My Pop Life #173 : Como Fue – Benny Moré

Como Fue   –   Benny Moré

Fueron tus manos o tu boca
fueron tus ojos o tu voz
o a lo mejor la impaciencia
de tanto esperar tu llegada
Mas no sé
no sé decirte como fue
no sé explicarme que pasó
pero de ti me enamoré
*
Was it your hands or your lips,
Was it your eyes or your voice,
maybe it was impatience
after waiting so long
for you to arrive.
I don’t know anymore,
I can’t tell you how it was,
I can’t explain what happened,
but I fell in love with you.
Cuba, 1953.   Benny Moré is singing with Ernesto Duarte Brito‘s Orchestre for Radio Progreso in Havana, eager to capitlise on the new batanga craze in the nightclubs and on the radio.  Benny is to sing the lead vocal on a new bolero entitled Como Fue (how it was).   In his heart he is longing to have his own band, his own orchestre, hiring the musicians, the backing singers, choosing the material and recording his own arrangements.  The following year all that would happen.  But he is already a star in Cuba.   Benny, born Bartolo, was the oldest of 18 children from Santa Isabel de las Lajas, in Pueblo Nuevo province;  his parents moved and he was raised in Camaguey and learned to play guitar and tres while working in his mother’s laundry.  Eventually he arrived in Havana, by now singing second vocal in small busking bands.  The great Cuban bandleader and songwriter Miguel Matamoros heard him singing and in 1945 he was asked to join the famous Trio Matamoros group, who’d been making hits since 1928.   Like many before him he trod the familiar path of success to Mexico where he was convinced to change his name to Benny (Bartolo is a donkey’s name in Mexico). Benny meets the great Perez Prado, el Rey de Mambo another Cuban playing in Mexico and recording for RCA Victor.  They cut a number of classic sides together before Benny Moré, now known as El Bararo del Ritmo, returned to Havana, homesick, in 1950.
And he continues to cut hit after hit after hit, all in different styles – cha-cha-cha, bolero, son, mambo, guaracha, batanga, rhumba.  His voice is sweet and masculine, expressive and lyrical.  The music is wonderful, and now he writes his own songs too.  In the 1950s Cuba was in the midst of a civil war, Fidel Castro had returned from exile in Mexico with Che Guevara alongside him and together they led a revolution which led to Fidel being named El Presidente in 1959.  He was still El Presidente when Jenny and I visited Cuba in late 1999/2000 for the new year holiday some 40 years later.  We were tired of the eternal build-up to The Millenium, and thought we’d escape the hype for a few weeks.
I’d been working for Channel 4 on a 6-episode series spin-off from the movie called Lock Stock and… playing an East End wide boy gangster called Miami Vice with shaved head and Bow Bells accent.  This was only a handful of years since I’d worked with the late great Warren Clarke in A Respectable Trade (see my Pop Life #122 ) and he’d advised me how to negotiate a deal (the only actor to ever share this kind of information with me).   I auditioned for the fabulous Sheree Folkson, got an offer and asked the agent (lovely Fiona M at ICM) for double what they’d offered.  She scoffed in disbelief at my chutzpah : “Well you’ll never get that Ralph“.  I responded with the best possible response :  “I won’t be doing the show then, no skin off my nose.”  She was furious, but a week later I got what I was asking for.  You have to know your worth, and god bless him, Warren Clarke taught me that.
Benny Moré
So we could afford to fly to Havana.  We flew Air France, and I Will Never Fly With Air France Again.  EVER.  We flew to Paris and missed the connection to Havana because they didn’t announce it in the lounge.  We were put up in a hotel at Orly airport, flown to Madrid the following day and put up again at an airport hotel.  Now given money to buy underwear and other essentials we eventually arrived in Havana three days after leaving the UK, and with all our bags having been lost en route.  It meant we had to take a taxi to the airport EVERY DAY to see if our bags had turned up.  One by one they came in, but one bag never did appear.  Things.  Just stuff right.  But wait.
