Sunday 28 October 2012

The Return of Jazz Funk - Jeff Lorber Fusion at Ronnie Scott's

You might need to be over a certain age to understand the expression "jazz funk" and if you are you might have spent the late 1970's and early to mid 1980's in a variety of basement clubs or at "jazz funk all nighters" in places with names like "Mandy's", "Togo's" or the "Top Deck" dancing to tracks by artists such as Roy Ayers, George Duke, Patrice Rushen, Crown Heights Affair, Eddie Henderson and a whole lot more. Many of these artists were respected jazz musicians who produced a number of extremely danceable "crossover" tracks during that period, which for me at least, was one of the most creative times in the history of popular music.

Being much too old to go clubbing nowadays, but also being a huge fan of JazzFM, I have been very pleasantly surprised over the last couple of years to see my beloved jazz funk begin to re-assert itself, not just through the re-discovery of the classic tracks of the genre, but also by a whole slate of new recordings. This has been helped tremendously (and probably precipitated) by JazzFM running their Saturday night Funky Sensation sessions, upstairs at Ronnie Scotts and releasing a jaw dropping series of double-CD compilation albums of the same name. I bought Funky Sensation 3 today and am listening to it as I blog!

Tonight at Ronnie Scotts, a sell out audience was treated to one of the masters of jazz funk in the shape of Jeff Lorber Fusion. Mr. Lorber has never really been away but has released two killer albums in the last couple of years - Now Is The Time and Galaxy. Tonight, accompanied by long time musical collaborator Eric Marienthal on a variety of saxophones, Nate Phillips on guitar and Sonny Emory on drums, he took us through a number of more recent compositions including Montserrat and Surreptitious both of which were extremely well received by an enthusiastic (and slightly older than usual?) audience, whilst a long version of Chinese Medicinal Herbs from the Now Is The Time album received cheers and whoops as well as a BIG hand!

Jeff Lorber played some pretty technical pieces seemingly effortlessly, even commenting on one piece that he hadn't really wanted to do but that the band had talked him into. He said he was glad he had played it. So were we. His musical conversation with Eric Marienthal's saxophone was one of the highlights of the concert for me, but the prize for showmanship MUST go to Sonny Emory for a mesmerising drum solo that included some very fast and fancy manoeuvring of the sticks that would have surely won a medal in those rhythmic gymnastics Olympic competitions!

These are artists who clearly know each other very well, who are accomplished at taking the lead or supporting the rest of the band and each of the four were showcased throughout the too short performance. This was demonstrated very clearly for me on the show stopping Rain Dance - a real Jeff Lorber classic, first recorded in 1979 and then appearing again on the Now Is The Time album with a searing vocal from one Irene B. During the introduction to the piece, Lorber told how he almost crashed his car when driving in Los Angeles back in 1993 when he heard it being "sampled" by Lil Kim on her Crush On You track. Apparently he was pleased that Rain Dance would reach a new audience, but somewhat shocked that nobody had seen fit to tell him it had been used by Ms. Kim!

Tonight's concert was the only UK date on the quartet's UK tour and was only the second time that Philadelphia born Jeff Lorber has played at Ronnie Scotts - an early present for him ahead of his 60th birthday on November 4th! A few years ago he became seriously ill with polycystic kidney disease and is still with us due to a successful transplant, courtesy of his wife.

A couple of moans from me. How can Ronnie Scott's not be able to get its espresso machines either fixed or replaced for a Saturday night? Something strange was going on in Soho this evening - I had dinner before the show in a nearby restaurant which was unable to supply coffee of any kind, and then went to another place for dessert to find that they had no ice-cream! It really shouldn't be that hard in the centre of London for goodness sake. And whilst you are sorting the coffee machine how about getting a bit heavier with those amongst us who can't keep quiet for two minutes? Ronnie would have had their liver. Perhaps its my age.

Rant over. A great night of instrumental jazz/ jazz-funk that has tempted me to go to the Funky Sensation club night...wonder if I can tempt some friends from the old days to come with me...Paul, Louise, what do you think? And by the way, does anyone know if you can get Eddie Henderson's Running To Your Love on CD? Its not on Youtube (yet) which is a bit of a surprise...

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Picture post number ten - Shabbat afternoon in Tel-Aviv

Israel by Yekkes

I took this picture whilst I was out walking on Shabbat afternoon in Tel Aviv earlier this year. It was a sunny mediterranean afternoon but with one of those chilly winds that very occasionally can take you by surprise in the Middle East - even in Tel Aviv!

As regular readers will now, Tel Aviv is the place I love more than anywhere else - I may be tempted by other cities and destinations, but I remain intensely loyal to this special city. I love it for many reasons, for its energy, its beautiful Bauhaus buildings, its absolutely world class cultural scene and of course its very friendly people. On this particular Shabbat afternoon (Saturday to those not familiar with these things!), I had walked from my hotel, close to Kikar Dizengoff, along Rehov Hamelech George (King George Street), along the once very grand but now run down Allenby(please clean it up Tel Aviv City Hall - its got some stunning buildings, some of them with fabulous Bezalel ceramic panels) before walking the length of the stylish and popular Rothschild Boulevard.

Habima is the national theatre of Israel with a history going back to Russia and pre state days. Originally founded in Moscow in 1917 and allowed to continue for a time under Stalin, the theatre toured abroad in 1926, and split with one camp settling in the United States and the other making a home in Tel Aviv.  Some of the finest actors in the world have graced its stages over the years, including founder member Chana Robina, after whom the new main auditorium is named. The theatre itself is located at the end of Rothschild where the boulevard meets Marmorek. It has recently re-opened after several years of rebuilding and restoration with some changes having been made to the original. It now houses four auditoria of different sizes seating over 1.500 in total.

