Monday, 30 June 2008

Killer Opening Songs (D'Angelo's Brown Sugar)

Killer Opening Song: Composition at the beginning of an album whose aim is to make a strong and vivid impression on the listener, thus encouraging him/her to continue to listen to the record until the end.

As many fellow bloggers know by now I am passionate about music and it was this devotion that led me to analyse the whole rationale behind the first track of an album. Whichever song gets delegated this task will know that upon its tiny musical shoulders lies the weight of the whole record.

Unfair, you might say. After all, aren't the second, third and subsequent pieces equally responsible? Hmmm... not in the world of pop and rock. And by the way I must make a quick note here. There will not be 'world music' sections on this blog, to me music is music, pop is pop and rock is rock, no matter which part of the world it comes from. End of the note.

Where were we? Ah yes, responsibility. Without having any facts or figures to back my argument up, I dare say that more often than not the first single that gets released from an album is also the first song of the record and usually (but not always) the most successful. Famous singles attest to that fact. Queen released 'We Will Rock You' in 1977 and it immediately became a worldwide hit, even making it to the sports arena. 'Tom's Diner' by Suzanne Vega was one of my favourite top tunes in my second year in Uni in 1990 (I know, the album came out in 1987, but this was Cuba in the late 80s and early 90s, we used to get music a few years behind already) and alongside 'Luka' turned the demure singer-songwriter into a well-known brand. 'El Amor Después del Amor' by Fito Paez was a massive hit in Latin America. The list is endless.

I would like to kick this new column off with a song that I loved when I first heard it and that I still adore years later. And as I was playing it today on my CD player on my way to work I could not help thinking about the strange and surreal scenario I found myself in. You see, after five years working for a local arts organisation, today was my last day. And yet, today I chose to start my day with a song whose lyrics read 'Oh Sugar when you're close to me/You love me right down to my knees/And whenever you let me hit it/Sweet like the honey when it comes to me/Skin is caramel with those cocoa eyes/Even got a big sister by the name of Chocolate Thai'. But that's Killer Opening Songs for you. They finish you off and leave you lying down on the pavement.

D'Angelo: 'Brown Sugar'

Copyright 2008

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Road Songs (Vivace)

This is the third and final instalment in this three part-series. Basically it is about how good female drivers are (yes, they are, stop rolling your eyes, please!) and how a lot of female musicians break down barriers and conventions without having to resort to short skirts and bikinis.

For the first and second parts, click here and here.

Even someone like me, who enjoyed the whole 'Age Ain't Nothing But a Number' album when it first came out, was surprised by the success of the single 'Try Again' when it was released. Aaliyah was an all-round performer and master (or is that mistress?) of her own destiny. An untimely death did not allow us to taste what should have been the best of a brilliant music career. Nostalgic.

Monica Molina has what is commonly known as pedigree. She is the daughter of the famous flamenco singer Antonio Molina and her sister is actress Angela Molina. However she has made it in the difficult world of Spanish pop with a very peculiar voice and very poetic compositions. Mellow.

Punchy, defiant and in-your-face. That's how I describe Tori Amos. I like the way she bashes those black and white keys in wild abandon. Her voice teems with self-confidence and bravado. Challenging.

Cesaria Evora. Sodade. That's all. If you don't know what I mean by that, you should be tried for crimes against music. Cesaria Evora. Sodade. That. Is. All. Majestic.

I'm taking my freedom/Pulling it off the shelf/Putting it on my chain/Wear it around my neck/I'm taking my freedom/Putting it in my car/Wherever I choose to go/It will take me far. Anyone who sings those lines, has my utmost R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Jill Scott is imposing, and this is not due to her size or weight, but on account of her vocal prowess and yes-I-can attitude. Smashing.

Lhasa de Sela is a very unusual singer (but then again, this is a very unusual blog). The way she sings is ever so tender and affectionate. In this particular song she says the words in French first and then carries on in Spanish. Mesmerising.

Les Nubians were one of the pioneers of the so-called Afropean genre. Born in France, they left for Chad and lived there for seven years, returning to Europe after. Their sound is hard to pin down. Enjoyable.

Last but not least comes Yasmin Levy, an exponent of what is called Ladino music, a mix of Spanish and Jewish music. Ladino culture has survived hundreds of years and Yasmin's voice is testimony to the resilience of its members. Gigantic.

