Why I Never Liked the Buena Vista Social Club Phenomenon

Don’t get me wrong I enjoy the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. I have all of their albums and appreciate the talent and skill of these musicians. But there was always something that disturbed me about how suddenly this music became so popular and how it was interpreted. It has nothing to do with the musicians or music itself, but with the phenomenon that became the Buena Vista Social Club.

Generally, people who like Buena Vista Social Club usually don’t like more modern types of Cuban music like timba

Even my uncle bought the first Buena Social Club album. But he called the latest Charanga Habanera album just “a weird bunch of strange sounds”. He would gladly pay the $50 to see the “Buena Vista Social Club” in Habana Vieja than pay $5 to see Combinacion de la Habana de la Musica.

Cuban music is old. Nothing much has really happened in Cuban music since the 1950′s.

This is what a lot of people think and I think the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon fed into that. It is nostalgia for a long lost paradise that may or may not have existed and comfortable listening for both Communists and anti-Communists (even Gloria Estefan did her “Buena Vista” album). To this day, you have many “salseros” who say the roots come from Cuba, but they say music and dance evolve, implying that Cuban music has stagnated since that time. I want to shake them and say, “Hello, so has Cuban music and dance !”

Was it popular because it was widely distributed and available?

Let’s face it, people like to follow other people. The Buena Vista Social Albums were available everywhere. Recorded professionally and more importantly, distributed in the United States. At my local HMV, I could not find any Klimax, Charanga Habanera, Manolin cds during the 90′s when they were at their peak. but I could find tons of Buena Vista Social Club albums.

How could these musicians be forgotten? Ibrahim Ferrer picking up trash to survive?

Why didn’t Ruben Gonzalez have a piano to practice on? Why weren’t they valued ? Maybe the blame is directed at communism, Cuban society, or just forgetful Cubans. The truth is Cubans never forgot these songs; the Buena Vista Social Club were just playing the same songs Cubans have been playing for many years. How many musicians from fifty odd years ago are still remembered in any country? Everybody remembers Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra, and in Cuba, there is Benny Moré and Bola de Nieve, but who remembers the back up musicans, the ones like Ibrahim Ferrer would never really broke through. According to Jimmy Maslon, ““I think Cuban kids are a lot more aware of their folkloric roots than U.S. kids are aware of theirs.”

Who are the Buena Vista Social Club?

As the documentary shows, there really was no Buena Vista Social Club musical group in Cuban musical history. The group was named after a members’ club that musicians would meet up and play in the 1940s. As a musical group, it only existed after the American Ry Cooder and Cuban Juan de Marcos González “discovered” them and put them together for a recording in the late 1990s.

From all reports, there are still many musicians in Cuba who are as good as the Buena Vista Social Club musicians. Nowadays, when you go to see the Buena Vista Social Club, there is hardly anyone recognizable from the film, but still the group hasn’t lost a step. Why did it take an American to rediscover Cuban music and reintroduce it to the world? As much as I value Ry Cooder as a musician, his slide guitar really didn’t add anything to the Buena Vista Social Club albums.

Musical Tastes

Of course, everyone has their own right to have their own musical tastes. But for people who called themselves “casineros” or “Cuban salseros”

 

 

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First Day in Cuba

Even though our destination was Havana, we bought our plane tickets to go to Varadero like many of our friends do because it is cheaper and there are more flights. If you buy a package in Havana, your flights will probably be in and out of Varadero anyways and then you will be taken to Havana by shuttle bus.

untitled My Cuban friend says she always buys the cheapest package in Havana available even if it is supposedly the “worst” hotel because it will at least include accommodations, breakfasts and bus shuttle transfer to and from Havana. If you don’t like the hotel, you can always go to a “casa particular” for $25 a night. Even if you stay in a “casa particular” for the whole duration of your holiday, you will probably spend less then paying for your plane tickets and accommodations separately. Some of these packages get really cheap ! I don’t believe some of the comments about how terrible some of the cheaper hotels are. All hotels are government run enterprises, so it is hard to find a hotel that it is as dangerous or run down as some of the comments would suggest.

I changed my Canadian dollars at the airport in Varadero like my Cuban friend suggested. And there was hardly any line up. I guess most of the tourists didn’t know that most hotels give you a terrible rate.

The airport in Havana to downtown Havana is an hour and costs like 20 CUCs; Varadero to Havana is like an hour and a half, so not much difference. (Actually, I am pretty sure the Vizazul bus took like an hour and a half from Varadero to Havana, but from Havana back to Varadero it was like 2 hours and 40 minutes. I guess a lot of detours)

Anyways, 10 CUCs is a pretty good deal and it was a comfortable ride on a Chinese bus. There are only four buses that go between Varadero and Havana each day and most of them depart in the morning. If you arrive at 6pm looking for a bus, you probably looking at an expensive taxi ride.

