Sunday 21 December 2014

Picture post 38 - Cholula, a church on top of a pyramid

Cholula is a city of over 100,000 people on the road from Mexico City to Puebla. It is known for its many churches and large student population, but is most visited due to the presence of one of the largest pre-colonial sites in the country and the church that the Spaniards built on top of it.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Cholula was a major city with 400 temples, an important shrine to the god Quetzalcoatl and a reputation for the finest pottery in the country. The local people, allied to the Aztecs planned to ambush Cortes and his men on their way to the city of Tenochitlan. Unfortunately, the Spaniards were tipped off by the Tlaxcalans. The Cholulans paid a terrible price with as many as 6,000 being massacred including almost all of the local leadership and the city was pillaged by the Tlaxcalans. Cortes went on to destroy many temples which resulted in the 39 churches currently found in Cholula - rather than the 365 of legend.

Despite the carnage, it is still possible to see significant remains from the pre-colonial period. The Piramide Tepanapa in the Zona Arqueologica is the main site and the location of one of the largest pyramids ever built. More accurately, it is the site of a number of pyramids one built on top of another over time. From a distance the site appears to be a grass covered mound with the yellow church domes rising above. But this hides the earlier history and it is possible to enter some of the 8 kilometres of tunnels within the pyramid and to view the results of their work as well as some partially restored elements uncovered by archaeologists. 

The Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios sits on top of the pyramid. It is accessed by climbing a steep, winding track from the pyramid's base, populated by vendors selling wooden toys, fruits, chillies  and other local produce. I stopped to look at what was on offer and bought a small wooden flute to bring home as a memento. The elderly woman vendor was amused that she couldn't tempt me to buy any of the fiery looking chillies she offered. Even the thought of them makes me sweat! The last stretch to the summit ends with a set of very steep steps, which once negotiated bring a full view of the church's white and yellow facade.

The climb is worth the effort. As well as being able to see inside the church, there are stunning views across the city with its many churches and clear site of the volcano Popocatapetl. Its a climb that gets made by pilgrims as well as tourists due to the presence of an image of the Virgin of the Remedies, a variation on the Virgin Mary dedicated specifically to the needs of the poor. Its also possible to visit some stunningly decorate churches in the nearby villages of Tonatzintla and Acatapec. You can see pictures and read about them here. 

Thursday 11 December 2014

Bei Mir Bistu Scheyn - a Yiddish musical classic

Before the Second World War there were as many as 13 million Yiddish speakers. About 5 million of these were murdered during the Holocaust and following emigration to and assimilation in the USA, the strong preference for Hebrew in Israel and cultural suppression in the former Soviet Union, use of the language continued to decline. More recently, this trend has begun to reverse, primarily due to its use by many Orthodox Jews and to a lesser extent through revived interest in other Jewish communities with classes being available in several major cities. 

Many English speakers will have used yiddish words in their day to day speech, possible without knowing their origin. Schmuck, schlep, nosh, nudge, schmooze all having found their word into daily use. As well as surviving as a spoken language, Yiddish also lives on through music, in particular with Klezmer festivals around the world, celebrating the music and language of the pre- war world. One of the best known songs from the Yiddish cannon is Bei mir bistu scheyn, or To me (or more literally, by meyou are beautiful. 

Written in 1932 for a Yiddish musical comedy, I wish I could, with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs (Born Yakov Yakubovitsch in Hungary in 1904) and music by Sholom Secunda (born in the Russian empire in 1894), the lyrics are a paean to the charms of the singer's beloved who is described as lovely, charming, the only one in the world and more precious than money! It has become one of the most enduring songs of its time with at least 100 known recorded versions. The musical itself was less successful, closing after just one season, perhaps reflecting the original Yiddish version of the show's title which translated to You could live but they won't let you.

That might have been the end of it, if, at least according to legend, one Jennie Grossinger, owner of a hotel in the Catskills had not taught the song to Johnnie and George, two African American performers who had worked at her Grossingers Catskill Resort Hotel. Grossingers was one of many well-knwon hotels in this part of New York State that catered almost exclusively to Jewish guests taking summer and other holiday vacations, providing kosher food, organised activities and entertainment at a time when many hotels in the USA were off limits to Jews. A little later, in 1937, lyricist, songwriter and musician Sammy Cahn heard Johnnie and George perform the song at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, got his boss to purchase the rights to it and with partner Saul Chaplin re-wrote the song with English lyrics, adding a swing rhythm. Secunda is said to have sold the rights for just $30 which he shared with Jacobs.

The rest as they say is history. Cahn persuaded the Andrews Sisters to record the re-worked song in November 1937. It became a worldwide hit and earned them a gold record. Since then it has continued to be a recording favourite with some very big names having put their stamp on it, including Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, June Christy, Glenn Miller, Eydie Gorme and more recently Joss Stone and Bette Midler on her 1914 album, Its The Girls. I love Ella's version (which you can listen to here), with that silky voice and great arrangement and of course the Andrews Sisters version is a classic and widely known. However, my favourite is that of the Barry Sisters, Minnie and Clara, born in the United States to Jewish immigrant parents and popular from the 1940's until the 1970's. Click on the link at the top of this post to hear it. There has also been a Swedish version and a number of Russian songs were put to the musical score in the old Soviet Union whilst it has also been featured in films, TV shows and used as the sound track for various advertisements. I especially like the Shasta root beer advert - It's root beer Mr. Sheyn...

