Monday, February 28, 2011

Paintings in Threads

Our house is filled with Persian carpets. Some were wedding presents, others housewarming gifts and still more were rugs purchased on trips to Iran. Our oldest one is a red and blue Kashani that my mother-in-law bought the year my husband was born. (I won’t say how old that one is.) The newest are two identical Qom beauties that hang on my office wall (that's it on the left). My personal favorite is a small black rug with a simple botteh design, better known to Westerners as the paisley. Over the years I’ve adopted one basic Iranian attitude: a house is not a home without handmade carpets on the floor.

My fascination with these paintings in threads became the inspiration for my first mystery novel, Frayed Silk, in which private investigator Leila Shirazi follows the trail of a stolen 17th century carpet and solves the murder of the thief. The book didn’t sell, unfortunately, but researching the novel gave me a whole new appreciation for carpet weaving. And in talking with friends and relatives about their own carpets, I gleaned another essential fact: Iranians consider carpet designs to be the highest form of Persian art.

The oldest known knotted rug is the Pazyryk Carpet, which Russian archeologists found in the frozen tomb of a Scythian chief in the Pazyryk Valley of Siberia. That rug has been carbon-dated to the 5th century BC. Because of similarities between its designs and carvings at Persepolis, the carpet is believed to have been created by Achaemenid weavers of ancient Persia. Embedded in solid ice, this carpet was preserved almost intact and is now exhibited in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Let’s skip forward a thousand years to the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1722), when the Persian carpet as we know it was born—the ones with intricate floral patterns having central medallions and sprays of flowers scattered across a plain field. The Safavid kings took what was then a purely tribal craft and elevated it to an art form by building carpet workshops in Isfahan, Kashan, and Kerman (which remain major carpet weaving centers today). They hired artists to design the motifs and workers to knot the rugs. Initially they created these carpets specifically for Safavid palaces and mosques and as gifts for neighboring royalty and foreign dignitaries. Later, the Safavids developed a flourishing carpet trade with the rest of the world. The Portuguese played a key role in introducing Persian carpets to Europe, and they used their Indian colony of Goa as a major distribution point.

Safavid carpets are classified according to their designs, and although there are many different ones, here are a few of my favorites:

Vase: Unlike carpets with a central medallion surrounded by flowering vines, these rugs have an overall design. Sometimes they depict a realistic bouquet of flowers emerging from a recognizable vase. In other designs, the vases are figurative, abstract forms representing vases, leaves, and flowers that are repeated throughout the carpet. Vase carpets were woven in royal workshops in Kerman, where carpet designers were considered among the most inventive of the Safavid period. These rugs are rare and highly prized by collectors today; last year one fetched an astonishing price of 9.6 million U.S. dollars at a Christie's auction.

Hunting: Often worked entirely in silk, these carpets reflect two of the Safavid kings’ favorite pastimes: falconry and hunting. They depict dynamic scenes of hunters on horseback, wild animals, and birds. Some hunting carpets have a central medallion, others an overall pattern.

Polonaise: Also known as Polish carpets, these rugs owe their name to a misunderstanding. They were once believed to come from a workshop in Poland that was known for its Persian-inspired designs. Later, researchers found that these carpets were actually made in the royal Safavid workshops in Isfahan. Many had been woven specifically as gifts to European royalty, hence the designs catering to European tastes. They were floral-patterned carpets with central medallions, worked in silk, with real gold and silver brocading throughout. I love a carpet with a mystery, so this was the type I picked for the stolen treasure in Frayed Silk.

Not a great deal has changed since Safavid times. Good Persian carpets are still made the same way, by hand in village homes or city workshops, designed by artists and commissioned by manufacturing companies who then sell and distribute the rugs to local bazaars and stores around the world. The romantic notion of the young carpet weaver working her hopes and dreams into a rug of her own design is, I’m afraid, pure fiction.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: Bookbinding—A Family Tradition

Our guest today is Marianna Holzer, a third-generation bookbinder, who also happens to be Heidi’s sister. She owns the Holzer Book Bindery in Hinesburg, Vermont, and specializes in book restoration and preservation. She was recently featured on WCAX TV's Made in Vermont series. To learn more about Marianna and the Holzer Bindery, visit her website. And be sure to check out the WCAX video of Marianna at work.