The Viazul bus terminal is in Nuevo Vedado and that’s pretty far from the action. Most people get off right after the tunnel and I think that puts you right into Central Havana. It was actually just a few blocks from our casa particular on Galiano close to the Casa de la Musica.

Right after you get off the bus, the feeding frenzy of the taxis will be waiting for you. They know the tourists will be tired, anxious to get to their hotel or casa particular and probably won’t familiar with the fares taxis usually charge in the city; so they tend to overcharge a little as they do in every location that tourists hang out.

There was one pretty insistent guy who said he would charge us five CUCs to Galiano in his “taxi”. We naturally assumed his “taxi” would be a car since we were two people with a lot of luggage, but it was a “bici-taxi” or bicycle taxi.

He struggled so much that I almost felt sorry for him. But a couple of blocks into the ride, a policeman waved us over. We think bici-taxis were not allowed in this particular street and he received a ticket. Later on, we asked him about it, but he said it wasn’t the case. Anyways, we had to wait like 15 minutes while the policeman checked out his ID and wrote out the ticket.

We had been to Havana a couple of times before, but we were still in culture shock in Centro Habana (it’s no Miramar or Regla). The buildings, the streets, the heat, the humidity, the narrow inconsistent sidewalks with dogshit, people passing by every which way, the smell of gasoline, the close proximity of cars to people, people shouting from the upper floors of the houses all take getting used to. We met a young girl from Australia who was traveling throughout Latin America. She said she said spent three days in Havana and that was already too much for her to handle.

For me, there is something electric about the energy of those streets in Havana. It is not a big city, but it has a vibrancy that is uniquely its own.

 

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Cinema tourism : Hot but dangerous Latinos

untitledJoseph Kim

When we watch films from other countries, we like to think that we are watching the best that the country has to offer. I mean the distributors would not go to all the expense of bringing the film all the way here, adding subtitles, booking theatres, etc. If the film was really terrible, they would have no chance of getting any of their money back.

How do you determine quality?

If a film wins jury or audience prizes at film festivals or the acclaim of important film critics, the film must be good. If a film comes from an important “auteur”, even though its commercial appeal may be limited, it will still eventually get distributed in New York or Paris, because it is a cultural event.

Another indicator of a film’s quality may be its box office performance in its home country. The Intouchables had already become the most-watched film in France in 2011 and then went on to sell 30 million tickets sold outside of France.

If The Intouchables became the second biggest box office hit in France, what about the first biggest box office hit in France? How come Welcome to the Sticks or Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis didn’t make it to a theatre in Atlanta? Many films, especially comedies, are often deemed to be too ethnic or too local to be understood by foreign audiences. Do motion picture distribution companies underestimate us or are they making smart business decisions?

On the other hand, tastes in movies are more homogenized and globalized than ever before. Film goers in France, Pakistan or Japan can all enjoy the latest Iron Man or Quentin Tarantino film. Some of best film directors from Mexico and Korea have found success in making Hollywood features, seamlessly translating their success at to wider, more international audience.

Films that show the local color of indigenous

The only Latin American films that get distributed in North America are films that say : Latin America is a dangerous place and/ or a place of unbridled sexual passion. City of God and Amores Perros, were surprise hits and garnered universal praise in Europe, Canada and the United States and exemplified both of these stereotypes. Some films just show the one side Y tu Mama Tambien, El Crimen de Padre Amaro (sex) or La Zona (danger), but still fit comfortably into the sex and danger Latin American paradigm. It is important to note although some of these films are well respected in Latin America, none of them are really commercial blockbusters in their native countries.

Films that show somewhat middle class Latin Americans do not get shown in the rest of North America or Europe. But they are quite often the films most Latin Americans pay to see. Nosotros los Pobres a comedy lampooning the rich has become the highest-grossing film in Mexican cinema history will never reach a Toronto movie theatre. But why? Is it because Europeans, Americans or Canadians don’t think middle class Mexicans exist? For many, there are two distinct social groups in Latin America: rich white looking business magnates or “caudillos” who exploit the second, darker skinned peons or peasants. Can’t they imagine accountants, lawyers, or dentists? Leonardo Garcia Tsao, a film critic for La Jornada newspaper, says the middle-class goes to the movies in Mexico, and “in this case, the film mocks the rich, which they’re not, and the poor, which they’re not either.” Other Mexican blockbusters like Sexo, pudor y lágrimas or No eres tú, soy yo have not received any distribution in Canada. Rather odd when you consider how much attention films like Amores Perros or Y tu Mama Tambien have received here.

Do Canadians just want to see Mexicans in big sombreros and panchos or good looking morenos having sex in the barrio interspersed with scenes of vicious gangsters killing each other? Is the thought of watching a movie of people who have similar lives to ourselves too much for us to handle? Or do we just want the stereotypes, the tourist fantasies that films can deliver?

