Grevel Lindop

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

A SALSA SECRET FOR MEN

I’ll be researching my next salsa review later this week. Meanwhile I couldn’t resist posting this superb video from Alexander Abreu and Havana D’Primera. It was Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba who drew my attention to it, on Facebook.

 

Alexander Abreu and his band are one of the very finest Cuban bands, but another reason for posting this video is that a lot of the dancing is by MEN. And it’s a great demonstration of something they never teach male students at UK salsa classes: HOW TO MOVE THE UPPER BODY.

Watch a bunch of British men dancing salsa and you’ll mostly see them with slightly-hunched shoulders and flat chests. There’s no dynamism in the upper body.

When I say ‘flat chests’, I’m not advocating that men develop boobs. What I mean is that when dancing salsa, a man needs to expand the chest slightly up and forwards, and push the shoulder blades a little bit back. If you do that, the chest suddenly becomes positive; you look and feel confident, alert, ready for anything: to charm a woman, to handle a fight, to compete and win. (Maybe you don’t need to do any of these things, but when you dance salsa you want to look and feel as if you could!) And the upper body takes a positive part in the dance. Your style will immediately improve. Check it out with a mirror and practise!

Watch the guys in this video and you’ll see what I mean. And when I call this a secret, it’s because you won’t usually learn this in the UK. I had to visit Cuba four times before I was taught this. (And yes, thanks, you can pay me later if you insist!)

Amazingly, I have a photo of the very same domino table that appears in the video, taken in Calle San Miguel, Centro Habana in 2005 – I think some of the same players are there, only a bit younger! Here it is:

Cuba05PubDom

Domino Players, Calle San Miguel, Centro Habana, 2005

Anyway, enjoy the video. And if you’ve always dreamed of visiting Cuba, go now and go with Key2Cuba, who will give you the most authentic experience. And in the meantime, you can join me on my first visit to Cuba, and come with me exploring salsa across Latin America and the Caribbean, in my book Travels on the Dance Floor. Just click on this link to get 30% off:

http://www.carltonbooks.co.uk/books/products/travels-on-the-dance-floor-one-mans-journey-to-the-heart-of-salsa-1

 

 

 

REAL CUBAN SALSA WITH KERRY RIBCHESTER

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,

 ‘We work for two hours, and at the end of it I haven’t actually taken a dance step. Instead I’ve started to develop a new sense of my own body, a new kind of internal map…. Gradually it started to come. My centre of gravity changes. I begin to find that it’s possible to loosen up and let the different parts of the body flow, or float, to the music almost independently. I realise I’ve had a habit of holding my body tightly together, as if afraid the bits of me would somehow come apart if I didn’t keep them together in one tense mass.’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0233002987?tag=grelinpoewrit-21&camp=1406&creative=6394&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=0233002987&adid=1XFFFVTR08ZQK9V2VTFT&&ref-refURL=http%3A%2F%2Fgrevel.co.uk%2F

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.

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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.

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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

Don’t Miss Diáspora Latin Band

You have a big chance on Sunday 1 May. Diaspora are playing at Matt and Phred’s in Manchester and, frankly, you seriously need to go and hear them. Really.

Diaspora: Get Up and Move It!

I first heard Diáspora playing at last year’s Manchester Jazz Festival. They were backing Mojito in Albert Square, and I wrote then that their music “just forced you to get up and move… all of it was highly listenable. I hope to hear a lot more of Diaspora”.

Well, since then I have heard quite a bit more of them, and the good news is that they’ve just got better and better. Currently I’d say that they are one of the UK’s finest salsa/Latin orchestras and, of the larger bands, the absolute best in the NorthWest.

Their gig at Matt and Phred’s on 31 March was really fabulous. Diáspora have definitely got that magic ingredient – the one that makes or breaks a Latin band. I’m sure you know what I mean. Anyone who dances salsa and the like knows that some bands play very well technically, but they just haven’t got it – the magic ingredient that forces you to move your body, to forget everything and get out there on the floor.

