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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Living in London UK: the guitarists who came and went - but where have the ones born there gone?

Here is a blog which I first wrote as an article for the London July magazine in 2005. I hope you like it.

The scene is the Bag of Nails Club, near Carnaby Street, London, 1966. Jimi Hendrix is playing his first London engagement in a small basement club. In the audience there is a glittering array of musical talent which includes Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, all of the Beatles and some of the Rolling Stones.

Francesco Corbetta, described in his time as the only man who could make anything of the guitar - image from Manuale di storia della chitarra, Mario dell'Ara

But Jimi wasn't the first guitarist to come to live in London and take it by storm. The first was Francesco Corbetta, who was employed at the court of Charles II in Whitehall, after his restoration in 1660. Count Grammont relates in his memoirs:

" There was a certain Italian at court, famous for the guitar; he had a genius for music, and he was the only man who could make any thing of the guitar. The king's relish for his compositions had brought the instrument so much into vogue, that every person played upon it, well or ill”.

The guitar was all the rage, and everyone at the Royal Court wanted to play like Francesco, just like in a later generation, everyone in London wanted to play like Jimi.

Fernando Sor, darling of the London guitar salons 1815.Image by courtesy of Tecla Editions, publishers of the complete works of Fernando Sor

After the Italian Corbetta, the next guitarist to cause a big impression was a Spaniard. In 1815 Fernando Sor arrived in London, where he composed and published some of his finest works, including the Variations on a theme from Mozart's The Magic Flute Op. 9. He liked London enough to stay 8 years, and London liked him too, appointing him an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music.

Not all guitarists liked the capital. Francisco Tárrega hated it. He didn't like the climate, nor the fog, and missed his home and family in sunny Valencia, Spain - and that was only after a few days! To console himself he improvised a poignant melody on the guitar. From that improvisation emerged his prelude Lagrima - a beautiful souvenir.

Julian Bream, born in London, moved out as a young man - photo courtesy of Nick White, Classical Guitar Magazine

24 years after the death of Tárrega one of the greatest guitarists of all time was born in Battersea in 1933. London can claim him as one of its' own: his name is Julian Bream. He grew up in the city and studied the cello at the Royal College of Music. Another artist who studied there was John Williams. He was born in Australia but came to London as a child with his family, and has lived there ever since.

John Williams, born in Australia, has lived in London since childhood

There are some players who were lucky enough to be born in London. Apart from Julian Bream they include Nigel North, Liona Boyd, Julian Byzantine, Gordon Crosskey and John Mills. For one reason or another, none of them are living there any longer. In London, as any large city, you expect people to come and go. But there remains a puzzle. Are there any guitarists born in London still living there? Try as I might, I can only think of one. He is very close to home, and I know him better than anyone else. There may be others, of course, and forgive me if I have overlooked you.

Carlos in London 2010, photo by Sophie Davidson

The one I am thinking of, of course, is me!

Amended 2011

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Hello! Hola! Ciao!

Speaking different languages is great, but creates confusion for some

Carlos speaking Spanish in Mexico in 2007

Tonight 5 November, I am playing a solo recital in Tijuana, Mexico, which is a mere walking distance to the border with the US and San Diego. I am playing all the same music as in the Bolivar Hall concert on 22 October but adding my Canciones. This is a bi-lingual location, because of its geographical situation, and it has got me thinking about speaking in various languages.

During the concert I will speak and gesticulate in Spanish, and they will find my Spanish accent most amusing because they are Mexican, and so their version of Spanish is different, rather like the Spanish find my Spanish accent amusing in Spain because they think it's English, and in England they think my spoken English accent in English is Spanish.
In Italy they say my Italian has a Spanish accent and my sense of humour is English.
In Spain they say I am more English than Spanish.
In England they say I am more Spanish than English.
Could anyone cause more confusion than me? Mind you, I'm not complaining.

November 2010


Christmas Day in the Caribbean

View from hotel balcony on Christmas Day 2010

I spent Christmas Day on the Island of St Martin in the Caribbean. It is a tropical paradise only 37 square miles.

So there I was with the waves lapping against the hotel terrace while lightly clad local men and women wandered around wearing red Christmas hats in 30 degrees dressing the Christmas tree. The currency is the Euro, and the island is both French and Dutch. Sometime in the 1640s a French runner started at one end of the island and a Dutch runner at the other, and where they met became the border. Isn´t that neat? Where I was everyone spoke French and English. But it is the French and Dutch who own it, amicably enjoying its' beauty and splendid beaches, as also do American tourists. And what does all this have to do with my guitar playing? Nothing at all. Give us a break, it was Christmas Day!

