The Panamericanist: Background
I first met Alfonso Chacon in the spring of 2002. He came in as a substitute teacher for a group Latin Rhythms guitar class I was taking at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. It was the last session of the term and one of the first really nice days of that year. I thought about blowing it off to enjoy the weather. But I felt the pull of seeing my classmates once more and made the last minute decision to go.
Instead of our regular teacher, a short, stocky, white-haired man in his late 60s walked in and, without saying much, sat down to play. For the next several minutes he delivered an expansive sampler course of Latin folkloric styles and then a more general demonstration of the sonic and expressive possibilities of a lone nylon-stringed guitar. I was awestruck. I had never seen or heard anyone play guitar like that before. Solo guitar music, a mix of straight classical and crazy unbeknownst folkloric techniques. Intense stabbing and digging at the strings segueing to gentle romantic lines to dancingly dense rhythmic strums that immediately combed my hair in new ways. Call it soul music, it felt equally fresh and vibrant as rooted and old. And it looked fun as hell to play, if not impossible.
I had played guitar since I was a kid, graduating from teenage garage rocknroll bands to playing electric rhythm guitar in professional and artistic dancehall/disco/dub/noise bands around Ann Arbor/Detroit in the 1990s. I had moved to Chicago in 1999 and was looking to learn some new rhythmic ideas on the guitar and for some sort of formal introduction to Latin American music, which for all my world-music-headedness I really knew nothing about.
After class at the Old Town School, I got Sr. Chacon’s card and worked up the nerve to leave a voicemail in my limited and probably nonsensical Spanish, seeking a private lesson. It took a couple tries, and a few weeks, but eventually his stepson returned my call and in English arranged a lesson time for me with Alfonso. After the first session I hunted down a Carcassi Classical Guitar Method book, got started on my first new arpeggio exercises, and, with a weekly commitment, I was on my way.
At first, I thought he just happened to be old man who could play guitar incredibly well. But over time I began to understand he was something far more grand: a real Master with a distinct musical voice, an epic career and a hard-lived life. And, to my great fortune, he was also a warm, funny, disciplined, open hearted and generous human being.
Alfonso was born in Chile in 1934, learned to play guitar as a kid from his father and was performing professionally by the time he was a teenager.
By the mid-1950s he was performing in the top guitar ensembles in Chile, making frequent radio and studio gigs and accompanying touring musicians from across South America as they came through Santiago. Those were booming and optimistic times across the continent, and national pride was expressed popularly through a new and burgeoning appreciation of regional folk styles, still considered “low culture” by the elite classes. Alfonso was of a generation of musicians who sought to challenge that hierarchy, giving equal respect to indigenous and African influences, utilizing classical technique as a tool to find great depth and virtuosity inside the unique flavors of the music of the working people of the countryside and ports.
Over the years he performed and recorded with some of the greatest South American musicians of his generation: Luis Bahamonde Alvear (as a member of Fiesta Linda de Chile), Humberto Campos (accompanying Los Huasos Quincheros), Lucho and Arturo Gatica, Oscar Aviles, Chabuca Granda, Julio Jaramillo, Jesús Vásquez, Cholo Aguirre, Edith Barr, Raúl Shaw and the Duo Rey-Silva among others.
In 1960 he recorded an album with his brother Nestor as Hermanos Chacon called El Mundo en Mi Guitarra (The World in My Guitar), featuring him playing styles from across Latin America: merengue, rumba, tango, vals. samba, fado, fox incaico, polka, pasillo, and more. Two guitars with percussion, it’s an album bursting with life and energy, and most of all a deep physical knowledge of these rhythms. His playing is light and elegant, but it also possesses a visceral intensity felt in his strength and speed – what you first think is a short line or decorative phrase keeps on going, spinning and running up and down the neck, accelerating your heart, then transforming into an entirely new song. And you can hear what a great time he’s having, there is never not a sense of fun, even in the darker corners. I have come to understand that to play this way is a full body experience, and he is all the way into it. There’s nothing academic about it, pure musical joy and a serious, call it religious, commitment to style.
From the beginning of his career he was always the musician who sought to play "all the rhythms, all the styles" not just those of Chile. When we think of the great all time South American guitarists, like Luiz Bonfa, or Oscar Aviles, or Atahualpa Yunpanqui, we think of them as dedicated to specifically Brazilian, Peruvian and Argentine music respectively. Their greatness is appreciated as artists so deeply dedicated to their national styles that their playing came to define them in their own time and to the future. Alfonso had a different type of commitment. I would describe it as equally an artistic ambition to explore the full expression of the guitar, as well as a kind of lust for life, to not be constrained by borders, to gain the experience of learning regional styles using the actual local techniques passed on from those at the source – for to play a local style not your own in a way that gains real local respect is the height of badassery. I would also say it was also part of a shrewd business sense that allowed him to travel anywhere or accompany anyone, and always perform with authenticity to a local crowd. The music business anywhere is a constant and never ending hustle and Alfonso brought work to the game.
