Vieja Amiga (“Old Friend”) is another tango, and also among the last tunes I learned from Alfonso. More than the solo guitar arrangement, when I think of this song I think of my last year with Alfonso when we focused on duet playing.
When Alfonso started the weekly guitar ensemble gatherings that would eventually settle into the quartet Los Guitarristas, his vision was to create something of an interchangeable army of guitarists that could perform in all different formats: sextet, quartet, trio, duet and solo. As the ambition his solo guitar work was to demonstrate the full range of expression of the instrument itself, his imagination for a guitar concert experience would be to showcase the unique qualities of each combination. We did a little bit of that in Los Gutiarristas where we had a few tunes done as duets which in addition to solos brought a lot of formal variety to our shows.
In the Los Guitarristas quartet I was the “third voice”, mostly playing what Alfonso is playing, but an octave or two lower, with the 2nd guitar playing a harmony between, and the 4th guitar strumming rhythm. Thus 90% of what I played in the group was on the lower three strings, which was a tremendous workout on both hands. I love bass and especially the sound of basslines played on the nylon string guitar (I was actually indoctrinated into the concept of “playing bass on guitar” in my days as a reggae guitarist, who’s job it can be to double and “bubble” the same part as the bass player to help give it a line of definition).
A good example in the context of Los Guitarristas is the track Paisaje de Bolivia where my low notes are quite clear:
Los G’s afforded me a great opportunity to spend hours upon hours digging into the physicality of playing low notes hard against high energy strumming. Playing with other guitars like that really pushed the intensity of my playing, way past that which was merely required for solo guitar. As a soloist, one is often trying to balance three ideas at once instead of being able to give 100% effort to one note at a time. As I developed the hand strength and finesse to dig deep and hard into those bass tones in the quartet, that standard transferred to my solo playing and today I think what I do in the low end is one of the stronger elements of my performance.
That was actually a bit of an issue in the recording of Vieja Amiga, as finding the perfect sense of weight on the open A bass tones that begin each central riff took honing over many many takes. It was very easy for me to come down too hard on it, something I probably would do live before the recording process.
As thankful as I am for my role as the 3rd voice in Los Guitarristas, what I always wanted to do from the beginning was take the 4th chair, the rhythm player. I would lobby occasionally, but it was clear Alfonso felt he needed me in the 3rd voice. My selfish desire was to be the rhythm guy so that I then spend hours upon hours honing the strums and getting more of internal understanding of the music itself and how all the other parts relate to the patterns. Instead of playing abstract supportive parts I’d also be learning the tunes more completely in terms of their chord progressions, gaining the ability to accompany singers if need be. The rhythm guitarist chair seemed where the most could be learned musically, especially for someone that knew absolutely nothing about these styles going in. But it wasn’t to be.
For a variety of reasons, the quartet had pretty much run its course by the end of 2010, with a smattering of rehearsals and just a couple shows in 2011. Not that it ever performed very often, but despite a lack of opportunities the group had maintained a now unfathomable run of consistent weekly rehearsals over an 8 year span. For me personally, the final year of the group was quite tumultuous, dealing with a divorce and all that goes with that. During this period I also ceased my 9 year run of private lessons with Alfonso, as I had to put thoughts of learning new music on the back burner as I got the other parts of my life back together.
Coming into 2011, though the group was scattering, my personal life had settled and I was feeling back on track. At this time I was feeling a bit more established in the wedding and events world in Chicago as a solo guitarist, and while find paying gigs for the quartet was nearly impossible, a guitar duet with Alfonso was an easier sell and could definitely work.
The winter of 2010/2011 was really rough for him. He didn’t have a stable restaurant residency and few other gigs came up. He was disappointed about the quartet fading, he had fewer committed students, and most profoundly he missed his wife dearly. It was also a long cold snowy typically brutal Chicago winter.
In the early spring of 2011 he told me this was to be his last year in Chicago. He wanted to work hard over the summer to raise money to be able to head back to Caracas and be with Eloina and maybe drive a cab. I couldn’t really the process the plausibility of his plans, but I could do what I could to help the situation. With a duet that could gig I could try to upsell any potential solo guitar bookings. Thus was born the newly christened Chacon/Smith Panamerican Duo. And I would finally get my shot in the rhythm guitar chair.
