TUNING YOUR UKULELE

Part 10: Tuning for the Maestro ( page 1)

Fair goes the dancing when the sitar is tuned, tune us like string neither low nor high, and we will dance away the hearts of men. The string over stretched breaks, the music dies, the string over slack is dumb and the music dies, tune us like string neither low nor high. This quote, by none other than the “Big Buddha” himself gives a hint about the “unusual” path this Part will take.  There’ll be flights of fancy, general rambling all over the place, and hopefully fun along the way.  We hope you’ll take some time with this Part, or at least come back to it, because we’ll have wonderful music and film here - at length! But we’re also going to try to bridge a cultural gap - one whose very existence has surprised us over and over again.  You don’t have to take what follows to heart in your own approach to music, but the outlook is something we’d think many people would at least want to be aware of.  We’ll hope that if we succeed in communicating any understanding in these areas, it will end up imparting some of the same benefits as learning a foreign language - that is a broadened perspective - a new way of seeing the world.  In this case, the world of stringed instruments.  Our background doesn’t come from India and the Sitar, but from Latin America and the world of the Guitar and the Cuatro.  But both traditions share an outlook, a Cultura y Tradición that views the practice of tuning and playing stringed instruments in a completely different way than it is seen in the other prime area of our experience - that is to say, in North America.  The title of this Part: “Tuning for the Maestro” isn’t meant to imply that the approach we’ll look at here is used only by those few players with gifts beyond the norm.  It doesn’t even mean that all players worthy of the term “Maestro” may take this approach.  At any level of play, people are simply different - and so what works for one is different than what works for another.  But in the traditional societies around the world, knowledge in the fields of Arts, Crafts and Religion for that matter, were passed from one generation to the next when they were key elements of a society’s identity.  It’s a process we have mentioned frequently as having ceased to exist with the Ukulele when it fell out of favour in the latter part of the 20th century.  It was once iconic to all of America.  Then it returned to being iconic only in Hawaii.  The traditional systems of Arts & Crafts has had formal structure at times with, for example, the Guilds of Old Europe.  You see traces of the that system here in New Orleans, where musicians are often members of a family who have earned their living in music for generations. The Nunes family of Ukulele lore that carried lutherie from Portugal to Hawaii is in that tradition.  Those who rose to the highest level of achievement in these fields might go by various titles.  You have the formal hierarchy of Religions, all the way to the Doctors and Professors of New Orleans music, but in the Guilds of Western Europe, the highest rank was that of “Master” or “Maestro”. The similarity in structure between the hierarchy of Religion and the Arts was not coincidental either.  Whether priesthood, music or lutherie, electing to join any of these or the other “noble pursuits” was a lifelong commitment to rising in knowledge, ability and understanding, and once reaching the level of Master, then passing that knowledge on to the young novices and apprentices who would follow.  In modern culture, and seemingly more so here in North America, we seem very far removed from that sort of outlook on the world.  So what we’ll do in much of this Part is simply try to give the reader a “feel” for what it is like to be surrounded by the Old World.  And we’ll start with that same fellow, Andres Segovia, whose sound we sampled in the last Part, a fellow who we said then, is the epitome of a “Maestro” in the guitar family. The video below has appeared on YouTube and been taken down many times; probably there are copyright issues.  Hopefully when you view this page it will still be visible.  Even as it appears in this version, the very low resolution and sound quality does little to mute the beauty of the gorgeous music and the spectacular settings of the Alhambra and Granada.  As this may be the most beautiful piece of film ever made with the Classical Concert Guitar, the idea of a purchase certainly has merit.  If you are so inclined, you will find it here, a package of two Christopher Nupen films on Segovia:                                                     Allegrofilms / Andres Segovia The Song of the Guitar” consists mainly of performances but also tales from the Maestro himself.  Segovia recounts the path he traveled in his development as a musician, and how his development, in turn, changed the perception of the guitar as an instrument. We mentioned earlier how when Segovia began to learn the instrument, the guitar had descended to the lowest point of esteem in its history.    In other words, the view of the guitar at the dawn of the 20 th   century was similar to that of many formal “Musicians” toward the Ukulele, both at the dawn of the Jazz Era and still often today.  Segovia single-handedly changed that view for the guitar, and he did it in part with a complete devotion to the possibilities of acoustic sound.  So as well as his changes to the instrument and string materials themselves (summarized briefly on the next page) it was his new approach to playing that truly changed the perception of the guitar.  While he has impeccable technique, even at his advanced age in this film, the dexterity of that technique is hardly noticed.  What presents itself most strongly is an incredible palette of colour and tone, something no one had heard from a guitar before him.   For that matter, there may be more to it than that.  Talent of this sort is sometimes said to be divinely inspired; Segovia himself believed it to be true in his case: "I belong to the scarce minority of artists who work in good faith, around whom the phenomenal world vanishes, as it happens to the mystics when they give themselves to prayer.”                                        