December 2010


Godella International Guitar Competition

In concert, and in search of my summer home - 50 years on

In November I played at the Godella International Guitar Competition in Valencia, Spain. Godella is an outer suburb of Valencia on the Mediterranean coast close to Alicante. It has an impressive theatre appropriate to a town much larger than Godella. It has some splendid restaurants offering great food, traditional and otherwise. It has some beautiful 19th century houses with large internal patios paved with colourful Baroque Valencian ceramic tiles. It also still contains, I think, the house where I spent idyllic summers as a child 50 years ago - but where is it? Well, let me take it one step at a time.

I was delighted to be invited to play in this new Festival for I had only been back to Godella a couple of times very briefly in all these years. This time I was to stay there for a few days. The organisers accommodated me in a rather large monastery, about 300 hundred rooms, where there are now only 12 monks left.....but that is another story. The monastery is about 10 minutes’ walk to the theatre where I gave the concert. Every morning I would go into town to have breakfast with Carlos Jaramillo, the charming Festival Director and as I strolled would ask myself: now where was that house? How could things have changed so much? I don´t recognize anything!

I enjoyed giving the concert. While doing so I remembered as a child playing the guitar in the open patio at the front of my uncle´s home. I could see the wheat fields as I did so. Sometimes the farmer would pass through the field wearing a straw hat and holding onto to a mule or donkey. All this I imagined during the concert, especially when playing the music I remembered from childhood. I spoke of my time in Godella to the audience. They loved it. I half hoped somebody would come up to me and say they remembered me, but no one did.

The next day I decided to track down the house. I started from the ex-railway station, now the metro station. From there I walked along the road I remembered from the intersection. Yes, this is the one. There were no shops and no buildings, just countryside, but this is the direction. And there was a slight curve in the road then as there is now. Here on the left there was a wheat field and opposite was the road itself. Yes, this could be the road. But at the end there was once another wheat field, but now there are houses.... hang on, I think it's this house on the left. Let me walk round the corner and check whether the old house over there is still the same one. Once it was my uncle's house. Yes, this was my uncle's house, so that house back there is where for sure I spent my childhood summers. And there it was, but a stone's throw from the monastery where I was staying!

Carlos infront of the house where he spent childhood summers

I think I can say this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – returning after 50 years to a childhood location to play a concert in a grand theatre. I may be wrong, and I may have a similar experience again in 50 years' time. If so, I'll let you know, so watch this space.

December 2010

For more information about the competition and the region of Valencia see newspaper article.



Magical Guitar Tour album: all about a day in the recording studio

Carlos recording in the studio December 2010

I arrived at the studio directly from Southampton by train. It was the 14th December and it was really cold, especially after coming from the Canary Islands. I was due to finish recording my new album of music of the Beatles but I didn´t think we could do it all in one day.

The Mike Moran Music studio is set in a beautiful landscape near Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire and it is mostly very quiet all around - there are no sheep on the doorstep. Why should that matter? Well once I recorded an album in a studio surrounded by rolling pastures - and sheep. Their plaintive bleats intruded on some recorded takes and we had to discard them! Other times, much to my amusement, the producer would step outside waving his arms and shouting until they retreated. So, thankfully, we had none of that in Great Missenden.

I decided to start the recording with Because. The beautiful harmonies and slow pacing were a calm way to start the proceedings. After that I went on to record The Fool on the Hill. This was a little harder because the arrangement was quite difficult to play, even though I had only myself to blame since I made it. So that took a lot longer and I thought - and I think the ever-patient Adam Van Ryne the recording engineer and David Young the producer also thought - that at this rate we wouldn't get through all the pieces.

Now the arrangements I have made fall into two broad categories. They are either pretty straightforward with just a few fancy bits and harmonies added by me, or they are more adventurous and contain quite a lot of musical material of my own invention. Most of the pieces turned out this way, because for the Beatles songs to sound effective and convincing as guitar solos I had to rethink them as pure instrumental pieces without the voice. That's what I did with Fool on the Hill. Maybe that´s why it took longer to record.

After that we moved on to With a Little Help from my Friends. I first played this piece way back in the early 70´s when I was but a lad with the late Tom Gilhooly, a brilliant harpsichordist and improviser. He had the idea of arranging it as a Baroque dance. To my surprise I found the musical sketch for that arrangement in my music library a few days before the recording. Of course, I had to revamp this too, since I was playing it as a solo, but basically relied on the ideas from all that time ago. That was easy and fun to record.