Grooving at Matt and Phred's

I don’t know the full personnel of Diáspora in detail, but I gather they have a nucleus at least of musicians who came through the RNCM. You might wonder if that would be the best background for this genre – you might imagine players who can do the notes faultlessly but don’t pack that salsa punch – but in this case you’d be wrong. These people are clearly addicted to the music and soaked in the tradition, or maybe it’s just that Eleggua, Chango, Ochun, Yemaya and Ogun have paid a visit to Manchester and given them a special blessing. I don’t know. But the physical fact – the thing your body will tell you – is that they have the weaving, dancing, battering percussion, the precise, hard-hitting brass, the rippling piano montuno (one of the rarest things to hear played properly in British salsa) and the intense, flexible vocals that characterise the best Latin music the world over. They are the real thing.

It was great to hear Rich Sliva guesting with them on drumkit in April: Rich is a master percussionist, initiated and trained in Cuba, and he knows what he’s doing. You may have heard him playing with Mojito, another top local band.

Alyss Rose: Latin Melody Plus Toughness

Alyss Rose has a superbly engaging vocal style that’s tough, sexy and also melodious: amazing for an English singer and exactly right for the Latin and AfroCuban lyrics she puts over so expressively. It’s hard to believe she’s not a native Spanish speaker.

On 1 May they’ll be playing with a full brass section, so it will definitely be a night to remember. The gig starts at 8.30. If you don’t know Matt and Phred’s in Tib Street, you’ll enjoy the ambience: a real funky jazz club with drinks and excellent pizzas available (mine’s a Charlie Parker, please). I’m often enthusiastic on this blog, but it isn’t hype, it’s because I write about what I love and when I think something is that good, I want to share it. I want to share Diáspora with you. Please be there.

Ochun, Goddess of the Copper Moon

Ochun: the West African Venus

Ochun: the West African Venus

As we approach May Eve, I remember something extraordinary that happened to me four years ago in Bogota, Colombia. It was my meeting in dream with Ochún: one of the most powerful visionary experiences of my life.

It perhaps happened because the previous year, when I was in Cuba, I had had an initiation into Santería, the Afro-Caribbean religion. Maybe that opened a door somewhere. But the encounter with Ochún was completely unexpected and had a power all of its own.

The piece that follows was written for a Buddhist magazine, which posed the question of what relationship the Celtic Goddesses might have to Buddhism. This was my answer, with no apology for wandering away from the Celtic theme (though I did get Robert Graves in!). I repeat it here in love and gratitude to the Goddess who so kindly paid me a visit that night on the eve of May Day.

*

REFLECTIONS ON A COPPER MOON

I sit beside the dark, fast-flowing river, watching the disc of the full moon straight ahead. It has a reddish tinge; its light glitters on the surface of the water and casts shadows under the bushes beside me. Something darts from the undergrowth at my right. To my amazement it’s a black cat. It runs towards me and began to circle me clockwise. Others follow: dozens, hundreds of cats stream from the bushes. They run fast and they close in, dancing, brushing my skin with their fur, a whirlpool of black cats. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they veer away and vanish into the forest.

I know I have to leave for my appointment with the woman. I’ve been told to wait in the house next door. Sure enough, a lovely slender woman with long hair comes in. She dances around me in a circle, close up, like the cats. But almost at once she’s gone. I know that I have to follow her now, to the house next door, her house. And as soon as I walk in I see her. But now she’s not alone. There’s a man with her, and a huge black dog. She smiles at me. She has something important to tell me. I think she’s speaking Spanish but I’m not sure. ‘This moon is the moon of copper,’ she explains. ‘Copper, because it comes between silver and gold.’ She gestures towards the man. ‘And now,’ she says, ‘you must kiss my companion.’

I’m a bit troubled by this. But I needn’t worry. The man bends forward and gives me the slightest brush on the lips, a mere formality. We’re not finished yet, however. ‘Next,’ says the lady, ‘you have to kiss my dog.’ The dog is like a very large black Labrador. I have a dog at home and I like dogs. I guess I can tolerate kissing it. I bend down and look into its loving, dark brown eyes. The dog flickers its tongue out and gives me just the tiniest lick on my lips. No problem.

‘And now,’ says the lady, ‘you can kiss me.’ She pulls me towards her in her arms. This time it’s a real kiss. It’s delightful: she kisses me like a lover and I can feel the soft pressure of her tongue on mine. She smiles at me. ‘Look into my mouth,’ she says.

