Sunday, 31 August 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Vivace)

For the first and second parts of this series, click here, and here.

Wednesday 6th August, afternoon, summer camp, Dorset.

A group of people holding hands together in a circle.

Middle-aged Man: ‘Link your hands together
Middle-aged Woman: A circle we will make
Dark-haired Girl: This bond of our friendship
Blond Girl: No power can break
Son: We’ll all join together
Daughter: In one mighty throng
Wife: Should any be weary
Me: We’ll help them along
Middle-aged couple: Should any be weary
Everybody in unison: We’ll help them along!

The circle breaks and a group photo is taken. Out of the corner of my eye I see a diminutive figure scurrying away, getting smaller and smaller as he dashes off. His tail (yes, tail!) is tucked in between his legs and his face is flustered.

I know I will come across Little Englander again, but for this one time he has been defeated.

Living in a Bilingual World 2 – Little Englander 0 (goal forfeited for ugliness)

Copyright 2008

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Brillante Weblog Award

I have just been awarded the 'Brillante Weblog' prize by Eufrates del Valle from the always informative and interesting El Imparcial blog. And as it is the custom I must nominate at least seven other blogs (it can be more) in order to receive the award.
Here are my nominations:
The reasons why I selected these blogs are the same reasons why my space was chosen: On them the reader will find creativity, originality and respect galore. I could have easily picked up seven or ten more and that says a lot about the strength of the Cuban Blogosphere nowadays.
Thanks to Eufrates del Valle for the award and I look forward to welcoming you all here in my humble, little 'lair' next Friday when Radio Freekinternational will be broadcast live from London for the first (and hopefully not the last!) time ever.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

'If This is a Man/The Truce' (Adagio Sostenuto)

'Abandon hope,
all ye who enter here.'

Dante Alighieri

Prisoner 174517 never forgave the Nazis. Let me repeat that. Häftling Nummer Eins-Sieben-Vier-Fünf-Eins-Sieben never forgave the Nazis. True, by his own admission his personal temperament was not inclined to hatred. Even less did he accept ‘hatred as directed collectively at an ethnic group, for example, all the Germans’. Nonetheless, he never forgave 'any of the culprits, nor was he willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he had shown that he had become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and was determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that of others’. Only then he was ‘prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving one’s enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his way ceases to be an enemy’.

Primo Michele Levi (1919 – 1987), prisoner number one-seven-four-five-one-seven, was a Jewish-Italian chemist from Turin who in 1943 helped form a partisan band, which he and his comrades hoped, would eventually be affiliated with the Resistance movement ‘Justice and Liberty’. Some time later he was captured by the Fascist militia and sent to a detention camp at Fossoli. His final destination, though, was Auschwitz.

If This is a Man details Primo’s stay at Monowitz, one of the work-camps, (Arbeitslager) in Auschwitz. For eighteen months until the end of the war in 1945 he laboured behind electric barbed wire. I write ‘laboured’, but please understand that the correct phrase would be ‘slaved away’, for this was employment under duress in sub-human conditions. Forced to jettison everything he held dear, this was a man who became hollow like many others and who was reduced to suffering and grief. Deprived of his habits, his clothes and everything he possessed, his captors achieved the unachievable: divest him of his humanity.

For anyone who still thinks that the Endlösung (the Final Solution) was merely the work of a megalomaniac, deluded by his own political rhetoric, ‘If This is a Man’ is obligatory reading. The systematic degradation and humiliation of millions of prisoners in the work-camps was part of the grand master plan of advancing Germany both economically and politically in Europe first and in the rest of the world afterwards. The shaved heads, striped clothing and wooden clogs were just elements in Hitler’s geopolitical game circa 1938.

And how much was the West to blame for Hitler’s success in this political bingo? Historians disagree about the degree of guilt apportioned to nations like Britain, France and the former Soviet Union, what they don’t disagree upon anymore is that these countries all shared a huge chunk of responsibility for the Führer’s achievement in seizing Austria first and Czechoslovakia afterwards. It is a known fact nowadays that the two aforementioned nations were almost sacrificed to Nazi Germany in exchange for a pact of no aggression. That the German leader violated this agreement should not have come as a surprise especially after the inflamed and rabid political rhetoric of his speeches. It was precisely these tirades that led to the pogrom of 9th and 10th November in 1938 when an orgy of violence led to the rounding up of 30,000 male Jews who were later sent to concentration camps.

