Desert Island Discs

There are few things in the world that mean more to me than music. If that wasn’t clear enough by now, here’s me setting the record straight. My tiresome Chinese Bluetooth headphones might instil an odd lethargy whenever I put them on, but they provide a welcome lifeline on the five-minute walk to school on Monday mornings. So it strikes me as rather odd that, in two and a half years of blogging, I’ve yet to pen my own Desert Island Discs-style blog. Perhaps that’s just as well, as one’s taste in music is as much a part of growing up as one’s outlook on the world. It would surprise me greatly if I ever met a man whose tastes had remained unshaken since the beginning. I know mine haven’t. That is, not too much.

I’m going to keep to the BBC Radio programme’s format: that is, eight tracks, from which I will have to pick a favourite. So, whilst I’m still young, naïve and idealistic, here’s my Desert Island Discs.


1. Circle of Life (Elton John/Lebo M.)

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Say what you like about the 90s, but they did give birth to one of the greatest animated films of all time. I haven’t the least shame in admitting that, to this day, Disney’s The Lion King remains one of my favourite films of all time. It’s simply perfect. I used to spend hours gawping at it as a kid, and watching some of my private lesson kids crawling around the room pretending to be all the animals in the opening sequence almost brings tears to my eyes. If there’s a better way to invoke a sense of awe and love for Africa’s natural beauty in four minutes flat, I’d like to see it.

When did you first discover it?
Given that The Lion King came out in the year I was born – a mere four days later, in fact – it’s very possible I’ve known this song for my entire life. I expect my first ‘real’ encounter with it would have been shortly after my first birthday when we got the movie on VHS.

What do you like most about it?
Lebo M.’s voice. The first twenty-eight seconds are pure gold. Who doesn’t love the opening? Even if most everyone gets the words wrong…

Any special memories?
I used it as my audition piece to get into Durham University’s A Cappella group, Northern Lights. Thanks to my dear friend Biff, we ended up performing it, and I got to pay homage to Lebo M. in Durham Cathedral itself in front of a crowd of a thousand. Riffing over the top of DUOS, Chamber Choir and the rest of Durham’s finest in the finale of King of Pride Rock will probably never be toppled as one of the happiest moments of my life.

2. Back in Stride (Maze feat. Frankie Beverly)

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Maze is far from one of the most famous bands of their day. The late 70s was a hard time to make it big as a new artist, with heavyweights like Barry White and Earth, Wind and Fire kicking around. But for me, this is a special one-hit wonder that floors them all. Back in Stride is neither ground-breaking nor thought-provoking, but it is feel-good, and one of the most feel-good numbers I know. There’s just an honest, heartfelt get-up-and-go about it that brings me out of the dark and into the light whenever it comes on. And Frankie Beverly may well be one of the most underrated male vocalists of all time.

When did you first discover it?
If memory serves, it came on the radio on one of the few nights I tuned in to a local Soul and Funk radio station, shortly before my great Spanish adventure. Like I’ve said before, if I’m proud of one thing, it’s my whim decisions.

What do you like most about it?
The delay on the rolling bass guitar line. Apparently Despacito has been scientifically proven to be catchy because of the deliberate delay in the chorus. I wonder whether it’s the same mechanism at work here. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if it were.

Any special memories?
This song once saved my life. Quite literally. When I was sleeping rough in the mountains to the north of Madrid, it rained through the night and my bivvy bag turned out to be a lot less waterproof than I’d hoped (though I suppose they’re supposed to be used in tandem with a tent, rather than as the sole defence). I couldn’t sleep, I was shaking from head to foot for hours, and I wanted my parents more than ever in my life. Listening to this song on repeat pulled me back from the brink. Which, I suppose, is what granted Back in Stride a certain legendary status in my Top Ten.

3. Forgiven Not Forgotten (The Corrs)

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Anyone who knows me will know that I go on and on (and on) about how black is beautiful when it comes to music. You only need to look at this list to see where my preferences lie, and it’s by no means a good sampling, with Fela Kuti, Tina Turner and the one and only Luther Vandross being narrowly beaten to the punch on this list. So it might come as a surprise that my favourite band is not black at all, but an Irish folk band. The Corrs and I go way back, and there’s hardly a song of theirs I don’t love. Forgiven Not Forgotten is a gem of an album and the title number is the standout diamond.

When did you first discover it?
Forgiven Not Forgotten was my first ever album, back in the days when a mixtape meant an actual tape. My dad used to put it on every once in a while on the way to school, where the novel was born to the sound of Sharon Corr’s violin. The cassette itself is long since missing in action, and – like many of its kind – probably ended up a mess of spent tape that no pencil could fix, but I still have the cassette case.