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War Witch (Rebelle) and Machine Gun Preacher

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Joseph Kim

Torn from headlines from Africa, two films about child soldiers have to made to the big screen. One received almost universal critical acclaim, and other was certainly seen by more people. Most films make claims of being more “real” or “realistic”, but both are more how Westerners view Africa, than Africa itself.

The title of Marc Forster’s Machine Gun Preacher has same kind of impact of Snakes on the Plane or Hobo with a Shotgun. It’s meant to appeal to people who are not that particularly interested in Africa or child soldiers. It promises some ass kicking action and the incongruity of the words ”machine gun” and preacher promises if not some not humor, at least some absurdity. After all the pleasures of mindless violence, the grounding in “reality” is supposed to be good for you after all. In his previous films, Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace, Marc Forster has proven ability to depict foreign exotic locales with certain amount of believability, whether it be an American jail, northern Afghanistan or even Bolivia.

Machine Gun Preacher is an inspirational story of former violent drug dealing criminal who turned around his life and became a preacher and defender of African orphans, a story so absurd that it could only be real. The first part of the film focuses on downward spiral of Sam Childers into criminality and violence seems unconvincing and attenuated, more like a half a dozen acts of “meanness” strung together than a complete portrait of a person. It seems almost as if Childer’s real life was too intense for the screen and they had to take one step back from reality.

If Machine Gun Preacher is meant to be inspirational, Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (Rebelle) definitely isn’t exactly meant to be.  There is no white saviour here. If Machine Gun Preacher is Christian friendly, then War Witch is definitely more liberal friendly. Instead of the story being told through an American, War Witch is told through a 12 year old African girl named Komona forced to become a rebel soldier. It feels like the Africa that a person who knows something about Joseph Kony and Lord’s Resistance Army would believe plausible.

At its best (the first 30 minutes), War Witch recalls the best in Canadian ethnographic films. Nguyen has a definite feel for place and how bodies move in it. Its technique is born out of taking time and breathing in the environment in which the story takes place. The lack of sentimentality and controlled performances, which of course are meant to hint at the hidden pain underneath. The film benefits enormously from the actors, especially Rachel Mwanza who plays Komona.

At approximately 90 minutes, War Witch is certainly action packed. Rather than Machine Gun Preacher’s attenuated storyline, War Witch seems like a compilation film of global war crimes involving children, kind of like a Amnesty International commercial.  Here, we get extra strength reality. So many tragic events happen to our protagonist that she could be one of the unfortunates in Zhang Yimou’s To Live ! The casting of an albino as Komona’s lover, the white rooster, magical realist interludes of ghostly figures, all seem contrived to make a certain point. And the point is that we have to become more aware of the suffering that is happening around the world. Didn’t you know albinos face terrible discrimination in Africa? Hey, the people “in the know” will get that reference. For others, it will be educational.

I think what dismayed most critics was that the commercial slant was more obvious in Machine Gun Preacher, whereas War Witch seems more true to its tragedy . After all, the story is told through an African child soldier to her unborn child. If parents of Machine Gun Preacher are Black Hawk Down or Tears of the Sun, then the parents of War Witch are equally as Western. Some of the scenes, especially the voiceover, recall Spielberg’s Color Purple and the films of the Dardenne brothers by way of the film Fish Tank. The unfortunate use of African pop to melancholic effect also brings to mind other global issue conscious raising films of Altiplano or the Constant Gardener.

More troubling is how both Machine Gun Preacher and War Witch use a dramatic event where a child solider has to kill his or her own parents. It’s the ace in the hole that both film directors in reserve to give their respective films dramatic effect and shape. When Sam Childers finds apathy in his own country about the work he is going in Africa, he finds himself in a torrent of rage. He only overcomes this crisis when a young child soldier he rescued before recounts how he was forced to shoot and kill his only family. Similarly, In War Witch, the whole film hinges on young Komona’s forced killing of her parents at near the beginning of our film and her decision later on not to kill her husband. For me, the way how these events handled as a kind of dramatic shortcut to express the complete horror of war and children in Africa cheapens the films and the real horror of such acts. It’s like saying, “Still don’t care about what is happening to these kids in Africa? Listen to this story and then you will give a damn.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights

Joseph Kim

Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights opens with the words “based on actual events”. People who think these words are a harbinger of quality or realism should take notice. Puerto Rico stands in for the Cuba which, by the way, it has sucessfully done for many years in the collective  consciousness of Americans after the imposition of the American embargo.

Apparently, 1958 Cuba is country of Hip-Hop, sincerity, nonsmokers, fluent English speaking Cuban mothers. An impromptu rumba dance breaks out in the street and the American girl states that she has never  seen that kind of dancing like that. Cubans have never actually seen this kind of rumba dancing either. But what is wrong with these people?  Haven’t they seen the dancers in the Carlos Santana videos or when P. Diddy danced with J. Lo. Sure, it is 1958 Cuba, but that is no excuse.