I grew up in a bookbinding family. It all started with my grandfather, Ulrich Holzer, who emigrated to Boston from a Swiss village on Lake Constance, after learning his craft in Italy. His two sons and three daughters all worked in the business. Everyone loved to read and the story went, “you have to wait for your books to be read by each member of the family before you get them back.”

Our house was filled with books, most of which were beautifully bound in leather with colorful marble paper and gold lettering. Every evening, my father, Albert, would read stories to us from those precious volumes: Mother Goose, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Han Christian Anderson, or Mark Twain. Then I discovered Gone With the Wind, Jane Eyre, and the works of Louisa May Alcott. All these stories stood on our shelves and I wouldn’t go anywhere without a book in hand. We even had a complete set of Dickens, crafted with a blue leather cover and matching marble paper that a long-ago customer had commissioned then failed to retrieve.

Years later I became a bookbinder myself. My father had died when I was still young, but my mother, who’d learned the craft in her native Germany, set up a small bindery in our new home in southern Vermont. There she taught my sister and me some of the basics skills needed to bind books. We made simple blank journals and repaired a few literary treasures for family friends. After college, I discovered a small bindery in northern Vermont and went to work for them. This bindery mended and repaired municipal records for cities and towns all across the United States. What a gift it was to get paid to do what I loved: take care of books. I deepened my skills in creating those leather covers, stamping gold letters and designs on the spine as well as restoring and rebinding books that were falling apart.

In addition to working on the municipal records, I took on smaller jobs—the cookbook that was falling apart, the treasured family bible, the much loved and worn children’s books. Sometimes we would get a request to create a special book for someone’s birthday, wedding, or another special occasion. These were the projects I really loved to work on.

The company that had employed me for nearly 30 years was sold to new owners out of state when the original proprietors decided to retire. This brought many changes, culminating in extensive layoffs. I had collected a lot of tools over the years, which augmented those I already owned, left over from the family’s Boston bindery. Some of them are big heavy cast iron tools like a guillotine to trim the pages, a backer to hold a book while you round the spine with a special, fat-headed hammer, and a big press to press the books in the final stages of the work. Other essential tools are small, like the bone folder, the glue brush, a ruler and good quality, sharp scissors.

I was collecting all these tools with the intention that “some day,” “after I retire,” I would open a small bindery of my own.  Well, that day came a lot sooner than I had planned. After the initial shock of losing a steady paycheck and company health insurance, I am finding renewed joy in having my own family business, working with my husband, Rik Palieri, to repair that abused cookbook, imprint a name on a bible, or make a beautiful cover for someone’s first book.

Our current project is rebinding a book called The People’s Home Library, published in 1917. This copy was in terrible shape with the front and back pages torn and crumpled, many of them falling right out of the book. It is exciting to take something in such poor shape, mend the torn pages, re-sew the book and put it all back together, using the original cover material and making it readable once again. This particular book is so interesting that the customer may find herself waiting for us to read it before she gets it back! Together, Rik and I are continuing the Holzer family tradition of turning old books into new and creating finely crafted heirlooms for future generations to enjoy.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

As Shaky As A Fiddler On The Roof?

For me, the word tradition is synonymous with Fiddler on the Roof. It is the song the musical opens with, and it is the theme that permeates the entire story.

Tradition!” sings the chorus of Anatevka’s boys, girls, mamas, and papas, as Tevye the Milkman explains the rules of the small Jewish shtetl. “Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything... how to eat, how to sleep, even how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl... You may ask, how did this tradition start? I'll tell you - I don't know. But it's a tradition... Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do."