Andres Segovia  And while the music is the most important part of the presentation, the film is of interest for other reasons as well. ********************************************** At left is a still taken from the film.  It is of a guitarreria or as Segovia calls it in English, a “guitar shop”.  He mentions the importance of these shops more than once.  This film was made in the 1980s, and while we have no idea of the function of the guitarreria in Spain today, we can say that in the Latin areas of America, it still serves the purpose indicated in this film, and we want to elaborate on it a bit now. As the photo shows, it is not uncommon for players and passer bys to stop in to play, listen and talk of the guitar.  Children are not uncommon, and soak in the feel and idea of art.  When an instrument is finished, it would not be unusual for it to be passed through several hands.  Comments would be made on tone and colour.  Tensions would be brought up and down (changing the tuning slightly, of course) and further commentary would be made on the instruments suitability for one style of play or another. And so now let’s ramble over for a moment to the whole concept of building guitar family instruments. ********************************************** The old way of building Guitars, Cuatros and even Ukuleles was a very “free form” style.  By that we mean no forms, no moulds, nothing but perhaps a drawing and the experience of the luthier.  It is seldom, if ever, practiced now in North America, and it’s doubtful it has been used as a method of building in this region for the better part of a century.  However, it remains a prominent method of building in Latin America.  The fellows there are a very proud lot - they claim (we know not the truth of it) that in Spain they no longer really know this process.  To say it directly, they claim the Spanish have forgotten how to truly build a guitar. But why would one build in this fashion?  It is for a reason we touched on in the end of the last Part - that instruments are built for the individual taste, not for the common desire.  In traditional culture, in other words, once one has progressed to the point of understanding the parameters of what is possible with an instrument, you then look to commission an instrument that allows you to express your individual voice.  Because of the widespread tradition with the Guitar, and in some regions, the Cuatro, there are simply more players of this class, players who have come to understand the specific needs for an instrument that will give them their own unique expression. Luthiers in North America produce wonderful work, but take a different approach.  They begin from a perspective of creating instruments that will sound and play as they feel is best.  They will strive for their own signature sound.  Along the way, they will produce forms, templates, moulds and jigs in an endeavour to constantly produce that sound over and over again.  Sometimes individual luthiers allow deviations to a greater or lesser degree from their forms and standards, but generally, players acquire one of those instruments and then to some degree, adapt their technique to the qualities and the style of playing that the instrument requires. In contrast, an accomplished Luthier in Latin America can and will build an entire instrument from scratch to specifically suit the clients favoured sound and style of play.  We have mentioned things like body volume and scale as important qualities in determining the sound of an instrument, but there are all kinds of other considerations to take into account as well.  The neck angle and the shape of the body (long & narrow vs. flat & wide) are only two of a number of examples that a luthier well trained in La Tradición will consider in order to give his client a truly  custom instrument.  And while the production of forms and moulds produces a more uniform instrument, it would also add to the cost of a single custom piece.  So if a luthier is expert enough to produce an instrument that is truly “custom” (not merely varied wood choices and decoration applied to standard forms), and understands how to give the client what he wants, then traditional free form building produces individually tailored, but at the same time, more economical results in the areas of greatest importance: sound, feel and playability.  The symmetry and perfection of detail that so many in the north today see as the only sign of fine lutherie is often viewed among the Latin players in a negative light.  The free-form style is referred to as “al rustica” (rustic built) and the imperfection of free form hand work is seen as evidence that the instrument was constructed in the traditional fashion to the taste of the individual player.  The use of moulds and forms is more often used for student instruments, where the player is still learning.  In that case, the luthier simply supplies the novice with his “standard instrument”, in plain but fine sounding wood.   Of course in our case, for example, we found out from an early date that “custom” instruments, even in the simplest North American terms of wood and decoration choice, were just not practical for an operation extended over such a long distance.  Our customers didn’t have the ability to walk into our guitarreria and discuss in full their individual needs.  So we ended up taking the approach of the North Americans - to build the instruments we felt produced the most beautiful sound when played in the way we would imagine. But without the ability to build free-form in the beginning, we could never have arrived so quickly at what we feel are uniquely wonderful instruments “to our way of thinking”.  We were fortunate to begin with Don Omar, a builder with long experience in La Tradición.  His building days have now essentially come to an end, but our new builder, Guillermo, is an extremely talented artisan who both understands the free form style, and yet is a perfectionist in the way of the North.  