Hey, but the movie is about the love story and the dancing as a popular salsa website says. Tha Cuban revolution and Havana are just there to give the story a dangerous and a more Latin feel. It is about feeling the music and feeling each other as the couple’s trip to La Rosa Negra displays. The dancing here are more like rejects from the Christina’s             Aguliera’s Dirty video than actual Cuban dancers. More like a “Miramarx”‘s             executive’s wet dream than son. It is like someone thought up this movie when the Latin pop music in English was popular and there were rumors that Ricky Martin and Brittney Spears were to star in the project. When they dropped out, Hip Hop was added, more writers were added. And what they ended up with a cynical attempt at getting teenagers who watch anything to go the theatres.

But as one teenager who was leaving said, “That sucked !!”. The people who watched the original Dirty dancing and loved it were teenagers at the time. The original movie although terrible had good dancing. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey had chemistry when they danced although it didn’t extend to their acting. It is almost painful to watch the two leads in Havana Nights dance. The original appealed to a strange kind of nostalgia at the time. And we, the teenagers, as sometimes they do with pop culture, went overboard, even giving Swayze a number one hit in “She is like the Wind”. Ugh, who wants to remember that?

But what disturbed me more than the movie was a movie review from a popular salsa website. It stated,

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“With a combination of emotion, pride, and sensitivity, he (the lead actor) made Javier into today’s ideal man; strong but in touch with his emotions. Katey, also was the prototype of a budding modern woman, smart and independent.”

These sentences freaked me out more than any David Cronenberg movie could.

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How to get better at Casino Rueda

Forget about Rueda; Work on the Casino

Most salsa dancers in North America think casino is only rueda; in other words, Cuban style salsa is only when a group of couples dance in a circle changing partners and doing the same spins and moves. However, casino is a couples dance as well. In fact, you should have mastered dancing casino with one partner before attempting a rueda.  You can’t improvise from your existing salsa; you need to start off from square one just like if you are learning a new dance like bachata or zouk.

Casino has its own basic steps, leading, body positioning, timing and partner connection which make it quite different from regular salsa. Although a talented linear salsa dancer may be able to survive a beginner rueda because both salsa and casino share the same roots, more advanced moves may prove impossible.

Sweat out your Cuban salsa style dancing; but don’t sweat the casino rueda moves

Most casino newbies don’t dance enough to improve their casino dancing. Since most learn Cuban style salsa through rueda in North America, most of their time is devoted to learning setenta, dedo, bayamo, etc. to an imaginary 1,2,3,5,6,7. They learn the choreography: which way to turn, which arm to use, etc., but they never learn how to lead, body positioning, how much pressure to use, how bodies relate to one another in partner dancing and most importantly how to dance to timba music.

If one just focuses on the different casino rueda moves, most dancers will run out of moves in about a minute when dancing with one partner. I just did setenta, bayamo, dedo, now what? Why don’t LA/ NY dancers have the same problem? Do they have better memories than us for remembering long patterns of different moves? No, it’s because they just dance almost exclusively in couples. They mix up moves they have learned in class and sometimes invent their own little moves to fill up the 5 minutes of one song.

Someone already comfortable dancing Cuban style salsa will always have an easier time learning new casino rueda moves than someone trying to learn Cuban style salsa through a rueda format. For the ladies/ followers, sometimes it is better to FORGET the names of new casino rueda moves and just focus on timing of your basic steps. For the men/ leaders, just dance, go ahead and mix up what you learnt and forget about doing the moves perfectly. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Your body will naturally learn from them. You know you are getting good when you start inventing your own moves.

Get off your intermediate/ advanced high horse and revisit the basic steps

One of the unfortunate influences of LA/ NY salsa dancing is that dancers begin to think the basic step is for beginners. In linear salsa, the basic step is just the setup for advanced spins and patterns. A linear salsa dance doing just the basic steps without any spins is a pretty boring dance. On the other hand, a casino dance with the basics can be amazing; expanding and contacting the basic steps, going from a tiempo to contra tiempo, moving around in different directions with the dile que nos, breaking forward and backward on different feet, using your body to express the music, etc.

But when I try in introduce a new way of doing the guapea by moving around with the basics, most people get a faraway look in their eyes like saying “I am intermediate or advanced. I am beyond this”. But if I did the same thing to some experienced Cuban casino dancers, they would be intrigued and excited. But casino newbies prefer to stick with their stomping, chunky step to the side guapeas even when learning the most complicated casino rueda moves from Yanek Revilla. But once God forbid, they have to make a smaller or larger step, they will lose the music. You can always tell a great dancer by his/ her basic step.