The famous Broadway musical is based on the stories of Tevye the Milkman, written by the Yiddish author and playwright Solomon Rabinovich, known better by his pen name of Sholem Aleichem (Шолом-Алейхем). Sholem was born in Ukraine in 1859 and later immigrated to the United States as part of the Jewish exodus from the oppressive tsarist Russia. My family owned a full collection of his works, so I grew up reading his stories, novels, and plays, which I viewed as my historical heritage. Of course, I had to see Fiddler on Roof! But, like many staged productions, and especially Broadway shows, Fiddler on the Roof had interesting twists on the Jewish traditions, which were a bit different than what I'd heard from my grandparents and other elders as a young girl. For starters, I was surprised to see that the fiddler’s depiction of the shtetl was a patriarchate.

(Tevye & Papas)
Who day and night
Must scramble for a living
Feed the wife and children
Say his daily prayers
And who has the right
As master of the house
To have the final word at home?

Growing up, I don’t think I knew a single Jewish family in which the father had the final word at home. I knew some families in which fathers didn’t have any word at all – but certainly not the other way around. In my knowledge of a traditional Jewish household, moms ruled the world. Moms defined rights and wrongs, moms made decisions, and moms laid out plans. Dads were kept posted. For the most part.

The second surprise was when it came to family planning.

And who does mama teach
To mend and tend and fix
Preparing me to marry
Whoever papa picks?

When it came to matchmakers, the moms I knew would never trust their inept husbands to pair up their beloved offspring! I could always tell moms were up to something when they gathered behind closed doors in the kitchen, discussing something in low, whispery voices.  It usually meant that someone had a daughter or a son old enough to tie the knot. And their parents wanted to see them wed to a Jewish spouse.

It didn’t always work, but the moms, aunties, and grandmas always tried. The modern Jewish moms and dads had one thing in common with the Anatevka mamas and papas: they both wanted their children to marry their own kind – and stay Jewish. That was one tradition they felt strongly about. Luckily, they didn’t banish their rebellious offspring from their sight like Tevye did his daughter who chose to wed outside her faith. Otherwise, quite a few young folk from my generation would end up not talking to our parents ever again. Myself included.

"Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as a fiddler on the roof!"

What would you say? Does tradition preserve the best of the past or stunts new growth? 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cotton Candy Dreams

I just returned from a week-long trip to Disney World with my family. Before I go soak my sore feet and unpack the cheesy souvenirs and several loads of laundry, some quick thoughts on a true American tradition.

Disney with the kids was pure magic. My little one thought the sun sparkling on the water came from pixie dust, and she heard music when she brushed her teeth at night. My almost-nine-year-old who rolled her eyes at the thought of princesses made sure to get autographs from all of them. She didn’t let us leave the park till we stood in yet another line to get one last one from Pluto.

The magic of smart phones made it more convenient for this generation of parents as well. We used an app to check out wait times for popular rides, made meal reservations online, and pinged each other when we split up for different activities.

It was a lot different when I went as a kid. There was no Epcot then. No American Idol. No Pixar. No Fast Pass tickets. No cell phones. No cable TV. New technology and new media have changed the landscape entirely. But there was one tiny symbol that brought it all back for me, and it doesn’t involve mouse ears. When the kids begged for cotton candy, there was a bit of discussion from the other adults about its lack of nutritional value and whether it was worth the splurge. But it reminded me of my first trip to Disney. Decades later, who knows what tchotchkeys I’d come home with, but the memory of strolling past the magical castle with a stick of the pink fluffy stuff symbolizes a tradition I’m pretty sure my kids will continue.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Last Dance

Photo by Pavel Krok
Whenever I hear tango music I conjure up visions of dapper men in sharp suits, hats tilted to the side, wooing women in fishnet stockings and low-cut dresses clinging to sensuous curves. The couple sway to the rhythm of the music, a soulful bandoneón dictating their every move. Most onlookers focus on the dancers, barely giving the orchestra a second glance. But if you can take your eyes off the Tango dancers for long enough and concentrate on a bandoneón player, you’ll notice the passion that pours from his soul and into the instrument. There is an undying love and obvious connection between the player and his bandoneón, not unlike Tango dancers and their partners. Unfortunately, the bandoneón is under threat of extinction and without it, Tango music as we know it will change forever.

