La Flor de la Canela (“The Cinnamon Flower”) is probably the most historically and culturally significant song in The Panamericanistcollection, and to me learning this arrangement remains one of my most significant achievements as a guitarist. It also directly led to one of the most fantastic experiences of my life.
Like El Plebeyo, Las Flor de la Canela is a vals criollo, aka a “Peruvian waltz”. It was written by a singer/songwriter named Chabuca Granda around 1950, and soon became a hit song in Lima in from versions recorded by the popular groups Los Morochucos and Los Chamas. Chabuca was born in 1920 into a wealthy mining family in Peru, and received a musical education in the finest European classical tradition. These were still the days where there was a near caste-like distinction between high (Eurocentric) and low (American) culture, especially to upper class Limeños (those born in Lima who can claim a Spanish heritage). Chabuca’s songwriting challenged the residual colonial consciousness by poetically celebrating the unique charms of Lima, going beyond class boundaries, fostering city pride, and introducing syncopated Afro-Peruvian rhythmic elements into popular music.
Lyrically, La Flor de la Canela describes a memory/dream of a rapturous walk through Lima’s coastal district of Barranco by a woman of dark complexion (the “cinnamon flower”), adorned with “jasmines in her hair” as she “poured out suavity, and her passage left aromas of a bouquet of flowers that she wore in her bosom.” The chorus is a call to use this vision to live life richly:
Let me tell you, native of Lima
Oh, let me tell you
Dark one, my thought
To see if thus you awaken from the dream
From the dream that occupies
Dark one, your consciousness
Breathe with the smoothness with which
The cinnamon flower does
Adorned with jasmines
Blending with her loveliness
This embrace of Lima as its own beautiful and magical place was a powerful message, and La Flor de la Canela became an anthem for the city (I describe it where I live as the “Sweet Home Chicago” of Lima), and marks the beginning of an era when a distinct folkloric-influenced Limeño music culture came into its own (absolutely paralleling similar cultural shifts at the same time in North America with the legitimization of blues and country music). It’s been recorded hundreds of times over the years by pretty much every significant Peruvian artist in addition to a wide range of others across Latin America, from Yma Sumac to Caetano Veloso.
Chabuca’s own iconic version was not recorded until the 1960s as a duet with the guitarist Oscar Avilés as collected on the incredibly great album Dialogando:
So this is an important song. Of course, it was wholly new to me as Alfonso introduced it as the next piece I was to learn back in 2005 or so, but by then at least I had already acquired an appreciation of Peruvian styles and I understood it to be a big deal.
This was in the beginning of the period of time I associate with being the peak of my relationship with Alfonso as a solo guitar student. Roughly 2005-2007, my 4-6th years with him. These were graduate school sessions immediately following the several month period over which I had learned his original tunes (my bachelor’s thesis, if you will). There were no more intermediary stages, I was now into the heart of the best of his own material. Over these two years I progressed through a succession of his deepest and most valued arrangements, starting with Paisaje de Nicaragua, then into La Flor, followed by Flores Negras, the bossa nova Manha de Carnaval, Los Ejes de Mi Carreta, the tango La Cumparsita, the Venezuelan tambor Barlovento the carnival march Dobradinho, a medley of Colombian cumbias and then into Grenada. Personally, my greatest hits. And those from this period not on The Panamericanist I hope to record someday in the future (Manha is a staple of my solo guitar demo).
I have such a clear memory of the day we stared La Flor. I trembled a bit inside with excitement and fear as he played the full arrangement for me the first time. It seemed endless, new section after new section, detailed all the way through to an elaborate outro – how would I memorize all of that? But moreover it just seemed to contain so many heretofore unknown ways of playing the guitar; mashed-finger two note trills played frontwards and backwards, and then especially the huge block-handed rhythmic breakdown jam that kicks in two-thirds into the song. I’d been watching Alfonso play this way up close for years, but I still didn’t know the nuts and bolts of how he did it.