What do you like most about it?
Andrea Corr’s vocals are hauntingly beautiful. I’d have to say that the break into the harder-hitting second verse is what takes the biscuit, though. It sends me soaring.

Any special memories?
As a kid, knowing that my favourite childhood author, Michael Morpurgo, was also a fan of the group made me smile a lot; he namedrops the band often in his Scilly Isle stories.

4. Thriller (Michael Jackson)

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Who’d have thought that a song about zombies would be one of the most popular songs of all time? Who else but Michael Jackson? Thriller is amazing. I love it. I can’t shake it. The chords are insane. The bassline is unforgettable. And don’t even get me started on the dance routine. It’s MJ at his finest; no deep message, no heavy lyrics, just pure, all-out fun. Any one of these eight songs could be a strong contender for my favourite, but as far as the official list is concerned, Thriller has been in the throne for the longest. And that’s despite Vincent Price’s voiceover, which somehow adds to the charm…

When did you first discover it?
You know, I don’t know? I won’t even pretend I do. We had Michael Jackson’s Number Ones on our CD rack at home, and I don’t think it took me all that long to find it.

What do you like most about it?
The whine of the theremin during the third and final verse. No doubt about it. I get the shivers every single time.

Any special memories?
Turning up to Arrowsmith’s Halloween party in my Thriller outfit, to find fellow Light Luke had come in exactly the same outfit. The beginning of a long and happy friendship, grounded in a common love for one of the world’s greatest.

5. Love Theme from El Cid (Miklós Rózsa)

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Many of the songs on this list are songs I grew up with, and number five is no exception. I can’t have seen El Cid more than two or three times before returning to study the epic at university, which brought me back into contact with the endlessly evocative soundtrack of the film. It just screams Spain, more so even than Bizet’s Carmen. Rózsa knew what he was doing. No matter what happened, I was once a violinist, and to have a set of favourites without the beautiful violin solo of the Love Theme would be nothing short of criminal. There are many pieces from the soundtrack that I adore, such as the famous El Cid March and the Fanfare Coronation, but the Love Theme wins it for me.

When did you first discover it?
Technically speaking, I ‘rediscovered’ it whilst I was writing my El Cid essay last year. I had the album on repeat every time I sat down to write, so it surprises me that Spotify seems to think ‘dance-pop’ was my favourite genre. By all rights, unrepresentative as it would be, my fixation with this album in essay season should have pushed it to the top.

What do you like most about it?
The violin solo in the second half. It’s breath-taking, and makes me wish I hadn’t given up the violin years ago, if only to be able to play it as well as the soloist does.

Any special memories?
I believe I finished my dissertation shortly after playing it for probably the 53rd time. That’s a special memory if ever there was one… right?

6. What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)

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Stealing its way into the spotlight like a fine wine, Marvin Gaye’s pleading revolution song has been with me for a while, but only found its way into my heart recently. At a time in my life when music was taken from me (after a particularly music-heavy summer at the Edinburgh Fringe), Marvin found me and picked me back up. What’s Going On called out to me with a meaning it never had before and I fell in love with it. Grapevine might be one of his greatest legacies, but the subdued vocals of this particular number make it nothing less than spectacular.

When did you first discover it?
On my first serious fling with the world of Soul, Funk and Disco music in my final year at school, under the guiding influence of my former bandmaster, Mr D. I must have overlooked this diamond then, perish the thought.

What do you like most about it?
Whilst I don’t tend to go for songs for their lyrics, believing the music itself to be of far more importance, What’s Going On strikes a chord with the pacifist in me. And, of course, there’s the violins: the sailing strings of the third verse reach so high they trace the heavens and rain down gold.

Any special memories?
It isn’t often you discover a new artist you adore, but when it does, it’s a little bit like falling in love. Discovering Marvin Gaye ‘properly’ this year via this song makes for a special memory, I think.

7. Erin Shore (The Corrs)

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What do you know? It’s The Corrs again. I told you there was hardly a song of theirs I didn’t love and I wasn’t lying. It was a struggle not having at least three Corrs numbers in this list (you’d find the third if we were to expand this list to ten). Erin Shore is an instrumental, and it must have meant a lot to the band: it’s at the opening and closing of Forgiven Not Forgotten. In my head it’s the theme of the Royals in my novel, and thus this piece alone has had a heavy influence the development of the novel. The Love Theme from El Cid may have been beyond me as a dropout Grade 6 violinist, but I had the book of violin parts as a kid and I remember teaching myself this one, before ear and memory sufficed.

When did you first discover it?
Shortly after (and before) discovering Forgiven Not Forgotten.

What do you like most about it?
The bells, the flutes, the choir… the sounds of Ireland… And, of course, the wicked drumming before the final uplifting round.

Any special memories?
Every time I listen to this track I see the heroes of my book. It’s not a memory as they’re almost always on my mind, but that makes it doubly special for me.

8. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough (Michael Jackson)

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If the Corrs get a second mention, then the other great light of my life needs to be up there too. And he’s not here by proxy. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough is the happiest, grooviest, boogiest song I know. I just want to get up on a stage and dance. If there were ever a film made about my life, this would be song playing as they rolled the end credits. The music video says it all: MJ, MJ, MJ. Oh look, more MJ. Billie Jean, Wanna Be Startin’ Something, Earthsong and The Way You Make Me Feel are all serious contenders for my top twenty, but this one makes the cut. Because it makes me want to dance.

When did you first discover it?
It was the first song on the Number Ones CD, which means that, of all MJ’s greatest hits, this was the one I came upon first. I remember boogying about to it as a toddler, unable to understand the lyrics, but smiling all the same.

What do you like most about it?
The opening. Like Thriller, MJ felt like having a few spoken words thrown in for good measure. And though what he says is James Brown levels of inspired, it is almost exactly what goes through my head every time this banger comes on.

Any special memories?
When they played this track on a night out in York back in ’14, I went berserk. I’d been waiting for a song I truly knew to get my mojo on, and then Don’t Stop came on and I lost it. I remember grooving with a couple of great dance partners on the dance floor and feeling like I’d stepped back in time to 1979. What a year to be young and free…

‘…and if you had to choose just one?’

Tough call. But it’d have to be Erin Shore. I might be on that desert island for a while, but Erin Shore would take me home in my dreams.


Special Recommendations:

Someday (The Corrs); Mother Africa Reprise from The Power of One (Hans Zimmer); A House is Not a Home (Luther Vandross); Shosholoza (Ladysmith Black Mambazo); Ukuthula (Soweto Gospel Choir); Truth Gon Die (Femi Kuti); I Wish (Stevie Wonder); Proud Mary (Ike & Tina Turner); I Feel Good (James Brown)

 

Fancy doing this yourself? Be my guest! Isn’t it wonderful to take a trip down memory lane through music? BB x

Withdrawal

My school has a band, now. Secondary school or not, I have to admit I was a little excited when I found out. It consists of a piano, a guitar, a trombone, two saxophones, a drummer and a singer. Three guesses who that last one is. Better still, the music they thrust into my hands upon my return was by none other than Stevie Wonder. It’s For Once in my Life – in my opinion, not one of his best (I WishSuperstition and Uptight are in a godly league of their own), but better than a poke in the eye.

The first rehearsal was a bit touch-and-go. The drummer had an egg-shaker and I had to explain the concept of counting in.

The withdrawal is real. I’ve written two and a half arrangements for my old a cappella group in three days. I’ve had Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits on repeat and I threw myself at the Concha Velasco Band as their most avid supporter at their gig in Villafranca last night. I lost my voice from shouting the lyrics so much. That’s probably a good thing. My Romanian neighbours are spared another day of me wandering in and out of the house keeping my unused tenor voice exercised. Saturday morning means gym for a lot of folks here, time to work on their bodies. My voice isn’t getting the workout it used to. I have to keep practising.

This week, perhaps more than ever before, the blow of severing ties with the musical world has come down hard. Perhaps doubly so because almost all of my old Lights buddies will be back in Durham this weekend for a reunion gig of sorts. I made the decision not to go, even though it’s the Puente del Pilar this week and I haven’t been at work since two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t break my heart as it might once have done, but the aftermath hurts. We all have to make tough decisions, sometimes. It’s got a lot to do with growing up and moving on. The collegiate music scene, brimming with talented musicians from near and far, is behind me. I’m here now, in a country which a friend of mind once described as simply having no ‘afán’ (desire) for music for its own sake. Even my holdfast, the Concha Velasco Band, are set to disband soon. Real life, work and responsibilities have risen like the tide, and as is so often the case, it’s only the lead singer who’s pushing blindly for unity in the wake of disarray. It’s as much a reflection of how things could have been had I not let go of the group I loved the most. I needed that.

If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it again now. Spain is not ideal for the musician. I laughed at the notion that it would get to me like it did to my parents, thinking that with twenty-odd years’ less immersion than them, I’d be alright. I was wrong. The lack of a music scene hurts. It hurts a lot. I think I’ve done more listening to music here in the last week than I did in an entire term at Durham, discounting the obligatory use of my essay-writing playlist. Granted, I’ve compounded my situation by living not just in Spain but in the sticks. But even so, music isn’t as much a part of this world as it is in England. In a class the other day we were discussing activities you might do at a youth club, and I genuinely had to spell it out that music was or could be an option. One of the brightest girls gave me a nonplussed look and said, very matter-of-factually, ‘music is only extracurricular’. Make of that what you will.

