Grevel Lindop

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

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.

La Casa de la Salsa

Salsa with Heart: La Casa de la Salsa

Salsa with Heart: La Casa de la Salsa

Valentine’s already seems a long time ago. But before memories fade, I’d like to look back and thank La Casa de la Salsa for their fine Valentine’s Ball at the Britannia Hotel, Stockport.

It was a lovely evening. Gorgeous table settings, beautiful balloons everywhere, an imaginative cocktail menu at good prices, Mike Parr’s usual suave and seamless DJing, and of course friends, lots and lots of friends, and wonderful dancing.

Open Break with Vicky

Open Break with Vicky

And why didn’t I write about it sooner? Well, it took some days for Lydia’s pics to appear on Facebook (I’d lost my own camera at the time so it was Facebook or nothing!) and then life just got so busy and chaotic I wasn’t blogging at all.

But it was a good enough evening to make me want to say, Watch out for La Casa de la Salsa and their future events. Check them out on Facebook and keep up with what they’re doing.

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Braz, Tina, Silvia: Awesome Threesome

Besides the music and the company, a special feature was the ZOUK LAMBADA demonstration from Braz (of Kaoma fame) and his partner Silvia. I’m not sure I’ll be taking on this (literally) head-turning dance in the near future, but the performance was an amazing spectacle. The highlight in some ways was the point where Braz insisted on involving Tina (of Latino Euphoria) in the dance and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Despite a modest display of resistance Tina allowed herself to be drawn in and Braz performed a truly extraordinary Lamada threesome with her and Silvia. Astonishing.

What else? Well… Several people said they’d had a terrible time finding the Hotel. Maybe better directions could be available next time? Lighting: perhaps a bit bright on the dancefloor. Any chance of dimmer, warmer, coloured lights or even a disco ball? Music: maybe a bit bland (and no merengue, no reggaeton? well, perhaps you can’t expect reggaeton at a Valentine Ball…) – but some faster, heavier music, some salsa dura, might have been welcome. Though I admit this is from the viewpoint of a Cuba fanatic: all those hours of sweaty dancing on cracked concrete in near-darkness, moving between the tropical heat outside and the freezing air-conditioning inside, have probably warped my brain more than a little.

Thanks, Girls: And here's looking at you too! (Next time I'll bring my camera...)

Thanks, Girls: And here's looking at you too! (Next time I'll bring my camera...)

The more people come to these events the more the atmosphere and the urgency are going to build, so watch for La Casa de la Salsa’s next production. Definitely worth the journey!

Majestic Manchester Mahler 3

Gustav Mahler - currently celebrated in Manchester

Gustav Mahler - currently celebrated in Manchester

The Halle set a very high standard with Mahler’s Second Symphony a couple of weeks back (you’ll need to scroll down 5 posts should you want to see comments). So the BBC Philharmonic faced quite a challenge with the Third, another epic soundscape with a passionate philosophical programme behind it.

But they proved equal to the task, and if the Third didn’t send us out quite as dazed and elated as its predecessor, it was mainly because this symphony, though just as complex, is more contemplative, a slower-paced work with quieter dynamics relying more or mood and melody than on stark contrasts and shattering climaxes.

Vassily Sinaisky took the first movement, with its resounding opening fanfare on the horns representing the great god Pan arriving to reanimate nature after the winter, at a steady but not rapid pace – very much the approach Stenz used last time for the opening of the Second. The brass section was superb throughout, playing with resonance and precision. Just as well because in every movement the brass has vital thematic parts to play, most often to remind us, in some way, of that opening motif of descending horn notes. The first movement as a whole gave an experience of restrained power, deep strings sporadically throbbing and surging, with the brass and the more fragile, fragmentary woodwind floating over the top.

Here’s an extract from the movement (LSO, splendidly conducted by Valery Gergiev, looking more than ever like Boris Karloff):

Mahler’s idea for the symphony was to make it ‘a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world…In my symphony the whole of nature finds a voice.’ The movements aim to layer one tier of being on top of another. The orchestra gave second movement (originally titled ‘What the flowers tell me’) a light, almost staccato touch and brought out the exuberant, dance-like qualities of the third (‘What the animals of the forest tell me’, according to Mahler’s early notes). The distant horns (how Mahler loves those!) sounded here like a faint reminder of the world of men, rather thanan eruption of the animalistic Pan.

Reaching ‘Night’ and the world of men, the 4th movement, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill got her entrance exactly right: the voice seemed to emerge and radiate without an identifiable starting-point, simply welling up out of the orchestral sound, as if uttered by the universe as well as by humanity. This lovely setting of the mysertious Nietzsche poem was a delight.

Mahler’s gentle audacity is astounging and wonderful: having begun the symphony with Pan, then led on to Nietzsche (who loathed Christianity), he then dances into the fifth movement with a children’s folksong – it sounds almost like a skipping game – about Jesus, St Peter, and God’s forgiveness. And every so often what sounds like a reminiscence of a Bach choral sweeping in to underline the religious elements. The CBSO Youth Chorus made a fine job of the children’s chorus, vigorous and precise, entering with the ‘Bimm bamm…’ of the church bells. Personally I would have liked a bit more volume from them, and I suspect Sinaisky held them back a bit too much; but it wasn’t a major blemish.

The transition to the sixth movement made me see something I’d missed before, listening to the symphony endlessly on disc, which is that having brought Christianity and Gid into the structure, Mahler goes a step further and higher. Where the 2nd symphny ends in song, it’s as if he now sees that words aren’t enough and nothing but pure music will say what he has to say. We’ve gone beyond God too, beyond anything that can be formulated or imagined.

The final movement was wonderful, with that sense of endlessly-shifting and changing and evolving harmonies as Mahler finds his way very slowly through a vast musical mist, drawing notes out and mutating the harmonies so that you constantly find a chord emerging that’s different from the one you expected, and then that melds into yet another and so on. Sinaiski did a good job with the dynamics here, very slowly building and building the movement until all the layers came together in those vast closing chords that show you the whole imaginable cosmos towering up octave above octave, layer above layer, energised and tranquil but completely alive, like a vast wall of glass or water that doesn’t topple but just settles and poises there, with the brass finally folding harmoniously into the picture and the timpani slowly repeating deep notes that echo the bell-chimes of the children’s song. The combination of energy and peace at the end of the symphony was very impressive. Here’s a clip (Dudamel, La Scala Philharmonic):

I didn’t cry this time (though the girl next to me was in tears throughout the final movement). There’s less melodrama, more serenity in this than in the Second Symphony, but the vision is vaster. Maybe Sinaiski didn’t always make the dynamics as exciting as he might have done. I overheard one departing audience member talking about the difficulty of staying awake, in a way that made me wonder if the work is just too big and complicated to grasp until you’ve heard it over and over again and got all those details into your system. The applause was loud and long but it didn’t really match the reaction to No 2.

Certainly I notice these days how closely-integrated the Third is. The pattern – melodic and rhythmic – of that opening fanfare, for example, comes into just about everything in the work. Sometimes I think Mahler 3 has an entire symphony for its first movement, and a whole other one for its last, with a suite of other things in between. Then again I find myself thinking the entire work is a single movement. The first time you hear it, it’s a sprawl. By the tenth time, you just notice the mind-boggling precision with which it’s all integrated. Very strange. But how wonderful to hear these masterpieces one after another, so well-played. Not sure yet if I’ll make the Fourth on Thursday. Lorraine’s Rueda class at Cuba Cafe is calling, and Amanda is able to dance again now her broken arm has healed. A dilemma. But I’ll post something as soon as I get to another Mahler extravaganza. Meanwhile there’s always salsa and a million other things.
And don’t forget: starting 5 April, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the entire series on consecutive Monday nights at 7 pm. Listen to any you missed and see if you agree with me! And do post your comments.

Chris McCully, James Fenton: Manchester Poetry Evening

Chris McCully: poetry, fishing, and fine conversation

Chris McCully: poetry, fishing, and fine conversation

I had tea at the Cornerhouse with Chris McCully, who’s over from the Netherlands for a couple of days. Chris is a polymath: fine poet, serious fishing writer (he has a book on the way about sea trout ecology, on which he’s a leading expert), scholar of Old English poetry and historical linguistics. He writes regularly for Trout and Salmon magazine, and teaches linguistics and literature at Groningen University.

We’re planning to write an article together about Tom Rawling, one of the finest Lakeland poets of the 20th century and (like Chris) a scientific specialist on sea trout, who worked with Hugh Falkus, the famous naturalist and fisherman who revolutionised knowledge of these enigmatic fish. Not that I know anything about fishing: that’s Chris’s department. (Come to think of it, so is poetry. So where do I fit in?)

