Island)” takes up approximately six metres of the wall on which it is mounted. It is a monumental work of art with a powerful explicit message.

Human beings’ relationship with money is analysed by Diana Fonseca in her piece “Pasatiempo (Pastime)” where the rubbing of two coins on one of her hands leaves a stain. The money disappears, the stain remains. It made me think of the dreams and moral values that have been shattered and sacrificed by the pursuit of money in the new Cuba.

One of the most poignant pieces is a video called “La Gloria Borra La Memoria (Glory Erases Memory)”, which features the aforementioned beans (they deserve an Oscar surely) as one of them, again, another leader, tries to break through a hard wall. Incapable of doing it on its own, it convinces the others to join based on the ‘Unity is Strength’ maxim. Together they break through the wall and the leader climbs to the pole position of a set of stairs. All the other beans remain below, but whenever one attempts to climb up to where the leader is, it is sent down to its death. Finally, the leader floods the stairs, thus, drowning the rest of its compadres.

Through the power of art ‘States of Exchange’ has told a story about money, power and communication not just in Cuba but also in our globalised world in the 21st century. This is a must-see event for all who enjoy a spiritual and mental challenge. And in the case of “La Isla (The Island), even physical.

States of Exchange: Artists from Cuba
23rd January – 22nd March 2008
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 11am – 6pm
Saturday 12pm – 6pm
Sunday, Monday closed
Admission Free
Nearest tube stations: Liverpool Street, Old Street.
Iniva at Rivington Place
020 7 749 1240

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

He Did It His Way (Grave)

And now, the end is near

And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

As I was making my way back from the Tate Modern today with my wife and our two young children I could not stop thinking about the news that greeted me first thing this morning courtesy of the BBC. Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban Communist Party, the man who has been in power for almost five decades, has stepped down. And immediately Paul Anka’s re-worked classic, popularised by Frank Sinatra, came into my head.

It’s hard for a British citizen to understand the stature of the outgoing leader. After all, the Cuban president outlived nine British Prime Ministers and ten American dignitaries. And he did it his way. In the case of the US presidents, some of them tried to give him an early retirement on more than 600 occasions allegedly. Whereas in the UK a politician occupying the top post is usually in power between five to six years during which he amends old laws and develops cogent domestic and foreign policies (except for both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair who were in power for ten years each), in Cuba we always had ‘El Caballo’ (The Horse) to look after our own affairs, a little bit like a paterfamilias making sure that his offspring was well-fed and well-taught. Although the well-fed is a moot point. A British prime minister will normally spend the first couple of years of their premiership implementing the programmes that made up their election drum-roll, whilst using up the remaining time to ensure that they got re-elected. In Cuba’s case, the man who has just stepped down had to contend with an illiterate nation in 1959, an illegal embargo a couple of years after and a crumbling economy to top. And whether people loved him or hated him, what we must bear in mind is that he led probably the most profound social, political and ideological revolution ever to have visited upon Latin American shores. That is not to say that the maximum leader was always faultless. Through a cult of his own personality, albeit with no statues in sight à la Stalin, an efficient neighbourhood surveillance system and a stranglehold on the media, Fidel’s grip on the everyday lives of Cubans has been at times absolutist and autocratic. Opinions have always differed as to whether this was brought about by the US blockade, or if by a self-imposed embargo. The former idea has been voiced mainly by armchair socialist intellectuals from Europe and North America, the latter has been the reality-based experience of many Cubans both in Cuba and overseas.

Fidel’s role as a cunning statesman should not be downplayed either. When the OEA (American States Organisation) evicted Cuba in 1962 due to its Marxist inclinations and its incompatibility with the Inter-American system, the Caribbean island’s market narrowed down to almost zero. This was one of the main reasons behind the decisions that led to Cuba becoming an ally of the former Soviet Union in the mid to late 60s. The surprising outcome of this arrangement was that on turning into Washington’s bete-noire, the late Cuban leader garnered a reputation as a fearless ‘caudillo’, capable of upholding the principles of socialism. A system that, even our National Hero, José Martí, was wary of endorsing.

