On Friday and Saturday (4 and 5 April) Manchester’s Copacabana Club is having two big parties – then closing its doors for the last time. Sadly I’ll be away but I couldn’t let it happen without saying that Copacabana changed my life, and that of many other people in Manchester and around the world.
I went to my first salsa class there in 2001 – I describe the occasion at the start of my book Travels on the Dance Floor and it was the beginning of a new era for me. Not only did I learn to dance; I met hundreds of new friends, developed an interest in a rich new world of music, and it led me to visit Cuba and travel over much of Latin America.
Copas, as we called it, was the focus of Manchester’s Latin music scene. It was a meeting-place for people from every country in the world and Amanda and I went there almost every Wednesday night for more than ten years.
I doubt if there’ll ever be another place like it in Manchester. The only club ever to rival its deep cultural effects is probably the Hacienda – and at Copas people learned to do real dancing, dancing that was an art and a form of communication as well as ecstatic fun.
And it brought over a galaxy of Cuban bands to play live. Even Manolito Simonet played there in the great days.
Salsa will go on at many places in Manchester, but there’ll never be another place like the Copacabana. I went there on Wednesday to say a final goodbye to the place, and o a HUGE thank you to Christian, the owner, and to Copacabana itself. If you can get there tonight or tomorrow, for the final parties, please do. It’ll be something to remember when the Copacabana is just another piece of Manchester musical history.
When I first went to Cuba and took private dance lessons in Havana, I thought I knew something about salsa. So I was amazed when the teacher totally disregarded what I thought I knew, and simply started showing me how to move my own body. As I wrote in Travels on the Dance Floor,
In the UK, salsa is too often taught as if it’s a matter of footwork and moves – arms and legs. What I learned in Cuba is that the movement inside the body is far more important than the movement outside it. Once you’re dancing from your heart, your kidneys, your hips, the soles of your feet, and the earth, then the ‘moves’ can be added. But with just the moves, you’re not dancing Cuban salsa, your’re just prancing about.
It’s hard to find that kind of teaching outside Cuba. One of the few who really does teach it is Kerry Ribchester, and it was great to have her back in Manchester this past week taking some workshops in all the things that go together to make a really great dance experience: body movement, attitude, really feeling and using the music, and relating in a warm and living way to your partner – the most important person in the world for the five minutes of that particular dance.
Kerry has huge experience of dance, having danced professionally in Brazil, coached Madonna and Kylie in onstage movement and – most importantly – visited Cuba to work with Cuban dancers several times a year for the past fifteen years. She has produced award-winning music videos in Cuba, and she communicates a depth of knowledge about dance I haven’t seen anywhere else, and she makes it really fun. Amanda and I never miss a chance to go to one of her workshops.
We took her class with Solar Salsa at the Spread Eagle in Chorlton on Wednesday, and Amanda was also able to go to Kerry’s Saturday workshop at Sunshine Studios where they worked on the four ‘layers’ that make up the rich ‘cake’ of salsa: the Orisha dances of the Afro-Cuban gods; the Rumba (the competitive Afro-Cuban street dance which is all about attitude and maleness and femaleness); the Son – elegant social dance of the 1940s and 50s – and salsa itself, the spicy sauce that mixes them all.
Kerry’s workshops are highly recommended:
She also heads Key2Cuba, http://www.key2cuba.com/kerry.html which provides the best and most authentic Cuba trips for people who want to sample the culture and meet the people as well as enjoy the dancing. When I go to Cuba alone I usually do it independently because I’m good at handling the many hassles you always have to go through contending with that complex culture; but Amanda and I have been twice with Key2Cuba – most recently in March 2013 – and I recommend the trips strongly. No other dance tours have anything like the level of authenticity and local contact that you get with Key2Cuba.