We hook up with Carlos y Manolo, a gay couple who worked in the theatre and travelled internationally with their productions, representing the art of Cuba abroad, all sanctioned and paid for by the government.  They’d met Miriam Ryle my long-time ex-girlfriend from the 70s and she’d passed us their number.
They were kind of bourgeois for Cuba but they had no money. None.  But Manolo still bought us a bottle of rum very early on which cost him a week’s wages, and then took us shopping to buy some clothes since ours hadn’t arrived yet. We spent most of the holiday in their company, drinking with their friends, eating at their Auntie’s paladar (house restaurant) on New Year’s Eve with John Singleton and his partner, who were also staying at the hotel Isabel in the old town.   He said that Jenny looked like his Aunty Jessie.  We took that as a compliment.  It was that kind of night : but that night is for another post, because it went on all night, dancing to Celia Cruz and Whitney Houston.
Havana, Cuba
This blog is about how it was.  Como fue.   We moved out of the hotel into a room in Manolo’s uncle’s apartment in a different neighbourhood where there were no tourists. We fancied the experience of living with Cubans.  What an amazing city Havana is.  Like an old lady who was stunningly beautiful when she was young, there is a kind of eternal charm and grandeur about the architecture and wide boulevards, the 1950s taxis, the sexy locals, the mix, the music, the Caribbean, the parties.
We met Amanda Oom‘s friend Gregor who had a photographic exhibition in Havana and whom we’ve since met many times in England and in Stockholm.  He is now partnered up with lovely Petronella from Norway.   I wrote about the magic effect of Ooms in My Pop Life #14   .
But look – we’re talking about a city which has Che Guevara as an official heroic figure. The ironies are profound.  Havana has two distinct economies – local, and tourist.  At one ice-cream shop I was charged the local price – about 2p – for two ice-creams, because they thought that Jenny was cubana and that I had bought her.  Christ that was revealing and horrifying.  But there was more to come.
Havana streets
At some point in the first week of 2000AD we had a phone call from Jen’s sister Lucy to call her back.  She was looking after our house in Brighton.  We’d been burgled.  Someone had broken in and stolen loads of our stuff.   She was shocked, and so were we.   Jenny wanted to go back immediately, break the holiday – we were due to travel south to Santiago and other parts of the country – I wanted to finish the holiday.  We hadn’t been to The Tropicana yet to see the big band.  Jenny explained that Lucy needed to see us and be relieved of her horror, and insurance had to be dealt with and all that.  Stuff was missing : stereos, TV, carpets, hundreds of CDs, jewellery from upstairs.   We changed our return flight with wonderful Air France and on our last full day in Havana decided to visit the church Our Lady Of Regla which was a ferry ride across the harbour.
On the ferry, which was rickety and ‘full of character’  we noticed a woman standing by the side of the moving boat muttering as if in prayer.  She looked pretty intense but in her own world, then she started to break up pieces of coconut and drop them into the water.  Jenny whispered to me : “She is blessing our crossing“.
Regla, a mainly poor and black neighbourhood.  No tourists here.  Although it was in the book, so now I imagine it’s swamped.  But that afternoon it was just us at the old 17th century church with a black madonna and child above the altar.   And a history of santeria, the religion of the Yoruba transferred to the Caribbean and merged with Catholicism.   The black Madonna itself has a curious and fascinating history.
St Augustine of Hippo & his mother St Monica on a stained-glass window in Washington D.C.
