The Four Horsemen of Aphrodite’s Child

Imagine the voice of Demis Roussos and the music of Vangelis fused together, and you have just imagined what kind of album ‘666’ must be. In the 1960s, the two Greek geniuses –along with others- formed a band called Aphrofite’s Child. The band played serene progressive rock, but their last album released in 1972 (after they had already split) was more psychedelic than Prog Rock. The album, based on the Revelation of Saint John and titled ‘666’ was a huge hit, and remains to be a reference in the history of Rock.

Here are some of the best tracks:

The Four Horsemen
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KCbqhJt16k&feature=related

The Aegean Sea
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbeOTy48EjE

The Wedding of the Lamb
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhiz2onCp6A&feature=relmfu

Mercedes Sosa: The Enchanting Voice of Latin America

‘I only ask of God,
That I would not be indifferent to pain,
That the dry death would not find me,
Empty, lonely, and without having done what’s enough.
I only ask of God,
That I would not be indifferent to injustice,
That they would not slap my other cheek,
After a claw had cratched my forehead.’
– English translation for part of Sólo le pido a Dios (I only ask of God).

Few singers can evoke the spirit of revolution and the struggle of the masses against political oppression, racial discrimination, and cultural marginalization like Mercedes Sosa, the legendary Argentian singer better known as ‘La Negra’, alluding to her Native American origins.

Being one of the leading figures of the Nueva Canción (a genre of socially-committed, folk-flavored music in Latin America), she struggled against Latin American dictators through her songs and her rebellious spirit, singing verses by some of Latin America’s most emblematic poets, and collaborating with the likes of Pavarotti, Serrat, Caetano Veloso and others.

Finally, here is the link to listen to ‘Sólo le pido a Dios’, one of her greatest songs ever, along with the English subtitles:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7CQDLjrtnA

…and another masterpiece, titled ‘Razón de vivir’:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YtVCgTbIq0&feature=related

Rembrandt’s Old Rabbi

Imagine this: you have a private library that is famous world wide for its art collection (with scores of works by such names as Van Dyke and Canaletto), and it takes you more than 50 years to discover that one of the paintings hanging on your wall is an authentic Rembrandt!

This is exactly what happened with the private library of Woburn Abbey, which has announced that the work, titled ‘The Old Rabbi’ has been authenticated as a Rembrandt. The 1643 painting will be displayed this week at the library.

Andorra’s Romanesque Route

‘Shopping or Skiing?’ This is the typical question they ask you when you say you are going to Andorra, this little principality tucked in the Pyrenees between Spain and France. We went for two entirely different reasons: culture and nature. Here is the story of our trip in this country founded by Charlemagne (or so they say).

I. The Romanesque Route

Over forty Romanesque churches (10th to 12th century) make for a wonderful itinerary across Andorra. One is given the chance to examine a genuine and special representation of the first ‘continental’ style in Europe since the Roman times.

If I think of one word that best describes the Andorran Romanesque, it would be ‘discrete’. The churches are all small and simple, which appeals to my spiritual side that rejects Baroque’s proselytizing spirit and exuberance. The walls are thick and the structures are austere, with very little ornamentation on the outside and no need for buttresses. This can be attributed –in part- to the poverty of the Pyrenees villages and their remoteness from important centers of Romanesque art. This remoteness and isolation explain why the Gothic style that appeared later did not sweep across Andorra the way it did in other parts of Europe (and one must be glad it did not, otherwise they would have remodeled many –if not all- of the Romanesque churches here!).

The one thing that does stand out is the church tower. In many of the Andorran churches, the tower features a clear Lombard influence, thanks to the abundance of Lombard stonemasons in the Catalan lands (Andorra was not yet a separate, independent country). Soaring towers (like in the case of Santa Coloma and Sant Miquel d’Engolasters) or short ones (like in Sant Joan de Caselles), they all follow a theme in which three-storey bell towers lend the structure a sense of elevation and verticality. Lombard bands of blind arcades above the towers’ mullioned windows are the only elements of external decoration (together with few remains of polychromatic fragments in some windows)

On the inside, the most precious art is no more there. It was moved decades ago to the MNAC (National Museum of Catalan Art) in Barcelona. I had the pleasure of admiring it firsthand there, and the sadness of contemplating it away from its original context, like a fossil of a dead animal.

We visited some fifteen churches and some Romanesque bridges (like the Margineda), but I have every reason (aesthetically and historically) to claim that the most impressive ones are:
– Santa Coloma (with the only cylindrical bell tower in Andorra);
– Sant Miquel d’Engolasters (a beautiful bell tower);
– Les Bons (wonderful landscape makes for a perfect background);

II. In the footstep of Verdaguer

During the second half of the 19th century, the Catalan culture experienced a golden age referred to as the ‘Renaixença’ (Reniassance), pioneered by the likes of Jacint Verdaguer, Catalonia’s most celebrated poet (probably, of all times).

It was here in Andorra (and other parts of the Pyrenees) that Verdaguer seeked inspiration for his epic poem ‘Canigó’, which tells the story of the Catalan Pyrenees through the epic efforts of the Christians to gather forces and fight the invading Saracens (a culturally incorrect synonym for Muslims). Following his itinerary took us to the Iron Route, a beautiful countryside that extends from Ordino to the north. But the real spectacle is elsewhere…and nature at its best is further to the east.