With an arrangement like this you see the full expression of the solo guitar as a kind of self-contained dance band. The breakdown jam is technically not a part of the song La Flor de la Canela but an interlude included by Chacon to showcase guitaristic variations within the vals criolla style. These riffs represent the kind of non-melodic, pure-groove-vamps a guitarist (with or without percussion) would make during a party in a living room (or parlor or patio or small restaruant) that people can dance to in a satisfying way. The recipe is simple and eternal: keeping a strong bass line going in cross rhythm with short melodic phrases on the upper strings, the tension between brings a sway to the hip. The art within this family of technique is not in the complexity of the notes – too many notes and/or too much harmony can actually water down the effect – it is in the strength and grace by which the vamp is rhythmically held down and finessed in the pocket for healthy chunks of time to give dancers free space to move, free of the constraints of having to pay attention to a melody – an interlude of “negative space” between the “positive” input and structure of a song (and this regard, the opposite of an exressive “guitar solo” in jazz/rock terms, which is where another guitarist might have gone in that place of the arrangement).
Approaching the guitar this way, you quickly appreciate that it is not about merely playing the correct notes in proper sequence. To really get to the funk on the instrument, it is all about making the effective sounds. The nylon string guitar is a uniquely tactile instrument, and the same note on the same fret can sound a multitude of different ways depending on force, angle and massage of the finger(s) and or nail(s). As a developing player one of the greatest joys is achieving new tones as hand muscles sharpen and gain endurance. With sufficient hand strength there becomes possible a synergistic “melding” of sounds across the strings that resonate as a sort of percussion when repeated as a riff.
The vals criolla rhythm breakdown section is an example of music born not of composers or songwriters but guitarists who made people dance for hours in small gatherings.
Learning arrangements like La Flor de la Canela was and is a long (and ever ongoing) process of digging hard into very specific and idiosyncratic right hand techniques – every region within each South American country has its own. Another appreciation one must recognize is that these techniques, i.e. the specific physical manners by which the hands manipulate the strings, cannot be learned by mere listening. Try as you might, you can never truly reverse engineer styles like this from recordings, often times not even from video. To really get it you have to learn from someone who knows.
And Alfonso was someone who knew. This arrangement is his tribute to the man who taught him these styles: his friend and mentor, Oscar Avilés. As far as I know, Avilés has never recorded a solo guitar version of La Flor de la Canela, This is Chacon’s solo guitar interpretation of his style as if he did.
Oscar Avilés is in the same legendary pantheon as Chabuca Granda in terms of iconic Peruvian musicians. He was born in Lima in 1924, and was a professional musician by the time he was 15, although unlike Chabuca he was self-taught, not classically trained. He had been a member of Los Morochucos when they recorded La Flor de la Canela in 1952, and in the years to follow he would gain fame in his own right for bringing a virtuosity to Peruvian folkloric styles, and an immense creativity as an accompanist to the best singers of his time. Once I learned his name I noticed he was all over the credits of my favorite Afro-Peruvian music collections such as The Soul of Black Peru on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and the Rough Guide’s The Musical Spirit Of Black Peru.
Alfonso was friends with both Chabuca, whom he would accompany when she toured to Santiago, and Oscar, who he admired as a guitarist on the level of Atahualpa Yupanqui, and Roberto Grela. Alfonso would describe staying in Lima for months at a time and learning guitar ideas directly from Oscar, the techniques responsible for getting that distinct sound of Peruvian guitar. Fast forward 50 years later, and Alfonso was now demonstrating them for me in detail. True Secrets of the Temple, with the covenant that I not teach them to anyone unless I determine they have put in the time and effort to be worthy of such knowledge.
Around this same time there was a part-time member of our guitar ensemble, Los Guitarristas, named Raúl Fernández. Raúl was and is a leading Latin percussionist/musician and educator in Chicago who was coming in to rehearsals to learn some guitar chops (he ultimately produced our first demo, and over the years he would come on stage with us when he could to play cajon). One day he mentioned that he was going to be travelling to Lima and Alfonso’s eyes lit up. “You should visit my friend!” and after digging through his papers he found and gave Raúl the phone number for Oscar Avilés.