Fidel’s role in Cuban society and politics was not restricted just to being leader of the Cuban Communist Party. He was also head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), State Council and Ministers’ Council. As if this was not enough, he also branched out into other unofficial positions. And it was maybe this ubiquity of his that polarised his supporters. He masterminded the famous Ten Million Sugar Cane Harvest whose main objective was to improve the financial situation in the Caribbean island. To achieve this, the government concentrated all its efforts on producing the targeted amount of sugar by razing entire fields and planting sugar cane. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people were mobilised to the countryside to work the fields, including personnel from the armed forces, to make this dream come true. In the end only between six and eight million tonnes (figures vary) were produced, but the effect was calamitous as the land that was used to plant sugar cane could not be utilised for anything else. Some experts point at this moment in time as the beginning of the end for the sugar industry in Cuba.

Another role ‘El Comandante’ took on himself was that of journalist-in-chief. It was under his mandate that the Cuban media became a homogenous, uniform mass devoted to complimenting and eulogising the regime, thus, clipping its wings of any possible negative influence. With endless stories on the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, the Cuban journalistic apparatus became formulaic and predictable. Occasionally it would highlight an issue of particular importance when it was no longer possible to conceal it, as when it addressed the prostitution situation in the mid 80s, a thorny topic that was already being talked about, although sotto voce, behind closed doors.

It was as an educator and health devotee that Fidel found more success and acceptance in a population that up until 1959 had a large deficit in the construction of new hospitals and schools. The special attention that these two sectors attracted from the Cuban president made it the cornerstone of the Caribbean island social reforms and put Cuba on a par with various nations of the developed world in terms of access to health and education. The downside was that as the number of graduates increased, so did, too, the level of politicisation they were subjected to. Nonetheless, it would be catastrophic if now that Fidel has bowed out of the political arena these achievements went to waste due to Cuba following the same privatisation path travelled by the former socialist states of Eastern Europe.

So, what now?

That has always been the question posed to me by some of my friends and acquaintances and it has also been a quandary plaguing my mind for a long time. What now?

Well, I do not know. And that’s the honest answer. We have been used to just the one person holding so much power for so long that we are now in the same situation as those youngsters who, when faced with a long weekend on their own without Dad and Mum, end up wrecking the house and smashing the china.

However, amidst the rubble, a light shines through and this is the beam I would like my nation to follow.

There are four principles, in my understanding, that Cuba should follow: the development of a free media and an independent judiciary are the first two. Economic and financial opening to foreign investors (as long as cherished achievements like education and health are not touched) and accountability should be the other two.

The establishment of these four tenets will not happen overnight. We have depended too much for too long on the ‘he who has a friend has a sugar mill’ mantra and I do not think that we will see it overturned just like that. So patience is paramount and so should be the drive to change our mentality. Small and medium private enterprises should be encouraged. The one-party system should be eliminated. And free elections held where everyone has their say.

I have not mentioned the US embargo and its negative influence over Cuba because that, too, is a hot issue. I do believe that given the chance to attack the Caribbean nation, our northern neighbours would not hesitate to do so. Anyone thinking otherwise should go back to his or her history books and read what happened in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I still remember US planes flying overhead when I was younger. Government propaganda or not, it is the gospel truth that the US wants a piece of Cuba and as we now head into another phase of our country’s social, political and economic development we need to remain alert to what happens around us.

So what now?

I hope there is no bloodshed, I yearn for a democratic opening on the island, even if it takes some time and above all I would like Cubans to remember that in times when many nations in Europe and North America use hyphenated nouns to label the various ethnic minority groups that make up their polities, our main identity marker is still being Cuban. As Ol’ Blue Eyes sang it: when there was doubt/I ate it up and spit it out/I faced it all and I stood tall/ and did it my way.

Copyright 2008

The Fidel I Knew (Finale: Presto)

In 1988, amongst the many events that left a mark on my life as a seventeen-year-old college student, one stood out the most. That was the year that I enrolled in the MTT (Territorial Troops Militias). I say enrol, but it is only fair to say that I was almost coerced to join in, as I was one of the few pupils who was not already part of the Youth Communist League in my class. However, it is also fair to say that being a male adolescent full of hormones wreaking havoc inside my body I was looking forward to the military challenge that this opportunity presented. Little did I know what was in store for me.