Flamenco is more than music. Flamenco is an art form which, like so many, has its masters and its endless amateurs. And so much of it is tied up with dance. The joy of making music for its own sake is lost here. As the son of two music teachers, it hurts. Having been in choirs, groups and bands my whole life, it cuts deep. I feel lost, and more than a little distant recently.

On the way back from the library, I saw something in the sky and I looked up. It was a vulture. I’d just been writing about them in my book, so I felt pretty fortunate to see my own material brought to life before my eyes. Riding the thermals on wings spread wide, with tapering fingers splayed in the current, it circled the park for a few minutes. Within a minute there was another one, closer. They rode higher and higher until, finally, they tucked their wings into that upside-down W shape and, like spinning disks, soared motionlessly from the top of their spiral to the west.

I could have cried. I love this country. I love it so much. I love the language, the people and the food, and I especially love the animals that live here. Especially the vultures. Music lifts me high, but nothing lifts me higher than being where I want to be, in a land where such magnificent creatures still roam the skies on your way to and from the supermarket. My heart bleeds a little. I had to give a queen to take the king. I may yet regret my decision. Or, I may find some new wellspring of energy in this country. I may not have my music, but I still have hope. That’s all I can ask for. BB x

The Last Aurora

The wind is howling outside the window. Not a mild summery gale or bluster, mind, but proper banshee-style wailing winds. The ones where you hear shrieks and whispers in the fiercest squalls. Taken together with the dry hum of the lighting, the occasional click and whirr of the electrics and then the dull drone of the plumbing every few minutes, it’s a proper orchestra of silence up here in our Edinburgh flat. The perfect, saddening seal to what is, and perhaps what must be, the last glorious flight of one of the brighter stages of my life.

Everybody’s out or asleep. The post-handover drinks and DMC’ing lasted until the early hours of the morning, by which time yours truly and the usual handful had long since turned in for the night. With the last show over – and a resounding, successful six-in-a-row sellout show to boot – the fantastic fifteen are at their strength’s end. The Northern Lights now go their separate ways. Today was a new beginning for the youngsters, and a promising golden start it was too, but for five of us at least it was the last flight. The coming years may see many happy reunions and moments relived in coffee shops the world over, but somehow I do not think the same Lights will take the stage together again. Because whether we are the same crowd or not, we will all have changed. Time is the master of all things.

Were it not for Biff, loyal and enduring, I would never have known this world. I might never have met Luke, and shared a greater love for Luther Vandross. Or Sam, that most charismatic of leaders. Seb, the rockstar maestro. And though we crossed paths from time to time in the modern languages block, it was chiefly through the Lights that I found a loving friend in Aisha. My heart breaks a little more every time that I remember that I’m letting you go (like I said in Thursday’s Grapevine riff, even if it did fall flat on its face somewhat). But life is, when you think about it, one long string of goodbyes. And for a serial loner like me, I should be well-versed in saying goodbye. Perhaps that explains the lack of tears.

Sixteen hours later. Sam’s electric toothbrush is buzzing away in the bathroom. The fridge is steadily being emptied. Four Lights have taken their leave, eleven remain. The fade-out continues, only not quite as harrowing as yesterday’s yellow afternoon. There’ll be plenty of time for reflection on my next adventure, and right now I could do with getting my head screwed on straight vis-a-vis living arrangements for next year. That’s what the next few days are for – that, and a welcome break from a very, very intense fortnight.


It’s time I went in search of a new project. Something that will occupy my heart, mind and soul for the next few years. Books are the answer, and there’s no better place to start than Edinburgh, truly the city of books. A solid hour in a second-hand bookshop off Grassmarket set everything to rights. There’s a word for that feeling of being surrounded by the writings of ages in an old bookshop, though I can’t remember exactly what it is. That is my life, though. I am sure of it.


The morning sun has set on my time in the Lights. The whispering winds lead me forward. Waverley station awaits, the only station in the world named after a novel. There’s a symbolism there, and I’m shamelessly abusing that for a final word. BB x

The Big Graduation Post

It doesn’t happen like you think it will, graduation. I suppose the same can be said of all those grand rites of passage of life: like as not, you speculate a great deal about how it’s going to be, until the day itself is over before you know it, and a lot less grand an affair than you thought it was.

Certainly, when I tried to imagine what graduating from Durham would be like four years ago, I didn’t ever imagine that the cathedral tower would be under scaffolding. You win some, you lose some.

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One of the most difficult things about graduating is that it’s so very easy to use it as your last chance to say goodbye. It makes sense; for some, it might be the last time in a while you see the people who have been your friends through thick and thin for three or four years. Regrettably, for others it might even be the last time you see them at all. That’s a humbling thought. If I have any advice to give, it’s to say your farewells before the big day. Of course there is time for the odd one here or there on the day, but with everybody mingling with friends and family alike, it can be nigh-on impossible to track everybody down in time – especially if you end up on a time limit yourself.

