When Beppe Gambetta first came to America 20 years ago, he was a man on a mission, a kind of pilgrim bearing a digital recorder instead of a cross.
Gambetta, a native Italian, wanted to learn from the masters of American guitar flatpicking.
The journey began at the Chattanooga Airport, where Gambetta was picked up by his hero, the legendary Norman Blake. After encounters with Blake, Tony Rice, Dan Crary and other masters of the instrument, Gambetta released his first album, "Dialogs."
Since then, he has developed an innovative style that is no longer an echo of those gurus but a combination of fluidity and technicality drawn from traditions on both sides of the Atlantic.
"The reason I'm accepted and people like my music is because I was able to open up my knowledge of American flatpicking to a bigger spectrum of music that I was involved in and that I was learning," he said. "I'm not just a copy of Norman Blake as I was at the start of my career when I started to learn."
Saturday, after a two-year hiatus, Gambetta will return to Barking Legs Theater to launch a monthlong U.S. tour, including six days in Maryville, Tenn., teaching at the Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp.
For the former student, the role reversal is a marvel.
"It's a great pleasure and great honor to know this music and to be accepted as one of the people who also teaches this music," he said. "It's great to play in the home of where flatpicking was made important.
"It's fantastic to add to all of this beauty some of my point of view that comes from a faraway place."
IF YOU GO
* What: Italian flatpicking guitarist Beppe Gambetta.
* When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
* Where: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave.
* Admission: $10.50 in advance, $12 at the door.
* Phone: 624-5347.
* Venue Web site: www.barkinglegs.org.
* Related links at fyi.timesfreepress.com.
DID YOU KNOW?
* Beppe Gambetta's son, Filippo, is a button accordionist.
* Gambetta hosts his own international acoustic guitar workshop in Slovenia.
* In addition to playing music, Gambetta is an accomplished chef with his own cooking book, "Beppe Cooks!"
"I'm not like Mozart with a direct line to God. I'm really careful to listening to something new in every moment as it comes."
-- Beppe Gambetta on his compositional process
1992: "Alone & Together"
2002: "Blu di Genova"
2003: "Live: Men of Steel"
2006: "Four Way Mirror -- Men of Steel"
2006: "Slade Stomp"
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Chattanooga Times Free Press music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Italian flatpicking virtuoso Beppe Gambetta about life on the road, his compositional process and why he doesn't tell his son accordion jokes.
CP: Will the Barking Legs Theater show be your first for this U.S. tour?
BG: Yes. We'll be in the U.S. for one month, and that is going to be the first how. Actually, we're on our way to Milan where we'll take the airplane. Soon, we'll be in the United States to break the jet lag. (Laughs.)
CP: Given your life-long love of bluegrass music, what goes through your head when you return to the land of its birth?
BG: Actually, it's a great pleasure and great honor to know this music and to be accepted as one of the people who also teaches this music. I'll be in Maryville teaching the class of American flat picking at the Steve Kaufmann Camp. In reality, the reason I'm accepted and people like my music is because I was able to open up my knowledge of American flat picking to a bigger spectrum of music that I was involved in and that I was learning.
The reason people like my music now is that I'm not just a copy of Norman Blake as I was at the start of my career when I started to learn. My music also comes from my traveling and meeting with different cultures and also with some strong European influences from the other traditional music.
It's great for me to be in the place that is the home of Norman Blake, who is one of my greatest heroes. During the trip, I'll play in Nashville near where the great Doc Watson lives. It's great to play in the home of where flat picking was made important. It's fantastic to add to all of this beauty some of my point of view that comes from a far away place.
CP: Speaking of learning from the people and the music you've heard on your travels, your latest album "Rendez-vous" centers on that aspect of your career, right?
BG: Yes, it was a celebration of my life on the road. My wife and I were counting on my calendar, and I spent 270 days a year on the road. It's really a big amount of time to spend with people and traveling. My whole life, I was doing trips to Australia and I even crossed the Iron Curtain when it existed. It's really a career based on traveling and meeting with great musicians. It started when I decided 20 years ago to do my first album, "Dialogues."
