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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: April 2007

Lithuanian Samba

Jazz is the slang of music.

While the mainstream language, in its effort to prevent misunderstanding, tends to uniformity and constancy, slang yearns for variation, for ambivalence and for novelty. No time to button up for dinner, just grab your grub and roller-blade away. Where linguists tiptoe around balanced sentences, logic and well-starched vocabulary, slang dives headlong into murky waters, into poorly lit districts, slinking around like an alley cat, prowling for shiny things, munching on someone else's trash, pilfering phrases from other tongues. With its T-shirt flailing like a pirate's flag, slang criss-crosses the high seas of pop-culture, jumbles jargon and jive, quickly hires buzzwords and fires them at a moment's notice. Its flamboyant lifestyle makes sure that the central body of language never petrifies, never looses a steady stream of fresh blood.

Music is also a language, a form of communication bound by the rules of harmony instead of grammar. And jazz is its slang, bubbling impatiently on the hot stove of shining brass, bending the creaky tonal skeleton to its limits and smearing the beat borders in the perpetual rebellion against the rhythmic status quo. Jazz is like a hyperventilating sponge, brazenly pushing new tones and simultaneously absorbing their fleeting dissonances in a syncopated flow of diminished chords. Not constrained by harmonic bigotry, jazz is accepting and tolerant and always eager to morph and merge.

This Sunday I took a friend of mine to the International Jazz Jam held in a restaurant called Blues Alley. Even in a bustling Georgetown, you'd be hard pressed to find a jazzier place. Its seating area is toned to warm brown and its stage is set against a coarse brick back wall that musicians can bounce their minor sevenths off of. Although we came to see a Norwegian trio Solid, at the end of the night it was the Dainius Pulauskus Group from Lithuania that completely stole the show. Grafting traditional folklore harmonies on an African tree trunk proved simply irresistible.

You'd really have to be rhythmically illiterate not to start tapping your feet to their voracious percussions. The tireless pelting of cymbals alighted on our ears like a spring rain eating itself into the grass. You could hear a modern blues as well as a medieval shepherd's song majestically floating in the open harbor of jazz. And right there before our eyes, in a magical rite of Spring, branches of an aging tree beflowered with white petals.

springsomeone else's

Happy Birthday, Katrina

The Spanish director Louis Bunuel once observed that we are what we remember. Indeed, it is our memory what gives our judgement a sense of perspective. Our own recollections define the props on the stage of our mind, some twisted into caricatures of the real events, some blown out of proportions by anxieties, some meticulously trimmed like little bonsai trees for all to admire.

However, how this whole system works is completely beyond me. There are certain things which simply won't register. Like do you write "occasion" or "ocassion"? I must have looked this word up kazillion times before I got it somewhat right. Or so I hope. On the other hand, other bits of information just kick the mental door open and jump right in - uninvited, almost against my will.

When Rick Wakeman recorded his "Return to the Center of the Earth" (a daring attempt at an epic rock cantata), he commissioned its vocal parts to several artists. Some of them known, some of them less so. When I read the cover, I noticed that my favorite piece (Ride of Your Life) was sung by a female singer named Katrina Leskanich. Interesting name I thought...

As luck would have it, shortly afterwards I was returning from Baltimore with a friend of mine and radio played "Walking on Sunshine" - one of those perky songs that can single handedly brighten your day. Especially when the volume is turned up to a generous level. My friend remarked that this song was recorded in the 80s by the band named "Katrina and the Waves". Hmmm, I said to myself - there cannot be two Katrinas in the small world of rock'n'roll.

I googled around for a bit and indeed: it was the same Karina Leskanich who lent her voice to Wakeman's Masterpiece. And as I was reading her bio, I noticed that she was born on April 10th, 1960 in Topeka, Kansas. An information of absolutely no use to me. But as I read that line I could almost hear a snap inside my head. Somewhere in its perplexing maze, bunch of neurons loitering about decided they had some extra synaptic capacity to spare and made a connection. Instantaneously, I felt that date imprinted in my permanent memory. So from that day on, whenever April 10 comes along, I know that somewhere on this planet the woman who gave us the Sunshine is celebrating.

