We are all clay

This stunning little pop-up sculpture appeared today (22 Nov 2015) on a stone seat next to the Thames. Its tiny, but very moving – read the words! Who is the artist? Hints welcome.

Here are the words

These figures are made from unfired clay, dug from the earth, a substance so much a part of our shared history that it is regarded as the source of our being in creation stories from around the world.

The colour of clay differs widely and its appearance may be changed by the forces that are imposed upon it, but it remains the same substance. Similarly human beings remain the same creatures that we have evolved to be in our short time on this Earth. Universally we retain the instincts to protect ourselves and our families, to seek a place of safety, to survive and prosper, leading us to move back and forth across the globe as climate, food supplies and security demands.

In treating these instincts as a virtue in those of its own community while presenting them as sinister in others, the ruling part of the day divide society into those worth and unworthy, deserving and undeserving, hardworking and scroungers, us and “The Other”. This dehumanization reduces individuals to a mass, making all Muslims fanatics, all white females whores, all gypsies, thieves, the blame culture inducing fear for our safety, our possessions, and our values.

The effects of this dehumanization are plainly evident in the persecutions, purges, genocides and expulsions that our past and present is littered with,

The place and situation of our birth is a matter of luck, not virtue. We, born at this time and place, should be aware of the lessons of history and be wary of scapegoating those who have been born into a different situation.

We all have the same needs, desires and fears. We all have the same evolution and origins, and, ultimately, we all have the same destination.

We are all of clay.

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Annual ceremony for blessing the river Thames

Each year to celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Christ (11 Jan this year) two ancient London churches meet in procession in the middle of London Bridge to bless the river Thames. From the South comes a procession from Southwark Cathedral and from the North the crosses of St Magnus the Martyr, another old and very traditional church with great statues situated at the northern end of old London Bridge, a bit lower than the new bridge.

Southwark Cathedral processing arrives from the South

Southwark Cathedral processing arrives from the South

St Magnus the Martyr procession arrives

St Magnus the Martyr procession arrives

Blessing the River Thames service

Blessing the River Thames service

Throwing a cross into the River Thames

Throwing a cross into the River Thames

The ceremony thanks God for the river that is such a beautiful part of London, and also prays for the safety of all those who work on it and who will enjoy it, remembering the souls of those who have died in its waters too. “The river makes glad the city of God” was the response to the psalm (46).
Two bishops – Geoffrey Rowell and Nigel Stock – join in throwing a light wooden cross into the river (someone checks no boats are passing underneath) and bless the crowd sprinkling holy water and saying together: “God, who in Christ gives us a spring of water welling up to eternal life, perfect in you the image of his glory.”
St Magnus the Martyr was recorded in 1067AD when a church was standing there but that was later replaced in 1234 and then built again by Sir Christopher Wren after the Fire of London in 1666, in which it was the second church to be destroyed. Its interior includes an impressive statue of a huge saint who looks like a Viking and has a fearsome battleaxe.
Southwark Cathedral stems from a convent established in 606AD near a ferry crossing to the City of London and in 1106 was the site of an Augustine Priory, which also established the Hospital of St Thomas. There is an amusing story on a plaque at the nearby Golden Hinde replica of the greed, deaths and sorrow that led to the founding of the convent.

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Ethio-funking the night away – Krar Collective and Akale Wube

Five white guys from Paris playing Ethiopian sounds? If it sounds unlikely, you better check Akalé Wubé. The project was launched in October 2008 as the brainchild of producer Francis Falceto, who created the amazing “Ethiopiques” series of albums. The name itself came from a song by saxophonist Getachew Mekuria, which can translate as “my beauty” or “the beauty of the soul”.

They reinterpret and reinvigorate many great old songs from the 60s and 70s, including swing or groove (“Jawa Jawa” in Amharic). They replace the singer with an eloquent flute that manages call and response and a guitar hero Loïc Réchard with vocal solos. Even the shakers got soul.

Akalé Wubé’s repertoire included some of their own compositions, including “Nebiyat”, a ballad that strayed into psychedelic jazz which banshee sounds as a guitar is slowly tortured to death and cascades of percussion. Also a hopping Tigrinya number. They manage to revive the retro energy and add their own adventurous arrangements. What more does a jazz band need – they even have a man with a moustache (Paul Bouclier), dropping beads of sweat as he trumpets and then switches to…. electric krar for that distinctive string sound that also pumps rhythm, stirs the soul and spins the world. The beat soon starts playing the double speed and double rhythm tricks that are worthy of the wax and gold modes of expression. The flute man Etienne de la Sayette manages all the haunting sounds of Ethiopian music, so nostalgic for memories (tizita) of lost loves, pastoral green hills and evening cows coming home to the village. He proves that there must be a bit of Ethiopian soul in all the world’s inhabitants, we are all related.

