Colombo

No, not the raincoated detective, but whilst we’re in the American TV milieu…

There’s an episode in the fourth series (or season for those across the pond) of the Sopranos where the Italians come into conflict with a group of American Indians who hold a protest on Columbus Day, the national holiday which falls in October each year and commemorates the explorer’s landing on October 12th 1492.

The show highlighted what a controversial figure he is, with the views on either side of the argument typically polarised.  For the Native Americans he was a slave trader who subjugated their people, for the Italians he was a pioneer, the first Italian to leave Genoa for America, but foreshadowing the great migration that was to come in the last years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th.

In typical Italian style, the argument became muddied when one of Soprano family “soldiers” joins the arguments against Columbus.  Why?  Because as a Neapolitan, he has a dislike of anyone from the north of Italy (Columbus included), for the north basks in its wealth while the south battles poverty.  Nevertheless many Italian Americans feel their heritage is threatened.

So who was closer to the truth?  Several states in America have made their decision, renaming the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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Although he was Genoese, Columbus didn’t sail from the port, or even from Italy.  Remember this post?  His voyage was financed by the Spanish monarchy, so the settlements he established were Hispanic rather than Italian.  Nor were they on the American mainland, they were on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).  His four voyages saw him explore the islands of the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America rather than North America.  Of course even if he had, he would not have been the first.  Leif Ericsson had completed that journey four centuries earlier!

As to the atrocities laid at his door?  They seem to be largely true, and whether he was truly tyrannical, “acting under orders” or simply unable to control the Spanish soldiers, he was Governor when the first transatlantic slave ship sailed back to Europe, and both settlers and indigenous people were decimated by pandemics as disease spread rapidly during colonisation.  The gold fever that would drive Cortez and the Conquistadors through South America began with Columbus; arguably the first Pirate of the Caribbean who cut off the hands of natives who refused him gold.

Barcelona celebrates his achievements with the great column overlooking the port, but Genoa seems a little more embarrassed.  Yes he is commemorated with a statue atop a rostral column, but at the train station rather than in the port development.  The image of subjugation probably doesn’t help.  

He is depicted in a mural within the Palazzo Ducale (venue for that infamous G8 meeting), though here the message is that his intention was to spread Christianity.  There is probably truth in that too; the Spanish court was fiercely Catholic and would one day send an Armada to re-establish Catholicism in England.  That didn’t turn out to be their finest hour either.

I’d read that the house where he was born (also disputed though the property was owned by his father) stood near the defensive towers of one of the city’s medieval gates, but on my first visit there I was so distracted by those towers that I forgot Cristoforo Colombo.  On the second I discovered a small cloister that is all that remains of a monastery that stood here from the 11th century until demolished in the 19th.  I soon forgot Colombus once again, but why?  There are no signs, no indications, no reminders that this is an important site.  More evidence of mixed feelings?

The house itself is so small that I had walked past three times before I recognised it, completely dwarfed in the lee of those towers.  Perhaps this is why the Italians of that TV show had so much pride.  The gate is the Porta Soprana.

Casa di Cristoforo Colombo?
Casa di Cristoforo Colombo?

Private

Fancy a little secluded slice of paradise?

For just £2.4 million you could buy your own Greek island in the Ionian Sea.

Too pricey?

Well then only £1.7m will get you 12 acres of beach-front in St Lucia.

Still a little rich for your pocket?

Half an acre of virgin land on Mayreu in the Grenadines will set you back a far more modest £103,000.

Or you could go to Marsden Beach on a cold and grey November lunchtime for free.

Not as appealing?  Maybe not if you’re a devout sun-worshipper, but for the crash of waves on a sloping beach, swirling foam,  towering cliffs, and sculpted rocks its hard to beat, and for half an hour today it was all mine.  Not a soul to be seen and even the prints from the morning’s dogs were being erased by the advancing tide.

