The Glow of Havana – a preview

Chico Chica will be releasing their second album, The Glow of Havana, in February 2016. Here is a preview of three of the songs:

There is something about a second album that gives a band a certain standing. There are plenty of one-album bands but a follow-up announces to the world: ‘we’re here for the long term’. And about time too. Mélangerie was released in 2011 and since then, despite plentiful writing, there there have been a mere two singles: Pense à Moi and Ali’s Song.

So this paucity of output will be put to rights with an ambitious series of 10’’ vinyl releases, each showing a different stylistic side to the band. In the summer of 2014, we enlisted the help of Roberto Pla to cover for Michel Drees’s absence. Barbara Snow had worked with Roberto for fifteen years and was keen for him to add a salsa dimension to the band’s sound. So when we came to the next session we chose those songs in the set which would best benefit from such a treatment. The result is The Glow of Havana. The title is taken from an Ernest Hemingway novel – either The Old Man and the Sea or To Have and Have Not, I can’t remember which. It is an album of which we are immensely proud and is certainly a big departure from what we had done before. We have prioritised quality over quantity and made this a four song album. Some may call it a mini-album or an EP. Some may even call it a song cycle.  But it’s none of those things. It’s an album.

So why vinyl? For fun of course. It also means we can engage a proper artist, Phil Bartle. Phil will paint the picture and design the whole package. Not just this album, but the whole series. Yes, it will be what marketing people call a premium product.

Next week, I will be off to the Womex show in Budapest. It will be the first time I set eyes on the Danube. It can’t wait. Womex is a music fair specialising in world music. I have no idea what I will do there or who I’ll meet but I will try to talk to people about the album without becoming a bore – a hard balance to strike, I know.

Chico Chica’s pianist Hilary Cameron and I were out drinking the other night and popped into St James Theatre in Victoria. We spoke to James Albrecht the artistic director and pencilled in Wednesday 17th February 2016 for the launch party. It is going to be a memorable night so make a note of that date.


I have just come back from a five week adventure in Marseille. It was a combination of a business trip, a holiday, a writing retreat, working (a few solo concerts) and meeting friends I haven’t seen for years. So I call it an adventure.

Why Marseille? I find it hard to justify five weeks lazing about. I have to have a ‘project’ otherwise I feel guilty. And as I’m sure you can guess, it’s about Chico Chica. In my head I drew this complicated Venn diagram.  French people, I discovered, are unfamiliar with Venn diagrams. I tried to explain with a napkin and biro but, judging from the look on their faces, I don’t think I did a good job.

Though the band have toured around the UK, we have decided that it is easier and more lucrative to focus on London and the South East. But we wanted to expand our horizons especially for August when so much of our fanbase goes on holiday. I wanted a place where:

1) they speak the languages we sing in: English, Spanish, Arabic (one song: Majda Al Han) and French.

2) they speak a language where I can at least order a coffee. That leaves France and England.

3) I wanted somewhere warm. Sorry England.

4) I wanted a mode of transport which doesn’t force me to put my instrument in the hold and turn up three hours before departure so I have to stare at billboards while drinking over-priced coffee.

So when I saw  a bus drive past with an advert saying Marseille non-stop Eurostar for £80, my mind was made up. I also happen to know a Marseillaise who used to live in London years ago.

Chico Chica have been writing and performing songs in French:

C’est Ta Chanson,

Pense à Moi

and Mon Oiseau S’est Enfui. So the idea emerged of recording a French mini-album in France.

Marseille is a marvel. New arrivals to a city tend to look up to take in the architecture and vistas. It’s a hilly city with the church of Notre Dame occupying the top slot the same way the Cristo Redentor does in Rio. Walking through the street I come across vistas I never imagined: the iron bridge over Rue D’Aubagne has a curvaceous elegance unlike those found in England. L’Hotel de Ville. L’Opera and the Bourse are exceptional buildings that rival anything else Europe. If the  monument at Longchamp has a London equivalent it would be the Albert Memorial. But Longchamp has more. It is a rococo expression of La Gloire that only the French can do.

But the eye starts to take in the tall houses. They are primarily Napoleon III 1860s. These were built on a grand Haussman scale – bourgeois with wooden shutters, wrought iron balustrades and countless statues of Madonnas on corner alcoves. The evident decay is charming, and in many other cities these areas would be ripe for gentrification.

Lowering the eye further still and we realise why Marseille is so exceptional. The first thing we notice is it’s covered in graffiti. But the graffitti blends into the local artwork. Many businesses paint murals so it’s hard to know where one stops and the other starts. There are things we see which exist in London but with the help of strict laws and generous welfare, we keep hidden: prostitution, rats, migrant families rummaging in bins, homeless men bedding down on the city’s ornate bandstands, countless beggars, hawkers and street musicians. The less talented the musicians the more aggressive they tend to be. There were some great buskers in the tourist area of the Vieux Port. The music venues tend to close for the holiday season because everyone likes to eat outside. This makes it difficult to promote concerts. I did a few gigs using the ‘chapeau’ means of payment. I am not used to this way of working but, with the help of my friends Celia and Amar, it worked really well.

And yet. There is something which I really loved. The people are warm, open and it’s easy to make friends. Tourists are rare compared to Nice and Provence in fact I only met one English person in my whole visit (yes you Emily). My AirBnB flat was near Cours Julien. This is the true Marseille, away from the yachts and over-priced food of the Vieux Port. Cours Julien is, among other things, home to a community of homeless Africans. I noticed a different attitude to low life. In England, there is a separation from normality. We pass them by privately cursing the state for failing to keep misfortune out of sight and out of mind. Marseille is different. For example, the prostitutes, as they sit in their doorways, are greeted by passers-by and pleasantries are exchanged. One character who was obviously severely mentally deranged, was allowed to sit with the locals at coffee tables, not joining in the conversation but somehow feeling part of communal life.

The Marseillaises love pizza and for good reason – it’s better that ours. There pizza tends to be rectangular rather than circular, I don’t know why that should make a difference but it does. For a change I would go to Cours Jus, run by two Nathalies, one, ‘le patron’, is tall and serious the other is the big hearted chef helped by the silent, ever-smiling Senegalese Baba. The Nathalies prevented my stay becoming too cheesy. And then, at Cafe St Julien there’s the lovely Leila. She has invited me to play Facebook Soda Crush which obviously means she fancies me.

What I admired more than anything is the free spirit of Marseille. They do really naughty stuff like smoke indoors. I saw twelve year olds riding motor cycles on pavement without helmets (naturellement) and many of the motor cyclists make their way around the town using the rear wheel only. I think it’s a courting ritual.

I made trips to Nice, Cannes, Nîmes, Frejus and Aix and have made some enough contacts to put in place a Chico Chica tour culminating in a studio date with Henry Frampton at his studio in Provence.

Chico Chica at the Royal Academy of Arts

As a break to our more formal ticketed shows, Chico Chica are presenting a programme of latin jazz at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 throughout the summer. These free and informal events take place at the cafe in the Burlington House courtyard, 6.30pm-8.30pm every Friday.

The members of Chico Chica will be performing in various duo combinations – I personally will be playing all the Fridays up until July 10th.

The repertoire will consist of songs from the Chico Chica show along with some classic latin, jazz and pop. I have been dusting off some party pieces such as Chega de Saudade – the Tom Jobim song with the treacherously long chord progression and no repeated sections. We will also be experimenting with some new material.

We did something similar in 2012. We took some photos which accompanied the song Pense a Moi, which we will of course be performing.

So if you find yourself in the West End on a Friday evening this summer we would love to have you pop in for a drink. Feel free to come up and say hello.

New Look Website

I’ve been meaning to come back to the Chico Chica website for a while. I have decided to stop the book reviews for now and focus on Chico Chica activity. After all, this is supposed to be what this site is about. We have a new release coming up this year. The plan is to release the four songs we recorded at Cowshed Studios earlier in the year – wait for it – on vinyl. Nearly all technological advances are a victory for power over pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with that – we need power, especially in areas such as medicine and transport. But when it comes to how we consume music, we need to get the balance right. So listeners of Chico Chica’s next release will not be sitting at a desk.Well that’s the plan as it exists in our heads. I will outline how each new development as it occurs, even boring stuff like distribution deals – I bet you can’t wait.