Local band Krar Collective, a Rich Mix favourite, also played amazing sounds and their wrap up performance with the Parisians was amazing. Singer Genet Assefa has a smile and a strong voice that whisks the audience away from November London to a world of great Addis clubs and live music, scenes such as Razzmatazz and Black and White. Temesgen Zeleke is fellow singer and skilful krar player (dubbed “the Hendrix of the krar”), matching the krar against the drums (read this Guardian review), including Robel Tesfaye who can also win bubbling and everchanging rhythms from the dramatic Ethiopian kebero drum (another great review here), whose beats stir through the predawn still at the start of mountain robed church services. “Wolaita” was as full of delight and duplicity as the town, and the joyful anthem “Addis Abebe beyt-ey” (my home) is a powerful statement of the global Ethiopia and their spiritual and musical home.

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My night with Hugh Masekela and Zahara – Windhoek Jazz Festival

26 October 2013, WINDHOEK, Hage Geingob rugby stadium.

Amazing night of brilliant music. If you have ever heard South Africa’s Zahara, I don’t need to tell you that there is a global star in the making. Her sound seems to flow straight from a good heart and out through one of the best voices ever have heard. It filled the giant rugby stadium and floated to the stars glistening against velvet night.

As you may know, Zahara is Bulelwa Mkutukana, a 26-year-old from South Africa’s Eastern Cape, who started singing in school choirs at age 6 and later as a worship leader. Apparently an early nickname was “Spinach”, because she loved to eat it.

She is a poet and songwriter and sings in IsiXhosa and English and performs on acoustic guitar. Her first album Loliwe (“train” in isiXhosa, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RV22ISkVDWA) was released in September 2011 and went double platinum selling 400,000 copies in South Africa and South Africa’s second fastest-selling album after Brenda Fassie’s Memeza in 1997. According to Wikipedia: “The track titled “Loliwe” refers to the trains that brought workers back home after many years away working in Johannesburg where they often had other families. According to Zahara, “For me it is a metaphor. It’s like … just pick yourself up. No matter who’s your father or who’s your mother … I believe that you’re not a mistake.”

In May 2012 she won 8 awards at the South African Music Awards, including “Best Female Artist” and “Album of the Year”. Commenting on a DVD issued, she said: “I feel that God has favoured me, this is just a blessing. It shows that if you remain true to who you are people will support you and remain faithful to you.” Her new album, released September 2013 is called Phendula, featuring some great guest appearances, and she has also released a tribute to Nelson Mandela song which she performed to him.

Since then she has only got better. Her music is simple and full of integrity, African beats and giant African soul. As one reviewer said (Claire Martens) better than I could: “This is going back to the nuts and bolts of music and creating something of substance from the rawness.”

The audience in Windhoek knew, loved and sang along to Zahara’s own songs, and she in turn delighted them with some well-loved Brenda Fassie* numbers in English and IsiXhosa.

Zahara is unforgettable and her music heals all. If you see her listed to play anywhere on your continent, GO LISTEN or regret forever!

Of course, the headliner that night was Hugh Masekela, and if you think the 74-year-old might be slowing down, you’re wrong. His first trumpet was given to him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and the Huddleston Jazz Band was South Africa’s first youth orchestra. Wikipedia lists 43 recordings between 1963 and 2012. Masekela has been a pillar of the anti-apartheid music and his sounds bring so many bitter-sweet memories of exile nights in southern Africa and around the world. According to Wikipedia “He was an artist who in his music vividly portrayed the struggles and sorrows, as well as the joys and passions of his country. His music protested about apartheid, slavery, government; the hardships individuals were living.” In Windhoek, Masekela blew, he danced, he had the audience get down low, he played deep into the night and the early morning.

After Loliwe, Hugh had to play and sing the much-loved Stimela, also about the train that winds across the flatlands, taking workers to the hellhole hostels and mines in Johannesburg. Like the train, the song wound through the warm night and the steep hilltops that surround Windhoek on most sides. Some of the audience had tears in their eyes as they remembered so many previous occasions of hearing this song and sharing it with comrades lost on the way, as well as the knowledge that independence was a huge gain, but the struggle for truth, freedom and against injustice always continues.

(* Diminutive megastar Brenda, the queen of African pop, used to come regularly to Windhoek and I even had the privilege of interviewing her one day, she radiated charisma. Her songs lit up township clubs all across struggling southern Africa as she opposed apartheid, racism and oppression. She was a huge loss when she passed in 2004, aged 39.

Zahara and musicians were still on good form on the Air Namibia flight back to Joburg the next morning at 8:30, I wished we had got another song from her, it would have shown the guys returning from the Windhoek Oktoberfest, clutching their steins, what they had missed the night before).

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Baku live music – findings so far

Apart from that night of magic, what else have I enjoyed in Baku? As usual the search for live music has produced the best evenings. On Saturday i made it tired to Baku Jazz Centre and decided the cool and excellent sounds would probably send me asleep. Back in a sidestreet from the strolling and sometimes smiling crowds of Fountain Square i found a large band playing latin music on the staircase leading into Panchos restaurant and chatted awhile with Martin. Heading homewards, hard rock lured me into Phoenix, where a crowd of international (and British) workers maybe oil loved the excellent and driving music of the band. Women, one or two lovely and fresh, some jaded and craggy, sat with menfriends or gave me friendly but inquiring smiles, and in one case a bump with a bony bum. But wild and driving rock and a wild crowd was enough of a night for the memories.

On a previous trip, Baku Jazz Centre shone with star pianist Etibar Esedli guiding his band. Tamilla Yagubova shone on vocals full of soul, love and vigour, a voice that I searched for again (she said she sang at Park Bulvar, but i was always too early or late). Shadowy star of the evening was Zauz Mizzeyev on tortured sax, a workmanlike stocky man who clutches his magic sax, transforms into fire and dragons wearing a flowery shirt as streams of consciousness, wild melodies and waterfalls of emotion spin from his sax like Catherine wheels. Ruslan Heseynov keeps order and drive on bass guitar and drummer Isgendez drives rhythms, mountains, meadows, memories and music all from his kit.

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Baku Restaurants – What do I recommend?

Baku Restaurants – What do I recommend?

Tosca by the seafront boulevard has been sublime both times I have been there, from thin crust pizzas fresh from an oven to risotto and unforgettable salad combinations, eased and delighted with dancing red wines. But it certainly helps take the load off your wallet, 50 manat came and went the last time (we were going Dutch).

Cafe Araz in Fountain Square is reportedly the hangout of students and revolutionaries, but tonight there were even ladies among the throngs of sometimes hand-holding men (its friendship) and a few rucksacked foreigners.  The street atmosphere, delicious sizzling sadj, friendly waiters who glowed with triumph when they understood my English and a bill of only about 11 manat – sweet surrender what a night.

On previous trips I have enjoyed Georgian hospitality at Imereti, spicy Georgian food is nearly as beautiful at that Georgian woman’s eyes I will never forget (another story) and the wine came in jugs, my favourite. The price was reasonable, the welcome excellent and luckily the Sunday night balladeer got lazy after a few nostalgic songs.

Paul’s Steakhouse is good for great steaks and large cold beers when your fellow consultants don’t want exotic. Be sure to phone to book ahead and keep German timing – one horde of diners per table at 6pm and the next due to hit the spot at 8. It is the excellent steaks – they don’t serve them well done, that would not do justice to the great meat. The soundtrack of the Who and Rolling Stones is not all bad and summons memories from the night.

Adam’s Curries did a good vegetarian thali for 11 manat, the night I went was a bit quiet but I suppose that is an aberration and the staff were relaxed and welcoming and fluent in English. I guess they have to deal with the local Baku Hash House Harriers from time to time, so every patient smile helps.

With our Azeri project leader, local meals have turned into banquets, at Plov House and Firuze we have been treated like kings, sat around high piled tables of local delicacies and feasted until we felt like bursting and staggered into the night, our bellies sagged with beer or wine.

Anadolu has offered tasty and cheerful Turkish food in a busy and family atmosphere both times I have been there, two good dinners. They even spray you down with cologne when you leave – the sweetest smelling diners. When you want cheap, fast and cheerful check Kebap Express near Austin Hotel, great kebabs cooked right under your eyes.