Today there are only two bandoneón repair shops in the world, both in Buenos Aires. Originally made in Germany in the 1800’s, the bandonion (as it was called in Germany) was used for religious music in German churches. In the 1850’s the German and Italian sailors and emigrants brought the instrument to the shores of Argentina. They incorporated the bandoneón into a new music and dance that started in the brothels of Buenos Aires—the Tango.

Thousands of the instruments were sent to Argentina from Germany, but production stopped when the manufacturer closed down during World War II. These days only a handful of the original instruments remain, there are no spare parts and their legacy relies heavily on the craftspeople continuing a century old tradition.

Even though the bandoneón may look like it’s related to an accordion to the untrained eye, they come from completely different families. The bandoneón is part of the concertina family and doesn’t have the piano-like keys found on an accordion. Instead, a bandoneón has buttons on both sides of the instrument and has two-voice notes--when a note is pressed, another one plays at the same time. There are over 70 buttons on the bandoneón, giving the instrument a diverse range and adds a richness and depth to the music that is recognised worldwide as an integral part of the Tango. 

With the resurgence of Tango over the last decade, Tango musicians and collectors bought up the bandoneón’s and would pay up to U.S.$7,000 per piece. But the Argentine government recently passed a law that prohibits anyone other than an Argentina musician on tour, from taking an original bandoneón out of the country.

Argentina has produced new versions of bandoneón’s, but according to Tango aficionados, the sound is less authentic and doesn’t have the soul of the originals. One of the reasons it is lacking the original sound is because the German-made bandoneón’s had their wood aged for ten to fifteen years before being hand-made into an instrument.

With the originals dying out, the sound of Tango will change. The love and care this instrument has received over the years is not enough to keep them alive forever. Even with the proper care, it is expected the originals may only last for another fifty years. Let’s hope someone can find an answer to this problem and save the world from the loss of something that is as Argentine as the Tango.

And of course, I need to share some music with you by one of Tango’s greatest, Astor Piazzolla:

Next week I’ll be covering some interesting developments in the world of Tango and UNESCO.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Slice of History

From a distance, the ancient village of Abyaneh looks like a collection of crude buildings hacked from red rock. Up close, it seems as though time stopped a thousand years ago, leaving the place stuck in a preindustrial time warp. Nestled in the foothills of the Karkas Mountains of central Iran, the village is a tangle of narrow, sloping lanes and red brick houses topped by timber, clay, and thatched roofs. Staircases, rough-hewn into the mountainside, climb between buildings and offer close-up views of Abyaneh’s distinctive lattice terraces and decorative brickwork. Wooden doors with traditional brass knockers—a heavy, rectangular one for men and a lighter, circular one for women—guard the entrances and alert the residents to the gender of the visitor at the door. Many also sport ornate carvings or lines of poetry.

Tradition is strong in Abyaneh, whose history stretches back 2,000 years. It took the Abyunakis (as the villagers are called) nearly a millennium to abandon their Zoroastrian religion, converting to Islam only during the reign of the Safavid King Ismael II (late 1500s). The villagers speak a dialect that is closely related to 4th-century Parthian Pahlavi and still wear distinctive traditional clothing: white capes over richly embroidered tunics and calf-length skirts for the women, loose-fitting trousers and round caps for the men.

Abyaneh’s history is written in its architecture. The village has a Zoroastrian fire temple, eight mosques, historic houses dating back to the Safavid period, an imamzadeh (Shi’ite shrine)—and a permanent population of 250. For like rural communities everywhere, Abyunaki youth follow a well-beaten path of migration to the city in search of jobs and an easier life.

I visited Abyaneh on a warm Friday in October, making the long, dusty drive through the desert from Isfahan with my husband and his sister. The road wound into the mountains through a landscape of fields and farms then leafy green forest. We parked outside the village walls, next to one of the mosques, and at first it felt as though the place were entirely deserted. Only one old woman selling bags of pistachio nuts met us on the narrow lane that led into the heart of the village. For the price of one of her wares she divulged the news that everyone was in the mosque at Friday prayers.