Then we came to the hardest piece which was Eleanor Rigby. This is one of those pieces which I have extended and elaborated. It is 3½ minutes of constant fast playing with long Baroque-like bass passages borrowed from the string quartet on the original recording. I think it sounds great on the guitar, but boy, is it hard to play!

By this time it was 5pm and I could see that if we stuck at it we would finish but maybe not till very late. There was only more difficult piece to record and that was Maxwell's Silver Hammer in which I had added some ragtime riffs in the style of the Beatles' original song. In effect their song is a bit of a spoof of a ragtime, so my arrangement turned out a spoof of a spoof! Again as we recorded it, I wondered why I had not made things easier for myself in the arrangement. The answer of course is because it sounds good.

After this we were left with recording just two numbers. I had left these two deliberately to the end. Rather like With a little help my arrangements were only a rough guide and not written out note for note. I wanted to leave an element of surprise and improvisation for the moment of recording, rather like I had done on the previous sessions with various songs including the ending of Strawberry Fields. And so it was with these two, Blackbird and Long and Winding Road. In Blackbird I included a brief snatch from Bach's Bourrée for lute which Sir Paul says was the inspiration for the song. Before that we recorded the slower number which I hope casts its' spell even as a solo guitar piece.

And so it was now 8pm. We had been recording since midday with just a couple of breaks and we had the whole album in the bag, 15 songs and 1 hour of music in three sessions between October and December. As I got into the train back to London, I couldn´t quite believe we had done it. I had been involved in arranging the music for the past 6 months, all the while travelling, teaching and giving concerts. It had occupied so much of my creative mind. At times it had obsessed me. And now we had finished.

All that is left now is to release the album and wait to see what the listeners think. Yes, that could be you, so just let me know what you think when it comes out early next year.

December 2010


The Godfather bar in Sicily and Al Pacino's very chair

Carlos at the Godfather bar, August 2010

A few weeks after Mexico I went to play in Taormina, Sicily. This beautiful medieval town is built on the top of a steep hill overlooking the Mediterranean. It is spectacular. During the 1950's it was the haunt of great Italian cinema idols such as Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni and has retained much of its’ glamour. I played a varied programme of Spanish and Baroque music in a small church in the centre of town as part of the Festival. At the last moment I decided to play some of my arrangements of the music of Queen and the Beatles. When I say the last moment I mean as my hands hovered over the strings about to start the next unannounced piece. Old and new music side by side – just like Sicily itself, old and new side by side.

The next day inspired by the atmosphere I made an arrangement of a Sicilian tarantella and dedicated it to my friend the guitarist Daniele Foti, the Artistic Director of the Festival. After spending some considerable time over this we decided to go for a drink and he suggested the bar Vitelli.

I said “where's that?”
“ In Sàvoca up in the hills.”
“How far is it?”
“Just 5 miles away. You know what it is, don’t you?”
“No.”
“It's where they filmed the Godfather film”.
“What!” I said jumping up and down. “I have been coming here 3 years in a row and you have never taken me there!”

So into the car we hastened and drove through some beautiful hills with glimpses of the sea in between. The sun was beginning to set.

“Hurry up, we can´t miss this in case they close”.
“They don´t close, there are bus loads of tourists going up there.”

When we arrived I couldn´t believe my eyes. I walked directly into the film set. There next to the doorway had sat Al Pacino at exactly the same table with the same flowers and plants around, the same doorway, the same garden entrance. I half expected the same bar owner to stride out. It was from him that Al Pacino had asked for the hand of his lovely daughter. I waited until clients had left the table and sat myself down in the same chair. Well maybe not the same chair, but certainly the same spot. This was a journey back in time. Not only has the bar remained unaltered but much of the village too has not changed one jot for hundreds of years.

Flavio, Claudio and Carlos, November 2010

In November I returned again to play in Sicily, this time in Messina, a large cosmopolitan city very much of our times, its’ elegant architectural heritage side by side with the modern. This time I played in a large purpose-built modern concert hall. We used state-of-the-art amplification. It was a trio concert with guitarists Claudio Piastra and Flavio Cucchi, two great friends and very fine players. We played a programme which included two works by Vivaldi, who else?

After the concert we went to a restaurant called Il Giulietti in the heart of Messina but described as “being out of this world” by the proprietor. On arrival he asked to see my guitar and played a few passable arpeggios on it. Then he sat at the grand piano and sang to his own accompaniment very beautifully in a melancholic Italian tenor. Afterwards he produced a great meal combining the old and new cuisines. He said “ a restaurant does not simply sell food or hire out tables and chairs. What it should do is appeal to your emotions”. Very Italian and very Sicilian.