The reason why there are always more women than men in casino rueda

Well, it is easier for female LA/NY salsa dancers to enter a rueda; in fact, it is easier for women/ followers in general to participate in a rueda. We have danced casino rueda outdoors and ladies from the general public have joined the rueda without really knowing Cuban style salsa, but they manage to survive. On the other hand, it is more noticeable when men have no idea what they are doing. They stick out. It may be the follower who is causing the mistakes; she may not be walking enough, not following the music, kicking in the basic steps or she may be harder to move than a montaña, but it’s harder to see that. We are always on the cases of men, because they haven’t practiced the move at home, but followers can take it easy. The leaders in our group have to jump through hoops for us, but it is less demanding for followers.

Get in Shape

Many people get into salsa dancing to lose weight, but quite frankly people don’t dance enough to do this. The Saturday practices are almost 3 hours long, but people arrive late, take a lot of breaks, start chatting and then at the end, they have only danced 10 to 15 minutes. Nobody is expecting that you become an athlete, but a shedding a few pounds can help your casino dancing immensely. You will find it easier to move on the dance floor or be moved by leader in a spin. You may experience a newfound flexibility and elasticity in your dancing and a freedom of movement that you didn’t have before.

Be Realistic

Most of the casino rueda videos we watch are performance or show casino ruedas. Most of the dancers are usually very young like 18 to 22 years old and have probably been dancing casino since they were young. And they have had excellent casino dancers all around whom they could emulate or dance with (compare that to Bloor West Village in Toronto). But of course not all Cuban young people dance casino well, the dancers who are in videos were chosen because they dance better than the others. On top of that, to do a performance or compete in a casino rueda competition, many rueda groups practice two to three hours a day five times a week. I am not saying that it is impossible for us to reach that level. Some of us can pick it up faster than others, but you should be aware how much work and dancing that involves.

It’s about the music, silly;  enjoy dancing without a partner

There is a strange disconnect happening between the music and its particular dance. Some people like how a partner dance looks without really being fans of the music. I like a particular dance because it expresses the music. If I don’t like the music, I am not going to like the dance. People like to try casino rueda because they like how it looks but not necessarily the music, but they don’t understand the only way to dance casino rueda is to go through the music.

Why do you need a partner to dance casino? Do hip hop fans wait around for someone to ask them to dance when their favorite song comes on? You can say hip hop is not a partner dance. But who says it can’t be? Samba and the blues are now offered as couple dances in North America. The time you waste sitting around waiting to ask someone to dance or to be asked to dance is time you could have used to practice your basics. The more you practice the basics, the more likely someone will ask you to dance or dance with you when they see you move. Why do we feel sorry for someone who doesn’t have a partner to dance with? Perhaps they want to dance alone and try new steps and body movements. Sometimes it is more interesting to express the music by yourself than dancing with someone who is so hard to move (because they don’t practice the basics at home) and can’t follow the music.

Think outside the linear salsa “rectangle”

Some people like Cuban style salsa dancing, but they view it through a LA/ NY mindset. Linear salsa is an instructor/ school generated activity. In Cuba, most people learn to dance casino socially through family and friends. Most Cubans like casino because they like the music and they enjoy dancing to it. In North America, salsa is linked to self-esteem building, self-actualization, self-help or expression of one’s sensuality; salsa is also marketed as a way to meet people or exercise. I am sure casino in Cuba can have the same effects, but they are secondary to the music.

People always remark on how inclusive casino rueda groups tend to be. It’s just like one big family. But there are also some disadvantages to this as well. At a regular salsa practice or nightclub, the really bad dancers or really obnoxious people are just ignored; they don’t get asked to dance or people are reluctant to dance with them. In a small practice of casino rueda, everybody is kind of forced to dance with everybody. You even ask dancers you would never dream of asking for a one-on-one dance, because you enter the rueda and you know you will hand them off very soon in a “dame” or “enchufla”.

People who think of casino rueda in LA/ NY terms think I am a snob because I am selective of who I let into the group. In LA/ NY salsa, a terrible dancer just affects his/ her partner; in casino rueda, it affects everybody in the group. This selection process happens in all groups that practice casino rueda; they don’t allow everyone who wants to give it a try into the ruedas. People say, “But it is supposed to be fun.” But for any activity or sport to be fun, you have to learn the basic skills or follow the rules. The problem is that NY/ LA styles are so mainstream in North America that people just prefer to practice these styles; casino rueda is nice because they can have an available partner (a definite plus), but they would rather improvise from the linear salsa they already know.