Weeks later after his trip when I saw Raúl again he said he indeed called the Avilés residence in Lima. Someone answered and he explained he was a fellow musician and friend of Alfonso Chacon visiting from the US. Raúl was put through to Oscar, now a man in his 80s, who promptly invited him over. The next day Raúl got to spend an afternoon hanging out with Oscar in his home, hearing all sorts of great stories.
That was also a terrific reflection of the kind of guy Raúl is, too: super charismatic, confident, a seriously accomplished musician in his own right who knows everything about Latin culture and history. He’s the kind of guy that can roll into any country, call up their biggest living music legend and chill.
But still, I couldn’t help but wonder: what if I went to Lima?
Over the next year or so, as I started to be able to piece together all the different sections of the song and play it as a whole, I would introduce it to friends in informal settings by explaining the meaning of the song and then telling the story of Raúl making it down to visit with Avilés himself, and then wouldn’t be even more mind-blowing if I could get down there so then I could play his techniques back to him, a half century after teaching them to Alfonso? That would be just too much!
It’s funny how life works sometimes.
It all started at a fundraiser for Chicago’s biggest organic locavore farmers market, the Green City Market in September 2007 at the very large estate of legendary news anchor Bill Kurtis (I’m not kidding, he’s a big investor in organic foods). I was there to play background music by the backyard bar, as at that time I was one of the regular musicians at the Market and enough of a favorite with the staff to get the gig. It was an A-list kind of affair, with Chicago celebrity chefs such as Rick Bayless cooking appetizers, while Bill himself gave flatbed cartloads of guests tours of the grounds on his tractor. The center of the fundraiser was to be an auction inside the house. My wife-at-the-time was also there, as she worked for a seafood distributor and one of the auction items was a trip to Alaska sponsored by her company.
I was still playing outside while the auction was going on when she tapped me on the shoulder. She was excited about the possibility of one of the other trips up for auction: a tour of coffee plantations in Nicaragua with a buyer from Intelligentsia Coffee. To me it sounded kinda cool, but also a bit out of nowhere. I can’t say I could recall many conversations about wanting to learn about the coffee industry or Nicaragua (I was only a recently converted coffee drinker myself). To be fair, though, the trip stoked a professional curiosity in her about how high end coffee is cultivated and marketed to perhaps find parallels with seafood. And since neither of us had ever traveled to Latin America, Nicaragua was as exotic as anywhere. I could tell she had had a few, but I couldn’t tell if her interest was actually serious enough to bid. I thought she was just entertainingly passing along the news of the item as a fabulous bit of Green City event trivia. Nonetheless she wanted to know what I thought might be an acceptable high bid for it. Not thinking this was really happening I gave her what I thought was an absurdly high number as a very dry, slightly annoyed joke – we were essentially broke, I should add, with plans for me to soon quit my day job – and like that she went back inside to the auction. I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t think she would actually bid…
So yeah…oh yeah…next thing you know we’re working through a whole lot of marital tension, surviving a very, very, very long car ride home from the Kurtis estate, and then in subsequent weeks arranging a loan off of our condo mortgage to in order to donate a big chunk of money we didn’t have to the Green City Market to travel to Nicaragua the following March. As you might guess, this marriage didn’t last too many more years, but at the time, once the dust settled and finances got back to routine, making this trip a positive thing became a something to work for.
And then another funny thing happened. Months pass into the new year. We get to February and we still haven’t heard back from the Intelligentsia Coffee guy – the trip is supposed to be in a matter of weeks and no arrangements have been made. After new rounds of frantic messages to all parties he finally gets back to us, he had been weeks in Rwanda, and hadn’t really been informed of his new auction-won travelmates. We informed him it was just too late to arrange participation in his March Nicaragua trip, other professional obligations had come in. As a substitute, though, it turns out he was planning on going to Colombia for a week in May, which was a way better opportunity on every level. He apologetically asked if maybe we can join him there, meeting in Cali? Oh heck yes!
