Santeria Centro Habana, 3 November 2014. (Credit: Bernardo Capellini)
Soul of the Drum
On September 29, 1947, Dizzy Gillespie and legendary Cuban drummer Chano Pozo unveiled Afro-Cuban jazz at Carnegie Hall by premiering George Russell’s Cubana Be, Cubana Bop. On that date, Chano’s conga drums and Abakuá chants were first combined with Gillespie’s griot trumpet and his band’s bebop sounds. The integration of jazz and Afro-Cuban music demanded virtuoso accommodations from all performers. But in a shining corner of the universe, the ancient sounds of Africa—heretofore fragmented in diaspora—were reunited again. Chano and Dizzy had bridged two separate and distinct ontologies.(more…)
“The Capitulation of Granada” by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz, oil on canvas, 1882. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
For 800 years, the Spanish fought the Moors in the legendary Reconquista (8th to 15th cent.). Sacred relics from that holy war survive today in the region of Andalucía in Spain: in the cities of Sevilla and Córdoba, and most gloriously, in the magnificent Alhambra of Granada.
That centuries-old conflict was won as such wars against foreign empires are usually won: people inspired by religious beliefs and fighting for their homeland—as Ernest Hemingway reminds us—can be destroyed, but never defeated. The invader faces an endless struggle, reflected in the simple statement of the Confederate soldier who explained to Union soldiers why he fought in the US Civil War: “I fight because you’re here.”
In the countryside of New Jersey, I have seen the end of the Trump Apocalypse and a vision of the future of America after it gives up its imperial aspirations. (more…)
Portrait of Eugene O’Neill by Carl Van Vechten, 5 Sept. 1933. (Credit: U.S. Library of Congress)
After the success of Mourning Becomes Electra on Broadway, Eugene O’Neill labored in silence during twelve years (1934-1946) at the writing of a cycle of eleven plays (“A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed”) which told the story of an American family from before the founding of the republic to the 1930s. One of O’Neill’s sources for his ambitious project was Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists 1861-1901. A reading of Josephson’s book today provides illumination on the contemporary plutocracy that controls the nation today behind the façade of the Trump presidency.
Josephson’s book chronicles the ascendancy to power of that group of capitalists which built railroads (Cornelius Vanderbilt), controlled the oil and steel industries (John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie), and revolutionized the country’s banking and financial sectors (J.P. Morgan and Jay Gould) after the Civil War. (more…)
“Abraham Serving the Three Angels” by Rembrandt, oil on canvas, 1646. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Abram went forth with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, following his Lord’s command, into the land of Canaan. He was 75 years old. Abram’s wife was barren, therefore Lot was to Abraham as if he were the son of the old chieftain. There was a famine on the land, and for a time Abram dwelt in Egypt and became rich. Returning from Egypt, Abram and Lot separated: Abram raised his tent in the plain of Mamre in Hebron; Lot went to dwell on the plain of Jordan, next to the city of Sodom.
When Abram was 99 years old the Lord appeared to him and ratified their covenant, changing Abram’s name to Abraham, and that of his wife to Sarah.
In the desert, during the worst time of the day, heat seeps through your pores, dries up the organs of the body and distempers the rational mind creating a blur of vision, which gives way to mirages. (more…)
How’s the Apocalypse working for you? My only surprise is the celerity with which it has unfolded; with such speed, the waters must have risen around Noah’s Ark during the Deluge. But I am taken aback by the surprised alarums of our clown dynasty and eminent members of the media who are shocked—shocked!—at the avalanche of lies emanating from the White House.
What did we expect? Anyone who has dealt with a used car salesman or with a drummer selling swamp land in Florida knows Trump. Any woman who has had to fend off unwanted advances from a leering “gentleman crook” who mutters “Now don’t get scared, lady, I ain’t gonna crack you on the bean!” recognizes the type.