As well as a rebuilt theatre, there is an adjoining new public square. Now no-one loves the outdoors as much as the Israelis do, even on a day with a bit of a chilly wind blowing and at the weekend and on summer evenings this square is full of families and groups of friends walking, talking and generally having fun. The square is very large and features ornamental gardens, public art, seating and stone tables for would be picnickers or readers who prefer to rest their book rather than hold it.  It has several good cafes along the side of the theatre and on one corner that draw in Tel Avivians with the smell of richly roasted coffee and displays of edible works of art - pastries and cakes that easily rival anything that can be found in Budapest, Vienna or Paris.

But back to the picture. I spotted these two - who I assume to be father and son due to the likeness - using one of the stone tables which is decorated with a chess/ draughts board, using stones to play draughts on their Shabbat afternoon together. I don't know them, but I couldn't resist asking if I could take their picture, which they freely agreed to, the younger of the two rewarding the camera with a big smile.  I was touched by the obvious enjoyment they took in each others company, by how comfortable they were together and how foreign those feelings would have been to me as a child. I was also struck by the usual Israeli inventiveness and creativity - stone tables designed to accommodate board games and stones collected from the ground to use as draughts pieces.

I didn't take their names or any details to send them the photograph, but it would be nice to think that they would somehow get to see it here. I hope they are still enjoying their draughts and wish them Shabbat Shalom for the coming weekend. ! שבת שלום לכולם.

Monday 22 October 2012

Ephraim Moshe Lilien - unique painter and graphic designer, Bezalel pioneer and the first Zionist artist

The desire to to re-establish a Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel began with the taking into captivity and carrying into exile of many Jews by the Babylonians in around 538 BCE. That desire and yearning lasted until the re-establishment of the State in 1948. Throughout that time, Jews living in the diaspora kept the memory of the land through religious rites but also through language, song and stories and in the case of early modern Zionist, Ephraim Moshe Lilien, through art.

Born Maurycy Lilien in Drohobycz, Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1874, he developed an early interest in art and studied painting and graphic techniques at the Academy of Arts in Krakow from 1889-1893. He went on to study under Polish symbolist Jan Matejko from 1890-1892. His artistic beginnings were a little humbler than this having been apprenticed as a sign painter before developing a desire to paint pictures. Interestingly, it is said that as this was such a strange idea for a young man from a small town, the Rabbi of Sadagura was consulted on this matter and advised that he be allow to pursue his ambition. Clearly the Rabbi was extremely enlightened and I am grateful to him for offering this advice!

Despite the progress made in Polish society by many Jews, including Lilien, anti-semitism was never very far from the surface and early on he became a committed Zionist and a member of the movement. From 1906 - 1918 he visited Ottoman Turkish controlled Eretz Israel several times. This included helping Boris Schatz, to establish the now world famous Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, teaching the it's first class in 1906. The Academy is still working and has a world wide reputation for innovation and artistic achievement. Lilien did not settle in Jerusalem but made a great impression on the Bezalel and more than that, on the development of early modern art in Israel.

Lilien pioneered the use of Biblical subjects within a Zionist context and in eastern settings. Together with Ze'ev Raban, also one of the glittering stars of the Bezalel, Lilien developed a unique approach to the prevailing art nouveau/ Jugendstil styles then prevalent in Europe, perhaps best described as Levantine art nouveau. However, it is Lilien's photographic portrait of Theodor Herzl that is the best known of his works today. As well as painting and producing graphic works, Lilien was an accomplished photographer, securing an away for photography in 1896 from the prestigious and avant-garde Munich based magazine, Jugend, where he was employed for a time. During his early years as an artist he is said to have lived and worked in an unheated studio, always been behind with the rent and managed to charm the empty handed landlord into staying for tea and chat when he came to (not) collect the rent!

He attended his first Zionist Congress in 1901 and helped Martin Buber organise an art exhibition. His legacy includes a number of illustrated books, graphic works including advertising materials and political posters whilst his designs can still be seen on postcards and are often featured in books on Israeli art. I am lucky enough to own two copies of of his most famous works - Juda, published in 1900 and Lieder des Ghetto (Songs of the Ghetto) from 1903. Both books came from the wonderful Trionfo bookshop in Jerusalem that I have previously written about here.

Juda is the more extensively illustrated of the two works, featuring stunning representations of the story of Pesach (passover), Joab, Sodom and Gomorrah and other Biblical episodes. The theme of the return to Zion (Israel) is picked up in the illustrations of the story of Pesach, where we see Moshe (Moses) in front of the pyramids with the word Zion (ציון) clearly set out in Hebrew. The areas of text are surrounded with decorative borders showing plants, flowers and fruit in classical art nouveau style and demonstrating the influence Lilien and Raban must have had on each other.

Lieder des Ghetto is exactly what it says it is - a collection of songs telling the stories of the impoverished and often oppressed Jews of Europe, beautifully and lovingly illustrated with a range of images of Jewish tailors; a sea scene with a exhausted and despairing Jews caught in a storm watched over by the grim reaper, scythe and all as the waves lash the ship on its journey to Eretz Israel; an elderly Jew in site of Jerusalem but caught in thorns and threatened by snakes as he attempts to reach his goal, as well as some highly stylised depictions of redemption including a winged and naked Herzl playing the harp! Not yet thirty when these classic works were produced, the longing for Israel and Lilien's viewing of return as the redemption of the Jewish people is very clear from  illustrations. Also clear are the barriers placed in the way of this - the raging sea, the thorns, snakes and death itself.

Whilst working on these masterpieces of Zionist art, Lilien also had to earn a living. Like Raban and many others of the time, he also worked on producing advertising materials. The most impressive of his work in this genre has to be the advertisement he produced in 1899 for the newspaper the Berliner Tageblatt. Completely representative of its time, it rivals the works of better known European artists of the Jugendstil genre including the Czech Mucha and Austrians Moser and his contemporaries. I have another very little known piece of commercial work he produced - a copy of e 1905 corporate brochure for the "Samoan Rubber Company" - the cover of which shows Lilien's somewhat idealised but visually impressive depiction of a Samoan scene! He also produced a large number of pictures of women - the young and beautiful, but also the aged and experienced. These works are much less well known than the more Zionist/ Bezalel style works and were the subject of an excellent exhibition at Israel's Tal Gallery in Kfar Vradim in 2008.