Vieja Amiga was the first tune we rehearsed as a duet, with the “duet” being me playing the solo guitar arrangement while Alfonso ornamented and danced around it. We would go through my solo repertoire picking out all the songs we could do this for easily and immediately, sometimes bringing out layers of music on top of what I was doing that was absolutely astounding. It was like what I had thought all along were solo guitar arrangements, complete ideas unto themselves, had all this time been actually been half (or less) of a much larger landscapes.
Then we started on two different tracks within new material – the holy grail opportunity to play rhythm guitar against his leads, and the oh-you-got-to-be-kidding-me road of me playing insanely fast lead parts against his rhythm. I look back over this period with him as my richest time as a guitar apprentice – I was challenged to alternate between playing melodic lines at ultra high speeds in the upper octaves to playing tight in-style strums, covering the same breadth of styles as all of his work. Eventually part of this was also learning tracks from the duet album he made with his brother, El Mundo en Mi Guitarra, and he could still rip Guitarra Merengue as he did 50 years prior.
It was an incredible honor and my greatest musical thrill work up these duet sets, though I never felt truly worthy. He deserved better than me as a partner. Sometimes I could sense his frustration. Recording demos especially, he could knock out his part perfectly in one take and had little patience for me wanting to do it over and over again so I could get my part right. But he was having a ball too, bringing out crazy tunes like the gypsy dance Czardas and the theme from Zorba the Greek. Practicing this material was pure joy.
And we ended up with many chances to play through the year as I was decently successful in selling us in to some banquet events and to some of my brides for wedding cocktail party entertainment – including one particular perfectly sunny summer afternoon for a wedding on a palatial estate that included a horse farm in central Wisconsin. It can be a weird dynamic at times being a musician that can gig catering to an upper class clientele. No matter how broke you are part of the gig is to carry yourself like you’re a also member of the (country) club. A story as old as time, it’s a license of any confident artist live outside the boundaries of class and proudly stand equal ground in any socioeconomic situation, upstairs or downstairs. Though, sometimes it’s hard to be chummy when you know they’ve invested less in you than the day’s doily rental. Nonetheless it’s a great pleasure of what we do to occasionally get to play at grand locations, and it was a beautiful thing to hang with Alfonso for a peaceful couple hours far from the city watching the horses and strolling the grounds imagining other forms of life.
As the gigging season would down to October I had no idea what Alfonso was thinking in terms of his own plans. We did our best, but there was no way the duet got him anywhere near his goal and I don’t think he himself had the scale of solo work to get him over. But it wasn’t my business to ask, I could only presume he was sticking to a plan to leave Chicago before the winter set in. Sometime in the middle of the month he inquired if we had any gigs lined up for the coming months which was my opening to ask him when he thought he’d be splitting. The tough truth was he had no money to travel, all he could do was to keep gutting it through in Chicago. You could tell he just wanted to take it easy, that is was his time to retire, but there was no savings, no social security. He was a 78 year old man staying alive, work is what he had.
I was scared for him. I can’t begin to imagine the fear he felt of where his life was going. But when you got together with him and got the guitars out you would not know the weight hanging on his being. If it was a kind of a personal defeat for him not be able to up and go back to Venezuela, I also think it was a relief to admit that that ordeal was at least not imminent.
So to re-ignite the duet project for the winter months we needed to up our promotional game and in late October 2011 we recorded a few videos in my apartment. Over the next week or so I edited them down and posted to YouTube. INCREDIBLY, within 24 hours I was contacted by the owner of a newly opened Spanish tapas-style restaurant in the trendy Fulton Market entertainment district on the west side of Chicago. In the history of any of my promotional efforts that was the fastest posting-of-material to gig-coming-in I have ever experienced, and I had to wonder if there was some sort of search engine benefit to our video being so new – the owner of the restaurant claimed he just did a google search for guitar music, found our videos and gave me call.
A meeting was set up for me to meet the owner and manager at their place to check out the space and work through the details. They were young rich swarthy dudes, and spoke like they’ve been through a couple few restaurant marketing classes. They imagined an old school/new school balance of sets of live music between sets of DJ music for their young professional & fashionable demographic. We settled on a decent price for two 50 minute sets of guitar duet music for Friday November 11, 2011, and if it went well we’d be back in a regular rotation.
I can remember that date because it was our last show together.
I can’t remember all the exact details, except that we arrived on time but were instructed that our first set was going to be pushed back an hour for whatever reason, so we hung out in the basement. We could play down there so we reviewed some songs and Alfonso started to show me some new stuff we could work on, some Spanish pasadoble rhythms and some original material I had never heard before. I could see his enthusiasm and for a moment it seemed a new day was rising with the duet taking off. Having a regular spot at a hip restaurant would be a great way to get word of our existence out there.
Eventually it was our time, we took our spot and played our first set. It was a sudden huge shift of vibe in the room, from conversation stifling boom-chic-boom of some generic satellite cable station dance mix to two nylon-string guitars. You could feel everyone’s ears collectively relax, and I felt like we were greatly enjoyed. I have a clear memory of playing Manha de Carnaval and an impossibly good looking young mixed race couple got up and danced to us while the room applauded. It was the kind of charming and soulful moment that memories are made and a restaurant owner worth a grain of salt should dream of having.
As we finished the stereo came back on at the same punishing volume. In retrospect, I am aware of restaurant industry studies that suggest that cranking loud music dis-inhibits conversation and steers patrons to buying more drinks, and if you’ve been to bars in the last 10 years populated by douchebags you know what I mean. This “ambience” was economic strategy, not a misguided accident.
Instead of going back downstairs we stayed up to get some food, and we sat at a booth with Alfonso having to plug his with fingers and napkin. We were supposed to break for an hour, and after what seemed like an eternity suffering through the noise we were informed that they didn’t want to bring the energy down again this late at night with the guitars, so we were done…of course, it wouldn’t have been so late for us if they didn’t push back our first set.
Adding insult to injury, when I went into their office to settle up he had the nerve to suggest we should receive a lower rate because we only played one set. I held firm to the agreement and got our full take, but we left feeling dejected. An evening that began with high hopes for the future turned into a metaphor for all that has been lost in our culture. I know how difficult it is in these times for any restaurant to have live music – margins are tight, and unless they have the patience to develop and promote the concept, the reality is that musicians don’t bring in many customers. They do enhance the experience of those who do come and encourage repeat visits and word of mouth, but for that to make a different in profitability requires a management committed to crafting the experience and sticking with it.
These assholes seemed like they were on the fast track to their desired coked-up lifestyle, making decisions to maximize the profit in the current cultural climate. Whether that ultimately creates a shitty de-humanizing environment doesn’t matter to them and they can’t imagine or appreciate the difference anyways.
Used to be music was a scarce resource. Live music especially was a relatively rare and valued thing. Now music feels as cheap and abundant as soda, purchased in streams. The musician today is not just competing against other musicians for work, but against the entire historical catalog of recorded music channeled in from the clouds accessible everywhere, probably sounding better anyway. To most, live music is special only in special occasions (weddings, holiday parties) and concerts from the few remaining masters. Otherwise, it’s mostly a bother.
That night wasn’t the absolute last time we played together. We had a rehearsal two nights before he passed away on December 1, though I can’t recall what we worked on. We were at my place and I remember driving him home, as I dropped him off he offered me a cough drop. It was a such a small and stupid thing but even in that second as he handed me a Hall’s I sincerely thought about how this man’s generosity knows no limits.
If I want a more positive memory from one of our last performances, it came a couple weeks before, our penultimate show. It was a banquet being held in the honor of a Latin American veteran who fallen during service. It was a gathering of many families and there was a lot of warm feeling through the evening as we played through dinner.
Afterwards, as would happen frequently in Alfonso’s company, someone came up to him asking if he know such and such song, so they could sing it. I normally didn’t do this sort of thing but not knowing how many more times I was going get in this type of situation I quietly got out my phone and recorded as best I could: