Sunday, 31 July 2011

While My MP3 Gently Plays

It died but it has yet to be buried. My former Phillips mp3 player stopped dead in its tracks (oh, dear, have I just come up with a superb musical pun? Methinks so) a fortnight ago and had to be replaced straight away. To be honest I still don't know what's wrong with it. The music folder disappeared mysteriously and with it the two-hundred-plus songs I'd put on it. I rushed to the nearest shop and bought a new one, but, it was utter rubbish. Please, take this piece of advice. If you ever come across the brand Archos, in whichever form, run a mile away from it. It's the worst make I've ever encountered. The shop compensated me and gave me a brand new, black 4GB Sony NWZB163 mp3 player. 4 giga is fine with me. It holds approximately between five-hundred and six-hundred tunes and it's perfect for when I'm on the move or out jogging.

"Ich glaube, Janis starb an einer Überdosis Janis." This quote, by Eric 'The Animals' Burdon, was the phrase that set me off on the path to learning German. I wanted to find out why Janis had died of a Janis overdose and the book detailing her life was in German. In years to come someone will probably say "Ich glaube, Amy starb an einer Überdosis Amys."

The first time my wife and I heard Amy Winehouse was on Choice Fm. Straight away we were impressed by her vocal delivery and the lyrics. She had a beautiful Billy Hollidayish rasp, mixed with a more rooted, proper north London nasal twang. It's a pity that her booze'n'drugs lifestyle took its toll in the end. I'd rather remember her as she appeared on Jools Holland about the same time her debut album "Frank" came out. "Stronger than me" is a well-written pop song. I hope you enjoy it.

It's strange that this song is twenty-six years old and yet, it still sounds fresh. Suzanne Vega has such a distinctive timbre and in "Knight Moves" you can see why. She is one of the few singers who knows what to do with her voice. Beautiful.

Raw, dirty, blues-infused, no-holds-barred, nihilistic, take-no-prisoners. There are many more words I could use to describe the music of The Black Keys but if, like me, you're into real, heartfelt music and not the Justin Bieber drivel that gets put out by the corporate machine, then, watch the next clip, "Just Got To Be". Rocking.

In June, for Father's Day, I gave myself a present, or rather, several presents. I bought four CDs which had long been on my endless "Saved Items" queue on Of the four, Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale's record "Breathing Under Water" is the one that gets played the most. And "PD7" is one of my favourite numbers. I hope it becomes yours, too. By the way, if you want to listen to another highlight from the album, the magnificent 'Little Glass Folk', click here. It's mesmerising, to say the least. The only reason I didn't include it is that the clip is just an image of the CD cover. I'm quite fussy when it comes to uploading videos on my blog. Have a nice week!

Next Post: "While My MP3 Gently Plays", to be published on Sunday 7th August at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

So, it was morality that did it in the end. We can put up with celebrities being dragged over hot coals, ex-reality TV "stars" being photographed whilst lying in the gutter (literally) or politicians being subjected to the kind of treatment that would have former members of the Stasi up in arms over the infringement of human rights. But when a newspaper interferes with a police investigation into the disappearance of a schoolgirl, our conscience steps in and declares that enough's enough.

It's been a strange fortnight here in GB. You can almost feel the smell of rotten apples wafting up your nostrils. First bad apple: The News of the World newspaper. Closed. Second bad apple: Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International. Sacked (or "resigned" as the official version has it). Third bad appple: the police. Two high-ranked officers stepped down, including the chief of the Metropolitan police. Fourth bad apple: Mr Rupert Murdoch. The powerful media mogul faced a panel of MPs last Tuesday 19th July. And had some shaving foam thrown at him. Not that men's toiletries will save the crop this year. This apple orchard is going down, down, down. The stench of it is enough to make you choke at the throat.

The phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed the UK press over the last two weeks has uncovered a whole world of deceit, bribery and corruption, elements usually found in banana republics. The collusion of politicians, media magnates, newspaper editors and the police in what is now acknowledged to be a serious fault in the wheels that keep British democracy rolling is mind-boggling.

Let's sum up, shall we? The crisis unravelled when it came to light that Milly Dowler, the schoolgirl who went missing in 2002, had had her mobile phone hacked. The News of the World paid a full-time investigator to intercept all her messages and at some point gained access to her voicemail. When the space for new messages ran out, the publication coldbloodedly deleted older ones, thus, giving the parents of an abducted teenage girl false hopes. They thought that it could only be their daughter who was getting rid of unnecessary messages.

Milly's case was followed quickly by allegations that the same newspaper had hacked into the voicemails of the relatives of the London 7/7 bombings as well as the telephones of next-of-kin of soldiers who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The waft from the rotten apples could not be disguised anymore. From British ex-prime minister Gordon Brown to family members of the victims of 9/11, the accusations that News International, the company that ran (the now defunct) The News of the World, functioned like an international drugs cartel, kept piling up.

At the heart of this crisis lie two questions: How free should the media be? And how do we deal with it when it goes beyond its remit, i.e., reporting and commenting on the news?

The answer to the first question is that the media and the press in particular should be as free as possible. A shackled media serves no purpose to anyone. The sheer variety of the British newspaper industry is what makes this country a beacon to other nations where journalism is regularly under threat and reporters beaten or murdered. Not that you would want to be caught doing much boasting about the British media these days. But crises do happen and to me, at least, it's not about having or not having them, but how you deal with them when they turn up on your doorstep.

So, how do you deal with the media when it starts thinking of itself as too important to be brought to heel? Regulation and education. No state regulation, mind, and no self-regulation either. But rather, independent regulation. It's unfortunate that the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is such a toothless body that it never foresaw the kind of scandal that has swept the UK for the last fortnight. But that's the price you pay when you kowtow to the tabloid press.

