A favorite metaphor of mine to describe the process of learning solo guitar arrangements from Alfonso is that it is akin to learning to recite poetry in another language, phonetically. One may not understand the actual semantic meanings of the words and phrases, but that does not detract from the potential pleasures to be found in pronouncing sequences of verse and imagining the dramas of what they could represent. And sometimes something wholly unique and freshly beautiful can come from that process. A great example of this is my experience with the song “El Plebeyo”.
“El Plebeyo” (“The Commoner”) is a vals criollo, or Peruvian waltz, written by a man named Felipe Pinglo Alva around the early 1920s. In the context of Peruvian culture I think I can safely say that it is a very famous and iconic song, both musically and lyrically, and is still performed today. As a songwriter Pinglo was of the generation that reconciled Spanish colonial cultural influences with that of indigenous and African influences into a distinctly Peruvian form (parallel and synchronous with the evolution of choro music in Brazil, jazz in the USA, tango in Argentina, etc.). His songs would become the templates for the generation to follow, including musicians such as the guitarist Oscar Aviles whose playing came to define vals criollo instrumentally. Lyrically, “El Plebeyo” is a lament from the perspective of a man from a lower social class who is in love with an upper class woman and feels the heartbreak that he could never cross that barrier to win her hand. A translation I found of the last lines of the chorus : My blood, even if plebian, also stains of red the soul in which is nested my incomparable love, She a noble crib and I a humble commoner, Oh Lord why aren’t human beings of equal worth? Its longevity perhaps speaks to it as a work that gets to the heart of Peruvian/Limeño soul.
Of course I knew none of this as I learned it. In my education on the guitar “El Plebeyo” represented a kind of quantum leap in difficulty. At the point he introduced it to me, Alfonso had taught me just a handful of tunes, including “Son de la Loma,” “La Malagueña Salerosa” and “El Condo Pasa.” The early songs were hugely challenging, no doubt about it, but they also had a familiarity to me and rhythmic flow that my ears could at least relate to even if my hands could not yet achieve. To get back to the poetry metaphor, these songs were poems that had a clear syllabic pattern and a rhyme scheme that could be anticipated. “El Plebeyo” was like launching into free verse – I would later see and feel the patterns, but I can remember the first time I watched him play, as he demonstrated it to me to commence note-taking, that it just seemed like an endless string of ideas - my ears could not anticipate what would happen next. I didn’t experience it as a song but as if he was reading an epic on the guitar.
This was probably somewhere around 2003/2004. With no recorded versions that I was aware of beyond my recordings of Alfonso during our lessons, I dove in to the process and started picking it up riff by riff. Guitaristically, it involved chord formations that were punishing for my left hand to achieve. Alfonso’s method was to stress learning the notes and hand positions first without worrying so much about the rhythm, and then once that physical confidence is gained the song can be hammered into the proper form. The Peruvian style incorporates an aesthetic of taut, chopped notes and a utilization of space, a kind of minimalism in which you can’t rely on a flowing physical momentum so essential to solo guitar music. You have to dig in hard with a deep internal sense of meter. This one took a long time.
Eventually I had a finished rough version of “El Plebeyo" in my hands about the same time that first version of Los Guitarristas came into being. In September 2003 Alfonso started hosting weekly guitar ensemble sessions at his apartment, a rotating cast of 4-8 guitarists, students and colleagues dropping by with Alfsonso directing and giving out parts to each. By the next spring it would settle into an initial sextet that included two Peruvian musicians who were previously friends with Chacon, Pedro Verastagui and Anibal Bellido.
Pedro and Anibal had their own group called Trio Peru that performed each Wednesday at a restaurant in the north of Chicago called Taste of Peru. For someone who was just discovering the magnificence of Peruvian musical styles this was all just too good to be true: to be learning to play it on my guitar, then to befriend actual Peruvian musicians, and then taste my first dish of Peruvian style ceviche while watching them play in their neighborhood restaurant.
In Los Guitarristas rehearsals I would demonstrate to Pedro and Anibal some of the solo guitar music Alfonso had taught me, including “El Plebeyo,” and they then graciously invited me to perform during a set break on their night at Taste of Peru. How could I not accept that? I only had to get over the fact that I had never performed solo guitar music in public before.
Before walking into Taste of Peru for the first time with a guitar case in hand I had only played solo guitar music in public maybe twice before. The first time was a small recital Alfonso organized, playing in front of other students of Alfonso’s along with some friends and family. And the other was playing for a small party hosted by a friend back in Michigan. Both were very easy and supportive environments. Taste of Peru would be my first opportunity to play for not just strangers, but strangers who were mostly Peruvians in a Peruvian restaurant with some expectation that they were also out to hear some actual Peruvian music.
I sat and ordered dinner, enjoying the first set from Trio Peru. I had a 15 minute set planned. I knew I had to come right out with the Peruvian jams to honor the venue and establish my credibility. I had but two, “El Plebeyo” and “El Condor Pasa.” I was stronger on “El Condor Pasa,” and it had a more spectacular ending, so I’d have to start with “El Plebeyo.”
I’m thinking this is May 2004. I can still see the early evening sun coming through the front windows. The small storefront BYOB restaurant is mostly full. Folks are definitely out for the food and the music, as later in the evening people will come up to sing and jam with Trio Peru. They break, and I get up to play “El Plebeyo,” not as a touchstone of Peruvian culture, not even as a song, but as an instrumental solo guitar performance that is not tied to any concept of class struggle or even romantic love. I had never heard it sung before, I don’t know what elements of the arrangement are core parts of the official melody or are just Alfonso’s ornamentations. I don’t know where introductions end or verses begin. At this point I am likely not even aware that the interlude in the middle of the arrangement is not even “El Plebeyo,” but a quotation from Oscar Aviles’s introduction to Chabuca Granda’s song “Puño de Oro”: a musical shoutout to signify the true source of the material.
So it was with great astonishment when something like 30-40 seconds into the performance the room suddenly and simultaneously burst into applause – the applause of song recognition. How organic it was in its synchronicity and spontaneity meant that I unwittingly had articulated a very clear phrase. In that moment I communicated something with a group of strangers from another country whose lives I knew nothing about. I pronounced the words to the poem with enough intelligibility that they were understandable, with enough finesse to earn a positive reaction. I know that’s the kind of thing I love when I see it – an artist reaching across a border to sing someone else’s song, to find what is universal or to contemplate what it could mean from another perspective. I felt like I was participating in the creation of a new and unexplored line of dialogue.
When the restaurant patrons saw me take the stage, I’m sure a vas criolla was the last thing anyone expected me to play. The reception was generous, and despite what I’m sure was a sloppy and nerve-wracked performance, many folks came up to me later to tell me how cool they thought that was. I ended up going back to Taste of Peru regularly over the next year, enough that the owner started calling me El Perucho. I am ever thankful for those days and those friendships.
I still consider “El Plebeyo” among the most challenging pieces of music in my repertoire. Later on as recordings began to populate the iTunes store and YouTube, and as a version of it was also incorporated into “Paisaje de Peru” by Los Gutiarristas, I gained more of a feel for it as a song. But honestly I don’t obsess over “getting it right” in terms of comparing my version to those done by Peruvians - on that scale I would probably never be satisfied with myself. Having learned what it was about it, I can’t escape reflecting on those themes as I play it, but it is also filtered through my own internal, inexpressible arc.
I can only hope the listener finds their own translation.