Saint Augustine is said to have had a vision instructing him to erect a statue of a black virgin Mary, and he did so in Hippo, (present-day Annaba in Algeria) in 415AD.  When Vandals attacked Hippo 30 years after Augustine’s death, monks lifted the statue and fled. The black Madonna appears most famously in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, and in Monserrat near Barcelona, but interestingly she also occurs in Poland, France, Germany, Romania, Kosovo, Serbia and Russia, and in Orthodox Churches as well as Catholic;  in Prague, in Brazil, in Chile and in Havana.
the black madonna of Czestochowska, Poland
They mainly date from the Byzantine era (say 14th century), but not exclusively.  What they represent, apart from the obvious, is unknown, thus a pile of speculative and conjectural literature has emerged to further enlighten us.  We just sat there in the front pew and soaked it all in.  The holiday was over.  We’d been robbed.  We were still rich tourists in an incredible communist nation which had first-class healthcare, but no freedom to travel.  Our friends hated Castro but were proud of being Cuban.  And we’d had an amazing time.
Our Lady Of Regla
And then the woman from the ferry came up the aisle of the church and kneeled just in front of us to pray at the altar, to the black virgin.  That was when we noticed her shoes –  because she was kneeling we could see the bottom of her shoes.   And carved into the soles of her shoes were words in English.  They said :
TO HAVE, OR NOT TO HAVE
I kid you not.  It was for us, clearly.  We looked at each other and squeezed hands.  The universe works in mysterious ways.  The intellectual part of my brain immediately connected this with the Ernest Hemingway book To Have Or Have Not written in 1937 which concerns a contraband smuggler working between Key West and Havana,  later filmed with Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall and set in Martinique.  The non-intellectual part of my brain could only wonder what on earth was going on, because a profoundly strange thing had just occurred.   To have, or not to have.  Right there in front of us, in English, carved into the rubber soles of her shoes.  I can’t remember if I took a photograph or not.  We were stunned.
I asked the woman if she knew that she had English on her shoes but she didn’t speak English and didn’t want to discuss it at all.
We got back onto the ferry and crossed the harbour.  Went to the centre of Havana and found a music shop,  asking in halting Spanish for the best Cuban music, please.  The man produces a CD for me called 20 Boleros De Oro by Beny Moré.  20 Golden Greats.  Benny only has one N in Cuba.  This is the best he confirms.  I buy it, along with some other vintage music from Trio Matamoros and Arsenio Rodriguez, and some more up-to-date stuff by Los Van Van.
The following day we say our goodbyes to Carlos and Manolo and vow to return, which we never have.  We’ve seen them in the UK since then, and handed their number out to all of our friends who’ve visited Havana.  This year relations with the USA thawed mightily and tourism was pumped up.  People can visit their families in Florida.  Castro is no longer El Presidente but his revolution is still alive, just.
Benny Moré died in 1963, singing to the last, coughing blood but determined to fulfill his obligations.  He was 44 years old.  He left behind an incredible body of work which has massively dominated Cuban music in all its complexity and richness.  See Buena Vista Social Club, and watch Ibrahim Ferrer singing Como Fué  below.  He was a huge natural talent, and his music reaches across the language barrier, the cultural divide, the intellectual codification.  You could do worse than seek it out for yourself.
We flew back to Heathrow from Paris, and Air France once again lose one of our bags.  We arrive back to a house which has been emptied of it’s STUFF, but it is still our house.  I cannot explain fully, how it was.
 como fue, no se dicerte, como fue
the song :
Benny Moré sings Como Fue live : 
Ibrahim Ferrer singing Como Fué with Ruben Gonzalez on piano :
rare footage of Benny Moré conducting his band 1950s, Havana :
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My Pop Life #134 : ‘The Emporer’ – Haydn