We have developed the basis for our forms, in other words, “gracias a Don Omar”, but now execute the new versions in the  more modern solera style. Still, that tradition of true custom instruments, built al gusto for the individual player, the player who starts within the foundation of the tradition, and then builds upon it to realize his individual expression, that remains the goal and desire of the many who love the Guitar & Cuatro in Latin America. ********************************************** Many of these guitar shops can be wonderful places to visit, and at times those visits can be truly memorable.  On Wednesday afternoons, when many take a break form the long hours of the work week, and on Saturday mornings, a more or less unofficial visitors day, the shop would often have local players of remarkable ability giving forth on their own instruments or those Omar may have had available.  But some days were “especially special”. On one Saturday morning, a larger than usual number of folks were in attendance.  The legendary Venezuelan guitarist, Alirio Diaz, had given a concert the night before in the Teatro Nacional, and as it was known that Omar had built for him in the past, there were hopes he might come by that morning.  And at mid morning, as three people entered the shop, Omar’s face opened with a wide smile.  The others also recognized the legendary player, but accompanying him was a fellow with a lady by his side, that I was also very eager to meet. His accompanist on guitar for several numbers the evening before was a young player of immense talent named Leonardo Lozano.  I wanted to meet him because besides being an accomplished classical concert guitarist, he is the leading contemporary player of the Cuatro Solista (solo concert Cuatro).  Everyone was thrilled by the presence of the visitors, but when it was learned that Leonardo was also a Maestro with the Cuatro, one of the flamenco players in attendance made a gracious “sounding” remark about the Cuatro being “the peon’s flamenco guitar”.  It is truly amazing how the Latins have such an ability for politeness and subtlety while still insulting you.  Leonardo gave a quiet smile and said nothing, but I saw Alirio’s face and his expression was more of wry amusement. We had in those days an instrument we simply called “the Southcoast Big Ukulele”.  It was very similar to the instrument that today we call our “Lyric Baritone”.  Both are based in part on Cuatro construction and design.  We had one in the shop that day, and I was understandably eager to have Leonardo take it for a spin.  I was able to show it to him shortly after the remark.  He picked it up, played with the tuning a bit until he had it to his liking, played a few chords, picked a few notes.  I quickly asked Fernando, Omar’s son, to turn on the reel-to-reel recorder.  Leonardo caught the flamenco players eye, and then suddenly gave forth with this: At the first “brutal rasgueado”, as Segovia would have called it, the room quieted.  At the point where Leonardo began an extended series a fan strokes, the two flamenco players began to get a sheepish expression on their faces.  And when later in the piece, as those crystalline clear high notes began to ring out through the room and out the open doors into the street beyond, you could see the pensive expression on the face of the classical players as they heard the sort of clarity in those high notes that they could only dream of achieving with their monstrous, clumsy, 6-string aparati. By the time the Joropo had finished the room had filled with passers by, and the crowd had spilled onto the side walk.  As the last notes died a thunder of cheering and applause broke out from all who had witnessed the performance.  “Linda!! Linda!! Bello!!” ********************************************** You may remember at the beginning of this section we remarked that on occasion this Part would involve flights of fancy.  Well, the previous sequence was one of those.  Leonardo has never been in the guitarreria of Don Omar.  But while that was the central element of our little story, the story is otherwise “based” on events that actually occurred.  Alirio Diaz, for example, has visited the shop (though I was never there on those occasions), and he has been accompanied in Concert by Leonardo (on both guitar and  Cuatro) on many occasions.  But most importantly was the reaction of those traditionalists of Latin Guitar in the guitarreria to the “Ukulele/Cuatros” we built there.  Omar himself seemed somewhat sceptical at first, for though he had built Cuatros and even some Ukuleles in the past, he was of the opinion that most of the people who played them used them as “toys” (Ukuleles) or for “fiestas with wine & girls” (Cuatros).  When we first built instruments with care in their design and execution (and then strung them well), I’m fairly certain Omar may have considered it a waste of good wood.  But over and over again, starting with Omar himself, the finer players would pick up these instruments out of curiosity and come away with an entirely different perspective on the “small guitar”. We said we would would try to give the readers a feel for the Old World.  To do so, then going forward, the character of Leonardo Lozano will be somewhat imaginary.  The Cuatro players in our part of the world mostly lived down on the Caribbean coast - there were only a few up in the highlands where the we were.  And those folks on the coast actually are more of the “Carnival Players” (wine & girls).  So while Leonardo himself, of course, is not fictional at all, take the actions of his character’s visit going forward as artistic license; otherwise we just would have way too much 6-string music in this Part. ********************************************** As we proceed, we’ll look at a few comparisons in the history of the development of the Cuatro and the Ukulele, spend some more time on La Tradición and toward the end, actually look at a bit of “fine tuning”, which after all, is the subject of this series.
Maestro - Page 2 Maestro - Page 2
Alirio Diaz
Manuel Nunes
Audio File   Currently Unavailable