The Guitar: Bach to Bossa
First published in Medium.com Photo: Lawrence Brissenden
My offering was a Gavotte. I sat low on my chair, left foot on the 6 inch metal footstool, nylon-stringed guitar cradled between my thighs. Before me was a music stand and a thin white book opened to page 7. Perhaps my cousin had expected something more familiar, like a Calypso. As I played the piece by J.S. Bach, she twisted up her face, saying “What is that?!” I watched her turn away laughing. I hung my head in disappointment and humiliation. I was 8 years old. I quietly got up and closed the door to my room, inviting no one else into my world of classical guitar for the next 10 years.
My bedroom shared a wall with the grey concrete sink in the backyard. Outside as she did every Wednesday, Gwendolyn the washerwoman squeezed and scrubbed the week’s clothes on a gray aluminum washboard. Dawn, the sway-backed Alsatian, panted close by in a spot of shade. An Indian man swung his cutlass attached at right angles to a thick wooden stick in circles over his head. Slashing around the shaddock, coconut and banana trees, he expertly willed the patchy grass to exactly 1.5 inches above the ground. I played on inside my room, a safe distance away, etudes and gavottes wafting around my head.
My first guitar had been a steel-stringed beast. Obzukee is the word that would aptly describe it. It had an inexplicably thick neck that made it hard for me to place my thumb and stretch my little fingers around to the frets on the front. My father had hired Mr. Sonny Denner to come to the house each week to teach me. He was a former jazz guitarist who’d been down on his luck since the big bands of the 50’s and 60’s had shut down. It was now 1970.
Music was a part of my family legacy, as both grandfathers had been choir masters. One had taught in Trinidad where we lived, the other on the second island of the twin nation, Tobago. Music lessons were sacrosanct. Mr. Denner would arrive at our house in a suit and tie and we would be set up with two hard-backed chairs in a corner of the living room. While my brothers and parents tip-toed around the wooden colonial house in the neighbourhood of Belmont, my fingertips would develop deep groves and turn purple, as the lessons wandered into the two-and-a-half hour range. In desperation, I would ask Mr. Denner to explain, to play the piece a few more times, to give my fingers some respite from the taunt steel strings. I would watch his hands with deep attention and memorize the shapes his fingers made. I would then play back a mirror image of what I’d seen, while looking meaningfully at the sheet of music. I never learned to read music well.
I was handed a new guitar later that year. It was made by Mr. Jules Louis, the luthier from around the corner on Gloselodge Road. The strings were nylon and soft. I no longer needed to ask my teacher to talk and play, but the pattern was set. I continued to use the same Bare Minimum Method of reading on increasingly challenging pieces. I’d scan a manuscript in a general fashion, noting keys, codas and tempos. I had long slim fingers that landed precisely on the appropriate frets at the appropriate times. I always delivered.
In high school in North Bay, Ontario, Canada, my guitar teacher was Steve, a bespectacled young White man with curly black hair and a sweet smile. He accommodated my requests to play through the songs repeatedly, as I secretly memorized his finger movements. He said that I was his most talented student, which made me wonder who the other students were and could they not read well either?
Years later, while pursuing a science degree, I took private guitar lessons with Eli, another bespectacled musician who smelled faintly of cigars. “You should audition for the Music Faculty,” he announced one day. He turned briefly to smile at his sleepy wife Suzie who always just emerging from the bedroom rubbing her eyes and stretching. “You’d get in,” he stated. I froze at the suggestion. Switch from science to music? I knew that pursuing a degree in music would be zero sum game with my professional Caribbean family. Yes, music was revered, however my dad had often told me that to succeed in this world, I – the Black person – would have to work ten times as hard as everyone else – White people. I knew that he did not mean, practice ten times more scales on the classical guitar. Making a living was also revered and this music business was not a great money-making prospect. My family had always surmised that my extended childhood lessons were due to the fact the Mr. Denner was waiting for my mother to finish cooking dinner, and invite him to join us for what was perhaps the only meal of his day.
In addition, I knew that an audition would be well, an audition - in front of people. As I’d spent most of my 18 years playing in my room, the prospect of a performance, even for 1 or 2 music faculty, was terrifying. My classical guitar duet partner, Monica, an English literature major from Berlin understood me completely. We would file our nails with ascending gauges of sand paper from the hardware store while discussing right hand technique. We played our Frances Couperin duet repeatedly with the great feel and dynamics in each other’s dormitory rooms. We entertained the idea of performance, as one would glance sideways at a strange phenomenon that could not hold our interest.
Years later, I sat at Future Bakery on Bloor Street, Toronto – a small glass of amber coloured beer cradled between my shaking hands. I was preparing to walk a few blocks east to Huron Street, where I would perform Canzonetta by Felix Mendelssohn at Fat Albert’s – an open stage. My hands would shake as I played and yet I returned each week to Fat Albert’s with a perverse determination to share my abilities. Before each performance, I had a glass of beer. This was sometimes accompanied by cake. Eventually, surrounded by poets and songwriters, I began to write my own poems and songs. Fellow songwriter, Sam Larkin, upon hearing of my pre-performance bakery routine, gave me this piece of advice.
“If you keep that up, you will always need alcohol to play. Stop.” I did.
Over the next 10 years, I wrote more songs, and as a singer, bandleader and guitar player, I played many shows across Canada, and a few south of the border. I recorded. I can’t imagine how I kept it up. Nervousness never left me. I’d been raised on the gentle climes of solo classical guitar, sequestered in my childhood room, in a tradition where each note, each breath was written down. At my performances, I would become somewhat untethered by the need to improvise, with the requirement that I speak and not just play. Each event was hard. Very hard.
So why perform? Maybe it was an act of resilience, repeatedly pulling my gifts out from behind the bedroom door. After giving birth to my daughter, however, I put performance aside with a kind of relief. I did try to complete a second full-length album in the studio. With a 5 month old baby girl in arms, however, it didn’t work out. I’m in great company though. Doesn’t every musician have an unfinished album in their closet?
While raising my daughter, I held my experiences close and dear. Our nature, our very self, can’t be rationalized away. It also can’t be hidden. I watched for who she might be. She’s very good at math. She also dances. She plays the violin marvellously and reads music very, very well. I gave her what I was not easily offered – the option to fall deeply in love with art. I’ve learned that I don’t have to perform. It is not in my nature. I also don’t have to silo myself away for emotional safety. I’ve found the happy medium, a place of comfort and joy. I pick up my guitar again these days and set it between my legs. Europe’s Bach and Mendelssohn no longer hold my attention. I’ve wandered into the Afro-Brazilian world of Samba and I will strum through a bossa nova most evenings. My classical guitar technique serves me well, right hand keeping time with the surdo and tamborim, left hand still landing on the right strings and frets at the right time.
I still play in my room. The door is open though and if asked nicely, I might invite you in.