Palmusic: London-Based Friends Transforming the Lives of Children in Gaza, Palestine

We don’t readily imagine the children of war-torn Gaza in Palestine to be singing or playing a whole host of musical instruments, let alone taking part in the ‘Arabs Got Talent’ regional competition or having fun with an old mysterious grand piano. However, this has been the reality for some children thanks to the efforts of the Gaza branch of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), an institution that has been developing a musical culture for the children of Palestine for over the past twenty years.

Despite all the political upheavals and the wars that have blighted the country, the ESNCM has stood strong since its genesis in 1993 in Ramallah – and later branches in Nablus, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Gaza – and has fulfilled its mission to educate the local children in Arabic and classical Western instruments. By keeping to the highest of international standards, it has single-handedly established all of the orchestras and ensembles to be found in Palestine and turned many of its original young students into adult masters in their field.

The ESNCM however relies on the support of its many friends to further its goals and ambitions, as they can help it by raising and providing the necessary funds to cover the costs of providing such an education, buying or repairing instruments and collaborating with many of its other musical projects on the ground. One of these friends is the London-based Palmusic UK, aka ‘The Friends of the ESNCM’, who will soon be holding a fundraising concert at St James Church, Piccadilly with all the proceeds earmarked for the Gaza branch.

I spoke with Zina Papageorgiou of Palmusic UK, who is heavily involved working behind the scenes in organising the event. She said: “This concert will kick start our campaign for the whole year to raise funds to enable as many children as possible to get scholarships to study at the Gaza branch. At the moment, we are hoping to enable 100 students from the age of kindergarten to 18 years old to join the school.

“Having witnessed the vital role that the music school plays in the lives of our students in Gaza, I feel an urgent need to invest in a better future for those children who have been experiencing war and destruction throughout their young lives. Music can offer healing, hope and inspiration to them and we want to show the world the real face and talent of Palestinians. We have to make their lives more beautiful and fulfilling and with initiatives like Palmusic UK and people’s support we can achieve it.”

Palmusic UK Concert

The concert itself will bring a line up of three emerging Palestinian musicians who are all former ESNCM students and proud graduates from the Bethlehem branch. They will perform alongside the acclaimed Levon Chilingirian Quartet and also with Wissam Boustany, who is a renowned Palestinian solo flautist, musical composer, professor at the Royal Northern College of Music and trustee of Palmusic UK.

Inside the beautiful St James Church, they will present a mix of classical Western pieces and Arabic arrangements, compositions and improvisations. With Ramzi Shomali on piano, Mohamed Najem on clarinet, Lourdina Baboun on violin, Levon Chilingirian on violin, Suzie Meszaros on viola, Ariana Kashefi on cello and Boustany on flute; the pieces to be performed on the night: De Bethlehem A Angers and Al-Asmar (by Mohamed Najem), W A Mozart Violin Sonata K454, Broken Child (by Wissam Bousany) and Robert Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op 44.

Looking forward to the evening also is Levon Chilingirian, the internationally acclaimed violinist and founder of the Chilingirian Quartet, who visited the ESNCM as part of Palmusic’s Masterclass programme in January 2015. He said: “It was with great pleasure that I visited the ESNCM earlier this year and had the opportunity to teach many talented and dedicated young students. Music gives great hope to so many who live under a great amount of daily stress. By participating in the fundraising concert in London, I hope that we can encourage the work of many many dedicated teachers as well as all who are involved with the ESNCM.”

Whilst Boustany had this inspiring message to give: ”The Middle East is a region in flames, a part of our planet where Love no longer has a relevance – and the epicentre of this turmoil and tragedy is Palestine/Israel. Yet in spite of this perpetual suffering there are pockets of hope and creativity, where talent and love CAN and DO blossom. The ESNCM nurtures this culture of creativity, love and hope for our children while giving a real identity to the people of Palestine, serving to remind the world that we exist, we create…and we can still LOVE. This is why the work of ESNCM is vital for the present and future of Palestine.”

For more information on Palmusic UK:

47Soul – Help Launch The Incredible New Sound Of The #Shamstep

Support The Band Overcoming Visa + Border Restrictions!

If all goes to plan and you are online, tomorrow at noontime, you will be hit by a cyber thunderclap to support the efforts of the 47Soul band. With tweets popping up and Facebook updates, as well as Tumblr alerts, you will be invited to help launch the new sound of Bilad al-Sham and support the #Shamstep.

If you haven’t already been exposed to the young energetic 47Soul musical formation, then be prepared for marvel and surprise once you listen to them on Youtube or Soundcloud. Better yet, make sure to attend a concert as they are currently taking the London underground music scene by storm. They have amassed thousands of fans throughout the Middle East and Europe in the past two years and are still going strong.

The four artists, who are all originally Palestinian, have already had to overcome visa and border restrictions to be able to work together. The first time they performed as one was at the Blue Fig in Amman, Jordan in 2013. There they succeeded with their experimental hypnotic sound that now Glastonbury and WOMAD 2015 want a bit of them, as they guarantee to get the crowds dancing in whichever style of dance they like, although preferably the dabke.