 

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Things they don’t tell you about casino rueda on the salsa websites

  1. Casino is a genre or style of dance just like bachata, samba or swing. You can dance casino with just one partner or in a rueda. You dance casino (not regular salsa) in a rueda.
  2. Dancing naturally is difficult. Casino or Cuban style salsa looks natural, therefore, Cuban style salsa is difficult for most people.
  3. Many LA/ NY dancers like to dance on the balls of their feet. Casino is a grounded dance. Heels come down to change weight and propel you on the dance floor.
  4. Casino dancers tend to dance more relaxed (which also makes people think Cuban style is easy). However, bodies and arms can only be more relaxed when the basics are fully mastered inside and out. A relaxed body allows you to make more body movement and to accelerate on the floor.
  5. Salsa dancers from other styles tend to spin faster, but Cuban style dancers move faster on the dance floor especially during ruedas. They do this by pushing off with their supporting leg.
  6. Most spins in casino are not twirled as in linear salsa like a ballerina. Followers often “step out” their turns, so ladies also do their part by moving around the floor. That’s why it sometimes feels like you are trying to move a mountain leading LA/NY followers in casino turns.
  7. Casino is danced closer than other salsa styles. Again we have the importance of being relaxed. “Relaxed” doesn’t mean to dance like a dead fish. It means keeping your body elastic and flexible.
  8. When you do guapea, there is also a little pull in right before the hand push. What distinguishes casino from other styles of salsa is this elastic push-pull movement.
  9. Partner communication is more important in Cuban style salsa because cross body leads (dile que nos) can go in any direction, spins move on the dance floor, basic steps can vary in size, type and direction, etc. Variety is the spice of life.
  10. In most salsa styles, the left foot steps forward and the right steps back. In Latin American salsa, sometimes both of your feet break back angled to the side. Cuban style includes all of these steps and sometimes you have to break forward with both feet. In guapea, the leader has to break forward with his right foot and break back with his left ! In many ways, you have to be the master of all salsa styles in Cuban style salsa. I told you casino is difficult.

 

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Notes on the Korean “Mother-Murder”

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Joseph Kim

In 2002, a small little film called “The Way Home” became the biggest box office hit in South Korea. Koreans seemed to find in the film a reaffirmation of the values they held dear: unselfishness and unconditional love for the family.  However, the film’s depiction of Korean mothers is often a troubling one. The grandmother is not a person in herself, but an expression of the collective guilt of a nation for their parents and grandparents. Crippled, mute, the grandmother is basically the grandson’s slave. Not one word of resentment, complaint or reprimand is uttered when the grandson steals from her, abuses and takes advantage of her. The connection is clear near the end credits when we read that the film is dedicated to all the grandmothers in the world: grandmothers (especially Korean ones) are destined to suffer silently, such is their lot in life, and we as Koreans should try to understand and help them.

Bong Joon-Ho’s “Mother” takes on the Korean masochistic mother and pushes it even further and what comes out is very disturbing. Boon uses Kim Hye-ja, everybody’s mom from Korean television, in the role of Kim Hye-ja, a mother who desperately tries to prove the innocence of her son who has been accused of murdering a young school girl. However, Hye-Ja is no cipher; in fact, she takes charge of the investigation and adroitly learns to navigate the underworld of her town and its criminal justice system. However, this mother’s self-sacrifice and unconditional love for her son come to a very different outcome than” The Way Home”; murder and the loss of her sanity.  In fact, as Bong points out the Korean pronunciation of the English word ¨murder¨ sounds a lot like ¨mother¨.

Blood

The relationship that exists between Hye-ja and her son Do-joon is almost primordial; Boon calls it “instinctual in an animalistic way”.

The blood that binds mother and son is a key idea in the film and in Korean society. Koreans don’t like to adopt children outside their families, because they don’t share the same blood. Similarly, many Koreans like to boast of their racial purity – the same people sharing the same blood. Blood connects Hye-ja  and her son Do-joon. Hye-ja insists they are one. After Do-joon is hit by a hit-and-run driver, Hye-ja mistakes her own blood for Do-joon´s blood – she had accidently cut herself and stained his clothes. 

In the course of her investigation, the murdered victim’s best friend asks Hye-Ja to go to the store to buy some sanitary pads as a ruse to get rid of her. At the store, the young female cashier gives Hye-ja a strange look because of her age. Hye-Ja may not “bleed” anymore because of menopause, but she does bleed for her son and makes others bleed as well. 

In the end, it is blood that connects the supposed killer with the victim for the police when they find the blood of the victim Moon Ah-jung on another boy nicknamed “crazy JT” who is currently in jail. JT said that Moon Ah-Jung had frequently nosebleeds while they had sex. This seems plausible to the audience because we see her have a nosebleed with her best friend in a photo shop during a flashback. 

Water 

Water seems to represent a foreboding of things to come. 

Hye-Ja tells police officer Je-Mun that Do-Joon couldn´t even hurt a water bug while the rain pours outside the car. It always rains when Hye-Ja suffers a setback, when detective Je-Mun tells her to consider the case 100% closed, when the blood on Jin-tae´s golf club turns out be lipstick or when attorney Gong suggests sending Do-Joon away for only four years. 

While staking out the Jin-tae’s house, Hye-Ja accidentally knocks over water bottle, the water oozes out of the bottle much in the same way the blood oozes out of her victim´s head later on the film’s finale. Hye-ja covers up Do-joon´s urine on a wall outside just like she covers up her son’s murder later on. 

After the meeting with attorney Gong, we see an insert of young boy offering a small bottle of medicine, a reference to when she tried to poison herself and her son when he was five years old. The next shot is of Hye-Ja throwing up in a toilet from the hangover from the meeting. But we learn later on that after the poisoning, “instead of dying, Hye-Ja and her son spent two days vomiting and shitting water.” 

The mentally handicapped

I read recently that some Korean families with mentally handicapped children often claim refugee status in the West. They often cite prejudice, bullying, and a lack of governmental support and social acceptance. Korean culture often places blame on the parents of a mentally challenged person – the transmission of bad blood.  Parents in Korea see their developmentally challenged children as evidence for the failure as parents. Although we never find out the reason why Hye-Ja tried to poison her son and herself, given Hye-Ja’s circumstances in the film, it would certainly be understandable to a Korean audience. Single mothers with children born out of wedlock are not tolerated in Korean society. Another Korean film “Marathon” about another mother and her autistic son and the challenges they face from society tried to change prejudices long held in Korean society. 

Justice 

Financial settlements in lieu of litigation are commonplace in Korea. The police urge the professors and Jin-tae, Do-Joon’s best friend, to come to an agreement rather than go to court. Mother brings the police ginseng energy drinks to the police officers to win favor. In Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry”, the fathers of the students who participated in a gang rape offer the victim´s mother money rather than ruin the future of their sons. 

Hye-Ja apparently hires the most expensive lawyer in the country, attorney Gong, who seems more interested in buffets, ¨hostess¨ bars and scolding the manners of the younger generation. It is doubtful that attorney Gong is that expensive, because as officer Je-Mun points out, ¨Not that she can afford to do anything¨. Justice requires money in Korea. As attorney Gong´s associate relates, in monetary terms, if this were Seoul, the fee they are charging wouldn´t even cover a case of assault involving two broken teeth. 

As it turns out (Do-Joon actually did murder the high school girl), attorney Gong offers her the most humane and ultimately the most moral option, four years in a hospital (not a jail) although she is blind to it. Ironically, this moral option is a backroom deal that attorney Gong makes with an ex high school classmate, the president of Apape Psychiatric Hospital, and his bar exam classmate. 

Police

As in Bong Joon-Ho’s  “Memories of Murder”, police investigations resemble circuses. Detectives take their cues from television shows like CSI, re-enacting murder scenes in front of crowds, dropping the heads of mannequins representing the murder victims, or crashing a car when chased by a mother of a suspect. 

The police insist it’s not police torture, but under interrogation, the police kick apples from Do-joon´s mouth under the guise of the sport sepak takraw. It is not police torture when they are hitting an apple even though the apple is in the suspect´s mouth. 

The police’s lack of professionalism makes the police all too human. It is also makes it funny also. The world weary, cynical demeanor of the police (from television?) seems risible when you consider that this has been the town’s first murder since most can remember. 

In fact, the lines between police officer, criminal, suspect or regular citizen are often blurry. Hye-Ja used to bring police officer Je-Mun ginseng energy drinks when he was in high school. Jin-tae, Do-joon’s best friend, reads books on scientific investigation and wears a police baseball hat when he does his own “interrogation” of two known classmates of the murder victim. He says “It’s in my blood… If it were me, I’d never investigate like that.” This is a town where everyone knows each other too well, where everybody was once friends, classmates, neighbours, or acquaintances. 

Memory

Bong’s film is not only about a murder, it is about a memory of a murder. In fact, his 2003 film was called “Memories of Murder”. The Mother-Murder title refers to first the first obvious murder, but it also foreshadows the mother’s own murder towards the end of the film. Then, of course, there is also Hye-Ja’s attempted “murder” of herself and her son, the memory of which has been buried for so long. In an attempt to help Do-joon with the “temples of doom” technique, she inadvertently makes him remember the time when she gave him a Bacchus bottle of insecticide. She is the only one who knows the acupuncture point on his thigh “that can loosen the knots in his heart and clear the horrible memories from his mind”.

Bullies and Violence 

In a society which prides itself in being homogenous, everybody who is different feels alienated from the rest of society.  Moon Ah-jung´s mother died early, her father ran off with another woman and she lives with her alcoholic grandmother. She is used and abused by men who call her the “rice cake” girl because she can be “bought” with some rice. 

But even Ah-jung calls Do-joon a “stupid retard”, which evokes an automatic violent response from Do-joon. Do-joon’s mother has raised him to fight back against the bullies that he must have endured while growing up.  “If they insult you, kick their ass. If they hit once, hit them twice”.  When Do-joon threw back the large rock killing Ah-jung, he was just doing what his mother taught him to do. In a sense, doesn’t that make the mother equally as guilty of Ah-jung’s death?

