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

Hard Times, Charles Dickens

I’m not used to Dickens doing Northern accents. It’s usually cockney which is straightforward but Hard Times takes place in Coketown which I assume to be based on a place like Bolton or Rochdale. Dickens’s northern dialogue is like Dick van Dyke’s cockney but harder to follow. To make matter’s worse, one of the characters has a lisp. Coming straight after Jude The Obscure I was yearning to read something which had a telephone, a car or an aeroplane in it. But Hard Times was there on my bedside table and it seemed to have a sign on it saying ‘read me’. So I got grim factories and lots of chimneys.

One of the themes Hard Times touches on is education. People get so het up about this subject. Dickens is clear where he stands and Hard Times acts as a morality tale on education that puts the accumulation facts before having fun. Mr Gradgrind is a teacher. He is an extremist version of the old-fashioned sort. All facts, no fun. Mr Gradgrind had no sense of balance. He had an idea, and like lots of stupid people with ideas, he could not see that it may have one or two downsides. Well his children saw it and they didn’t turn out as planned.

Dickens could have taken the opposite view. He would have called the book Soft Times, and the teacher, Mr Gradfluff, would have told, sorry, suggested, to the students that they go walk in the woods and smell the trees. Then the children would have suffered in a different way by being emotionally well-balanced but unable to do a cushy sitting down job.

There seems to be a lot of discontent in the teaching profession and the root of of it is the obsession with qualifications. Teaching is an art, more akin to writing and singing that to accountancy and dentistry. But teachers have longed to occupy the second category because they perceive that there they will win greater respect and hence renumeration. No-one checks the credits of a CD to see if a musician is ‘qualified’. Teachers need to think more like artists.

But what do I know. I don’t have any educational ideas of my own. Occasionally I come up with one but start thinking about other things and forget what it was. Being an instrumental teacher, the furthest I’ve got is giving a twist to the carrot and stick approach. If a student doesn’t practise I hit him on the head with a stick, and the following week if he still hasn’t practised, I hit him on the head with a carrot. I’ll be writing a report on this experiment in due course.

Chico Chica will be going into Cowshed Studio, London to make a start on the second album. I know I’ve said this before but stuff happens which caused it all to be postponed much to our frustration. For this session we are enlisting members of Roberto Pla’s Latin Jazz Ensemble – we can’t afford the whole band but, there will be enough to give the proceedings a distinctly salsa vibe. I can’t wait.

Chico Chica will be playing at 8.30pm, 2nd October 2014, Bull’s Head, Barnes, London SW13 9PY

Jude The Obscure, Thomas Hardy

The summer break has allowed me to take a family holiday in Norfolk which coincided with beautiful weather and swimming at Walberswick, Suffolk. The absence of teaching committments has also let me catch up with nitty gritty stuff like getting my guitar amplifier serviced and getting a strap button fitted to my guitar. Spanish guitars don’t usually have them but I want a Chico Chica show to be an upstanding experience (for me at least).

What a fabulous place East Anglian is at this time of year. The landscape is more Kate Moss than the West Country’s Dolly Parton- what it lacks in spectacularity it makes up with understated beauty. But while lying on a Suffolk beach my mind was in Wessex and Thomas Hardy’s tale of a love rectangle. Jude The Obscure features two married couples. Though I love 19th Century novels there’s one thing that keeps occurring in them which really annoys me: the love interest is between cousins. I know it’s scientifically okay but it just feels wrong to me and it I find it spoils the story, but never mind. The story rolls along and has me nodding my head to all the sensible modern views about marriage and I was thinking what can go wrong? It didn’t feel like a Hardy novel. We usually get intimations of tragedy early on. But then it hits you. Everything suddenly is turned upside down. I remember the precise place where I was reading, I was sitting under a tree admiring the way the sun dappled the light on the grass and I was contemplating the gloriously luxurious feeling of warmth and idleness I was enjoying. Then Hardy brutally reminded me that marriage is made in heaven and you mess with it at your peril and the fates will find a way of getting back to you with a lesson. And the way they do that is through the children. If there’s a moral we should refer to Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man. So there you have it, two country and western divas mentioned on one blog post about Thomas Hardy.

The novel also follows the attempts by Jude Fawsley, a self-taught scholar, to become a student at Oxford which Hardy insists on calling Christminster. I’ve never understood why he has to pseudonymise his place names. But Jude was born at the wrong time and working men had to know their place. He used the the phrase ‘equality of opportunity’ which is a modern political soundbite which seems to have its origins here. Though the novel was published in 1897 I felt the story took place a lot earlier but Hardy seemed to have the same reticence with dates as he had with place names.

Chico Chica will be playing at the Café in the Crypt , St Martin in the Field, Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 4JJ 8pm Wednesday 13th August 2014. It promises to be a great fun night of original song, spoken word and improvisation. We do hope you can come along.