We arrived in the center of town just as the Abyunakis emerged from the mosque’s wide doorway, women first in their colorful cloaks, followed by the men in dark suits and finally a white-turbaned cleric in typical loose robes. Even now, several years later, this image is burned in my mind: the pure white, rose, and red of the women’s clothing against the rust-colored walls of the mosque, and overhead a turquoise sky.

Farther down the road, a woman beckoned and invited us into her home. She offered to dress me in Abyunaki garb so we could take a picture—for a fee. My sister-in-law considered the asking price a rip-off, and when negotiations failed to lower it to her satisfaction, we settled for a quick look around the place. And I learned another Abyaneh tradition: a smooth blend between human habitation and the environment. Abyaneh homes have a “summer” room and a “winter” room, each situated to take advantage of the season’s sunlight and offer either cooling in hot weather or warmth in frigid temperatures.

Before leaving Abyaneh, I stood on the terrace next to the imamzadeh and gazed out into the green landscape. Behind me, two Abyunaki women were hawking handwoven bags and dried fruit, while before me lay orchards and fields of grazing cattle. The village has managed to straddle a fine line between vanishing traditions and the modern world, selling its past to tourists while maintaining an ancient way of life in the present. How long Abyaneh will manage to maintain this balance is anyone’s guess, but for now visitors flock to this unique Iranian village and come away with a slice of history.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Island Life

Olya Gurevich holds a PhD in Linguistics and is an expert on Russian and Georgian morphology.  She works for Microsoft, helping make Bing a better search engine.  She lives in San Francisco with her husband, two cats, and a minus-one-month old who will surely become an intrepid traveler once she realizes that the outside world is a pretty interesting place to be. Today Olya shares her Peru story.

Lake Titicaca sits high in the Andes, at 3,800 meters above sea level. It divides Peru and Bolivia and is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. Peruvians claim that they have the “titi” side and the Bolivians have the “caca” side. I have not been to Bolivia, but I imagine they would disagree.

Because the lake is so high up, the sunshine is blinding, and a gringo can get sunburned in a matter of minutes. The expansive views, combined with the rarified air, literally take your breath away. To add to the scenery, the islands in the middle of the lake house ancient villages, which have recently become a tourist draw.

 We set off from the rather unattractive port town of Puno, on the south side of the lake.  The two-day boat tour starts by spending a few hours on the floating island of Uros, made entirely of reeds and not attached to any land. The local population speaks Aymara, one of the Native American languages with a robust number of fluent speakers.  Everything on Uros seems to be made out of woven reeds: the ground, the houses, the boats, the overlook tower. It does, however, seem maintained mostly for the tourists, and few people permanently live on the island.  

Our next stop is the island of Amantani, where we will spend the night. About 800 Quechua-speaking families live here, and they take turns hosting tourists for a small fee.  There is no running water or electricity, save for a few solar-powered lights, and of course, no roads or cars. So once the sun sets, it’s eerily quiet and very cold.

Our hostess is a young woman named Amais. She meets us at the boat dock and leads us back to her house along a narrow path barely visible in the arid ground, winding up among terraces planted mostly with varieties of potato – after all, Peru is the spud’s birthplace. Amais speaks to us in Spanish, but it is clearly not her mother tongue. This is to our advantage, since she speaks more clearly and slowly than a native speaker would.

Amais lives in a two-room house with a separate kitchen shed. We get one of the dirt-floored rooms. The household consists of her, her four-year-old daughter, her son who looks to be about 8, and her elderly mother. There is no sign of a husband, and in general, there are very few men of working age on the island – either they’re off on the mainland making money, or gone altogether. Instead, the boy acts as a responsible head of household after he comes home from school, taking care of the household animals and translating between us and his grandmother, who speaks only Quechua.

First things first: Amais spreads out a selection of colorful knit hats, one of which we obligingly buy. In the meantime, the little girl is impatient to get our attention. She drags me off to show me her favorite playing spot up in a tree, then happily poses for the camera holding a baby sheep. She is playful and adorable beyond belief, but eventually the strict grandmother comes along and tells her (I imagine) to stop bothering the guests.