She beckons me to come close again, and she opens her mouth. Something very strange happens. Her lower jaw seems to change shape, to elongate a little. There’s something not quite human about it. A piranha? A cayman? I peer into her mouth. I can see several things: a rounded stone pebble; a small cylinder of polished bone or ivory, about the size of a chessman; and, astonishingly, I can somehow see through the back of her throat: instead of flesh there is empty space, the sky, and in the midst of it the copper-coloured disc of the full moon.

She closes her mouth and her jaw returns to normal. Once again she is a beautiful, blonde woman. She holds me at arm’s length, a twinkle of amusement in her eyes, smiling as if to cheer up a favourite child. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘I’ll look after you.’

And I wake with a soundless crash, as if I had fallen into the bed from a great height. My heart is pounding, my scalp prickling. The pitch-dark room crackles with a weird energy, as if the whole place were charged with static electricity. Shakily I get out of bed and look for the light. I’m in a hotel room in Bogotá. I’ve just had one of the strangest dreams of my life, and I feel sure of one thing: it didn’t come out of my little personal psyche.

I tell this story (it happened in April 2007) to show that even thirty years of Samatha practice may not immunise you against visitations from deities (or spirits or apparitions, call them what you like) who seem to have nothing to do with Buddhism. But then, I’ve always felt that the Buddha’s teaching takes for granted the existence of countless non-material beings – good, bad and mixed. The Wheel of Life, that popular image in the art of nearly all Buddhist traditions, shows the realms of the hungry ghosts, of the asuras or titans, and of the gods themselves. And Buddhist texts – even the supposedly ‘plain and simple’ Pali suttas – show just how rich and varied the realms of the gods are. In the Kevaddha Sutta, the Buddha describes a monk who wants to know where the four elements, earth, water, fire and wind cease and leave no trace behind. He develops his meditation and then, to ask his question, travels in turn to the heavens of the Four Great Kings, the Thirty-Three gods, the Yama gods, the Gods Who Rule Over Creation, the Gods Who Inspire the Creations of Others, and the Brahma realms.

Of course he doesn’t find the answer there, because the gods – though more beautiful and long-lived than we are – are no more enlightened than ourselves. The Buddha explains that the place where the elements (and even name and form) cease, is in the Enlightened mind, which is free of them all. But as for those gods, countless other Buddhist texts take for granted the existence of such beings. The biographies of numerous eminent meditation teachers confirm the same view, telling of how they met, talked and debated with deities of many kinds.

Whether we ‘believe’ in the existence of the gods is up to us, but at least we might keep an open mind. Certainly, the question of whether the specific gods and goddesses of the world’s religions – past, present and future – actually exist as ‘persons’ is a difficult one. Are Indra, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, Aphrodite, Thor and all the rest of them wandering around somewhere in the spiritual cosmos at this very moment? Frankly, I don’t know. I suspect that it isn’t quite that simple. Such beings, if they do exist, certainly don’t have material form as we know it. Perhaps they are more like living centres of psychic energy. Perhaps they merge and separate – changing from one to many and back again – in ways we find hard to imagine. (Indeed, if there is any truth in Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious, there must be a viewpoint from which the whole of humanity is, in a sense, a ‘single’ person.) It may well be that human feelings – devotion, love, fear and so on – give the gods form, a kind of shape that enables our imaginations to grasp them, but also distorts them in the process. We see them, and imagine them, for the most part in terms of what we already know. What is not in doubt is that at times such beings – whether Celtic goddesses or Christian angels – can inspire us, bring us wisdom or protection, or, for that matter, trouble us. For we should always remember that the gods, if they exist, are not themselves enlightened. Like humans they may be wise or foolish, honest or deeply dishonest. Some are perhaps malicious: think of the asuras, the jealous titans who want to get into heaven by force, and who make war on the gods. I suspect that this category includes many of those so-called gods whom humans have ‘worshipped’ with human and animal sacrifice. The energy of the asuras corresponds to the mental states of kings and warrior-castes who live by violence and fear.

It was in 1944, towards the end of World War II, that one of the most dramatic irruptions of a ‘pagan’ deity into modern culture took place. The poet Robert Graves was then living in Devon. Age, and wounds from the previous World War, had led to his being turned down for war service, so he was writing and researching as usual. Suddenly he found himself taken over by a vast current of psychic energy, in which he unexpectedly began to see answers to several of the unsolved mysteries of Celtic culture. ‘My mind,’ he recalled later, ‘ran at such a furious rate all night, as well as all the next day, that it was difficult for my pen to keep pace with it. Three weeks later I had written a seventy-thousand-word book’ – which became the first draft of The White Goddess.