If This is a Man’ therefore gives us a powerful insight into the Nazi machinery once it got hold of power and stuck its poisonous forked tongue out. Total obedience in the work-camps was compulsory. German was the only language spoken and because many prisoners did not have a good command of the lexicon, not even basic knowledge, they were regularly submitted to beatings and corporal punishments. Questions were never asked. Primo Levi learnt the value of food very quickly: the bottom of bowls had to be scraped, as well as held under the chin when eating bread so as not lose any crumbs. Thefts happened very frequently therefore one’s possessions (possessions, what an odd word when what we actually refer to is one’s spoon or piece of wire to tie up one’s shoes!) were never left out of sight, even when taking a shower.

The second book, ‘The Truce’ deals with Primo Levi’s tortuous journey back home. Whereas ‘If This is a Man’ is about the gradual dehumanisation of the human being inside all of us (bar a few examples here and there), its follow-up is all about endurance and resilience, two human virtues that are often overlooked in our search for more practical acts of heroism. Of the 125 people Primo entered Monowitz with in 1943 only three went back home. One of them was the author.

Levi’s odyssey back to Italy was perilous as it was long. Due to bureaucratic and amateurish errors by the liberating Russian forces, his itinerary took him east first and then west, encompassing regions as varied as Katowice in Poland and Brasov in Romania. Throughout this trip the constant danger of Nazi escapees loomed large and it was only when the five-hundred-yard-long train, taking him and the other ex-prisoners home, departed from Starye Dorogi in the former USSR to Iasi in Romania that their patience was rewarded.

Back home in Turin, the book’s final pages reverberate like a trumpet announcing an evening cry or a parent calming their child down after they have had a terrible nightmare. The difference is that this nightmare was real.

One of the questions Levi was frequently asked was how much the Germans knew about what happened in the concentration camps. His analysis in the book was thorough and honest. In it he addressed the reality of totalitarian regimes (criticising the Soviet regime, too) and their attempts to curtail freedom of speech as well as the imposition of only one Truth. Although this might seem like a mitigating factor that worked to the Teutons’ advantage Levi was quick to point out that ‘it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was part of the aims of Nazism’.

Apparently Primo Levi was unable to shake off this atmosphere of terror and rumours abound that his accidental death in 1987 when he fell from the interior landing of his third –floor flat was really suicide. Whether it was his own volition that led him to take his own life or it was a fortuitous event, ‘If This is a Man/The Truce’ remains one of the most powerful testimonies of the horrors of Nazism and the consequences of authoritarian regimes.

Copyright 2008

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Chico Buarque & Milton Nascimento - 'O Que Sera (Flor da Pele)

Francisco Buarque de Hollanda, better known as Chico Buarque, has had a long and prolific career as a singer, composer and writer. His discography spans a good four decades during which this outstanding Brazilian musician has delighted audiences both in Latin America and Europe. Killer Opening Songs is, thus, thrilled to introduce such an extraordinary performer to its readers and fellow bloggers this week.

However there’s another reason why the track I am uploading this time around has a special significance to me. And here’s why:

In 1986 or ’87 (my memory fails me) a film opened in Havana and it became an overnight sensation. It was one of the movies competing at the Latin American Film Festival in the Cuban capital and I remember that most of my peers went to see it despite the fact that it was rated 16 (our film classifications vary from those in both the States and Europe). Because I have always looked ten years younger than I am (a bit of a drag at the time) I could not even come close to the box office without getting asked for my ID. The reason for the audience’s excitement was a 26-year-old Brazilian actress whose erotic scenes drove many male adolescents (and adults) wild. Sonia Braga became a by-word for sexiness and ‘Dona Flor e Seus Dos Maridos’ (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands) became a hit in Cuba immediately.

Because of my age I was not able to see the film (which, although it had been released in 1976 in Brazil, had only seen the light in Cuba in the mid 80s) at the cinema and therefore had to wait until it was screened on the telly to confirm my crush on an actress I had never seen up to that moment. To say that the plot, performances and music took a back seat would be putting it mildly. All I remember from watching ‘Dona Flor…’ is Sonia Braga et al cavorting in the nude recklessly and blithely whilst a young Jose Wilker played the roost-ruler.

