domingo, febrero 07, 2016

Sobre el Centurión de la Noche

Lo primero que debe decirse sobre "El Centurión de La noche" de Mauricio Silva Guzman es que se trata de un intento muy digno de contar la historia de Alvaro José Arroyo, uno de los mas grandes intérpretes de música popular de la historia colombiana. Silva Guzman logra contar dicha historia sin caer en la tentación de contarlo absolutamente todo, con un aparente buen criterio para decidir lo que se cuenta y, quizá más importante en el género biográfico, con un muy buen tino para decidir lo que no ha de contarse.

Este buen criterio editorial viene acompañado de una prosa limpia y ágil con la que se construye una historia coherente, narrada en tercera persona por un narrador que parece contarnos un montón de episodios que definen la vida de El Joe Arroyo con un cierto tono de fascinación que a veces suena exagerado y complaciente pero que nunca cruza la frontera hacia el terreno de la hagiografía. 

 Es una lástima que esta segunda edición de la editorial La Iguana Ciega no le haga justicia a tan digno intento de contar la historia del Joe ni al retrato que Nicolás Achury logró de él hace algunos años para aquel artículo de Rolling Stone también de autoría de Silva. La portada es un recorte horroroso de dicho retrato sobre un fondo de un color pardusco atravesado por un título y un subtítulo en letras blancas y amarillas respectivamente. "Una vida cantada", dice el subtítulo, añadiéndole un lugar común a la fealdad de dicha composición y al apiñamiento de la diagramación.

 Pero los libros no se juzgan por su carátula y hay dos críticas más serias que hacerle al libro de Silva Guzman.   La primera tiene que ver con su estructura narrativa pero quizá mucho más con el desatino que son los últimos capítulos de esta segunda edición. El segundo capítulo es un capítulo larguísimo que a su vez está dividido en 23 secciones que guardan cierta coherencia cronológica.  Cada una de estas secciones construye sobre la anterior para describir un cierto arco evolutivo de la vida y música del Joe, contándonos los ires y venires entre orquestas, sus coqueteos con la droga y la noche, la forma en que la muerte, la enfermedad y la decepción marcan su vida y su arte.  

 Pero algo extraño ocurre justo al final.   La que parece una última frase relativamente adecuada para esta historia sobre la música y la gente que produce el caribe no es en realidad una última frase.  El autor propone cinco pequeños capítulos más que no exceden las veinte páginas cada uno y que parecen un montón de retazos que no cabían en ningún otro lado y que se pusieron al final porque no encajaban en ningún otro aparte del libro.  En efecto, los capítulos tres, cuatro, cinco y seis bien podrían leerse en abstracto de todo lo que antes se dijo, bien podrían leerse como cuatro mini-ensayitos aptos para circular por sí solos en alguna revista de actualidad. 

Y esta pequeña falla estructural sería pecata minuta si el autor hubiera optado por semejante cosa para no privarnos de algo importante, pero desafortunadamente no hay nada particularmente interesante en esos últimos capítulos aparte de una par de citas de conocidos y expertos.  Aquella frase que habría sido un final digno en el capítulo 23 es reemplazada por un agradecimiento final que es, por lo menos, una cursilería ya antes vista:  "Gracias, Joe, por la escandalosa noche de verano que fue todo esto".

La segunda crítica que debe hacérsele a la obra de Silva Guzman es más importante porque no es una objeción de forma sino de fondo: En ningún aparte de El Centurión de la Noche hay un intento medianamente riguroso de apreciar la música del Joe Arroyo. Es cierto que se trata de una biografía escrita por un periodista y no un critico de música pero uno esperaría que un narrador tan embelesado con la obra del Joe hubiera hecho un intento mucho más lúcido y riguroso de proponerle al lector siquiera un atisbo de las razones por las cuales la música del Joe es tan numinosa, tan hermosamente simple y vital. Un atisbo de lo que hace a esta música del caribe tan diferente y tan especial.  Un ensayo más sofisticado sobre el talento innato de ese negro que hacía música sin poder leerla en un pentagrama.

Por el contrario, Silva Guzman cae reiteradamente en el error de usar el éxito comercial de los álbumes del Joe arroyo como el criterio principal para evaluar tanto su calidad musical como el valor relativo de una determinada producción con respecto al resto de la discografía. Es común entonces leer al autor describiendo y las canciones del Joe como hits o éxitos y dividiéndolas en  dos grupos básicos: temas que no sonaron y temas que se pegaron. 