In for a penny, in a for a pound. If we were now taking on debt to travel to South America, and I was now free of day job considerations, I could add a week for myself in Peru before meeting up with my wife and coffee tour guide in Colombia. So I signed up for week-long Spanish language immersion program, staying with a family and taking daytime classes at a school in the Miraflores district, right next to Barranco, blocks from the Pacific.
I was going to Lima.
At first, I played it cool with Alfonso. It had been a couple years since Raúl’s trip, I didn’t want to presume that Alfonso would just give out Oscar Avilés’ number to any old student who happened to travel to Lima. Plus, Oscar was a couple years older, and who knew what health he might be in.
If nothing else, I was simply excited to travel to a foreign country. Aside from Canada and a couple days in Acapulco with my parents when was 16, my 39 year old self had never traveled outside the US. Since my college days I had essentially been living month to month scraping by, committed more to making music than making money. As debts slowly accrued, I trained myself to put things like travel, concerts, furniture, nice clothes, etc, out of my imagination.
I was also excited to further my Spanish. I had been taking classes at the Cervantes Institute in Chicago off and on for years and I had a rough proficiency, though short of the subjunctive (and much listening comprehension). As it happened, my favorite teacher at Cervantes was from Peru, so I signed up for a few weeks of tutoring to ramp up and get a feel for what to expect.
As the trip drew near the moment I was waiting for came. With a grand smile Alfonso handed me a slip of a paper with a phone number. I’m not even sure he remembered Raúl’s trip at that point, but the nonetheless he passed it over and encouraged me to call. A few days before I was to leave Los Guitarristas played for a Cinco de Mayo event at Navy Pier in Chicago, and while on break Alfonso went in to one of tchotchke shops and bought a small “Chicago” plaque with the skyline for me to give to Oscar as a gift from his old friend. Now I had a reason to call.
The plane touched down around midnight and walking out of the airport I was greeted by an unusual mist. Lima is built on a desert, it essentially never rains there (locals have literally never heard the sound of thunder). But in the winter months at night I learned that occasionally there is this form of precipitation, neither fog nor rain, but something like light sheets of microscopic droplets of water suspended in the air. It even made kind of a slight hissing sound. A new sensation from the first footstep.
My host family was super sweet. A couple in their 50s, the father was an architect with an office nearby, and his wife ran the household along with a domestic. They had two adult daughters who didn’t sleep there but were by every day for lunch and dinner. They had a longtime relationship with the language school and always had students staying with them (my stay overlapped with a couple different young North Americans). The mother (or her domestic) was a really tremendous cook and they prepared three meals a day for everyone. The father was a jovial guy, he had been to Chicago and we talked a lot about what was happening in Lima. Overall they all really took it upon themselves to hang out and converse with the students, nightly card games and the like.
They lived in a modest apartment in Miraflores, a beautiful and economically upswinging district that connects the colonial downtown center to the coastal cliffs. Miraflores is probably the most tourist friendly part of Lima, and to me it felt like parts of San Francisco, with Spanish colonial architecture, small restaurants, surfer hostels and Pacific air. Walking about there was a friendly vibe and a sense of optimism. The recent news from Peru had been good, strong economic growth and an improved international credit rating, and lots of foreign investment coming in. The 90s in Lima had been pretty horrific with an intense crackdown of the Maoist revolutionary movement El Sendero Luminoso by the government of Alberto Fujimori, who was then ousted himself under the weight of his own corruption – a gigantic and fascinating story. Years of violence followed by years of civic chaos, things were still just settling.