And so in the space of a few months I had seen Sicily, from ancient Taormina to modern Messina. A lot has been written and spoken about Sicily, but to see the contrasts, to enjoy the hills and sea, and to experience the hospitality of local people is something special.

August and November 2010


In Mexico watching Mexicans watching Mexico

Carlos watching Mexicans watching Mexico v Uruguay in Mexican supermarket

After Norway I flew directly to Mexico. I took time off from my practise to recover my breath from the travel. I went out to eat spicy food. I drank beer laced with chilli and even knocked back the odd tequila or two.

In Norway I had watched the opening game of the World Cup, South Africa v Mexico. In Mexico I was curious to watch Mexicans watch Mexico play Uruguay. I chose the venue: a supermarket, a large one with a car park. The chairs were set up in front of a small screen at the entrance. They were not all taken. People strolled by pushing their trolleys taking no notice. Mexicans are pretty laid back at the best of times, but even this was low key by their standards.

At the end of the match Mexico progressed through to the next round. There was no cheering or stamping of feet. People just got up quietly and went about their business. For the next game, I went to a spacious restaurant full of light and colourful decorations. It was lunchtime. Families with small children and friends gathered around tables with a large screen dominating one corner and smaller screens elsewhere. I ordered my favourite food: taquitos and pollo con mole, which is chicken covered in hot chocolate. Believe me, it is delicious.

As the game started there was a sense of quiet excitement but no cheering. Mexico was playing Argentina. Mexico hasn't won a match against Argentina in about a million years. They started well. Near misses were met with gasps and shouts. Gradually Argentina took over but no one seemed particularly downcast, there was still a festive atmosphere. In the interval the restaurant had hired two dancers in full Aztec outfit to perform for us – a nice touch. As the game drew to a close even the waiters stopped serving to watch the screens. Although Mexico lost I wouldn't say there was a sense of resignation, rather of expectation fulfilled.

I ordered some very sugary dessert and coffee, which wasn´t that good – a pity since Mexico was once an important coffee producer. The happy atmosphere returned to the tables. The television station proceeded immediately to another programme. The restaurant offered me a free drink.

Yes, expectation fulfilled is what everyone felt, but there was no sadness or sense of anguish, let alone betrayal, just acceptance that Mexico had done its' very best against a better team. I watched them all finish their meals and leave, politely thanking the staff for their service, smiling and relaxed.

I decided to take up what I had last done in Norway a few days earlier: some practise for my upcoming concerts, and fired up by the match also decided, oh yes, to watch England in their next game.

July 2010


Palace guards don’t watch football

Oslo during the World Cup

Today, 11th June, on the first day of the World Cup, I arrived in Oslo where I took a stroll wearing a jumper, coat, scarf and hat. It was raining and very dull.

So here I am, a Spanish Englishman passing Norwegians crowding round café TV screens watching South Africa play Mexico. Maybe that's what globalisation is all about!

I saw some quite grand buildings including the University which looked like it could be the Parliament. The theatre was large and impressive too with a fine statue of Ludvig Holberg (who was he?) with two other stone figures hanging about in the side garden.

Just a few hundred yards further along, overlooking the city centre and half a mile from the sea front is the Royal Palace. Now bearing in mind the size and grandeur of the nearby buildings this one was a cuddly size. Some reddish pebbles have been scattered in front to create an elegant approach. There are two sentry posts either side of the main entrance which is not gated. You can almost walk up the six steps to the front double doors. Only a low decorative chain slung across the first step stops you doing so.

One of the sentry posts was occupied by a soldier. The other one was empty. Maybe the recession has hit here really hard...

The nice thing about the sentry is that he talked to anyone who came up to him - not warmly or enthusiastically, mind you. When a teenager waved a stick, the sentry, with his body quite still, moved his head sideways, parted his lips and uttered a few clipped words, whereupon the teenager stopped. When a local man with a dog walked very close to the railings the sentry repeated the same action, keen, I imagine, to avoid the King stepping out straight into dog mess.

Picture the scene: King steps out, only to step in it, his smile now just about hanging onto his face. Well done, sentry, for avoiding that!

I walked all the way round the palace and found the grander gated entrance at the back with smart black cars parked in front, but still only one sentry on duty.