It started at the Chattanooga airport when Norman Blake came to pick me up. He was the first great flat picker to agree to help me. I was traveling with a tape recorder and a Europass trying to meet all the flat pickers and bring this beautiful music to Europe. At the time, that was not easy to organize because it was during an era when the distances were much farther away.
I was able to get one of the first digital tape recorders of the time. I was traveling with that equipment, and Norman Blake was one of the first who heard about me and agreed to help me, which was fantastic. You can see that some old people have the disposition to help the art and those who love the art. It was a great step in my career because I was meeting with David Grier and Dan Crary and Norman Blake and Mike Marshall and so many others.
Twenty years later, after this big step, I decided to do the same thing. My art has changed and matured. It has a lot more components that come from different studies I did. So it's great that I decided to put together artists who come from a lot of different fields, from the old time music of Bruce Molsky to the early music and opera singing of Marco Beasley to old Italian singer/songwriters to some great avant garde singers like Darrell Scott and Patty Larking to bluegrass people like Jim Hurst. This was a great pleasure to try to hold together because the styles o these people were so different. It was fantastic to try to arrange the music to make a unique project where all of them fit together.
CP: Your son, Filippo, performed on that album as well on the button accordion. Did you let him decide to pursue his own course, instrumentally, or did you encourage him to play?
BG: I let him chose his instrument. When I did one of my first important albums, I recorded it when he was 12. I recorded with a famous Italian button accordionist, who was a master of the instrument. The next day, my son got a button accordion and in a year, he learned a whole Italian repertoire. We understood that he was really, really fast in learning, like this new generation.
So I let him go. I avoided telling him button accordion jokes. (Laughs.) No, actually, it's an instrument that's really interesting because like the mouth harp, it's imperfect, it doesn't have all the notes. Sometimes, that imperfection produces fantastic music like the bending of notes on the mouth harp to get to the notes that are not there.
It's an instrument that has a fantastic tradition in Europe and in the U.S. When he was young, I brought him to the United States to Louisiana to meet all the great masters of the button accordion. He was 15, and I was able to let him know all this great music.
CP: How old is he now?
BG: Now, he's 27. It's great. It's the age of maturity.
CP: What is your compositional process?
BG: I'm not like Mozart with a direct line to God. I'm really careful to listening to something new in every moment as it comes. There are some people who always have paper and tablature ready. In my guitar case, I always have something ready to go in the guitar case because the whenever you don't expect the good ideas, they come. It's great to catch them. Sometimes, I'll be in a restaurant writing music on a napkin. I love to get the ideas whenever they come.
From the idea is the little light that brings the rest. From the little good idea, sometimes, a whole composition comes through. In the second part, you think carefully of harmony and where the melody could go. All the technical aspects come later. That special moment when something new comes to your mind is always unpredictable.
CP: Walk me through how you wrote "On the Road with Mama."
BG: Yeah, with my mother when she was quite old, she came in Europe on the road sometimes with me. She came when she was close to 80, and it was really fun because she speaks four languages and she enjoys staying up late, even with a beer, which is incredible.
When I started to compose the tune, I had this little memory of "On the Road Again," so I thought, "Ah, this should be 'On the Road with Mama' because it's something that really happened." I started to joke about that, and my mom really loved the idea. There were some great moments in my life when old people decided to be on the road and be citizens of the world. That's a great moment.
Actually, some friends of mine even made a cartoon of it. If you look on YouTube, you can find it. It's actually in 3-D. Of course, it's not the most-common thing to have a 3-D cartoon with flat picking music, but you should look at it. It came out quite nice. Of course, technically, the tune has a mixture of old rock music influences and some Italian rhythms of tarantella. If you listen carefully, there are those two aspects mixed together.
CP: Your live performances are very vibrant. You seem to have a knack for connecting with an audience. What is your goal when you're in front of an audience? What do you hope to communicate with them?
BG: The more that I travel, the more that I find that acoustic musicians have some relation with the ancient minstrels or something. There is something about being in contact with people and building a stronger connection with the stories you tell. That's part of this kind of approach. I didn't expect to be like this when I started. I was just carefully learning music, but it just came so naturally. Talking about yourself is part of the music, and telling stories about your music is really important. It came quite naturally, which I didn't expect, but it's a great part that I really like. It comes partially spontaneously and improvised, and sometimes, I prepare things to say because it's nice to build up a nice relationship with an audience through a story or by telling about your diversity. That's a good thing. You talk about being from a far away place in the world and you maybe bring a different experience or you see the world from a slightly different angle. People love that aspect.
CP: Dan Crary once told me that he sees the guitar as a kind of universal passport. He said it provided a way to communicate with people he might not otherwise have been able to connect with. Do you share that philosophy about the instrument?
BG: Oh yes. I think that it's not just the guitar but also the art, the music. Of course the guitar is the instrument, the tool, that I am more able to use, but I think the idea of communicating on the artistic level really brings you close to people of totally different backgrounds and cultures. It's really fascinating how, through the art, you are really effective in communicating with everyone.
The guitar is extremely universal on that point because everyone is used to this kind of sound. It also communicates to different generations. So you are really able to talk to old people, not just to people who live far away, but also to children. I really like to play music in hospices for old people because I have some members of my family who live in hospices. It's marvelous how the guitar brings them joy. I totally agree with Dan.
CP: Does bluegrass music have a similar universal appeal?
BG: Bluegrass has a universality that's really amazing. You can compare this to the tango or the flamenco. Flamenco is a popular music from Spain that is so beautiful that it's able to talk to people all over the world. Actually, flat picking, on some level, is the same. I even met people from India who were touched by the music of Doc Watson and became flat pickers. In Europe I became good friends with a guy from Greece who never saw any flat picker in person, but he heard Tony Rice and Doc Watson, and he now plays in Greece exactly like Tony Rice. It's fantastic.
It's a music that is able to talk to people, not only to those who speak the same language and come from the same country, but from all over. Bluegrass is not a kind of music that you can find on charts, but everywhere in the world, there are groups of people who are in love with it.
In Europe, the strongest example you have is in Czech Republic which is a fantastic place with fantastic banjo players. The level of music that Bill Monroe and Doc Watson wrote is so high that it's really able to talk to the heart of people who are not from the same culture.
This is what happened to me. I didn't speak any English. I was a normal, regular Led Zeppelin fan. I was playing "Stairway to Heaven," and then I heard just two tunes, one by Flatt and Scruggs and one from Doc Watson, and that was it. It was too good. It was acoustic music at such a great level that it captured my heart.
CP: Over the course of your career, you've played with some amazing musicians, among the best in the bluegrass genre. Are there still people you dream of playing with or have you pretty much hit all the high notes?
BG: Actually, in the field of bluegrass and acoustic music, yes, I was pretty much able, happily, to meet all the great artists. I'm only sorry I never met Clarence White, who died in 1973 and was one of the greatest masters.
I always make it a point to meet the old men, the old musician who have the history of the music. Even if I don't play the banjo, in November, for example, the last great master I was able to meet was Pete Seeger. It was one of the great moments of my life. I made a point to see him because it was always my dream. I was constantly asking friends if they could get me an appointment.
Finally, Tony Trischka was heading up to New York, and he introduced me. We spent a couple hours together. Besides jamming, just being in the presence of this man and talking to him and seeing the light that this old musician is giving is fantastic.
Meeting with Pete Seeger was one of the great moments of my life because he spoke about all the things you want to hear from a great musician about history. He spoke about the great things to do. He didn't say one bitter thing or negative thing about the past. He was always talking about what beautiful things you can do. In this era when people are always complaining, that was a great example.
I have pretty much met with all the great masters of the music, and that's a vital way to get energy. Pete Seeger played just one tune for me, but I didn't ask to play together. It was such a great moment that it was marvelous to see all the stones of his house, which he told me he built by hand.
He explains how he always likes to play with a drop D because he can get so many chords and so much variety. With a capo, he can pretty much hit all the keys he needs. He showed me a turnaround of a difficult run, He has the hands of a 90-year-old full of wrinkles, but in the notes he played, there were some chords I don't think I'll ever be able to play his way, with his energy and with the subtle sense that only he is able to bring.