To admirers of Dashiell Hammett, the Trump Apocalypse is not a surprise. As an operative for Pinkerton’s detective agency, Hammett came in contact with the Underworld of North American society. His novels portray crooks, thieves, murderers, pick-pockets, swindlers, forgers and assorted criminals with all the precision of a chronicler who has experienced what he writes about. (more…)
“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” by Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When Jacob was journeying to the land of his father and kinsmen, he met the “angels of god” in a place called Mahanaim. When he was informed that this brother Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed,” for there was past enmity between Jacob and his brother. He sent his people and their retinue ahead. On the night when he passed over the ford Jabbok, he sent his wife, his servants and his eleven sons to cross over the brook and remained alone (KJ Gen., 32:2 and 7).
Then Jacob “wrestled” with a man until the “breaking of the day.” The man did not prevail against him, but touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and caused it to come out of joint. Still Jacob persisted, until at the first sight of dawn, the man asked to be released from their struggle. And Jacob said: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” (KJ Gen., 32:24-26).
The man replied: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” Jacob received the blessing from the strange man, for “he blessed him there.” Only then did he realize he had wrestled with an angel: “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” He called the place Penuel, and as he passed from it “the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh” (KJ Gen., 32: 28-31).
What lessons can be learned from the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel? (more…)
“Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1880. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the Catholic pantheon, the cult of Saint Joseph has three aspects: head of family, worker, and dreamer. In the gospel of Matthew, during the days of the birth of Christ, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph three, perhaps four times (KJ Matthew, chs. 1-2): (more…)
The dead Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi. Wall painting by Justus Becker and Oguz Sen at the Frankfurt East Harbor. (Credit: Frank C. Müller)
The waves of the sea lap gently around him, belying the horror of his small body face down, immobile on the beach. The boy looks frighteningly like one of my grandsons, and he wears an outfit that I remember my son used to wear—down to the sneakers—when he was small. He could have been any of our children, and he could have been a boy flying to Egypt to escape the Massacre of the Innocents.
His name was Alan Kurdi. His family was leaving Turkey in the hopes of eventually reaching Canada. Their small boat capsized on the Mediterranean Sea. Alan was only peripherally a casualty of war, not one of those swept up in the chilling term “collateral damage.” He was rather a casualty of the refugee crisis created by war, and by our shameful inclination to weep crocodile tears for dead children, even as we refuse to allay their suffering when alive. (more…)
Scottish snipers in World War I, April 1918. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“Heartbreak House is not merely the name of a play,” wrote George Barnard Shaw in the preface to his masterpiece. “It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” The play was neither published nor performed until after the cessation of hostilities in World War I. Shaw’s given reasons are clear:
War cannot bear the terrible castigation of comedy, the ruthless light of laughter that glares on the stage. When men are heroically dying for their country, it is not the time to shew [sic] their lovers and wives and fathers and mothers how they are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the electioneering of demagogues, the Pharisaism of patriots, the lusts and lies and rancors and bloodthirsts that love war because it opens their prison doors, and sets them in the thrones of power and popularity. 
Soon after WWI, while “the earth [was] still bursting with the dead bodies of the victors,” Shaw recounted the history of the war “not in the field, but at home,” in one of his most scornful sallies against war: “Thus were the firstborn of Heartbreak House smitten; and the young, the innocent, the hopeful expiated the folly and worthlessness of their elders.”
Re-reading the preface to Heartbreak House today (“Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall”) one is besieged by the eerie sensation produced by prophecy, by the startling notion that history may repeat itself once again, but in reverse order. (more…)
Bundoran Strand Co. Donegal, with surfers, on the Atlantic west coast of Ireland, June 2010. (Credit: Osioni / Wikimedia Commons)
(Bundoran, January 2017) George Bernard Shaw first led us to the National Gallery of Ireland, where a statue of the Irish sage (the very semblance of the ghost that haunted me) welcomes visitors. In his last will, Shaw donated a third of the royalties from his plays to the Gallery, “to which I owe much of the only real education I ever got as a boy In Eire.” I had always expected that if one were to meet the ghost of Shaw it would be in London, where he spent so many years, rather than in Dublin, which he left behind in his twenties and about which he would write:
To this day my sentimental regard for Ireland does not include the capital. I am not enamored of failure, of poverty, of obscurity, and of the ostracism and contempt which these imply; and these were all that Dublin offered to the enormity of my unconscious ambition.
When we boarded a bus to the seafront town of Bundoran in the eastern coast of Ireland, I thought we had left the ghost of Shaw behind. (more…)