It’s time for the tour of the island. We meet the rest of the people from our boat for a short trek up the two sacred peaks. Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Pachatata (Father Earth) preside atop the island, decorated with ruins of ancient temples that provide surreally beautiful outlooks onto the water below. At this altitude, even a short uphill walk requires frequent stops, and we feel very accomplished when we make it to the top. We linger by a concession stand selling welcome coca leaf tea and manage to miss the rest of our group departing. By the time we get back down, it has gotten dark and we have no idea where to go. The tour guide is still there, but he is not local and doesn’t know the lay of the land, so he gets a passing boy to take us back to Amais’s house for a few coins. The boy obliges, and we follow him in the dark. However, it turns out that there are two women named Amais on the island, and he takes us to the wrong one! Luckily, she’s home and this is a small island, so she takes us the rest of the way to “our” Amais.

In the meantime, the grandmother has made us dinner. It consists of a soup made with at least three varieties of potato (of course) and some rice with homegrown vegetables.  We are relieved that none of the guinea pigs running around the kitchen made it into our meal: although they are a Peruvian delicacy, they seem to be treated more as pets here.

Later on, we head to the center of the village for the nightly dance. Amais dresses us up in native costumes, worn above our regular clothes. This makes me feel like a Russian tea cosy doll, but at least there is no danger of getting cold.

The dance starts out slowly, as an awkward high school disco, and is clearly put on for the tourists. Soon, however, some enthusiastic Amantanians show up and drag everyone into a spinning circle. We run around accompanied by drums and chanting, and it feels good in the cold night air.

In the morning, we are sad to say goodbye to Amais’s little daughter, but we have to go back on the boat and on to the next island. As if to emphasize that this visit is truly magical, our camera is stolen the next day in Puno, so the only image of the girl and her little lamb is left in my mind.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Polygamy: Be Careful What You Wish for, You May Get It

Last year, I wrote a number of movie reviews for the Astoria International Film Festival.  A few of them – really good, non-traditional, and even somewhat unorthodox – have stayed with me. Polygamy, a Hungarian flick by Dénes Orosz, was one of them. Dénes managed to explore this ever-controversial subject from an angle of what would happen if someone’s coveted wish to have more than one spouse was miraculously fulfilled. He did it with humor and charm – and a never-ending array of surprises.

A young Hungarian couple, Andrash and Lilla, have been in a loving relationship long enough for a commitment. As a typical woman, Lilla wants marriage and children. As a typical man, Andrash doesn’t know what he wants, but he feels he hadn’t played around enough and wishes he would’ve. Then Lilla breaks the news that she's pregnant, and strange things start happening. 

Andrash’s unspoken philandering aspirations are magically granted. Every morning, he wakes up next to a new Lilla, who looks, walks, dresses, and acts differently from the previous one. Interestingly enough, this unending variety of Lillas has one thing in common: they all declare their undying love for Andrash, and they all continue being pregnant, so every next Lilla has a slightly bigger belly than the previous one. Quite bewildered, Andrash doesn’t know what to do and embraces his newfound freedom at first – only to realize that leapfrogging through relationships can be taxing. Every Lilla’s tastes and lifestyles differ, so he never knows what to expect. One of them buys him a wooden statue, the next one breaks it, the third one demands he fixes it, while the fourth one throws it away. For all her faults, the original Lilla was truly his, and Andrash knew all of her idiosyncrasies. Now women hop in and out of his life like locust, leaving him worn out, empty, and confused. As the time for the baby's due date approaches, he starts to search for the real Lilla to bring her back. The question is – can he find her – or is he doomed to be forever stuck in his dystopian reality that is thought to be every man’s dream?

When I asked Dénes Orosz if his movie was in any way based on his personal experience, he said yes. When I asked him if he gave his character his personal traits, he said yes – although he admitted he dramatized the story. When I questioned him whether the point he wanted to get across was be careful what you wish for, you may get it, he gave me a bit of a long-winded answer, which basically boiled down to a “sort of.” And when I finally got to ask what did all female actors in the movie think about the idea of the film (and there were way more than a dozen!), he replied they fully connected with the protagonist's emotional crisis and they agreed that Andrash’s fear of commitment was very real and typical for a man.