I dug my school too. My classmates were an interesting mix. I made fast friends with young guy from the UK there on a work order from a bank to learn about micro-finance, and another guy from Australia who’s wife taught at an elite prep school who had lots of funny stories about life in Lima. There was also a creepy overly outgoing dude from Florida who I’m pretty sure was there to find a wife. I thought it was hilarious that the first he did upon arriving in Lima was to seek out a Mexican restaurant.
But really all I wanted to do was wander around, and as soon as I could politely remove myself from social obligations I was afoot. The coastal district next to Miraflores is Barranco, famous for being the cultural hub of Lima, where many famous artists and musicians have lived, including Chabuca Granda. I set out in that direction having no idea where I was going, following a main commercial drag. I got to something of a main intersection with a major traffic stop. During the exceedingly long red light these young skinny indigenous-looking juggler guys would run out in the middle of the intersection, do their thing for a minute, and then run around trying to get tips from drivers. They were actually quite impressive, and with the chaos of all the little motorcycles, zillions of improvised Yugo-sized cabs, at least six different bus sizes, it all felt way more wild west than Chicago.
I kept walking down this main drag, marveling especially at the bright colors of the buildings until the commercial area started to fade and I sensed that I must have missed a good turn or something because I was now steering away from the coastline. So I doubled back and as I neared the previous intersection I suddenly found myself making accidental friendly eye contact with one of the jugglers who had just packed up his stuff. I can’t remember who spoke first, but the next thing I know I’m chatting with this dude who calls himself Fish.
Fish told me he grew up in the jungle areas in the northeast of Peru. He was a kid, like 17 or so, and moved down to Lima a year prior. I didn’t probe too hard on how he lived. He heard of Chicago, knew a little English, and had an easy manner about him. Every piece of internal human radar my system has to offer gave me the instinct to trust him. He offered to show me around Barranco, and knowing this probably goes against every good travel survival advice I took him up on it. I didn’t have a ton of cash on me (I wished I had more), as there was definitely an unspoken understanding that I would tip him out, and that was certinaly cool with me.
He took me down a side street that cut in towards the coast, where I immediately had an incredible view of these gigantic mansions built on to the cliff. I think one even belongs to the writer Mario Vargas Llosa. Further down the slope I saw there was a strip restaurants and bars that led down to the beach. As we turned on down that way to my utter surprise I realized I was about to step onto La Puente de los Suspiros (“The Bridge of Sighs”), the bridged traversed by the mythical female in La Flor de la Canela (“from bridge to boulevard”), where at the other side now stands a statue of Chabuca Granda herself. I never would have known to come here on my own.
On the middle of bridge there were two musicians, an older man with a homemade backpack-style guitar strap so he could and sing and play in good position while standing, along with a younger cajon player. They were busking on the bridge before heading down to the restaurants. I started chatting with them about Peruvian music, explaining how I hoped to visit Avilés, and then the guitarist generously handed me his instrument, allowing me to humbly demonstrate my vals criolla techniques. I played El Plebeyo and La Flor de la Canela for them and I think I won their approval. They then put on a little concert for me as I had my MP3 recorder in tow. These guys were AMAZING:
Fish continued his tour down to the beach, and then back up into some of the residential side streets of Barranco. It was now dark, and even though I continued to have nothing but good vibes from Fish we took a couple alleys that brought my mind over to a probably-healthy paranoid awareness I was now living the prologue to countless gruesome true crime paperbacks (“friendly-seeming local lures tourist to Shining Path torture chamber” or at least getting mugged). He ended up just showing off some of his favorite houses, some truly spectacular, and finally we reached the edge where paved roads turned dirt. It was getting late and time for me to head back. Fish walked me all the way back to Miraflores, cool to the end. Nothing like get shown around by a local. The bit of cash I laid on him was not nearly what I would have hoped (but I had also made that clear earlier, managing his expectations) I think he enjoyed my company.