Cuba is changing fast and if you’ve dreamed of going there, you should do it soon. And if you want to go with a group, Key2Cuba is the one to check out. http://www.key2cuba.com/kerry.html
I’m just home from what must be the world’s most magnificent and delightful poetry festival. It’s the International Poetry Festival of Granada, held each year in Nicaragua’s most historic and beautiful city, and this time I was lucky enough to be invited. I knew it would be exciting but I truly had no conception of what it would really be like.
Nicaraguans have a genuine and universal love of poetry, and the week was packed with events ranging from the open mics which ran for hours every day with audiences consistently around 50 or 60 people listening intently to local poets, to the enormous evening readings where poets from more than 60 countries read their work (with Spanish translations) to audiences that filled the city’s main plaza and must have numbered thousands.
And as if the readings weren’t enough, on Tuesday 19th (as every year) there was the city’s Poetry Carnival – a vast colourful procession of bands, dancers, poets and everyone else, led by an elaborate horesdrawn funeral carriage, carrying the coffin of Arrogance and Insensitivity! And, of course, the parade stopped at every street corner through the city for short readings by countless poets.
Highlights of the Festival were splendid readings by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal: a priest, Liberation Theologian, love poet, champion of indigenous cultures and hero of the campaign to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship, he was a charming and modest figure in loose blue trousers and white smock, his bushy white hair escaping from under a black beret. He read his famous ‘Oracion para Marilyn Monroe’ (‘Prayer for Marilyn Monroe’), and his touching and profound poem about the song of the cicadas which emerge from their 17-year sojourn underground only to sing and die: ‘En Pascua resuscitan las cigarras’ (‘At Easter the cicadas come back to life’) and other poems which are nationally known in Nicaragua but a marvellous new discovery for me.
With Ernesto Cardenal at the book fair
There were also overwhelming performances (see video below) by Raul Zurita, who has written a kind of modern Divine Comedy on the recent traumatic history of Chile; and a characteristically delightful, intense and picturesque reading by Gioconda Belli, again a heroine of the Sandinista revolution – whose devotion to the arts and education as well as to democracy is the foundation of this amazing event – a festival to which richer countries would never dream of giving such resources but which this small country gladly offers to the world.
Just listent to Raul Zurita’s poetry as music if you don’t know Spanish, and share his extraordinary lament for the sufferings of his country under Pinochet’s dictatorship, in which he was arrested, tortured and exiled.
The Friday night reading, when with a succession of other poets I suddenly found myself up in the lights on the platform, reading into the beautifully-tuned sound system and gazing over a sea of faces stretching into the warm distance of the beautiful colonial Plaza, felt like flying. There was a magic in the moonlight, the vast, warm, appreciative audience, the sense of speaking – almost singing – the poems, English and Spanish, into this beautiful living space. Maybe that’s what it’s like to play a rock festival.
I was delighted to meet Gerry Cambridge, Scottish poet and editor of The Dark Horse magazine, for the first time, and also the fine New Zealand poet and publisher Roger Hickin. The three of us spent a good deal of time together, and also with the Taiwanese poet Yang Ze and the Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny… I could go on, because it was the most wonderful opportunity to make friends and hear the most diverse poetries from all over the world. And as a bonus my old friend Ken McCarthy (www.kenmccarthy.com) came over from Guatemala for a couple of days to hang out, browse the bookshops, hear the music, marvel at the Carnival and enjoy the poems.
Roger Hickin, New Zealand poet and publisher
Other poets whose work I loved included Gemino Abad (Phillippines), Margaret Randall and Jerome Rothenberg (both USA), Peter Boyle (Australia)… I could go on. And then there was the food. And the wonderful Phillips Montalban reggae band one night. And the great Mexican salsa orchestra another night. And the trip through the islands on Lake Cocibolco. And the tropical heat, and the scarlet and purple bougainvillea flowers, and the misty volcano in the background, and the Toña beer, and the Flor de la Caña rum. And the magnificent kindness, hospitality and efficiency of our hosts.