Each one of them had been a solo musician before they all got to know one another via Youtube and word of mouth on the alternative Arabic music scene that is itself breaking boundaries. Their real and stage names are: Walaa Sbait, 28 from Palestine; Z the People (real name Ramzy Suleiman) who is also 28, born in the United States and of Palestinian origin; El Far3i (real name Tareq Abu Kwaik) who is 31 from Amman with Palestinian origin; and, El Jehaz (real name Hamza Arnaout) who is 32 and also from Amman of Palestinian origin.

Onstage the 47Soul magic mix combines the spontaneous charisma of all four as they play the electric Arabic dabke sound that is always hyped up with analogue synthesizers, hypnotic guitar lines and strong political lyrics in English and Arabic. Their message is for the celebration of life, the struggle for freedom and the desire for peace inside Bilad Al-Sham and throughout the world. One of their most popular songs is ‘Every Land Medley’.

In London they have already performed at venues like Rich Mix, The Flyover in Portobello, Passing Clouds, and The Elgin at Notting Hill Gate. They hope to next perform at Koko’s in Camden, where the space can hold up to 2,000 people, so that there will be lots of space for dancing and dabke for those who know the steps!

47Soul have also taken part in the Wilderness Festival at Oxfordshire, the Secret Garden Party, as well as concerts in Bristol, South Devon and other UK cities. Outside the UK, they have been in Jordan, Egypt and Belgium. Their fan base however extends even to South America and the Caribbean.

At the present moment they need our crowd support to utilise their time together in London by producing a debut record that encapsulates all the songs they have been performing, as well as new material they are working on. If the campaign succeeds, they will do the recording at the Soup Studio, where they can record on analogue equipment for the best real sound. At present, they are on artist visas and have a booking agent, the ‘Diplomats of Sound’.

The online campaign is being done via the Zoomaal crowd-raising platform and the deadline is 20 April, 2015. The funds gathered are to cover the costs for the recording, sound engineering, mastering, design and manufacturing CDs, vinyl and the rewards for those who donate online.

If you need any more convincing, this is what they have said: “We are not just asking you to contribute to this campaign. We want you to own this music with us! We want the Shamstep to be something that gives you pride to blast full volume out of your speakers and car stereos. Your support means more dabke for the world and less culture-erasing! It means that music is bigger than borders and that music is made to be shared . Your support is as important as the opportunities awaiting us!”

To support them:

For more information on 47Soul and their gigs:

Note: This article was first published circa April 2015

Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2015: Let’s Celebrate British-Arab Women Style!

I know this much is true, that to be an Arab woman in today’s world has its challenges no matter what you do, where you live, country of birth, how young or old, married or single. But there is no need to list our grievances or dwell on the negatives, when this month brings the opportunity of International Women’s Day; an annual occasion to create, attend or otherwise engage in the thousands of events organically taking place all around the world.

With its positive spirit and energy, International Women’s Day always brings women together in different groups or formations to celebrate being a woman and engage with the issues dear to our gender. On the global level, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meets annually at the UN Headquarters in New York and brings activists to address relevant issues. Whilst in the United Kingdom, there are at least 312 separate events registered online to take place.

For the very first time in London, it is surprisingly one man who has been working hard to organise an event that caters uniquely to the British-Arab woman. Aser El Saqqa, who clearly supports the female cause!, is the mastermind  behind the ‘Arab Women Artists Now’ (AWAN) Festival that will be an extravaganza day to highlight the achievements of Arab women in the UK, with a focus on those working in the arts and creative field. It is scheduled to take place on 7 March, 2015 at the Rich Mi venue in Shoreditch.

AWAN will be showcasing a British-Arab pedigree of spoken word, storytelling, dance and visual presentations, a panel discussion as well as the launch of an art exhibition and a musical performance. It will be a rare opportunity for attendees to mix and mingle, share and appreciate the range of British-Arab female talent that exists already but has not been tapped into until now.

AWAN’s Mastermind: Aser El Saqqa of Arts Canteen

Behind AWAN is the Palestinian Aser El Saqqa, who is Director of Arts Canteen. Arts Canteen is a company that curates arts and music projects with the aim of stirring the arts scene; and, to bring the work of emerging artists from the MENA region and the Arab diaspora to a London audience, El Saqqa has been instrumental in managing and representing many artists who might otherwise have no support whatsoever and no opportunity to do what they do best.

Since the birth of Arts Canteen four years ago, the endeavour has brought to life many Arab musical acts, art exhibitions, involvement with other London arts festivals, and even holding an Arab-inspired comedy evening. I asked him what has inspired him to create the AWAN festival.

El Saqqa: “It is to reflect on the issues we have encountered and which face both the artists and audiences from the Arab diaspora. Some of the issues are: engagement with the UK arts infrastructure, lack of funding, cultural and religious taboos, working under censorship, responding to political conflict, challenges of integration, lack of profile amongst non-Arab audiences, lack of recognition of their contribution to the UK arts scene as Arab women and the artists’ right to a livelihood.”

Being a pilot-festival, AWAN will also have a research and development element to decide whether it can be done annually and how to improve the experience. During the festival day, there will be a consultation exercise with artists and interested partners to assess how the professional needs of the artists might be supported through future work under the AWAN umbrella.

El Saqqa said: “We are anticipating Arab and non-Arab female artists who will be attending as members of the audience. Their support and engagement at this pilot stage will help to build sustainability for the event in the coming years. My hope is to build on and consolidate Arts Canteen’s curating and programming experience with new, emerging and profile women artists from the Arab diasporas and to recognise their contributions in the UK and beyond.”