So, what’s your take on polygamy?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Konkani Cabaret

Photo courtesy Sanferd Menino Rodrigues
If you’ve been following my posts so far, you probably know my linguistic roots lie in a small community off the southwestern coast of India known as Konkan. (Konkani is the name of the community as well as the language.) You may also know I’m a complete dud with languages, so it may seem odd that this week I’m sharing some fun stuff from a Konkani dialect I can’t understand a word of.
First, a little explanation. There are at least a dozen regional dialects of Konkani that sound very different from one another, sometimes so much so that it’s hard to understand how they’re related. The same is true of the various subcultures themselves. My family is Brahmin Hindu, which means we hail from the priestly class. We have very conservative, almost monastic roots. Our forefathers were religious scholars. Our meals are supposed to be pure vegetarian (some Brahmins won’t eat onions or garlic because they are considered tamasic, meaning that they could generate worldly feelings). Our traditional weddings are more ritualistic, more stoic than other Indian ones. Of course, all this has changed a lot over the generations, but it’s still a steep contrast from, say, the Goan Konkanis.

Goans like to party. Okay, that’s probably a generalization but one that fits my skewed impression of their Konkani culture compared to ours. Goa is India’s smallest state (and its most affluent), a gorgeous, tropical island with amazing beaches and resorts, one that draws tourists the world over. It has its own unique, vibrant culture, in part because it was never a part of the British Raj. Instead, it was a Portuguese territory until 1961. As such, its dialect of Konkani is peppered with Portuguese, and most Goans are Catholic. On visits to India growing up, I always found Goans most fascinating. I’d never met Indians who’d attended church so right off the bat, that was different. They had names I didn’t know Indians had (mostly biblical, such as Peter and Mary, or else Portuguese ones, like Zabel and Pedro). I’d never seen either of my grandmothers wear anything but saris, yet in India, even elderly Goan women let their legs show, wearing trendy dresses and heels.

Then there’s Goan music. On visits to India, I mostly heard (Hindi) Bollywood film songs or religious ones (Urdu classical or Marathi bhajans). That I know of, only the Goans sang in Konkani, or for that matter, in English. Back then, Goan songs sounded like India’s version of island music, with acoustic guitars and maybe a few mariachis in the background. Being from a linguistic culture that had no script and so no books or media in our language or about us, it was exciting to me that we had our own music, even if I couldn’t understand a word of it. Plus I was amazed that something so exotic, so provocative could really be Konkani.

Lorna Cordeiro is a popular Goan jazz singer, whom fans know simply as Lorna. Her popularity peaked in the 1970s, when she sang in the Chris Perry Band, crooning English and Konkani songs in nightclubs across India, mostly Mumbai. (Chris Perry was a well-known Konkani musician, by the way.) Chris played the sax, and Lorna wore tight, strapless dresses, looking and sounding a little like an Indian Billie Holliday. Check out one of Lorna’s most popular songs, Bebdo (thank goodness for the subtitles):

Nike borrowed the music from Bebdo for one of its international ads to promote its line of cricket gear. This version of the song, Rav Patrao Rav, is sung by Ella Castellino. In the video above, the endnotes say that Lorna is really the voice behind Ella Castellino, and it provides a translation for the Nike commercial that follows (and which happens to feature cameos of two Indian cricketers):

Of course, these days, reams of Konkani songs of all sorts—rock, pop, rap—abound online but since I’m kind of on a Lorna kick, I’ll leave you with a couple more links.

Here’s one of her singing Bebdo in recent years: 

Another one of her classic Konkani tunes, Red Rose 

And lastly, a video that’s a little over three minutes long. Pace yourself—this is a slow song, and there’s an interlude of dialogue from a Konkani film that’s not very exciting (or well acted) but it's different: 

Do you have any music suggestions to share that could expose us to an unfamiliar culture?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

It's Not All Beer and Skittles*

At a height of almost 3350 metres (10,790 feet), Cuzco, Peru is a city rich in history and culture. For years, it was the home of the Killke and Incan civilizations and in 1983 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. When you stroll along the cobblestoned streets it’s easy to spot Incan foundations married with buildings from the days of the Spanish Conquistadors. And in any given year, 1.5 million tourists visit this small city, and they get thirsty. Very, very thirsty.