Luckily, by the time I was able to control my younger self’s hormones better I began to focus on other aspects of the film that I had missed out on first time around. Like the music, for instance. And it was with utmost pleasure that I found a little jewel in this film’s soundtrack. It is the Killer Opening Song to Chico Buarque’s 1976 album ‘Meus Caros Amigos' and the title is ‘O Que Será (Flor da Pele)’. This clip that I bring this week has both Chico and Milton Nascimento performing the song and the tempo differs massively from the original album track; it’s slower. However it is still a beautiful and haunting song that has become a relic of past times, especially for those born in Iberoamerica (I include both Portugal and Spain here). For readers and fellow bloggers from the English-speaking world who cannot speak Portuguese I will have you know that the song deals with the eternal theme of love and the search for it, hence the title ‘O Que Será’ (What Is It?). And I strongly advise you to look for a good translation on the net; you won’t be disappointed. Enjoy.

For earlier editions of Killer Opening Songs, click on any of the links below.

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

Killer Opening Songs (Sinéad O'Connor's 'Fire on Babylon')

Killer Opening Songs (Queen's Mustapha)

Killer Opening Songs (Caetano Veloso-Haiti)

Killer Opening Songs (Chopin 'Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op 66' & Etude in C minor 'Revolutionary' Op 10 No 12)

Killer Opening Songs (Ernesto Lecuona - 'La Comparsa & Malagueña)

Killer Opening Songs (David Gilmour - Shine On You Crazy Diamond)

Copyright 2008

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Andante)

You can read the first part of this post here.

Monday 4th August, noon, Swanage Beach.

Wife and I are lying down on the sand whilst Son and Daughter are playing with the other children in the water. Nearby there’s a British woman reading. The woman is reading a book. The book is in Spanish. The title of the book is ‘Tiempo de Silencio’ (‘Time for Silence’), a novel by the Spanish writer Luis Martín Santos. The woman searches for something in her bag. She fishes out a dictionary. The dictionary is both in Spanish and English. She looks up a word in the dictionary (apparently) and goes back to reading. This same operation she repeats a few times, at regular intervals, like a dancer performing a well-known piece, which never fails to trigger her passion off. She reads. She stops. She looks up a word in the dictionary. She continues to read. I watch. Little Englander watches from a distance. I watch Little Englander watching the woman reading the book. Little Englander watches me watching him watching the woman. Little Englander wipes the sand of his feet. He puts his socks and sandals on and off he walks.

Living in a Bilingual World 1 – Little Englander 1. Game on!

(to be continued)

Copyright 2008

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Summer Camp (Waltz au Naturel)

There are two reasons why I love camping. One is the fact that we are communing with Mother Nature in almost perfect harmony. And we do this as a family. It’s great to see my children interacting with other kids, with adolescents and with adults in general. The other reason is the walks that are organised by the coordinators. At camp we are divided into rotas: some people do washing up, some others carry water, there are those who are in charge of cooking and others have the responsibility to coordinate the activities for the day and night. It is this last group that usually decides whether we go on a walk or not. And more often than not we do.

South West England has a superb and varied coastline. The path runs unspoilt for approximately 630 miles and walking along it is the best way to enjoy the wonderful wildlife and heritage this part of the UK has to offer.

One of the walks we undertook whilst camping led us around the Poole area. It was not a very difficult one; all you needed to do was to keep the sea to one side whilst looking for the acorn way-marks that guided visitors around. The variety of the Coastal Path guaranteed plenty of gentle stretches as well as dramatic headlands. Sometimes the going got strenuous and demanding due to the steep valleys we had to negotiate. The walk was circular, meaning that we all kicked off near the village of Worth Matravers, walked near St Adhelms Head and some high cliffs where we sat down to eat our lunch, visited a Norman chapel and wrapped up in the aforementioned village. Along the way we all felt exhilarated by the dazzling panorama encircling us as we rounded the headland. One of these amazing vistas was Portland island in the distance (after which the city in Oregon took its name, picture on the right). It was a view to behold, the way the island appeared to be enveloped in a nebulous mix of clouds and mist. Whilst eating our lunch, sitting on the ground and absorbing the breathtaking landscape in front of our eyes, a kestrel came into our field of vision and hovered a few feet away from us for a few seconds. According to a fellow who always travels with our group and lectures at Middlesex University on ecology and the environment, kestrels are the only birds of prey in the British Isles that hover. This one in particular, seemed to be putting on a show for us to enjoy. It stopped in mid-air for what seemed an eternity before diving headfirst to catch its prey (or so I thought at the time). The same lecturer told me also that this was the season when, if we went down to the beach, we would be able to catch reptiles basking in the sun in the sandy clearings. Another sighting would be that of common terns feeding offshore as well as tiger beetles cavorting on sandy areas and paths.