Education enters the frame when you think of the type of "news" that the redtops churn out day in, day out, or Sunday in, Sunday out as it was when The News of the World was still alive. Tittle-tattle takes the space of serious debate about climate change, oil supplies, the overseas sweatshops that supply us with cheap goods, military intervention in other countries and other important items. The difference between the tabloids and the broadsheets is not that the former are low-brow and the latter high-brow (The Mirror is a redtop and yet its coverage of the invasion to Iraq was exemplary) but that publications like The Guardian (which has led most news stories about the phone-hacking scandal since the beginning) and The Independent are socially minded and not money-grabbing like their screaming counterparts.

Maybe legislation could be brought in order to balance the craven-for gossip with more mature commentary on political, social, economic and ecological issues. This would enable the public to know more about the pressing challenges facing our society today and the type of action our government ought to take. Perhaps the legislation could enforce the creation of trusts – in that case press moguls such as Rupert Murdoch wouldn't have such a stronghold on UK public opinion and politics. Above all, the new law would demand that newspapers owners be resident UK citizens.

Yet, despite the scandal and the crisis, I feel proud to live in Britain in these moments. Without Nick Davies's intervention (the The Guardian journalist who spearheaded the investigation into The News of the World's illegal activities) parliament would be retiring now for the summer whilst Mr Murdoch would be gearing up for his takeover of BSkyB, thus extending his media empire even more. Andy Coulson, the disgraced former editor of The News of the World and under whose management most of the phone-hacking took place, would still be at the helm of government as prime minister David Cameron's spin doctor. Rebekah Brooks, Ruper Murdoch's flame-haired right hand, would still be performing her Pollice Verso pantomime on her chosen victims.

The situation as it stands is not pretty. But, unlike it happened with the bankers' crisis and the MPs expenses scandals, the action taken has been immediate, the response from the public has been less apathetic (straight after the news about the interception of Milly Dowler's messages came out, conscientious Twitterers and Facebookers contacted companies advertising in The News of the World and asked them to stop trading with the disgraced publication immediately) and Murdoch has been challenged, probably for the first time in his life. So, some of the rotten apples have been taken out and the very ripe ones are already looking over their shoulder. That, to me, is one of the solutions to the whole powerful-media-magnate-runs-the-country scenario. If we're to make a good apple pie, or apple crumble, let's stick to the healthy, edible fruit. And chuck out the bad ones.

This is all from me for the time being. I will be spending a couple of weeks in beautiful Cornwall, a place I've never been to (the farthest I've gone west is Devon) but with which, I've been assured, I'll fall in love. In the meantime my blog will not be idle. Every Sunday there'll be music courtesy of my mp3 player. Unfortunately my old one died all of a sudden and had to be replaced. I'm happy with my new one, though. So, a new mp3 player with plenty of tunes for your enjoyment. I hope you have a nice summer holiday and will be in touch when I come back. Chao!

© 2011

Next Post: “While My MP3 Gently Plays”, to be published on Sunday 31st July at 10am (GMT)

Bittersweet Symphony from Erik Koene on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Lilya 4-Ever (Review)

Whenever immigration is discussed in the UK, the following words and/or phrases are wheeled out: illegal, scroungers, taking our jobs, many, too many, no space, burden on the NHS/education sector. Less attention is paid to what makes some people up sticks and move to another country, sometimes travelling in a boat on dangerous waters, or in the back of a lorry.

That was one of the reasons why I welcomed Lukas Moodysson's film "Lilya 4-Ever". Because he dares to go where few directors will. Moodysson's feature packs a mighty punch. Like a scientist, he dissects the living, breathing (post-socialist) contemporary Russian society and reveals its bleak reality.

Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is a vivacious sixteen-year-old girl who lives with her mother in a poverty-stricken, derelict Russian town. Her mother meets a man through a dating agency and together they decide to emigrate to the States. At the beginning, Lilya is pretty much part of her mother's long-term plans but soon that changes and she is left behind. The situation takes a turn for the worse when Lilya's auntie asks her to move to another flat which is in a worse condition than the one in which she lives now. Lilya befriends a local eleven-year-old boy, Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), who has a crush on her and together they get up to all kinds of pranks. About the same time, she also falls in with the wrong crowd and ends up meeting a smooth-talking young guy in a club, who promises her that he can take her away to Sweden where she will have the opportunities that are denied to her in her native Russia. What Lilya doesn't suspect, nor has she the ability to, is that her "boyfriend" is a pimp who procures prostitutes for a vast network of clients in European countries. He doesn't even travel to Sweden with her.

Once in the Scandinavian nation Lilya is locked up in a flat on her own where she has to perform all kinds of unspeakably sexual acts. And it is here, in civilised, liberal Sweden where she meets her horrible fate.

Lilya 4-Ever is, above all, a film about betrayal. Lilya's mother betrays her daughter. Lilya, then, betrays Volodya when she meets Andrei (the pimp) and leaves her friend behind in an attempt to improve her life in Sweden. Lilya is consequently betrayed by Andrei, too. At the same time all characters in the movie are let down by society, both the Russian and Swedish, for their role in it amounts to no more than a mere cameo.

But the movie is also about the failure of the "big Soviet dream". One should never build a polity on utopias. One of the reasons why the socialist panacea failed - and continues to fail, in the few countries that are left - was that it created an illusion it couldn't deliver. The effect of this mirage was alienation amongst its younger members with the concomitant outcomes: drugs, alcohol and prostitution. For Lilya, read the youngsters jumping over the Berlin Wall in '89, or the Cuban rafters in '94, or the lone man facing the Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square. The squalor in which Lilya lives is not just the result of deficient post-Soviet economic policies, but also of erstwhile blind, centralised, political bureaucracy.