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I’ve had a lot of time to think over the past few weeks, and a lot of things to think about. One of the most enlightening conclusions I’ve come to (and late in the realisation, too) is that, for all of my best efforts, I am not first and foremost a linguist. And if it took missing a First Class degree by less than one percent to realise that, it was a lesson well learned. Language tests, and perhaps grammar in general, have never been my forte, not that that’s ever stopped me from trying. Writing is, was and always will be my trump card. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about not reading fiction back in Year 13, I might well have let my doubts get the better of me and gone for a degree in English Literature instead.

The fact remains that I didn’t. For all the disparity between my English marks and my marks in French and Spanish, I went for a degree in modern foreign languages. Why? Precisely because of that; because languages were not my strongest point. Talking to people was something I really struggled with. I had no opinions of my own, I felt hopelessly outclassed whenever I had to take part in any kind of intellectual discussion and I tended to avoid any unnecessary socialising.

And in my own particularly sadistic way, I threw myself headlong into the one degree that would give me no choice but to talk to people, to face my fears head-on. And when you’re getting yourself into an extra £9000 of debt per year, it makes no sense whatsoever to go on studying what you’re best at.

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My time as an undergraduate at Durham has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the best four years of my life so far. I might have been to some extraordinary places had I gone for my second choice, St. Andrews, but I most likely would not have found myself in a metro station in Münich with a portrait of Admiral Lord Nelson. I might well have had access to researchers in my primary field of interest, al-Andalus and the Maghreb, but I probably wouldn’t have written such a cracking essay on Spanish banditry. And I might have got involved in a musical, or a choir, or maybe even the funk band I longed for since my schooldays, but I almost certainly would not have found myself wrapped up heart and soul in the collegiate a cappella scene.

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Thanks to one last fling with the Northern Lights at the 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, graduation was not as final an affair as it otherwise might have been. Knowing that I’d be back in Durham in just over a month took much of the sting out of the farewells, and I left the city dry-eyed and carefree – which is not how I imagined it, but just the way I wanted it. I find that written words often carry meaning a good deal further than the spoken word ever can, and so I made my fondest goodbyes in card form, in case I didn’t get the chance to say so in person. That, too, made the process a lot easier to deal with. In a way, I’d said everything that needed to be said. I could do no more.

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I didn’t have a great deal of say in the matter of coming to Durham. My own mother dropped the name of the place so often as I grew up that by the time UCAS came around, it seemed sacrilegious to even consider anywhere else. And that’s exactly how it panned out, after an initial rejection and a gap year to try again. Bother the prospectuses, there was simply something magical about Durham. I had to go there.

It’s been one long week of thank you’s. To all the friends that supported me, both at home, at university and abroad. To the staff who inspired my interests and discouraged my careless wanderings. To my college principal, who sowed the seed of interest in a PhD in me; to my first Arabic lecturer, who through discipline fashioned a mature love for the language out of nervous enthusiasm; to those who have lived with me these last four years, for putting up with the day-to-day trivial madnesses and misinformed ramblings of yours truly. And of course, to music, for adding so much more to my degree than just books.

The wide world awaits with, at least for now, a smiling, familiar face (and a very strong Villafranqués accent). The far future – the beyond – remains as elusive as ever, but perhaps it doesn’t do to look that far ahead. Three months remain, and then I leave this country for Spain, only this time it will be for a much longer stint than anything I’ve ever attempted before. I can hardly wait.

And you bet I’ll be back to blogging for the whole affair. Just you wait. BB x

Bittersweet

It’s been nine months, three weeks and four days since I waved goodbye to Spain last summer. I was glad of the brief end to my labours, but it was the first time I genuinely did not want to go home. How I’ve left it this late to return says more about my dangerously overloaded timetable than anything else, but now, finally, I’m on the EasyJet flight to Seville with all of eleven days to play with and everything is as it should be.

Second term hit me like a truck. Since the January a cappella boot camp before the Christmas holidays were even over, it’s been the most intense ten and a half weeks of my life. Ten weeks of essays, translations and dissertations; competitions and commissions; meetings and meet-ups; catching up with old friends and catching up with work; and, of course, concerts, competitions and rehearsals. Never mind applying for jobs, that happened somewhere along the line. I forget when. It’s been fun, educational, even unforgettable, but ridiculously intense. It’s a damned good thing I dropped Arabic this year or I reckon the pressure would have torn me apart.


