Sunday 1st May, 2005

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A tale of two cities and all that jazz

The editor has been suggesting I tear myself away from the bosom of the Levites, leave the Big Fug behind and head for the open road, en route for Scotland or Ireland.

Being a reasonable man I’m always open to suggestion, although frankly I’d prefer the sky to the motorway and the Maroon festival in Carriacou followed by St Lucia Jazz, to the Edinburgh festival or retracing Leopold Bloom’s steps round Dublin, lubricated with that city’s finest Guinness.

In the interest of good editorial relations I reached what I think was the perfect compromise last weekend and got as far as Ghana, without actually leaving south east London. In fact, even before I got to Ghana I managed an extended visit to India but now I’m jumping the jumbo, so let’s get back to the Big Fug, if only momentarily.

With a view to celebrating the auspicious day some eight years ago that I walked into Wayne Browne’s creative writing class at the Normandie and suggested to the future madam she’d be better entertained if she left the class and came with me (she demurred but gave me her phone number), I invited her to join me on a magical mystery tour last Sunday. It was magical because as anyone who has kids knows, sneaking time out away from them requires all the extempore skills of a Pretender. And it was a mystery because I’d no idea where we were going.

There was a faint trace of Spring in the air that day—transient blue sky dabbed with lukewarm sunbeams—so I turned the trusty Bimma in the direction of Dulwich Village, which is to south east London what Westmoorings, Glencoe or even St Clair is to town.

It’s a kind of well-heeled, white middle-class enclave, isolated from the surrounding ghettos of Eastern European, African and Caribbean refugees and immigrants. In this oasis of tranquillity Georgian mansions front manicured lawns and bijou shops offer the latest in Japanese designer clothes or over-priced Belgian chocolates.

My motivation for choosing this spot was entirely altruistic. I thought the madam might enjoy a glimpse of how the small minority live; give her a taste of the good life in Tony Blair’s kingdom.

Was it Oscar Wilde who said the way to hell is paved with good intentions? The lukewarm sun did not allow for al fresco drinking, so we seated ourselves inside a village green-style pub, rampant with Dulwich Villagers and their young. I’d like to say we had some pleasant conversational exchanges with the villagers, got their views on the impending general election or who they fancied as the next pontiff but our interaction was strictly limited to the defiantly lingering cut-eye one of the Dulwich matrons directed at the madam.

Surprised that a colour bar was in force in these parts, we exited this bourgeois bastion before the bad taste soured our mood and headed south, back to the immigrant badlands.

In furthest flung South Norwood we found the Gold Coast, a Ghanaian club swirling with Hi-Life, soukous, soca and Cuban rhythms. Sinking into the rattan sofa and the welcoming ambience we waved goodbye to the good life of Dulwich and settled for a sumptuous dish of Keta Schoolboys (batter fried jacks), fiery spiced chicken, succulent lamb kebab and fried plantain.

You can’t live in the Caribbean for any length of time and not like your belly, so you won’t be surprised to hear we didn’t ride out from the Gold Coast until long after the late setting spring sun slipped below the skyline, or before the owner had invited us back to collect copies of some of his CDs I’d been enthusing over.

Who needs Dulwich when there’s the Gold Coast, although the diptych of these two would provide a dedicated social scientist with some seminal dissertation material on the state of play in post-mod multi-heritage Britain.

And since we’re out and about, why stick to the road?

Split me in two and we’ll head for New York via Cuba and then on to Kolkota, India. Rough Guides continue their sterling work of bringing the world’s best to your sound systems with the recently released Celia Cruz album. The undisputed queen of salsa and the female voice of Fania Records died in 2003 after a career spanning virtually seven decades and which took her from Cuba to Mexico, New York and round the globe.

This posthumous collection spans much of her career, capturing her dazzling range—from Yoruba style chants and rumbas to the funky Changui son of Santiago de Cuba and scorching salsa numbers—and features some of her outstanding collaborators like mambo king Tito Puente, conguero Ray Barretto and Fania director Johnny Pacheco. What can I say except: caliente.

Mined from the same superlative vein but oceans away comes one of the most extraordinary albums I’ve encountered since stumbling across Ravi Shankar in the kaftanned 1960s.

Riverboat Records have just unleashed the monumental Calcutta slide guitar which features Debashish Battacharya, playing three of his own designed slide guitars, specially adapted for performing traditional Indian ragas. The results are the most cogent proof any disbeliever might need for the transcendent quality of some music.

Battacharya is not merely a virtuoso but the consummate artist for whom technique is the key to the kingdom. Thanks to him and his tabla playing brother I’ve been drifting these past few weeks on slow rivers at sunset or watching dawn climb over the mountains, transported by sounds both ancient and modern.

My search for the best of modern music will take me to Queen Elizabeth Hall this coming Monday, to track down one of the Caribbean’s best young sax players.

Jacques Schwartz Bart of Guadeloupe, one time youngest deputy in the French Assembly, is now playing in young Turk trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s big band. I know it’s not Scotland or even Ireland but it’ll be all that jazz.

©2003-2004 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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