String Quartet #62 in C op 76 ‘The Emporer’  –   Joseph Haydn

I reckon Haydn is a bit under-rated.  You never hear much about Haydn do you?  Not like you hear about Mozart or Beethoven, his contemporaries and friends.  Or Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky.  Bach.  Elgar, Prokofiev and Ravel.  Haydn is like – well I was going to say obscure but that would be absurd.   He feels less celebrated.   Probably my hallucination.  He wrote 106 symphonies, yes that is correct, 106  symphonies between 1759 and 1795 which works out to about 3 per year : one of his nicknames is “the father of the symphony“.   He also wrote 68 string quartets over this period, giving him a 2nd nickname “the father of the string quartet“.   The mother of these things is not revealed.   His work tends towards the optimistic and positive, and the pieces develop their themes quickly : his symphonies are short (each movement between 4 and 9 minutes) and easy to listen to.   Largely written for royalty and for dancing, he was in many ways the pop lord of his day.

Pop Lord Haydn c 1770

He was tremendously popular in England and lived in London on two separate and happy occasions between 1791-95 while still working on the continent, sometimes with a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven as his pupil.   Towards the end of his prolific life he sat down and composed three longer and more serious works – all oratorios, called The Creation, The Seasons and The Seven Last Words Of Christ.  These influenced Beethoven to levels of genius.

I love Haydn.  They are works that make you feel happy.  There is a level of complexity in the music that your brain can grasp immediately.  Very pleasing.   They are also “Tunes”, as my friend Luke Cresswell once described a Bach piece.   I think the first Haydn CD I bought was on the Naxos label and had the 85th, the 92nd and the 103rd Symphonies on there.   I had no idea what I was buying, but that’s often how I buy music, as a kind of lucky dip.  It was around 1996, I’d just moved to Brighton, and perhaps I’d just finished A Respectable Trade which was set in Haydn’s era and had come across the name there.   I wrote a little about that TV show, which was about British slavery and in which I played a doctor opposite my wife who played a slave, in My Pop Life #122.  Life is long indeed.  I liked my Haydn CD very much and for a while listened to nothing but.

As I recall I quickly went out and bought another one which had the 45th, 94th and 101st Symphonies on it.  I can report that it was also most excellent.   If you are reading this and have never knowingly listened to Josef Haydn then I would advise you first not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount available.  There’s a lot of Billie Holiday out there too, and Duke Ellington.  But just dive in.  It’s refreshing and wonderful stuff.

In September 2005 I was cast in a Hollywood film adaptation of Christopher Paolini‘s book Eragon, written when he was 15 years old.   Dragon with an E.  It starred Ed Speleers as the dragon-tamer, Jeremy Irons, Djimon Hounsou, John Malkovitch, Sienna Guillory and Chris Egan and others and we were all flown out to Budapest in Hungary in early October.    I’d been there before of course, first in 1975 (see My Pop Life #70), then again in 2000 on Last Run, a film with Ornella MutiJurgen Prochnow and Armand Assante.  Once again, Budapest had changed quite a lot.  Mafia types hung around the centre after dark.  There were no more cimbalom players gracing the quaint restaurants. Now in 2005, things seemed a little harsher.  Still the beautiful Blue Danube (copyright Johann Strauss) flowed through the centre.  One of the oldest subway systems in the world.  We were fitted for our costumes and my head was shaved, then we shot for a couple of days at the studio where I met scottish actor Gary Lewis for the first time and an old friend from Benin Djimon Hounsou again.  We had worked together on Spielberg’s film Amistad in 1996 in Newport, Rhode Island, where he’d played the slave leader Cinque and I was a Lieutenant in the US Navy.

Me with Djimon Hounsou in the Budapest studio

Lots of imaginary dragons to act with, one giant one.  Shortly thereafter I am driven for a few hours down the road to a small settlement called Celldömölk in the west of the Hungarian countryside.  This will be where the rest of the film is shot, in an amazing extinct volcanic crater.

The design of the set in this green calderon is stunning.  I am playing bald twins, one of whom is evil.  It is quite good fun.  But I have made no close buddy here, and on days off I have to amuse myself.  I decide to hire a car and drive around.  They don’t let me, but give me a driver and a car instead.  One day we drive north to Sopron a beautiful town near the Austrian/Slovakian border.  Indeed it is only a few miles from both Vienna and Bratislava.

Sopron, western Hungary

My driver and I took lunch together and drove into the countryside toward the huge lake.  We spotted a sign for Esterháza and something clicked in my mind.  We went to find it.  It was a beautiful clear autumn day, blue sky, warm.

Esterháza, Hungary

There it was, a stunning golden palace set in formal gardens.  We walked around the grounds, went inside and found a little information.  Yes, this was the home of the Austro-Hungarian, (formerly Habsburg) Esterházy family, principal patrons of Josef Haydn who was their Kapellmeister from 1761 until his death.  He was permitted to travel to England for the 1790s when Prince Anton’s reign did without the service of musicians, trying to save money.  But this was where he worked and lived and produced all of his key works, almost in total isolation from the rest of Europe and the other composers.  It was a good find.