I feel truly honoured to have represented Durham’s own Northern Lights at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Semifinals last night alongside seven of the UK’s best a cappella groups, including longtime running mates the Accidentals (my favourite group by a league) and this year’s winners, Aquapella. After a knockout victory in the Quarterfinals in Edinburgh back in February and the added bonus of a masterclass with our EP-producer Johnny Stewart, I genuinely thought we might be in with a shot at placing this year, even though we’ve only been in existence for four years. Sadly, we didn’t take anything home last night, but hats off to the victors – it was a well-earned victory (especially to the soloist in Aquapella’s Purple Rain… goddamn, I didn’t think there were any Tina Turner voices left in this world).

The sting of defeat smarts more than I thought it would, perhaps because this was the first time I genuinely believed we could win. But every defeat is a lesson to be learned from, and as losses go, it’s a cheap one: not only does it save us £700+ a head on the flights to New York that victory would have cost, but I also had three of the best days of my life with the wonderful Lights in London Town. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And with forty minutes until we touch down in Sevilla, I can’t do anything but smile.


Eleven days in my favourite country in the world await. Semana Santa is too late this year to linger, but I’ll be sure to take in the three sides of Spain I hold closest to my heart: Doñana for the nature, Tierra de Barros for my dear friends Tasha and Miguel, and Yuste for my novel. It’s going to be magical. I’ll keep you posted. And that’s a fact. Now that I’m back in Spain, it feels much more natural to be blogging again. Life is good. BB x

A Dearth of Music

I have to confess, the absence of YouTube in my life is doing me wonders. But it comes with a cost: the main reason I use it, for browsing music old and new, is sorely missed. Villafranca de los Barros is supposedly the ‘City of Music’. In all honesty, you’ll find more music variety in Lloyds’ Durham on a Wednesday night.

Ever since the sequence of events in February 2015 that saw my iPod disappear and reappear a month later, my laptop give out and the arrival of this highly portable but sadly much-desiring Chromebook – which is too feeble to support either my music library or even an iTunes account in the first place – my iPod’s music selection has been stuck on the stuff I had loaded onto it from January this year. All the music I’ve discovered since, from the Moroccan beach-town hostels to my music-concert escapades in Jordan, has to be consigned to memory instead. Which is fine, but as music is such an important part of my life, it’s a little tragic. I’m not umbilically attached to my iPod by any means, but on Mondays and Wednesdays when I’m faced with an hour of mutinous six-year old Spaniards, it really is an essential piece of my arsenal to go in armed with at least five minutes’ listening to my Africa playlist, or my Super-Hyper-Motivator playlist, or what-have-you. It keeps me smiling. It’s like a more short-range and portable form of meditation.

But I’m limited to what I knew in January 2015 – which is obviously the bulk of my music, that’s a given, but music’s a transitive thing; more often than not, it’s the more recent tunes that I want in my ears, and not the old classics – though they surprise me anew and anon with Shuffle on. The Rite of Spring came up this morning and I listened to the whole thing from start to finish for the first time in a while. I’d quite forgotten how masterful the whole thing is – personal prejudice from growing up with Fantasia aside.

But it’s not just the listening I miss. It’s the performing. Bowing to the occasional whims of my students as a performing monkey isn’t the same. I miss singing and I miss the stage. Teaching is always on a kind of stage with all the spotlights on you, and so’s the dancing I tend to go in for, but it’s not the same. And that’s where my personal vendetta against ukuleles and guitarists comes in. You guys have it far too easy, and open mics are the ultimate test of proof. Unaccompanied singing just doesn’t work. I’m a singer before anything else (we’ll forget that I wandered away from Grade Six violin several years ago for now) but singing alone is more of a shower affair than a stand-up thing. Armed with a uke in hand or a guitar across your lap, you’re good to go. Me, I just feel like a fish out of water without the backing of a band or a chorus.

As such, I’ve only ever done one open mic. Shake Your Tailfeather a cappella. Never again.

There’s a Christmas concert coming up in a couple of weeks (in November… go figure) for which the music teacher and a small group of girls have asked me to help conduct/choreograph All I Want for Christmas Is You… Predictable, much. It’s the best I’m going to get for a while so I’m throwing myself into it, naturally, but just you wait until the bilingual schools’ intercambio here in February, for which we’re supposed to put on a show. I’ll be pulling out all the stops with some classics then, for sure. The only question is, do I go with Northern Lights or do I throw them some easier African numbers? Either way, I win. And either way, I’m going to end up tear-stained, as I dearly miss both my old gang and the feeling I used to get in every African Singing and Drumming performance. Jimminy Christmas, but I miss having music in my life. It’s the only killer of living in Spain. They’re big on their reggaeton, and of course there’s flamenco, but they just don’t get music in the same way. Or maybe that’s just me growing up in a family where both my parents were music teachers, and thus spending almost all twenty-two years of my life involved in one way or another in choirs, bands, musicals and orchestras of all descriptions.