Paddy Flaherty’s Irish Pub, on the corner of Cuzco’s main square, Plaza de Armas, is a haven for those who need an escape from historical tours and markets selling llama wool hats and scarves. It’s the highest Irish pub in the world and where I tended bar between working jobs as a tour leader.

The entrance is tucked in a side street, and a dark staircase leads up to a bar that could easily be transplanted to Dublin. Creaky floorboards, beer, and fried food greet one on arrival, and it takes a while for the eyes to adjust to the dimly lit rooms. From early evening the place is abuzz with hordes of tourists fresh off the Inca Trail or from day trips to nearby ruins. This pub is a sanctuary for English-speaking foreigners who need a break from their travels and want to step into a world that’s familiar. They can sit and talk about their ideals and travels in English and don’t have to reach for the phrase book every two seconds. In a way, this pub is a home away from home.

I’m not sure how much has changed since I worked there ten years ago, but back then, the Irish favourite, Guinness, wasn’t available on tap. It had something to do with Cuzco being at altitude and beer barrels being pressurised, blah, blah, blah. I’m sure someone with an ounce of scientific knowledge could give a much better explanation. All I knew was that Guinness could only be served in a can in Cuzco and boy, didn’t that cause a ruckus for the Guinness aficionados that ambled through the door. 

No matter how many times I explained that pouring Guinness out of a can at altitude was a skill that only bartenders in Cuzco have mastered, some patrons refused to listen. I would patiently describe what would happen if they didn’t pull the tab and pour the dark liquid at the right angle. Speed was involved but the macho types didn’t trust this strange Aussie lass and so I let them have at it. They’d position their glass on top of the bar and give me a “You have no idea what you’re talking about, girlie” grin and I’d duck down and strategically place a towel over my head. There would be a whooshing sound, quickly followed by splats of beer all over the bar and a “Je*)* F(&%$#&* C^%#(%!”. I’d bob up, hand them the towel, give them my “I told you so” smile and suggest I open the next can for them. No one ever refused my offer.

The tourists drifted in and out, new faces replacing the old every few days. There were regulars, including ex-pats and the Peruvian version of the gigolo, the brichero. I’ll let you in on a secret—I love my television soapies. South American ones are my favourites. But the best, and sometimes the saddest, were the real-life dramas happening in the bar before my bleary eyes. The bricheros know how to charm. In a way, it’s their business. They’d declare undying love for the gringa (foreign woman) and in return the brichero would receive drinks, food, clothes, and a few nights of unbridled passion. Being the bleeding heart that I am, I would occasionally step in and mutter my warning to the women who looked like they didn’t know this was a game. Most were thankful. Some got angry but would return the next day and thank me for opening their eyes. I hated bursting people’s dreams of romance but having been bitten myself, I wasn’t going to stand by and let it happen to others. 

Day shift was a great chance to get to know the patrons taking a break from being a tourist. Living in Peru meant I spoke Spanish most of the time, so it was a welcome respite for me to have a conversation in English (even though some people had to ask me to translate my Australian into “real English”). One rainy afternoon a couple came in and plonked themselves at the bar. We got chatting and I couldn’t shake the feeling I had seen this guy before. Eventually I asked what he did and he said, “I’m in a rock group but you’ve probably not heard of us.” When I prodded further, it turned out this handsome and very affable guy was Evan Dando from The Lemonheads. I nearly fell over. They were, and still are, one of my favourite groups of all time. I’d watched their film clips many times over, but it never occurred to me that this guy was someone…well, famous. From that moment on I started recognising a parade of well-known singers, writers, and actors coming through the doors of a tiny Irish Pub in the middle of the Andes.

Even though I was hired as a bar tender, I ended up serving a lot more than alcohol and food. I became a tour guide, translator, and counsellor. But the best part of the job? Learning that people from all over the world are one and the same—we want someone to listen to us and need an escape every now and again, even if it’s from being a traveller.

* Translation—a life of indulgence spent in a pub.