The book began by examining a group of riddling early-Welsh poems which previous scholars had been unable to interpret with any confidence. Graves solved the riddles and deciphered the poems – to his own satisfaction – revealing them as records of the defeat of goddess-worship in Britain around 400 BC, and its replacement by patriarchy and the predominant worship of male gods.

Graves was convinced that the inspiration for his book came from the Muse Goddess, the moon-goddess or ‘White Goddess’ who, he came to believe, was the object of all pre-patriarchal religion. He believed that he owed his poetry to her, and that she had inspired all the true poets of the past. He was also convinced that society would return to her worship in the future, after the breakdown of male-dominated industrial civilisation. Not that this was necessarily an entirely pleasant prospect, for Graves also thought that the Goddess had her cruel aspects. She might demand human sacrifice, and would certainly make people suffer.

His urgent sense of inspiration, and the fascinating book it produced – eventually published as The White Goddess in 1948 – were undoubtedly real enough. To Graves the Goddess was an actual entity; and she has become an inspiring presence in the lives of many people who have read his book. A whole host of Pagans and enthusiasts for a ‘Celtic’ culture based more on the Romantic imagination than on archaeological evidence have followed in Graves’s footsteps. But has the White Goddess really anything to do with the religion of the Celts (about which in fact we know very little)? Probably not. The Goddess, as Graves depicted her, is surely shaped in the terms of the modern imagination. She is a composite goddess, made up of aspects from a wide range of ancient goddesses from Europe and the Middle East, and mixed with Graves’s personal quirks – he was something of a masochist, and the idea of a cruel goddess had a special appeal for him.

Academic scholars of Celtic culture have rejected almost all Graves’s interpretations – whilst continuing to delight in the stream of students who come to enrol for Celtic Studies after being inspired by his book. Yet though Graves may not have produced reliable interpretations of early Welsh poetry, he certainly created an imaginative world and a system of symbolism which has proved powerful and enduring.

And even that is not the whole story. Not only do the complexity and intensity of The White Goddess show it as an exceptionally rich book, a staggering creative feat. It also introduced ideas of feminist spirituality at a time when these were hardly discussed in western culture, and it warned of an ecological crisis which almost no one else in the 1940s could foresee. Where did all this come from? If Graves felt that his work had been galvanised by a visiting intelligence which took him far beyond what he could have done unaided, perhaps he was right – even if his vision of that intelligence was shaped and distorted by his own personality. Certainly for me it is hard to reconcile the idea of a goddess who inspires poetry, love and scholarship with the vision of a cruel female deity thirsting for blood. And yet again, I am checked by the thought that the compassionate deities of Tibetan tradition have their wrathful aspects. The riddle remains.

I wrote above about ‘living centres of psychic energy’, and perhaps this is the best formulation I can find. It was surely one of these that Robert Graves encountered. Whether such entities dwell in higher cosmic realms, in the individual psyche, or in the ‘Collective Unconscious’ proposed by Jung, is something we could argue about endlessly. Certainly, if I understand the suttas correctly, the Buddha implies that we can at times contact such beings in meditation.

I have no idea whether The White Goddess is accurate in its explorations of Celtic culture – the secret lore of the tree alphabet, the interpretation of the Battle of the Trees as a poem about the overthrow of matriarchal culture, and all the rest of it. But it is a book that casts a powerful spell. I discovered it at sixteen and have never ceased to be fascinated by it. The opportunity to produce a new and more accurate edition of it in 1997 was a delight and an honour for me, a chance to repay something of the debt I felt I owed to the book, and to Robert Graves, for a lifetime of inspiration. And beyond the book itself, I also cherish the notion of an inspiring goddess, one who has many faces and turns up in many cultures, who shows herself to me at certain moments in the woman I love, and who every so often may give an extra touch of magic to a poem I write. I don’t have any feeling that she demands human sacrifice. As far as I’m concerned, impermanence, old age, sickness and death will see to that anyway.

For me the Goddess has a certain reality, as a helper, a friend, someone living on a different plane from me but still a part of samsara, destined no doubt in the end to die and be reborn into this human world, even if she perhaps doesn’t yet know it herself. So I felt honoured as well as amazed that she – or one of her aspects – paid me that startling visit on my first night in Colombia. And I felt sure that someone who knew the local Afro-Caribbean religion would be able to tell me more about her.