AWAN Festival Highlights

The festival highlights for the day include: two spoken word performances by poets Fajr Tamimi and Hala Ali, a storytelling segment by the actress Alia Alzougbi, a presentation by visual artist Maiada Salfiti, a presentation by theatre-maker Nesreen Nabil Hussein, a contemporary dance act by Tania Salmen and a panel discussion on the experiences and challenges of Arab women artists, curators and producers in the UK.

This latter will be chaired by Roya Arab, who is an archaeologist, musician and poet rolled into one! And will feature the editor of Kalimat Magazine Danah Abdulla, the playwright Hannah Khalil, the film curator Yasmin El Derby and the dancer and event producer Tania Diggory.

AWAN Exhibition + A Musical Journey

The AWAN festival also includes the launch of an art exhibition entitled ‘It’s About Time’ that will explore the issues of the female identity, ethnic origin and politics; aiming to provoke thought, discussion and to generate a renewed perspective on the role of contemporary art in today’s society.

Curated by Zina Papageorgiou this collective show will bring the artworks of several women that span across a wide range of practices. Those taking part are: Dia Batal, Inas Halabi, Saadeh George, Shirine Osseiran and Malika Sqalli.

Last but not least, the festival day ends with a musical journey with a line-up of prominent Arab women musicians including: Reem Kelani, Reham and Christelle Madani.

For more information on AWAN:

For more information on Arts Canteen:

Note; This article was first published circa March 2015

Libyan Street Theatre Project: At London’s GDIF Festival

Without a script but eager to be performing and entertaining for the very first time outside their home country, a group of six Libyan actors and a musician arrived in London last week to prepare and take part in the Greenwich-Docklands International Festival (GDIF). The biggest and longest established of its kind, the GDIF celebrates outdoor theatre and the performing arts and takes place at various venues across the Greenwich-Docklands area.

The unprecedented Libyan participation comes after the group was recently formed as a ‘Libyan Street Theatre Project’ through the great efforts of Muftah Ibrahim Elfagi and with the support and sponsorship by the British Council and the European Union. Elfagi is an actor and the Director of the National Theatre Tripoli since 2011 and has been awarded an MBE in 2009 for services to British-Libyan family reunification.

“Muftah is very much a fine performer, a wonderful character with a wicked sense of humour. He has already been entertaining and joking with people passing by in the Olympic park where we have been rehearsing. The others are also a great mix of personalities that creates an interesting chemistry and lively debate on which stories to use. Muftah has also invited us to Libya and we would love to go and continue our work there.” Damian Wright, Periplum

As a group they have performed only once before in Tripoli in a public park during March 2014 to a happily surprised crowd of up to 1,700 people in an act titled ‘Family Picnic’. This had been created with the British theatre director Nathan Curry, who later invited them to take part in the GDIF.

I met up with the positively energetic group at Cutty Sark, Greenwich and they all introduced themselves to me: Muftah Elfagi (age 60), Zahra Arafa (age 42), Hanan Espaga (age 20), Adel Abulefa (age 23) and Fuad R Gritli (age 28) Ahmed Elmusrati (age 17) and Saif Alwaine (age 17).

Elfagi said: “Acting is a spiritual medicine. Angels take me away and I lose my hurt, pains and sorrows and especially with my love feelings. Under the old regime, there was some censorship working at the National Theatre so we did social or historical plays and took part in Arab festivals in Cairo, Carthage and Damascus. But I am so glad to be here. As actors, we have to tell the truth and this is better after the revolution.”

For the GDIF Global Streets performance, the team have partnered with the innovative London-based performing arts production company Periplum, to work with Artistic Directors Damian Wright and Claire Raftery. The brief was to devise an original show for the Libyans within only a few days of planning and rehearsals that has to also be site-specific for the location at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford.

I asked Wright how the Libyan team were responding to the challenge: He said: “So far the process has been intense and exciting and we have grown close to the Libyan group in the past few days. We have been showing them different techniques to make innovative street theatre performance and they have found it hard work, but hopefully this will inspire them when they go back to Libya to take on more ambitious projects.”

The anticipated trilingual show is scheduled to take place this week on the evenings of 25-26 June, 2014. I’ve been told it will not be a continual narrative but more of a composition of the spontaneous and challenging images and sounds inspired by the Libyans’ personal stories and feelings, and, also, being suggestive of the subjects that came up in their exchange with the Periplum team.

Wright: “Together we’ve created original text and original music to be played by the guitarist and drummer Fuad Gritli. He will be drumming on a piece of street furniture. There will also be a metaphorical line that begs the question of how do you make music from a broken instrument? And we do touch upon the subject of conflict, though there is optimism from the group as to Libya’s future despite the difficulties. It was also their preference to keep the work as universal as possible.”

Representing British Council Libya, Awatef Shawish, said: “Through the Libyan Street Theatre Project, a new form of artistic expression enters the Libyan art scene. It aims to raise the profile of street theatre in Libya by forging links with international experts to increase public access to the arts in Libya and provide the opportunity for young Libyan theatre students to work with well-established British outdoor theatre directors.”