A founding member of the Democratic Faction of the Zionist movement with Chaim Weizmann and the aforementioned Buber, he was not to live to see his dream realised, dying in Badenweiler, Germany in 1925. Although he did not see a newly independent Israel, he contributed significantly to the idea of the re-established state and left some of the most widely recognised and artistically admired images of the yearning to be restored from exile. A Jerusalem Street is named in his honour.

Friday 19 October 2012

Shaking the walnut tree - Mountain Jews, mud volcanoes and methane aplenty

Krasnaya Sloboda is a small town in Azerbaijan with a registered population of about 4,000 people - all of them Jews. Originally known as Yevreiskaya Sloboda (Jewish settlement), the name was changed to Krasnaya Sloboda (Red settlement) during the Soviet period.

A Jewish presence has been noted in this area since at least the thirteenth century, but this town was created in the 18th century by the Khan of the Quba region, one Feteli Khan. In 1742 the Khan gave permission for the "Mountain Jews" to set up a community free of persecution within his area of jurisdiction. The Mountain Jews of the Caucasus region (who also live in Georgia and Dagestan) have unique traditions. This includes a musical tradition that has been protected and recently brought to a much wider audience by Piris and Mark Eliyahu who originate from Dagestan, and who have worked closely with Azeri musical legends, father and daughter Alim and Fargana Qasimov.

The Eliyahu brothers performing in Jerusalem

Krasnaya Sloboda is a very quiet place these days. About half of its residents work abroad in America, Russia or Israel and when I visited there were very few people in the street. There are many new houses here, almost entirely built by and for people who live here for only part of the year. There are two working synagogues, whilst a third is being rebuilt to the design of one that was demolished a few years ago for safety reasons. There are a few other interesting buildings in Krasnaya Sloboda, including the former maternity hospital which is now closed Pictured below). The few births taking place in this community now happen on the other side of the river in Quba where there is a modern hospital. As elsewhere in Azerbaijan, I was struck by the similarities between architecture here and in the rest of the Caucasus.

After being asked "Are you from America...from Israel?" I managed to exchange a few words with some of the the residents - although they speak little Hebrew and I have no Russian or Azeri. Many are unemployed and they asked me if Jewish people have jobs in England. The town left me feeling a little sad - it seemed almost deserted and it was strange to know that there would be very few people in the houses of the streets I wandered through. Ironically one of the largest buildings was the "Wedding Palace" - another common site in Azerbaijan. People tend to have many guests at their weddings and so there are purpose built venues. This building seemed large to me but I am reliably informed it was of medium size and that there are others where hundreds of people can be accommodated! I wondered how often the Krasnaya Sloboda wedding palace gets used.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

On the hills above the town, there is a Jewish cemetery, which is interesting due to the local community's adoption of the Soviet tradition of placing images of the deceased on the gravestones. The cemetery has spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. There are wild pear trees in the grounds and the non-Jewish caretaker invited me to take fruit straight from the tree. Crunchy and sweet. The pear that is.

Quba, the main town in this area lies just across the river from Krasnaya Sloboda. I stayed the night there at a small but comfortable hotel called The Gallery. No-one in the hotel spoke English. I like a hot drink and something sweet to eat before I go to bed, so I went to the hotel's small cafe and managed to ask for "chai"  the ubiquitous black lemon tea so popular with Azeris. That bit was easy, but how was I going to ask for something sweet? My technique included pointing at the sugar bowl and making eating gestures which the three young men working in the cafe initially found hilarious then realised what I wanted. They kept saying "esnickers, esnickers" before bringing out a tray of "Snickers" chocolate bars. Interestingly you could buy a whole bar or a half bar - some had been cut carefully in half and wrapped to keep them clean. Regular readers will not be surprised to know I had a full one!

So, happy with my tea, "esnickers" and book I sat for a while whilst the three young men watched an Azeri horror movie on the flickering cafe TV. Azeris are welcoming people and they continuously pointed at the screen and laughed - at the film I think (hope), rather than at me, before going into a deep and serious five minutes conference during which I returned to my book. A few minutes later the oldest of the three brought a small plate with a freshly washed nectarine and a knife and set it in front of me with a "for you" gesture, a big smile, touch of the heart and an announcement that it was from "Guba, Guba". I felt very looked after.

I was to get a taste of even fresher food the next day as my guide drove me into the Cloud Catcher Canyon - which does exactly what it says it does. It is a deep gorge, beautifully green at the time of my visit, into which those fresh, silky Caucasus clouds descend. On a hill overlooking the gorge, I was able to eat walnuts straight from the tree. My guide, Gurban, who had been brought up in this part of the country showed me how to dislodge the ripe walnuts by using a stick to shake the branches of the tree before cracking the nuts with a stone. Delicious. A little later I was able to wash the walnuts down by drinking directly from a small waterfall within the Canyon - reminding me of similar experiences when I visited Georgia and Armenia back in 2008.

Whilst on the subject of nature, I was fascinated by the mud volcanoes that I visited in Gobustan, about an hour's drive from Baku. These small (mostly no more than three metres high) "volcanoes" are triggered by underground methane, which you can hear hissing as you walk around the site. You can also smell it - it has a chemical type smell, rather than anything else you might have thought of. The mud is cold - so it doesn't burn if, like me, you happen to be photographing one of them when it erupts. The mud is said to have medicinal qualities and to be good for the skin. Maybe so. I know my t-shirt washed up nicely after being covered in it! It could have been worse, a larger mud volcano hit the headlines in 2001 when it erupted throwing flames 15 metres into the air! The wet mud at the top of each volcano resembles thick liquid chocolate, whilst the "lava" trails leave interesting swirls and patterns as they spill over the crater.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

Azerbaijan is known as the Land of Fire. One of the reasons for this is the large number of "burning mountains"primarily in the south of the country, however the most accessible of these is Yanar Dag (burning mountain) close to Baku on the Absheron peninsula. "Mountain" is a bit of a misnomer, but sure enough there are flames coming from this hill where natural gas from the oil-rich soil was accidentally ignited more than 50 years ago and has been burning ever since. I went during daylight but I am told that a visit after dark is best as this is when the flames are at their most visually impressive.