We walked down to the neo-Gothic splendours of the John Rylands Library for a reading by James Fenton. Fenton, a taciturn and hugely impressive man, gave a powerful reading, starting with his elegy for the much-missed poet and editor Mick Imlah, who died, after far too short a life, in January 2009. Fenton’s elegy (due to appear in tomorrow’s TLS) was almost classical in its poise, brevity and intensity.

Janet Wilkinson, Rylands Director, talks to Michael Schmidt (centre) and James Fenton (right)

Jan Wilkinson, Rylands Director, talks to poet and publisher Michael Schmidt (centre) and James Fenton (right)

Fenton went on to read a selection of his poems, with a particular emphasis on poems about war, on which he writes with peculiar intensity. He was a foreign correspondent in Cambodia during the last years of its war, so he knows the truth at first hand.

Much of Fenton’s poetry draws on traditional ballad forms, as modified by Auden and Kipling. Sometimes this can be immensely forceful though at moments it also, I feel, slightly flattens out subtleties. The ballad form is a dangerous friend. I asked him afterwards if he was conscious of the dept to Kipling and he said he was, but pointed also to Brecht, a model I hadn’t suspected. But it made sense. There’s a direct, unashamed and sometimes bitter plain-speaking in his rhymes that many contemporary poets would be afraid to use.

Best Cuban Salsa Night Outside Cuba?

For months I’ve been telling everyone who’ll listen that the best and most authentic Cuban salsa night in Manchester is Republic of Salsa. Last night (Saturday 5 Dec 09) I felt totally vindicated. It was pure dynamite: seriously, the best salsa night I’ve been to anywhere outside Cuba.

Lorraine mixes her salsa magic

Lorraine mixes her salsa magic

I’ll go further. Last time I went to Republic of Salsa I just caught myself heading for the bar to pick up another Cristal, and realised that for the past few minutes I’d truly slipped into thinking I was back in Havana. These club nights are that good.

Last night was a solid feast of Cuban beats: non-stop hardcore bailable Cuban salsa tracks at the son and timba edge of things, with enhanced edge and depth added by Jack McCarthy playing congas up there alongside the DJ deck. (He also had a set of timbales but mysteriously never seemed to touch them). Plus the usual garnish of reggaeton, bachata and merengue. The sound-system was superb, and the Irish Club’s new (or resurfaced?) dancefloor, which started off feeling a bit sticky, wore in nicely as the evening went on.

A rueda moment: !Arriba!

A rueda moment: !Arriba!

The session kicked off with Lorraine organising a huge beginners-friendly rueda and relentlessly heated up from there on.

The place was heaving and people danced their feet off. There was that intent, glistening, hypnotised, sweaty feel you get in Havana around two in the morning – though here it set in about eleven p.m. And pretty much everyone on the Manchester salsa scene was there, including two of the contenders for ‘coolest guy in the city’ in the form of Cuba Cafe’s Mo-ji and Baby Salsa’s Andre. Mo was resplendent in black beaded Native American buckskin and a shiny top hat; and Andre forsook his usual pose of pensive observer to dive in and dance by the hour. The sheer friendliness of everyone was tangible: laughing, smiling, kissing, grabbing hands. Was it possible, I wondered, that Chorlton really was becoming an outpost of Cuba?

Andre and Mo-ji: Cool or what?

Andre and Mo-ji: Cool or what?

Maybe the Irish Club’s refurbished bar and table area are a little too smart for the purist. I used to feel the tatty plaster and horrible curtains added to the sense of authenticity, giving the place that inimitable not-touched-since-1959 Havana look. But the newly smooth ceiling made a great arena for the lightshow. And for those who miss the grainy black-and-white Cuban movies on the rear wall, Lorraine tells me they’ll be back as soon as the new projector has been installed.

Jack McCarthy on Congas (and who's that beautiful girl?)

Jack McCarthy on Congas (and who's that beautiful girl?)

Republic of Salsa (promoted by Mancuban Salsa and Baby Salsa – see Facebook) runs first Saturdays of alternate months, so the next one should be 6 February. Do not miss it. This is a total-immersion Cuban dance experience you won’t find anywhere else. One day people are gonna wish they’d been there. You can. All you’re waiting for now is February.

Though if you can’t wait that long, you might still get to La Habana for New Year: check out key2Cuba.com

I’ll be reporting on Rohan Brown and Mojito live at the Tower Ballroom Blackpool (Fri 11 Feb) straight after the event. Watch this space! And if you still don’t have the two best albums by the best Cuban band, see below!