As part of training during this short experience in London, the Libyan team have also attended up to thirty of the many incredible and amazing acts taking part at the GDIF. They were particularly impressed by the French company Rara Woulib’s ‘Deblozay: Dance with the Dead‘ and the Belarus Free Theatre’s ‘Red Forest’ at the Young Vic Theatre.

What they have discovered is the power of street theatre and how it can break the boundaries between actors and audience, as well as the use of humour that can be utilised in dramatic ways. Now they wish to take these insights back to Libya in order to further develop and invest in a new type of creative performance industry.

For more on the GDIF:

Photos: Muftah Elfagi Image, GDIF Logo, Members Warming Up, Team Photo Before Last Rehearsal

Note: This article was fist published circa June 2014

World In London Project: Behind Libya’s Portrait

Mid-February 2011. A surprise email arrived in my inbox from James O Jenkins, a professional British photographer, asking if I would like to model for a portrait to represent Libya’s participation at the London Olympics as part of the ‘World In London’ photography project. 

At the time I hadn’t even realised that Libya would be taking part in the Olympics as sports and politics have been inter-mixed with dangerous consequences under Qaddafi. The recent kidnapping and later release of Nabil Al-Alam, Libya’s President of the National Olympic Committee (NOC), only highlighted the problem. My initial response was therefore hesitant and reluctant.

Most certainly I didn’t wish to represent Libya with any political association with the regime and I knew that Libyan sports had been hijacked by Saadi and Mohammed Qaddafi for quite some time. The former had been the obsessive control freak behind the national football team who forbade any popular support for individual players by banning the calling out of their names. He also pressurised referees to favour his Tripoli Ahli team, whilst the latter was the head of the NOC.

So much for fair play and the spirit of honest competition that typifies athleticism on the world stage. Despite all these challenges, it seems that five courageous Libyans did qualify to take part in the individual sports. They were: Ali Mabrouk El-Zaidi (marathon runner), Sofyan El-Gidi (butterfly swimmer), Ahmed Koeseh (judo), Hala Gezah (100-metre sprint), and Ali El-Kekli (weightlifting).

But then this was a critical time for Libya and the Revolution had kicked off and Jenkins assured me there would be no political message to my participation. So I took the risk to represent Libya in the hope that the country will be free by July 2012. I also did inform him that there were many gorgeous and much younger models that he could choose from, but he insisted on me because he had come across my blog.

He told me: “I was given the list of countries that were available and I don’t really know why I chose Libya. It’s worth noting that I chose it before the start of the revolution and the portrait was not to do with the political troubles there. It is about London and you being Libyan in this city.”

My readers know that if there is anything I am super-passionate about, it really is London. So in the end I wanted to celebrate being a Londoner and a Libyan simultaneously; and, to also feel proud in taking part in this project.

Finally on the first day of the Olympics the Libya portrait was unveiled, along with the other 203 images of the other Londoners who were representing their countries taking part in the Olympics.

The Photographers’ Gallery, which commissioned Jenkins and 200 other photographers – who were picked from London’s most noted, talented and emerging talent – kept the project top-secret for three years. They admit it has been their most ambitious project to date and are now super pleased with the outcome.

The World In London Project’s artistic ambition and desire is to showcase through photography London’s rich cultural diversity and to celebrate its incredible mix of people from all over the world. The exhibition is free for residents and tourists to view. The 204 large-scale portraits will be at two sites for the duration of the Olympics: the external wall of the BT London Live site in Victoria Park, E3, and across the Park House city-block in Oxford Street, W1.

Jenkins and I are very happy with the final Libya portrait and the choice of dress and background. Hopefully it will please everyone for its simplicity and the intended layers of meaning about what it means to be a Libyan. I did also take part in a related project, the ‘Oral Histories’, which will feature a recorded interview to go with my portrait.

In the coming days, I intend to fully support the Libyan athletes and hope they will do us proud. For the future also I hope that more young boys and girls can pursue sports for the joy and thrill of open and fair competition and to see it as a great measure of personal achievement.

For more on the World in London project:

For more on James O Jenkins:

Note: This article was first published circa July 2012

Diamond Jubilee Celebrations: Why It Matters To Be British!

The Jubilee weekend has brought out a British person inside of me I never knew existed. First I went to the Battersea Park Jubilee Festival for the River Pageant and was super excited to be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people. All trying to get a glimpse of the lady of the hour, she is celebrating sixty years on the throne. The crowd on the day totalled over a million and I can’t think of any other world superstar, other than HM Queen Elizabeth II, who can manage even half that much.

It took me back to December 1996 when I first pledged to be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors according to law. It was an important day as I got my British passport, but with the only pity being that they didn’t have a citizenship test nor a citizenship ceremony as part of the process, which I would have loved to do.

Since I have felt grateful to the Queen as my new shiny ID gave me access to things and places otherwise not possible with my Libyan nationality. It has enabled me to feel free and confidant in traveling the world without hassle. Not only that, I did study English Law and learned about the UK government system, the British constitution and the role of the Monarchy.

On Sunday in great British fashion nobody was excluded from the festivities. The crowds were a reflection of the diversity of the country, with not just natives but people of all ethnicities come together to celebrate. My guess is we the latter have all been resident in the UK long enough to feel and know that we belong and as we have been granted our rights and protection of civil liberties within the legal framework.

