Zimbabwean Charade (Updated)

One man army of electoral fraud: Robert "Bob" Mugabe, voting and voting and voting and voting.

Zimbabwe is trapped in post-electoral paralysis as the Zanu PF forces of Robert Mugabe appear incapable of believing that they will successfully steal the latest elections from Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC. Our Zimbabwe correspondent writes:

MDC declares victory, time goes by as official results trickle out. Bob to announce victory soon.

Ironically MDC [opposition party Movement for Democratic Change] appear to have landslide win according to independent observers and number crunchers based on results posted outside polling stations despite massive gerrymandering. However, being the MDC, they have no strategy or plan B and seem unable to mobilize. At the rate state media are going it will take 4 days to announce Bob the winner.

But the rumours are excellent. Grace [Mrs. Bob] is in Malaysia with the kids. Bob is in South Africa. Bob is busy with security chiefs planning to crush any defiance. People are driving to the border. Military on high alert. Military divided. Military about to plan a coup. Military united behind Bob. Enough to make one eat pizza and drink.

(Images of Bob voting courtesy Google image search, shamelessly stolen from AP, the BBC and other major media. If you feel your copyright has been unfairly infringed pick up the phone now and give us a call with your cease and desist order. Operators are standing by, eagerly waiting to hear from you at 1-800-LITIGATE. Call now to take advantage of this one-time-only offer!)

UPDATE: Late on the evening of the day of fools our correspondent, usually irrepressible but now sounding to us rather battered and beaten down, sends these further words:

It's enough now. Running around to press conferences that never happen, swamped by rumors, watching the state machinery gain ground as we all somehow imagine that some sense will prevail. I think Bob will declare himself the winner and say 'fuck you all.' I still harbor some hope but it is dwindling fast into the cynicism of previous election defeats. I was black listed -aka white listed - from covering the elections, for a byzantine number of reasons that left me in a state of enraged defeat. A good meal would not go amiss, along with a proper night's sleep.

Much as we would like to bring our correspondent in for some much needed R & R, the story is still unfolding.


Somewhere, a village is missing its idiot...

Some future brain-surgeon from Finland was so impressed with the majestic Moai of Easter Island that he decided to take an ear home with him. The Guardian quotes the Finnish consul in Chile, who we imagine usually has a pretty relaxed time of it. One pictures a difficult day spent sucking down pisco sours, while pondering the fundamentals of Finno-Chilean solidarity. She suggests that "it was a sudden, impulsive crazy idea. He is sorry and surprised that it has caused such a stir. He really regrets his actions." Sorry and surprised that it has caused such a stir? I'm sorry and surprised that she didn't try to claim that it was not really such a big deal since, after all, there are 799 ears left.

Okay, you thought we were stern-faced before? Now we're really pissed

And not unrelated to the local cuisine...

I'm currently swinging my boom pole in sunny New Mexico, where the canyons passing beneath Interstate 25 have a tendency to act like wind-funnels, concentrating the gusts into a force that threatens to blow eighteen-wheel rigs right off the overpass. To try and determine how best to warn motorists of this potentially dangerous condition, the state highway planners, armchair philosophers all, got together and talked things through. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at the meetings during which their painful democratic process yielded this result:


At least we're consistent...

"The United States demanded open economies with free access to resources, favorable market conditions, a docile working class, a compliant political elite, and a friendly climate of investment that included minimum competition, maximum protection, and political stability."

I know, you are probably thinking these are the words of some particularly forthcoming spokesperson for the current administration, trying to explain why we went into Iraq in the first place, but actually this is Louis Pérez, describing US foreign policy in the Caribbean almost exactly one hundred years ago, in his aptly titled book, Cuba Under the Platt Amendment.


Cumbia de Obama

One night, almost exactly seventeen years ago, if I calculate correctly, I was deejaying at a global freakout of a one-nighter Mark Kamins had going for a while, where he fused Turkish belly-dancing tunes with Amazonian riverboat songs and house beats and who knows what else. In came my late friend Fran Duffy, with this gangly British dude I hadn't met before, Jason Mayall. Duffy and Mayall were fresh off the plane from Cartagena, Colombia, and the Caribbean Music Festival, organized by my buddy Paco. For all I know, he was with them, but I'm fairly certain we hadn't even met yet. Duffy had been filming the festival, and Jason had been buying records, crate-digging in a warren of dusty roll-front shops in the chaos of Cartagena's sprawling outdoor market. Duffy was calling him "the cumbia kid." I was like, "WTF is cumbia?" And Duffy goes, "Nixon, dude, you gotta let him get on the set so you can hear these beats." (They used to call me Nixon, back in the day.)