I admit that I rented the movie from Lovefilm without having an inkling about the director's work. It turns out that his two previous films have been comedies. Talk about career change!

Moodysson forces us to confront certain truths that are not at all comfortable. Who cleans the floors of the schools our children attend, before the little ones even get there? Who prepares the salads that wind up on the shelves of our local supermarkets? Who picks our fruit'n'veg? Who keeps the sex and porn industry afloat? And on top of that they have to put up with yet another sanctimonious Daily Mail headline demonising them.

There's no doubt that Lily-4-Ever is a tough movie to watch. But it is also riveting. It's cinematography at its best. The music is very good, ranging from hardcore metal to soft, harmonious melodies. The scenes where Lilya is repeatedly raped by different men are shot from her perspective, thus rendering her ordeal more palpable. The dreamlike sequence where Volodya's spirit appears to Lilya would have been thought kitsch in any other context. But coming on the back of yet more physical and mental pain for the protagonist, they are beautiful to watch. As well as painful. The photography reminded me a little of Ken Loach with its no-holds-barred documentary-like approach.

This is another must-see movie. And I, for one, will be now looking up Moodysson's comedies on Lovefilm. Just to balance a bit, you know.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 24th July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago I will be posting some of the columns I used to write for the now defunct newspaper 'Noticias', a monthly publication that catered mainly to the Spanish-speaking community in London. Chronologically speaking, today's article was the very first one I wrote. The inspiration for it came from a conversation I had with an old acquaintance of mine from my uni days shortly before I came to live in the UK. He and I had became dominoes partners during the years we were both higher education students, though we belonged to different faculties. We ran frequently into each other at the Havana University Students' Club and never missed a chance to sit down to a game of dominoes. And wipe the floor with our opponents' backsides. We were good. Correction. We were crackingly excellent. If our degrees had been in dominoes as opposed to biology in my acquaintance's case and languages in mine, we would have both, by now, achieved our PhDs.

However, after all those years of seeing each other almost every day, one day R (though I haven't seen him for close to fifteen years, I'll use only the initial of his name out of respect), disappeared. He never came to the Students' Club anymore and when I enquired after him to people we both knew they had no answer either. It was starting to look as if he'd also been part of the group of youngsters who'd left Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the balseros crisis of '94.

One day, all of a sudden he turned up at the club whilst I was having rehearsals with the Havana University Folkloric Ensemble. Physically speaking, he was still the same, but the look in his eyes was different. There was an emptiness in them as if someone had gouged the life from them and left the eyeballs intact. It was when he began to talk that it hit me. He said that he'd found the true path and that for those who, like me, had chosen the devil's way, the only option available was hell. He'd become a Christian, and not just any Christian, but a proselytising, hardcore one. R was black, like me. It occurred to me then and the same idea crossed my mind when I sat down to write the article below that he was rejecting his polytheistic African roots (and you don't have to be a non-believer to accept this cultural fact) for a monotheistic system imposed by the coloniser. It was ironic that our forebears had been whipped to within an inch of their lives and here he was now, extolling the virtues of the very God in whose name we were deemed less than animals.

I don't usually make my race a big deal, either here on my blog or in my normal, offline life. After all my skin colour is as much as result of genetics as it is an accident in and of itself. I could have been of a lighter or darker tone. But, what I look to the most above all is to be treated as a human being, first and foremost; that remains my main identiy. R was impinging on that identity. But also, in doing so, he was reneging on one of his identity markers, namely, his African ancestry. Unbeknownst to him (not that he would have cared anyway), my career as an Afro-Cuban performer was not just out of love for the dance but also respect for and desire to learn about the culture.

That's, then, how this column came about. Of course, R's name is not mentioned once and why should it? After all this short write-up was done mainly to honour those who left their sweat, blood and tears behind, in the sugar cane fields and in the mills and yet still managed to bequeath one of the richest cultural heritages ever to my fellow countrymen and women. R's loss was my gain.

My thanks, once again, to Lise McDermot Jones who translated the text into English. The Spanish original appears first and the English version below. The music today is related to the topic. It is a song by Sintesis, one of the first Cuban bands that mixed Afro-Cuban folklore and pop music. I hope you enjoy it.

Maferefún* nuestro folclor

"... yo soy descendiente de allá,

donde los negros calmaban su dolor al ritmo del tambor..."
Clave y Guaguancó

Cada vez que escucho esa rumba mi sange de negro cubano se hiela. Pensar que el grueso de mi folclor tiene sus raíces en el negocio más ignominioso, vergonzoso y humillante que haya existido en la historia de la humanidad hace que al mundo le salgan ojos aunque solo sea para llorar de rabia.

Entre 1666 y 1776, los ingleses, franceses y españoles eran los principales importadores de esclavos para sus colonias en América Latina alcanzando una cifra de tres millones. Un cuarto de ellos moría en los viajes.

En Cuba la cultura importada que mas influyó en lo que se convertiría en el folclor afrocubano fue la del pueblo yoruba. Yoruba era el término que identificaba a ciertas tribus que hablaban la misma lengua aunque no estuvieran unidas ni centralizadas políticamente. Su nivel de desarrollo urbano y artístico fue uno de los mas altos del África tropical. Tenían un panteón de dioses a quienes llamaban "orishas", cada uno con sus propios rasgos y atributos. Éstos son una fuerza pura, inmaterial que no puede hacerse perceptible a los seres humanos, sino "tomando posesión" de personas elegidas, denominadas "iyawó".