The weekend has reaffirmed that HM the Queen, who has been around longer than any other monarch in modern history, will always be an icon of the archetypical mother of a nation, offering herself as the symbol for all of us to come together, regardless of any divides. Her patience and resilience are admirable qualities; and, even as some believe the royal family should be abolished, this Queen has earned all the respect that she gets.

Not only does she take seriously her duties to serve her country, she never takes more liberties than what is permitted. She has devoted her whole life to her role and has never complained or begged tiredness or sickness in all the years she has been on the throne and working. Now she is 86.

It was truly wonderful to behold all of this, with everybody carrying and waving the Union Jack; or, they were holding items with the design on hats, sunglasses, scarves, afro wigs, pins, hair bands, shoes, suits and candy floss.

After Battersea where I couldn’t get a good view of the River Thames, my friends and I managed to tube it to Waterloo to see the atmosphere by the Southbank. It was electric there too. The Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the NFT were full of people standing on the balconies with lots of families and children too. Even though it got colder and wetter, it was beautiful to see the whole width of the river bank and the bridges jam-packed with spectators.

I was soaked by the end of it, but I am so glad I didn’t stay at home and just proxy view it on TV. This way I got British fever and it won’t escape me for a bit.

Note: This article was first published circa June 2012

Dairo Vargas: Colombian Artist Speaks About Childhood, Art and Barnardo’s

For the thirty-three year old Colombian artist Dairo Vargas, putting a smile on a child’s face is not just the occasional nod to charity, but a lifetime personal commitment. From his early years, his mother encouraged him to give and together they would visit youngsters affected by severe poverty, homelessness, abuse and crime in the capital city of Bogota and other Colombian towns. They would spend hours with the children, play with them and offer them gifts of toys, food and clothes.

As Vargas has gone on to become a graphic designer and painter, he’s kept up the passion to offer his skills and efforts for this delicate cause. Even living in London since 2005, he annually raises money in creative ways to help give to the La Escaltera kindergarten in Agrado which educates some 80 underprivileged children.

He said: “The Christmas parties for the little ones are always a big hit. We would bring them things as little as ice-cream and balloons which they love, to buying them more books and educational equipment for their future development.”

It is a sad and difficult truth that deprived, impoverished and hurt children are to be found everywhere in the world. As synchronicity would have it, last November, when Vargas was attending a Firecracker Event in Yorkshire, he heard a young Barnardo’s girl give a moving speech about her past which prompted him to make direct contact with the charity.

Vargas: “This girl had faced unimaginable things in her life but had so much strength to recover from the abuse she suffered. It’s unbelievable to think what some children have to go through. But now she has her own family and a job. It’s good to know that what happened in her childhood isn’t shaping her future, she is.”

The project with Barnardo’s has turned into the current exhibition – ‘A Thousand Words’ – at the Reading Room Gallery, Soho. Vargas dedicated much of the year to make the seventeen paintings on display and volunteered to teach Art lessons to Barnardo’s students at the High Close School in Berskshire that proved a huge success.

He said: “At first, they were hesitant. But I wanted to reassure them that there is nothing like the perfect image. That doesn’t exist. I wanted them to create their own portraits with confidence in response to my sketches. Art is above all about expression of feelings, emotions and honesty.”

Vargas’s paintings speak volumes on the theme of lost childhood and approach the psychological links between dreams and reality for the children. My favourite is the ‘Chiquita de Rojo’ that is an image of a little girl with a red face and braided hair who seems shy and preoccupied. Half the proceeds of her sale will help give 25 families access to Barnardo’s Advice Phone Line, which helps parents and carers to understand the child’s grief and look at practical ways to support them.

There is also the ‘Dreams’ painting of a black girl surrounded by butterflies. Half the proceeds of her sale will be go to the ‘Leaving Care’ project that provides a range of housing and support for young adults leaving residential, foster or family care. And there is more, including three little sculptures up for a donation amount.

As an artist Vargas has been self-taught although he started early. He confessed that as a fourteen year old that he always found himself doing his brothers’ and friends’ art homework and helping with the school murals. He said: “This was the best practice I ever got. But I was still afraid I wouldn’t get a job as an artist, so I studied graphic design and marketing instead. I even worked with JWT in Bogota for some time.”

But then he wanted to travel and came to London to learn English. Although art wasn’t big on the agenda and the plan was to stay for only nine months, he found himself taking out the colours and acrylics in his suitcase. He started to sketch and painted anything he could find of intrigue and even used cardboard to work with. After with some more money he was able to buy bigger canvasses and this gave him the push to study at Kensington and Chelsea College of Art circa 2008.

Since he has committed to being a full-time artist and works right through the nights, finding lots of inspiration especially from William Turner and a love for depicting natural landscapes and studying light movement. This is his true calling and his work has been exhibited in London, Europe and Colombia. On his website, one can see the broader scope of his art portfolio and developing technique.

For the future Vargas tells me: “I now want to focus more on conceptual images and the abstract world. One of my current projects, The City, is all about the energy of big cities where I look at human movement and activity as well as links to the different buildings and architecture.

“For me, cities are like a positive virus where there is chaos but also beauty and order. They are also more alive than one thinks and London in particular has this incredible feel to it. I love it even with the weather, as I come from a hot country. I hope to stay for as long as I can and then maybe move on to New York, another place I find fascinating and worth exploring.”