I found a babalawu – a shaman – in the Yellow Pages (easy enough in South America) and went to tell him about my dream. ‘The lady you dreamed of was Ochun,’ he told me, ‘the goddess of the river, of the moon and of copper. She granted you a vision of herself. The three kisses were three tests which she set you, and you passed them. She is telling you that she loves you and will take care of you.’ The babalawu advised me to get a picture of Ochun, and told me that when I got home I should offer her five eggs, five candles and five yams.

I took his advice. In Panama City not long afterwards I noticed a shop with a sign that said ‘Esoterica’. I went in, and asked if they had a picture of Ochun. Yes, indeed, I was told, and the lady behind the counter gave me a little plastic-covered Catholic picture of Our Lady of Charity of Copper – a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary enthroned in Cuba on a mountain where copper was mined, and who is now honoured as the patroness of Cuba. In my picture she floats above the water, on a crescent moon, in a blue robe just the same shade as the dress she wore in my dream. To the Catholics she is the Blessed Virgin; to followers of Santería, the Afro-Caribbean religion that grew up amongst the slaves of the New World, she is Ochun; perhaps to Robert Graves she would have been an aspect of the White Goddess.

I don’t know what she will do with the eggs and the yams, bless her, but I enjoyed offering them to her. They’re near me as I write, on a small table, in two dishes, with a couple of candles, in front of my little picture of Ochun – alias Our Lady of Charity of Copper, alias, perhaps, the White Goddess. In a day or two I shall take them out, as the babalawu instructed me, and leave them in a forest somewhere. But right now it’s time for me to do my meditation and try to take another tiny step on the path that leads beyond the gods, those fellow-travellers of ours on the path to enlightenment.

(A fuller version of these events and what followed them is told in my book Travels on the Dance Floor).

Salsa Travels in Paperback!

At last I’m in paperback. My book Travels on the Dance Floor has just appeared in the new format – and at half the price! – from publishers Andre Deutsch.

I’m pleased that they’ve kept the same funky, deeply colourful, slightly gritty look for the cover design (a bit pale in this jpeg – the one at right is more accurate!) – I wanted it to reflect the look of the beautiful, battered buildings of Cuba and other Latin American cities, where nothing is pristine, but the used-and-abused look only adds to the charm of the cityscape.

But they have added a corner-flash saying that Travels was listed as Authors’ Club Dolman Best Travel Book 2009 – something I’m very proud of, even though the actual prize was won by a more scholarly tome. It was a very short short list, believe me.

What has delighted me even more than the listing has been the wonderful response I’ve had from readers – and by no means only from people who dance. People still come up to me in the street, at parties, at literary events, or they email me, to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Typical comments have been ‘I tried to read slowly because I couldn’t bear it to finish.’ ‘It was written so beautifully that I could see everything in my head like a movie in full colour.’

Hector - Panama City bus artist

Am I boasting? Of course. But I’m also full of gratitude that I’ve been able to give readers so much enjoyment. A matter of sharing the delight I myself took in the adventure.

Travels sometimes gets referred to as my ‘salsa book’, but the truth is that I used dance as a way into Latin American and Caribbean culture generally: a way to get close to people, to learn from them, to explore the sides of these countries that the tourists don’t get to see.

I travelled through Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and ended up in Miami, Fla. I took lessons in the local dance styles in each country, and I explored the clubs and dance halls. I met magicians and pagan priests, policement and prostitutes, poets and musicians. I met a guy who made a living painting pictures on the sides of buses, an haute couture designer, and several lunatics. All of them were fascinating. And I met them pretty much on equal terms. I got robbed, I got arrested, I got lost, and I had the most wonderful time – better than I could ever have imagined.

Aïda: her Colombian smile brightened stressed-out Caracas!

Aïda: her Colombian smile brightened stressed-out Caracas!

I fell in love with these countries, their music, their culture and their people. And since I wrote the book with total honesty – and absolutely no regard for political correctness – I have to say that I fell in love above all with Latin American women, surely some of the most beautiful in the entire world. You will meet many of them in the book, and I hope you’ll be as enchanted by them as I was.

Whether or not you dance salsa, tango or anything else, enjoy!