After his reportedly joyous time in London and Oxford where Haydn was feted and adored, he returned to Esterháza and composed his final works including the late String Quartets and the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser which was inspired by the British national anthem God Save The King – an anonymously composed tune which is frankly a dirge.  Nevertheless Haydn wanted Austria/Hungary (as it was then) to have its own patriotic anthem so he composed it as a birthday gift for the Emporer Francis II.   It premiered in 1797 and also appeared in String Quartet #62 – the 2nd Movement, ever since known as ‘The Emporer’.    It will be immediately apparent to listeners that the entirely memorable and beautiful tune lives on to this day as the Deutschlandlied or the German national anthem.   Haydn didn’t write the words but I’ll note in passing that “Deutchsland Deutschsland über alles“, the opening line, is often misrepresented as a nazi slogan when it actually refers to national unity.  Germany didn’t exist in 1797 and the small states and principalities the lyrics appealed to were only unified in 1871.   

I was brought up hating Germans.  My parents were evacuated during World War Two and Paul and I played on bomb debris sites in Portsmouth in the early 60s.  As a child playing bang bang war games ‘The Germans’ were always the enemy.  Six months after completing Eragon I was on my way to Germany with my wife Jenny in a Citroen draped in the St George’s Cross.  Oh the clashing ironies.  I believe St George was Macedonian.  Popular in Bulgaria too.  Haha.  Nationalism is of course the last refuge of a scoundrel, but football will do that.   I’m not a fan of National Anthems either but some of them are just great tunes, just like some flags are great designs….

The 2006 World Cup that summer was one of the best we have been to – brilliantly organised yes, but also charming, funny, gentle, relaxed, modern and fun.  Germany had left the past behind long before the rest of us.

Shortly after our drive from Hamburg to Nürnberg, Bad Kreuznach to Dortmund I received a phone call from Hollywood from the producer of Eragon.  “I’m sorry Ralph” he said, “But we’ve cut the Twins from the film, they came in too late for any more new characters and we needed to get to the fighting.  Nothing personal – you were great, and thanks, but apologies”.

“Thanks for letting me know,”  I said.  “You didn’t have to do that”.

When the film was released in December 2006 it was one of the worst-reviewed films of that year.  I wasn’t in it at all.

I still got paid, and I still get royalties.

Mozart and Beethoven both loved Josef Haydn.

So do I.

*

the performance below is by The Lindsay Quartet who tend to be the people we look for when purchasing string quartets, particularly by Haydn or Beethoven.   This is the 2nd movement only – seek out the rest.

My Pop Life #122 : The Sensual World – Kate Bush

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The Sensual World   –   Kate Bush

…And how we’d wished to live in the sensual world
You don’t need words–just one kiss, then another.
Stepping out of the page into the sensual world…

June 18th 1997 was my 40th birthday.  In a happy turn of events, I was working.  Even happier, and this was no co-incidence, I was working with Jenny Jules, who had been my wife since 1992.  We were filming a BBCtv drama series about slavery called A Respectable Trade.

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Emma, Warren, Ariyon

 It starred Warren Clarke, may his soul rest in peace;  Emma Fielding, who has since then taken up residence around my childhood holy grounds of Hailsham, and now Kingston nr Lewes;  Ariyon Bakare, Clinton Blake, Hugh Quarshie, who would soon be working with me again (funny how that happens);  Graham Fox, Richard Briers, Anna Massey, Tanya Moodie and some wonderful children who played, along with Ariyon, Jenny, Tanya and Clinton, the slaves.  It was a good show, centred around a love affair between unhappily married Emma and handsome slave Ariyon, and it didn’t pull any punches…

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Richard Briers in particular playing a slave trader who wanted a woman (Tanya) “brought up” for sex, so that they could “mix the stock” in one memorable and ugly scene.  He knew that his fans would be shocked to see him playing this character, but he was determined to nail his colours to the mast and expose the dark reality of English history.  We filmed in Bristol in the Slave Museum complete with manacled cellar; Longleat House, Bath, and Charlestown in Cornwall.  The show was an adaptation by Philippa Gregory of her own historical novel and has never been repeated by the BBC, despite auspicious anniversaries coming and going.  I can only wonder how on earth it got made in the first place.

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see Jenny at the bottom of pic with slave collar

Perhaps because of the darkness of the story and subject matter we were a tight and close company and with a couple of exceptions, notably the director, have remained in touch.  We had a bloody laugh actually.  I’ll talk about the whole experience in another post, but

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on my birthday we had been filming in Charlestown, a small port village south of St Austell in Cornwall that is a perfectly preserved Georgian quayside complete with tall ships.  I think we were all in the pub during the early part of the evening when my agent Michael Foster called.  Early days of mobile phones I expect.  Pretty sure I had an Eriksson.  I don’t think Michael wished me Happy Birthday, agents don’t usually do things like that, they have enough to think about, but he did tell me that I’d been offered a role in the new Star Wars film which was to be The Phantom Menace.  Episode One.  I started to become happy when he pulled me up.  “Wait” he said.  “The money is shit” he said.  “It can’t be” I said, “It’s Star Wars, the most successful franchise in film history.”  “I’m sorry ”  he said.

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They want you for four weeks,” he said, “at five grand a week, total buy-out.  No repeat fees, no royalties, residuals, extras, billing, fruit or flowers.”  He didn’t actually say the bit about the fruit and flowers but the offer was clear, stark, final.  “Oh and they also said that if you said ‘no’, there were forty people in line behind you for that part, who would in all likelihood be prepared to take even less money.”  Of course they would.  “Sleep on it” said Michael, dear Michael.  “Have a good evening.”

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Clinton, Emma, Jenny, Graham, Ariyon in 1997

We did, dear reader.  We all retired to our wee cottage on the hill and got drunk and stoned, listening to my wife DJ-ing till the wee small hours.  It was my birthday you see.  It’s a kind of tradition.  The hit song that stayed with us was Kate Bush singing The Sensual World.  The sexiest song ever.  Jenny loved to play it at houseparties and watch people dance together, occasionally joining in if they were lucky.  I was lucky since it was er my birthday, but Ariyon and Clinton were too I believe.

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This song has followed Jenny and I around since it came out in 1989, the year when we finally decided that we would…yes…be a couple.  Played at home, in car journeys, at parties, on Sony Walkmen and ipods.  It opens with church bells like one or two other classic English pop songs I could mention, but which have now evaporated from my mind like so much of my life.  Then a light whip of the Fairlight synthesiser and Kate’s “mmmm…yes” takes us into an entirely sexual and original song, comprised of pieces of the world and Kate’s mind.  She was playing with the Trio Bulgarka around this time, getting inspiration from more eastern sounds, as she had with “Hello Earth” off Hounds Of Love which uses a Georgian choral hymn.  A Macedonian wedding song inspired the music of The Sensual World, with Irish instruments and James Joyce‘s Ulysses inspiring the idea, the moment when heroine Molly Bloom has the final word of the novel and leaps from the page into the sensual world :

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

The Joyce estate refused permission for Kate to use those words as lyrics for the song, so she wrote her own, referencing Blake’s JerusalemAnd my arrows of desire rewrite the speech” using a mesmerising melody on the Uileann pipes for the hook, played by Davey Spillane.  In the video Kate dances through the woods, barefoot.   

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Later in 2011 a new LP called Director’s Cut was released, on it new versions of much of this LP and 1993’s The Red Shoes, particularly this song, now renamed Flower Of The Mountain recorded with the now-allowed Joyce passage as lyrics, and the same breathy, orgasmic “Yes…” dominating the soundscape.

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I think it’s one of the sexiest songs ever recorded.  I listened and danced to it as I turned 40.   I prayed for wisdom, but little came.   I burned for success and yes, it came and slapped me down, hard.  I longed for happiness, and when I let go and stopped longing, well then, eventually, it came.

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from The Sensual World 1989 :

Nevestinsko Oro, or Macedonian Bride’s Dance :

Flower Of The Mountain, from Director’s Cut (2011)