So Mayall dives into his paper bag of crusty treasures and starts pulling out singles and weird one-off pressings on unheard-of Colombian record labels, slapping them on the turntables and wiping them free of the last gritty sand of the Caribbean's southernmost shores, with my Discwasher. He starts playing shiznit I never heard before: gaitas, named for the bizarre, almost Persian-snake-charmer-sounding cactus-wood flute they feature, and porros, almost maniacally uptempo tunes awash in the sound of a massive metal grater, like the güira of Dominican merengue. The basic rhythm, the cumbia, I recognized from a catchy Nescafé commercial that ran for months in movie theaters when I lived in Paris in the mid-Eighties, but Mayall had countless backwoods versions of this beat, crunchy, raw tunes that, when you heard them, conjured up an image of a bunch of musicians ill-at-ease in the studio, gathered together from working out in the fields somewhere to come stand in front of a microphone, probably barefoot. Thus began my love affair with the cumbia.

The author, filling in for Steve Blush at the legendary Lite Lounge at Carmelita's, circa 1988. Forensic analysis reveals that I'm rocking an original 12" of "Good Times," by Chic. (Not a cumbia). If you look very closely (click image to enlarge) you'll note that I am wearing a 'dookie rope chain,' albeit a teensy one. Photographer unknown, possibly Alison Mayer, aka Ali177, or AK718.

In the intervening generation, (yes, I'm old enough now that I can actually speak in all seriousness of an 'intervening generation') the cumbia, always a music of the lower classes, the impoverished and the marginalized, has spread far afield from its Colombian roots. The infectious rhythm first seems to have taken Mexico by storm, where it became fundamental to the booming Mexi-sound-system music known as Sonidero, easily heard by anyone taking a stroll down Fifth Avenue (in Sunset Park, Brooklyn), where it booms out of cars and shops alike. Peru developed its own tradition.

Only recently, however, has cumbia crossed over from the Sunset Park world of its humble but faithful immigrant clientele into the realm of hipsterdom. I'm going out a limb here, since I scarcely go out to nightclubs any more, but at least to judge by the corner of the world-wide-web sandbox I've found myself playing in lately, cumbia has suddenly become the hottest thing on the international club scene. Deejays from San Franciso are bringing back Argentine dub-plates to rock dancefloors in the Bay Area, and the hottest one-nighter in the world right now is a weekly electro-cumbia jam in Buenos Aires, Zizek, named after the uber-hip Slovenian cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek, who happens to be married to an Argentine supermodel-turned-philosopher. (It doesn't seem to be there today, but a recent google search for Zizek yielded a sponsored link to Cabinet Magazine.) At Zizek, the one-nighter, cumbias are slowed down, remixed, mashed up with hit rap records, tortured with dub effects, fused with reggaeton, and otherwise integrated into the deejay repertory.

This being the internet, however, you don't have to imagine what this music sounds like from my tortured descriptions. A brilliant example of the mash-up genre is "El Bombon en el Club," featuring Mr. Fiddy Cent himself being given the maximum cumbia treatment. Listen online, or download. If that doesn't give you enough to go on, download one-time Mark Kamins girlfriend and Danceteria coatcheck girl Madonna singing about music bringing together the rebels and the bourgeoisie over accordion rhythms laid down by the supreme maestro, godfather of the cumbia, the late Andres Landero, from San Jacinto pueblo in Colombia's coastal littoral, here. (Links Dead.) I've met them both, but you'd be more likely to find Landero sitting next to you at my fantasy dinner party. The bottom line in this post-post-modern, post-global music is that any sort of source material is fair game for remixation into a nova-Cumbia. Even footage of Barack Obama:

First spotted at Negrophonic, to whom I say "big up!," this is one of the most spectacular pieces of political propaganda to have yet emerged from the presidential race. Put on your dancing shoes and get out your Spanish-English dictionary.