Even on the greyest of days there was colour as the russet sands were swirled into the gunmetal waters, yellow limestone shone in its coat of salt water and the sky managed to inject a little glaucous hue into the deeper waters.

Here nature plays out a battle between the sea and the land and there will only be one winner, for though the cliffs stand tall and the rocks hold fast the sea has time on its side.  Imperceptibly scouring the surface of the stones that emerge from the sand, sucking at the feet of the great limestone walls above, grinding pebbles back and forth along the shore.  The plentiful grains of sand indicate the fate awaiting those seemingly stout defences.

After a while I decided it was time to beat a retreat before my escape route was cut off and as I began my ascent back to the cliff tops met Scott bringing his two dogs for a little exercise.  I felt I was handing over custodianship of a piece of treasure.  For a little while at least.

Roots

The Gateshead International Jazz Festival is one of the important annual events on the calendar at The Sage, and has played host to a diverse range of artists who fly the flag for jazz over the years.  My personal highlight was seeing Bill Bruford play one of his last gigs before retirement, improvising duets with Michiel Borstlap.  I still live in hope that he will reconsider his decision not to play again.

Andy Sheppard, Treibhaus Innsbruck 2009, conce...
Andy Sheppard, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it comes to British Jazz, there are two names who have been standard bearers for the last quarter century; Andy Sheppard and Courtney Pine, and last night they shared the same stage, though not simultaneously.  Though each is a virtuoso on both soprano and tenor sax that is pretty much where the similarities end.  Pine is a giant of West Indian origin, with a greying goatee and immaculately conditioned dreads, he could easily pass for the audition for the next Predator movie.

Courtney Pine - Fri 22 July 2011 -0232
Courtney Pine - Fri 22 July 2011 -0232 (Photo credit: The Queen's Hall)

He is gregarious and fun loving with a flamboyant playing style that reflects his personality.  Recent gigs have seen him turn to the bass clarinet over his trademark saxes.

Sheppard is physically smaller, but no less a talent.  He favours anonymous grey suits and shirts which blend with his trademark crew-cut, although these days this is predominantly silver.  His playing style can be just as frenetic, but more often that note embodies a breathy, smoky, mellowness that matches his understated stage presence.

Each was on great form last night, but it was the remarkable musicians with them that drew my attention.

Sebastian Rochford (jazz drummer)
Sebastian Rochford (jazz drummer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve seen Seb Rochford playing with Sheppard before and he is a huge talent (and as a drummer perhaps an heir to Bruford’s crown), though he is visually as fascinating.  He sports an incredible head of hair, like some oversized, lop sided afro, which barely moves in performance, such is the apparent effortlessness with which he produces his rhythmic interventions.  He plays a minimal drum kit, yet with sticks, mallets, brushes and bare hands delivers more than many would believe possible.

If Seb’s hair is notable, then so is that of Zoe Rahman, pianist in Pine’s current line up as

Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman
Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

well as leader of her own trio.  Born of Bengali parents, she is an Oxford graduate who has only recently begun to explore her ethnic roots though her music.  Seated at the piano this frail looking girl with finely sculpted features seems unremarkable until you notice her hair, a black cascade which falls beyond the piano stool supporting her.  When she plays any thoughts of frailty are lost; she is a powerhouse of technique and seems completely at home in an otherwise Afro-Caribbean band.

When looking for someone to photograph today then I knew I must find someone with great hair to continue the theme.  You have no idea how difficult that is on a Sunday in Sunderland.  The early morning beachcombers generally care less for their appearance than for exercising their dogs, and as for the town centre shoppers… the less said the better I think.  Even a stakeout at Marks and Spencer proved fruitless.

I gave up on the town and was returning to my car when I spotted Pam on the Wear Bridge and my prayers were answered.  She is the third Nigerian to have featured in my portrait a day project and is a student in computer engineering at Sunderland University.  Great hair, great smile, great personality – more Pine than Sheppard!