Continuing the fire theme, and also on the Absheron peninsula at Surakhani, is the Ateshgah Fire Temple (pictured below), built by Indian fire worshippers in the eighteenth century, although this was pre-dated by another temple about which little is known. The temple would attract devotees from across the middle east and from as far away as India. A natural flame burned here too for many years but the gas pocket that fed it is now used up and the flame is nowadays fed by a mains supply. When I visited, the Temple was under fairly serious restoration, with a planned visitor centre. Nothing too "flashy" I hope.

Azerbaijan by Yekkes

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Jazz genius Avishai Cohen - stompin' at Ronnie Scotts

For an encore they gave us "Remembering". Heart-achingly beautiful. Heartbreakingly beautiful. And for five minutes or so I am not in a rainy October London, I am standing on the shore at Tel Aviv as the Mediterranean sun sets in all of its purples, reds and oranges as the sky slowly darkens and the tide laps in. And then they were gone and I have to go for the tube!

Tonight was the second of three nights at Ronnie Scott's for Avishai Cohen, who has to be the best bass player in the world as well as a pretty fantastic pianist and a mean guitar player. He also sings rather wonderfully too - although tonight he didn't treat us to the voice. Supported by two other maestros - Omri Mor on piano and Amir Bresler on drums, the show opened with a lengthy working out of "Dreaming" from the "Seven Seas" album, and this set the tone for the evening with exquisite interplay between the three musicians - Mor working his magic on the piano and introducing an "oriental" sound to the proceedings, whilst Mr Bresler was infinitely more than the man who holds the music together, regularly taking the lead and as Avishai himself said, challenging the other musicians with innovative and inventive rhythms.

The trio worked their way through a number of recent  recordings including the title track from the "Seven Seas" album and three tracks from the recent and remarkable "Duende" album - "Soof", "Calm" and "Ballad for an unborn", the latter two being beautiful ballads soothing the audience after some earlier duelling between the musicians. We were also treated to a remarkable tribute to Lebanese songstress Samira Tawfik when the trio put two of her songs together and gave them the Avishai Cohen treatment. This had the audience whooping and shrieking - whilst a couple of other numbers had a distinctly middle eastern feel to them and also received a good reception.

I liked Omri Mor's cheeky reference to Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm" during one of the numbers, as well as his almost permanent smile and obvious delight in performing, whilst Cohen performed some amazing facial gymnastics that would rival the skills of some of the most accomplished mime artists. Every time I see Avishai Cohen play I am reminded of the physicality of being a musician. His performance its not about standing on the stage and playing beautifully, it is about his relationship with the instrument; talking to it, moving with it and using it to speak to the audience. And he is a showman too - putting down his bass and joining Omri Mor on the drums to support the "lead" drumming of Amir Bresler during the penultimate number to further shrieks of delight from the audience. It really doesn't get any better than this.

Amir Breslau is just 22 whilst Omri Mor is also less than 30. I saw Mor play at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv a few years ago accompanying the great Maurice el Medioni - surely we must have an album from him soon? I don't know how a small country like Israel produces so many great jazz artists - Omer Avital, Yaala Ballin, Ilan Salem, Shai Maesto, Yonatan Avishai, Ari Erev, Anat Cohen, Yuval Cohen ( and the other, trumpet playing, Avishai Cohen - no relation to tonight's Mr Cohen, but brother of Anat and Yuval, oh and there's another Yuval Cohen who plays piano!) -  and this is only part of the story. The jazz scene there is small but beautiful with many young artists coming through. There are a number of hot jazz clubs and there is also the now twice per year Red Sea Jazz Festival, for which Avishai Cohen has been artistic director for the last few years.

Our Avishai is playing Ronnie Scott's tomorrow night - but it is sold out not surprisingly, so uness you an squeeze in, you'll have to wait until 7th May next year when he is playing the Barbican. Don't miss it - I'm booking my ticket as soon as I post this and then going to bed happy!

Saturday 13 October 2012

Picture post number nine - Patisserie Markiz, Istanbul

Istanbul by Yekkes

I like art nouveau. I like coffee. I like baklava. I like the Markiz Pastanesi on Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul. 

The art nouveau "Le Printemps" (spring) ceramic pictured above can be found in the Markiz.  Designed by Alexandre Vallaury, architect of the Pera Palas Hotel, the cafe is also home to a panel representing autumn. There is an interesting family link between Vallaury and the patisserie business - his father was an accomplished pastry cook! The panels were designed by J A Arnoux and  produced by Ch. Boulanger at Choisy-Le-Roi in France in 1905.  Four panels were produced but only these two arrived intact and were installed in 1920.

The cafe started life as Cafe Lebon in the nineteenth century - the exact date of opening is not clear, but it soon became a magnet for the city's most fashionable and bohemian individuals and a place in which to see and be seen. The Lebon's patisserie was known for its high quality, employing the best pastry chefs and having what was considered to be the best pastry oven in Istanbul designed in Paris by Leumenier. The Lebon reputation became so good that patisserie was shipped to all parts of Europe via the Orient Express!

Monsieur Lebon died in 1938 left the cafe to his apprentice who in turn sold it to an accountant called Avedis Cakir in 1940. Cakir had ambitions for even greater opulence and imported a Meunier chocolate oven to keep the pastry oven company and to produce truffles and chocolates to rival those made in France. He also had display panels installed and wooden wall panels manufactured, whilst limoges china was used to serve the patisserie to the customers. 