A fines del siglo XVII surge la "santería", sincretización de los diferentes cultos yorubas y la religion católica en un proceso natural y lógico, pues cada orisha tiene su equivalente en un santo católico. A esto le siguió el nacimiento de la Regla de Ocha, producto de la unión de Latuán, negra yoruba y un negro "babalosha" o sacerdote, Lorenzo Sama. A fines del siglo XIX Eulogio Gutiérrez instaura la Regla de Ifá, la sagrada orden de los sacerdotes "babalawos".

A pesar de haber contado siempre con muchos fieles seguidores (tanto abiertamente como en secreto) la cultura y religión africanas en general no han corrido la misma suerte que aquellas traídas de Europa. Esto se ha debido en mayor parte a la imagen inferior, primitiva, insofisticada que la cultura africana siempre ha tenido en Cuba. Sim embargo, un número significativo de los cubanos creyentes profesan un culto africano (o "profano", como tambien se les llama), o incluso practican este conjuntamente con la religión católica, dándose el caso de aquellos que se persignan y dicen "¡Ay, Dios mío!", pero terminan sacudiéndose los brazos y torso en señal de limpieza y exclamando "¡Siákara!" (una bendición de origen africano).

Es ahí que uno se da cuenta de que a pesar de los maltratos, de las largas horas de trabajo y del bocabajo sufridos por los esclavos, nuestra cultura y religión se sienten hoy más que nunca. Y esto se refleja en un dicharacho muy cubano señalando que todos tienen sangre de uno y otro pueblo africano: "Aquí el que no tiene de congo tiene de carabalí..."

Publicado originalmente en octubre de 1999.

* Palabra yoruba que significa "bendito sea" o "viva"

Long live our folklore

"I am a descendant of that place, where black people soothed their pain with the rhythm of the drums..."

Clave y Guaguancó

Every time I hear the sound of that rumba, my black, Cuban blood freezes. The thought that the main art of my folklore has its roots in the most ignominious, shameful and degrading trade that has existed in the history of humanity is enough to make the eyes of the world cry with rage.

Between 1666 and 1776 the English, French and Spanish were the main importers of slaves to their colonies in Latin Ameria, a trade which reached a figure of three million. A quarter of these died during the voyage.

In Cuba, the imported culture which was most influential in what would later become Afrocuban folklore came from the Yoruba people. Yoruba was the term identifying certain tribes that spoke the same language although they were not united or politically centralised. Their level of urban and artistic development was amongst the highest in tropical Africa. They had a pantheon of gods whom they called "orishas", each with their own characteristics and attributes. These constitute pure, intangible force which cannot be perceived by human beings, but rather "takes possession" of chosen people, called "iyawó".

At the end of the 18th century "santería" emerged, which was the syncretisation of the various Yoruba cultures and the Catholic religion in a logical and natural process, so that each orisha has an equvalent in a Catholic saint. Following this the Regla of Ocha was born, product of the union of Latuan, a black Yoruba woman and a black "babalosha", or priest, Lorenzo Sama. At the end of the 19th century Eugenio Gutiérrez established the Regla de Ifá, sacred order of "babalawos" or priests.

In spite of having always counted on many followers (both openly and in secret), African culture and religion in general have not had the same fortune as those brought from Europe. This has largely been owing to the image that African culture has always had in Cuba as inferior, primitive and unsophisticated. Nevertheless, a significant number of Cuban believers are followers of an African (or "profane", as they are also called) cult, or even practise this alongside Catholicism, a case in point being those who make the sign of the cross and say "My God!" but finish by brushing off their arms and torso as a sign of "cleansing", exclaiming "Siákara!" (an African blessing).

It is then that you realise that in spite of the mistreatment, of the long hours of work and the beatings suffered by the slaves, this culture is felt more than ever today. And this is reflected in a popular and very Cuban expression pointing out that everyone there has blood from one or other African tribe: "Here, whoever isn't part Congolese is part Carabali)

Published originally in October 1999.


Next Post: “Lilya 4-Ever (Review)”, to be published on Wednesday 20th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Queues. Whenever someone in the UK complains about queues, as if they were a species indigenous only to this sceptred isle, my reply is the same: You ain't seen nothing until you've seen a queue in Cuba.

Seen? Nah, how about felt? Been assailed by the various emotions that lines in Cuba awaken: aggression, calm, ennui and excitement. A Zen-like peace can easily be shattered into smithereens in no time. This is quickly followed by a violent desire to gun down the person in front of you in the queue, preferably wild west style. He who draws first... well, gets in first, too.

Queues. Dear reader, we Cubans learn about colas very early in our childhood. Maybe it's the first word we utter the minute we come out of mummy's belly: ¡Cola!. And our parents know that it's not the carbonated soft drink to which we're referring. Nein doch! What we really mean is the snaking, never-ending, Wall-of-China throng that is often euphemistically called a single file.

Queues rule our cultural and social life in Cuba. You learn the ropes very quickly. First off is the password, the phrase that cannot be translated into any other language. You see, over here people ask you "are you in the queue?". In my beloved island we get to what looks like the tail end of this gargantuan reptile and like a town crier in centuries gone by, intone in a mighty voice: ¿Quién es el último? (Who is the last one? But really, that translation doesn't do any justice to the Cuban expression). Once you find this person who is almost like the equivalent of the lighthouse - albeit a temporary one - in the queue, the enquiries begin: ¿Detrás de quién va usted? ¿Y él? ¿Y ella? Suddenly information concerning at least the next half dozen people lining up in front of the "last one" comes forth. And this is where the second element comes in: social interaction. You will be told that the "last one" is queuing up behind the "prieto con las gafas negras" (the dark-skinned man with the black shades), and he's right behind the "mujer entra'ita en carne con el vestido rojo y las puyas negras" (the plump woman with the red dress and the black high heels) and so on. For the next two or three hours (some queues last longer) you and your companions will be discussing the comfort or pain of high heels and the idiocy of wearing sunglasses when the sky's overcast. Lines are to the casual observer on social interplay what the Galápagos Islands were to Charlers Darwin.