The weather was a good companion on this occasion. Sometimes, back in the camp, I wondered whether Mother Nature played tricks on us, mortal beings, whilst hidden in one of the nooks and crannies of this stunning coastline. The sunrise that morning had been almost an autumnal affair with pale flashes of light filtering through a wall of clouds that closed off the eastern horizon. Cunningly, the new day had withheld its purpose, betraying no hint of the temperature that lay cuddled up in its bosom. In the event, bar a few drops of rain, the walk was favoured by the sun and a strong sea breeze that forced us all to don our jumpers (some, like me, had to resort to a hooded one).

I recently read a post by Lena from the ‘Hija del Exilio’ blog where she explained the role that the sea had in her life. And I felt myself agreeing with her wholeheartedly. This element has always been an eternal presence in my life. I was born on an island surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and many a day (and night!) I spent sitting on the Malecón (seawall) watching the world go by, thinking, reflecting, feeling. On this occasion the boom of the waves crashing against the shore exerted a kind of hypnotic spell on me and I felt homesick. The sea wore a stark variety of blue hues, darker here, light grey there. There was no way a painter could come up with this array of colours using just one tonality: blue (picture on the left). This brought to mind Pablo Neruda's famous question: '¿Quiénes se pusieron contentos cuando nació el color azul?' ('Who was it shouted with joy when blue was born?')

On the way back to the car park where our minibuses were stationed, we passed by the St. Aldehelm’s Chapel. This was a building that stood on cliffs approximately 110m above sea level. It was dedicated to St Aldhelm, first Bishop of Sherborne. The general belief is that the chapel was originally a chantry, where a priest would celebrate mass for the safety of sailors, although it was apparently used for rest and prayer by kings, who often hunted in nearby Purbeck. On the day that we visited this historical construction (which is still used for Christian worship), we found a swallow that had decided to build its nest near the ceiling of the chapel. A link in the evolutionary chain seeking shelter in the house of God? Richard Dawkins would have a comment to make about that.

As we neared our minibuses we came across fields of barley that looked like uniform armies of gold (pictures below). I have no idea why but at the time I felt like playing hide and seek in them.

With its heathlands, cliffs, wildlife, coastal paths, history and heritage the visitor to the South West of England will always be spoiled for choice. I know we were.

For more information on South West Coast Path walks, visit

Copyright 2008

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Killer Opening Songs (David Gilmour - Shine On You Crazy Diamond)

The first CD I bought in my life was in 1998. January 1998 to be more precise. It was ‘Maestra Vida (Primera Parte)’ by the Panamanian salsa musician Rubén Blades and I purchased it at the now defunct Tower Records shop in Piccadilly Circus, London’s West End. Before that I had been given CDs by my wife, but I had never had the pleasure to walk into a music store and come out holding a record bought with my own money. I chose to make that shopping trip then because my son was about to be born and I had always identified myself very strongly with one of the tracks in the record, ‘El Nacimiento de Ramiro’ (‘Ramiro’s Birth’).

The reason why I am recalling this memento is that in an era defined by downloads and digital music I am one of those few souls around who are still in love with CDs, cassettes and vinyl records. I am not a Luddite, no, if you have a look at the right-hand section on my blog you’ll see a website called Trama Virtual that showcases new and up-and-coming Brazilian music. That’s where I first heard ‘Cansei de Ser Sexy ’ a few years ago before they went on to achieve world fame. And I spend quite a lot of time listening to internet radio stations, downloading tracks from various websites (as long as they’re free) and doing compilations based on the music I come across on the web.

However I am still fond of music that comes with the seal of a record label and original cover artwork. Digital downloads might give customers easy and instant access to music, but they fail to provide the listener with the treasures that you can only acquire in a record shop. Like for instance, lyrics.

The words to a song are like a rite of passage. They draw you in and invite you to be part of its brother- or sisterhood, or both combined. They are the initial step to possessing a song, caressing it and taking it to bed with you. How many times have we woken up in the middle of the night with a tune wandering aimlessly in our heads, lost in the corridors of our brains, how many times have we smiled later on at the recollection of that moment? And lest I forget, lyrics are also the source of much speculation, especially when performers refuse to explain their meaning (and quite rightly so, I would add, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ anyone?)