On a positive note I’ve just been paid by one of my two jobs, which is a welcome relief in a time when the rest of the world (myself including) is still waiting on the all-important paycheck from the Ministry of Education, which may or may not be with us in arrears until Christmas, or so the horror stories go. I’m currently dreaming of where to go with both the time and money next August, as I’m not used to having both at the same time. Having the latter at all is a novelty, but together with time is a very new thing for me. The painful memories of the longest gap year with no job, no desire to obtain one and consequently barely a penny to my name are still vivid in my mind.

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Hooked on Africa

I’m currently hooked on the idea of backpacking in South Africa, which I’ve been toying with on-and-off for years. The first girl I ever dated was half-Afrikaner, which I suppose is where the obsession began in earnest, but it’s the music that’s the real draw. My mum and dad are of the opinion that I would be better served waiting for the Soweto Gospel Choir to tour a little closer to home if it’s the music I’m after, but I don’t see it that way. I miss the joy of the open road, the terror of nor knowing where I’m going to end up, the awkward encounters and the divine, and the host of colourful characters you meet along the way. In short, I miss a decent bit of travelling. All I have to do before August 2016 is to find somebody bonkers enough to want to come with. Not that I wouldn’t go alone, but it’d be a lot more fun with a friend. If you’re reading, dear companions, give it some thought!

I’ll leave you with the latest pox upon my heart, which is (of course) a Soweto number. I tell you, if it weren’t for my job, my degree and a certain gaditana, I’d up sticks right away and go straight to South Africa every time I hear this. Yours truly really is a bleeding heart, and if I’m not careful, it’ll be more than just my heart bleeding one day. BB x

End of an Era

Racked up a grand total of five hours’ sleep last night. Not exactly great, but a lot better than it could have been, considering just how FRICKIN’ AWESOME yesterday was.

No more classes at Ali Baba, for a start. We’re finished. Khalass. Two months of study wrapped up and tossed aside, just like that. And doesn’t it feel like every day of it…! Nah, I’m just messing with you. In truth the last four weeks have flashed past in the blink of an eye. Wadi Rum feels like it was only a few days ago, and as for Dana and the others who were with us for first term… why, they could have been here yesterday (now somebody hit the cliché button and hit it fast). We’ve had a really good run of it and ended on a good high, with a certificate presentation, a few last rounds of Arabic language games and a talent show no less, which I won on votes with yet another dangerously one-man rendition of a song, this time the gypsy ballad Arrinconamela – chosen mostly because I’ve kind of done The Circle of Life to death out here and it’s not as fun without my Lights at hand. Hey, I got a double Snickers bar out of it, so I’m not complaining.

I digress. Ali Baba has been nothing short of brilliant in every way. I’ve learned so much out here and that has more to do with the intensity of my four-hour classes than anything else, so a great big shout-out to Wafiqa and the Ali Baba staff for a grand two months of Arabic teaching. I sure hope ALIF can match your level of commitment!

We scarcely had time to rush back to the apartment to start packing, Andrew and I, when I was whisked back to the internet range of Ali Baba’s fourth-floor cafe to book both of our hostels for the next week, in Aqaba and Amman. You see, unlike the homestay girls, whose hosts have graciously allowed them to stay on after their lease and then to take them as far as the airport, we’re being booted out on command and thus have to find – and pay for – somewhere else to stay for the next week. In fact, our cheery landlord wants us out of here by ten o’clock this morning. Worse, the chirpy chap even followed us to the main road yesterday asking over and over if we wanted to have left by eight instead. Words fail me; words did not fail Andrew. We’ve tidied up most of the place, but it’s still very much occupied for the time being. It’ll be a last minute rush down to the bus station when the clock strikes a quarter past ten, but it’ll be worth it to see the back of this little apartment. It’s been great having a pad so close to our school, as it were, and it’s been nothing short of the party nucleus for the last two months, both because of its proximity and because Andrew and I have been voluntarily phone-less, so the only way to contact us has been in person. A grand idea from the get-go.

That aside, I’m glad we’re leaving today; this place is simply not worth $1000 a month, even split between us. That’s double what I was paying in Durham, and that was for an entire house. Jeez. And for the gall of living in a city, no less! Ali Baba’s only flaw is the price it puts on student housing, whether they find you a flat or a homestay. Take my advice and find your own place, through AirB’n’B or from the friendly environment of a hostel. Because had I known how small a flat we’d be getting for $1000 – with a faulty kettle, nearly-headless tap and other inconsistencies too numerous to name – I’d never have been so quick to hand over the cash. Arabists, take heed!