Shuffling off the plane at Manchester Airport this morning at 8.30 it was England that seemed, for a moment, like a dream. It’s not often one gets the chance to experience so intensely. Thank you Nicaragua, thank you Granada. In the slogan of the Festival, ‘Poetry is the Song of the Cosmos’; and it really did feel true.
Cuba Cafe, in Port Street (off Newton Street, Northern Quarter) – and of course Mo, our legendary host
Michal’s bachata class in full swing
Recently I’ve added a new element to my week’s dancing, by going to Michal’s Friday night bachata classes at Cuba Cafe in the Northern Quarter. (8.15 beginners, improvers 9.30 approx.)
I’d tried to learn bachata several times, at classes and workshops, but either the teachers didn’t go at the right pace, or the instructions weren’t clear, or the numbers were out of balance… So I didn’t really persist and never got beyond the simplest rudiments.
But I took some friends to Cuba Cafe for drinks a couple of months ago, and watching Michal’s class I was very impressed by the sheer good time everyone seemed to be having. A week or two later I went along, and found the class exactly right – for me, anyway.
Michal is a cheerful, amusing teacher, who has the knack of expalining things extremely clearly and beginning from a very basic level, yet effortlesly getting people dancing at quite a decent level by the end of the evening. Everyone has fun in the process, and the classes are also very good value – cheaper than many salsa classes in fact. To sum up, this is simply the best bachata class I’ve seen.
I’m now a regular, and while I won’t say I’m dancing brilliant bachata, at least I have a few basic moves, I feel I’m finally getting somewhere, and I’m loving Friday evenings. As a bonus, DJ Les (Mancuban, Salsa Republic) is having monthly party nights – The AfterParty – following on from the class, playing salsa, bachata, merengue, reggaeton from 12 midnight to 3 a.m. And if you’ve been to Michal’s bachata class first, you don’t even have to pay. Otherwise the AfterParty s a mere £3. For AfterParty dates you’ll need to check out Mancuban or Cuba Cafe websites or on Facebook.
As a PS, I hear Michal’s beautiful wife Anna has recently given birth to their daughter, so many congratulations to the whole family. And Michal tells me the classes are going ahead as usual. If you’re around Manchester on a Friday, give them a try.
Victor and Kate enjoy a drink at Manchester's Cuba Cafe
Spent many happy hours this week with my friends Victor and Kate. Victor Rodriguez Nuñez is a leading Cuban poet, and his wife Kate Hedeen is a gifted translator of Latin American poetry.
Victor was here for the Manchester International Literature festival last autumn, and liked it so much that he wanted to show Kate around. Plus, Kate is a huge fan of The Smiths, who provided the soundtrack to her early life in Portland, Oregon. So naturally we had to take the Smiths Tour of Manchester, expertly provided by Craig of Manchester Music Tours.
Kate and Craig: a visit to the Shrine!
We had a wonderful morning exploring everything from the Free Trade Hall to the Salford Lads’ Club and the famous Iron Bridge of the song. Craig was a fine, friendly guide (as well as being drummer with the renowned Inspiral Carpets) and we came away fully educated about Morrissey, the Smiths and the whole Manchester music scene.
We also enjoyed a few other quintessentially Mancunian delights – dinner at Mr Thomas’s Chop House, drinks at the Peveril of the Peak pub, and (of course) I couldn’t resist taking Victor and Kate on Friday night up to the amazing Cuba Cafe, in Port Street, Manchester’s small but glittering Cuban bar and club, where we had a couple of Cuba Libres made with real Havana Club rum and watched one of Michal’s excellent bachata classes. I must get along there and improve my bachata dancing next week.
The famous Iron Bridge: to think I drove past it every day and never knew...
Kate paid Manchester what I take to be the ultimate compliment, saying that to her it felt like a Latin American city – gritty but friendly, hugely mixed and cosmopolitan, creative and non-touristy. A thoroughly happy few days with two close friends who are also great literary artists and a link back to my beloved Cuba. They’ve gone now but they’ll definitely be back for more. I miss them already.