For more information on Dairo Vargas:
To donate to Barnardo’s charity:

Note: This article was first published circa November 2011

Dining From Underground! Love the Food!

A new underground dining-movement is taking London by storm and its secret chefs are experimenting with world cuisine in the privacy of their homes. With the desire to cook for others and share their food, they are happy to set up their own tables, cutlery and plates and to create a convivial atmosphere. With a new post-code falling to the trend every week, nobody knows the full count of these secret dining chefs and clubs. Just today, I heard that the movement has reached Turin, Italy.

So who are these guys and what are they up to? As luck would have it, I was invited to a rare feast to celebrate the birthday of an American lady named Shelley who is a secret chef who goes by the name of ‘Nomad Chef’. She took the initiative to get eight secret chefs together in her beautiful home in the Holland Park area, whom she had found online via social media. As fellow foodies, each brought a dish with which to impress so that there was endless fare that I lost count after the eighth course.

United by a deep love of all things culinary, the secret chefs agree that one of the reasons for going underground is that they yearn for good honest conversation, the type of which can only take place around a private dining room table with an intimate atmosphere. Even as many of them have day jobs too, they can’t stop themselves from collecting recipes and wanting to try them out on others and feeling great when they get positive feedback. Shunning restaurants is one of the things they have in common too.

Over dinner I was able to chat with the eight chefs and realised how they derive great pleasure from feeding others; and, they also all agreed that this becomes addictive and unstoppable. Like chefs in normal restaurants, they are on a mission to tap into the rich diversified history of food, cooking different cuisine and experimenting with fusion and adapting menus.

On the night, we were treated to: watermelon with feta cheese and mint salad, Moroccan tortilla with black olives, red peppers and harissa, Swedish fried meat balls with a beetroot and apple salad, Scandinavian seafood and turkey sandwich cake, Chinese pancakes with dill, tofu, egg and yellow bean sauce, Vietnamese pork patties with chili, sugar and lime juice, a lasagne with pancetta, pork sausage, parmesan, rocket and field mushrooms and a Mexican enchilada casserole. Not to be out-shown for dessert we had Mitty’s scrumptious ‘Sweet Justice’ dark chocolate cake that perfectly sealed the banquet.

Mingling With The Secret Chefs

Chatting with our gentle American hostess Shelley, she said the Nomad Chef persona was her way of healing the pain and the darkness of having lost her only son a year ago who was only 32 years old. She had shared with him an infatuation for food and mother and son had spent many days together in the kitchen cooking.

She said that her son had been a successful chef himself and had cooked private dinners for rock stars, actors and anyone who heard about his fusion food. To honour his memory, she got into secret dining and now offers amazing soul food, specialising in vegetarian dishes. With her French partner Bruno helping her in the kitchen, they take painstaking care to ensure their guests enjoy every mouthful and feel welcome.

I next spoke with Nicos who is a super confidant 28 years old who has just arrived from the United States. He boasts that he turned down a sous-chef position to work for Gordon Ramsey and that his Meridian Supper Club, based in Greenwich, offers seasonal, free range and locally sourced food that he buys from Borough’s Market.

Coming to London to change his life and travel, he said: “The restaurant business, which I have been in for fifteen years, is a tough lifestyle. You keep working for others who don’t appreciate the time and energy you put in. I would rather be poor then to give my life to 35K a year and slave for 65 hours a week.”

I then chatted to the petite Ning who is the creator of the Mama Lan Supper Club. A chartered accountant by day, her family’s history in the food business and old recipes used at home took her to the kitchen and cooking for others. Based in Cricklewood, she serves traditional Northern Chinese fare and teaches her guests a little bit about her cultural heritage.

The other secret chefs included the Somalian Ayan and her Swedish friend Pia who host the Claptonian Club in E5. Originally an Art gallery, they have turned the venue into a food venture where they rustle up a choice between East African fusion and Scandinavian recipes. Lastly, I met the hip Nigeria Shay who is a founding member of the Rebel Dining Society in EC1 where secret dinners can summon up to a hundred guests. His mission is to push the boundaries of fine dining and to also brings experimental live music and art performances too.

The Underground Dining Experience

Everyone is welcome to the supper clubs but you need to book in advance and know which cuisine is going to be served. Please note also that a financial contribution is usually made to the host or hostess with the rule to bring your own alcohol. There are on occasions also cooking workshops and demos and special brunches for families with children too.

Note: This article was first published circa May 2010

Ruby Wax Sermon: The School of Life

August 2008 saw the launch of ‘The School of Life’ in London, an adult open-type university led by a group of intellectuals and artists whose goal is to bring modern individuals with a hectic life-style – and presumably with not enough time or a place to think! – together in a safe environment to discuss the essence of life through the core subjects of: Love, Family, Work, Play and Politics.

By drawing upon the wisdom of ancient and modern philosophy, literature, the visual arts and psychotherapy, the aim of their classes, workshops, dinners and other gatherings is to provide good ideas to live by, offer guidance in turbulent times and to re-introduce certain core values to a vastly secular and existentially plagued world.

Although fronted by a small shop in the Bloomsbury area, their unusual style and structure of education seems to have struck a cord in many ready participants’ hearts and minds. The number of their students keeps expanding; and, in order to book a place on one of their courses or to join in a breakfast or dinner meeting can take up to months in advance. Not to mention their intellectual holidays.

So I decided to see what the fuss was all about and managed to get a ticket for a Sunday sermon. This was to be the tenth of the series where the idea is for the School to get an expert to speak for 45 minutes about a hot topic that has a moral or philosophical edge to it. These are conducted at the metaphoric parish and with this particular sermon going to be led by none other than the comedienne turned psychotherapist Ruby Wax on the subject of ‘How to Love Your Ego.’

The Parish Congregation

On the Sunday, I made my way to Conway Hall in Red Lion Square for the sermon to begin at 11.30 am. Although it was pouring with rain outside with windy, there were about 400 (the full capacity at Conway Hall) super keen people ready and chatting in the reception area before being let in. Many were regulars as they greeted each other and fell into conversation, as we waited to be let in. Once inside the hall, I got a good seat near to the front and I noticed also clearly etched at the top of the stage was a quote: “To Thine Own Self Be True”. All I good I thought, just the right motto to live by.

But then bizarrely, a very tall fellow (seven-foot point-four inches man – I asked him!) was wearing a shiny red leotard with small red lycra horns and acting cheeky and coming up to people. I thought how strange this was, but then maybe because it was the Halloween weekend and they were just getting into the spirit of things to break the ice.

But then it got a bit more bizarre and frankly weird. For once we were all seated and welcomed by the host speaker, we were ordered to stand up to sing a hymn. This is not anything from the Bible but the lyrics of the Eighties popular song by The Righteous Brothers – “You’ve lost that loving feeling.” And yes, to my horror, everyone started to sing and sway and getting all worked up. I sang along, of course, but wondered what was the ethical or philosophical significance of this? And what does this song hold for modern man?

Anyhow, once this was out of the way, Ruby Wax finally took to the podium for her speech, but not before the place was screaming down with cheers and claps for her.

Ruby On How to Love your Ego

Ruby said that the title for the subject was not her idea and warned that her speech would not be of the self or group-congratulatory type of the popular – but intellectually derided – American self-help programmes best known for their ego or confidence boosting. Rather, she wanted to discuss the essence of the “I” or better the “ich” in German as the centre of the self and person and one’s core identity.

Ruby expounded on the experience of fame and fortune. In particular, she said that being in the public eye might well provide one with a huge surge to the ego, but that will only lead to a greater fall when the attention dies out. In her own words, she said: “When you are up and flying close to the sun, people will treat you as a star with perks and privileges. But once you are down in the midst of despair, nobody will hear your call.”

She then argued that the reality of fame has an ugly side that is not often spoken about; that the public’s fascination with stars is also laced with a bigger resentment and a secret wish and desire for your demise. Further, that when you are high on fame, it is easy to create a different persona to your real self and get confused; but, that unfortunately, the real you eventually does come out in pathology.

With her signature irony and jokes, she confided about her childhood demons of being bullied at school, being fat and unpopular and then having tough parents. But that one day, “the loser learnt to speak comedy” – and that is how she found herself on the public stage.

Wax of course became widely known in the Nineties when she started to interview celebrities in an up, very close and personal style; and with her witty approach in handling these became a TV favourite to watch. However, as she explains, despite being at the height of all this fame and success, her real self came back to haunt her and she experienced an awful melt-down, became depressed and found herself at the Priory Clinic.

Closer to the end of her speech, she says that, fortunately, it was the shock of this stint in rehab that made her decide to finally deal with her monsters; by questioning her life choices, re-assessing her values; and, significantly, returning to her studies in psychology and neuroscience in order to find out what goes on in the mind. And that through these studies, she has come to learn the importance of understanding and harnessing “detached compassion – not to be confused with love – cause love can be stifling.” And just as it was getting to be very interesting, her forty-five minutes were done and she had to wrap up.

Once Wax got off the stage, the crowds were clapping again with myself included. But before I knew it, the devil in the red leotard returned to the front of the hall in order to begin the chanting of the second hymn – this time the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” – to which I chose not to sing along. Personally, I do not believe that Jackson is the right teacher for me on the matter of looking at or studying myself in the mirror!

When the song eventually came to its agonising end, we were invited to drink tea or coffee and have biscuits to mingle and chat with other attendees. Although I could have stayed to talk with some people, I decided to leave because I felt a little out of place and I wanted some time to think to myself.

I admit I enjoyed the talk and was pleasantly surprised by Wax’s down to earth approach. At least it made me think and scratch my head for a whole hour after as I walked back home from Holborn to Maida Vale. Even the following morning, I found myself still troubled with the intricacies of the subject of the “ego” and whether or not I agreed with the gist of what she said. In fact, it was only after I wrote back my notes that I was finally able to make some kind of intelligent sense out of it.

However, this also made me wonder: Would the average man or woman on the street have been able to understand any of this philosophising? Would it give them any guidance in these turbulent times? For even this is speculation as very few can afford to regularly attend these sermons by the proclaimed intellectuals, artists and philosophers of our time.

Sadly I have to sat that I felt a little intimidated by the composition of this parish congregation and its leaders, even if they did try in many ways to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. But I felt that you already have to be privileged nd of a certain class in order to fit in or to make sense of what they are on about.

