Sunday, June 26, 2005

Slices of life

The past few days have gone by in a glorious food- and art- and music-laden whirlwind. Our Oxford reunion dinner at a friend's house in Pimlico on Thursday night was alot of fun, catching up with all our lives -- something we do so rarely even though we're all based in London. The food was simple and delicious: a selection of salami and olives, gala melon and feta, roast vegetables and mozzarella, rye bread dipped in olive oil, nuts, chocolate, wine and iced tea.

Music was streamed in through the stereo from someone's iPod -- music I hadn't heard for years, such as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Alison Krause and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The same thing has happened since I've bought my digital Walkman: I've loaded it with music I haven't listened to in a long while and with new-to-me music from MP3 blogs such as Tofu Hut and Moebius Rex.

Perfect food and music for the humid heat.

On Friday, I returned to the Urban Retreat spa in Aveda, Covent Garden, for a body treatment -- the Salt Glow. For an hour and a half, my body was exfoliated with Dead Sea salt minerals then covered with a herbal clay mask, after which I was left to fall asleep surrounded by candles and soothing music. After my shower, the therapist smothered my freshly-glowing skin with a customised moisturiser. Then I lingered over vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, wheat-free, egg-free carrot cake -- moist and yummy -- and a ginger and peach herbal tea in the Aveda cafe.

The spa treatment was a wonderful treat from my partner, who I met for cocktails in low-lit, romantic The Player bar in Soho, where we drank Pisco Sour and a sublimely refreshing Grapefruit Julep made from grapefruit juice, vodka, honey and passionfruit juice. Then we ate a colourful dinner of Chinese broccoli and shitake stir-fry; scallops with baby squid, prawns, seaweed and red chillis; and a "jungle red curry" of chicken and aubergines in the excellent and heaving canteen-style Thai restaurant Busaba Eathai on Store Street.

We also visited the hypnotic, lush and passionate Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Tate Modern -- the first Kahlo exhibition in the UK. Kahlo was one of my earliest idols when I was a teenager (I discovered her via Madonna); one of my earliest means of imaginative escape whilst stuck in drab suburbia. More on this exhibition later.

On Saturday, we had a quick snack of dim sum and a Venezuelan beef sandwich at Camden Lock Market, then walked along the very spare stretch of Regent's Canal to London Fields, passing some interestingly-designed modern and old warehouse-style apartment blocks. We had planned to continue on along the canal to Limehouse, but got waylaid by the Turkish menu at the Cilicia cafe: tabbouleh, chicken wings, baked rice pudding and Turkish coffee. After a quick wander around the busy Farmers' Market on Broadway and a stroll through London Fields park, thinking what a great place this would be to live if it was better connected transport-wise (ie a Tube line and more buses), we took the bus back into town for a browse around the shops on Oxford Street and a recuperative berry smoothie and cucumber with orange juice at Leon off Carnaby Street.

In the evening, we made a spontaneous decision to listen to some music we had never heard before, on the strength of a Time Out piece. We cut through Soho and Charing Cross, crossing the River Thames to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to purchase tickets to a concert by Russian-Mongolian throat-singing punk rockers Yat-Kha and bluesy Saharan Touareg revolutionaries Tinariwen, as part of Patti Smith's Meltdown festival (she was singing -- with Flea and others -- the entire Horses album next door, but by the end of the evening I was glad we hadn't been able to get tickets months ago, as amazing as her performance must surely have been).

Not knowing what to expect as we took our seats, both bands were a revelation. Tinariwen were fighters in the Touareg insurgency against the Malian government and formed in 1982 in Colonel Ghadaffi's rebel camps. Their music is bluesy, spare and weathered, and underpinned with hard-hitting electric guitars, bass and drums.

But it was Yat-Kha that held me spellbound. The lead singer out-Waited Tom Waits, with a voice so deep and throaty that every hair on my head was electrified. Against a surging electric guitar, punchy bass, pounding drums and violin-like wail of a traditional Mongolian instrument, the lead singer's voice was a bone-shaking "subterranean rumble" that growled its way through a selection of covers including Motorhead's Orgasmatron and Hank William's Ramblin' Man. Their rendition of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart (MP3 file) was so haunting and disturbing that I nearly cried (the first time in years a live song has brought tears to my eyes).

The covers feature on their latest album, Re-Covers, and Yat-Kha recorded them as a tribute to the days when pop and rock music was illegal under Communism. As the singer, Albert Kuvezin, told a MOJO journalist over a meal of salty intestines and mayonnaise:

"At night, you could hear American or European radio stations, but it was really hard to get records this far from Moscow. Tuvan members of the Red Navy or students might come home with something. The first album I had was a double by Led Zeppelin from Japan. Eventually, you could go to yurts and find nomads and shepherds who had given the albums pride of place on a shelf next to a bust of Lenin. The only record label in the Soviet Union, Melodiya, released pop and jazz eventually, but only things the state approved of. The real interest [for us] was in the bootleg tapes and the home-made fanzines that explained what was happening outside."

Amazing stuff.

Listen to MP3s of Yat-Kha songs

Today, after a leisurely morning playing around on the internet, we headed out to the ICA for beer, cider and olives in the bar and then a viewing of the Japanese movie, Café Lumière. This homage to director Yasujiro Ozu is a meander through slices of life of twenty-something, pregnant Tokyoite, Yoko. Despite there being virtually no plot, the camera takes us through the minutiae of her daily life -- eating food, drinking milk in coffee bars, travelling around in trams and trains, chatting with her family and friends, having morning sickness -- with such fluidity and focus that, despite being rather sleepy at the end of the weekend, I was slowly drawn into the subtle and restrained narrative.

Then it was off for a dinner of broccoli and garlic, beef in black bean sauce, and deep-fried squid at Chinatown's rather good Hong Kong Diner.

Phew, what a weekend, what a long (my longest) post. Perhaps tomorrow I'll get back to reading Disgrace.

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