So do keep coming back – I will be posting frequently.

My Last Duchess and Other Poems, Robert Browning

One increasingly important component of Chico Chica shows is the dramatic monologue. In the spoken word sections of the songs such as A Scientific Fact, Nice Guy with an Edge and Private Hands, I adopt a character speaking to an imaginary audience. The format gives my imagination greater scope and is meant as an antidote to the overly serious singer-songwriter ‘this is all about me’ output which has been with us since the early seventies. The greatest exponent of this technique is Robert Browning so it’s important for me to get an insight to the mind of a master. I have been dipping in and out of this book all year but have recently finished it so, in accordance with my blogging tradition, I give it a post.

Robert Browning is considered one of the great 19th Century writers – right up there with Dickens and Eliot – but is rarely read nowadays. This is partly because the poems are dense and difficult. Some took several reads for me to get an idea of what they were about. It usually came in a flash of inspiration. On some occasions the flash never came so I had to move on to the next, baffled.

Dickens towers above Browning in the modern imagination also because you cannot easily turn a poem into a play, film or musical. Browning’s influence lives on in Chico Chica’s shows but we need to do more to keep the spirit alive. Now here’s an idea: how about turning My Last Duchess or Fra Lippo Lippi into a computer game? Are there any game developers reading this?

This is the last post of 2014 and these are the books I read during the year:

Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
Unpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell
The Trial, Franz Kafka
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
The Comedians, Graham Greene
First Love and Other Stories, Ivan Turgenev
Silas Marner, George Eliot
To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
The Sound and the Fury, William Falconer
Fathers and Children, Ivan Turgenev
The Honorary Consul, Graham Greene
The Great Terror, Robert Conquest
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
Hard Times, Charles Dickens
Romola, George Eliot
Game Of Thrones, George R.R. Martin (abandoned halfway)
Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin
My Last Duchess and Other Poems, Robert Browning.

You will find posts on all of them. However, I have been reflecting on my blogging and made the decision to discontinue posts on the books I read. The readership is just too limited so the posts in 2015 will be more frequent and touch on more topics. Thank you for reading and, on behalf of Chico Chica, I’d like to wish you a most exciting and prosperous new year.

Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin0

Every now and again it’s important to do something out of character. So instead of picking up another classic I started reading Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. During my late teens and early twenties, I read a lot of sci-fi such as Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip Dick, Michael Moorcroft and others. And then I read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – after that it’s been dead authors pretty much all the way. Every now and again I read authors who are still walking about. I once met Jonathan Coe and felt embarrassed because I’d never read any of his books. So I read some (they were okay) in the hope I’d be less embarrassed the next time I met him. But I never met him again.

So I delved into Martin’s world which looked a bit like medieval Europe without Christianity. The prose style is ordinary so I tired of the book quickly. The characters were shallow and I really couldn’t care less if they were all devoured by dragons, which alas, they weren’t so I rode on, heroically, through Wolfswood and the Vale of Arryn because I have a Golden Rule: Finish The Book. Luckily, I make up my Golden Rules as I go along so from now on I allow myself to abandon a book if the author is still living.

So on to Pushkin. Anyone who reads Russian novels can not help but notice repeated references to Alexander Pushkin. He is considered to be the man who heralded Russia’s great literary century. Eugene Onegin is a verse novel and I have to say I’m reluctant to read translated verse but there have to be exceptions if the author is a literary giant such as Homer or Dante. I decided to include Pushkin in that pantheon.

The story’s main thrust is the failed dalliance between Eugene Onegin and a woman whose brother he’d recently shot dead in a dual. Oh well, love’s a funny old game.

At first I couldn’t get the verse to sing. The meter is iambic but so many lines have a feminine ending followed by a line with an anacrusis so I kept stumbling when going from one line to the next.

‘The dream alarms her, and not knowing
What hidden meaning in it lies’

I got round this by treating ‘knowing/What’ as a dactyl.

