An interview with Bolivian guitarist Pirai Vaca

The audience literally held their breath as they listened to Pirai Vaca play his sonata arrangements on the guitar at the Instituto Cervantes auditorium as part of the ongoing Bolivian Film Festival on November 17. Bolivia’s best known classical guitarist, Pirai has received many accolades, including the Fellowship of the Americas, awarded by the prestigious John F Kennedy Arts Center. Trained under the guidance of Jesus Ortega in Cuba and then later mastering his skills under guitar greats such as Manuel Barrueco in the USA and Hubert Kappel in Germany, Pirai’s musical sensibilities are capable of transporting the imagination of listeners to unknown realms. A German newspaper writes about him, “… technically brilliant, but how does one define the guitarist? Difficult, because this man demonstrates concentrated emotion, he combines musicality with spirituality, spirituality with virtuosity and profoundness with superficiality…modest and simple but full of self-confidence …”.

Edited Excerpts from an Interview with Jonathan Vikram Pradhan for Tehelka

Q : What is your interpretation of music?
A : Music is an extraordinary force that moves me far beyond than anything else. Music is what brought me to this world. I feel music as an entity, a spirit, a god that accompanies me, that protects me, that guides me and shows me things which I cannot see or perceive with my five limited senses. Music gives us the opportunity to enter some other world and open doors that are normally closed. When we listen to music we feel better, we dream, we hope, but what is really happening in that process is the connection with ourselves in the ‘real world’. The world that we feel and perceive with our five senses is only a part of it, formed by the way we think through our education and tradition, but there is a reality farther than that, where there is no religion, no tradition, no age. I think music connects us with that reality. Of course, to be able to do that you have to have the technique, train hard, study music to be able to analyse it and know how to make music sound better and more expressive.
pirai

Q : As a soloist performer how do you strategise your concerts?
A : What really makes me going as a soloist performer is the ‘whole’ of it. Every musical piece in my programme has an objective. For example, when I started the concert last night, I started with something that the audience might know, for instance a familiar or a popular melody which they can relate to. Essentially, what I am trying to do is to speak in a musical language to establish a connection with my listeners. Once I have presented that, I played something difficult technically but rhythmically very beautiful; it is to ensure the attention. After these two pieces, I started with something that has an element of surprise; one that has a lot of effect and is a happy one. And then I would drive the audience to a climax. I followed that up with a melodious and a subtle piece. And then after the slow piece, I again start to build up attention, for instance with some lively Bolivian folksy tunes. And that is what I love; to be able to build a contrast; to offer you the bright and the dark, the strong and the soft, the black and the white.

Q : Please tell us about the training experience with Hubert Kappel and Manuel Barrueco?
A : I was fortunate to be able to study with some of the very best guitar players of the world. I have studied in three different continents. With Jesus Ortega in Cuba, with Manuel Barrueco in USA and Hubert Kappel in Germany. The last two are the most important guitarists in the guitar history. They were my heroes and that’s why I wanted to study with them. While in Cuba, I developed my guitar technique a lot because in Cuba, everyone plays the guitar very well; technically speaking. Here, I also learned to be very serious about understanding the periods in music—renaissance, baroque classical, romanticism. Then I went to USA to learn with Manuel Barrueco. He taught me to listen and I was able to refine my playing under him. I learned how to make music more beatiful. With Barrueco, the use of the mind in playing the guitar was more than any other thing. Then when I went to Germany, I had the opportunity to study with Hubert Kappe,l who is a man with immense creative flow inside of him. The best lesson I had from him was this: I was playing and he was listening. He was looking through the window while I was playing. When I finished, he turned to me and grabbed his groins and said: “Aye… You have to feel pain in your b***s !You have to make them hear you!”, and kicked a trash can in the room, spilling its contents all over the floor. At this, I could not do anything and stared at him with my mouth wide open. From that time onwards, I reflected back on my playing and learned to incorporate not only the technicalities but the whole body, mind and soul in my playing.

Q : What do you think is the most interesting thing about Bolivian music, how has it evolved over time?
A : Folk music has a huge importance in societal development. In the case of Bolivia, folk music expresses itself in three different regions, three totally different instruments and three totally different types of music. However, what is well known around the world in Bolivian folk music is the zampoñas or the panpipes of the Andes and a small guitar like instrument called charango, again from the Andes. But generally speaking, folk music represents the identity and that is, I think, the most beautiful thing in music.

Q : You travel to different countries for your performances. How do you manage to grab the attention of a new audience?
A : The attention of the audience depends on the messenger. If the messenger is prepared in mind, body and spirit, there is no way that his message cannot be heard. Even though the music I play is music that you normally don’t hear in radio or in Asian regions, but when you speak to the heart of the people, there is no need of language, no difference of culture, of age, or religion. That’s why I think it is up to the messenger. It is really not up to the music solely. When you try to speak in a language that everyone can understand, the language of the heart, you are going to be heard.

Q : What according to you is the most important aspect of becoming a good musician?
A : There are several aspects. First of all, you have to have an internal need to communicate. You have to have something to say. You have to have this impulse to reach out to the people. Then you have to have the best teacher possible. A good teacher can open the world for you, can spare you a lot of work when it comes to understanding the specifics and can develop your playing amazingly. And then you have to practice, practice, practice and practice. You also need to have the capability of promoting yourself. I don’t believe in the idea that someone will discover your talents and promote you. You have to be able to produce yourself with your own resources.

Q Will we be hearing a fusion with Indian classical music in the near future?
A : I am a great admirer of Indian music, but I will have to learn a lot first to be able to do something like that. I hope your question becomes a reality for me. Maybe not the near future but in future, yes

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