The MTT, as a body, was a branch of the Cuban Armed Forces, and it was supposed to be a voluntary, selective and territorial movement whose main function was to assist in the defence of the country. As a new member of this organisation I had to go out training some Sundays with a whole brigade made up of elderly people, other students, workers and women. Women represented half the force of the MTT. I must admit that I never felt daunted by any of the tasks demanded of me, which included, shooting, digging trenches, and crawling under barbed wire.

1989 found me fretting over my university admission exams. The rules had just been changed the school year before which meant that it was no longer on academic average that one could opt to go to further education. We had to sit three tests in order to progress and since one of them was Maths, I was not sure anymore whether I would get the course I wanted.

All that was put aside when I was told that I would be part of the barrier guarding one of the roads during the May Day March. I would be part of the MTT division that would rope 37th Street off. And as a bonus I would get to see Fidel’s motorcade filing by. I could not wait to get into my green olive trousers and blue shirt, the MTT official uniform.

In 1989, despite some doubts already seeping in, I was still a true believer of the Revolution. Inside me I yearned to belong to the Youth Communist League and got very upset when I was rejected on the grounds that I was not ‘combative’ enough. Which meant, in short, that I did not grass people up. So, when the opportunity arose to serve my country and to see up close and personal the leader of the Revolution my little young heart started jumping up and down.

The day arrived and we all gathered on Paseo Avenue and Zapata Street, two of Havana’s main arteries. We were split into little groups with a leader. Mine was a man who had served in Angola and had plenty of military experience under his belt. His voice was firm but reassuring. At around 12pm we were assigned our posts.

Because the May Day March usually began very early, people would come from afar in the designated means of transportation. Sometimes they would choose their own. Buses would be diverted and traffic would become chaotic. All this far from creating a negative atmosphere made the people come together even more.

By the time the leader pointed at the spot I would be guarding, it was past midday and I had missed the chance to use the toilet. This was a problem. A couple of years before I had been diagnosed with kidney infection and the doctor recommended that I take as much liquid as I could. The year after, the infection attacked again and our GP was even sterner, warning me that failure to follow his orders would have dire consequences. As his words replayed in my mind now, my bladder decided to play up and all the liquid I had drunk before (roughly a bottle of water) demanded that it be let out.

Soon after, hysterical waves of ‘Fidel! Fidel!’ roared from the north of Revolution Square. My mind had been too occupied with the thought of liquid evacuation to realise that our president was about to pass in an open car. All of a sudden ear-piercing shouting burst out all around me ‘Long live Fidel! Long live Fidel!’ Passers-by in front of me stood up and jumped in delirious excitement, their raised hands waving frenetically little Cuban flags. I, too, joined in, but more from the desperation to keep my body in motion and thus not wet my trousers than just from mere elation at seeing the leader of my country.

What followed after could only be described as agony. Fidel was already famous for his long speeches, which could last several hours, and as my condition worsened, his enthusiasm to talk grew. Thus, more than three hours passed. I was almost bent over and my eyes were watered. Our leader came over to check our position a few times and to make sure that we were not letting any strangers through. When he saw me in my miserable state he asked me what the matter was. After giving him a short explanation, he shrugged his shoulders and told me that since the speech was about to wrap up any time soon, I had better wait it out. He mentioned the words patience, revolutionary duty and courage. A mental image came to my head of a broken urinal on someone’s head.

Finally at around 4pm Fidel said five magic words that have forever stayed with me: This is my last reflection. That was it! I thought and so I decided to hold my urine a tad bit more because soon I would be free and could you believe it, I had already my eye on a little bush nearby. Forget toilets, let’s go tribal.

It turned out that Fidel’s last reflection was a red herring. True to his word, though, it was indeed his last reflection, but it lasted two more hours. And at around 6pm, as the din of the attending masses drowned the noise coming from the coaches and trucks in the vicinity revving up their engines in order to set off, I looked behind, looked again to the front, looked back once more and made off to the bush I had paid so much attention to before. I would like to think that the plants I watered so contentedly then went on to become beautiful flowers.

