Grandes Maravillas (“Great Wonders”) was the first of Alfonso’s original tunes that he taught me. What you see above is the first page of notes for that song, using the cifras guitar notation system.
The handwriting on the title is Alfonso’s. When we would start a new song I would often hand him my sketchbook so he could write the title, ensuring I’d get the spelling correct. You can see that he also wrote “Music & Lirics / Alfonso Chacon”, though he never sang it for me. I have no idea what he had in mind for a vocal concept, or even what the lyrics are. As far as I know, he never recorded it in any form.
But he did tell me that the song was a prayer, an expression of gratitude for the grace of God, the Father. Alfonso was a very religious man, and playing for his church was a central part of his life in Chicago. In the late 1990s he recorded an album of beautiful solo guitar arrangements of Christian music called “Dad Gracias”, which I know meant a great deal to him. His conversation in English was frequently peppered with the phrase “thanks to God”, with the “s” dropped in his clipped way of speaking, so it always sounded like “thank to God”. If you asked him how he was, it was “fine, thank to God”, or he might announce in rehearsal “I have some good news, thank to God”, or receiving payment for a lesson or a gig, simply “thank to God”. It was like a constant rhythmic riff in his conversation, but also emblematic that his faith was top of his mind all the time.
This tune was definitely the most difficult song on The Panamericanist to record, for several reasons.
First, and this is a general statement that could be made for all of the songs, I can never be exactly certain what a “finished” musical idea was, especially in terms of his compositions. I could never be sure if he had shown me everything, or if perhaps he only showed me what he thought I was capable of learning at the time. When I decided to record these, I knew I was going to have to reconcile between what I have in my notes and memories and what made sense to me to create as a recording – something that someone could listen to and enjoy. Choices had to be made that may or may not reflect Alfonso’s vision.
In the case of Grandes Maravillas, I took the greatest liberty in terms of structural decisions of anything on the album. The solo guitar arrangement I originally learned included only the introductory strum and first two musical ideas you hear, a verse (repeated) and a chorus. In my recorded version they are followed by a middle section consisting of a variation on the verses and chorus that I learned years later when Alfonso brought this song to our guitar quartet, Los Guitarristas, as part of Paisaje de Chile #2.
The middle verse/chorus section was conceived within the quartet as a second guitar part to be played against the first verse/chorus, with another guitar doubling the first part, and the fourth playing the strum. So in essence I broke apart what was intended to be simultaneous, making the ideas sequential - so you can say this arrangement is something a deconstructed guitar duet. If two guitarists learn this song they can play the parts with and against each other and create a pretty exciting 5 minutes of music.
Chiefly, though, I thought this second guitar part, perhaps only an accompaniment in Alfonso’s mind, sounded cool on its own and allowed for the repetition of the first part to follow and conclude, giving the track some heft and a four-plus minute running time. I also thought Alfonso would approve of me showing off all of the ideas for the song, especially the fast riffs that make up the back half of the middle verse, by far the most physically difficult portion on the album.
Once I settled on an arrangement, the next challenge was deciding on a tempo – a tougher task that it may seem. I had been playing Grandes Maravillas for years for all sorts of occasions. One of the reasons it is so fun to play is that it functions at many different speeds and feels – I can play it extremely slowly and finesse it into music appropriate for a memorial service or church wedding prelude, or I can ramp it up and play it high energy for a cocktail party. So my performance is usually very contextual; I’m playing it how it feels right in a room, not to some objective concept of “how it is supposed to be”.
As a guitar instructor Alfonso had two primary directives: 1. play inside the rhythm and 2. play with your impression. Of course, rule 2 is a license to not care about rule 1. The secret I believe is to dedicate oneself to rule 1 but don’t let it take over your life. In general, I have a lifelong tendency to play everything too fast, or to alter tempos from section to section. I only have memories of Alfonso telling me to slow things down, or stopping me mid phrase to explain (over and over and over again) that there should be just one tempo that should run through the entire song. That said, I can’t say I heard him play Grandes enough to internalize what might have been the “correct” tempo to him.
When I began the recording process, the first thing I came to understand was that my playing, through a decade of hundreds of background music gigs, had evolved into being more about my own visceral sensation of playing guitar than what sounded good to the ears. Kind of like being a dancer that never sees a mirror or a partner. The first days of trying to record Grandes were painfully humbling. I could hear myself strumming too hard for the microphones, coming down too hard on some notes, radically altering tempos from section to section. What was enjoyable to play physically could be terrible to listen to.
So I had to go through a process of re-learning and getting back to the primary directives: first and foremost that there should be just one tempo that flows through the entire piece, resisting urges to speed the strums or lazily drop rest beats. My intention was that I wanted it to have a sense of joy, a briskness. But if I played the opening strum at what I felt was a blissful tempo, the melodies would sound breakneck fast at that same speed. I would then experiment with finding what I thought was a perfect tempo for the melody, only to find that when applied to the strum, it made it sound sluggish.
The rhythm itself is called resbalosa. Alfonso described it to me as a dance form that was popular in Spain at the time they colonized Chile (you’ll see his note calling it a “danza colonial 1700”), so it is something of a foundational idea in Chilean folklorica. To help me settle in on a final tempo of Grandes for recording, I turned to YouTube and found videos from Chilean folk festivals of resbalosa music and dance, which was tremendously helpful – it was the first of this music that I had heard outside of Grandes itself. The videos gave me a good sense of range for what tempos were danceable. I would ignore the music on the videos, playing along to the percussion and the dancers to help get a deeper sense of the feel.
Ultimately, while playing with the renewed feel to the strum I found a precise tempo that was close enough to work for all the sections – not so exact that I could record along it as a click (attempts to record this music to click tracks always sound stilted, the solo guitar is unforgiving of anything less than a full commitment to its attention). I practiced it over and over again with a metronome to get the feel of the spaces, etc., but to record I had to go from a place of emotion, of feeling, with the tempo trained to the muscles.
I always experience this song as a kind of conversation, with the verses posing questions being answered in the chorus. Often when I play, this conversation is between a character - maybe Alfonso, maybe me, maybe someone in the room or an imaginary character of the moment - and God or some Zen Master or any mystical sage bestowing some sort of beautiful wisdom in the calm choruses. The chorus in the middle section is where I allowed myself the most freedom, all single notes going totally outside the rhythm in a little soliloquy. Sometimes at that moment I imagine I am in direct conversation with Alfonso, telling him how I’m doing.
I think this also a tune where Alfonso is really expressing his love of guitar playing. It’s played a lot in the middle of the neck, and is just very physically satisfying, the full strum and the resolution of the strum especially. It’s very primal in that regard. Always a ball to play, and something I sneak in every time just to think to myself “here I am at this great event/venue/environment and Alfonso’s guitar is being played”.
It was the first song I started to record, it was the last one I finished, I’m sure I’m not done recording it yet.