Copyright 2008

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Lento)

- Papi, can you give me 'that'?
- Pardon?
- Can you give me 'that'?
- Can I give you 'what' exactly?
- Can you give me 'that' to put it inside 'this'?
- I don't understand, nena.
- Hmmm... Can you give me that jumper to put it inside this basket?
- Ahhh, that I DO understand!

It is a problem, really. It is not just Daughter who indulges in this practice. Son is also keen to use demonstrative pronouns when he should be using proper nouns instead. And they do it both in English and Spanish, so really I should not feel too hard done by.

Well, actually, I do. I don't like linguistic laziness and it is a fact that once you go down the road of economising language it is very likely that you will drive through all the stop signs that come your way without paying hardly any attention to them at all. I understand that sometimes Son and Daughter are physically knackered, their energies completely spent after countless hours engaging both brawn and brains, but even so, simple words like 'jumper' and 'basket' should never go AWOL in a person's conversation.

Because they're both learning Spanish and it will be obviously a lifetime process (I am still getting to grips with English after all these years), I do give them some leeway occasionally, especially with words they don't know. But when I am in my Cruella de Vil mood, I make them both go up to Son's room where the two Spanish dictionaries are kept, in order to look up the word or words they want to use.

But then again, Daughter always knew what 'jumper' and 'basket' were.

Copyright 2008

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Road Songs (Vivace) 2nd Part

This is the second instalment in this three-part series 'Female Drivers and Female Musicians'. To read the first post, click here

Kristin Hersh is probably every marketing person's nightmare. How do you sell someone who breaks so many boundaries? For starters, there's the voice. Good, but hard to decipher. Then, there're the lyrics. Powerful and passionate, yet intrinsic. After that comes the style. Pop? Folk? Rock? I believe it is good pop, good as in Sinead O' Connor good, The Cranberries good, George Michael good. She exudes good quality and that is why she is here. Yes, and the guy on the video is REM lead singer Michael Stipe, yes, and I know that this is a post that is trying to highlight the pluses of female drivers and musicians. But, I think that Michael can remain there in the background, as part of the furniture. He is not bothering Kristin. Magnetic.

The second track is by Pavel Urquiza, yes, he of Gema and Pavel. This song is performed by Yusa, a singer I saw a couple of times at the Cafe Cantante in Havana, Cuba, many years ago and who, I am so pleased to see, has met with success in Europe. Like Kristin, Yusa is hard to label. I have got her album 'Breathe' and it's a powerhouse of various styles and musical lingoes. Excellent.

Banned by the Brazilian dictatorship in the 70s, 'Calice' became an anthem for its creator, Chico Buarque and my favourite song of his extensive repertoire. There's a video on youtube where both Chico and Milton Nascimento are pretending to sing the song whilst not really saying the words. Maria Bethania 'lives' this song through and through and it's such a powerful sight to see her holding the mike whilst her throaty voice utters the words 'Afasta de mim ese calice, pai' (Put that goblet away from me, land). The goblet is full of blood. Heartfelt.

The last track this week comes courtesy of the Camerata Romeu which I used to follow around in Havana. No, I am not a stalker. I just think that they produce some of the most beautiful music you can ever come across. On this occasion they have Polly Ferman on piano and the Camerata Romeu is accompanying her. Readers and fellow bloggers will probably remember the song by Mercedes Sosa many years ago and I have that version, too, on CD. I love the delicacy of this cover version, though. Tender.

Copyrigth 2008

Friday, 20 June 2008

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...

Some of the most popular dishes in Cuba involve the red and black varities of kidney bean. The red kidney bean, usually called 'colora'o' has a buttery flavour. Its counterpart, the black one, is usually cooked with white rice.

When my mother was here in the UK five years ago I helped her make black bean soup. I write 'help', but I was as much of a nuisance to her as a mosquito is when buzzing close to one's ear at night. So, technically speaking I have never prepared this dish on my own. But that doesn't mean that I won't in the near future. Yes, I am cheating. Slightly.

Anyway, Black Bean Soup, ladies and gents.