That was the only time I saw El Comandante so close but it was rather my bladder’s stoic resilience that I have always remembered this occasion for.

© 2008

Monday, 18 February 2008

Road Songs (1st Mov 'Grave', 2nd Mov 'Allegreto')

In his 1993 film 'Falling Down', US director Joel Schumacher uses Michael Douglas' character, Williams 'D-Fens' Foster, as a parable to illustrate the pressure cooker American society has become. In the movie, Foster, desperate to get home to celebrate his daughter's birthday finds himself in a traffic jam. As incident after incident start to pile up, so Forster's patience begins to wear thin. Until he reaches his boiling point. And he snaps. And the consequences, as those who have seen the picture know, are not pretty.

Moral tale apart, it is very clear in the movie that Williams has succumbed to the road rage syndrome. This condition is defined as 'a fit of violent anger by the driver of an automobile, esp. one directed toward and endangering other motorists or pedestrians.' Although I have never been affected by this phenomenon (touch wood), nor have I been at the receiving end of someone's verbal or physical abuse as a consequence of road rage, I am wary of if. That's one of the reasons why I always have a bag full of CDs with me, both on short and long journeys in case I suddenly find myself inadvertently in that dangerous and maddening traffic jam.

Recently, after teaching an Afro-Cuban dance masterclass at The Basement in Islington, as a guest teacher at Damarys Farres' Cuban dance course, I gave a lift to a former dancer of Havana University Folklore Company, Ariel Rios. After dropping him off across Manor House tube station I took a left turn to get to Turnpike Lane and immediately realised my mistake. With dread I watched as the traffic stretched for what looked like miles on end. And it was not moving one single inch.

Luckily, I had my CD bag with me.

It was an unusual warm October evening and whilst the cars in front of me moved slower than a couple of turtles doing the 'danzon', I had my window rolled down and Ray Barreto and his Orchestra singing 'Te Traigo Guajira' on the car stereo. Pure bliss.

What follows are some of my suggestions to combat the first signs of road rage. You know: the frustration at seeing the standstill on the street ahead, the anger at vehicles cutting in in front of you, despair when pedestrians cross the road carelessly. Just take a deep breath and allow those nice melodies to seep in and stroke your senses. And make sure that none of those tunes IS 'Road Rage' by Catatonia.

Copyight 2008

Road Songs (Gabriel Rios - Broad Day Light)

This is a funky, sultry, singalong track that makes want to get out of the car and start dancing on top of it as they do in the movie 'Fame'. Stylish.

Road Songs (Pulp - Common People)

I love the way the guitar kicks in alongside the bass guitar. And his voice carries that typical northern English 'in-your-face' attitude. Classic.

Road Songs (Jill Scott "A Long Walk" )

What I love about this song is Jill's carefree approach. Pretty much like mine when faced with a long queue of cars in front of me and no way out. Mind-blowing.

Road Songs (Elis Regina, Águas de Março)

And when people are yelling at each other outside and hate seems to be taking over the world, think of the end of summer in Brazil as the Waters of March mark the beginning of autumn and think of Elis' voice dripping down your throat like pure honey. Brilliant.

Road Songs ("Por siete vidas (Cacería) - Fito Páez )

Fito at his best. The percussion and keyboards render the song a nuanced funky beat. Masterful.

Road Songs (Adagio in G minor)

This is the icing on this musical cake. When you are listening to this piece, the world could be collapsing outside whilst inside your armoured road fortress, you are just soaking up the beauty of this timeless melody. Majestic.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Mahmoud Darwish: As the Land is the Language

Sonnet I

If you are the last of what god told me, be
the pronoun revealed to double the "I". Blessedness is ours
now that almond trees have illuminated the footprints of passersby, here
on your banks, where above you grouse and doves flutter

With a gazelle's horn you stabbed the sky, then words flowed
like dew in nature's veins. What a poem's name
before the duality of creation and truth, between the faraway sky
and your cedar bed, when blood longs for blood, and marble arches?

