Monday, September 18, 2006

Moorish Men 1

The trouble with England is it attempts to revive long dead traditions, like good beer and folk dancing.

To have experienced the real folk 'life' of a village hidden away in the foothills of Transilvania is to have seen a glimpse of what lies behind the "stick-your-finger-in-your-ear, drink-Camra-approved-beer-only, strap-bells-on-and-prance," folk revivals of modern day England.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with these revivalists (there is, but I'm not saying it - I am sure it keeps a lot of very dodgy characters off the street - or rather on the street but highly visible in white outfits waving red handkerchiefs about): But the one thing they are trying to revive, tradition, is the one thing that is dead.

You can't revive the dead. Reserection is not the same as revival.

Real folk dance has survived, and is doing well, in many places in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

It is the dance of the 'volk' - folk who live there: Ordinary, everyday folk - people who have lived in the village or town all their life, who's great-grandparents did the similar dances and sang similar songs, and their great grandparents did the same - not always in this village or town, but close-by, or if not close by, they carried similar traditions from longer distances and understood, when they moved here, what doing the local dances meant and quickly "assimilated".

They have been more or less unaffected by urbanisation - and mechanisation, and industrialisation.

Until the last 20 years or so (still, in many places), fields were ploughed behind a horse or ox, or dug by hand. The tractors of communism had little influence outside the communes: Fields are too small, people too old,money too tight.

Most farming is subsistence. Nationally of little importance for the GDP and so ignored - until you realise just how many older people are involved, and how many of their children and grandchildren get part of their food and a lot of their alcohol from the smallholdings.

Electricity has come recently too - great for cutting the wood you still fuel the cooker with, and put in the stove you heat your mud-brick or wooden house in winter with. Electric light too - but most people are in bed by 10 o'clock at night and up with the cows, which they milk by hand.

If you had a television - and you would be suprised how recently T.V. has come to many places, it was black and white, full of state propaganda - or folk music and dances.

Many places still have no cell-phone signal - including, thankfully, my house in Romania.

Folk music and dance is a way people have found to entertain themselves. It concerns their very real lives, and celebrates their concerns, needs, wishes.

It is sung when they harvest the crops - setting up a rhythm that helps make the tedium and back-braking work pass. The same songs are sung again at weddings.

This is not the lushly filmed, pretty picture BBC 'Historically-almost-right', glorious summer-afternoon, nostalgic, dramatisation of a 19th Century novel (written long after the coming of industry and machines); it is dirty, smelly, strong armed men and women getting in the harvest before the weather changes and ruins the hay, or the birds take too much of the crop.

They sing for inspiration and endurance.

When they dance, it is a celebration of community.

Young men dance together - male bonding long before the business psychologists got hold of it. The village/family needed people to co-operate with and trust one another. A ring dance, such as the Romanian Hora, requires concentration and co-ordination, enthusiasm and energy - all skills needed by the community if it was to thrive.

And that hora is still danced - in the strangest of places: My first encounter of the dance was at an 18th birthday party, when someone, in the middle of the loud, modern disco, put on a tape of traditional music, and up the 'boys' got, almost to a man, and danced the hora: Arm across shoulders, attention to the steps.

Young, frequently unmarried, women dance together too. Different dances - female bonding (why don't we hear of that as frequently as male bonding?). After all, the village women co-operate as much as the men.

And then there is the music making.

Again, it is local people who make the music - yes, there are (increasingly) specialists, but much of the original music was provided by local people who worked the day in the fields, just as everyone else did. They worked with old tunes rather than composed new; they were preservers and passers on, not in a stick it in the museum kind of way, but in, this is what is expected, this is what I will do - after all, we are here to enjoy ourselves, and help others do the same - kind of way.

I hear talk of modern 'pop' music being the contemporary folk - which is to miss the community generated, self owned, never the same twice, point. Music had to be "made" again and again - never recorded for re-use.

And it is a group activity. Musicians work together: Musicians work with the dancers: Dancers and Musicians work with the community, who sing along, join in, shout, laugh - together giving meaning to the activity.

Even when people go to watch a staged performance at a festival, that sense of joint ownership is still there. And the sense that this music captures something essential from the life of the people watching.

When I used to sing, 'John Barleycorn', it was a good tune, fun to sing: Since living a semi-self-sufficient existence, where what I grow is what I eat and drink, it means more - if I were part of the English community which ate and drank bread and beer made from its own grown barley, whose ancestors first coined the song, it would mean even more.

(To be continued?)

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Of Pigs, Business Men and Beauty

(Or in the eye of the beholder)

Sat at a table, in the intermittent sunshine of a day with, "Rain threatened latter," at the OMV cafe in Arad, sipping at one of those quite worthy, but not exactly perfect double-espresso-in-a-small-white-thick-Italianish-ceramic-cup and waiting for the two hours or so before my connecting train, I noticed the smoked salmon pink, short sleeved shirt stretched tight over the expansive back of the man 'doing business' at the table in front of me.

I thought of a healthy, adolescent pig, well on its way to becoming smoked ham, blood sausage and bacon - and plenty of it.

There are many ways to think about pigs I am sure (if you think of them at all, and most people, I suspect, don't), but to me they are quite an attractive creature. So, when I thought of pig, I wasn't thinking 'rude' - in fact, it was a moment of positive revelation.

I have always struggled to understand the attractiveness of the fuller flesh human - and the talk in literature, especially Middle Eastern literature, of the need for plenty of flesh in a beautiful woman or an attractive man.

On this visit to 'The Land' I had spent a little time hacking away at the overgrowth before the sun stretched itself and blasted the earth with fly spawning heat, and a lot of time reading in the closed shade of the one semi-decent room. I had finished 'The Cairo Trilogy', well over a thousand pages of life in a middle class, Muslim family in British oppressed Egypt. There there had been lots of flesh - men following women through the streets to watch there wide bottoms wobble, 'women of entertainment' admiring the size of a man's belly, and seeing attractiveness in the chubby faces of well fed, middle aged men. A pair of sisters, one sticking to the traditional put plenty of it on, the other aping Western women and going streamlined - needless to say, the thinner life was more tragic, and a lot less comfortable.

Cultural differences and shifts in fashion, I thought. A sign of wealth in poor times.

Something to do with the Ottoman Turks domination of the region for so long: Black tea drinking, leave your shoes at the door and obesity..

Which is how I used to account, and still partly do, for the number of business men in this part of Eastern Europe who are large and wear tight shirts which seem to emphasise their bulk.

Then I saw the back of this 'om de affacere', (Business man - with a hint of Black Market and influence) doing business, in the very Turkish atmosphere of the coffee house - or its modern equivalent, the petrol station cafe (McDonalds is a good substitute - as people who lived in Moscow a few years ago can confirm - a place to go and be seen, especially popular with black handbag toting Mafia toughs).

His hair was thick, black, moleskin-like, cut square and short.

Then there was that expanse of back - a slightly depressed spine with two ridges either side, good to grab and hold on to. And pink. True, a mature, male oinky pink - with a hint of the streamlined salmon - but still pink. (Sorry, the Dutch go in for that sort of colour, my working-class Mancunian background just can't make the leap needed to unthinkingly accept such display.)

The trousers were black and tight. Shoes hidden under the table.

I couldn't see if he was wearing a tie - quite possible - if he was working for one of the flood of "American" (for which read anywhere that speaks English - even if Italian owned) companies - or was choosing to be legitimate. Possibly he would be open necked - with a tangle black hair and very obvious gold chain. He did have the obligatory thick gold chain on his wrist. "Private Business", in that case.

Shaved, there would be a surround of some "expensive" (for which read obvious) aftershave: Fortunately, sat outside a petrol station cafe, next to a major road, I couldn't smell it.

He would play five-a-side late at night, at least once a week. A full size pitch would be too much, so he would get together with friends and colleagues to kick the ball around and make it a regular thing. Demand for indoor football pitches and basketball courts is so great that it is not unusual for a booking to start in the early hours of the morning - when there is the advantage of coolness in Summer, heating in Winter.

He would have strength under the flesh - possibly still working his parents land at weekend - and quite capable of tree-cutting and digging.

And that was the difference - Western Obesity has become loose flesh - flab, collapsing over aeroplane seat next to you; or a fluid wobble in some very unfit child pushing its way to buy the latest computer game.

His was the firm flesh of someone who cared about his fitness - but was going to enjoy the profits of his labour in this world. He had the body of someone who would work for those profits.

A healthy and attractive proposition for any prospective wife - and even employer.

What was it Shakespeare's Julius Caesar said?

"Let me have about me men who are fat, sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights."