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This past two weeks I’ve been relaxing in the lush green Atlantic island of Madeira with my family. While soaking up the sun and sights (more anon) and catching up on the massive books to be read next list I’ve, as always, kept an ear out for interesting music.
The most charming and arresting musical experience I had here was listening to the fluid jazz guitar quartet led by Juan Calderado which plays regularly to the patrons of the delightful Ritz Cafe in downtown Funchal. Juan, a rhythm guitar partner and two percussionists lay down an entrancing mellow groove that seems to shimmer around them in the lovely Madeiran summer light.
While the repertoire is a straightforward mixture of jazz and superior pop standards the arrangements and performances demonstrate an acute musical intelligence and feel with real rhythmic and melodic improvisation giving each tune life and charm. Catch them if you can!
Madeira is of course a Portuguese province and the gentle lilt of that graceful language softens all conversations here. Portuguese is the language of one of my most beloved musical genres – Fado. This is a music of bruised pride and dignity; a music that understands that a passionate life along with the joyous rewards of love and family will also inevitably involve the wounds and scars of disappointment, regret and loss which no one truly engaged in the business of living can avoid.
The Portuguese term for the soul of the music is, ‘Saudade’ which encompasses longing and fate – forces we all know something about. Saudade involves an accommodation with those forces not a surrender – it’s music that doesn’t rage against fate but rather ruefully smiles at its presumptions accepting its lessons and storing the wisdom for future use. It is a music of a people who have known defeat more than once yet who remain undefeated.
The queen of Fado, Amalia Rodrigues, is a figure who stands comparison with the greatest divas of popular music : Edith Piaf, Bessie Smith, Lydia Mendoza and Umm Kulthum; artists whose work made them not just admired but loved by entire nations and cultures. They defiantly expressed, not without significant cost to themselves, a deep measure of the longings, joys and frustrations struggling humanity has to battle. We feel listening to them as if they represent our hearts and souls standing up and singing out in the face of life’s torrents.
Amalia Rodrigues is virtually a secular saint in Portuguese culture; a constant source of solace and resolve during times of conflict, depression and highly charged political ferment. She was a woman whose beauty and style marked her out as special and that was before you heard her extraordinarily searching and affecting voice. This is a voice that will engage with your emotions, wring your heart and linger long in your memory.
If you are ever planning a trip to Madeira there are scores of excellent guidebooks and histories that will help you enjoy your stay. My comments below are strictly unscientific and personal observations!
The Portuguese drivers are tremendously avid tailgaters. They seem to be in competition with one another to see who can get within ten millimetres or so of the car ahead in order to force them to switch lanes so they can then roar off into the distance! Watching one of these operators loom larger and larger in your mirror is an unnerving experience. Move over and let them by.
Madeira is a land of mountains and valleys making for dramatic vistas and world class hiking trails. It also means that you will have to confront some heart stopping steep roads. Make sure your car has plenty of power and a smooth, secure gearbox. You’re going to be using first and second gear a lot and before you go brush up on your hill starts because boy are you going to need to have confidence in that skill!
If you’re renting a house or apartment you’re sure to find you’re sharing it with a menagerie of speedy, skittering and leaping green and yellow reptiles. The first time one appears its a rare person who won’t jump a few inches into the air. However, you soon realise they are harmless and doing you valuable service in keeping the insect population under control. By the end of two weeks here I had fondness for them and even gave one sprightly fellow his own nickname (Lightning).
Bridges and Tunnels:
Because of the mountainous terrain Madeira must be paradise for anyone who has an interest in the wonders of civil engineering. Millions of tonnes of concrete must have been poured to build the gorge spanning bridges and the deep bored tunnels. There’s a great photographic essay waiting to be completed on this theme.
Be sure to:
Take the wonderfully relaxing cable car ride from Funchal to Monte. The fifteen minutes or so you spend suspended in a comfortable cabin looking out and over Funchal, the mountains and the sea seems to makes time tick at a more proper stately pace. You arrive philosophically refreshed and in the right mood to wander amid the botanical gardens of Monte. You can take the cable car back down but I recommend swooshing down in the traditional toboggan ride powered by the steep slopes of the mountain and expertly steered by two costumed, ‘pilots’. It’s the only way to go downhill!
Visit the cave and volcano centre at São Vicente on the north coast of the island. First there’s a pleasant drive there from Funchal and once you arrive the complex is both beautiful and utterly fascinating. The caves are extensive and immersing yourself in them under the tutelage of a knowledgeable but not intrusive guide is a rewarding experience. The film and exhibition about the volcanic and geological history of the island have been brilliantly conceived and executed. If you’re anything like me you’ll emerge looking to buy a series of books on the subjects. Fantastic value at only 6 Euros!
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Imagine yourself as Ishmael (remember he alone survived) boarding The Peaquod when you visit the village of Canical where John Huston’s film of Moby Dick with Gregory Peck as the monomaniacal Ahab was filmed in 1956. I consider Moby Dick not only to be the Great American Novel but a monumental work which ranks alongside The Iliad, The Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s Tragedies. The magnificent sonorousness of Melville’s heroic prose and the epic scope of his imagination never fails to thrill the mind and stir the spirit. I try to read the great work every year.
Once I’ve landed back home and caught up with the post and my domestic duties normal service will resume here at the jukebox. Hope you all enjoy your holidays wherever you venture.