Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

19 August 2020

FIlm review: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009) by Jan Kounen, ****


Synopsys

In 1913 the first performance of the ballet “Le sacre du printemps” took place in Paris. The composer, Igor Stravinsky, is whistled for his radically new music. But in the audience there is a woman who is intoxicated by the dissonant rhythms and feels that this music is just as groundbreaking as her fashion creations: Coco Chanel. 

Seven years passed before the choreographer Sergej Diagilew introduced Coco to Igor Stravinsky, who had since fled Russia to Paris. Coco Chanel invites the penniless composer to live with his lung-sick wife and children in their luxurious villa in Garches and to revisit his spring sacrifice there while she creates the first synthetic perfume with Chanel No. 5. The novel is apparently based on a true story: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky actually had an affair.


Review

A captivating story of two icons of the XX century, coming from two entirely different worlds (fashion and music) but sharing a revolutionary approach to
their work. Strawinsky owes his professional survival to a woman who almost destroys his family.

Book  
 Film

30 September 2019

Preparazione dell'anniversario di domani

Piazza Ouyanghai, accanto al Parco della Giada di Guiyang. Carino il parco dietro casa, e stasera molto frequentato.

Però, a differenza degli altri giorni, oggi non è consentito ballare o vendere alcunché, perché domani è il 70° anniversario della fondazione della repubblica popolare cinese e non sarebbe rispettoso. Non sono sicuro di capire ma va bene così, atmosfera allegra. Temperatura piacevole, settembre si conferma essere il mese migliore per visitare Guiyang, non troppo caldo come agosto e non troppo freddo come l'inverno continentale.

Non si balla ma si canta, e un signore di mezza età ha sistemato un grande altoparlante con video su cui fa girare video di karaoke. Tanti ragazzi pagano per fargli suonare qualcosa e cantare. Il karaoke è di origine giapponese ma è diventato estremamente popolare in Cina.

Altri ragazzi, adolescenti più impegnati, ripassano parole, musica e danze per i festeggiamenti di domani. Gruppi di una ventina di giovani con una capobanda che scandisce parole e movimenti, mentre tutti sventolano bandierine rosse con stelline dorate. Domani sarà una commemorazione solenne.

In realtà qualcuno che vende c'è: piccoli gruppi di ragazzi e soprattutto ragazze con maglietta rossa vendono bandierine nazionali rosse con le cinque stelle e dicono che il ricavato va ricavato alle case per anziani.

23 September 2017

Film review: Farewell my concubine (1993) by Chen Kaige, *****

 Synopsis

The film gives a most interesting overview of China's history in the XX century through the eyes of Peking opera actors. We see the country moving from the fall of the Qing Empire (the last eunuch is still around for a long time after the advent of the Republic), through the Japanese invasion, the civil war and the various phases of the Communist rule.

Two boys are educated to play two classical roles in the Peking Opera, one masculine and the other effeminate. They are so good at it that they play the opera together for their entire career: during the chaos of China after the fall of the Qing Empire, during the Japanese occupation, the brief Nationalist takeover, the Communist take over, the Cultural Revolution.

Gong Li becomes the wife of the masculine actor, and as such created serious, and ultimately unsolvable, dilemmas in the mind of her husband, with tragic consequences.






Review

In this film the character Douzi represents in many ways the real life of the actor Leslie Cheung. Douzi was gay and struggled to be accepted in the society of his time, and so was Cheung in real life. He is however successful professionally and admired for that, and so is Cheung, the first Hong Kong actor who acted in a mainland China film. And the real life of Cheung represents Douzi's role in the film: he can't take the pressure any more and ends up committing suicide. Beautiful costumes!

A courageous masterpiece by Chen Kaige, a pillar of Chinese film in the XX century. He addressed the controversial issues of homosexuality and the Cultural Revolution in a film before anyone else dared to do so in the People's Republic of China. For this "farewell my Concubine" was banned shortly after its release in 1993, only to be cleared by the censors a while later in an abridged form.

This was the very first film from the People's Republic of China to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

See my other reviews of films about China here on this blog.

















Buy this film by clicking on one of these links



10 April 2017

Film review: You and Me (2013) by Zhang Yimou, ****

Synopsis

Golden-globe winning Chinese film director Zhang Yimou has staged his first Peking opera at the NCPA, spectacularly fusing the traditional and modern together for his production of You and Me. This production is an overwhelming feast for the senses. Lavish and colorful costumes, unique music composed and conducted by Zhu Shaoyu, and a world class ensemble that features the greatest stars of the Peking opera, including Meng Guanglu, Shi Yihong, and Li Mingyan, turn You and Me into an unforgettable experience. You and Me is based on the age-old tale from the Zuo legend, Lord Zheng defeats Duan in Yan, which is a story about deceit and the power of filial love. Zhang Yimou recounts the story using the stylistic elements of the Peking opera, which in turn he makes accessible for an entirely new audience. This release also includes Tradition versus Modernity, a documentary about Peking opera and the making of You and Me.

It can be a bit difficult to follow for a Western audience, even with the help of subtitles. We are not used to Chinese music's tonalities and rhythm, but I would encourage the listener to try and be patient and they.

"You and Me" is based on the age-old tale from the Zuo legend “Lord Zheng defeats Duan in Yan” – a story about deceit and the power of filial love. Zhang Yimou recounts the story using the stylistic elements of the Peking Opera, which in turn he makes accessible for an entirely new audience.