The ubiquitous bizness lanc (say it, with the “c” sounding “ch”) at 5 or 6 manat is a feast that turns the long quiet afternoons into struggles with stupor, as laptop screens swim before tired eyes. The 3-4 courses of Pitstop soon waned into sameness. The underground velvet and gilt halls of Restoran Art always delighted, the waiters doggedly avoiding us because they feared our English, but delicious, wellcooked and cheap mountains of soup and food arriving once we started pointing or when another table helped us out with translation. Elsewhere I have eaten Ukrainian, Azeri, pizza and others  but my bargain favourite for lunch remains the rows of pies and coriandered pizza at Cudo Peska.

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Baku delights

With deft painter touches, the slightly sterile grand architecture was springing in shadows, uplifts, mystery, blazes of light and the velvet night overlooking. A crowd of street sweepers, night wanderers and me gathered spellbound at the last two of a school of art students who had set up little easels all over town and were dipping a river flow of paint to bring night street buildings off the mixed and muddy pools on their pallets and onto their canvases.

The magic they created from street-lit building sums up how Baku has swivelled and taken depth for me, how it seems like home and welcomes me with familiarity, if not love, on my third visit..

The best night was Sunday, with a fellow guest from my hotel, a beautiful dancer with straight back, bright eyes that always talked of sunshine, and discussions of shows in Glyndebourne, New York’s Met and Bolshoi ballet. Both stressed by our long Sunday hours of work despite hot sunshine and cheerful crowds beckoning tiresomely out of hotel windows, we had a date and headed towards the smelly sea and breeze and relaxation with eagerness.

She said a boat would take us across the harbour for two manat and it was so. While we chatted and waited for the long boat to slip its moorings, we listened to the nearby screams, not bolshevik massacres but a funfair, tipping rows of teenagers upside down as it swung them into the evening sky and the treetops. Soon a white shirted crew flipped the heavy rope and obediently it curved off its bollard like a well trained python and he furled it as the boat bucketed backward.

No ordinary harbour crossing this, the boat headed for the distance Caspian horizon, the oily bay glistening in the evening light and tall glass buildings glistening and aflame with the last kisses of the sun god. I felt my fear of heights and glanced nervously as babies clambered towards the railings but soon was too entranced by her talk and the darkening Baku skyline, blazes of lights stringing the shoreline park boulevard into rivers of fire against the evening.

As we strolled through the trees, loud classical music bellowed through the trees and buffeted across the cafe tables. “Carmen” she said and it was so, but as we walked into a square a crowd was gathering entranced. There in front of us was a large square fountain, the jets of waters dancing high into the night with computer synchronization to the swell of the music. In between the soaring jets, bellows of gassy flame, the very spirit of Azerbaijan and the dawn of human religion, leapt from square steels set in the pond. The waving or high jetting waters soared and crescendoed with the music, the puffs of flame like an orchestra of underwater dragons, and when the music closed the last drops fell from the sky into the pond and behind stood the national flag and a high stack of ministerial offices.

The night hours rushed past in Tosca restaurant, amazing meal she selected and red wine that started sharp and soon slid down in happy bliss as stories bubbled forth, her travel adventures usually trumping mine. I grimaced at the humping Indian bus conductor and was amazed at inventiveness in teaching feral kittens to purr at human touch in a New Cross cats home so they could get adopted soon. Dancing and stretching and ageing was inspirational, how the body responds better when you treat it with love and gentleness and how she could do more now than when she was a year or two younger.

Beds at 1am seemed much too early, so we walked to the eerily atmospheric theatre she was rehearsing in with a local ballet and she told stories of the crumbling upper floors and the charming Russian-speaking ballerinas, support teams and deeply involved dignitaries.

My day was complete with a run, along the long boulevard with the wind whipping foam-mouthed white horses off the bay and scattered the oil films. Up stairs and alleys to the TV tower, snapping vistas on a small camera and heading for my prize, a nodding oil donkey at the top of the high ridge, nestled next to villas, the ultimate garden accessory that the Jones will never match unless they marry an oil heiress too. Down the funicular railway to snap a statue of a stern knight in knee britches mistreating a writhing and splay footed dragon with his manly grasp and curved scimitar in the middle of a spreading fountain. 19th century giant oil mansions gleam in the evening sunlight as night creeps onward. Tomorrow I will watch entranced again as lo, the hunter of the east will loop the Baku TV tower in a noose of light.

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