A myth will need to sunbathe around you. This crowdedness,
these gods of Egypt and Sumer under the palm trees change their dresses
and their days' names, and complete their journey to the end of rhyme...

And my song needs to breathe: poetry isn't poetry
and prose isn't prose. I dreamt that you are the last of what god told me
when I saw you both in my sleep, then there were words...

In his translator's preface of 'The Butterfly's Burden', Fady Joudah points out that when 'The Stranger's Bed', Mahmud Darwish's first bok of love appeared many readers felt ambivalent about it. It seems to me that that is the price many writers committed to a political cause tend to pay. Audiences, whether involved in the same struggle or not, could feel alienated, or worse, they might feel that their beloved political figure is going soft. But the reader should rest assured for there is nothing soft about the twenty-nine poems that make this volume. There is passion aplenty and longing for his beloved land. This is mixed with some of the more beautiful lines ever written by a living poet. Lines such as: 'If you are the last of what god told me/be
the pronoun revealed to double the "I"
where the desire to become one and only with the object of his affection is declared openly and unashamedly. Lines like: 'With a gazelle's horn you stabbed the sky/then words flowed like dew in nature's veins' whereby feelings gush out of the poet's soul baring the genesis of his poetry. These poems show that a writer's voice needn't inhabit just the political ether but the deepest realm of the senses, too.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Road Songs (Allegro)

In his remarkable novel, 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', Milan Kundera tells us how six fortuitous events brought Tereza and Tomas together. It was only a complex neurological case that led Tomas to Tereza's town, when he had to replace the chief surgeon at his hospital due to the latter suffering from sciatica. Although the town had several hotels, Tomas happened to end up at the one where Tereza was employed. He also happened to have enough time to kill before his train was due to depart, thus dropping by the restaurant where Tereza worked to have something to eat. Tereza happened to be working on that night and also happened to be serving Tomas' table.

The trivia game 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon' states that any actor can be linked through their film roles to the Hollywood star.

The Roman street system, based on the 'all roads lead to Rome' principle, aims at establishing a symmetrical system whereby most main avenues and roads will lead to a main point, easily recognisable to the motorist, pedestrian or cyclist.

Now, tell that to a Londoner.

Whereas in Havana most main streets will lead to El Malecón (seawall), based mainly on this Roman system adopted in most European countries and some in Latin America, in London, on the other hand, the road system seems to have been concocted to confuse the foreigner. Take the wrong turning and rather than heading for south London you'll end up in Canary Wharf in the eastern part of the city. Forget to check the A-Z before you set off and you will be contemplating endless one-way streets, multiple cul-de-sacs and mind-blowing round-abouts that will drive you nuts. What is it that makes it so hard to drive in London? The answer is that this city is the result of the union of two cities. So you can imagine how huge it is. And this aspect also renders London a marvellous place to drive in, contradictorily. Because when you do get it right, use your A-Z and as many shortcuts and back streets as you possibly can, you will end up with a succession of 'coincidences' like the ones featured in Kundera's novel and Bacon's game that will make your journey a pleasant and satisfying experience.
Music is like that sometimes. Certain artists' oeuvre can be analysed through the musicians they collaborate with, pretty much à la Bacon. The result is as eye-catching and stimulating as Tomas and Tereza's 'six coincidences.
For instance, Al Di Meola is an acoustic guitarist who has played with some of the greater performers ever. One of them was Paco de Lucia. Paco de Lucia has shared the stage with many musicians, one of them Larry Coryell, the brilliant jazz fusion guitarist. Larry Coryell has collaborated with people like Miles Davies, who used John McLoughlin's services on his album 'In A Silent Way'. John Mc Loughlin has played alongside Al Di Meola occasionally. We come back full circle.
And we also come to the end of the road this week. Or musical road I should say. The only reason why Tomas and Tereza died together was because six fortuitous incidents linked their lives forever. Kevin Bacon continues to be an extraordinary actor, 'six degrees' theory notwithstanding, most main roads, at least in Havana, still lead to Rome, or El Malecón for that matter, and in London, sometimes streets will not drive you round the bend, because you will happen to find the important left turning before it is too late.
Copyright 2008

Road Songs - Paco De Lucia , John McLaughlin , Al Di Meola

It was Al who started all this malarkey. But who wants it to stop? Masterful.