The production of "You and Me" attaches great importance to tradition. It follows the aesthetic principle of paying tribute to the Peking opera tradition while adding a new approach to its traditional props of “one desk and two chairs”. Says Zhang Yimou: “My concern was to produce a unique Peking opera, not a unique genre, but a unique way of putting it across.” (from IMZ)


Buy your DVD here


03 December 2016

Film review: Eroica (2003) by Simon Cellar Jones, *****

Synopsis

By the time the first public performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ('Eroica') took place in Vienna in 1805, a privileged few had already heard the work at a private play-through at the Lobkowitz Palace in June 1804.

This release brings to life the momentous day that prompted the great Haydn, Beethoven's teacher, to remark 'everything is different from today'.

Review

A film that keeps you glued to the screen from beginning to end even if you don't like classical music. It is a film about a day that changed Western culture, not just music. It put thought into music. Classical music is no longer just for pleasure or, worse, for background, but it is a means of expression for ideas and ideals. In a way, no film can possibly be expected to convey such an enormous feat, it's too important, too far reaching an event to encapsulate in 83 minutes.

Acting is quite good, and so are the costumes. Of course the symphony itself if always a pleasure to listen to. In this case it's Gardiner conducting.

One small inaccuracy is that when he learns that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Beethoven is shown as ripping the title page off, with the famous dedication to Bonaparte, and throwing it away. In fact, he crossed out the words, ripping up the paper in doing so.



In the UK buy your favorite version of Beethoven's Eroica here on Amazon.



Browse your Eroica versions here on Amazon

Here about the novelty of this symphony and a version played at the BBC prom
























18 November 2016

Film review: Tokyo Sonata (2008) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, ****

Synopsis

Kiyoshi Kurosawa the hugely acclaimed Japanese director famous for his groundbreaking, existential horror films such as Cure and Kairo [Pulse] set Cannes alight in 2008 with this highly topical film: an eerie, poignant reflection on the mass uncertainty sweeping the world.

When Ryuhei Sasaki (played by Teruyuki Kagawa) is unceremoniously dumped from his safe company job, his family's happy, humdrum life is put at risk. Unwilling to accept the shame of unemployment, the loyal salaryman decides not to tell anyone, instead leaving home each morning in suit and tie with briefcase, spending his days searching for work and lining up for soup with the homeless. Outstanding performances; serene, elegant direction; and Kurosawa's trademark chills are evident as he ratchets up the unsettling atmosphere and the grim hopelessness of Sasaki's unemployment.


SPECIAL DUAL FORMAT EDITION:
  • Gorgeous 1080p Blu-ray transfer in the original aspect ratio
  • Making Of documentary [61:00]
  • Q&A, Tokyo, September 2008 [12:00]
  • Première footage, Tokyo, September 2008 [15:00]
  • DVD discussion [9:00] UK trailer [3:00]
  • 28-page colour booklet with a new essay by B. Kite


Review


It is a film that took me some time to appreciate. At first it was actually boring. At the end it was riveting! You can see a traditional male-dominated Japanese family where the father is actually more concerned with preserving his wobbling authority, and face, than with the well being of his wife and sons. He loses his job to outsourcing to China, and can not pick himself up again. His elder son is a bit naive and wants to find purpose by joining the US military, only to be sent to the Middle East and change is view of the world after seeing the horrors of war. His house wife tried to make things work in the family but is constantly sidelined by the father.

The only member of the family who turns out to have a clue is the youngest son, who dreams of becoming a pianist and takes lessons in secret when he is forbidden to do so. In the end, his dreams are the only realistic prospects for the family and his success helps the father find his way once again.

The moral: follow your dream with passion and determination and be humble, true and honest to yourself.










01 August 2015

Book review: Music, A Very Short Introduction (1998) by Nicholas Cook, ***

Beethoven nears the end, by Batt
Synopsis

What is music? How is it constructed? How is it consumed? Why do you enjoy it at all? Nicholas Cook invites us to really think about music and the role it plays in our lives and our ears. Drawing on a number of accessible examples, the author prompts us to call on our own musical experiences in order to think more critically about the roles of the performers and the listener, about music as a commodity and an experience, what it means to understand music, and the values we ascribe to it.

This very short introduction, written with both humor and flair, begins with a sampling of music as human activity and then goes on to consider the slippery phenomenon of how music has become an object of thought. Covering not only Western and classical music, Cook touches on all types from rock to Indonesian music and beyond.


Review

Music is an agent of ideology: we must not just hear it, but "read" it as an intrinsic part of the society and culture that produces it. Until the second part of XX century mostly studied in conservatories, not universities as musicology. Does music need words? Can it be read without words? Yes, though a few words can help set the context.

Beethoven is a recurring reference for the author. He did not just revolutionize music, he had something to say about the decay of aristocratic Europe. He never wanted a fixed, salaried position: he wanted to write the music he wanted to write, when he wanted, if he wanted. Cook argues this was the opposite of Rossini, who thrived in that Europe of pomp and ostentatious luxury. Others would disagree: Rossini mocked the rich and the noble in his operas, just look at the Barbiere di Siviglia, where everyone is a crook.

Mass production of records, now internet streaming: talk about music as you talk about cuisine: everything is available everywhere. Also, the average technical quality of musicians is on the rise, musicians face harder competition to emerge.

This is indeed a very very short introduction to music, but a useful one to stimulate interest especially for those who maybe listened to music but never thought about it, and never "read" it!

Buy the book on Amazon here:






About the Series: Combining authority with wit, accessibility, and style, Very Short Introductions offer an introduction to some of life's most interesting topics. Written by experts for the newcomer, they demonstrate the finest contemporary thinking about the central problems and issues in hundreds of key topics, from philosophy to Freud, quantum theory to Islam.

