Pierre Bensusan: World’s greatest beginner guitarist
by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., March 18, 2003) – French guitarist Pierre Bensusan is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest, most innovative guitarists. People like Leo Kottke and Steve Vai talk about him in hushed tones of respect, even awe.

So it might seem like a surprise to find out that the 45-year-old guitarist – who performs in the final concert of the Clark Art Institute’s “Out of Africa” series on Saturday night at 8 – thinks of himself as a “beginner” on his instrument.

“We are all humble students,” said Bensusan in a phone interview from Cleveland, Ohio, where he was on tour earlier this week. “People making a living with music, the amateurs, the students, all of us.

“I am learning how to play the music I hear within myself. I still have to learn the music. I have more experience than others, so certain things for me come easier, but other things are a big challenge requiring deep commitment and attention.”

Not only does Bensusan think of himself as a beginner. He also prefers that people not think of him as a guitarist at all, but rather, just as a musician.

“The guitar is just an instrument,” said Bensusan, speaking in English with a thick French accent. “After a while you don’t want people to remember you play the guitar. You want them to be caught by the music, and called by the music. You don’t play the guitar for the sake of playing the guitar, just as you don’t use a tool for the sake of using the tool. You use it for making something.

“The guitar is a great tool, but it’s there ultimately to express music.”

This isn’t to say that he is not very fond of his chosen instrument. “It’s a question of intimacy,” said Bensusan, who in addition to over a dozen recordings has several instructional books and videos to his credit. “Like someone you learn about and appreciate for who they are. That’s the thing with the guitar -- as with maybe other instruments -- it’s very much affordable, not economically but in approach. You can have limited technique but start to have pleasure, feed your drive, and make you want to play.

“This was the case for me. In the process, I found myself fulfilled with a little orchestra. You can have a sort of a bass approach, a very melodic approach, a very wide harmonic approach. It’s not like you are limited by something.

“And you can function by yourself. You don’t necessarily need to share the music with others, although it’s fantastic to play with others. But you can play music on the guitar written so it functions on one guitar. You can take it out anywhere, have it with you at any time, you can play very softly and not disturb people.”

Born in Oran, Algeria, in what was a French colony in 1957, Bensusan moved to Paris with his family at age 4. He began formal music studies on piano at 7, playing Bach, and taught himself guitar at age 11. Early on he was influenced by the folk revival, and learned Anglo-Irish music, French folk, as well as the music of North and South America, particularly bluegrass.

By age 17, Bensusan signed his first recording contract. One year later, his debut album, “Pres de Paris,” won the best album award at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland. Since that time, Bensusan has been widely regarded by musicians and aficionados as the world’s premiere guitar instrumentalist, although his unique, genre-defying style has kept him from becoming as well-known as some of his more popular contemporaries.

Music, said Bensusan, is a language, and as such over time one’s vocabulary grows and one discovers new ways of expressing oneself. “The more you know, the more you can choose to express,” he said. “That’s why an older musician is supposed to be a better musician.”

While Bensusan is appearing in a series ostensibly devoted to West Africa, his musical identity is formed in large part by having spent most of his life in and around Paris. Bensusan’s isn’t the Paris of French cultural nationalism, however. Rather, it’s the cosmopolitan Paris, the crossroads of many different cultures and languages -- where Brazil meets Benin and where tango dances with reggae -- all feeding on each other and mixing and matching into a polyglot, multicultural stew.

“Multicultural is something I can relate to,” he said. “It’s a good image, but it’s also very vague.”

“I choose not to choose,” said the guitarist, who traces his own ancestry back to the Sephardic Jews of the Golden Age of Spain, “to follow my own inclinations, to pick here and there, to be influenced by and to try to get inspiration from different things, but not really to go into one and make it only one.

“I’m happy where I am right now. There are many possibilities. Everything is wide open. I don’t feel at all limited. I feel that I am very much a child of the twenty-first century.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 21, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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