I can’t lie that I won’t be seduced to return for another subject dearer to me, as I’m a glutton for punishment. The truth is there are very few places in London – bar universities – where one can address the big philosophic issues of life and being without feeling out of place. Just please don’t ask me to sing along to another Michael Jackson song! And please get rid of the red devil!

I do also have a serious suggestion to make to the School of Life. Could they perhaps begin to offer some of their classes, workshops and events to the less fortunate? Or maybe to introduce a community project to reach those who are truly in desperate need of ideas to live by? For that would definitely turn them into a more benevolent social enterprise and begin to truly personify the wisdom of the ancient and modern thoughts. Can they open their doors to everyone? I dare them to!

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Note; This article was first published circa November 2009

What Is In a Game of Polo?

Reading of Prince Harry’s first official trip to New York last week, he visited Ground Zero to meet up with New York’s Governor and the emergency fighters who helped quench that mad raging fire. There Prince Harry paid tribute to the victims of Nine-Eleven and opened the British Memorial Garden in Hanover Square to honour the 67 British casualties. He then planted a Magnolia tree.

Although this was a solemn affair, the star-struck Americans were completely bowled over by this young bad-boy royal. Many adoring young and old female fans had come from all over the United States, to catch a glimpse of him as he lay a wreath and hoped to get in line to shake his hand.

Exactly the following day, fantastic, racy and sexy pictures came out of the Prince as he played Polo at Governor’s Island. Not disrespectfully, the small game event turned out to be a greater highlight of his short visit.

New York’s stars and celebrities all fought to get a seat; and, the likes of Madonna, her toy-boy Jesus, Kate Hudson, the Rapper LL Cool J and his wife reportedly paid up to $50,000 to be there – all going towards charity of course.

Admittedly, he is a handsome prince and I understand how this attractive, young and athletic male on horseback – all sweaty and hot from riding – is a turn on for any woman, irrespective of age. Still, I’ve never manically followed the Royals and I cannot understand the frenzy surrounding their love and fascination with horses. But who could I judge the Americans when I don’t know a thing about appreciating a game of Polo?

Call it synchronicity. On the following Monday, I got an unexpected invite to attend a game of Polo between the English Guards and the United Gulf Cooperation Council, the GCC. They were having their annual match at Smith’s Lawn in Windsor Great Park and I was promised there would be drinks, lunch, a charity auction, speeches and scones with clotted cream.

When we arrived after a two-hour drive from central London, we found the place surrounded by greenery, peace and quiet. As we entered the white gates, the ushers indicated where to park the car and led us to the large white marquee where everyone had already gathered for lunch.

It was clear that this was not your average run-of-the-mill sports event but something highly exclusive. There were no more than a hundred and fifty attendees and the women were dressed in designer outfits and the men in formal suits and tie. The tables inside were also decorated with expensive flowers and tea lights and the especially prepared food served on china plates and silver cutlery.

Unusually for such a small group, there were ten professional photographers snapping away and a couple of Arabic TV crews taking coverage and interviewing the guests. In jest, I was nudged to be on good behaviour because I was in the presence of royalty. What? Royalty? My friend pointed to the head table.

Sitting in traditional garb was HRH Prince Abdel Aziz Bin Ahmed of Saudi Arabia surrounded by dignitaries. Next to our marquee also was the Royal Box for HM, the Queen for when she arrives. Apparently, it is tradition that she presents the Polo trophies. Ashamedly, I squealed in delight before I could check myself! I was excited to see, for the first time, this constitutional imperative of an individual and the face of Great Britain. Where was she? I couldn’t wait to see her.

Before her arrival, the game started. I thought to learn a few things. Polo is a truly graceful sport with four members on horseback playing for each team. They have mallet sticks with which to hit the ball – usually made of wood or plastic – in order to reach the goal post on either side of the field.

It is played in four quarters or six round – called chukkas – that normally last seven minutes with up to thirty seconds for overtime. And, in between, the horses rest for some minutes to recharge. That is it! Nothing too complicated. But it is clear how the players have great skill and training to get the horses to play in such an elegant way.

On the day, the GCC team won four and a half points to three by the Guards. When it was over, the players disembarked from their horses and got ready to receive their prizes.

“This is my moment to see her!” I thought. So, I ran near to the field for the ceremony and minded I didn’t slip on the grass with my high heels. As expected, everyone else was trying to get a good view too. And she finally walked out of her Box. Total silence descended and then, quickly, the cameras began to click and roll. It was all I could hear for five minutes- click, snap, click.

HM the Queen did not disappoint. Close up, she is impeccable charm, style and refinement. For the occasion, she was wearing a floral white and fuchsia dress with matching long jacket, white shoes and signature pearls. As it was slightly raining, she also had a matching pink umbrella held by her assistant.

I cannot say that I heard her speak or that I shook her hand. She just stood five metres away from me and presented the BMG Trophy and medals. Before I had more time to satisfy my curiosity, it all ended and she was escorted back and everyone cheered and clapped for her.

I realise now that I was got too eager and excited to see the Queen. So, yes, I’ll eat and enjoy the humble pie I owe to the Americans. As for the game of Polo, I highly recommend you go if you ever get an invite. Just dress your best and take your camera. You never know which royal you might bump into.