05 December 2014

Gramex, Rogers Hewland's shop of records and CDs in London

With Roger at Gramex, 104 Lower Marsh, London
I am a music collector, and when I travel some of my first destination targets are the music shops I can find in various cities: mostly CDs and LPs, but also books about music and other paraphernalia. So it was a really amazing coincidence that when I moved to a city as big as London I should find one such shops, which turned out to be the best of its kind, just a few steps from my apartment.

As I walked inside, I was struck by the sight of a huge mass of CDs all over the place, but also LPs and 78rpm discs, and even cylinder recordings! The welcoming owner is Roger Hewland but the shop has been running non-stop, at different London locations, since 1906, when a certain George Russell founded the "Music Exchange" in the Islington market. The shop prospered there until 1922, when it moved to Oxford Street, and from there to Wardour Street in 1956.

On Christmas 1978 Gramex was relaunched under its current name at Wardour Street. Roger was running a book shop then, but was in love with music as much or more than with books. When Gramex went bankrupt in 1981 Roger bought the name and started anew in York Road, just next to Waterloo station, where the shop stayed until 1990. He then moved to 84 Lower Marsh and remained there until 1993. The next move took him to number 25 in the same street, where he remained until April 2014, and Gramex is now at 104 Lower Marsh. He has not had a holiday since he opened shop, and greets customers six days a week, 11am to 7pm, every week of the year. He said he will take Saturdays off when he turns 100, in about 18 years' time.

Roger Hewland's ancestors were Huguenots, protestants who fled persecution in France. Huguenots ended up in many places where protestants were accepted. I have met Huguenot descendants as far as South Africa, where they started that country's wine-making tradition. Roger's family crossed over to England in 1712. He has French, Spanish, Italian as well as English blood in his veins. He is a born and bred Londoner, you can certainly tell he is an Englishman from a mile away but he considers himself a member of the European nation. He hated the British Empire but loves the Commonwealth. He believes in the European Union and will vote accordingly when there is a referendum in a few years time. In his shop he accepts Euros as well as pound sterling.

"It's anarchy, not chaos" is one of the first things he told me. "Having all my music in random order makes you find what you did not know you wanted and trigger impulsive buying instincts in the collector. It makes perfect business sense." He also does not like shelves. Most items on sale are on tables and even boxes, but always displayed so you can see the cover. "No point showing a record spine, no one likes those, but collectors like covers." After a few months of frequenting the store, and several hundred CDs in my collection later, I agree.

Roger is a dealer, but first of all a collector. One has to be a collector before one can be a dealer in music, he says. Still today, he does not tire to repeat that the most important part of his job is not selling records, but buying them, and that is what he enjoys the most. "Good records sell themselves" he says "and customer are my staff: they help themselves to the music." Every day collectors bring in records they want to sell and Roger screens them carefully to pick those fit for sale at Gramex. 

He certainly is an experienced collector, and so are most of his clients. He bought his first record in 1948, on 20 October 1948 at 10:32am to be precise, a rainy day in London.  It was a 78rpm version of the Butterfly. He had £200, spent it all on records, does not regret it a bit, and has not stopped since. He now has over 50,000 opera 78s/LPs/CDs/cassettes/cylinders etc in his personal collection at home. He owns 27 editions of Traviata, all those he could find. Bohème and Trovatore are his favorite operas, though under pressure he would admit Beethoven's Fidelio, my favorite, is the greatest opera ever written.  

Originally the shop only dealt with classical music, but when, about twenty years ago, he asked his customers whether they wanted to add jazz, 90% said yes. And so it is jazz and classical now. Joe, a jazz musician, helps with the jazz part of the business. When a jazz collection comes in, the invaluable Joe is called to deliver his judgement! 

Customers also voted against having any music playing in the shop during business hours. So, no Domingo or Callas in the background: now the chatter and banter amongst patrons, as well as the typical London sarcasm at which Roger is a master, are the only sounds that mix with the franctic shuffling of CD cases by avid collectors. However, a headphone is available if you want to listen to a CD before you buy it.

It's more a club than a shop, Roger says. Many of his customers have become friends, and I like to think of myself as belonging to this category. When he was in the hospital for an operation a few years ago they kept the shop open for him!  People are free to use the toilet and the kitchen, where coffee an tea are complimentary. Good English tea for sure, but coffee left a bit to be desired, so I gifted Gramex with a good Italian Moka machine! One more reason because of which, if you love music, you must visit Gramex when in London.



01 May 2014

Books and Films about Music around the world

I am proposing here a list of books and films about the music of the world. I hope these books can help a traveler understand the countries concerned.

BOOKS

Zhu Xiaomei: The Secret Piano (2012). A harrowing story of music and love in China during the first decades following the 1949 Communist Revolution.

Cook, Nicholas: Music, A Very Short Introduction (1998) by Nicholas Cook.


FILMS

Adlon, Percy: Mahler on the Couch (2002). Mahler, Freud, Gropius and Klimt set the tone for a return to the Belle Epoque.

Cellar Jones, Simon: Eroica (2003). A dynamic narrative of the day music changed forever.

Girard, François: The Red Violin (1998). Centuries of Italian history through the eyes of a ... violin!

Ichikawa, Kon: The Burmese Harp (1956). A Japanese soldier at the end of WW II finds a new life in music.

Kurosawa, Kiroshi: Tokyo Sonata (2008). The power of music when the going gets tough.

09 January 2014

34. - 9 Jan.: Cape Town slaves, cannons and jazz

Wake up leisurly and after another my usual dose of fruits, eggs and toast at the hotel buffet I join the others on our bus for one more day of touring. First stop is the Cape Malay quarter, Bokaap. It's the former malay quarter, really, as it has now blended almost completely with the rest of the city. Only a couple of streets remain true to the original colorful patterns and a mosque testifies to the islamic background of the immigrants taken here by the Dutch from their colony in Indonesia.

Bokaap with cars
Debora is trying to take pictures without cars in them. I don't understand why. There are cars in Bokaap today, they are as much part of the landscape here as they are in Rome or New York. She is trying to take pictures of the way Bokaap was fifty, or perhaps one hundred years ago. Hard to do, and most importantly, why would you want to?

And then one should edit out power lines, water hydrants, paved roads, electric doorbells, TV antennas, and of course tourists. All tourists try to take pictures without tourists. Real photographers, who want to document the reality of the places they visit, do not try to paint a romanticized image of what those places might have looked like in the past, but try to convey their view of the current situation to their viewers.

I take a walk up a steep sloping street and find myself in an Islamic cemetery. It's the old Tana Baru cemetery, the first Islamic cemetery in Cape Town. The then governing Dutch granted religiuos freedom to the Muslims they had brought over in 1805, mostly because they needed to recruit their manpower to strengthen their wobbly forces in the face of a likely British invasion. In addition to several mosques, a cemetery was an obvious requirement.

There is no one around and a few dozen graves seem to be a bit neglected. I always like visiting cemeteries in foreign countries, they can tell a lot about the people. Here we fne From here it is possible to enjoy an awsome and unobstructed view of the city. I snap a few shots and walk down again to meet the others.

It may sound trite, and it probably is, but my favorite spot for the day is Signal Hill, where the noon gun salutes each midday in Cape Town. It's a sunny day and a crowd of about one hundred people begins to assemble around the site at about 11:30. An officer is at hand to explain all about the history of the gun, which has been in operation since 1902 and has been fired about 65,000 times. I position myself to try and get a shot of the gun just a split second after firing, so as to show the white smoke plume coming out of the barrel. In doing so I fail to notice that a number of people are getting ready to video the firing, and to my regret I block their view. I am punished by some African divinity when my pictures of the firing are not as sharp and well timed as I had hoped :(

My poor shot of the shot is followed by a pic nic on the higher grounds of Signal Hill. From here there is a great view of Cape Town, I think better than from the top of Table Mountain because one is not as far and it is possible to make out many more details and individual buildings. A conifer forest frames the view and provides a superb setting for our lunch break.

After lunch, I notice a group of colorful veils and dresses flapping near the railing of an observation platform:  some elegant women are taking pictures of each other and their guide. They look Somali and indeed, when I introduce myself and ask, the more loquacious of them confirms they are on holiday from Mogadishu. I think it's the first time I meet a Somali tourist. For some reason it's hard to imagine well-to-do Somali traveling the world while their country has been a shambles for most of the last half a century. Anyway they are happy to share pictures: I am particularly attracted by the henna on their hands. They are not on Facebook but agree to exchange Whatsapp contact numbers.

As we drive back to town on the Strand the driver explains this used to be the Cape Town Waterfront before reclaimed land pushed it further out where it is today. He points to two bridges, pedestrian overpasses to cross the busy road.  One is covered, protecting pedestrians from the elements, and one open. Petrus explains that until 1994 the first was reserved for whites and the second, you guessed, was for non whites to get wet during the rainy season.

Last afternnon in Cape Town, I decide to give my zebra skin hunting one more chance. Against all expectations I find the best price in a posh store at the Waterfront, 13,250 Rand including a springbok skin. It was not an easy negotiation. Betty, the (black) ebullient saleswoman hugs me when I strike a deal over the phone with the (white) cold sounding shop owner. The saleswoman makes   a good commission on her sales but is not authorized to give discounts except for small items. For that the owner wants her to call her at home or wherever she is to approve. Betty said January started well while December and the Xmas season were slow.

Betty is so happy, she can't stop repeating: "You made my day"! When I ask for directions to another store where I need to buy a trolley for the zebra skin she is more than happy to personally walk me there.

I always wanted a zebra skin. I find zebras not only beautiful but most intriguing and mysterious. They look all so similar at a superficial glance and yet each of their pattern is unique.  No two zebras are alike. This one, Betty explained, has some beige between the black and white stripes, indicating it comes from Namibia. I have no idea of course. In a way I am a bit sorry because I wanted one from South Africa. But on the other hand I have been to Namibia seventeen years ago and this will bring back memories, it will be a sign of continuity in my African experience. Also, I like the beige streaks in the blackand white pattern a lot.

I am not sure what I will do with it. Maybe I'll put it down on the floor, in my attic where I am usually alone or with few friends and no one is allowed to wear shoes.  But I don't like the idea of walking on this beautiful skin. Maybe I'll hang it on a wall. But I don't like the idea of just looking at it. I want to have it somewhere where I can communicate with it, by touching it, by smelling it, by turning it around. Maybe I'll put it on my dining table.  Not to use it as table cloth of course but as decoration when I am not dining on my dining table. But I feel it would be demeaning for the zebra to take it away from the table just when my friends and I are sitting down to make merry. Maybe I'll use it as a spread over my couch. But I am afraid it might be damaged by people constantly sitting and rubbing on it. No maybe I'll use it as a bed spread. That way I can be close to it without running any risk of damaging it.

Meet Sabelo again at 6:30 pm in my hotel's parking lot. Valentina and I are going for one more final township tour, this time to visit the home of Blackey Tempi, a well knows trumpetist who has become an iconic representative of local music.

Blackey Tempi and friend
On the way, Sabelo tells us a bit about music in South Africa. We learn about Toyi toyi protest music, used during apartheid but also later to protest against the current government's policies.

He also explains tu us the meaning of the 2  January carnival: when slavery was the law of the land, slave owners would celebrate New year on 1 January like the rest of the world, but would allow the following day free to their slaves, so as to let steam off. This music has had strong influence in South Africa jazz.

Paradoxically, Sabelo laments that there was more jazz during apartheid because jazz venues were used as surrogate for political protest. Sympathetic owners would let artists use them for free. Now they want payment and fewer and fewer musicians can afford it. For most clubs, it is cheaper to hire a dj than musicians.

We also learn the incredible story of Tiyo Soga who in the 1880s started music schools for black. That's where most black musicians learned music and it was a milestone in the country's musical heritage. Tiyo is alive and kicking a century and a half later.

I also learn about the life of the composer of South African national anthem "God bless Africa". Enoch Sontonga was an obscure musician born sometime around 1873. He composed "Nkosi Sikelele Afrika" and no one would remember him had the ANC not chose to adopt his composition as its anthem as far back as 1925. Since 1994 it is part of the multilingual national anthem of South Africa. We also learn about the Cape jazz tradition and its analogies with the much more well know American kind.

Much of the musical tradition developed in the Shebeens, unlicensed Irish pubs where musicians could gather more or less undisturbed. Often musicians would end up stayin all night because curfew laws did not allow them return home and they had to wait for dawn.

When we arrive at  Blackey's we are welcomed at door by him, a friend and his wife Sheila. The house is simple and small but dignified. All windows and the door are pretty heavily protected from intruders. Blackey plays initially with mute.  Then without the mute, and the sound comes out full and powerful. His friend accompanies with a guitar. At some point, after dinner, an exhuberant lady, Zami, a niece of Blackey, pops in and joins the duo with her explosive voice to provide a perfect ending to a memorable performance.

For dinner Blackey's wife Sheila prepares gratin potatoes cabbage, spinach, beans and chicken "à la sheila". How do you do it? I dare to ask... It's a secret recipe, she says with a smile... We drink home made a kind of alcohol-free ginger beer. And some good South Africa Shiraz which goes very well with Sheila's secret chicken!

Before leaving, as Valentina breaks out in tears for the warm welcome we have been honored to receive, I buy Blackey's CD, 120 Rand well spent. It's been an unforgettable human experience first, and a musical one as well, and the evening is only half-way through.

But the musical night is not over: next stop in no less than St. George's Cathedral, in downtown Cape Town. The mythical church from where Desmond Tutu preached against apartheid. But the old priest is not around tonight. In fact the church is closed. So why are we going there? To walk a few steps down to the Crypt!

Sabelo explains that the church needed money and could not raise enough from donations and public subsidies. So they decided to put their basement to work for profit. Churches are supposed to always have their doors oped for pilgrims and the poor, and the Crypt does too, but they offer cocktails, wine, beer and a wide variety of food, for a price.

Here we are welcomed by Mtehetho, a smiling waiter in his early twenties who leads Sabelo, Valentina and me to share a table with another couple. An American sax player is on the stage and fills the air with a mellow tune from the sixties, accompanied by a pianist who sits discretely in a corner. The Crypt is dark, as a crypt should be, and the spotlight make for a true jazz bar experience.



After a while they take a brake but the stage does not remain empty for long. Mteheto takes a position behind the microphone and starts singing Italian opera! Afterwords, I ask him and he says he always had this passion, is largely selftaught but would like an opportunity to study and become a professional singer. I am very happy to put a couple of bills in his tip money glass on the counter. This guy can go places if he gets a chance.


Mtehetho in Italian

20 December 2013

14. - 20 Dec.: Cape Town tour and music

Tour of the city with Teddy, a big colored man in his mid-thirties who is passionate about his country and especially his city. He takes us around in his van, the two of us together with two Indian couples in their sixties from Delhi.

As he drives along he fills time with his personal anecdotes. A predictable but nonetheless moving one is his memory of the day Mandela was freed in 1990 and spoke to the crowd. It could have been the beginning of the end for the country. Blacks and coloreds were waiting for their day of revenge, or at least of payback. Teddy tells with still vibrant emotions that they were all waiting for a signal to go and get them... But Mandela spoke of peace and reconciliation, and South Africa lived.

He drops us off at the bottom of the cable car that will take us to the Table Top, the landmark mountain of Cape Town and  Natural World Heritage Site of UNESCO. We are lucky today: not only is the weather great: sunny and just slightly breezy. But, most importantly, there is very little wind, and wind is the main reason why the service is shut down on most days. Now however the cable car runs with hurried alacrity, ferrying hundreds of people up and down the mountain.

Not only that: at the bottom station of the cable car, a huge bill board proudly announces that Table Top has been declared a wonder of the world. Well...

The view from the top is indeed stunning. Lots of people but enough space for everyone to enjoy his personal corner with Cape Town, Robben Island and the ocean as background.

As we continue our tour, a more interesting and unusual story we hear from Teddy as we drive by the city court house. It is that of his brother, whose skin is very fair. While they sahre the same parents, Teddy came out much darker. It happens. because of his whitish skin, his brother Henry was taken away from his family and sent to white orphanage. It was not considered acceptable for a "white" kid to be brought up in a colored family. Henry spent some time in the white orphanage, while their mother tried all possible legal recourse to have him back home. It took some years, but in the end she prevailed. That a mother had to go through all that ordeal to prove a kid was her own son highlights once more, if needed, the absurdity of the foundation upon which the apartheid regime was built.

Evening of jazz with Sobelo, of Flipsidetrails. He is a dynamic jolly good fellow who organizes special tours ...off the beaten track. We are going to spend the evening and the night with local jazz musicians.

Our first stop is at the home of Hilton Schilder, in a suburb of Cape Town that we reach after a 20-minute drive. Hilton and his wife welcome us at the door and we are led into their small but comfortable house. After we take our seats in the living room, in front of a grand piano, Hilton tells us a bit about his personal history.


Hilton grew up in a musical family: he is the son of famous jazz pianist and band leader Tony Schilder. He was around when his dad’s jazz band rehearsed and secretly climbed on drummer Monty Weber´s drum kit when rehearsals were over. At the age of three he was given his first very own drum. From an early age he began to play in many different kinds of groups. There were jazz bands, Carnival troupes, disco bands, hip-hop groups and he was part of all of these in one way or another.

He now plays several instruments, though the keyboard is his main choice. Today he is playing an electric keyboard for us because his piano is out of tune.

In the 1980s he founded with Mac McKenzie The Genuines, which specialized in the music of the Cape Province Goema. He introduced experimental concept bands like African Dream and Iconoclast (with Victor Ntoni and Vusi Khumalo) to combine traditional South African music with contemporary genres. In addition, he led his own groups, he has performed with Festival on the Cape Town International Jazz, and went on tour with John Enders.

This band also performed in Germany, Holland and Italy. He has also performed solo in France. He was the driving force behind the band, Iconoclast, and he is a regular member of Robbie Jansen's, Sons of Table Mountain as well as substantial contributor to these groups' repertoire as a composer.

His first album under his own name No Turning Back (2003) was nominated in the category 'Best Contemporary Jazz Album' for a South African Music Award (SAMA). It offers a range of music from Cape Jazz, through rock/pop to electro ambient sounds.  With Alex van Heerden, he founded the duo RockArt, the direction in acoustic and electronic jazz minimal moves and also appeared in Switzerland. With Mac McKenzie he has launched in recent years, projects such as Namakwa, the District Six band and The Goema Captains of Cape Town to life. In 2008 he was given the opportunity, his various activities as Artist in Residence in the Bird's Eye Jazz Club in Basel imagine

Hilton's cultural roots are ever evident in his work. He is intensely aware of his social and political surroundings. He describes himself as a "mind freedom fighter".He has also been a fighter against his liver cancer, which at one point seemed to have seriously threatened his life but from which he now seems to have recovered.

Finally, his eclectic personality spans over the visual arts as well. He like painting and has produced interesting etchings.

by Hilton Schilder



In the meantime his wife is putting the final touches on her meal. As many South Africans, they are of mixed blood and also mixed culinary heritage and tonight's fare blends some Malay flavors with more purely African meat and veggies.

A simple but delicious meal and when we are done it feels as if we'd been friends for ages. I am sure we'll meet again.



But the musical evening is not out: after leaving the Schilders at around 10:00pm, we head back to twon for the Mohogany room pub, where Shane Cooper and his famed double bass are playing with a small band of piano, sax and drums.

On the way, Sobelo slides a CD by Abdullah Ibrahim, another symbol of the country's music, into his car's player.

At the Mohogany Room we are welcomed by a pretty lady at the door. After paying our ticket we walk inside and take our seat a few rows away from the stage. After which we go and grab a drink. I go for my usual boring gin and tonic, but Yan is faithful to her Sex on the beach. As always, she is met by a giggle and a shaking of heads from the other side of the counter... The wooden chairs in the small room is packed with an audience of perhaps eighty, and quite a few more are standing by the walls. It is quite hot and stuffy but the rythms.

Shane Cooper

It is quite warm though a couple of A/C machines pour a cold avalanche of freezing air right on top of our heads. I love it despite the fact that my skull is no longer protected by hair, but Yan finds this artificial breeze annoying. I tell her that there is not much we can do, it is hot as it is and it would be unbearably stuffy if they turned it off, and plus can we ask the management to make everyone else sweat, including me, because she does not like A/C.  But, as always, she has her way: during intermission she politely asks the lady at the counter if anything can be done and while I bury my head in my hands and look the other was the lady simply stops the A/C's swinging blades so that the cool air is now directed to the ceiling and not down to our heads. Simple.

When all of this is sorted out we can start enjoying our music. Shane Cooper, as often with double bass players in jazz, is a bit overshadowed by the piano, the drums and especially the sax. He does stand out in a couple of solo improvisations though, and his natural talent as well as his precise technique immediately strike me as out of the ordinary.


It's been a long day in Cape Town, and one to remember for a long time.

18 November 2013

Book Review: The Secret Piano (2012), by Zhu Xiao-Mei, ****

Synopsis

Zhu Xiao-Mei was born to middle-class parents in post WW II China, and her musical proficiency became clear at an early age. Taught to play the piano by her mother, she developed quickly into a prodigy, immersing herself in the work of classical masters like Bach. She was just ten years old when she began a rigorous course of study at the Beijing Conservatory, laying the groundwork for what was sure to be an extraordinary career. But in 1966, when Xiao-Mei was seventeen, the Cultural Revolution began, and life as she knew it changed forever.

