Sunday, 30 November 2014

Photo Essay - Cars of Cuba

Privately-owned taxi waiting beside our resort in Jibicoa, Cuba

On the road adjacent to the Cameleon resort in Jibicoa, Cuba

The Cubans call them Yank Tanks - or máquina, in Spanish. They are the old, large, shapely American cars - Chevrolets, Buicks, Dodges, Pontiacs, Studebakers, Oldsmobiles, etc. - from mostly the 1950s, that are found everywhere on this Caribbean-island nation. There are estimated to be about 60,000 of them still on the road. The photographs in this post were taken by me on four separate visits to Cuba: 2010-2011; 2013-2014.

On the highway near Havana - the Primer Anillo de La Habana

On the road between Via Blanca and the Cameleon resort at Jibicoa

Following the Castro revolution, which eventually led the U.S. government to impose a complete trade embargo in 1962, only cars from the pre-revolutionary era could be sold legally in Cuba. The embargo meant not only that new American cars could not come into the country, but also that replacement parts were banned too. 

In the fishing village of Cojimar

In Cojimar

It took a lot of work and clever improvising in order to find ways of repairing cars without the proper parts and equipment. Many cars were "parked" for long periods, until the required parts were located and installed. Some of them became multiple donors - stripped slowly of their components, in order to repair a number of other vehicles.

Cameleon resort at Jibicoa

During the thirty-odd years of Soviet support (1959-1991), most new cars brought into Cuba were Russian Ladas, Volgas, and Moskvitchs. These were not available to all Cubans - they were distributed to people with specific connections to various government departments and institutions.

Many of the old American cars were eventually converted, so that they could receive engine transplants - usually diesel engines from the Soviet Union. These replacements were popular because diesel fuel was sold in Cuba for about one-quarter the price of gasoline (petrol). But the running condition of these old beasts was problematic to families with tight incomes. The inefficiencies they experienced kept them from using their vehicles for more than about 800 km per year.

Suzuki Jimny "jeep" - used on a day-excursion in the rural area of La Habana province

Yours Truly at the wheel of a Suzuki Jimny driving around the Cuban countryside

In September, 2011 Raul Castro - Fidel's brother, and the day-to-day leader of the Cuban regime - announced a series of new regulations and laws that began to liberalise the Cuban economy. Private enterprise and entrepreneurial initiative were to be allowed in some sectors of the economy. Previously, only cars built before the revolution (1959) could be sold by individuals. But now, the ownership of post-revolution-era cars would no longer reside exclusively with the government. Cubans could now sell or trade their vintage cars from the 50s for newer models (Ladas, Hondas, etc.). A permit would not be required. That was the plan.

Taxis on the waterfront in Havana - the Malecón

Taxis on the waterfront in Havana - the Malecón

On the Malecón

But when the new measures were finally implemented fully in January, 2014, the reality was not as good as the promise. In theory prices were supposed to have been set by the market. But only businesses controlled by the state could sell new cars. It was still a virtual monopoly. A huge tax (up to 100%) was also imposed on the new vehicles - this move justified as a way to fund public transportation systems.

Buick in Havana ("Biuck" reads the repaired name!)

On the road adjacent to the Cameleon resort at Jibicoa

An Oldsmobile in Havana

When interested Cubans arrived at dealership showrooms they were shocked to read the sticker-price of these new imported cars. The state had imposed huge mark-ups. A Peugeot 508, for example, was listed at $262,000 ($53,000 in Canada). An economy model - the Peugeot 206, was available for $91,000. This in a country where the average monthly wage was about $25.00. As frustrated and jeering Cubans pointed out, it would not be even faintly possible to buy a car at that price within their lifetime.

A private taxi near the Cameleon resort in Jibicoa

At an old coffee ranch in the countryside of La Habana province

An abandoned camp-site near Jibicoa

In July, 2014 - six months after the new regulations were fully established - only 50 cars and 4 motorcycles had been sold - for an average price of $23,800. And most of the cars sold were actually second-hand vehicles - usually cars that had been well used by government-controlled rental agencies. There were only 11 licensed auto dealerships in the entire country - serving a population of 11,000,000.

My son Colin near Varadero - beside a Chevrolet

In Havana

Taxi on the waterfront in Havana - the Malecón

Clearly, it's going to be quite a while before a vibrant market of new-car sales is established in Cuba. Incomes will have to rise dramatically before the average consumer can even think of acquiring a modern car - even then, only a second-hand auto would be within the realm of possibility. The old Yank Tanks are probably still going to be around for quite a while - despite the hopes and ambitions of the Cuban people.

An English car  - a Morris Minor

Another classic English car in Havana - an Austin Healey

Lovers of the classic American cars of the '40s and '50s would have a field day walking around in Havana. There is a large variety of makes and models on the streets. Many of them are battered and bruised; but there are also some that are so well-maintained that they look to be in pristine condition. 