Translated prose is fine but translated verse seems to shout its presence in every clunky line. The stressed ‘a’ before ‘campaign’ really grates;

‘And promised them each year again
A soldier spouse and a campaign.’

And then they’re pre-op feminine endings trying to be masculine such as ‘unfit/exquisite’.

So Pushkin is good but doesn’t translate well which explains why he doesn’t get read much outside Russia.

Chico Chica had a great night at Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec on 5th December – thanks to all you readers and listeners in the audience.

Chico Chica spend every New Year’s Eve at:

Tamarind 20 Queen Street, Mayfair London W1J 5PR
020 7629 3561

Do come along – it’s a fabulous Michelin-starred curry house.

I will be writing one more post before Christmas so the season’s greetings will wait until then.

Romola, George Eliot

It’s six weeks since my last post. The idea of only posting after I have finished a novel (in this case, well after) would work well but if I didn’t insist on reading classic novels which are much longer, and I’m a slow reader to boot. So this literary necrophilia for me means fewer blog posts, which may not seem a problem. Oh but it is. You see, I am not a proper book blogger – I shamelessly use mine as a way to sell tickets to Chico Chica shows. So I need to find other excuses to burden the world with my unimportant views. I have resolved to look for more excuses to post in 2015, and to buy a camera so I can add some visuals to my wordy posts.

As with bubble gum cards and Pokomon cards, a lot of us have pleasure in completing a set – it doesn’t matter what it is, just something that we can own with a pleasurable sense of achievement. There’s a literary form of this malaise. I’ve often heard it said that someone has read ‘all Proust’ or ‘all Stendhal. This requires a great deal of commitment and a a zealous academic approach. Dickens is almost manageable but Balzac less so.

George Eliot only wrote seven which makes her canon an attractive proposition for nerdy literary types especially when she happens to be England’s greatest novelist. There are the big five (in the order in which I read them): Mill On The Floss, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede and Silas Marner. But there are two others which get far less attention: Romola which I completed very recently. There is also Scenes of Clerical Life. One day I will read that, not so much to complete the set, but to find out if it’s as dull as it sounds. After that, in the mahogany-veneered bookshelf of my memory bank, I will place my George Eliot Box Set. It’s terribly sad, I know.

Romola, being outside Eliot’s big five, was, I presumed, a lesser work. But it isn’t. It’s just different in that it takes place in 1490s Florence rather than the usual rural nineteenth century England. The period, being at the cusp of the modern era, was momentous. Printing, gunpowder and America were recently discovered and the book outlines the beginnings of challenges to papal authority. Michaevelli is a minor character so to is Fra Lippi (who I’d come across in one of Robert Browning’s dramatic dialogues). Michaelangelo and da Vinci are casually mentioned and even Mona Lisa gets a cameo role as an old woman.

The plot is full of political scheming so it’s a bit like a Hilary Mantel novel except Romola has immeasurably more depth and beauty. The novel finishes with an epilogue which shows Eliot’s true voice in the form of Romola speaking to an infant:

It is only a poor sort of happiness that could ever come by caring very much about our own narrow pleasures. We can only have the highest happiness, such as goes along with being a great man, by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves; and this sort of happiness often brings so much pain with it, that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose before everything else, because our souls see it is good. There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world, that no man can be great unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards, and gets strength to endure what is hard and painful.

Chico Chica have been recording their second album with Joe Keach at Cowshed Studio where performances are recorded onto old-fashioned tape. It’s a process that recognises that nearly all technological advances are victories of power over pleasure. Chico Chica do things gradually, starting with four songs: Private Hands, A Scientific Fact, Nice Guy With an Edge and I’m a Playgirl. We used a salsa rhythm section so chose those songs that would most benefit form such a treatment. They also happened to be the songs with the strongest spoken word component. The overdubs, mixing and mastering will be done in January 2015 so the download-only EP will be launched soon after. By the end of 2015, we should have recorded the twelve (maybe sixteen) songs needed for a CD release.

Chico Chica will be performing at:

Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec
140 Newington Butts, Kennington
London SE11 4RN
9.00pm Friday 5th December 2014
Tickets: £7.00 (£5.00 diners)
Bookings: 020 7582 6800