John Williams: Hot Latin licks

John Williams's love affair with South American music began when he studied under the great Venezuelan guitarist Alirio Diaz. Years later, it is still inspiring his work
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The Independent Culture

"I hate knocking other players," says guitarist John Williams, "but I've heard many people trying and failing to play this piece. They do it in a simple six-eight rhythm, which sounds sweet, but boring." He demonstrates, and it is. "But now listen to it with two rhythms going simultaneously - a six-eight over a three-four." I try to disentangle them, but my brain can't do it: the music seems to swirl and float. "To really play this, you need to do the African thing - move your body with the complex pulse. It's no good tapping your feet like a European. There's a European influence here, but the guts of it is Indian plus African.'

Which goes back 500 years, to the first musical alliances between runaway slaves and the Indian tribes of what is now Venezuela. The indigenous inhabitants had flutes and drums, but no stringed instruments; the slaves brought their lutes, while the Jesuits who set out to convert the locals introduced a proto-guitar called the vihuela, which evolved into the Venezuelan cuatro. Though Williams's Hampstead studio is full of guitars and harps from around the world, he hasn't got a cuatro to hand, but he does play along with one on the beguiling new album which is the trigger for our meeting.

It's a collection of Venezuelan songs and dances, entitled El Diablo Suelto. "That translates as The Devil on the Loose," he explains with a boyish grin, "and I'm not at all sure how it will be received in religious Venezuelan villages." On the other hand, he reckons it would sell like a bomb in West Africa, if Sony's distribution reached that far. "For what those early musical alliances led to was an explosion of polyrhythms which are remarkably similar to the polyrhythms you hear today on the West African kora lute." Musicians in Mali would have no difficulty with a six-eight plus a three-four, because they're playing them all the time.

But it's taken Williams many years to liberate this particular devil. Born 62 years ago in Melbourne, and having been taught guitar from the age of four by his bandmaster father, he was brought to Europe at 12 because he wanted to meet Segovia and Django Reinhardt. Django inconsiderately died the moment he arrived, but Williams did manage to enrol at Segovia's summer school in Italy, where he was taken under the wing of the great Venezuelan guitar maestro Alirio Diaz. And thus he fell in love, not with Segovia's music, but with the music of Venezuela.

"Segovia couldn't see the point of it," says Williams now. "He simply wouldn't play it; he thought it was vulgar. And he was absolutely wrong. I loved this music, and firmly believed that it belonged in the mainstream guitar repertory." But at that time Williams had to carve out a career, so after a triumphant Wigmore debut, he joined Julian Bream and Paco Peña as one of the three deities on the virtuoso circuit. He became a professor at the Royal College, then moved into film (providing the music for The Deer Hunter), then formed his globe-trotting ensemble John Williams and Friends. He also became the guitarist of choice for a raft of chat-show hosts.

But the guitar music of Latin America wouldn't let him alone. He became the first musician to record the complete works of the guitarist-composer Agustin Barrios-Mangore - "the Chopin of the guitar" - and his crusading efforts on this music's behalf earned him a Venezuelan quasi-knighthood. And gradually the idea gelled which was to turn into this new CD.

Alirio Diaz had studied with a teacher who had studied with Barrios-Mangore himself, so Diaz possessed the sacred flame. He was a master arranger and had village music in his veins, which is why his versions of the joropo, the quirpa (danced at weddings), and the galeron (sung to celebrate the arrival of Spanish galleons) sound so earthy. "It was obvious what I had to do," says Williams. "I would make a disc of his arrangements. It would also be a lovely way to acknowledge my artistic debt to him." That's Diaz himself with Williams on the CD cover, over 80 and still going strong.

Meanwhile, it's just seven weeks since the body of the guitar maestro Compay Segundo was borne through the streets of Santiago de Cuba while his signature tune, "Chan Chan", blared from every window: full marks to a rushed-out valedictory disc, which does an excellent job - insofar as any 70-minute compilation could ever encapsulate this great musician's achievement.

Francisco Repilado Munoz, aka Compay Segundo, was born in 1907 - just nine years after his country's explosive liberation from Spain - and his first job, to which he returned when he wrongly imagined his career to be over, was rolling the cigars that (along with rum and women) were his own explanation for his astonishing longevity. After Ry Cooder's celebrated record, and Wim Wenders' equally celebrated film, we all know the miraculous story of the Buena Vista Social Club: Compay - with his gravelly baritone and the seven-string guitar he had invented - was the beating heart of this wonderful band. Ibrahim Ferrer may still be going strong, but arthritis has put paid to the crystalline cascades of pianist Ruben Gonzalez: an era has ended, and all we have left is memories and recordings.

Gracias Compay: The Definitive Collection begins with a sedate version of "Chan Chan", but ends with a version which ends in a blaze of instrumental glory; in between is a lovely string of songs - including a decorous "Macusa" and a hard, defiant "Guantanamera" - recorded in the Nineties, during his unexpected post-retirement fame. But there are also duets, with his friend Omara Portuondo, and with raï star Khaled, who weaves smokey melismas in the stratosphere. Duetting is a Cuban tradition, and Segundo always implied the presence of a primo to sing a higher part. Moreover, Compay is Cuban slang for "compadre" (friend), and it was as half of the legendary Duo Los Compadres that he first made his mark in 1942.

But this new CD is just a taster. For the full range of Compay's duetting, you need to acquire Duets, on which he collaborates with Cesaria Evora, Antonio Banderas and Charles Aznavour. For his thrilling rediscovery of Andalusian music, get Lo Mejor de la Vida (DRO East West). And to hear how the young Compay sounded, get Nigel Williamson's compilation in the Coleccion Cubana series.

Compay's Fifties tracks have a teasing lightness, as befitted the life he once recalled with these nostalgic words: "We were romantic then. We walked through the park greeting the señoritas with our hats, and if you really liked one, you threw your hat on the ground. If the feeling was mutual, she would tentatively step on the brim; if she didn't like you, you lost your hat." As the photographs confirm, Compay always kept his.

'El Diablo Suelto' is out on Sony

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