UPDATE: If you are reading this before 10PM on March 17th, 2008, get on over to SOB's on Varick St. in New York City, where Zizek, the globetrotting party, not the Slovenian philosopher, is putting on their mobile show for one night only.


Reading: Havana Red by Leonardo Padura

...this island's historical mission is always to be starting afresh, to make a new beginning every thirty or forty years, and oblivion is usually the ointment for all the wounds which are still open....
---Alberto "the Marquess" Marqués

There's nothing much better than a good detective novel to ease the pain when you are wallowing in bed, befuddled by Cepacol and Motrin and drowning in chicken noodle soup, as I have been for the last three days. My tonsils are as red as the crimson-washed cover of the book I'm holding in my hands, which depicts the deceased, transvestite face of Alexis Arayán, alienated fruitcake son of a leading Cuban diplomat, found in the Havana woods, strangled, wearing a long silk gown. And that's without sharing the more sordid details.

Arayán's creator, Leonardo Padura Fuentes (Bitter Lemon Press, his publisher in English, has inexplicably opted to drop his maternal Spanish surname, as well as making other questionable, presumably marketing-driven decisions, such as renaming the four novels of his Havana Quartet after colors) is arguably Cuba's most interesting contemporary writer. The success of his work at home and abroad gives one hope that the writing environment in Havana is not as closed down and closed off as one might imagine from perusing the headlines of Granma, Cuba's leading daily dose of regime cheerleading. Padura is not a writer who praises the revolution; instead he takes as his subject matter the daily compromises and contradictions encountered by anyone attempting a contemporary Cuban livelihood, and many of his characters and situations can only be seen as oblique and not so oblique criticisms of the status quo.

Padura's detective, Lieutenant Mario Conde, holds his own with the greatest of the genre. A perennially single, frustrated writer, perhaps a version of Padura himself had Padura taken a different path, he swears constantly, smokes vile Cuban cigarettes, and drinks too much. At work he and his partner cruise the scorching hot streets, from the crumbling ruins of Centro Habana to the mansions of Miramar. He spends most of his free time with an obese, ruined and wheelchair-bound Angola veteran named Skinny, a metaphorical personification of the waste and anguish of Cuba's African military adventures. Skinny's mom cooks for them an incredible array of culinary delights unheard of in contemporary Cuba, constantly manage to wangle pork chops here or a steak there. She roasts entire turkeys. Conde, despite his sleuthing skills, can never comprehend how she gets her hands on such ingredients.

In Havana Red, originally published as Mascaras [Masks], Conde's collaborator is the geriatric Alberto Marqués. Proud to call himself queer, once a famous theater director, he was purged in the notorious 1971 crackdown on homosexuals. (That this shameful episode was one of the first to demonstrate the moral failings of the revolution, alienating supporters around the globe, is by no means irrelevant in this story). Marginalized ever since, he is a bitter and wasted figure who invokes Artaud and leans heavily on his memories of hanging out with Sartre in Paris in the late sixties. Conde leaves his cop partner sitting in the car while he goes in to have long chats in the Marquess' dank lair, all the while asking himself if he is letting things get icky. I could go on, and tell you who the killer turns out to be, thereby providing yet another illustration of Padura's dextrous social criticism, but that would spoil things. It is, after all, a detective story.

The redemption of those marginalized in one way or another by excessive revolutionary fervor is a theme running through both Padura's fiction and nonfiction writing. For instance he is one of the few (perhaps the only) Cuban writers to have come to New York to follow the path of salsa, the latin music rooted deeply in Cuban musical tradition but so often politically opposed to, or at least estranged from, Castro's Cuba. In Faces of Salsa, he interviews, among other luminaries, Mario Bauzá, a figure of tremendous importance who essentially invented latin jazz, but who, by virtue of never having been back to Cuba after the revolution, was almost forgotten on the island. Left for dead, one might say.

I owe my introduction to the Havana Quartet (when it was only a trilogy) to my good friend Alex, who left a mangy and well-thumbed Cuban volume in his house in the mountains of Puerto Rico, where I found it while living there and digesting my own Cuban experience. After reading it in one go I called to say 'please send the rest,' and I remember us wondering at the time why nobody had yet discovered Mario "the Count" Conde and brought him to America. While it is unfortunate that the English title ignores the themes of theater, Greek tragedy, Artaud and the deceptive public face of more than one of the book's characters that are made explicit in the word Mascaras, this is still a translation I'm happy to see.


Now Available!!!.... And Free!!!

Apologies to regular readers for the tedium of visiting day after day and finding the same old tired Sri Lankan pun. Blog posts have been thin, as I've been "Totally Focused" on the final edit of my forthcoming book, Walking to Guantánamo. "Total Focus" is something rare enough around here that we must seize it by the throat whenever it visits, in the hope of throttling it into submission. In any case, the book is coming along nicely, and the publishers even seem to have publicly admitted that they are going to publish it. A little bit disconcerting to note that at the moment it is available at absolutely no charge, but it is, after all, only my first book.


Yes Siree Lanka!

New York City is of course well known for being the crucible, as it were, of the American melting pot, the city in which the world's many diverse peoples meet to mingle and meld. One thinks of the Spanish-speaking Bronx, or Queens, a borough said to contain more than sixty identifiable ethnic enclaves. Manhattan's Harlem, lately home to expats from countless nations across the vast African continent, springs to mind. So does Brooklyn, with its miniature Russia in Brighton Beach, its petite Puebla in Sunset Park, and its lesser-known Chinatown, spread out along much of Eighth Avenue. Of the five boroughs, only Staten Island fails conjure up an image of the new arrival scrambling to make his way in the new world. Most of us think of Staten Island as a quasi-suburban enclave inhabited by retired policemen, the Wu-tang Clan, and third generation Sicilians in the carting industry. It is a place where The Sopranos might have been set had the producers not been frightened of ruffling too many local feathers, and therefore turned to New Jersey.

But one growing group of immigrants has claimed the borough as its own. Where Victory Boulevard, Staten Island's unofficial main drag, begins its descent down a steep hill toward New York harbor, a dense cluster of Ceylonese have taken up residence. Why the Sri Lankans should have settled here is a mystery to me, but when I was a child, growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, immigrants from Italy were still arriving there. Many promptly went into the gardening business. All, invariably, were from the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. The explanation I was given for this was simply that one Italian from that island had made his way to Princeton, flourished in gardening, and written home to friends and cousins that the living was easy. In one way or another Staten Island now apparently plays a similar role in some Sri Lankan community, and we are the richer for it.

The New Asha, at 322 Victory Blvd., reported on Chowhound to be the best of the community's restaurants. It is a small room with glass-fronted cabinets protecting a steam-table, and it has all the ambiance of a joint selling pizza by the slice. Nonetheless, the friendly proprietress, wearing pink and saffron, took one look and said "you've never been here before, let me make you some plates." Extraordinarily spicy chicken and fish in an almost orange curry, sauteed jackfruit slices in Colombo sauce, crisp and crunchy deep-fried chickpea fritters, delicate fingers of roti wrapping a meat filling: nothing was a disappointment.

At 353 Victory Blvd., a superette with a sense of humor. We loaded up on spicy and delicious Sri-Lankan style mango chutney and black mustard seed, unavailable at Fairway, for making our own Colombo powder. The glass deli fridges, used at the local bodega for sodas and 40-ouncers, here held crisp, fresh okra, sprigs of curry leaf, and a box full of big, strange purple sprouts. These looked vaguely familiar from my travels, but out of context, collected together in a box in a fridge on Staten Island, I couldn't place them. "Excuse me, what is this, please?" I asked, bringing one to the cash register. "It's a banana flower," replied the cashier. "How does one cook it?" "Sauteed, with butter." "Perhaps a bit of curry, if you like it," added a customer, putting her provisions into a bag. "Peel off the tough purple outer leaves, and then slice it," she went on. She was an attractive woman with the typical dark complexion of south Indians. A lively discussion followed, which included various recipes. "They say it is very good for the action of the colon," concluded the woman. It was all I had been waiting to hear, and I added the bulbous purple bud to my pile of purchases.