Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

JUAN FORMELL: A LIFE DEDICATED TO MUSIC

 

If you ever came anywhere near salsa, as dancer or listener, or ever went to Cuba, you will have heard the music of Juan Formell, who died on Thursday 1 May.

He was the leader, composer and bass player for Los Van Van, the greatest Cuban band of the past fifty years and arguably the greatest Cuban band ever. The style of music he created with Los Van Van – a blend of rock and jazz creatively integrated with Afro-Cuban rhythms and structures over a base which is essentially son – was unmistakable and influenced every other artist who has worked in the mix of styles and sounds we now know as ‘salsa’.

A modest presence with short grey hair who combined a quiet, concentrated manner with a genial, welcoming smile, he was an unmistakable presence whenever the band played, and was largely responsible for both the wit and inventiveness of their songs, and the incredible precision of their playing. Los Van Van’s standard of musicianship – honed by the magnificent Cuban musical education freely available to all children with ability – was staggering to those used to the amateurishness of European pop musicians. Formell clearly ran a very tight ship, but he had a tremendous sense of humour – see for example the video below, directed by Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba, where he plays the role of a hapless tour guide, abandoned by his tourist charges who all go off to dance after loading him with their belongings. His work with the band was also profoundly based in the Afro-Cuban religion, Santería – the delightful video for Chapeando shows the band led through the jungle and the human ear by Eleggua, the boy-god who opens the way for us through life’s difficulties, and the lyrics also celebrate Yemayá, the bountiful sea-goddess who provides us with fish – necesitamos tu produccion, Mama as the song says. Chapeando is probably the best album produced by any Cuban band in the past half-century. I saw Los Van Van live several times, in the UK and also in Cuba (see Travels on the Dance Floor for an account of one of their concerts in Havana), and their performances were full of incredible energy and joy as well as musical richness and precision. It was hard for anyone used to European bands to understand how they could go on playing and singing (and dancing!) with such energy for two and a half or three hours.

I’m sure the band – recently directed by Juan’s son Samuel – will go on and be as good as ever. But Juan’s achievement remains huge, and above all joyous. He gave happiness to so many people and his recordings will go on doing so. As he said himself, “My life has been entirely dedicated to music, and only makes sense when people make it theirs and enjoy it.”

‘CIGAR’ – from Packet to Prize

On Tuesday I went to Tunbridge Wells, where my poem ‘Cigar’ had won second prize in the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Open Competition. I’d entered at the last minute, without much expectation of anything happening, so was delighted and a bit startled when I got the news a couple of weeks ago.

The Kent and Sussex Poetry Society, a wonderful body that has existed since the 1920s (when it was founded by Vita Sackville-West, I’m told) gave me and the First Prize winner, Andrew Soye, and other prize winners a superb meal (sadly Jo Bell, who won third prize and with whom I read a few weeks ago in Manchester, couldn’t be there). Afterwards the judge, Pascale Petit, gave an exciting reading: superb and very powerful poems, some of them not yet published in book form.

Later I remembered how my poem was written – I was actually having a cigar, as I occasionally do, and the poem came when I had nothing to write on. So I dismembered the cigar packet and wrote on that. I’m sure other poets have grabbed bizarre bits of paper or card in similar circumstances rather than lose a poem! (Please write and tell me if you’ve done this, and maybe even send a scan!)

So I thought it would be fun to show the actual bits and pieces that got the first draft scribbled on them. Here they are below, with the final version of the poem following – quite a bit changed, as you’ll see if you bother to decipher the scribble! Sorry I can’t position the bits better, but I’m limited by the way the blog format works: it won’t let me put things just where I’d like them!

CIGAR

It would have, unrolled, a small book’s

surface area. My first was a gift

from the man at the next table

of the pavement café at the Hotel Inglaterra.

He worked, he said,Cigar.01 (2)

 

at the Partagás factory, where they read

the newspaper aloud all morning,

and in the afternoon novels and poetry

while, adept as conjurers’,

the workers’ hands rip, stuff and wrap. More words

went into it than I shall ever draw out.Cigar.02

 

The tobacco-god is a bird with scarlet plumage

and mother-of-pearl eyes. His four

attendants are the green

spirit of the fresh leaf, the brown of the dried,

the red spirit of fire and the blue of smoke.

 

The red visits only for flaring instants;

is fickle, demands nurture. The green

is memory and imagination. The blue

is a girl dressed in feathers: lapis, lavender, sky.

When she kissesCigar.04

 

her tongue is sharp as seabrine, chocolate, chilli.

She says the word tabaco is Carib,

from a language whose last speaker

has been dead four hundred years. But the brown

 

lives in my hand this moment, brittle

and crisp as a chrysalis. Filtered

through his crushed spirals,

molecular poems thread themselves

into my genes, become part of the air I breathe,

the words I speak. Both of us end in ash.Cigar.03

 

Goodbye Copacabana!

imagesBE8OHZ0UOn 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.

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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.

Lois Lang-Sims (1917-2014)

On Monday I went to Canterbury for the funeral of Lois Lang-Sims. It was a beautiful service, held in the ancient crypt of the Cathedral –  the ivory-white stone of the Norman columns polished by the touch of thousands of hands over almost a thousand years, the carvings of birds, animals and plants on the capitals as crisp and vivid as ever, and the whole quiet contemplative space lit by candles.

Like most people, I knew Lois first of all as a follower of Charles Williams (1886-1945), the poet and theologian whose biography I have just finished writing.  For Lois, who died on March 11 at the age of 97, was perhaps the last of Charles Williams’s ‘disciples’ – those who, for a time, took him as their spiritual teacher. She will be known, therefore, to many people as the co-author of Letters to Lalage, in which she added her own commentary and reminiscences to Williams’s letters to her, written in 1943 and 1944.

But Lois was more than simply a follower of Charles Williams. She was a writer and spiritual seeker of considerable stature. Another of her teachers was the Buddhist scholar Marco Pallis with whom, as with Williams, she eventually broke – for Lois was nothing if not independent-minded. One of the first English people to become aware of the sad plight of the Tibetan refugees who fled to Nepal and northern India after the Chinese invasion of 1959, she helped to found the Tibet Society, the first charity dedicated to helping them, becoming a friend of the Dalai Lama and other senior Tibetan lamas.

Her Tibetan adventures are depicted in a beautifully-written volume of autobiography, Flower in a Teacup. This, and an account of her earlier life in A Time to be Born, form one of the finest British autobiographies of the twentieth century and richly deserve to be reprinted. Having worked as a guide for visitors to Canterbury Cathedral, she was also the author of Canterbury Cathedral: Mother Church of Holy Trinity, a discursive account of the Cathedral, its history and its significance, as well as of One Thing Only: A Christian Guide to the Universal Quest for God and The Christian Mystery: An Exposition of Esoteric Christianity.

I met her in 2001, when I went to record her memories of Charles Williams. She lived then in a care home in Hove, where, as a devout mystical Christian, she spent much of her time in prayer and contemplation. She was surrounded by her books, and by the photographs of people from her childhood who had become, for her, archetypal figures of deep spiritual significance: her mother and father, her beloved nurse ‘Old Nan’, and an adored elder brother who had died during her infancy.

She was still beautiful; and her mind was clear and incisive, as it remained to the end. We stayed in touch, and she eagerly read every draft chapter of my biography of Charles Williams, responding with helpful comments and fascinating discussion. She continued to write essays, and to read widely. Biography was her favourite genre: she was something of an expert on Gandhi’s life, and in the last few months was carefully reading Ian Kershaw’s recent life of Hitler, developing her own theories about the psychological forces which had led Gandhi to good and Hitler to terrible evil.

Towards the end she grew too weak to write, so we talked on the telephone. (I like to think that she was able to read the final chapter of my book about Charles Williams, which I sent her on 13 February.) Asked about her health in those last months, she would exclaim ‘Oh, I’m crumbling away! But don’t worry, my dear, I’m looking forward to death. I really can’t wait!’

Hypersensitive, opinionated and argumentative at times, she nonetheless radiated love and intelligence. I found her a delight and an inspiration. And she has probably left much literary work greatly deserving of publication. I hope that a late essay of hers, ‘The Simplicity of Faith’, will be published in Temenos Academy Review in 2015.

 

A Walk to Skiddaw House

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Far Wescoe: apparently the cottage where poet WH Auden often stayed in the 1930s

A good walk on the lower slopes of Skiddaw this week. After driving up to Cumbria for work, I managed to fit in an afternoon on the fells – first time this year – and actually got some sunshine.

I decided to take a look at Wescoe, a hamlet centred on a large farm. There’s a literary connection because W.H. Auden’s parents had a cottage here and Auden took refuge in it when he got back from the Spanish Civil War in 1937. It was here that he wrote most of his famous poem ‘Spain’, as well as other excellent early poems such as ‘It was Easter as  I walked in the public gardens’.

As far as I can work out, the cottage must have been Far Wescoe – the white one opposite the post box. When I first came here back in the 1980s, looking for the house, I asked around and eventually met an old man who told me, yes, ‘Doctor Auden used to have a cottage here’. He’d never heard of the poet W.H. Auden, but he remembered Auden’s dad, the Birmingham G.P.! Oddly, that made me feel much closer to Auden himself.

From Wescoe I took the lane north-west – partially flooded in places, and I got the predictable bootful of water – which soon becomes a footpath heading due north parallel to the beautiful (and beautifully-named) Glendaratarra Beck, which is down in a deep wooded gorge but gradually comes up to meet the path as you go.

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The lane heading for Skiddaw House (Great Calva in the distance).

I didn’t have a huge amount of time so I simply carried on up to the small bridges over the beck (where someone has just built a new but not intrusive stone building housing, I think, some hydroelectric equipment which I hope isn’t going to interfere with the beck itself) and followed the path up to Skiddaw House.

Skiddaw House is one of the bleakest and most remote houses in the Lakes – a former bothy, now a Youth Hostel (it was closed when I got there so no chance of a cup of tea). It’s a wonderfully grim place, and the larches planted as wind protection have long been reduced to spindly skeletal remnants by the ceaseless prevailing wind.

Skiddaw House is the setting of just about my favourite episode in the whole of Hugh Walpole’s Herries Chronicles, the duel between John and Uhland Herries in The Fortress in which Uhland shoots John and then commits suicide – a horrific  scene but brilliantly written and very suitable for this grim, remote spot.

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Skiddaw House: bleak and lonely but weirdly romantic

 

Given more time, I’d have turned due West and returned via Skiddaw summit, but sadly time was limited and I just returned direct to Wescoe. The consolation was a wonderful view over to the Newlands valley and Causey Pike in front of me as I came down.

I haven’t done a lot of walking this winter owing to persistent minor ailments and family business, but I’m hoping to get up to the Lakes at least once a month henceforth and will try to post about where I go each time. And if you fancy a creative weekend in the Lakes in May 2014, take a look at www.lakelandwritingretreats.co.uk and think about joining Angela Locke and me for a stimulating break!

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Towards Newlands – Causey Pike just right of centre, late afternoon sunlight