In 1970 Cakir sold the shop to an auto parts dealer which provoked outrage from the long time clients who campaigned long and hard to have it declared a protected historical monument in 1977, along with the adjoining passage. However, the cafe closed and was boarded up in 1980, not re-opening until 2003.

It is now part of a fast food chain selling kebabs, burgers and other assorted fried monstrosities but the ground floor has been retained as a cafe and retains come of the period charm of the old days. The two panels remain as does the beautiful stained glass windows that give on to the adjoining passage. The many luminaries who patronised the cafe throughout its best years including poet, author and politician Yahya Kemal, actor and film director Haldun Dormen,  and writer and traveller Pierre Loti would probably not approve of the new menu, but at least the building is still there - a number of other art nouveau buildings along the Caddesi have been lost.

You can see more pictures of Istanbul here and read more about the city here and here.

Friday 12 October 2012

Jazz, jokes and use of "language" - Ian Shaw at Canada Water Library

Last night, Ian Shaw treated a small but select audience at Canada Water Library's Culture Space to a brilliant evening of jazz, jokes and chat. His "A bit of a mouthful" one man show included songs written (by Ian) for the show he took to the Edinburgh fringe earlier this year - songs about the often hilarious, sometimes sad business of every day life - the horrors of approaching 50, the completely unintelligible language of texting and Facebook and the privilege that comes with maturity, such as being able to have a "hate list". Ian's list included Piers Morgan, Claire Sweeney and corn on the cob!

There was more amusement with references to his upbringing in North Wales. His parents had sent him and his sister to Sunday school despite not being particularly religious. When in later years Ian asked them why they had done this, the reply was "well, we couldn't afford crayons" !!! Being a lover of words, I was very amused by another Sunday school story where the vicar, in that strange North Wales (Ian described it as South Liverpool) accent would remind the children every week to "remember the prairie tortoise". Mr. Shaw and his sister puzzled for years over what kind of animal this was until eventually working out that this was a reference to the Lord's prayer - "the prayer he taught us".

Ian swears a lot. That works for me as does the inadvertently rude humour he makes such great use of - the reference in one of the songs to the aunty going into shock when reading a menu typo that instead of advising about the offer of 10% discount, actually said there was an offer of 10% disco cu-t! And I won't spoil the bed wetting and Johnson's baby powder story in case you get a chance to see the show...

And what about the music? The music was great. A stunning version of the old Gilbert O'Sullivan song, "Alone again naturally" had me hanging on to my chest - see the video above to get the feeling, whilst "Scars" from his latest (and in my opinion, best yet) album - "A ghost in every bar", a wonderful collection of 15 Fran Landesman songs demonstrated a very reflective Mr. Shaw. His mischievous side came out again with his take on Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi", including the silent guitar solo (!) and the affectionate imitation of dear Joni's high voice, deep voice ending to the song.

This was a great evening of music, humour and fascinating anecdote including some about Fran Landesman herself, George Melly and others. The venue is part of the new major library in Canada Water which not only has a great performance programme but also stocks over 50,000 books, CDs and DVDs, has a great cafe, lots of study space and rooms for hire. And its open seven days a week too!

Ian is a very busy performer and has forthcoming gigs at the Vortex in Dalston and also as part of the forthcoming London Jazz Festival. You can find the details of these and other shows on his website. See him if you can - and buy that new album if you can't (or even if you can!).

Wednesday 10 October 2012

The Scent of Rain in the Balkans - the gripping story of the five Levi sisters of Sarajevo

Continuing a recent theme, I have just finished reading a totally gripping book by Belgrade born writer Gordana Kuic - The Scent of Rain in the Balkans. It is the story of a Sephardi Jewish family, called Salom in the book, but based on the story of a real family called Levi, who just happen to be the author's ancestors.

Covering the history of the family from 1914 and the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, through the First World War, the inter-war period and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and then the devastation wreaked on that country throughout the second world war.

The strongly matriarchal family is made up of six diverse characters - mother Esther and her five daughters - Nina, Buki, Clara, Blanki and Riki - pictured right. The story refers to historical characters such as the unfortunate archduke, King Peter and the Croatian Fascist leader Doctor Ante Pavelich as well as tracing the changing social mores of the several decades covered by the book. We see daughters marrying "out", one to a Catholic, another to an Orthodox Christian. We see the youngest daughter Riki leaving the family nest to train as a dancer first of all in Vienna and then traveling across Europe as a successful artist. Of equal interest are the varying reactions of the people around the family - shocked neighbours, occasionally supportive friends and relatives and admiring writers, artists and other bohemian types.

The portrayal of Belgrade society in the inter-war period is fascinating. As with many people in the west, I knew very little about Belgrade's fascinating history until recently, but Ms. Kuic describes a time of great creativity, frivolity and also of hope for the future. The family's changing fortunes mirror those of the times with stunning highs followed by crashing lows - sometimes quite literally, including the inevitable tragedies experienced by a family that considered itself Bosnian, Serbian, Yugoslavian and Jewish in the Second World War.

This is not a short story - the English translation runs to almost 400 pages, but it is fast moving, gripping and has many twists and turns that held my attention throughout. I particularly like writers who can make me feel that I am in the place or the time that the story is set whilst I am reading and I certainly had that experience here - I could feel the cold of the Balkan winter, the fear of who might be knocking at the door during the war years and the anger of Clara at her frankly useless husband! Kuic has a real feel for the characters, especially the women who all display great strength at different times and in different ways. Her men are less developed and much weaker individuals, with a couple of notable exceptions - Blanki's eventual husband, Marko Korach being a bit of a quiet hero and one or two of the bit part male characters are also interesting. But this is a story about women being determined to survive against all odds and to live with hope for the future.

Gordana Kuic: The Scent of Rain in Balkans

The book has been phenomenally successful in Serbia, including having been turned into a TV series, as well as there having been a ballet produced using elements of the story - you will need to read the book to understand why! The story of the Salom/ Levi family is played out over two more books that take the reader through the communist period and then on to the collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars of the 1990's. Unfortunately the other two books are not yet available in English - but I understand that another of Ms Kuic's works - "The Legend of Luna Levi" is in the process of being translated.

Gordana Kuic was born in 1942 and worked for 27 years as a translator, cultural assistant and English teaching assistant in the United States Embassy in her home town Belgrade before the collapse of Yugoslavia. You can read more about Gordana and her work on her website. I think London's Jewish Book Week in February next year would be a great place to hear more about her work...and to get my book autographed! If Jewish Book Week friends are reading this - please take note!

Sunday 7 October 2012

Most popular pictures - top five of last 12 months

As promised here, these are my top five most viewed pictures over the last twelve months in Flickr. Three of the top five are from my wonderful time in Eritrea in 2010, two of which feature modernist/ bauhaus style structures as does the one photo from Israel that has made the top five. 

The most recent of the top five pictures is the view of New York skyscrapers from Central Park, taken earlier this year. It is interesting how some pictures garner many views very quickly (as with the New York shot), whilst others build slowly over time. The Eritrean pictures were picked up by other websites and on-line magazines with links back to my Flickr pages, which no doubt has contributed to their popularity, but they continue to receive regular views.

Bubbling under the top ten are photographs from more recent destinations including Bucharest, Istanbul and the London Olympics, whilst older shots from Armenia, Moscow (in 2008) and Israel still attract regular views. It will be interesting to see what makes next year's top ten! And so, my top five pictures...

Below, the fifth most popular picture in my Flickr photo stream shows an apartment building in Asmara, Eritrea. I like the central windowed tower that houses the staircase, as well as the attempts to "brighten it up" with red and green paint. The luminous advertisement is part of a government sponsored programme to promote contraception! This picture has been viewed 105 times during my first year on Flickr.

Eritrea by Yekkes

Below, the fourth most popular of my Flickr pictures. This beautiful Bauhaus building is located on Lilienblum in Tel Aviv. Probably my most favourite Bauhaus structure in my favourite city, it was once the home of iconic Israeli photographer Avraham Soskin. The architect was Zev Richter and the house was completed in 1933. 106 Flickr views to date.

Israel ישראל by Yekkes

Below at number three for my first year is a nice shot of some of New York's skyscrapers taken from Central Park. I love the Manhattan skyline and couldn't resist taking this picture through the gap in the trees whilst walking back to my hotel after visiting the Guggenheim Museum. This picture was picked up by a website that caters for skyscraper fanatics, which probably generated the majority of the 108 views it has received to date.

New York by Yekkes

Below, at number two with a magnificent 124 views, is an Eritrean petrol station! No prizes for guessing why I liked this structure with its modernist curves, deco referenced portholes and overall streamlined architectural approach. For a long time, this picture garnered more views than any of my other Flickr shots, probably because it was one of a number of my pictures used by a branch of the UN as part of a recruitment scheme. Thanks so much UN for not bothering to ask my permission! I don't mind at all, but its nice to be asked.

Eritrea by Yekkes

And finally the most viewed of my Flickr photostream pictures is the one below - the Medaber recycling market in Eritrea with a stunning (to me) 155 views - way ahead of anything else in my photosream. This building has a very long history beginning life as a caravanserai but nowadays is a place where Eritrean genius and entrepreneurship is exhibited. Almost anything is recycled here to make a variety of useful items including cutlery, luggage, water pots and carriers and just about anything else you can think of.  The main language of Eritrea is Tirgrinya which is a semitic language. It shares a number of words (or very similar words) with Hebrew, including Medaber. In Hebrew it means "speak", but I am told it is used in Tigrinya as the word for recycle - I can see a link of course!

Eritrea by Yekkes

To see more of my Flickr pictures including from Eritrea, Israel, New York, Russia, Fiji, Australia, Georgia and many other places, look here. Click on any of the above pictures to see a full sized page.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Soutine at the Ben Uri Gallery

As I stood in front of Chaim Soutine's "La Soubrette" (waiting maid) yesterday, at London's wonderful Ben Uri Gallery, another visitor asked me what I thought of the painting. I replied that I liked it very much, and that although she looks a bit stern, if you look long enough, she softens up a little. "Mmm, just like my wife" he replied, and moved on.

La Soubrette is the latest in a series of high profile purchases by the Ben Uri, following on from the coup of acquiring Chagall's "Apocalypse en Lilas. Capriccio" painted in 1945 as an immediate response to the Holocaust and Georg Grosz's "Nazi Interrogation" painted at the beginning of that most terrible era.

The current exhibition is entitled "Chaim Soutine and his contemporaries from Russia to Paris" and showcases "La Soubrette". The work, produced in circa 1933 retains some of the earlier characteristics of Soutine's portraits, including the slightly elongated and pointed features of the subject. However "La Soubrette" is sadder than some of the earlier more self assured characters and has a look of resigned disappointment. At the same time, the slight, red mouth and the downcast eyes suggest kindness and acceptance. The picture was purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the V&A's Purchase Grant Fund. 

Soutine was born in 1893 in Smilovichy, a shtetl then in Russia but now in Lithuania. The tenth of eleven children, he displayed an interest in art from an early age but was discouraged by his very poor family. As a teenager he drew the local rabbi, contravening Judaism's prohibition on drawing faces and was badly beaten by said rabbi's son. All ended well for Soutine when he used the substantial financial damages he received to move to Minsk , soon afterwards going on to Vilna (Vilnius) where he studied at the School of Fine Arts. Moving on to Paris in 1913, he worked at the famous La Ruche in the most extreme poverty and with the likes of Chagall, Zadkine, Kremegne, Kisling and Archipenko as neighbours. 