The Engolasters Lake was partially frozen by the time we arrived there following a hike through the woods. The scene was just breathtaking under the sun, as the heat started to melt yesterday’s snow off the pine trees. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them, entire mountains covered with pine trees, which –in turn, were covered with snow…an ephemeral landscape that changes every second as the snow retreated and the woods restored their greenery. A multitude of snapshots every second.

Andorra is a small country with big natural heritage, even though only Madriu-Claror Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I heard a lot of stories by the elders of the Andorran village about the witches that used to roam the valleys and the spirits of the woods (called ‘fades’ in Catalan, which is the official language here). As I took a quick nap by the lake, I had a dream…dreamed of my Ophelia.

III. The trees, my Ophelia

On the map, my Ophelia, they have named every mountain, every valley, and every river. But when I asked about the name of the tree under which I slept, no one gave me an answer…only a strange look. Why is it that Man has named everything except for trees and flowers? Is it because trees and flowers do no help Man in drawing borders and setting frontiers?

A man told me that the trees here are countless, that any effort to name them is futile…but didn’t we catalogue and name even the faintest of stars in the night sky?

I wanted to tell them that each and every one of these countless trees has a name, but no one wanted to listen, and you were not here to remind me of the names, and the dream came to an end.


Camel – Andorra, Mar’ 2012

My 3rd article in Ahram Online: In the footsteps of Joan Miró

This month I attended the closing day of the exhibition ‘Miró: The Ladder of Escape’ in Barcelona, and I wrote an article about Miró for Ahram Online, which you can read at:
http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/37345.aspx

While preparing for the article, I did a cultural itinerary that was suggested by the exhibition as a side activity. I traced the footsteps of Miró, visiting the house were he was born; the school to which he went; the places were he exhibited his art; the bars and restaurants that he liked; his public mosaics and sculptures in the streets of Barcelona…a world no less exotic that the artworks of Miró. You can see the photos below.

Iraqi ‘Enemy Food’ Opens ‘Cultural Dialogue’ in the US

What happens when your ‘perceived’ enemy prepares lunch for you?
What happens if you have all the negative stereotypes about him, but you are invited to eat his traditional food in your own neighborhood?
Did you ever think of food as a means of communication and a space for dialogue between people who come from very different cultures that are –at times- in ideological opposition?

Michael Rakowitz took the initiative. The Chicago-based artist used the recipes of his Iraqi-Jewish mother to stage an art project: Enemy Kitchen.

First, Rakowitz worked with school students teaching them how to cook Iraqi food. While preparing and consuming the food together in a stress-free atmosphere, they slowly started to open up, talk about their perceptions and stereotypes, share thoughts and feelings, ask questions and generate a healthy debate centered on Iraq and the US military intervention there. The meal turns into a form of socio-cultural engagement.

Next, he did the same with US soldiers from the Iraq Veterans Against The War and the Vietnam Veterans Against The War through a kofta barbeque.

Finally, the project took a new turn with the introduction of a food truck in Chicago that moves from place to place, offering Iraqi dishes served by US Iraqi War veterans and Iraqi refugees in the US. The meals are served in paper plates that resemble the china dishes looted by the US troops from the palaces of Saddam Hussein (another projection on the US ‘intervention’).

What’s next? The truck will be touring neighborhoods where military recruiting is heavy. Desired outcome? You can guess.

Constellations: what the night sky tells us about our history

The modern sky charts show a total of 88 constellations that one can see in the night sky (in both hemispheres). A closer look at the names of different constellations reveals an interesting fact: the constellations at the northern and the southern hemispheres follow different patterns when it comes to their names. How is that?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the names are related mostly to the Mediterranean: we see hunting scenes (like Orion the hunter; Canis Major the hunting dog and Lepus the hare), and mythical heroes and beasts (like Perseus; Hercules and Centaurus the centaur). This comes as no surprise since most of these constellations were named by the Ancient Greeks (Ptolemy, Almagest) who projected their own stories and lifestyle on the night stars.

In the Southern Hemisphere (largely unknown to Greeks), the story is different. The constellations’ names are related to navigation, scientific instruments, and exotic animals and birds, because they were named mostly in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries either by travelers and explorers or by European scientists and academics. The names simply reflect the spirit of that time and the related vision of the world, combining a celebration of science and a sense of amazement by the discovery of new and exotic worlds.

For examples, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille gave names to 14 constellations in the 18th century, mostly naming them after scientific and/or navigation instruments: Telescopium (The Telescope); Microscopium (The Microscope); Horologium (The Pendulum Clock); Circinus (The Compass); Octans (The Octant); Fornax (The Chemical Furnace); Norma (The Level); etc.

Earlier in the 17th century, Johann Bayer introduced some 12 constellations -created by Dutch explorers Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman- named after exotic animals and birds: Tucana (The Toucan); Chamaeleon (The Chameleon); Apus (The Bird of Paradise); Volans (The Flying Fish); Grus (The Crane); Pavo (The Peacock); etc.

The Greek mythology is not totally absent from the southern hemisphere, but when present, it has to do with seafaring, since navigation was a main theme. So, we have the Argo Navis (Ship of the Argonauts) which is divided -by Lacaille- into the following constellations: Carina (The Keel); Puppis (The Poop, or stern) and Vela (The Sails).

Interesting how we projected our own superstitions and myths unto the northern hemisphere stars and our progress and curiosity unto the southern hemisphere stars…and interesting how this does not correspond to our present-day perception of North vs. South! In both cases, we associated the distant stars with our intimate human life, and rightly so, because -as Carl Sagan once put it- we are star-stuff harvesting starlight.