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The Guitar and the Professor: José Lezcano

The Guitar and the Professor: José Lezcano

Panpipes made of wood and PVC tubes poke out of an open gym bag on the floor. Five black guitar cases are wedged under the lowest shelf of a bookcase, and others lean against the filing cabinet and in corners. A page from Henry Mancini's Days of Wine and Roses, awaiting arrangements, is open on the piano next to methods books on classical guitar and sheet music for a Django Reinhardt jazz piece. Above the piano a smoky Andean textile hangs next to a framed album cover of Andrés Segovia's The Intimate Guitar.

And the papers sticking out of the striped satchel?

"Oh that's my ‘guitar and the devil' bag," says José Lezcano, KSC professor of music, with offhand energy. In khakis and a gray shirt that complements his deep-set brown eyes, he sits in a chair that looks small for him in the middle of this vortex of musical forces.

As his office conveys, Professor Lezcano – Cuban-born classical guitarist, composer, conductor, and ethnomusicologist – finds there is "something essentially unmusical about a lot of contemporary composing." Atonality doesn't speak to him, he says. In his compositions, Lezcano synthesizes classical, Cuban, jazz, and folk sonorities; in his research he goes with admiration – and a stomach for corn beer – deep into the technical secrets of Latin American folk masters.

Lezcano's sensibility and genius are much admired in the music community. Students fill his Latin American music, music theory, guitar pedagogy, and other courses. Passports, the CD he and flutist Bonnie Insull recently released, earned a stellar review in New Millennium Guitar online, and his talks for the state Humanities Council on music and magic among Ecuadoran indigenas draw large audiences. Last year, he was named Composer of the Year by the New Hampshire Music Teachers Association, and this year he won the Distinguished Faculty Research and Scholarship Award at KSC.

Lezcano reaches for a booklet of photographs on the desk: On a bright day under laminate, he's playing in a parade of guitar-strumming indigenas walking down a cobbled street past a lovely broken-down stone building in an Ecuadorian village.

The musicians are wearing white shirts and straw hats, from which scarves of lime green, pink, or marigold yellow drape almost to the strings of bells and zamarros, or fleece chaps, strapped around their hips. Tall and large, he stands head and shoulders above the musicians around him.

"Notice they gave me the black sheep chaps and theirs are all natural," he notes, tongue in cheek. "I'm like the George Plimpton character." He laughs a short deep laugh, something he does often.

Like the writer Plimpton, who threw himself with abandon into a quarterback role for the Detroit Lions, Lezcano immersed himself in 1999 in the musical life of Cayambe, a mountain town north of Quito, the capital. Supported by a Fulbright Lecture Research Award, he was documenting seven unusual guitar tunings that have been created by the indigenous musicians in the region. From his vantage within the subculture, he studied the performers in the Inti Raymi, or Feast of the Sun festival.

For almost a decade Lezcano had been visiting Quito to perform and teach classical and folk guitar at the National Conservatory of Music, the Catholic University of Ecuador, and the annual Middle of the World Festival. In the capital city, Lezcano befriended Camilo Torres, a musician who played guitar in the sun festival. Torres introduced Lezcano to the guitarists of the Inti Raymi in Cayambe, giving him a chance to study their tunings up close.

The Inti Raymi is an eight-day religious festival in which participants dance to ritualistic music from guitars, panpipes, and other instruments. And drink. As the musicians walk from village to village, residents welcome them into their front parlors for traditional food and chicha, or corn beer.

"It may be hard for a westerner to see the religious-ritual component to the festival through all the drinking," Lezcano says.

"I bought a special fieldwork guitar, one that I didn't care if it got rained on or vomited on," he says, "and I had a good tape recorder and video camera to tape the tunings."

"Inti Raymi is like New Year's Eve; it's a ritual with a lot of magical beliefs," he continues. "You have an obligation to drink, and eat and dance, as part of the festival. It's rude to refuse. The indigenas are paying respect to Mother Earth. They don't separate the sacred from the profane in their religion, as we do in ours."

In Cayambe, women sing and dance, accompanied on guitar by men. On the eve of the festival, the men go to a water hole where a devilish water spirit gives them the strength to dance, drink, and eat for eight days.