Es cierto que hablamos de música popular y que todo indica que el mismo Joe Arroyo medía su trabajo con el termómetro del éxito comercial, pero también lo es que una biografía del Joe arroyo  en la que se le presenta como un genio musical debió haberse aventurado a hacer un análisis mucho mas riguroso de su música. De su música observada holísticamente: La que se bailó, la que fue exitosa, la que pegó pero tambien la que  está a punto de perderse en el olvido.  Una obra que se hubiera impuesto ese reto tal vez no habría caído tan fácilmente en la tentación de agraviar el talento del Joe Arroyo al atribuírselo, como hace Silva en dos o tres apartes de su libro, a algo sobrenatural o del más allá, a un don que vino caído del cielo, a la predestinación impuesta por designio de alguna deidad del más allá:  

"Es mar y río, que es definitivo. Es negro, indio y blanco, como una gaita. Y también es -y esto va para los creyentes- la clara demostración de que, en efecto, sí hay algo más por allá".

A pesar de estas ligerezas, es necesario insistir en que el libro de Mauricio Silva Guzman es un buen vistazo a la vida del Joe a través de una naracción amena y fluida.  Estamos ante uno de los primeros esfuerzos literarios serios por documentar la vida del Joe y queda claro, después de leerlo, que hay mucho más que decir y cuestionar sobre la vida y obra de este genio de la música.





lunes, noviembre 23, 2015

Portraits

Life is a little bit about all those faces that one collects along the way.
Portraits



lunes, mayo 18, 2015

Rio as the quintessence of Latin-america



The mere notion of Rio is exciting.  Football and Samba, Copacabana and Ipanema, Garotas and Bossa Nova.  Most recently,  the world-cup broadcasts portrayed the city in full HD as a sort of idilic landscape surrounded by hills that seem to protrude directly from the sea.

It is true: The landscape is breathtaking.  When you get there, if you happen to talk to a local, a Paulista living in Rio perhaps (Paulista being the demonym used for referring to people born in Sao Paulo) you will most certainly hear a variation of: "Rio is a very ugly city that happens to be located in an amazingly beautiful place".  And that seems to be exactly the case.

Apart from the subtle elegance of certain residential areas for the affluent, Rio de Janeiro is not precisely an urban beauty. Copacabana, for example, is far away from being the upscale beach destination that people living in cold places tends to fantasize about.  From the distance, one thinks of Copacabana as the Brazilian version of Cancún:  A lavish, almost obsessively opulent concoction of beachy amusements. 

But getting there under that assumption is disappointing. Much before reaching the legendary beach-front Avenida Atlántica by any means of transportation, a visitor must take at least a glimpse of the other face of Copacabana: a neighborhood that is almost entirely composed of moderately high-rise buildings conceived with zero regard for aesthetics.  The architecture, with very counted exceptions, is hideous, and the feeling is that of being overwhelmed by a never-ending sequence of cheap souvenir-shops, greasy restaurants and unhygienic fruit stores.

And then one gets to Avenida Atlántica, the place where everything happens. La Avenida Atlántica is a 4km seaside avenue that borders the whole of Copacabana and Leme and seems to be built with the sole purpose of embodying even the wildest Rio-de-Janeiro fantasies ever conceived.



There is definitely something about Avenida Atlántica, but then it is also not the architecture. The further away one gets from the beach-front, the uglier the constructions get, but even there by the beach the buildings remain ghastly. Not as horrible as the buildings a few blocks away, but still bad enough to make them look as if someone had put them there in a conscious effort to blemish the natural beauty of the landscape.

Perhaps the charm of it lies in the fact that Avenida Atlántica seems to divide two worlds: A busy Rio de Janeiro that works and commutes and a Rio de Janeiro that is all about sun and fun.  It does not matter if it is a Tuesday or a Sunday, Copacabana seems to be always inhabited by a certain race of beach people with marked muscles and tanned skin.  And these beach-dwellers, together with the other Cariocas, the busy ones, create on the onlooker the irresistible and perhaps unique impression of being witness of the harmonious coexistence of two opposites: a beach paradise and a mega-city.  An urban beach of sorts.

La Avenida is at the very core of this blend. It is the gateway from one world to the other and when the sun is shining it is everything that one have day-dreamed about when thinking about Rio de Janeiro. There is music on the streets, there is caipirinhas, there is this beautiful landscape, there is all that beautiful people.  Walking all the way to the Fort of Copacabana while getting lost in this boundless beach titillation is something that everyone should do at least once in a lifetime. Stopping by for a cold coconut in one of those beach-bars and drinking its water slowly and having the luck of stumbling upon the right street musicians and simply getting carried away by all of this awesomeness are just reasons good enough to go to Rio. It is perhaps why we go to Rio in the first place. At least in the subconscious parts of our minds we all long for this.