Road Songs - Larry Coryell and Paco de Lucia

The 'coincidences' continue and I keep my eyes on the road so as not to miss my way. Passionate.

Road Songs - Miles Davis - So What(1964)

The last link in this chain of 'coincidences'. Superb.

Mahmoud Darwish: As the Land is the Language

I Come From There
I come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.
I come from there.
I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland.....
An exile's anthem is made of past images, present uncertainties and future hopes. The exile does not always migrate willingly. Sometimes they are forced to. And sometimes they are forced by 'swords that turned their lands into a laden table'. Their memory becomes a slideshow of mementos from their beloved land. And each keepsake bears the image of 'the bounty of birds and the immortal olive tree'.
Mahmud Darwish: As the Land is the Language. Dir: Simone Bitton & Elias Sanbar. 60 mins, Israel/France 1998. Documentary on the famous Palestinian poet, his life and works. Q&A after the screening with a panel of specialists.
The ArtsZone,
54 - 56 Market Square,
N9 0TZ
Wednesday 27th February.
This film is part of "Women's Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran" festival.
7pm (doors will open at 6.30pm)
Box office number 020 8 887 9500
Admission: £5/£4 concs
(OAPs, students, people on benefits and disabled people, proof of ID required).
Early Bird Discount: Book before Wednesday 13th February and pay only £3
For more info click here

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Moderato)

Son: La maestra se dio a nosotros una tarea difícil (The teacher gave 'herself' a difficult homework to us)

Me: Don't say 'se', just say 'nos dio' and drop the 'nosotros'.

Reflexive verbs are a delicate subject for Spanish speakers, so I can only imagine what a nightmare they are for learners of Cervantes' language. There are countless situations where we say: 'Díceselo' (tell him/her) rather than 'Dícelo'. My favourite one is 'Me comí toda la comida' (I ate all my food) where the reflexive pronoun overwrites the transitive character of the verb 'to eat' in Spanish.

This bad use of grammar, of which I am also a culprit, can only be attributed to an oral language that more and more relies on shortcuts, speed and abbreviations. In the case of the Spanish language, the only analogy I can find is the use of the famous 'Partikeln' in German.

Partikeln are words that do not have a proper function in the same way as a verb or adjective, yet render the speech richer and give the text a more nuanced make-up. You can find anything between five and fourteen Partikeln in a given sentence in German and this is devastating for those of us who have found ourselves dealing with the Teutonic language as we blindly believe that there must be a hidden meaning in these words, otherwise why would anyone go to the trouble of lining them up in a sentence?

In English, although the situation is not as dire as in the two aforementioned languages, there are complications with the use of 'self'. These arise from a desire to sound at times a bit more cultured and learned than usual and the consequences are risible as in 'Myself and two others friends went to the cinema last night. From my grammar lessons in Uni I always thought that the correct way was 'Two friends and I...'.

It is amazing that Son and Daughter have not encountered as many difficulties dealing with the terrifying subjunctive mood as with reflexive verbs. This would probably go some way to explain why Wife and I have such a terrible time reminding Son to wash himself in the mornings...
Copyright 2008

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Road Songs (Allegro)

Open the front of a car and show me its insides and I will be legging it before you can say 'valve'. There is nothing more daunting and scary than that labyrinth of cables, pistons and plugs. Just before my third attempt to pass my driving test my instructor and I had a little run-through the various car parts I would be questioned on by my examiner. I am sorry to disappoint you my dear fellow bloggers, readers and posters, but I failed really badly.

Luckily I managed to scrape through on this subject in the actual test and was flunked twice in a row on my poor driving rather than on knowing when I needed to check the car oil.

And yet, this whole maze of tiny, medium and gigantic parts fascinates me no end. It is amazing to me how the combination of all these different components work together to move your car forwards or backwards, accelerate or slow down.

Sometimes music works in the same way. Certain combinations defy logic and go beyond our understanding.