450g (1lb) dried black beans, soaked overnight
2 bay leaves
175ml (6 fl oz) olive oil
1 sweet red bell pepper, seeded and chopped coarsely
1 sweet green bell pepper, seeded and chopped coarsely
4 shallots, sliced finely
2 tbs fresh, finely chopped coriander
5 pints of water
juice of 3 oranges (what we call 'naranja agria' in Spanish, I have never seen it in the UK)
juice of 1 lime
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 small onion, sliced fine
1 tbs white rum (optional)
1 tbs sherry (optional)
pinch of salt
1 tbs dried oregano
¼ tsp ground cumin
½ tbs fresh root gingr, finely chopped
1 ½ tbs soft brown sugar (optional. Or if you're from Camagüey)

Boil the beans in the water with the bay leaves. Reduce to simmer, and cook for 3 1/2 hours until tender. Sauté the shallots, peppers, ginger and garlic in the oil. When tender, add the coriander and sugar. Fry for 30 seconds. Add lime and orange juice, rum, sherry, oregano and cumin. Cook for 2 minutes and salt. Remove bay leaves from beans and add sautéed mixture to beans. Stir and serve hot.

Taken from Classic Cuban Cookery by Andy Gravette, published by fusion press.

Now, I like my music to have the same flavour as my black beans, so that's why I have selected a playlist that reflects my culinary tastes. Important note: the tracks will start playing automatically, and if you don't fancy one, you can always fast-forward or rewind to another, just like a normal stereo.

Jazzyfatnastess - 'Show Your Face' (Live) (very rare performance by one of the better jazz and soul duets I have seen in years).

Fiona Apple - 'Sleep to Dream' (Live). This is a beauty and I love Fiona's voice.

Juan Luis Guerra - 'La Bilirrubina' (Live). Who can keep quiet with this upbeat tune? 'Quisiera Ser Un Pez' (Live). It brings back memories of my uni days, powerful lyrics.

Bob Marley - 'No Woman, No Cry' (Live). The great Bob, a great tune for a great dish.

Ojos de Brujo - 'Sultanas de Merkaillo' (Live on Jools Holland). Excellent performance by the Spanish flamenco troupe.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Allegretto Grazioso)

- Is there a war in Spain?

I chuckled. It was Daughter who had asked the question. And she could have been forgiven for thinking that a conflict had just broken out in the European nation. I was talking to Son, Wife and Daughter about the recent rivalry between activist groups in support of the Spanish language and a minuscule bevy of regionalists bent on using la lengua as a political weapon.

The issue seems to come from the promotion of autonomous tongues since Franco's death in 1975. Now it appears that what at first looked like a good idea, the proliferation of Spain's other 'official' languages, will end up being a case of Brutus (autonomous lingoes) to Spanish language Caesar, the default lingua franca of roughly 330 million speakers worldwide.

Son was amused at the idea that one day we might go to Spain and not understand what is being said to us (Spanishless Spain anyone?). We usually travel to Granada, Andalucía, and many people there speak Catalán as they travel down from nearby Barcelona. That would not be the first time, though. In 1998 Wife, Son and I (Daughter had not been born yet) went to the Basque Country. We had a lovely stay in a friend's house and I found Basque people ever so warm and friendly (especially on learning I was Cuban) but when it came to some of the street signs, conversations I overheard onthe street and some television channels, I must admit I was floored. The Basque language looks and sounds like no other. And after the repression led by Franco that all but annihilated autonomous tongues in Spain, I guess some people feel it's payback time. The question is, who benefits from the disappearance of Spanish as the language we, Spanish speakers the world over, recognise and communicate in? And will the language evolve to include words from Spanish into these three 'official' languages and viceversa?

In principle I ought to be in agreement with the existence of bilingual schools in the Basque Country, for instance. I insist on speaking Spanish at home, I support bilingualism (or multilingualism), no matter whether the second lengua is a modern language or not, I disagreed vehemently with the elimination of compulsory teaching of foreign languages at secondary level in schools in Britain. Yet, what makes me a little wary of this whole brouhaha is the fact that one or two, or even three languages could attempt to wrest linguistic control from the Spanish education system, thus, alienating not only the natives in the madre patria, but also the Spanish-speaking community abroad.

I hope that neither Son, nor Daughter, nor Wife, nor I have to attend a crash-course on Euskeda or Catalán before we head off to the mountains of Sierra Nevada next time we travel to Spain.
So, a lo cortico, Spanishless Spain anyone?
Copyright 2008

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mine Were Reading Perfection (Negro Spiritual)

Aged five and bedridden I was given my favourite present ever.

No, it was not a new fabulous train set for Christmas. I am Cuban, we did not celebate Christmas in those days (1976). It was not a bicycle either. That came afterwards. It was definitely not a 'King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table' set with plastic figures; a toy I so much coveted after seeing one in my mate's house.

No, the best gift anyone has ever bequeathed me was to teach me how to read and write, especially the former. True, it was in a hospital, I had just fallen ill with the condition that was to accompany me for most of my childhood and part of my teenage years, chronic gastritis, but the seriousness of the disease was offset by the enjoyment of learning how to read my first words. And it was my mother whom I owe this pleasure.

So, when now at the ripe age of thirty-six I read a book like 'Their Eyes Were Watching God', I say to myself: Thanks, Mum, thank you very much indeed.

Because Zola Neale Hurston's famous novel is a joy to read. Please, reader, understand that this pleasure does not derive from any literary sadism or voyeurism exercised by yours truly. Other people's suffering is as much a pain for me to behold as my own one. It is Zola's writing style that brings these people's calvary so close to home and it is her mix of the literate narrator's voice with the highly idomatic black one that captivates me. You, reader, could be forgiven for thinking that I was under a spell whilst reading 'Their Eyes Were Watching God'. And you would be right.

The book centres on four characters, although, it is only two who take up more than two thirds of the story. Janie Mae Crawford, a black woman with straight, Caucasian-like hair who defies gender stereotypes by insisting on her own independence and wearing men's dungarees. Tea Cake, Janie's third husband and real love, who is twelve years her junior and who, from the first moment they meet, impresses her with his wit and energy. A third character, Jody Starks, forays into the novel early on and takes up about fifty pages of the book, during which time he marries Janie, takes over nearby town Eatonville, thus, becoming its mayor and satisfies his political ambition. Crawford's first husband, Logan Killicks, is the fourth character. He offers her the financial security Janie's Nanny seeks to secure for her granddaughter. Other characters pop in and out of the narrative throughout the 193-page literary journey, enriching the story as they interact with the four personages or with each other.

To me the main strength 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' (TEWWG) has is the use of an autonomous imagination, where the narrative of the novel shifts from third to a blend of first and third person. This points at a total identification with the main character, Janie Mae Crawford, on the author's part. And it is in the voicing of this woman's innermost feelings and emotions where Hurston is more successful. Whereas usually African-American fiction arrives shrouded in a large political discourse, TEWWG comes with no baggage other than the tale of a woman fighting for her own independence but without naming the process she's involved in. It could be said and it has already been mentioned, not least by academic and scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr, that TEWWG is a feminist novel and Janie an 'accidental feminist'. In her understanding of the reasons why black folks gossip about her when she returns to the town she left a few years before with Tea Cake, Janie shows a maturity that belies her second-class citizen status. It's the same status, her second husband, Jody Starks, exploits to the maximum in his treatement of Janie as an object rather than as a person. And lest we forget, let us just recall that Janie is not just up against her husbands (especially the first two), but also against her own ethnic group's mentality, against white people and against society as a whole. In his thought-provoking book 'Sex and Racism', Calvin C. Hernton comes up with a hierarchy in US society where white men occupy the top position, whilst the lower echelons are taken up by white women, black men and black women in that order. TEWWG is a good example of this.

The other strength of the novel lies in the use of language. As I attested at the beginning of this review, reading is a pleasure to me. More so when I come across books that make feel as if I have discovered language for the first time. TEWWG is one of those books. Hurston's poetic prose is unbridled and unadulturated. Throughout the novel I felt that here was an author who was not afraid to write because she was not afraid to live and it was that zest for life that most endeared to me. Sentences like 'Every morning the world flung itself over and exposed the town to the sun' are written with such literary bravado that one can't help but consume them slowly, letting each word slide down one's throat.

The issues of race and racism have a more natural and fluid feel in this novel than in many others by African-American authors where the approach is more black and white (no pun intended, although on second thoughts...). Through the interaction of the numerous characters in the book (both leading and supporting), we become acquainted with the lives of these folks, their dreams, their shortcomings (Tea Cake, Janie's true love, beats her once, thus showing his own weakness and fallibility), their disappointments and their achievements (Jody Starks, Janie's second husband, rallies the residents of Eatonville to improve the town's conditions, with excellent results). Above all, black people are presented as human beings and not as socio-political victims. The few times when politics rears its ugly head (for instance, the discussion between Janie and Mrs Turner about Booker T Washington does not amount to more than a few lines), Hurston keeps it in check and the issue is an addendum rather than the kernel of the chapter.