The Kids from Ipanema

Past the fort of Copabana, just at the end of Avenida Atlántica, the beach thrill is not over. You are fortunate enough to go straight from one of the most legendary beaches in the planet to another: Ipanema. The beach that gave birth to that song and that story about a girl who walks just like a Samba and sways so gentle that when she passes each one she passes goes Aah."

Ipanema offers the same kind of beach exhilaration and a very posh climax: Leblon. Anyone looking for a good glimpse at the comforts of the affluent in Latinamerica can start looking here. Posh apartment buildings, big spaces, up-scale shopping and, at last, a place in Rio with harmonious, well-thought residential architecture.  Unlike Copacabana, strolling around Leblon and Ipanema is a pleasant experience. It is great to walk around and find grateful culinary surprises in the whereabouts of Epitácio Pessoa avenue and simply enjoying the parsimony of the neighborhoods of the rich, seemingly more relaxed than the rest of Rio and very archetypical of the urban residential areas of the latinamerican elites: Impudent, obsessed with security, luxurious, sober, elegant.

Cara de Cristo

And then there are the carioca touristic destinations per excellence: Christ the Reedemer at the top of the Tijuca national park and the fabled Sugarloaf Mountain. The former is almost the confirmation that Rio de Janeiro is a city that wants to have it all: The physiognomy of a busy megalopolis, a paradisiac beach landscape and its very own natural reserve in the middle. Seen from up-close, O Cristo Redentor is rather dissapointing: A bit smaller than what we saw in television, a bit pale, a bit crowded, a bit inaccessible, a bit too far-away.  It is a good idea to book a shuttle online at the national park's website to avoid some of the transportation hassle.

The views from up-there, however, are not disappointing.  There is almost a 360 degrees view of the city to enjoy and roughly everything can bee seen: From downtown to the Rodrigo de Freitas lake, in the middle of the city, from the heart of Leblon to Botafogo, with the Sugarloaf mountain in the background. And anyone looking for views has to go exactly there, to the mythical little mountain that seems to be put in place just in the corner spot: Somewhere exactly between Botafogo and Copacabana.  Yes: this is one more of those clichés for tourists, but it is worth it. The best views of urban Rio and its intricate relation with the atlantic ocean are to be found up there,  on top of o pão de açucar.  From the right spots, without moving an inch,  an onlooker is able to get a breathtaking view of the mountainous skyline,  all the way from the amazingly green Praia Vermelha  to Ipanema, with the most beautiful view of Copacabana in the middle.

Copacabana from the Sugarloaf

It is from up there that Rio presents itself as this never-ending latinamerican beach fantasy that everyone dreams of. The mountains, born in the sea to scratch the clouds, are perhaps an extra surprise, an unexpected reason for awe. No visitor should miss these sights.

Heli Ride Over Rio

But there are at least two other Rios. All the way downtown, Rio de Janeiro is the embodiment of the decadence of latin-american urban centers. The traffic is unbearable, waste disposal is flawed to the extent that there are improvised garbage disposal points all over the city and last but not least: Poverty shows its face everywhere. A couple kilometers away from the beach titillation,  Rio de Janeiro is hideous: Its historic landmarks are neglected, the modern architecture of the office buildings is grim and gray and there is this constant feeling of unsafety punctuated by a nauseating smell of pee and garbage.  One hundred years of failed democracies have turned the hearts of latin-american cities into playgrounds for drug-dealers and crooks and Rio de Janeiro is not the exception. Apart from the legendary nightlife in Lapa, there is no business near downtown Rio for any visitor after 5pm.

Walking By

Not content with that, Rio brings another set of opposites very closely together and epitomizes latin-american cities in one more way: It denounces, perhaps like no other city in the continent, the fact that latin-americans have developed too much of a thick skin towards rampant, grotesque inequality. In Rio, people bordering the line of misery coexist seemingly peacefully, at a shockingly cross-the-street distance, with the kind of people who live in two-story houses with swimming pools.  This entanglement is so palpable, so blatantly obvious, that an outsider is left with no choice but to ask herself: How is this possible? How can misery and luxury look at each other so closely in the face without blinking?

This indolence is most apparent in the world-renowned Favelas, which are the Brazilian version of slums, made famous by movies such as City of God. These slums are the result of mass migration from the countryside to the cities, which is probably the one phenomenon responsible for most of the misery belts in latin-america. They have become notorious for gangsterism and drug-related violence, to the point that some of them are literally run by local drug-lords who bribe or kill the way out of the reach of the law. As a matter of fact, The favela drug-lords become de-facto law-givers, as Boaventura de Souza has suggested in his research, perhaps one of the most exciting works of latin-american legal sociology.

