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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

My Week In Arizona And My Ride Through The Apache Reservation

Carlos in the Superstition Mountains, Gold Canyon, Arizona, USA, 17th January 2014

Carlos in the Superstition Mountains, Gold Canyon, Arizona, USA, 17th January 2014

- but is there space here for Beethoven and the guitar? -

On Thursday, in Arizona, I had a strange sensation, of the kind I have only had once before in my life, and which I don’t think I am likely to experience again. We were in a large high-ceilinged gymnasium at the San Carlos Apache Reservation Secondary School awaiting the arrival of students for a lecture-recital by guitarist Brad Richter, director of Lead Guitar. I was there to help in his pioneering programme of guitar teaching in disadvantaged schools, and to play some concerts together.

The gymnasium was unnaturally quiet, the only sounds the echo of our voices tossed from one wall to the other, as we waited for the siren to sound. I felt curious and excited as the students charged in. Within a minute or two more than two hundred of them – talking loudly one to the other as teenagers do – took their seats. As they did so, my excitement was mixed with a wholly irrational fear. Here I was for the first time face to face with dark-skinned Asiatic-featured Apaches, many of them - and me in a small minority. Was this fear some primeval force lurking deep in me, inherited from generations past, and had it once upon a time served some useful survival device? The thoughts swirled around in my head as I observed them chattering contentedly with each other.

Within a short space of time they were drawn into Brad’s engaging recital and presentation, and a few minutes after its conclusion I was deep into showing a handful of them the notes to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, a project they had started but a few days earlier. Keen and concentrated on their task for well over an hour, I was struck by their nimble fingers and relaxed approach. The question hovered unspoken: would they be ready to play in the formal evening concert Brad and I were giving the very next day? Could they deliver a passable version of that great music to a large audience without being intimidated?

I had arrived in Arizona on Thursday 9th January and immediately set about coming to grips with rehearsing the new music in our programme which included the splendid but difficult Three Duos especially composed by Brad, and my arrangement of music from Michael Nyman’s The Piano.

We each played some solos too, adding up to an original programme unique to us and no one else (even if it sounds immodest as I write these words!). We gave three concerts during the week ranged across Arizona which involved driving across some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. A cloudless sky leans down to touch the red-rocked barren mountains in the near distance, while cactus grow profusely all around, their short arms seemingly extended in greeting.

My drive through a landscape unchanged since the beginning of time

Most memorable of all was the drive through the Apache reservation: an unexpectedly large expanse of hundreds of square miles occupying an area the distance from London to Manchester. Here I was able to feast my eyes on a landscape unchanged since the beginning of time, save for the occasional dwelling and for the road on which we were travelling.

The land belongs to and is occupied by the Apaches but no agricultural landscaping nor deforestation and scarcely any building projects have occurred, revealing a profound sense of wonder and respect for the land. On various days we found the time to take a stroll through the Superstition Mountains in Gold Canyon. Some of the rocks and peaks appear to have been carved by an anonymous hand; it seems barely credible that nature alone could have developed these beautiful shapes. No wonder many of them are sacred Apache sites.

To Beethoven or not to Beethoven?

And so we came to Friday, our final day, an important concert for us and for the Gold Canyon Arts Council attended by local dignitaries. The teenage Apache guitarists arrived an hour before curtain up. They were in a jolly and confident mood although they had only been playing the guitar for a very short time, in some cases mere days. We went through the Beethoven again together. Clearly they had been meeting by themselves since the previous day to nail down the piece.

Carlos teaching Apache children, 16 January 2014, photo by Dave Barton

Carlos teaching Apache children, 16 January 2014, photo by Dave Barton

Brad, myself and the five teenagers waited in the wings while a series of introductory speeches were delivered. They included an impassioned request from Gold Canyon Arts Council Artistic Director Dr. Jack Kukuk for more financial resources to continue and develop the good work of Lead Guitar. On cue we took to the stage and launched into Ode to Joy, the theme from the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Unperturbed, the young guitarists played with confidence, even gusto! It was a triumph for them and a moving occasion for everyone, the symbolism of the chosen music was plain to sense. After all there is no better and more appropriate music than this: Beethoven’s affirmation of the brotherhood of man, a sing-at-the-top-of-your-voice cry to join hands, for we are all in this world together. This chorus has never been surpassed.

Everyone went home happy: the Apache teenagers for their cool playing, the audience for a special occasion, Lead Guitar for raising more funds and awareness, and me for being party to an unforgettable week.

You may be wondering what was the first occasion to which I referred in the first paragraph, when I had a similarly strange sensation. It was on a nearly deserted beach in the Northern Territories of Australia at the turn of the century. But that´s another story….

19th January 2014, Mexico

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