One by one, her family members were scattered, sentenced to prison or labor camps. By 1969, the art schools had closed, and Xiao-Mei was on her way to a work camp in inner Mongolia, where she would spend the next five years. Life in the camp was unbearable, thanks to horrific living conditions and intensive brainwashing campaigns. Yet through it all Xiao-Mei clung to her passion for music and her sense of humor. And when the Revolution ended, it was the piano that helped her to heal.

Review

Compelling story about music, China and love. Music helped the author through terrible times in Mao's re-education camps and somehow kept her sanity in the face of protracted brain washing by the authorities. The figure of her mother is present as a fixed star that helped her steer her way amidst chaos and upheaval.

We learn curious tidbits about how the Chinese Communist musicians at the Conservatory saw Western classical music: Bach was too religious, Chopin a sentimentalist, Debussy an idealist and of course Beethoven was egoist, but somehow Mozart was OK (loc. 739 ebook)

More generally, the author takes us by the hand and shows how the Party saw the role of culture, the relationship of sons and daughters with their own parents, the deep mistrust that was instilled in their brain for anything that was not in Mao's red book.

All of the above takes part in the first part of the book, until the author leaves China. The second part is her life in the US and France as a pianist trying to make a living. This is interesting too, but it is really another book.

This is her recording of the Goldberg variations, which inspired her book more than any other piece of music.



This is where to find the book:




Live recording of Goldberg's variations performed in Leipzig at St Thomas's church, the final resting place of J.S. Bach. The DVD also contains a 1-hour documentary on Zhu's lifelong relationship with music and her special relationship with Bach. She sees Bach as a very Buddhist thinker. The 30 variations begin and end with the same melody, and it is not by chance. (In any case, hardly anything is by chance in Bach's music.) She thinks Bach wanted to indicate that the end is a new beginning. It is Bach's Christian faith about the afterlife, but it is even more so the essence of Buddhist philosophy. It is a similar view to that taken in the book "Goedel Escher Bach", which referred to the musician's work in similar terms twenty years earlier than this recording.




04 April 2013

Film review: Mahler on the couch (2010), by Percy Adlon, ****

Synopsis

Devastated and confused by the discovery that his beloved wife Alma is having a passionate affair with architect Walter Gropius, controversial composer Gustav Mahler travels to Holland to consult with Sigmund Freud, who is on vacation in Leiden. Feeling humiliated and betrayed, Mahler initially refuses the couch, but when Freud wheels a camp bed into the room, he has no choice.

Fiery yet full of humor, their encounter stretches into the night as Mahler vividly recounts his seduction of Alma Schindler, 19 years his junior, the beautiful darling of Vienna's arts scene. Alma and Mahler fall madly in love and marry, but he frustrates her ambitions to be a composer in her own right. When one of their daughters dies, their marriage begins to fall apart...



Review

The subject matter of this film is most interesting: a musical genius married to a stunning socialite who lives in Vienna at the time of the Belle Epoque. Their life is studded with money, fame and intellectually rich encounters. Especially gifted is Alma, who is at first subjugated by Gustav but later ends up calling all the shots. Gustav Klimt and Walter Gropius are only the most immediately recognizable giants with whom the mahlers cross their path.

It has been correctly pointed out that the film does not do justice to Mahler, whose immense artistic stature only gets short shrift here. I tend to agree.

Acting is good and so is the choice of costumes from the time.

The film is in German only, with English subtitles.




16 March 2013

Film review: The Burmese Harp (1956), by Kon Ichikawa, *****

Synopsis

A rhapsodic celebration of song, a brutal condemnation of wartime mentality, and a lyrical statement of hope within darkness; even amongst the riches of 1950s' Japanese cinema, The Burmese Harp, directed by Kon Ichikawa (Alone Across the Pacific, Tokyo Olympiad), stands as one of the finest achievements of its era.

Mizushima taught a Burmese boy to play his harp
At the close of World War II, a Japanese army regiment in Burma surrenders to the British. Private Mizushima is sent on a lone mission to persuade a trapped Japanese battalion to surrender also. When the outcome is a failure, he disguises himself in the robes of a Buddhist monk in hope of temporary anonymity as he journeys across the landscape but he underestimates the power of his assumed role.

A visually extraordinary and deeply moving vision of horror, necessity, and redemption in the aftermath of war, Ichikawa's breakthrough film is one of the great humanitarian affirmations of the cinema.

Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and honoured at the Venice Film Festival. You can watch a trailer here.


27 January 2013

Saluti da Bologna!

Le tre "T" di Bologna

Da notare che i veri tortellini sono quelli a sinistra, della grandezza canonica dell'ombelico di Venere. Il ripieno può essere di prosciutto, mortadella, uovo, parmigiano e noce moscata. Quelli a destra sono cappelletti romagnoli, più grandi e di solito ripieni di carne bovina.

In particolare consiglio l'osteria dei Poeti e, fuori concorso per chi cerca la cucina locale, il ristorante spagnolo di Juan Alberto.

Chandra Raga a Bologna


Durante il mio soggiorno ho anche avuto la fortuna di assistere ad un bel concerto di musica indiana con Paolo Avanzo e Stefano Grazia. Il tutto preceduto da un'ottima cena indiana al Centro Natura. Questo è un estratto di un concerto simile dei due musicisti su Youtube.



A Bologna lo spettacolo è stato completato da danze Bharatanatyam di Alessandra Pizza.

In conclusione: tutto vero, le tre T sono un mito! Gran bel weekend a Bologna. Ho anche trovato in saldo due paia di stivali taglia 39, che faccio sempre fatica a reperire. Da ritornarci presto!