House Over House Over House II

The biggest of all Favelas is La Rocinha, seemingly as full of miseries as it is full of ironies. It houses some of the poorest people in Rio de Janeiro but it also happens to offer some of the most beautiful views of the city. It is not an exaggeration to say that anywhere else in the world, views like these would be the privilege of the elites, but not in Rio.  In this city the favela inhabitants are the undisputed kings and queens of the hills.

Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas from La Rocinha

And there are so many. Only La Rocinha is home to about seventy thousand people. In fact, seen from the right perspective Rio de Janeiro is not really a city surrounded by some Favelas but actually a group of Favelas who happen to be decorated by a city.  Any visit to Rio would be incomplete without taking at least a glance at this reality, so it is not a surprise that there is a growing menu of favela-related tourism that seems to exploit this misery by packaging it and selling it to the kind of westerners who are willing to consume it as entertainment.

A dignified way of being a witness to this facet of Rio (and this is said with the bias of someone who opted for it) is perhaps Marcelo Armstrong's Favela Tour. It picks up visitors in a van directly from their hotels and takes them to Vila Canoas and La Rocinha, two very different favelas not so far away from each other.  The first one, Vila Canoas, is a so-called pacified Favela, which is an euphemism for referring to the favelas who have been the field of operations of the UPP (Pacifying Police Units), elite police squads formed with the aim of fighting the drug-lords and dismantling their networks of influence.

Friendly Fight

It is not clear to me whether Vila Canoas has been subject to this strong-hand treatment but the fact is that it is free of drug-violence and very tourist-friendly. Visiting groups can roam almost freely, take pictures and get a closer look at the favela way of life.  Its closeness to Sao Conrado, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, makes it the perfect place for exploring the inequality issue. A luxurious condominium, just across the street, says hi and begs exactly for that question: How is it that latin-america became so complaisant with this ruthless one-sidedness, with this dreadful iniquity?

That is probably a very hard question to answer, but the smiles in Vila Canoas, seen from up-close, are the same smiles of Sao Conrado or Leblon. No matter the lens or perspective you use to look at Rio de Janeiro, despite of all, the city is full of gestures of kindness.  Of proud and gentle people.

I know of no other place in this planet where the nights can so easily become a celebration of rhythm and people are so ready to smile.

Beauty Salon for Men





miércoles, febrero 04, 2015

About Birdman | A Review

Popularity -as- the slutty little cousin of prestige.




In his acceptance speech at the golden globes, Michael Keaton thanked Alejandro González Iñárritu for having the opportunity to be a part of a film the former describes as an unbelievably gutsy and unapologetic look at human nature. 

While that is a rather good and concise description of Birdman, the fact is that Iñárritu's film is much more than that. There is at least one -exploration- (let's call it that) proposed in the film that does not pertain exclusively to "human nature" but constitutes a silent cinematographic essay about the intricate relation between theater and cinema.

It starts with what seems to be an examination of the quintessential platitude about cinema: The idea that it is subordinate to theater, which is supposed to be a more elevated art form in some certain obvious, yet unelaborated manner. In Birdman, Iñárritu seems to challenge this idea without using many words, without making the mistake of suffusing the movie with interminable dialogues full of lines about how dignified theater is as opposed to Cinema (or vice-versa). A lesser film-maker would have bored the crap out of us by making this movie a never-ending come-and-go of spoken commonplaces, but Iñárritu´s exploration is more interesting because it is a more silent and subtle one.   He uses camera travelings that take us, in a matter of seconds, from a theater set to the cinematic reality portrayed in the movie in what seems to be an effort to convey, without many words, that one of the advantages of cinema is precisely that it is capable of leaving the boards and taking us more closely anywhere.  To the illuminated noise of Timesquare, very deeply in its chaos, for example.

But Iñárritu's movie doesn't seem to impose any conclusions. Like the best of cinema, it doesn't really explain itself too much but instead invites a lot of thinking. While making a fierce criticism of Hollywood's obsession with -entertainment-, it appears to propose that cinema (good cinema) is not just the slutty little sister of theater but perhaps a pupil, a great apprentice that, at its best, can overcome its master.

Last but not least, much in the spirit of Keaton's remarks, Birdman is also a very gutsy look at the relation between prestige and fame. More precisely, it is almost a denounce of all the mischief that fame is capable of once it takes hold of the minds of men.  One could almost say that Birdman, at its very core, is the story of a man gone mad, made immortal by theatre, killed and resurrected by the grace of cinema. This film, flawlessly delivered and adorned with solid performances by Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton is not just Iñárritu's return to glory ever since Amores Perros, but also one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of the last few years.