Despite the success of 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' when it first came out, its author was largely ignored in the 50s, 60s and early 70s until the African-American writer Alice Walker published her ground-breaking essay 'In Search of Zola Neale Hurston' in 1975. This could explain as to why more people have read Zola's works since that year onwards than in the period between 1934 (when she was first published) and 1975 and could go some way to illustrate Hurston's influence on other African-American writers, mainly female, such as Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor and Alice Walker.

TEWWG was harshly criticised when it first saw the light in 1937 by none other than Richard Wright (read my review of 'Native Son' here and here). Yet, Zola's mythic realism, dense with lyrical black idiom has endured the battering of the years and found a much welcoming home in the eyes of new readers. And I am lucky to be one of those. Once again, thanks, Mum.

Copyright 2008

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Road Songs (Vivace)

Women and cars. Cars and women. So much to say, so much to write about. Hey, hey, hey, what's that sound I hear of hurried feet dashing off towards the exit door in uncalculated haste? Don't leave, please, carry on reading. This is not a post to bash women who drive. Au contraire. This week 'Road Songs' wants to celebrate those femmes who get behind the steering wheel and drive cars, lorries, motorcycles and whatever 'cacharro' (junk) they come across. Yes, it can be daunting sometimes for female drivers to take to the road with so many misogynists bent on demonstrating how the supposed 'weaker sex' is not very adept at reading maps and managing complicated and unexpected manoeuvres. However, having been married to an exceptionally good driver for almost eleven years now, I can attest to the futility and nonsense of that argument. Women can drive and my boy, do they drive well!

In music there's a similar situation. In the world of pop, rock, R'n'B and hip hop, what's a woman for, other than showing a bit of leg, baring her midriff and displaying her sexiness and sultriness? How about her voice, I hear you saying? Well, yes, dear, you're right, her voice counts, but first, she'll have to make it to the front cover of Maxim or Loaded clad in a skimpy bikini so that preying male eyes can assess (judging mainly by her physical attributes) whether she's capable of carrying a tune or not.

Below you will find examples of female singers who have risen to the challenge presented by the, chiefly male-dominated, music industry and produced some of the most enduring melodies in the history of this art form.

By the way, this is the first installment in a three-part series focusing on female drivers and musicians. I hope you'll enjoy it.

Lila Downs was born in Mexico and grew up there and in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She began singing "ranchera" music at an early age, and later sang at the "fiestas" of the towns in her region, la Mixteca. She sang with the band "Los Cadetes de Yodoyuxi" and later with "La Trova Serrana", a group of folk musicians from the Zapotec town of Guelatao, Oaxaca. At that time she met her musical collaborator Paul Cohen and began to create her own musical compositions. Outstanding.

Susheela Raman was born in London, later emigrating to Australia with her family. In Australia she studied classical South Indian song and began giving performances. She then began working with Western forms including rock and soul, while continuing to study classical Indian music with Shruti Sadolikar. Amazing.

Azam Ali was born in Iran but spent most of her early years in India before moving to the US in the mid eighties. She is a vocalist of astonishing diversity with a range covering music from the medieval European to the classical Eastern - Persian, Lebanese and Indian. Grand.

Copyright 2008

Thursday, 12 June 2008

... as the mother of a brown boy... (Lamento Fortissimo)

We are telling a story. All stories are preciou. All stories are unique and there are universal truths to be shared in her story and the story of her brown boy (...) Above all we are telling the simple story of a mother's loss. The pain of a mother's loss is not affected by the circumstances. Loss is loss.

David Carey and Christine Niering

If you are still talking about a play a couple of hours after you have left the theatre then you know that the mise en scène was good. If you wake up the next morning and the first comment you make to your partner whilst having breakfast is related to the stage production you both saw the evening before, then you know that the piece was excellent. If you are still talking, let alone thinking about the play almost a week after, then the only words that come to mind are: sublime, exquisite, thought-provoking, mature and many others.
... as the mother of a brown boy... is one of those plays.