Over the years the song grossed several million dollars in royalties making Secunda and Jacobs' $30 look like a bad deal. However, in 1961, copyright expired and ownership reverted to the songwriters, allowing them to secure proper recompense. Secunda was an interesting character having fled Russia's pogroms, traveled in steerage to the United States and been held briefly at Ellis Island before becoming a noted child chazan. He later studied music and worked in several capacities, included conducting, in New Yorks' Yiddish theatre world, continuing to write songs but never producing work of such popularity as Bei mir bistu scheyn

Friday 5 December 2014

Picture Post 37 - Trinity Court, Modernism in London's Kings Cross

Grays Inn Road in December can be a bit, well, grey. Earlier this year on one of London's sunny summer days I went there to photograph Trinity Court, a beautiful modernist block completed in 1935. On arrival I found the building to be covered in scaffolding with a sign informing residents, passers-by and would be photographers that the works being carried out would not be completed until November. November can sometimes mean December or even January here so I left it until today to chance returning. No sunshine today but the recently revealed, repainted, repaired and restored Trinity Court was looking very beautiful with its white exterior and light blue details.

Architects F. Taperell and Haase designed an eight storey rectangular building with the shorter sides parallel to the street. The facade has a magnificent entrance with double glazed doors bearing decorative tracery, whilst a stepped pediment above carries the block name in clear blue letters. I especially likes the black and white checkered details on the external steps. Above the pediment there are seven metal framed windows, separated by attractive vertical ridges that culminate in a second pediment which hides the housing for the lift shaft at roof level. There are balconies on each side of the building, accessed through a door adjoining bay windows with uniform blue metal frames. The balconies also have blue balustrades with some decorative detail.

Haase and Taperell were responsible for designing buildings elsewhere in London, including in Soho Square and the Heath View block of flats in Kentish Town. Herbert Haase turns up in the 13th May 1931 edition of the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advisor, as the victim of a robbery from his house in Marylebone. Apparently thieves made off with several valuable paintings (including a Van Dyck), several Persian rugs, 22 Chinese ivory figures, a vase and four boxes of cigars - each containing fifty. He must have liked a smoke.

Trinity Court backs on to the former St. Andrews Holborn burial ground which is now a public park. There are a number of aged, mold covered gravestones remaining. In the summer the park attracts workers from the many nearby office blocks who bring their lunch there. This is very different from the first time I visited Trinity Court - perhaps 20 years ago when the park was inhabited by drunks and homeless people and drugs detritus was clearly visible. It was much nicer today despite the damp weather, although I wasn't keen on the bull terriers being walked there! The rear of the building mirrors the street facing facade with the exception of having a smaller entrance and an odd modern lobby.

It is great to see one of London's remaining modernist gems restored and cared for, especially in a part of the city that has seen so much change in recent years. If anyone from Open House ever reads this, Trinity Court would make a great addition to the programme if residents could be persuaded - even if just to get a proper look at what might be the original lift. I've only been able to squint through the main doors but it looks very elegant. Open House might be the only way I ever get inside. I looked the building up on Zoopla today to be advised that a one bedroom flat will cost me about 750,000 pounds. Of course there's always the lottery...

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Picture post 36 - A riot of colour, Santa Maria Tonatzintla and San Francisco Acatapec

Church of Santa Maria Tonatzintla
The journey from Mexico City to Puebla takes a couple of hours dependant on traffic. However, there are many delights en route that tempt travellers to lengthen the journey by enjoying short stops to look at the volcanoes Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl (at least on a clear day) and the historic city of Cholula, which will be the subject of another post. There are also two stunningly beautiful churches in small settlements near to Cholula and I was lucky enough to be able to visit them on my recent Mexico trip.

Tonatzintla is a small, very ordinary village but its pride and joy is the Church of Santa Maria of Tonatzintla in the main square. Accessed through a yellow painted archway and across a paved patio, the talavera and brick facade is a glorious red with blue, yellow and white details and naive figures sheltered in a series of small recesses. I love the crisp, clean combination of colours and the way they fit perfectly with the bright Mexican light. 

Archway, Santa Maria Tonatzintla
Work began on the church in the 16th century and the style is described as folk baroque, mixing elements of Christianity with indigenous beliefs and practices. Interestingly, even the name of the church (and the village) reflects this. Tonanzin was a goddess of fertility popular amongst the indigenous Nahua speaking peoples, whilst the village name means "place of our little mother". This is mirrored in the choice of Mary for the church's dedication.

The exterior of the church is beautiful but the interior is overwhelming. Over the last several hundred years, craftsmen have covered almost every inch of the church with stucco ornament including birds, plants, fruits and indigenous figures interspersed with biblical characters. Everywhere you look there is something different to see and it is hard to know where to look first. It is fascinating to see that many of the figures have the facial features of the original Mexicans rather than the Spanish colonialists, suggesting perhaps that the vast majority of the craftsmen were also indigenous people. This style of decoration is known as churrigueresque and originated in Spain in the late 17th century. Unfortunately photographs are not allowed inside but it is relatively easy to find pictures of the interior on the internet.

Acatapec is another small village just a short distance form Tonatzintla. It is home to the riot of colour that is the church of San Francisco. The baroque exterior is covered in glazed bricks and locally produced talavera tiles in blue, green, yellow, red and white. Set back from a busy main road, it is a complete surprise in a village that is otherwise unremarkable. Built at the end of the 18th century it is a other example of the churrigueresque style of stucco decoration on the internal walls and ceiling with the rear of the main altar being particularly impressive. But for me the facade was the main reason for visiting. The uniquely Mexican combination of bright colours, brilliant sunlight and ceramic beauty is truly spectacular, whilst the main lines, angles, edges, curves and patterns are a photographer's delight. 

Both San Francisco and Santa Maria Tonatzintla are unmissable sites on the road to Puebla or Cholula, but a word of warning. Get there early because both churches attract large numbers of visitors including coach parties and school groups. Its great that so many people want to visit, but these are treats best enjoyed quietly. 

Church of San Francisco, Acatapec