An overloaded Mercedes on the road near Jibicoa

Over the hill near Jibicoa

And when you're out in the rural areas, you'll often be surprised to come upon a beautiful specimen - in vibrant colours and wonderful condition. It's a car-lover's dream. You feel like you're in a time-warp, or that you've strayed into the location-shooting for a Hollywood movie. In some ways, it is a time-warp - an artificial situation created by the long-frozen relationship between this Caribbean nation and its American neighbour. But, fortunately, the slow thaw continues.

On the road near Jibicoa

Doing wedding duty in Havana

Photographs © Clive W. Baugh
(using a Nikon D7000 with a Nikkor 18-105 mm zoom lens)

Resources: Marc Frank - "Cuban hopes dashed as new and used cars go on sale" (Reuters); Sonia Verma - "Cuba gives green light to buying, selling car" (The Globe and Mail); BBC News

Private taxis at Cameleon resort in Jibicoa

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Album Review: "Down Where The Spirit Meets the Bone" by Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams can be a prolific songwriter, but she is notoriously slow at putting her albums together. She's a perfectionist, who likes to control every aspect of the recording. That makes for a long gap between releases - an average of three years across her career as a recording artist. But what we fans lack in the quantity of her output is more than made up for by the consistent quality of each release. 

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone was issued on September 30th., 2014. It is Williams' 11th. studio album - but the first release on her own label, Highway 20 Records. It proves to be an embarrassment of riches - a double-album featuring ten tracks on both discs; it clocks in at 103 minutes. Williams has built up a solid core of fans, thanks both to her regular tours and the excellence of her recordings. The new album was received with great anticipation - 20,000 copies were sold in its first week of release.

Lucinda Williams is from Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her music shows many influences: traditional country, folk-rock, blues, and roots rock; but she is most often tagged as an "alt-country" performer (as in alternative country), or a purveyor of "heartland rock". The straight-ahead, rhythm-and-blues-based rock 'n' roll of her last few albums continues on this new recording. It gives her albums wide appeal, and helps to dress up her often relentlessly depressing lyrics in an upbeat musical package.

The perennially-embittered tone of William's songs has tapered off somewhat with her marriage to music-business executive Tom Overby. They were engaged in 2006. The following year he became her manager. And then they married in 2008. Overby co-produced her album Little Honey that same year. And he's back as co-producer on the new one - sharing production duties with Lucinda Williams and Greg Leisz. With this stability in her personal life, her default position - one might say - has slowly shifted from that of the abused loner, to that of the rather contented marriage-partner. But that's not to say that there is still not plenty of room for despairing he-done-me-wrong songs!

All of the songs on Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone were written by Williams, except for the first and last tracks. The final song on the album is an extended treatment of JJ Cale's laid-back ballad "Magnolia", which featured on his wonderful debut album Naturally (1972). JJ Cale died fifteen months ago; this track serves as a lovely tribute. The opening track, "Compassion" - which includes the line that gives the album its title - is based on a piece of writing by the poet Miller Williams, Lucinda's father. She has given the words a tune, and added a few words of her own. "Have compassion for every one you meet," the song says, "even if they don't want it." What might seem like conceit, or bad manners, or cynicism "is always a sign of things no ears have heard ... and things no eyes have seen". 

                                                "You do not know what wars are going on
                                                Down there, where the spirit meets the bone."

This slow, lugubrious opener features an unadorned but affecting vocal by Lucinda, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. It is different to everything I've ever heard her do, and completely unrepresentative of the rest of the work. It's actually a brilliant start to the album, though, because it sets up the dramatic contrast that comes with the segue into the next track, "Protection": in the centre of the mix we first hear an electric-guitar lick, then a bass note; these are followed by electric-guitar licks from two other guitarists (Stuart Mathis and jazz/rock maestro Bill Frisell) - one in the right channel, the other in the left. And then the drums kick in. And off we go, with the three guitar parts playing in dialogue (trialogue?) with each other.

I love this sort of rock music with two or more lead guitar parts (think Keith Richards and Brian Jones, or Neil Young and Danny Whitten, or Neil and Stephen Stills). Two or three accomplished guitarists playing off of each other over a rockin' groove is a real treat to hear. And that's what we get throughout this album. There are, in fact, seven guitarists at work here: co-producer Greg Leisz plays on nearly every track; Stuart Mathis and Val McCallum feature on about half-a-dozen; Jonathan Wilson and Doug Pettibone appear on a couple; and veterans Tony Joe White and Bill Frisell make guest appearances on a few tracks. The rhythm section is Pete Thomas (drums) and Davey Farragher (bass) - both members of Elvis Costello's backing band The Impostors - and Ian McLagan on keyboards (former member of The Small Faces and The Faces). It's a wonderful group of seasoned veterans, and they deliver a real groove - whether it's country-rock, blues, rhythm and blues, or gritty-sounding roots rock. It all sounds great. 