 

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Two Nations

Hortencia Cruz

 She remembers holding her mother´s hand and walking a long way. She was too small, 4 or 5 years old at the most, to know how long they walked but it could have been for weeks, maybe months. She can not even remember her mom´s face. All she could see was her shoes, they were brown and open in the front, and she could see her big toe and its sharp nail.

Long pants made it impossible to see her mom´s legs but they were slim and short, covered by a long sweater that she used to grab when her mom´s hand left hers to cleanse the sweat from her face or to arrange the big backpack that she was carrying on her back with all the belongings that she had in her life: her wedding ring, some girl clothes, a photograph, and a bottle of water and rice balls for the trip.

She remembers abandoning the family house in a terrible hurry, the adults crying and screaming and then leaving everything behind them to join a huge line of men, women and children. They all started walking; the path was uneven with small and big stones and the soil was red and dry, they all walked and wept, wept more and walked. Nobody gave her a specific reason for the suddenly flight, she was too small to understand life.

They used to take breaks and sit down under the shade of huge trees with purple  flowers whose sweet smell lingered in her nose, and at night, her mom and other kids of other moms used to lay clothes on the grass so the kids could go to sleep first while they kept talking in whispers to their men.

The days were long and hot and the nights short and cold. As time passed, she became hungry and thirsty and her mom´s shoes worn out so much that she was able to see her five toes covered by small cuts and blood; she got cuts too and she cried and complained about it but her mom never did, she just kept walking. Later on, she got used to the tiredness and the small amounts of food and water; some people did not and she saw them falling down and then being left behind as they continued walking.

Now that she is an adult she knows the reason for the unexpectedly journey: the division of her country in two different nations: North Korea and South Korea.

Neither her mom nor the other adults could see a clear division of the North and the South, the whole country looked the same for them: tall and pointed mountains standing everywhere like if they where handmade sculptures painted by kids; watery fields of the rice plantation; wooded small houses impregnated with fish and *kimchi smell; noisy rivers going down and then side to side following the shape of the land.

She never saw her grandpa and grandma again since she ended up living in the South “by accident” -as her mom used to tell her- and were prohibited from going to the North.

She grew up and was as tall as her mother but she still couldn´t see her face, both were so busy working long hours in a factory to contribute to their new modern and capitalist nation.     

  *Kimchi: traditional Korean dish made from fermented cabbage

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The “Lucky One”

Hortencia Cruz

The loud sound of aluminium cans being smashed woke up Leo, the old yellow family cat. At first he didn’t move. But when Lee Wong smashed a long beer can right in front of Leo’s hairy ear, he run away with a long meow.

Lee was too busy to notice the cat. She was unloading a Wal-Mart shopping cart that she had taken from the store to collect aluminium cans and glass bottles. She had discovered the Western way to make money in her own Chinese language.

At first she couldn’t read the labels, but she could distinguish the smell of beer from the smell of soft drinks. Beer had a sweetish sour smell, not pleasant but not nasty; later on she didn’t have to smell the empty bottles since she learned to recognize the colours and drawings on each of them.

This cart is too small and makes a lot of noise, the entire neighbourhood can hear the wheels from far away and people look at me when I open their recycle cans, that is embarrassing.” Lee didn’t use to speak to herself in the past; she developed this habit inCanada after spending hours by herself in an empty cold room she shared with her daughter and grandchildren.

Lee was not used to living in the city; she was born among zucchini, rice and sprout plantations. She never wore a watch in her life, the sky was her clock and the singing of the roosters her alarm clock.

Since she was a little girl her work would start before dawn: cook rice and make tea for her father and brothers, then go to the flooded plains to plant rice seeds.

Her hands were her only mirror, and they would tell her that her skin was dry and tanned. When she was older her parents decided that it was time for her to get married and grow her own seeds. It was then that she gave birth to eight children. “We need more hands for the harvest, her husband would say at nightfall.

Xiang was the youngest of her children. The “lucky one” Lee would call her since she married a young man that eventually took her to live in Canada with him.

Her “lucky one” went back to China after ten years of living abroad and the first words that pronounced to her mom were: “Mom, you are so old!

Lee didn’t answer, she was too busy looking for the first time at her withered hands and her white hair that resembled the head of an onion.

-Yes, but what can I do about it ? –and a while later she found the right words to take her revenge- you are as thin as a sugar cane.

-Mom, come with me to Canada, life there is so easy, there is plenty of food. There you could rest and watch tv all day.

Xian told her about a sweet treat called ice cream: “It is cold, sweet and creamy, and there are hundreds of different flavours, chocolate, green tea, cherry, mango”. She even told her about the shopping mall food courts: “it is like a big market where people can sit and eat American food like fried chicken, fish, beef. You won’t need to worry about cooking over there”.

Now Lee remembers all this words and promises like a distant dream; and every time she bends down to pick up a glass bottle secretly blames her “lucky one” for not telling her how hard it is to earn a living in her new home.

 


 

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