I felt sorry for him, standing all alone at the back with no one to tease him or to talk to. So I doffed my hat, and to my delight he saluted back!

On my way back I passed the same café packed with people of all types and sizes watching the football, shouting and cheering with excitement.

I thought of the guard keeping watch alone at the back of the Palace, staring into the mid-distance, with only the hum of the city below for company.

"I think I'll run back and tell him the score" I thought to myself.

I didn't.

Something stopped me doing so, not quite sure what.

That was my first day in Oslo.

June 2010


Alirio Díaz and the banging saucepans of Carora

Carlos in Carora with Alirio Diaz

When I arrived in Carora, Venezuela, in 2000, Alirio Díaz accompanied me to the local radio station, a short walk from his house in the old town centre. Entrance doors give directly onto the kerbs, which are raised some three feet above the level of the cobbled streets. Men, women and children stood at the doorways banging saucepans with cooking utensils in a steady rhythm. Such was the din that we were not able to converse. I thought this was a local greeting custom reserved for special occasions and grand old men such as Alirio Díaz. I was wrong of course, but more of this anon.

Alirio Díaz, everywhere respected and admired for his playing, is also loved and cherished as few other artists. Nowhere is this more evident than in Carora where he is greeted with quiet but deeply-felt affection as he strolls through its picturesque streets. When he celebrated his 80th birthday in nearby Barquisimeto the entire audience stood at the end and sang "Happy Birthday", and as one, continued to sing as they mobbed him backstage. He is loved for his humour, warmth and common touch. Formality and distance are not his style.

On one occasion, after a concert in Táchira, Venezuela, he was not able to gain access to his place of residence late at night, so overnight accommodation was hastily arranged elsewhere. The next morning we had breakfast together in a very ordinary café, with him still dressed in concert suit and bright red bow-tie. He was completely at ease – which brings me back to the banging saucepans of Carora. They turned out to be a political protest and nothing to do with a personal greeting to the maestro, but such was his measured pace and elegant greeting to all and sundry that I believed the demonstration was for our benefit. The saucepan bashers had become his audience, and the streets his stage.

Now there´s a showman for you.

September 2008


Excuse me, where can I spend a krona?

The good and bad of going out in Stockholm

When I arrived in Stockholm I took a bus from the port to the town and went for a walk through some of the town centre. I began where I was dropped off in the modern part and continued until reaching the old theatre, a distance of about one kilometre. And what a contrast!

The modern area appears to have been built mostly during the 1960's in that ugly square style, while the old part has all the grace and charm of 19th century northern Europe.

Today Saturday the entire population of Stockholm seemed crowded into the big city centre department stores of which there are lots and lots. Some you reach by crossing over without going into the street. With others you are not even aware you have left one shop before you find yourself in another and today they were all full of people, looking, buying, walking around, bumping into each other, an agitated mass in a constant state of movement.

The problem for me today was not the enormous crowds overflowing onto the pavements, nor was it to absorb the violent contrasts of architecture, nor even that I cannot speak Swedish. No, the problem was finding a toilet.

The first place I entered was a 4-storey department store with basement where I found a toilet on the top floor. As I approached it I saw a queue of 20 men, women and children standing quite still in silence.

In the second store I couldn't find a toilet. In the third one they told me they didn't have one but that McDonald's next door did. So that's where I went. I found another queue. I decided to join it.
It came to my turn. The door wouldn't open. It was locked. It needed a coin. But I didn't have a coin. I left disappointed.

The fifth building I entered was the elegant Radisson Hotel. There too I found the bathroom locked. But this time I was ready. Nearby there was a cleaning lady. In an authoritative voice I said to her "Please open the door".

Now, you try speaking with authority when you can't hold it any more and you will see how difficult it is.

"Yes sir." On a key pad she pressed a few numbers on an illuminated panel next to the door. How incredible! Is going to the bathroom a secret mission for the Swedes?

When she opened the door instead of finding myself in a private cubicle I was shown into a communal one where there were various men standing with pained expressions. Had each of them memorised the code to enter?
Had the cleaning lady confused me for one of this band secretly gathered? With my heart racing I did my business and left as quickly as I could.

My conclusion? The biggest defect of the Swedes is to consider the bathroom a secret meeting place with carefully controlled and paid admission. This may explain why everyone walks in such a hurry even when they are out shopping. They just can't wait to get home to go to the toilet.

When this country accepts more readily going to the toilet as a perfectly normal human function, and ceases to shroud it in expense and mystery then I will love it to bits for all its wonderful qualities which I have not mentioned so far!

June 2010