I had him give a shoutout to Chicago, he called me “Smeeth”:
Over my week I had a number great small adventures, including walking through Barrio Chino (Chinatown), where my 5’ 9” frame felt NBA tall, and enjoying a fantastic meal at Las Brujas de Cachiche where the house mixed ceviche was probably the greatest single dish of food I have ever eaten (my mouth waters just thinking about it). As you got away from the coastal districts you sense Lima quickly became a very different scene, colonial styles giving way to the sea of dense concrete housing, and the ocean breeze dissipating into intensely polluted smog. Even with the economy improving rapidly, the center city was still policed with machine guns out. As I sat on a bench in the main colonial square a homeless guy started walking towards me only to quickly receive a lashing on the wrists with a short wire whip by a cop who came out of nowhere, I’m sure with a strong directive to not have tourists be bothered.
Everyone I dealt with in Lima was super nice, especially the cab drivers with whom I had some my best ever full Spanish conversations (you get plenty of time to talk in Lima traffic). Ironically, the only exceptions seemed to be the service folks at your more upscale tourist places where personalities always seemed hardened.
I gave myself a couple days to adjust to Lima before calling Oscar. Not knowing how a visit might actually go, let alone an attempt at a phone call, I wanted give myself time to have an experience or two under my belt before giving it a shot.
With fresh-out-of-class confidence after my third day of sessions I made the call. Someone answered, and in my best very slow very polite Español I tried to explain I was a friend and student of the guitarist Alfonso Chacon of Chile who hoped I might come by to send his regards to Oscar. After a bit of pause the answerer said to hold on, and after another minute or two the gruff voice of an old man came on – I was now talking on the phone to Don Oscar Avilés! I repeated my spiel and he promptly invited me over the next day, 2pm. He put me back with someone else who gave me an address. They were in a kitchen as I could here something cooking on the stove in the background.
The next morning I could barely contain my excitement. It was to be my final morning class at the language school and with a shift in schedule it ended up being a private tutor session with one of the teachers. She wasn’t my favorite in the group, the other teachers had more outgoing personalities essential for the energy of a language class, while she was bit more dry, and I had the impression she didn’t smile much around North Americans.
She was intent on not wavering through a book lesson, but I couldn’t help but to tell her my afternoon plans. She was nonplussed. Of course she was a few generations removed from probably being much of a fan herself – despite my enthusiasm, we’re talking “golden oldies” here and I understood that for sure. But she did then have some very interesting insight. She mentioned how Oscar was unique among famous Peruvian artists because he has never moved away from Lima to cash in. Most move up to the USA, Miami or New York when they achieve success as a better base for further international opportunity and fabulous living. Oscar has always been about Peru, for that he never left. He lives in a nice area and gets on Peruvian TV, but is not rich in the financial sense. He is beloved for that, but it is accompanied with some sadness too, like the brilliant guy who never leaves his small town.
If you are attuned to it, the music of Oscar Avilés permeates Lima. At the airport, in the middle of gift shop stands the music kiosk to grab your Peruvian sounds on the way home. Half the kiosk is CDs from Andean groups playing the mountain music, the other half is every album every Lineño singer made in duet with Oscar, the unmistakably huge head and black mustache on every cover. Like oldies stations in the US that continue to spin Sinatra, you’ll hear “music of your life”-type stations playing in cabs with his name checked in every back announce. Walking into the great aforementioned criollo restaurant Las Brujas de Cachiche, the sound of his guitar was in their speakers as I waited for my seat.
As I rode the cab to the district of San Isidro with Alfonso’s goofy gift, I thought back through my entire time him and all doors he had opened for me. This is beyond luck or good fortune.
The neighborhood looked like a nice upper middle class suburb, his house with in line with the neighbors, nothing that advertised celebrity.
I rang the bell and the man himself answered the door. It was a warm day, but he was wearing gigantic wool mittens on each hand. I took that to mean he probably wasn’t playing this day (I had seen pretty recent YouTube videos of him still playing, so I didn’t think he had completely retired from music yet).