He served for a short time in the First World War before being discharged due to developing the severe stomach problems that would eventually bring about his death. Soutine remained in France for the rest of his life, living outside Paris under an assumed name and false identity card from 1941, but had to travel back to the city in 1943 for emergency medical treatment. He died on 9th August 1943 following an operation for perforated stomach ulcers.

Although Soutine's painting is the focus of the current exhibition, it includes several other works that attracted my attention. The exhibition focuses on the work of the artists referred to as the Ecole de Paris with Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Mane-Katz and Jankel Adler all being represented. A smaller element of the exhibition includes works from the School of London as represented by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. There's also a really good (and good value) catalogue too!

One of the great things about the Ben Uri is that every time I go, I discover an artist that I hadn't previously known. This time it was Chana Kowalska. The exhibition includes two of her works from 1934, "Shtetl" shown above and "The Bridge". I find "Shtetl" especially interesting. 

Kowalska, born in 1907 in Wloclawek, Poland, the daughter of a zionist rabbi she worked as a school teacher before moving to Berlin in 1922. Eventually settling in Montparnasse, Paris, she was a politically aware young woman and was active in the Parisian branch of the Kultur-Lige  as well as in Jewish communist circles. Following the German invasion of France, she and her husband, writer Baruch Winogora joined the resistance. Both were arrested, deported and murdered in 1941.

At first glance "Shtetl" shows the enclosed world of the Jewish village as a secure place with brightly painted houses and shops, people carrying water from the pump as well as signs of growing modernisation with maintained and protected trees and footpaths. But there is also a much darker side to this painting. The cart at the top of the picture is driving towards the church dome, but there appears to be no way to leave the shtetl as there is no exit from the street. And are those trees really protected by the fence, or do they indicate how trapped Europe's Jews were at this time? Kowalska would have been well aware of the threat faced by Jewish communities across Europe and the fact that help would not be forthcoming. "The Shtetl" serves as a warning of what was to come. 

Sonia Delaunay was born Sarah Stern in 1885 in Gradizhsk, then in Russia, now in the Ukraine. She made her way to Paris in 1905 to study at the Academie de la Palette, married German collector and art dealer Wilhelm Ude in 1908 through whom she met Picasso, Braque, de Vlaminck and Robert Delaunay
. Sonia and Uhde divorced in 1910 and she married Delaunay.  

The Delaunays were strong advocates for abstract art and became members of the Abstract-Creation Group in 1931. Sonia Delaunay survived the second world war and lived on to 1979. The above work is the poster she designed for her second solo show at Galerie Bing in Paris in 1964  and is a wonderful example of her graphic skills and her passion for colour. The Ben Uri exhibition also includes an invitation card for the Galerie Bing show.

And so to my favourite (non-Soutine) work in the exhibition Isaac Lichtenstein's - "The Blind Fiddler", from 1924 (below). Lichtenstein was born in Plonsk, Poland in 1888 and grew up in Warsaw and Lodz. He spent three years at the Bezalel School of Art in Jersusalem from 1908, moving on to Paris in 1911. He served n the Jewish legion at the end of the First World War and then moved on to the USA where he moved into publishing. 

The cubist influenced "Blind Fiddler" employs an often used Jewish motif - the musician - accompanied by a poorly dressed child. The urban backdrop is representative of the living conditions of the urban Jewish working classes throughout the 1920's and 30's which enabled some to move up in society, and to break free of the many restrictions placed on them by the outside world and by the community itself. The converse side of this, and the subject of this picture, was grinding poverty.

I have written about the Ben Uri before - here, here and here. The Gallery has a magnificent collection but is housed in very small premises in St. John's Wood meaning only a very small percentage of this treasure trove can be shown at any one time. The gallery has been looking for more central and larger premises for some time. 

Once again, my favourite London Gallery has staged a thought provoking exhibition that will appeal to a much wider audience than Soutine enthusiasts or people specifically interested in Jewish artists. I understand that this exhibition is an appetiser for a much larger and more in-depth survey of the Ecole de Paris, coming in 2016. I don't know if I can wait that long...

Friday 5 October 2012

Most popular photos - first 12 months on Flickr!

I discovered Flickr in October last year and and was amazed by the huge range of subjects, groups and information as well as pictures that immediately became available to me. Best of all its absolutely free! Partly due to my obsession with lists and statistics, I added a flag counter fairly early on which allowed me to keep track of where viewers were coming from in addition to the standard information about numbers of views that each picture receives. Nerdy I know. One year on, I would like to share my ten most viewed pictures with blog readers, with just a little information about each one. I will spread the pictures over two posts, this first one showing the 6th-10th most popular, in reverse order of course!

Below - tenth most popular picture with 87 views. This is Asmara in Eritrea. My Eritrean pictures have  proved especially popular with some having been picked up for use in online newspapers and others being used on a website to show more positive sides of Africa. I liked this curved, corner building in downtown Asmara.

Eritrea by Yekkes

Below -  also in Asmara, this beautiful modernist villa is the home of a friend of mine who looks after the synagogue in the city. This picture has received 93 views in the last twelve months and is my ninth most popular photograph on Flickr. I love the receding lines of the upper floor and those of the small windows. The windows to the side of the villa have been covered to provide protection from the extreme heat of an Eritrean summer  and believe me, it gets very hot there!

Eritrea by Yekkes

Below - taken more recently, this Marcel Janco designed modernist house in Bucharest is my eighth
most popular picture having received 95 views. I took this picture during a very memorable morning spent looking at several of Janco's remaining buildings in this much under-rated city. I especially like those lines and the porthole windows. This house located at Boulevard Hristo Botev, 34 was built in 1934. I have written about Janco's work in more detail here.

Bucharest by Yekkes

Below -  my seventh most viewed picture having received 100 visits. I love this picture taken at Shuk Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem, Israel. I find the shuk extremely inspirational for pictures and also for provoking the imagination due to the diversity of the people, the colours, smells and sounds and not least those fabulous looking pastries that this little lad and his mum are admiring! You can read more about the shuk at a recent post here.