Sometimes when we finally get to read the lyrics, after years of listening to the record (an experience not alien to Cuban music fans as I will explain later) we realise how meaningless and ordinary some of them can be. And of course, some refrains from famous songs have been endorsed by politicians on various occasions, only to bring them shame and embarrassment after a close reading of the words. ‘Born in the USA’ and Ronald Reagan spring to mind.

Yet, despite these minuses I still prefer ready-made tapes, CDs and vinyl records (admittedly I have not bought much of the latter lately) to digital downloads. The pleasure of unwrapping the CD, for instance, playing it for the first time and exposing yourself to the Killer Opening Song is unmatched by any other experience. And what of the lyrics? I still remember the day when I got that Ruben Blades’ album and sat on a Picadilly Line tube carriage, placed the record inside my CD player and put my headphones on. I opened the booklet (ah, booklets!) and scanned the lyrics until I got to the track I wanted. The same happened the first time I heard ‘Gorillaz’, Damon Albarn’s alter ego band. I was still commuting to West Hampstead in those days and I remember being on the tube, peeling the CD covering film off and putting the record on my Discman. The first chords of ‘Re-hash’ kicked in and the funky, sultry music enveloped me in a sweet blend of blithe, je-ne-sais-pas-qoui mood. It has remained one of my favourite Killer Opening Songs ever.

There’s another reason why I favour CDs, tapes and vinyl over digital downloads. And that is related to history and my being Cuban. When I was growing up in the 80s it was hard to get hold of pop and rock music. The government had a silly hard line against music sung in English and we, youngsters, were left to bear the brunt of this policy. So, most of the records we acquired in those days were out of date by a few years, but we did not complain. Cassettes were hard to come by so the majority of my music collection was handed-down tapes exchanged endlessly in networks that sprung up almost as spontaneously as they folded. It was through one of these unofficial channels that I struck up a friendship with one of my classmates, Duhamel Núñez Jiménez in year 10 at the Saúl Delgado College. He and I had similar tastes in music; consequently it was not strange to either of us that we ended sharing a lot of tunes together. Thus, in year 11 we both went for it and decided to record all Pink Floyd albums that we could find available. It was a huge task in the Havana of 1987 as at the times blank tapes were priced between 5 and 10 Cuban pesos. Ready-made tapes, that is, cassettes that were recorded from albums were worth up to 15 Cuban pesos, depending on the artist. Neither of us had a penny (or a quilo prieto, rather) and pocket money was not a concept we were familiar with. Still, we persisted and by the summer of ’88 we had almost all albums released by this British band in our hands. The only ones missing were the collectors’ items, obscure records like ‘Picnic’, one side Floyd, one side Deep Purple. All in all, both Duhamel and I could declare our mission to be over.

Out of all the records we got hold of, put on tapes and shared, too, there was one that stood out from the word go. It was ‘Wish You Were Here’, Pink Floyd’s 1975 album dedicated to their former colleague Syd Barrett. There was such a delicacy and vigour at the same time running through the entire record that it made the listener sit up and pay attention to both music and lyrics. And what lyrics! I will never forget a summer afternoon in 1988 in Havana and me sitting in the park across from my college reading the hand-written words to all the songs. I was good at English so the lyrics did not pose any difficulty to me. Saying that, though, it was only when I relocated to London that I found out what the phrase ‘Gravy Train’ meant (‘Have a Cigar’, track 3). That was one of the reasons why I grew to love ‘Wish You Were Here’ so much and why after all these years I play it only occasionally, like photos in a forgotten album that one only gets out every now and then when nostalgia makes its presence known.

Duhamel and I went our separate ways when I started Uni in the autumn of 1989. I still popped by his house once in a while but he decided to pursue a career in graphic design (he was a superb painter and illustrator!) and my visits grew more scarce.

So, it is to the memory of that friendship and to my love for CDs, vinyl records and cassettes that Killer Opening Songs dedicates this week's introductory track, 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' (Parts 1-5). It is the first tune of the album ‘Wish You Were Here’ and it was recently performed at the Royal Festival Hall by none other than David Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s guitarist. It also boasts one of the most thoughtful and vivid lyrics ever (Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun/Shine on you crazy diamond/Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky/Shine on you crazy diamond). I’m not too sure whether the saxophonist that comes on stage at the end of the song in the clip below is Dick Parry, who played in the original record. So, if you can clarify this matter for me, it would be great.

Apologies to all for the long and verbose intro, I just felt that I had to explain very clearly why this Killer Opening Song has such a special place in my heart. Enjoy.

Copyright 2008

Monday, 18 August 2008

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

I’ve no idea why I have not posted any dessert recipe so far in this space. Being Cuban means having a sweet tooth and this translates as eating as much sugar as it is humanly possible. So, it is cakey-cakey’s turn this week.

This chocolate, banana and toffee pie was part of my wife’s birthday celebration about a week ago. It is very easy to prepare and it is very rich, so, do invite as many friends around as you can for your stomach could play up as my son found out to his chagrin.

Chocolate, Banana and Toffee Pie

65g/2 1/2oz/5tbsp unsalted butter, melted
250g/9oz mil chocolate digestive biscuits, crushed
Chocolate curls, to decorate

For the filling

397g/13oz can of condensed milk
150g/5oz plain chocolate, chopped
120ml/4fl oz 1 ½ cup of crème fraîche
15ml/1tbsp golden syrup

For the topping

2 bananas
250ml/8fl oz/1 cup of crème fraîche
10ml/2tsp strong black coffee (optional)

Mix the butter with the biscuit crumbs. Press on to the base and sides of a 23cm/9in loose-based flat tin. Chill. Make the filling. Place the unopened can of condensed milk in a deep saucepan of boiling water, making sure that it is completely covered. Lower the heat and simmer, covered for 2 hours, topping up the water as necessary. The can must remain covered at all times. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside, covered, until the can has cooled down completely in the water. Do not attempt to open the can until it is completely cold. Gently melt the chocolate with the crème fraîche and golden syrup in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir in the caramelised condensed milk and beat until evenly mixed. Pour the filling into the biscuit crust and spread it evenly. Slice the bananas evenly and arrange them in over the chocolate filling. Stir the crème fraîche and coffee (optional) together in a bowl, then spoon the mixture over the bananas. Sprinkle the chocolate curls on top. Alternatively, omit the crème fraîche topping and decorate with whipped cream and extra banana slices.

The music to go with this dish is as rich as the taste of the cake. So here’s the playlist:

Parliament Funkadelic - Do That Stuff
Death Cab For Cutie - Soul Meeets Body
Sara Tavares - Balance
Natacha Atlas - Whatever Lola Wants
Joan Manuel Serrat - Aquellas Pequeñas Cosas
Crosby Stills Nash & Young - Southern Man
Souad Massi – Amessa
Horace Silver- Song For My Father

This recipe was taken from ‘The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Chocolate’ by Christine McFadden and Christine France, a Christmas present from many years ago.

Copyright 2008

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Lachrymosa)

Monday 4th August, morning, summer camp in Dorset.

Daughter: Dieciocho! (Eighteen)
Son: Diecinueve! (Nineteen)
Blonde Girl: Can we count in English, please?
Black-haired Girl: Yes, can we count in English? It’s getting very confusing.
Middle-aged Couple: Yes, English, English!

The counting began again and when it to got to Son and Daughter…

Daughter: Dieciocho!
Son: Diecinueve!
Blonde Girl: English, please!
Black-haired Girl: Yes, English!
Middle-aged Couple: English, English!

So, one more time the counting began and this time both Son and Daughter complied with the request (or order, whichever way you want to look at it).

As for me, I stood there, mouth open and ears refusing to believe what had just happened. What should have been an innocent activity had turned out to be an ugly display of linguistic intolerance. Counting was done for a purpose. To make sure that we had the right numbers in the camp and that no one was missing. After all, there were children whose parents were not present and we all had to watch over them. During counting some adults used Roman numbers, whereas others used German or French. But it was supposed to be fun. So, where had this prejudice come from?

Suddenly, out of the corner of my right eye I saw a shadow moving furtively around the circle we had formed earlier. He (for it was a man) was crouching behind the crowd of campers, drifting stealthily from one side of the circle to the other. What was strange about this scenario was that none of the other people seemed to have noticed the intruder.

Little Englander had made a chameo appearance at summer camp. And at least for me it was a most unnecessary and distasteful one.

A brief explanation must be given now. Little Englander is a creature that dwells in the realm of Middle England. Its natural habitat is the suburbs of big metropolis like London, Manchester and Cardiff and the British countryside. Little Englander (usually male, although women can be found in its ranks, too) stands for everything modern Britain wants to move away from. His anti-multiculturalism, jingoistic attitude and xenophobic points of view should make Little Englander a figure of mockery and parody in this time and age. However, he is still alive, very well alive and kicking. And the fact is that he has not changed much throughout the years.

Little Englander usually reads The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, loathes the BBC, detests leftwing, sandal-wearing and muesli-eating people who read The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent and cannot withstand difference, especially linguistic ones. He is pro-royal, pro-hunting and anti-establishment (in the broadest sense of the word, as in opposed to whoever is in government and doesn’t follow his politics). Little Englander is by nature, rightwing and bigoted. Above all, Little Englander hates foreigners, unless they are the type who parade around the West End in London, as they all go back home after their stay in the British capital. Other than those, Little Englander has little patience for those of us who have relocated to this country and have become law-abiding citizens who have enriched the social make-up of Great Britain.

So, the issue for me was, what was this unwelcome character doing here at summer camp? After all, this was a week-long event coordinated by a local group that swears by a greener and fairer world as was shown a couple of years ago when they took part in a huge Peace Summer Camp in Essex. One of the lines of the various creeds they have states that they have the intention of ‘spanning the world with friendship’, which is a huge claim, however, for the last five years I have seen them acting on that pledge. So, why was this insignificant, throw-back-to-another-era, pathetic excuse of a human being allowed to come into our camp and roam around unchallenged? Especially when Black-haired Girl had just told me a few weeks before that she had done her work experience with Johann Hari, the maverick columnist at the Independent who had put her in touch with Tony Benn, of who she was a fan? Well, what would she have made of Tony’s opinion on war and militarism: ‘"if we are serious about wanting peace we have got to eliminate the causes of war, and to do that we shall have to study our history a bit more carefully". And our culture, I should add. And language, like it or not, is part of that culture.

Afterwards, both Son and Daughter’s faces said it all. They felt defeated. They could not understand what had happened. I had to tell them both later that nobody, NOBODY had any authority to tell them not to speak in their language, because Spanish is their language, too. It’s part of their social and cultural make-up. It’s part of their half Cubanness.

However I could not help feeling that Little Englander had scored a precious goal. So, it was game on boy, and you know what, I‘m coming for you!

Little Englander 1 – Living in a Bilingual World 0

(To be continued)

Copyright 2008

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Ernesto Lecuona - 'La Comparsa & Malagueña)

Following on from the other week’s Killer Opening Songs and classical music I bring a Cuban composer to the blog this week. I have already uploaded one of his tracks a few times here and it is probably that I will do it a few more times in the near future because I love it dearly. It has been said on several occasions that Christopher Columbus was Cuba’s first ‘discoverer’ (the fact that we already existed seems to always go over people’s heads). Alexander von Humboldt was the second one after he circumnavigated the Caribbean island a few centuries ago. Fernando Ortiz was our third ‘discoverer’ after he published a series of books and conducted extensive research on the influence of African culture on our social and cultural make-up. So, where does that leave Ernesto Lecuona, one of the most revered Cuban musicians of all time? Lecuona ‘married’ (if it’s possible to use that term) traditional African and Spanish music in a symbiotic and organic liaison. The result was a solid and powerful body of work that encompassed everything from zarzuela to comparsa. He was, so to speak, the Cuban George Gershwin, although the reference should not be taken verbatim as both composers had very different styles. That means that Lecuona was not just a ‘discoverer’, but also an innovator, a risk-taker and an excellent composer as the complexity of both pieces featured below will attest to.

It is with pleasure, then, that Killer Opening Songs plays the same trick as last week and uploads two tracks instead of one. The reason is the same. Lecuona left a wealth of recordings behind but unfortunately they were not collected in a logical and coherent way, as he would have liked them to appear in his albums (methinks). So, I have taken the liberty (as I did with Chopin) of selecting which songs would make good introductory tracks, in short, which melodies would make a couple of good Killer Opening Songs.

Chucho and Bebo Valdéz, Father and Son - La Comparsa (Please, keep your hankies nearby as this clip is an emotional roller-coaster, especially for Cubans who have seen their families split due to the stupid politics of two governments that have carried out an embargo in their own peculiar way against an innocent population. I have seen this clip countless of times and yet my eyes always water at the sight of father and son playing together despite the political differences between the US and Cuba.)

Thomas Tirino - Malagueña (This a superb execution of one of Cuban classical music's better known songs)

Copyright 2008

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Summer Camp in Dorset (Recitative)

Poem read in silence at Dorset Summer Camp whilst outside my tent the sky is weeping, the grass is laughing and the diminutive wild life in the undergrowth continues to wage war and broker peace with itself.

With the drinking glass studded with lapis
Wait for her,
By the pool around the evening and the rose perfume
Wait for her,
With the patience of the horse prepared for mountain descent
Wait for her,
With the manners of the refined and marvellous prince
Wait for her,
With seven pillows stuffed with light clouds
Wait for her,
With the sandalwood male scent around the backs of horses
Wait for her,
And don’t hurry, so if she arrives late
Wait for her,
And if she arrives early
Wait for her,
And don’t startle the birds in her braids
And wait for her,
So that she sits comfortably in her beauty’s summit in the garden
And wait for her,
So she may breathe this strange air upon her heart
And wait for her,
So that she lifts her dress off her calf cloud by cloud
And wait for her,
Take her to a balcony to see a moon frowning in milk
And wait for her,
Offer her water, before wine, and don’t
Look at twin partridges sleeping on her chest
And wait for her,
Slowly touch her hand
When she places the glass on the marble
As if you were carrying dew for her
And wait for her,
Talk to her as a flute talks
To a frightened violin string
As if you two were witnesses to what tomorrow prepares for you
And wait for her
Brighten her night ring by ring
And wait for her
Until the night says to you:

You are the only two left in the universe
So take her, gently, to your desired death
And wait for her! …

A Lesson from Kama Sutra

Mahmoud Darwish
Taken from ‘The Stranger’s Bed’ (1998)

Copyright 2008

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Meditations on Britain (Summer Camp Symphony for Crickets, Grasshoppers and Cicadas)

The first time I came to Great Britain in 1997, what made a deep impression on me immediately as my plane headed toward Gatwick Airport were the capriciously mathematical shapes of the greenery below. Hither and thither we, passengers, were regaled with a view worth a few hundred thousand pounds in today’s stock market and yet, there we were, getting it for free. In Cuba, they talk a lot about people drinking tea in the UK, however they always fail to mention the breathtaking landscape that adorns this island’s geography.

A week in Dorset has reinforced that view. Every morning we woke up to an extraordinary spectacle of emerald shrubbery. Even with the torrential rains that we had to withstand, most days the sight was a marvel to behold. I have sometimes imagined that Mother Nature at one point, tired of marking off territories and delineating borders, and feeling frustrated and despondent, threw all colours available in its palette upwards in a fit of anger without caring a jot what the aftermath would be. The result, I am pleased to confirm, was chaotic and yet beautiful. The world as we know it now. Just as mountains sweat shades of brown and green and the sea turns from a deep blue to a delicate turquoise, the verdurous scenery surrounding us in Dorset presented us each awakening day with a different viridescent hue.

Summer camp has its own rules: that is, no rules. The first convention that goes out the window is fashion, or the sense of it, rather. Not that I have ever had any; blue and black jeans for me, thank you very much. And T-shirts and jumpers to cover my upper half, that’s all I need. But even that disappears. The most important element at summer camp is how to be comfortable. Whether your socks match your top is beside the point. Do they shelter you at night from the chilly weather? The fact that a vest might or might not be from GAP or NEXT is irrelevant. Is it comfy enough to wear on the beach during the day?

The second covenant that gets broken very quickly is that of hygiene and the means to maintain it. A wash tent is usually pitched to one of side of the camp and that becomes the place de rigueur for your morning ablutions (or evening ones, whichever takes your fancy). Inside the tent there are other dwellers with you: flies, spiders, the odd mosquito and countless myriad insects hard to describe, let alone name.

The third precept that is easily forgotten is time. Except for the watch on your wrist, which you hardly ever look at anyway, time becomes an even more abstract noun that rarely materialises. Your day is divided by the meals you take and the chores you are tasked with.

There’s a fourth element that one gets used to very quickly. And that is related to one’s tent: bending. One must bend at all times when going in and coming out and suddenly Gulliver’s travels acquire a different dimension from the one we learnt when we read the book in our childhood.

These are not minuses, by the way, but merely aspects of camping. There is, though, one component that I saw throughout the whole stay and which is one of the reasons why my family and I go back every year with this local group. It was respect, manners and politeness. There were many ‘Good Mornings’ and several ‘How did you sleep last night?’. Our social interaction was great and I felt that for a whole week we encapsulated the essence of what it means to be human. And that to me was far more important than all the clean showers or fancy clothes in the world.

Copyright 2008


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