27 November 2012

Film review: The Red Violin (1998) by François Girard, ****

Synopsis

An epic adventure of mystery and obsession unfolds when Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), an appraiser of rare musical instruments discovers a one of a kind red violin at a prestigious Montreal auction house. Convinced he's found an authentic long-lost masterpiece, Morritz uncovers the spectacular journey of the priceless violin, how it changed hands and lives of all who touched it. When the violin's shocking secret is finally revealed, Morritz must wrestle with his own demons and choose between burying the truth and risking everything.




10 June 2012

CD review: Lama's Chants Songs of Awa, *****

Synopsis
Marking the 10th year since this popular Buddhist chant album was first released, this reissue ups the ante by featuring an expanded format. The first disc is a re-mastered version of the original album. The second features unreleased live performances by Gyurme and keyboardists Rykiel and Loy Ehrlich between 1995 and 2001, and it's this second disc that is truly intriguing. Recorded in caves, cathedrals, concert halls and open air festivals, the quality of the recordings is excellent. Mostly chanting and occasionally doing some long tones, Gyurme's voice again seemingly embodies a mix of the human and the holy during his prayers for healing, purification, liberation and peace--he's particularly spectacular on his solo intro to "The Mantra Of Padmasambhaval." Musically, Ehrlich seamless fills out Rykiel's ambient backgrounds, and two do a fine job accentuating the drama and majesty of Gyurme's voice, only overpowering it on the opening "Sacred Words Of Liberation." This is definitely a reissue that deserves to replace the original. -- Tad Hendrickson for Amazon

26 April 2011

3. - 26 APR: Fly from Chengdu to Lijiang, Yunnan. Naxi concert

Alalalei! (Hello!) is the first word in Naxi language I learn from our guide upon arrival in this small but pretty and efficient airport in Yunnan province. Zhubaysay (Thank you!) is the second. Swallow, (the name of our guide) welcomes us in this peculiar province, where most of all the minorities of China live.

In Yunnan province, forty-five million people live in 400,000 square kilometers, an area  almost one and a half times the size of Italy, and of them, one third belong to national minorities, i.e. non-Han peoples. Twenty-five of China's fifty-six national minorities are represented in Yunnan.

The number of Naxi is small, less than half a million people, but Swallow thinks it's probably set to rise a bit since national minorities are not bound by the one-child policy of China. She, however, married a Han Chinese and therefore is stuck to one kid! :-( She says there are quite a few who break the rule. In this case they have to pay 300,000 Rmb (about 30k euro) for a fine. Alternatively, some couple just don't declare their second born. This can be difficult in a city but is relatively easy in the countryside. A third option is to sell the child to couples who can't have any. Finally, quite a few end up aborting their second child.

She takes us around town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Black Dragon pool park is a serene spot, and very clean... everyone comes here to have their picture taken, and for good reason. A place to be savored for a few hours. A typical Chinese garden, with pagoda, lake, bridge, tower...

My most interesting meeting is with a ninety-something year old man at the Yufeng temple. He is a gardener, and has been tending to an extremely old camelia tree for many decades. He sort of sits there by the wayside, but says that during the Cultural Revolution the Red Guards came up the hill and wanted to cut down the tree, seen as some sort of decadent symbol or whatever... but he stood up and told them they would have to cut him down first, at which point they gave up and left. Not sure what to make of the story, but the obesssion with the damage inflicted by the fanatic Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution is a recurring refrain in this trip.

Dongba pictogams
We also have a chance to visit the Dongba Research Institute, where the old Naxi language is still studied and preserved. It is perhaps the last pictographic language in the world, composed of some 1400 pictograms, ie little drawings, unlike the Chinese ideograms which are composed of graphic symbols that don’t necessarily have any resemblance with the object of their representation.

At 20:30 we get a chance to listen to a concert of traditional Naxi music in the town's concert hall. This is no tourist trap, but an amazing group that resurrected an old musical heritage that had been destroyed to near extinction during the 1950s after the repressions of the "One Hundred Flowers" campaign in 1957.

The musicians are almost all octogenarians, with a few exceptions, among them a lady harpist and an amazing lady singer. They are led by Xuan Ke, who was imprisoned for twenty-one years (until 1978, after Mao's death) for his key role in founding the orchestra. He was allowed to restart it in 1984, and today the ensemble plays some original instruments which were saved from destruction at the time of One Hundred Flowers and then during the Cultural Revolution by some brave locals who hid them from the Red Guards at their own risk.

I talk to Xuan Kue after the concert, he has no bitterness, just an incredibly strong will to keep Naxi musical tradition alive, and he is sorry that it is difficult to find young people to learn how to play it. He claims this is China's oldest music and must be preserved for posterity. So at 81 y.o. he keeps performing with his group every night to packed audiences of locals and tourists.

Leitoto (goodbye in Naxi)!

15 November 2009

Concert: Sacrificium, by Cecilia Bartoli, *****

Today I went to listen to Cecilia Bartoli at the Brussels Bozar. One of the most powerful voices on the planet. This project is about XVIII century music written for "castrati", young males who were castrated before puberty to keep their voices from maturing into full male voices.

A stunning performance, she can not just sing but enthrall the crowd to with her flamboyant personality. She was clearly having fun! I was lucky enough to find a ticket close enough to her to feel my bones vibrate at her seemingly endless warble. Her technical virtuosity is almost painful to hear, one keeps wondering how she can keep going so long, so powerfully and so well without breathing. The concert hall was shaking. She sounds supernatural. Maybe she is. I think "Eyebags" put it very well here in this blog.