Israel ישראל by Yekkes

Below - number six in the popularity stakes, this photograph of the cafe in the Cinema Roma in Asmara has received 104 views and is probably my favourite of the pictures I took in the city. The cinema is one of a number of surviving art deco buildings in Asmara and the cafe is a real social hub, serving fantastic Eritrean coffee, alcoholic drinks and some pretty good pastries too! I managed to get a sneaky look in the auditorium too, but no pictures allowed unfortunately. Eritrea has many problems but my lasting memory of my visit is the warm hearted generosity of the people I met there.

Eritrea by Yekkes

These pictures bring back some great travel memories for me - I hope you like them. Look out for numbers 1-5 coming soon. Click on any of the pictures above to view the original.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Picture post number eight - Yitzhak Levy in Jerusalem and the Ladino music legacy

Israel by Yekkes
I took this photograph in a quiet street close to Shuk Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. It is one in a series of pictures posted around the area, showing images of Jews who lived in this part of Jerusalem in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The dashing man in the picture is Yitzhak Levy, iconic musician and singer, collector (and preserver) of Judeo-Spanish songs, often referred to as Ladino and father of the phenomenally successful Yasmin Levy.

Yitzhak was born near Izmir in Turkey in 1919 and moved with his family, to Eretz Israel in 1922. After the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, he became head of the Ladino department at the national radio station and devoted his life to collecting and preserving Ladino songs and music.

Judeo-Spanish was the language spoken by the former Jewish community of Spain, expelled from the country in 1492 by edict of joint monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (who was known as "The Catholic"). The majority of Spanish Jews complied with the expulsion order preferring departure to forced conversion to Catholicism or living as secret Jews - most of whom would eventually come to the attention of the Inquisition, resulting almost inevitably in their execution. The Jews of Spain dispersed to many places including Italy and the Netherlands, but the majority went to North Africa, joining long established communities, chiefly in what is modern day Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, as well as in countries under the domination of the Ottoman Turks. They took their language and traditions with them, establishing great centres of Jewish learning in Thessaloniki in Greece, in Sarajevo in Bosnia and in many towns and cities in Turkey itself.

Taking their language with them, the songs of the Sephardic Jews as they continue to be known, were passed orally from generation to generation for almost 500 years until Levy began to capture them in writing and in recordings for future generations to enjoy. The word "Sephardi" comes from the Hebrew word for Spain - Sepharad.  There is no reliable figure for the number of people still speaking Judeo-Spanish, but estimates range from 100,000 to 200,000 worldwide with some working knowledge of the language.

Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in Ladino music, led by the massive popularity of Jerusalem born Yasmin Levy - Yitzhak's daughter. Yasmin has recorded a number of albums all of which include a majority of songs in Ladino. She also tours regularly and has a large international following. Her voice is rich and silky, extremely powerful and able to evoke the lost world of the Spanish Jews. Closing your eyes and listening to her recordings, or better still, her live performances, it is easy to imagine you are back in Cordoba, Toledo or maybe Gerona in the centuries before Ferdinand and Isabella came to the throne. She is extremely well respected and has performed at the Royal Opera House and the Cadogan Hall, both in London as well as at some of the city's premier jazz venues including the world famous Ronnie Scott's and PizzaExpress

Yasmin is by far the best known performer of this genre of music today, but there are other excellent exponents too. These include Mor Karbasi, another Israeli, now based in the UK and who performed at the prestigious South Bank Centre, at Richmix, a major arts centre in East London and also in Trafalger Square as part of a Jewish cultural festival.

Jazz genius Avishai Cohen, another Jerusalemite and master of the bass, piano and guitar has also recorded a couple of Ladino songs on recent albums, including the almost standard "Noches Noches" which in a live performance at the Union Chapel in 2010, he remembered his mother singing to him as a lullaby during his childhood.

Whilst the main focus for the revival of this music has been in Israel, there are also a number of performers in the United States who are working hard to preserve this unique culture. These include Flory Jagoda. Born in Sarajevo in 1925 and later moving to Zagreb with her family, she survived the second world war but recounts how she was subject to many anti-semitic restrictions including not being allowed to go to school and having to wear the yellow star. Her family escape to an Italian occupied part of the country and then to mainland Italy. At the end of the war she married an American and moved to the United States. Her home town Sarajevo was once a major centre of Sephardic civilisation, including a great musical tradition. The Sarajevo community was almost entirely wiped out during the second world war, but Jagoda has recorded many of the old songs on her album "Memories of Sarajevo". My two favourites are the Chanukah song "Oco Kandelikas" (eight candles) and "Jo Hanino, Tu Hanina" (I am handsome, you are beautiful). As with Yasmin, Flory can transport you back to old time Sarajevo, with its cobbled streets, minarets and the sound of Ladino in the streets.

European Sephardi culture was practically wiped out by the invading and occupying Germans and their allies during the second world war. As well as Sarajevo's historic community, 98% of Thessaloniki's 54,000 Jews were murdered or died during the war, as were 90% of the 7,000 Jews of Macedonia. The one exception were the Jews of Bulgaria, whose government, despite being allies of the Germans would not deport its Jewish community. However, this did not stop them from deporting the Jews of territories transferred to them by their German allies - a fact often overlooked due to the survival of the community from Bulgaria "proper". Almost all Bulgarian Jews left for Israel in 1948.

There are some excellent books that tell the story of Sarajevo's Jewry in particular. I am currently reading "The Scent of Rain in the Balkans" by Gordana Kuic which tells the long story of the Salom family, whilst Isak Samokovlija's "Tales of Old Sarajevo" takes a wider view. Both are well worth reading. But back to the music. Yasmin Levy is appearing in concert at the Barbica, London on November 7th (I already have my ticket!), whilst Avishai Cohen has dates at Ronnie Scott's, also in November. Both are hot tickets. Enjoy the music!