Happy Birthday, Katrina.

Marta Kubisova in Washington

If I were a girl, Marta Kubisova would be my role model.

In 1968, at the age of 25, she was one of the most popular Czech singers, letting fresh air into the stagnant mainstream of local pop music and well on her way to become a national superstar. In Czechoslovakia, 1960s was the period of political thawing and arts enjoyed an unprecedented freedom throughout most of the decade. Vaclav Havel, Milos Forman and Milan Kundera were all offsprings of this process. The year 1968 was its absolute peak: the press and media were no longer censored, non-communist civic organizations were springing up like mushrooms after rain and, for a few months at least, the freedom was palpable in all aspects of life.

In the Summer of that year, lyricist Petr Rada and composer Jindrich Brabec wrote a song for Kubisova that reflected the changes in the political climate. The song was titled "A prayer for Marta" and its beginning roughly translated to this:

May the peace stay with this land,
may anger, envy, fear and spite pass away,
now that its governance returns to its people...

But this little Marseillaise came a little bit too soon. Gorbachev was only 37 then and the Soviet Empire was ruthlessly ruled by the tzar Brezhnev. He understood very well what this little fire could do to his house of cards and basically overnight sent in a huge army to put it out. On August 21st, while the radio, in its last hours of sovereignty, played "Prayer for Marta", tanks from the Warsaw Pact countries were rolling on the cobblestones of Czech cities. For many people this audiovisual bit became a haunting memory.

The progressive wing of the communist party was dispelled, civic movement banned and media "normalized". The Soviet occupation itself was conveniently renamed and for the next 20 years exclusively referred to as a "brotherly help". In those days Kubisova hesitated very little on which side of the barricade she wanted to be. And the communist regime never forgave her for that.

While the vast majority of Czech and Slovak artists decided to cooperate and to acknowledge the "brotherly help" in order to secure whatever little place in a plastic sun the system was willing to allot them, Kubisova never bent her back. Unwilling to hop and skip on stages draped in red and adorned with effigies of Marx and Lenin, she was banned from public singing and accepted non glamorous jobs far away from the limelight many of her former colleagues enjoyed. But she would rather sacrifice the best years of her singing career than become a lackey of the regime that lived off of a foreign military force.

In the meantime her Prayer became the symbol of fleeting freedom. Even though it had completely disappeared from the public broadcast, just like all her other songs, the nation patiently waited for its return. Summers passed, starlets on the pop-scene shone and faded, five-year plans were being designed and re-designed and life dragged lazily along. At the end, the wait lasted 21 years.

In November 1989, as the Berlin Wall crumbled, the conservative wing of the Czech Communist Party (pretty much the same faces that were once installed by Russian tanks - only 20 years wrinklier) finally lost their grip on power. The center of Prague filled with people and the petrified regime didn't dare to send in troops to disperse them. From a balcony overlooking the historic Wenceslaus Square, standing alongside a dissident Vaclav Havel, Marta Kubisova finally got to sing her Prayer again - to a crowd of 250,000. Not many singers had the privilege to perform for an audience of such proportions, but it was a privilege well deserved. Ironically, it was mostly older people who had tears in their eyes. The younger ones barely realized what had just happened.

I was glad that the Czech Embassy invited Kubisova to Washington. In a world of cheap thrills and instant gratification, it was a pleasure to see someone with courage, depth and personal integrity.


Season Opener

After the winter break, watching the opening game of a new baseball season always feels like meeting an old love. The seclusion erases all the silly tiffs from your memory and time irons out the little wrinkles. Yet, despite being out of sight for so long, she never loses the special place in your heart. You open the door to the closed chamber and smell a delicate perfume. You spot the box of matches still lying by a candleholder. As if the mere sight of the green outfield brought instantaneously back all the precious moments, the familiar faces, the tension of pivotal plays, the exuberance of victories.

This season's opener was extra special because the St Louis Cardinals starred in it as the reigning champions. And as luck would have it, they were pitted against their NLCS rivals, the New York Mets. The new Busch Stadium could hardly wish for a better way to kick off this season. In fact, with the extra perspective, last year's NLCS looks more and more like the true World Series, while the little tiger hunt that ensued keeps slipping in the ratings...

There were several new names in the line up, but the heart of the team remained intact. Carpenter took the mound, flanked by Pujols at first and Rolen at third as his knights of honor. Unfortunately, the Mets defense behind Tom Glavine was flawless and the red sea in the bleachers soon parted with their hopes for a victorious opener. Down 1-5, the Cards could have equalized - Molina in the 6th and Rolen in the 8th had bases loaded for them - but Lady Luck was still hibernating somewhere in northern Iowa.

Playing cards (or "greasing cards" as a local idiom would have it) is one of favorite national pastimes in the Czech Republic, right next to picking mushrooms in the woods and second guessing the Czech National Soccer Team coach. On any given day you can see people in local inns and pubs absorbed in a bridge-like game known as "mariash". And the old card players - who always play for money - have a time-tested adage: "prvni vyhrani z kapsy vyhani" (the first victory drives the money out of the pocket). So maybe this loss wasn't all that bad after all. We'll see.

Calling All Slavs

Panslavism was a mild mid 19th century movement attempting to unite all Slavic people in a defense against various overly expansive European Empires. The first Pan-Slavic congress was held in Prague in the revolutionary year 1848. It was meant to give wings to young Slavic nations, but - due to some unplanned rioting - for Czechs it actually meant subsequent tightening of the Austrian rule. The next century, plagued by the prolonged illness of communism, took away some of its allure. The vision of a Slavic "melting pot" was too frequently abused by the Soviet Union. But old ideas never really die: communism eventually fizzled, but pan-slavism is alive and kicking.

At last according to the Slavic Cultural Festival Committee (SCFC) of the George Washington University. This venerable body channeled the efforts of several Slavic embassies into an afternoon filled with the authentic spirit of Eastern Europe. The University square was besieged by a platoon of booths and stalls offering a peek into traditional crafts and pottery as well as samples of local cuisine and photographic travel baits.

The culinary component actually made me realize that I needed new glasses. As we were passing the Russian table I saw a mound of wild strawberries, which I assumed were freshly picked in Siberian woods, and transported here by one of those bulging Antonov planes that my brother-in-law is mortally scared to fly on. I just could resist - so I persuaded Leona that for the next 15 minutes the coolest place to be is in the line winding patiently towards the sweet ambrosia. We found the end of the line and waited and waited and then waited some more, and when we finally snailed to the table - bummer! - the cone of strawberries had mysteriously transmogrified into a heap of minced beet. But hey - the accompanying pirozhki themselves were worth the wait. And with the spring seeping through the cherry blossoms, nothing short of a major asteroid hitting the campus could dampen our mood.

The podium had quite a few tasty morsels of its own: a Russian ensemble with a bass balalaika that was so big you could smuggle ironing boards in it; a group of acrobatic Ukraininan dancers with uncanny ear-to-ear smiles that looked as if they were painted on their faces; a little girl choir whose affected and animated choreography had a slight problem with timing, so most of their gestures were launched into the surrounding space with a humorous one second delay; and best of all - a Byelorusian version of Michael Jackson - a guy in black pants and a worn-out reddish frock, who held a small piece of a paper (apparently torn out from an old notebook) and often consulted it to brush up on lyrics.

But most of the time, the podium belonged to folklore. To dances that originated in Ukraine or Croatia, yet looked so similar to the ones I used to see in Moravia or Slovakia. That itself clearly showed that there was more to the idea of pan-slavism that just similarity of languages.


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