With all of our hostels booked, Andreas and his language partner Abu Ahmad took us out into the country for a barbecue, and I might use this as an excuse to debunk a few myths that I started. It turns out that there are trees near Amman, and not the artificially-grown ones in the university grounds. If you can get as far as the neighbouring town of As-Salt, the countryside surrounding it is stunning, even in the last few days of August when it’s had the full force of the Arabian summer sun shining down on its back for three months and more. We cooked more meat than Andrew and I have had in our whole two months of egg-based existence and were stuffed to the gills within minutes. That we managed to gather our senses and box some for today’s journey stands testament to some last-minute quick-thinking, or else they’d have thrown the last home-made kebabs away. Ach, just thinking of it is making me hungry.

But seriously though: As-Salt. If you ever get tired of the noise of Amman, get yourself on one of the many buses bound for As-Salt (they pronounce it ‘salt’) and take a hike into the country. It’s so green, so quiet, and such a world away from the hustle-bustle of city living. There were wild birds there too: I saw a couple of jays, homely-sounding blackbirds and even an Arabian Babbler to top it off. If only we’d stumbled upon it sooner… No matter. We’ve had fun. More importantly this was also our last night with Andreas, who’s been such a rock in our time out here, both for Arabic queries and for good humour, not to mention strength of character. We’re all going to miss you, Andreas, our only and favourite Swede. Good luck in Cairo (you lucky thing) and I hope we meet again someday!

Our heartfelt farewells to Andreas were cut short because we needed to be back in Amman for seven to catch a taxi down to a place called The Dome, a party venue halfway between our pad and the airport – so quite a way out of town. Believe it or not, we had a stroke of luck in that – for once – the second taxi we asked was willing to take us there. Only, he had absolutely no idea where there was. So he got to driving south and rang up the venue for us, amongst other contacts, to divine the location, and in the end he not only got us there for eight o’clock but offered to pick us up in turn. What a charmer!

I should explain. We were bound for The Dome because the biggest name in the Arabic music world at the moment, Saad Lamjarred (the mu3allem guy), is in Amman and there was talk of a great big party on the grapevine. We had it from another taxi driver, as it happens, who let us in on the secret. He even called up his friend to get us tickets. At thirty dinar a head it wasn’t cheap, but any misgivings I had about the price were obliterated in the first hour – and Saad Lamjarred didn’t even show up until about twenty minutes past ten. No, our thanks go to none other than DJ Khaled.

Charged up on unholy slushie (I don’t even want to know what was in the stuff) and Kinder Bueno ice-cream (these Arabs have such great ideas when it comes to sweets) we – that is, Andrew, Eloise, Mackenzie and I – couldn’t help getting itchy feet every time a good song came on. About every five minutes, that is. And so what if nobody else was dancing? We were having fun. Sure, we must have looked a little crazy, just dancing alone as the four of us for about an hour, but when Khaled’s C’est la Vie came on and we realised that we knew it, we went wild. And before we knew it, there was a crowd gathered around us in a circle to watch us move. Andrew, Mack and I were milking it for all it was worth; Eloise had the sense to hang back a bit (and film it for last shaming opportunities). In the end it wasn’t just spectator sport either, as some of the men felt the vibe too and joined in, which is when the party really started. We met so many people our own age who had been waiting, it seemed, for somebody to bite the bullet in order to let loose. As for me, I haven’t danced so hard in months. Between the four of us, we got things going in the back row, and because of that it’s going down as one of the best nights of the whole shebang, if not of my life so far.

The craziness of it all is that the first, second and third class tickets counted for nothing, in the end. We’d gone for the cheapest option at thirty, the most sensible route by far, as next to nobody was in the £50 second class row, and the £70 first class row was a seated affair. That’s no fun! But it gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). The bouncers, some naturally built like gorillas, others just oddly proportioned with arms nearly three times the size of their legs, proved susceptible to the whims of Eloise and Mack and their charm and/or sheer determination to get ahead, because bit by bit, we found ourselves jumping from third class to second, and eventually even into first, right to the edge of the stage. How’s that for white guilt? It got to me just before the end and I hung back whilst the others rushed into first class, until I felt like a first-class muppet myself when it was just me, an old woman and a mother and child left in second-class towards the end of the night. As for the man of the hour, Master Saad Lamjarred himself, his show was nothing less than blitz-worthy; I mean that in a good way. He only really had four songs of his own, plus a few great covers, but he sure knew how to get the party going – and all the while with a great big grin on his face that was infectious at the sight. We had quite a rave at the back with our new friends.

I’d better leave it there. It was quite a night, and because of it we’re both knackered, Andrew and I. He was awake when I started writing this; he’s fast asleep now. We’ve got another long day ahead of us, but on the bright side, in a couple of hours we’ll be done with this apartment for good, and bound on a four-hour bus for Aqaba, where we can really let our hair down and chill. We’ve earned it. BB x