Dear reader, picture this. Mid 1980s. Eleven(ish) o' clock at night and the party's over. Curfew looms on the horizon ("be back by 11:30"; "yes. mum!" Bang! Door is closed, freedom at last!). Coppelia ice cream parlor is the next and last stop. The various tribes are already congregated here. Ergo, there are lots of queues. There're the "pepillos" with their baggy trousers (bombachos) stretching all the way down to their moccasins, instead of stopping mid-point on their knees. Three pleats on either side of the fly signal the fashion that arrives (a bit too late) from the "bad guys from the North". A white shirt two sizes larger covers their still undeveloped bodies, whilst a tie (probably done up by grandpa in a rush whilst little Pedro splashes Moscú Rojo on his face and arms) hangs down their front moving to and fro like a pendulum, reaching out to adulthood but suddenly swinging back to childhood. A mullet adorns their barnet. The closing melody from the party is still reverbarating in their heads: "I'm never gonna dance again/guilty feet have got no rhythm/though it's easy to pretend/I know you're not a fool". Yes, before adventures in lavatories the cute one from Wham was the voice that brought parties from Vedado to Santiago de las Vegas to an end. Once the track finishes their guiltless feet shuffle rhythmically to Coppelia, the Mecca of ice-cream. To join the queue.

Down this end come the roqueros (rockers). Tight jeans, sometimes tucked inside their heavy Russian, pardon me, Soviet boots. This is still 1984-5, Gorbachev has yet to come up with his famous perestroika and change the Spanish vocabulary forever. The roqueros descend on Coppelia like allied forces bombers closing in on Dresden circa 1945. They've probably been stopped a few times by the police before venturing into the Cathedral of Ice Cream. And here they are, joining the queue.

Then there are the guapos. The tough guys who listen to salsa and dance casino. Their trousers are worn Michael Jackson style during his Billie Jean years. Their shoes are polished to an impossibly fashionable lustre. Their swagger boasts a no-nonsense attitude. On their arms are perched their girlfriends like knock-off bagatelle.

The last group seems to almost inhabit Coppelia. It's the proximity of both cinematheques, La Rampa and Chaplin, that makes los trovas an autochthonous species. A love for experimental theatre, classical movies and unheard-of books characterise this tribe. Their long jeans suffer from that perennial sartorial disease: hem drag. But they don't care, it's part of their cachet. And on this sweltering Saturday night, when the sweat-soaked shirts worn by los pepillos look as if they were made of gauze, they all end up doing the same at the same place: queuing at Coppelia.

Come with me now, dear reader, and I'll take you somewhere else. Let's go into a Cuban barber shop. The line is shorter but the waiting time is longer. Because Cuban barbers like nothing more than chewing the fat. And the fatter the fat the more they love masticating it. No wonder Billy Joel's famous doo woop hit number "The Longest Time" is said to have been inspired by a trip to a barber shop in his native New York. Where they don't so much chew the fat as sink into and swim in lard.

I can still picture my haircut routine at my local barber's. Situated on San Francisco Street, almost on the corner of Neptuno, the famous Neptuno: (Cha cha chá-un-dos-Cha cha chá) A Prado y Neptuno/(Cha cha chá-un-dos-Cha cha chá) iba una chiquita/(Cha cha cha-un-dos-Cha cha chá) que todos los hombres la tenían que mirar; this is the place where you come to have your "Carl Lewis" (short sides and back, squar[ish] top) or your machinbra'o (shaded sides four to one, or four to zero) done. The soundtrack is a mix of discussion about baseball (This is Industriales' year, you'll see, Ayón is the man!), local gossip and impromptu singing. Especially from the older generation, who want nothing fancy or too stylish: "Just a touch-up, son". I can still remember a gentleman - alas, I forget his name - who used to perform in one of the big bands from the 50s at the National and Habana Hilton (by then, Libre). He sometimes breaks into a song all of a sudden, especially when there's a lull in the chatter and the air is filled only by the metallic cutting sound of the scissors and the robotic drone of clippers mowing down hair: "Mujer, si puedes tu con Dios hablar, pregúntale si yo alguna vez te he dejado de adorar". When he finishes, we all look at one another and nod in agreement, even me, rock'n'roll obsessive. This cat's still got it. Unfortunately he won't live much longer to make it onto the Buena Vista Social album. His voice and his presence stay here, however, in these four walls, one of which is taken over by big mirrors. The queue in the barber shop is that time when everything around you stands still and your memory takes a Polaroid photo which, in years to come, no matter how yellow and faded it is, you take out and look at.

It is in queues where some people find (illegal) employment. Waking up at five or six in the morning, they will head for markets, cinemas, the aforementioned Coppelia or any other place where long lines are likely to form and take their turn several times. As soon as they spot a "customer" they approach them and tell them that they've got a place near the front and would they like to buy it. Listen, it's only five pesos, but if you have more people coming with you, then I can go down to three pesos per head. Just make sure that if people ask you any questions, you say you're my cousin. No, it doesn't matter that your hair is red, you have freckles and pale skin and I look like a totí. Genes, mamita, genes! Listen, I have more business to do, take it or leave it? And take it she does. If el colero was capable of exporting his business model abroad, neither Greece, nor Ireland, nor Portugal would be now mired in the financial crisis in which they find themselves. Believe me.