With Lucinda Williams, though, it's not just the sound that makes its mark, it's also the songs. Most of them seem autobiographical - and they focus rather obsessively on the deep hurt and disappointments she has experienced in her relationships. There's not too many songwriters that I know of that can bring quite the same deep sense of hurt, grief and rage to their work. You hear it in a song like "Cold Day in Hell":

                                   "Before I walk with you again;
                                    Before you mess me up again;
                                    Before I talk to you again;
                                    Before you wreck my heart again:  
                                    It'll be a cold, cold day in hell;
                                    Yeah, It'll be a cold, cold day in hell."

There are other songs here in the same vein, like Big Mess, where again she gives a jerk the brush-off:

                                    "As far as I can tell,
                                    You are history;
                                    You can go straight to hell;
                                    That's alright with me;
                                    You can go on as usual -
                                    And you act like it doesn't mean jack;
                                    How can you be so casual,
                                    And then mess me up like that."

Some songs, however, pitched with a similar tone, offer some hope out of the pain. "When I Look at the World", for example, has verses built on a litany of complaints - "I've been out of luck, I've been talked about, I've been locked up, I've been shut out", etc. But the refrain offers this:

                                    "Then I look at the world and all its glory;
                                    I look at the world and it's a different story -
                                    Each time I look at the world."

Some of the hurtin' songs strike me as more formulaic and less autobiographical. The country ballad "It's Gonna Rain", which ends the first disc, is a typical example of pathetic fallacy - I'm unhappy, so it's going to rain. Bob Dylan's son Jakob features on this track - providing harmony vocals.

But with the stability that marriage brings, one's hopes for the future brighten, and the down-times are balanced by the contentment of married life. "Stowaway in Your Heart", for example, is full of thanks for a partner who  gives her "a place to keep [her] love." But the possibility of losing it all still seems to haunt her: "Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)" lays it out bare:

                                   "Afraid to love and afraid to give,
                                    Just because of what it might cost us;
                                    But love can never, never live
                                    Without the pain, the pain of loss ..."

And "Stand Right By Each Other" strikes a warning note: "Something destructive going on here / Can you feel it baby? / Tell me what you want me to do." It's about the reciprocity required in a long-term relationship:

                                   "We gotta stand right by each other,
                                    Gotta try harder, baby;
                                    I gotta stand right by you,       
                                    And you gotta stand right by me."

But Lucinda Williams also brings a moral imperative to her work - when she looks outward, and shifts her focus to social or political concerns. She sings about righteousness, the struggle between good and evil, and the redeeming effects of love and compassion. It often has the tone of a southern Baptist - because of that southern, Louisiana drawl of hers. In "Protection", for example, she calls for help to protect her from the enemy of love, of righteousness, of good, of kindness, of love, of soul, and - even! - of good ol' rock 'n' roll. That ominous enemy is conjured up again in the opening track of Disc Two, "Something Wicked This Way Comes" - "No love has he / He will show you no mercy." In the song "Foolishness" she rebukes those who would bring her down - the foolish, the liars, the promulgators of pie-in-the-sky, and the fear-mongers. The world can move, and you can pay your dues, she points out in another song: everything will change - "everything but the truth."  

But there are some more objective observations about life and politics. "Walk On" is a paean full of encouragement to a female rock 'n' roller - the "lead singer in the band". "I know you're fighting an uphill battle," she sings in this anthemic-like song, "but you'll win with a little struggle". Sounds like it's a work of self-reflection. In "East Side of Town", Williams depicts a wealthy, hypocritical do-gooder straying into her neighbourhood - someone who has no idea what they are talking about, and is really just waiting "to get the hell out". And "West Memphis" - one of the highlights of the album -  tells the story of the "West Memphis Three" (although it narrates the situation from the perspective of one of them), convicted for the murder of three little boys. Many people believe the three were framed by a corrupt system. That is Williams's view - the refrain of her song claims "that's the way they do things in West Memphis." The track is a haunting slow groove - featuring harmonica breaks and electric guitar from guest Tony Joe White.

With 20 tracks spanning 103 minutes, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone covers a lot of territory, and it develops a variety of core themes. But it's hard to point at any real filler in this double-album. It's a tight, unified piece of work - full of highly personal songs, that are put across delightfully by a crack band playing live in the studio with a gritty, rockin' groove. This may not be Lucinda Williams's very best album, but it's a highly satisfying collection of songs presented with the sort of electric-guitar-dominated sound that I particularly love. If you chart the progress of Williams's career - she's now 61 yrs. old - it's fair to say that she has been a late-bloomer. She didn't really hit her peak until her mid-40s. Since then, she has produced a series of consistently excellent albums. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is the latest installment. Check it out; you won't be disappointed.