And play their guitars in a style unlike anywhere else in the world. With their unique tunings, the indigenous musicians can play lead and rhythm at the same time.

"They finger the melody in octaves or single strings and at the same time strum the open strings as accompaniment," explains Lezcano.

"It's a point of pride to them that a conservatory-trained guitarist finds it a little difficult to pick up. They grab your guitar – ‘no, you do it this way.'"

Lezcano takes a credit card from his wallet for a pick and lifts a guitar into his lap. "In Cayambe, they've concocted a nine-string guitar, and they use it like a twelve-string," he explains, strumming an infectious tune. "They use steel strings and nylon. The trebles are doubled for a twangy, bright sonority. They slacken the strings and use extra capos and slide them to put chords into registers that the women can sing with."

The women sing coplas, four-line stanzas in which "they let off steam about their husbands," says Lezcano.

From the seas come pearls
From the pearls come collars
From the lips of men
Come only lies and whoppers.

Residents sing coplas to welcome musicians into their home, and the musicians sing them to praise their hosts' generosity in sharing food and chicha. Lezcano has also collected coplas about the guitar, such as

What do you say, guitar?
The life that you and I have led,
You with your strings torn off,
Me, in love, with no money.

In courting their beloveds, the men try to win them over by playing the guitar so hard and well that the strings break.

In addition to music theory, applied guitar, guitar pedagogy, and other courses at KSC, Lezcano teaches a Latin American music course that meets Tuesdays for course work and Thursdays for playing. He also directs the Latin Ensemble, for which students attend only the Thursday sessions. Both are open to majors and nonmajors by audition.

"When I started the Latin Ensemble in 1992," says Lezcano with amusement, "a colleague said, ‘José, your students are waiting with their blowguns!'"

Now in May 2003, the Latin American music course is filled for the coming fall. "It's become popular," says Lezcano. "I have almost 30 students, which is about where I want it."

In fact, a few years ago Lezcano began to worry that he didn't have enough panpipes to go around, until Ralph Palmer, the College's energy coordinator, made some out of PVC tubes. He followed the instructions in a booklet on making and playing panpipes that Lezcano had bought in a park in Lima, Peru, and added his own improvements.

The indigenous guitar tunings are a little beyond the reach of students in the ensemble, who play guitar, panpipes, charango, flutes, bongos, and other instruments. But they play Andean coplas as well as folk music from all over Latin America.

"I build a repertoire around the abilities of the people in the class," says Lezcano. For his more advanced flute students, for example, he adds classical bridge passages that use counterpoint in the style of Bach to the folk tune San Juanito.

In teaching the Latin Ensemble, Lezcano says, "I adapt methods I saw in the communities [in Ecuador], breaking people into pairs, and going around to each of the pairs."

Students who can't read music learn the pieces by rote and by following the numbers in the booklet, sometimes with the assistance of students who can read music, such as classically trained flutist Leah Kisselbrack.

"When I joined the ensemble, it was mostly for fun," says Kisselbrack. "And I did a lot of helping out with other students, too, which was good for me, since I'm a music education major. Being a flutist, I basically knew how to play the panpipes already, but it can be difficult. You have to know which length of pipe to play."

"My favorite part," she continues, "was when Professor Lezcano would write a bit more challenging part for flute. Also, it was motivational for the panpipe students, I think."

Kisselbrack played in the Latin Ensemble for two years. "It's such a different type of music! You can't get it anywhere else in the department," she says. "I got a broader view of the whole musical spectrum."

Pianist Maura Glennon, a professor in the music department, has accompanied the ensemble in concerts.

" José is a great musician," says Glennon. "Thoughtful and really expressive. He's a good teacher and, as someone who is both a teacher and performer, a good example for our students. As a performer, he teaches without words, through his passion, sincerity, and expressiveness.

"Moreover, he's one of the few faculty who is a scholar as well as a performer, and he does not only what we call nontraditional research, that is, performing research, but also traditional research, the ethnomusicology of other traditions. This diversity is really necessary.

"He's inspirational because he does so much. We all look up to him."

Deborah Klenotic is assistant editor of   Keene State Today.