The queue in Cuba, and specifically, in my beloved city, Havana, is our music, our magic, our politics. It is the place where we philosophise, not just about the "big subjects", Aristotle-style, but also about the consistency of ice-cream and the advantage of foot brakes in Russian bikes (yes, we can call them "Russian" now) versus the hand version in the Chinese ones. The queue is the campfire around which we perform our daily routines: conversing, falling for and out with people and, quipping. It represents the Latin American Film Festival every December, the rationed meat one gets once in a blue moon, the bus that takes you to uni and the posada on which you depend for intimate encounters with your other half because, unfortunately, the housing situation is tight and you live with half a dozen other relatives at home. That is the queue and much more.

What we need in Cuba is a monument. A mammoth public statue, in proportion, obviously, to the average sized line, that will acknowledge the social and cultural contribution made by this very criollo phenomenon: the queue.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 17th July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

In Terry Pratchett's recent documentary 'Choosing to Die' the author says at the very beginning: "Sometimes, particularly when I'm depressed, I dread what the future may hold. And it's occurred to me that in these modern times one shouldn't have to fear that sort of thing." Terry suffers from Alzheimer's, a condition characterised by memory lapses, confusion and emotional instability. The process is irreversible and the result is loss of one's mental abilities. In our 21st century, as Sir Pratchett avers, we should be able to deal with this kind of malaise. I'm not talking about the total elimination of it, though, that, I think, is still light-years ahead. After all, nature is the smooth operator steering the wheel and as we well know nothing can stop it, but at least let's ensure that sufferers have access to the best care possible. Including the most humane. Terry is of the mind that one of the available options should be assisted suicide. He wants to be able to decide when and where he should die, possibly aided by a loved one without any legal repercussions for him or her.

Terry's dread, however, is not just shared by those afffected by Alzheimer's. About the same time his documentary premiered on the BBC, the news delivered a couple of shockers. One concerned the alleged attack on a female resident at a care home by a male worker. The other one was about Southern Cross, Britain's biggest care homes operator and its struggle to stay afloat because of its inability to pay its rent.

All these items are related in the end: Terry's support for assisted suicide, the way some elderly people are treated in care homes, and the financial constraints under which many of these residences find themselves in our economically straitened times.

Would a person think of ending his or her life all of a sudden, if there was any hope of dying when "their time came" in a dignified way, surrounded by the people he or she cared about and who loved them in return? I don't think so. Would a person feel so despondent to the point where death would be a welcomed, soothing balm if we, as a society, showed him or her that we cared? I have my doubts about that. And yet, here we are at a crossroads: one arrow seems to point at a third age where, in order to be cared for properly, one will have to sell their own home; a second sign leads us to Dignitas, the famous Swiss assisted-dying group that helps those with severe physical and mental impediments die. And even that option is chiefly available to the well-heeled. The third prong of this fork forces us to confront an image before venturing down its path. It is the future to which some of us will be subjected: bad-tempered nurses and care workers leaving us in sodden beds for days on end, denying us food and water when we want them and abusing us physically and mentally when we dare to protest. Ironically the only company for whom 'Dignity' is paramount is the one trading in death when, really, the (still) living should be the ones accorded the respect and decorum they deserve.

I agree with Terry's stand on assisted suiced and, after having watched the programme, I came away thinking that should I fall prey to a terrible and terminal disease, I would like to have the right to end it all when and where I wished. If I was incapable of doing so myself, however, I would like my long-term partner to do it for me. What better leave-taking present than to die in the arms of the wife whom you so much loved and who returned the same affection in equal if not larger quantities?

But at the same time I can't stop thinking about what would (or will) happen if I ended up in a care home. In the same way that society - and that includes me, too - benefits from my contributions to it, be it through my taxes which help fund our cherished NHS and our schools, or through my cultural input as an immigrant, I would like that contribution to benefit me in my twilight years. Quid pro quo.

To be clear, not all care homes are like the Ash Court Centre, the scene of the alleged assault on the elderly female resident. Nor are our care workers 'Nurse Ratched' wannabes salivating at the prospect of inflicting pain on unsuspecting and vulnerable OAPs. The majority of them do a commendable job, sometimes under dire situations. Frequently for very little financial retribution. But when money comes before our human principles, then it shouldn't surprise anyone that scandals such as the one engulfing the Kentish Town-based institution break out. In order to maximise profit safeguards and checks are sometimes overlooked and staff hired with a cost-effective business plan in mind instead of a palliative one. Faced with this between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place situation even I would be on the Easyjet website trying to book a one-way ticket to Zurich.

As Terry says in the documentary there are plenty of people in the UK who are against assisted suicide. Some of them on moral grounds, and others on religious ones (ha, surprise, surprise!). I understand the motivation of the former. Helping someone die can become an excuse for unscrupulous relatives willing to take advantage of a frail person who is no longer capable of making decisions by themselves. But I, naive and gullible human being that I am, think that the immoral brigade will always be outnumbered by the principled one. Plus, not everyone has the dosh to top themselves off against the backdrop of the magnificent Swiss landscape.

In the end, it comes down to death per se and how we deal with it. In a totally unrelated article in the paper the other day the writer Karen Armstrong remarked on this very issue. According to Ms Armstrong 'we prefer to speak of somebody "passing away" and push the dying out of sight into hospices and nursing homes.' What's clear to me, too, is that we still can't make up our minds as to what to do with this - growing - elderly population. If they want to bring their lives to a halt, either themselves or aided by a loved one, that's to be frowned upon. If, on the other hand, they insist on living longer, then that's also wrong because who'll foot the bill for their care? No wonder Roger Daltrey was singing in 1965: "I hope I die before I get old". What I would like to happen in the next few years is that today's twenty-year-old, on coming across with the The Who's famous song, will be able to say confidently three decades henceforth: "That's a lot of old bollocks. I love being old." And when he/she dies that they do so with dignity.

Terry Pratchett's documentary can be seen in its entirey by clicking here. Please, be aware that it contains distressing images.

© 2011

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 13th July at 11:59pm (GMT)

The Who- My Generation 12-17-82 from Christopher Petrilli on Vimeo

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Secret in Their Eyes (Review)

"You said life". It's not very often that such a short sentence, like tonight's post's opener, is loaded with so much meaning. But it would be fair to say that this laconic statement is the axis on which the plot of the Oscar-winning Argentinian thriller "El Secreto de sus Ojos" ("The Secret in Their Eyes") revolves. The 'life' to which that phrase refers can be interpreted in two ways.

The first one is pretty direct. It's the movie's main narrative. In mid 70s, pre-junta, Argentina, an attractive schoolteacher is raped and murdered. The resulting investigation sees young policeman Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) working with - and falling for - Cornell-graduate lawyer Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). After a false start following a confession beaten out of two immigrants by one of Benjamín's rivals, the real killer is finally apprehended. He turns out to be a long-time acquaintance of the victim's and obsessed with her. But corruption is rife and the perpetrator is soon freed. Thus, justice is far from done. This situation, which takes up to thirds of the movie, is important to understand the meaning of the opening phrase of this post. A phrase, which is the last line in the film, uttered by the deceased woman's husband to a puzzled - but understanding - Benjamín.

The second reading is more subtle and concerns three characters. One is the aforementioned widower, who, on figuring out the identity of his wife's killer, goes regularly to the same train station, week after week, hoping to come face to face with the criminal. This stakeout becomes his only life, since his beloved one's has been taken. The other two characters for whom 'life' means exactly that are the two leads. Twenty-five years after the murder and whilst writing a novel about it, Benjamín pays a visit to his old boss. He realises immediately that his feelings for her have not abated, but, on the contrary, intensified. The way they look at and desire each other reminded me somehow of the end of "Love in the Time of Cholera" when Florentino Ariza tells Fermina Daza that "after 53 years, seven months and 11 days and night, my heart was at last fulfilled. And I discovered, to my joy, that it is life and not death that has no limits." In Benjamín and Irene's case it's, fortunately, only half that time.

There are other elements that make "The Secret in their Eyes" an excellent film. The supporting cast, headed formidably by Guillermo Francella (Benjamín's alcoholic sidekick), with Pablo Rago as the grieving husband and Javier Godino as the psychopathic killer, is exquisite to watch. The photography is superb, especially the interior shots and the flashbacks. There's plenty of humour, too, which is very welcome in a film laden with so much suffering.

But to me it's the Dostoevskian puzzle at the centre of the film that matters most. Should life mean life? And, should we use violence to retaliate when we've been wronged and justice has not been done? I think that each case should be treated individually, but in Juan José Campanella's film I find myself replying affirmatively to the opening sentence of this review: yes, life means life.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 10th July at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I was recently rummaging through old papers, poems and short stories I had written aeons ago and columns and reviews I had penned for various publications when I chanced upon a few articles I had submitted to the now defunct newspaper Noticias. This was a monthly free magazine for the Latin American community in London which purported to be the voice of the Latin diaspora. Whether it ever achieved that objective or not it's a moot point now that it no longer exists, but at least we, Spanish-speakers had our very own paper at some point. A friend of mine I had met in Cuba a few years before, had been asked by the editor at Noticias to produce a special supplement in English to attract Anglophone readers. The new section would have a didactic approach as some words and phrases would be highlighted and their meaning given so as to provide a better understanding of the Spanish language and culture. It was in this context that I wrote a few columns on various subjects such as: race, music, sports and poetry.

The pay was low and my cheque very rarely arrived on time, but I had a lovely time writing for the publication. I was given free rein in regards to the topics I could cover, which was manna from heaven to a free-lance writer. As for word limit, they were pretty relaxed in the magazine.

I don't normally write in Spanish on this blog. There are many reasons as to why, but one should be enough as an explanation: I live now in the UK and cater mainly to an Anglophone audience. Yet, sometimes the Latin-Caribbean in me wants to wax lyricial in my own mother tongue and indulge in the aphorisms, neologisms and slang we use in Cuba and other countries of the Hispanic diaspora.

Which is why I will be posting some of the aforementioned columns that first appeared in Noticias on my blog in the next few weeks. Fret not if you can't speak or read Spanish, there will always be a translation.

I'll kick off with an article on how Latin American pop and rock was influenced by both British and US musical trends, but it also drew from its own roots. The original feature is in Spanish and the English translation appears below it. The translation was carried out by Lise McDermot Jones, who was the person in charge of the special English supplement at Noticias. And I would like to use this space now to thank her for giving me the opportunity to contribute to her section. All names of bands or soloists that appear in the Spanish version have been highlighted and links to videos on youtube have been included. I encourage you, dear readers and fellow bloggers, to follow those links and discover a different side to Latin American culture. The musician mentioned at the end of my piece is Santana, who, at the time of writing the article, had just won a clutch of Grammies courtesy of his album "Supernatural". I hope you enjoy this column.

De 'Lads', 'Dudes' y 'Latin Boys'

La persona que dijo alguna vez que el rock era un fenómeno solo de la cultura anglosajona estaba, o escuchando a Travis cantando “Mata Siguaraya” o pensó quizás que harían la versión algún día.

Se que estoy bailando en case del trompo. Por una parte la música británica ha producido talentos de la talla del dúo Lennon/McCartney, de grupos como Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen, Oasis y solistas como Elton John, Sting y Tom Jones. Por otra parte, “Yanquilandia” no se ha quedado de brazos cruzados y así hemos tenido a Aerosmith, Metallica, Janis Joplin y Jimi Hendrix. ¿Entonces, con todos estos truenos donde está nuestro rock latino?

Nuestra identidad roquera tiene mucho que agradecerle a la música anglo-norteamericana, pero también tiene progenitores propios. Salió de la mezcla de aquella canción protesta de los 60 y 70 con el terremoto social-político que azotaba a nuestro continente. Eran años cuando Bob Dylan cantaba que “la respuesta, mis amigos, está soplando en el viento”, era asesinado Víctor Jara en Chile, le daban a Benedetti cuarenta y ocho horas para abandonar Argentina y el mundo de pronto se encontraba al borde del cataclismo nuclear debido a la Crisis de Octubre. Nuestro rock, o rock-pop, viene de nuestra Mercedes Sosa, de la poesía de Neruda y del folclor de Atahualpa Yupanqui.

El primer contacto que tuve con el género fue a través de Los Prisioneros, grupo chileno y Fito Paéz, músico argentino. En el caso de los primeros fue una cinta pasada de mano en mano y, que por supuesto, dejaba mucho que desear en cuanto a calidad. Pero el frescor anarquista con que los chicos se enfrentaban a los problemas de Chile en los años 80 era intoxicante.

Fito llegó a Cuba de la forma más anónima posible y se fue convertido en una celebridad. Con un par de tenis de colores diferentes el uno del otro, pelo largo y rizado, nariz colosal y espejuelos enormes, fue su capacidad de “dar su corazón” lo que nos creó una “Fitomania” que todavía nos dura. Su influencia lo demuestra el hecho de que cuando Mercedes Sosa oyó “Yo Vengo a Ofrecer mi Corazón” por primera vez, le dijo al músico rosarino que estaba interesada en cantarla.

Esa misma noche un grupo de “milicos” tocó en casa del compositor y le dijeron: “No jodas más y no te metas donde no te llaman.”

Si es cierto que nuestro rock ha servido de tribuna y de arenga, también ha servido de reflexión.

Pongo por ejemplo a Carlos Varela, músico cubano, que supo expresar las dudas y conflictos de la juventud de la isla caribeña a finales de los 80. Canciones como “Guillermo Tell”, “Cuchilla en la Acera” y “El Gnomo” están impregnadas de un sentimiento inconformista, de anarquía inocente y de rebeldía adolescente muy propia de aquella Cuba pre-período especial.

Para terminar esta breve defensa de nuestro patrimonio roquero, me basta con decir que el músico que este año barrió con los Grammy en Estados Unidos es muy latino y ha influido en muchas generaciones de jóvenes no solo de nuestro continente sino del mundo entero. ¿Qué no puedes adivinarlo? Entonces me marcho, pero primero, “Oye como va, mi ritmo, bueno pa’ gozar, mulata…

Esta columna fue publicada originalmente en junio del 2000.

Of 'Lads', 'Dudes' and 'Latin Boys'

Whoever said that rock was a phenomenon solely of the Anglo-Saxon culture was either listening to Travis singing “Mata Siguaraya” (the song made famous by Benny More) or perhaps thought that they would do a version one day.

I know that i am probably stepping on some toes here. On the one hand, British music has produced talents of the stature of the Lennon/McCartney duo, groups such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen and Oasis and soloists such as Elton John, Sting and Tom Jones. “Yankeeland” has not been idle either and has given us Aerosmith, Metallica, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. So, with all this going on, where does this leave Latin American rock?

Our rock identity owes much to Anglo-American music, but it also has its own forebears. It came from the mixture of those protest songs of the 60s and 70s with the socio-political earthquake that shook our continent. These were years in which, whilst Bob Dylan sang “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind”, Victor Jara was assassinated in Chile, Benedetti was given forty-eight hours to leave the country and the world suddenly found itself on the brink of nuclear disaster with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our rock, or rock pop, comes from our own Mercedes Sosa, the voice of the Americas, from the poetry of Neruda, from the folklore of Atahualpa Yupanqui.

My first contact with the genre was through Los Prisioneros, a Chilean group and Fito Paez, an Argentine musician. In the case of the former, a tape was passed from hand to hand, which of course, left much to be desired with regard to quality. But the anarchistic freshness with which they confronted the problems in Chile was intoxicating.

Fito arrived in my home country of Cuba in the most anonymous manner and left a celebrity. Wearing trainers of different colours, with long, curly hair, an enormous nose and huge glasses, it was his ability to "give his heart" which started a "Fitomania" which continues to this day. His influence is demonstrated by the fact that when Mercedes Sosa first heard "Yo Vengo a Ofrecer mi Corazón" she told the musician from Rsoario that she interested in singing the song.

That same night the military knocked on the composer's door and told him "Don't mess with that doesn't concern you".

Whilst our rock has served as platform and pulpit, it has also been used for reflection. An example is the Cuban musician Carlos Varela, who expressed the doubts and conflicts of the Cuban youth at the end of the 80s. Songs such as "Guillermo Tell", "Cuchilla en la Acera" and "El Gnomo"are saturated with a nonconformist sentiment, with an innocent anarchy and an adolescent rebellion very much of pre "Special Period" Cuba.

To conclude this brief defence of our rock heritage, it is enough to say that the musician that made a clean sweep a tthe Grammies in the United States this year is very Latin and has influenced many generations, not only in our continent but all over the world, You haven't guessed yet? Well, I'll finish here, but first "Oye como va, mi ritmo, bueno pa’ gozar, mulata…”

This column was originally published in June 2000.

© 2011

Next Post: “The Secret in Their Eyes (Review)”, to be published on Wednesday 6th July at 11:59pm (GMT)


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