Take my first example. On the one hand hand you have not only Nigeria's social conscience, but Africa's singing warrior. A thorn on the side of the corrupt government that ruled that West African nation for many years, Fela Kuti became a musical icon to many people around the world. His songs had difficult and complex arrangements and were heavy on the use of trombones, saxophones and trumpets. On the other hand you have 'l'enfant terrible' of prog-rock, Mr Ian Anderson, he of English band Jethro Tull, whose complicated and poetic lyrics delighted those of us who came to them via other groups from the same era: Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Genesis. The result is an intrinsic, comprehensive and mind-blowing collaboration between these two musicians which resembles the inner world of a car. Masterful.

My second offer is a mélange of blues, country and rock, and just like pistons and valves working together inside a vehicle, these various rhythms have a nice, funky beat going on that makes want to get up on my feet and dance with total abandon. I discovered The Audreys via Radio Paradise, the online radio station that should be a blueprint for wanna-be radio stations everywhere. Groovy.

Number three song this weeks brings what is normally called a chanteuse. She is a cross between a busker (which she has done after eloping to Europe following the success of ther debut album, strange way to celebrate, ain't it?), a jazz singer and troubadour. Madeleine Peyroux is not your traditional singer and her voice smacks of a throaty, powerful engine revving up nicely as all the different components conjure up their magic to make the car move. Smoky.

Finally this song is living proof that music is cyclical. Salsa is rooted mainly in son, a hybrid between African rhythms and their Spanish counterparts. And as the following track shows Orchestra Baobab took it back where it came from and transformed it into an African song with Latin undertones. Compelling.

And this is all for this week. In the meantime I am still trying to work out what to do when going on a long journey. What's the requirement my tyres must meet before I set off again?

Copyright 2008

Road Songs (Ian Anderson/Jack Bruce/Fela Kuti: African Jam Session 1983)

What can I say? Open a car and take out all the parts, examine them, learn them by heart, put them all back in, close the lid and drive off. This is smokingly fab.

Road Songs (The Audreys-Oh Honey)

Pure, unadulturated pleasure. One of my must-have albums this year.

Road Songs (Madeleine Peyroux - I'm All Right)

The lady's all right, don't you worry. Her voice is magnificent.

Road Songs (Orchestra Baobab Live, Hutru Horas)

Africa went to America, America comes back to Africa. Music and culture by default is cyclical. We are all one.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (1st Mov Vivace/ 2nd Mov Grave)

French arrived in my life in the autumn of 1994. I know that the title of this column deals only with the Spanish-English daily goings-on of my existence as an immigrant in the UK but please bear with me on this one. French and German have been two faithful companions for many years and although lately they have fallen by the wayside on account of me living in Blighty now, the truth is that when I recently picked up a novel in the Gallic language the rapport was immediate and it felt as if that lexicon had still been with me all these years.

Pierre et Jean had been given to me as a gift aeons ago by a Frenchman I had to translate for when he visited the Havana University Folkloric Ensemble in 1994. By then I had already done four months of an intensive course on French and my teacher had turned out to be so good that already I could hold a conversation in that difficult European language. For some reason or other the book lay unopened for a long time until I came to live in Britain. And all these years I was completely oblivious to this little gem that was tucked away in my bookshelf.

This is a novel that could very well fall into the psychological genre. Two brothers, Pierre and Jean live with their parents in L'Havre, Normandy. One day they receive a piece of news that will alter their lives forever and put a chain of events in motion that will test their loyalty towards one another. One of his father's friends has died leaving Jean, the younger sibling, as the sole heir to his fortune. Pierre, on hearing this news, is taken aback, for he was also acquainted with the late fellow and cannot understand why he has been left out. Little by little the plot unveils surprises for the reader that Maupassant, very expertly, distributes evenly throughout the book.
When I was still at the French Alliance in Havana I got into the habit of reading in French. It could be magazines like Cahiers du Cinema or books like 'L'Etranger' by Albert Camus. The truth is that I developed a taste for reading in this language that is so close to my native Spanish.
And therein lies the fun: the language. Take this example. Pierre has just paid a visit to a young woman who works in a cafe and who is very keen on him. On learning that Jean has inherited such a vast fortune whilst Pierre has been ignored, she, very innocently, mentions en passant that that could be the reason why the two brothers do not look alike, Pierre is dark-skinned whilst Jean is blond. Pierre's reaction is to confront the woman trying to find out what she means but her explanation does not yield a deeper response. Here is what Pierre thinks as he leaves the cafe (apologies for the lack of French accents. My keyboard cannot produce them).
'Qu'avait-elle pense? Qu'avait-elle sous-entendu dans ces mots! Certes il y avait la une malice, une mechancete, une infamie. Oui, cette fille avait du croire que Jean etait le fils de Marechal(his father's late friend).
L'emotion qu'il ressentit a l'idee de ce soupcon jete sur sa mere fut si violent qu'il s'arreta et qu'il chercha de l'oeil un endroit pour s'asseoir.'
Thus begins a mental process that torments Pierre for the next two quarters of the book. As the tension rises, the language acquires a colourful and mournful tone. Here is another example after he sets off for the harbour and watches the people coming and going:
'Mais tout a coup, comme s'il s'eveillait, il les apercut distinctement; et une haine surgit en lui contre eux, car ils semblaient heureux et contents'.
The very confession Pierre makes to himself about feeling hateful towards people he runs into in the harbour acts as a preamble for the last scene where he confronts his own brother with what now looks like the truth. His mother slept with Marechal behind his father's back and begot a son by him. His fury and despondency send him off on a cruise to The United States of America
Linguistically, Pierre et Jean is a long collage of adjectives and metaphores that describe the Normandy of mid-19th century in great detail. Possibly influenced by the impressionist movement that was already making waves in these years, the novel is a long brushstroke with undefined contours. Each character is nuanced and the language serves to reinforce this.
All in all, my experience of going back to French was like bumping into an old friend. After the initial euphoria, the long-lasting embrace and the warm words, you realise that their essence is the same, and the core is the same core that attracted you to them all those many years ago. And then you smile.
Copyright 2008

Monday, 4 February 2008

Mahmoud Darwish: As the Land is the Language

Identity Card

I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks...
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself
at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.

My father..
descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house
is like a watchman's hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title !

I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards
of my ancestors
And the land
which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Record on the top of the first page:
I do not hate peopleNor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper's flesh will be my food
Beware..Of my hunger
And my anger !

You could be mistaken for thinking that the author of this poem is yelling at his listener. No, he is not, he is merely stating staunchingly what sets him apart from the rest. He is reclaiming his space on this planet in the same way oppressed people have always done, firmly and looking into the oppressor's eyes as they talk to them. Far from agreeing to be treated like a native of Lilliput, Mahmoud grows in stature and cadence and as the poem reaches its finale, we are under no suspicion that the writer is not only proud to be an Arab but that his interlocutor would be out of his mind to think that Mr Darwish could ever consider another denouement. The questions he asks in the first two stanzas serve to reinforce the idea of him as a run-of-the-mill human being and yet why is his interrogator so angry? Is he angry at him for being human or for being an Arab? If it is the former, that means that the anonymous person hates us all, and that means to me that Mahmoud does not so much have a specific nationality or religion in mind (Jewish or Christian) but a specific status: power. If it is the latter, then, he reminds his tormentor that you can only repress for so long before anger swells up and explodes. He uses the old Gandhian gambit of showing the oppressor their own humanity so that they feel embarrassed of their own excesses should they ever set out to annihilate others. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, it doesn't. Like in Bosnia, or Palestine.

Thanks Mahmoud for giving the oppressed's voice a poem.

Mahmud Darwish: As the Land is the Language. Dir: Simone Bitton & Elias Sanbar. 60 mins, Israel/France 1998. Documentary on the famous Palestinian poet, his life and works. Q&A after the screening with a panel of specialists.
The ArtsZone,
54 - 56 Market Square,
N9 0TZ
Wednesday 27th February

This film is part of "Women's Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran" festival.
7pm (doors will open at 6.30pm)
Box office number 020 8 887 9500
Admission: £5/£4 concs
(OAPs, students, people on benefits and disabled people, proof of ID required).
Early Bird Discount: Book before Wednesday 13th February and pay only £3
For more info click here


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