In the later 60s, after two marriages and amidst changing musical tastes and politics, Alfonso moved on from Chile, living for several years mostly (I think) in Argentina then moving to Caracas, Venezuela in the mid 1970s. By that time he had fallen out of music and on hard times, battling drug and alcohol addictions and then cancer. Through the love and support of his new wife Eloina, and a strong faith in God, he recovered and got back on his feet and back into music. Seeking a new future they made the move to Chicago USA in the early 1990s.
By the 2000s, Alfonso had become a part of the greater Latin music community in Chicago, and you would see him everywhere on stage from Peruvian music festivals to the corners of Argentine or Mexican or Ecuadorian or Cuban or Colombian restaurants, and, of course, every Chilean cultural event. He not only had an encyclopedic knowledge of guitar styles and songs from across Latin America, but if in the presence of a North American audience he could break out a set of Beatles tunes and other mind boggling North American pop selections.
He developed a cadre of students, including myself, and from them he formed a guitar ensemble called simply Los Guitarristas in 2003. Over time Los Guitarristas stabilized to a quartet and released the album Paisajes de Sudamerica in 2010 (heard frequently as morning bumper music on WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago and still available on iTunes). Once he had one group going, he would start another with a different group of students, and then another. When he wasn’t with a student, or gigging, or babysitting his step-granddaughters, he was arranging new solo guitar pieces as well as duet, trio and quartet music. His table was always piled high with scattered notes. He really wanted a sextet, but that was beyond what was ever logistically possible. He wanted to tour Europe.
For me, the chance to study with Alfonso was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I made it my mission to learn his music and become a solo guitarist myself.
After a couple years learning the elements of classical guitar technique, he began teaching me his repertoire – solo guitar arrangements of songs from across Latin America that he had been performing for 50 years, ultimately about 40 different tunes. And once he trusted my commitment, he began to teach me some of his original compositions – he mentioned there were 12, he taught me four. I became a solo guitarist learning this music, as well as that of the great guitar composers of South America he introduced me to: Augustin.Barrios Mangore, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Anontio Lauro, Eduardo Falu, Dilermando Reis, Hector Ayala, Isaias Savio, Rodrigo Riera, Ricardo Acevedo, and Gentil Montaña; plus canonical Spanish composers such as Francisco Tarrega, Isaac Albeniz, and Emilio Pujol.
I began my professional career as a solo guitarist in 2004 (i.e., the year of my first paid job), and since then I have performed this repertoire for hundreds of dinner parties, cocktail parties, corporate receptions, fundraising banquets, restaurants, memorials, farmers markets, art galleries, weddings, wine shops and concert venues across the Midwest. It is a testament to the power of this music that most people who encounter me (at, say, a wedding reception or corporate networking event) have absolutely no familiarity with what I’m playing and yet can be completely captivated by it.
Alfonso passed away in December 2011, a working musician until the end, he died instantly from a stroke while readying for a restaurant gig. My last year with Alfonso may have been my richest. Los Guitarristas activity had slowed to a halt and in the vacuum I became his steady duet partner, working relatively often through that year. I was at his apartment rehearsing with him the night before he died. The music I was learning in that context was the most challenging and exciting of my life.
In late 2013 I decided it was time to record some of this music - it has taken that long for me to feel like my playing was ready. It still probably isn’t, but it was time I had an album, and there was no other conceivable conception than a tribute to Alfonso. I turned the back bedroom of our apartment into a studio and, with superhuman support from my wife, I started recording in January 2014 through the winter of the Polar Vortex. After recording and re-recording and re-recording, what you hear on the final product was tracked in May/June 2014.
There was no doubt I would include Alfonso’s original material, and the rest of the songs were chosen by a variety of criteria – some he explicitly expressed a desire that I one day record, some are my own personal favorites, and then others show the range of his work. His compositions, taught to me riff by riff, not via sheet music, have never been recorded before (that I am aware), and I had to make many decisions about how those arrangements would ultimately go. Except for Alfonso’s versions, I have also never heard solo guitar arrangements of the other songs before. I learned them as instrumental solo guitar pieces (alongside works of Barrios and Bach) and I present them as such. I did not even understand these songs existed in other forms with lyrics until sometimes years after I learned them as instrumental guitar songs!
With this album, I hope to open new doors in my performance career, playing more frequently in a concert context. Of course I also hope to keep Alfonso's name and legacy alive in some way and that other guitarists may come to develop an interest in these styles. I hope this album will inspire others to discover and appreciate the rich history of the solo guitar tradition and the musical styles of South America.
More essentially I hope The Panamericanist will be something interesting and enjoyable for you to listen to as you go for a walk in the woods or relax at home with a bottle of wine and good company.
With this website I also want to share the story of my friendship with Alfonso and the life he led through the Americas, as well as my own journey towards becoming a solo guitarist, performing this repertoire as a North American.
If you continue on to read the additional essays, I hope you enjoy the time spent here. Your feedback is appreciated. Thank you!