On 6 October 2005, Mischa Niering took part in a failed raid of Tiffany in Sloane Square in west London. Driving away from the scene on a scooter, he got caught up in a high-speed police chase and was killed. The police were later found guilty of taking insufficient safety measures during the pursuit. Niering was 19 years old.

As a consequence, Mischa's friends at the Chickenshed company (where he was once a member) developed an hour-long play that tackled some of the issues surrounding his death. The title of the play came from conversations with his mother. The heading to most of her answers was: ... as the mother of a brown boy...

The production is an ambitious project. Using white, big boxes as the only props the thirteen actors and actresses on stage use their own bodies as devices with which to propel the audience into the vortex of the conflict. Spoken words are rare, other than voice-overs. A staff member from Chicken Shed provides assistance to deaf people or people hard of hearing using sign language. A screen up above at the back of the stage, where the words from the text roll up continuously, does a similar service This frees the performers to tell the story with what I usually call an actor's raw material: their faces, their limbs, their eyes. Their eyes. Their Eyes. THEIR EYES. One of the elements that most caught my attention was the sudden changes the performers underwent from elation to despair, from defiance to meekness and how their eyes responded to that challenge so well.

The tale is a familiar one these days. Mischa, a mixed-race boy comes from a broken home; his black teenage father leaves him when he is very little, but his mother does her utmost to provide him with a modest but respectable upbringing. He does become a high achiever in school, only to go off the rails later on when he mixes with the wrong crowd. From then onwards, Mischa finds himself more and more isolated until his untimely demise. His life becomes intertwined with the white boxes that surround him and the cast, sometimes supporting him and pulling him through the most adverse situations, sometimes choking him. These white, lifeless props symbolise what Mischa's world has come to signify, a young man boxed in by race, deprivation, deficient education, housing and felony.

... as the mother of a brown boy... poses more questions than it answers. Correction. It does not answer any questions. And I liked that. Currently there are so many issues stemming from young people stabbing other young people in the streets of London that I would not have welcomed a play seeking to give a definite answer to a dilemma that has blighted so many communities, mainly the black community. What atmoabb does do is present issues in nuanced tones. Mischa is no angel and neither is he portrayed like that. But to the statement: 'The risk assessment was not conducted properly', voiced by the coroner in charge of the case, Mischa's mother can't help but ask aloud: 'And who conducted a risk assessment on my son's life when he was failing?' Tough question. No easy answers.

Unlike many of the other cases that have come to the public attention in recent weeks this play does not deal with young person on young person crime. It tackles a different issue, which, not for being dissimilar, has an easier solution. That of authority and the use of it. Are the police immune? And who are they accountable to? Jean Charles de Menezes' murder in 2005 in broad daylight in a botched terrorist raid, revealed the Metropolitan Police for what it is, a body that will stop to nothing to enforce the law. But what if the enforcement is wrongly handled? Who will pay for the error?

The play does not seek to expiate Mischa's faults. But questioning the procedures that led to Mischa's death is not, in my view, 'political correctness gone mad' but an attempt to 1) acknowledge that mistakes were made in the pursuit of the scooter Mischa was riding, 2) make the police understand this and make them pledge that they will take steps to amend this and similar problems, 3) raise awareness of human rights as per the European Convention on Human Rights and 4) address the issue as to why so many young people, mainly black boys, are falling prey to a life of crime.

Last Sunday, 8th June, the black actor Lennie James penned an open letter to the knife-carriers in the newspaper The Observer. My first thought on reading the document was whether this man I have so long admired for his thespian professionalism was not preaching to the converted. My second thought on reflecting on the readership of this particular newspaper was whether he was not, inadvertently, mind, pandering to the fears of the chattering classes who see these issues as 'the other side's problems'. Don't get me wrong. I know many a middle-class, middle-aged, white folk who go to the inner cities to share the workload and do so sincerely. But the feeling I get more often than not is that many of these people actually enjoy this moral tourism, partly because it assuages their post-colonial guilt and partly because they commute to these places, which means that they don't have to endure the living conditions most of the local residents have to put up with. Am I right or wrong in feeling like this?

Moreover, could something have been done to prevent Mischa from losing his life? The play points in different directions, the absent father, the wrong crowd, the young mother with a second child, the lack of support from the school, the racism Mischa encounters. Are these influential or determining factors? And which one(s), if any, is(are) the one(s) we need to focus on the most?

144 hours after I watched atmoabb I am still touched by the professionalism of the cast (amateurs? no way!), the light effects, the stunning music and the multimedia stagecraft. A panel discussion after the play brought a much needed lively debate on some of the issues I've highlighted above. And it was the last speaker of the night, a man who advises the police and the mayor of London on racial issues, whose words still reverberate in my mind after four days. He talked about the community's role in safeguarding our achievements and in keeping the police and other government bodies in check (he was referring to the new 'stop and search' laws in particular). Furthermore, he said very clearly that we all had responsibility for what happened in our doorsteps, because it takes a village to raise a child. To that gentleman, I say that with this review I am already contributing to that child's upbringing and I am proud of that.

... as the mother of a brown boy... is on tour now, for more information, please click here

Copyright 2008

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Road Songs (Experimental)

Start the engine, get into first gear, check blind spot.

When turning left or right, follow the usual procedure: mirror, signal, manoeuvre.

When approaching a roundabout, check first which exit you want and then move into the corresponding lane, check your mirror and blind spot as you drift from one side of the road to the other.

Instructions, instructions, instructions. Automatic instructions, robotic and impersonal instructions. They make up the bulk of what we call driving.

Yet they leave the human factor out.

Today I had a near-miss. I was going to turn right onto a main road. I checked right first (I live in London, as you all know) and then left and proceeded to drive on. My wife let out a scream. Had she not done that, I would not be sitting at this computer right now. Neither would my son be asleep in his bed now. The likelihood is that we'd both be dead. A car turned round a bend as I was coming out and it was travelling at probably 40mph. It was not the other driver's fault. It was mine. I should have checked that right side again before carrying on, but I did not. Because I am human. And we, humans, make mistakes. Sometimes, costly ones.

So, my lesson from today's near-miss was, be human, check, double-check and triple-check. Drive defensively. And above all, do not assume. When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me. Remember we are human.

Music is the same. Musicians are taught a variety of notes and symbols, the purpose of which is to produce a sound, or a succesion of sounds that will trigger a reaction off in our brain. That's all very well. But, how about when the music industry sugar-coats the outcome and produces endless rubbish such as boy and girl bands whose only goal is to create a caramelised sound that will dull our senses and turn us into zombie-like consumers? It's the same effect as driving by the book. You just join the queue of vehicles going in the same direction and at the same pace. Fortunately, unlike in traffic, in music it is the near-misses that save you from the utter tosh that industry seems to represent in this day and time.

The examples below are by artists who don't conform or have never conformed to a norm established by an A&R person or a producer. They are innovators in their own right and we ought to be grateful that they still dare to take risks. After all, these are the near-misses that enrich our soul musically.

As for my almost-accident today, I could have done without it. I don't need to have a fatal crash when I have been colliding with music like the one below for most of my life.

Copyright 2008

Road Songs (Deep Forest - Marta's Song)

This tune is so magical so as to be almost unreal. The power of music knows no boundaries between classical, traditional, folklore and modern styles. And they all blend nicely in this piece. Charming.

Road Songs (Ayo - Life is Real)

This is a singer whose debut album I have yet to purchase. I love her voice and what she does with it. Another musician who is hard to tag and causes those near-misses that I love so much in music. Enjoyable.

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

What can I say? One of the pioneers of British prog-rock with his band Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson is one of those singers who defies labels. Next to him, the father of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, a man, whose music I revere. And here they are by virtue of music and art that goes beyond borders and cultural passport control booths. Unbelievable.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Carry Me Down (Rock Symphony)

Certain books arrive in a frenzy of prizes and awards. The buzz is such that you can't look anywhere without coming across the author's face plastered all over billboards and buses. Some others come to one wrapped in the warm embrace of a friend's recommendation. Some, you just pick up because of loyalty to the author (Rushdie, Atwood, Allende) and they hardly ever disappoint you.

But there are certain books that arrive on your doorstep unnannounced, with a sleeping bag in hand and ready to crash over on the sofa. Their tenure lasts exactly the time it takes you to read them and when you are done, you wish they stayed with you forever.

'Carry Me Down' is one of those books.

Told in the first person singular, the novel deals with John Egan, a boy in an adult's body, whose obsession for the 'truth' and the Guinnes Book of Records leads him into uncharted waters which threaten to drown him. John's firm belief in his knack for detecting lies proves to be his demise. This element coupled with the break-up of his home life, cause him to go off the rails, even coming close to losing his sanity.

Hyland's main accomplishment lies in the depiction of his characters as a messy array of human contradictions. John's father is a hard-working man who cannot find employment. This situation causes his mood to swing from affection to despair and almost violence easily. His wife, John's mother, is a benevolent, charitable woman who loves her only child dearly, and cares about him a great deal, but who feels powerless when faced with the cards life has dealt her. In the midst of all this, John's body begins to respond to the onset of puberty (his voice starts to break, he grows taller) and he has no means of coping with all these changes.

The novel is set in early 70s Ireland and manages to eschew many of the stereotypes that other books dealing with this European country fall into. For a start, it is a very personal novel, where the social and economic background is nothing but that, a backdrop. Secondly, the tale is a sympathetic take on a boy's transition from childhood to adolescence and far from condoning or condemning his actions, the author allows John's thoughts to come to the fore. Thirdly, his parents' relationship and the problems that arise within it are not a black-and-white issue. The grey areas are too numerous to mention. And finally at various points in the novel, Hyland plays a sleight of hand with us readers, leading us into John's nascent sexuality and sexual interest and how this manifests itself in relation to his mother. To say that the scenes are too ambiguous and too close for comfort is too mild, but Freud would have had a field day with the dialogues and imagery arising from John and his mother's encounters.

'Carry Me Down' follows that path of wonderfully written novels about children and/or adolescents. The narrative is tight and concise, the characters and plot are credible and the dénouement is optimistic. It, thus, joins a long list of books by the likes of JD Salinger (Catcher in the Rye) and Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) where the voice of the younger person is given a platform wherefrom to let us know their innermost feelings and desires.

Copyright 2008

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...

Before going any further I must declare an expression of interest. I am nuts about nuts. I am very fond of prawns. And lemon rice is ever so nice. So, there you have it. If you read more any recipes in this space containing the above ingredients it is because I am very, very, very biased. Extremely biased. And I do not care one jot.

The dish below comes courtesy of Vicky Bhogal, a British Asian woman who has done a lot to raise the profile of South Asian cuisine in the UK. Her passion for cooking owes a lot to her mother, who, apparently, instilled the same type of devotion for food preparation in her daughter. Vicky's intention is to replicate many of the recipes that her mother used to make when Vicky was younger.

Cashew, prawn, brazil nut and lemon rice

This is dinner party food. It is also comfort food that is as virtuous as it is heart-warming. You just put everything in the pan together, quickly stir-fry, add water, steam and voilà, there you have it! These quantities make enough for two, so double them if you're cooking for four, or six, or eight, or the whole troop. Note to readers: I tend to cheat a little bit and add more nuts such as: hazelnuts, chestnuts, peanuts... the list goes on. Refer to the first line. I am nuts about nuts.

2 tbsp mild and light olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ onion thinly sliced
Zest from 1 lemon
250g cooked and peeled prawns
2 tomatoes, diced
1 handful fresh coriander, chopped
75g cashew nuts
60g toasted brazil nuts, chopped
1 tsp dried red chilli flakes
½ teaspoon salt
100g basmati rice, washed until the water runs clear, drained
250ml water

Heat the oil in a pan and add the cumin. When sizzling, add the onion and lemon zest and fry until translucent. Add the prawns, tomatoes, coriander, cashews, brazils, chilli and salt, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Then add the rice and stir-fry for a further 30 seconds.

Now add the water, bring up to a boil, turn down the heat to very low, cover and steam for 15 minutes. Once cooked, graze the rice gently with a fork, to loosen the grains, and serve piping hot.

Playlist. It goes without saying that the music has to be as sizzling as the dish. These are my suggestions:

Oscar Peterson - Honeysuckle Rose
Karen Dalton - When a Man Loves a Woman
Souad Massi - Yemma
Janis Joplin - Me and Bobby McGee
Stevie Wonder - Higher Ground
Bob Dylan - Subterranean Homesick Blues
Los Van Van - Dale Dos
Baaba Maal - African Woman

Copyright 2008


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