It was a little awkward at first, but he quickly shifted into tour guide mode. As I mentioned, he had a low and gruff speaking voice, but I could understand a good 50-60% of what he was saying. Walking in through the front I was immediately faced with a wall of awards, including the “Key to Miami” and several plaques from various Latin American Music-type award ceremonies. He then took me through the garage where there was something like a front porch area I hadn’t noticed from the street. It was surrounded by tiled square columns, and on each one was painted script from a poem or song lyric written about Oscar. He took me over to several reading them out loud. I didn’t know probably any of the authors and didn’t dare get out my camera, but this was clearly something he rightly treasured.
We came into the living room at and sat on the coach. It was a beautiful home, but as I walked through and looked into corners I could see it was also a bit run down and in need of maintenance (some holes in walls left to linger). His wife came down from upstairs, she also knew Alfonso and had some nice things to say about him and “the Chilenos”. I don’t think she was terribly charmed by my visit, but I think she saw it humored Oscar and she tolerated it.
For the next couple hours Oscar and I chatted away. He asked me how I knew about Peruvian music, in addition to Alfonso I told about him the David Byrne compilation and he absolutely no idea what I was talking about. He then gave me a brief introduction to Peru and it’s different regions and cultures. Behind us on the wall was large painting of his parents and their extended family, he pointed out each telling little stories and especially how long they lived – most into their 90s. Oscar himself is a horse of man, around 84 on this day and still going strong.
There came to be a pause in the conversation, as if we perhaps had exhausted the possible topics. He said something like “I suppose you might like me to play some guitar, but that’s not a good idea for me today, but you can show me what you can do.” And with that he got up and fetched his guitar.
Holy moly this is more than I expected. He took off his mitts to get the guitar out and his huge hands were a sight to see, no wonder he can do what he does, the guitar is like a ukelele to him.
When I saw his instrument though, I knew I was in trouble. For those not familiar with guitars it may be tough to understand, but there is a feature on most guitars where there are marks, little dots, at strategic locations along the upward-facing side of the neck that help serve as a visual cue for hand placements. On your finer handmade instruments, they are not always there. Such as my own guitar at home, which is why God made white-out for me to put the markings on myself.
You should also understand that every nicely made classical guitar is different, there’s not a uniform size. Some are a little bigger for bigger hands, some a little smaller. As you might guess, Oscar’s was a double XL.
So I’m handed a very large, dotless, but otherwise insanely great instrument. Of course, I’m not warmed up and I should mention now I haven’t played in 5 days save for my jam in Barranco.
Nonetheless I sucked it up and proceeded to slaughter my way through El Plebeyo. Slop city. Without the dots on a neck already tough to judge I came in a lot of bad notes. But he could see what I was doing, and it was interesting enough that his wife came downstairs to check out the white dude playing vals criollo. Now with a slightly greater sense of orientation I hacked though La Flor de la Canela, thinking I was maybe blowing it a little, until I got to the breakdown part which I hit hard. Upon resolving the last riff of that section he and his wife burst into smiles and applause, mercifully letting me off the hook from finishing the tune. At that moment I heard say to his wife something to the effect of ¡estos ritmos nunca morirán! (“these rhtyms will never die!”).
“I suppose you would like me to comment on you playing” he said as the guitar was put away and we settled back on the couch. Again, my translating skills here are pretty limited, but I think he discussed the hands being in concert together – in my nerves, or incompetence, he was observing my hands operating in different senses of rhythm and that I’ll need to get them working together. So true.
I stayed a bit longer, but despite my concert the tolerance for his wife for a strange house guest ran its course. “Is that gringo still here?” I could hear her yell from above and that was my queue to split.
I couldn’t resist and the way out took a quick pic:
Oscar Avilés passed away on April 5, 2014, he just made it to 90.
There are many videos of Oscar on YouTube, this is one of my favorites. Performing with his frequent partner Zambo Cavero in Washington DC in the 1980s for the Organization of American States, you can feel their intense patriotism: