Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 11,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Beppe Gambetta: A Fusion of Folk & Euro

Beppe Gambetta’s turf in the guitar-picking world

is a niche. He combines the folk music of Italy and points east with

the bluegrass style of Kentucky. A native of Genoa, Beppe taught

himself

bluegrass in Italy. His first trip to the United States didn’t come

until he was in his 30s. Impressively, he wrote a manual about the

American flatpicking guitar style before he ever visited the United

States and met a live bluegrass performer. "I figured it out,"

he says without a trace of hubris. "People who read it told me

it was correct."

In a telephone interview from Mendocino, California, while on tour,

he says, "If you play American music, Europeans say they prefer

to listen to an American. I understood that I could not be a copy

and would have to bring something of my own. I used my knowledge of

American music, but included different influences, including great

treasures from European music."

Gambetta, who has toured through central New Jersey in the past,

returns

for a performance at Prallsville Mill in Stockton on Saturday, October

14, at 8 p.m., in a concert sponsored by the Delaware River Mill

Society.

Gambetta studied classical guitar as a child and played in a mandolin

orchestra for children. His parents were devotees of classical music.

"They were always having contests with each other about who was

the composer of music being played on radio," he says. "They

were always right."

Cutting short his university studies in economics, Gambetta married

and spent several years as a social worker with the handicapped for

the city of Genoa. His son Filippo, whom he calls "an incredible

musician," was born when Gambetta was 26, before he had decided

on a career as a musician. At 19 son Filippo is the winner of a

European

competition for button accordion. Gambetta’s wife is a baroque dancer

and choreographer. "We appear together sometimes," he says.

"I compose for her, though we have totally different arts."

Now 45, Beppe says he fell in love with bluegrass at

age 18, when he heard the Doc Watson cut on a Newport Folk Festival

album. Absorbing himself in the style, he proceeded to reconstruct

it on his own. His education came at first only from the albums

"Doc

Watson on Stage" and Norman Blake’s "Whiskey before

Breakfast."

He told Kermit B. Pattison of Acoustic Guitar magazine, "For two

years, my whole knowledge was these few albums I learned note for

note, centimeter for centimeter." In the absence of instructional

books, he absorbed the style by ear and careful scrutinized photos

to find out how American guitarists held their picks. (For the

flatpicking

guitar style favored in bluegrass music the guitar strings are plucked

with a pick held in the right hand. For the fingerpicking style the

right hand fingers pluck the strings.)

In 1977 he persuaded three friends to join him in a bluegrass group

named "Red Wine." They all held day jobs, with which they

stayed as Gambetta’s solo career blossomed. One was a surgeon; one,

a lawyer, and one a travel agent.

Consciously developing a style fusing European and American elements,

Gambetta researched European folk music, adding to his knowledge of

the Italian folk tradition. "I found great things in Hungary and

Czechoslovakia," he says. "Gypsy music. I traveled during

Communist times. It was difficult getting behind the red curtain.

Communism didn’t completely wipe out artistic life, but there were

problems. For instance, a band player in Czechoslovakia wrote to

[American

banjo player] Tony Trischka. When the answer to the letter came, the

police delivered it. They wanted to find out why he wrote to an

American."

"Bluegrass music slipped through, though," Gambetta says,

"because the authorities didn’t know it was American. Trischka

was a Czech name. He became very popular. His album was smuggled in

and widely but secretly distributed."

These days Gambetta spreads his European net through week-long guitar

camps in two locations: Gams, in eastern Switzerland, and Ambroz,

north of Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital. "They’re both in

beautiful

settings," he says. "Despite the Swiss reputation for being

stand-offish, the people in Gams are very friendly. Music opens the

mind. People come from nine or ten countries in Europe and America.

It’s joyful. Everyone brings a different culture."

Although at one time Gambetta flirted with electric guitar, he now

plays acoustic guitar exclusively. "I don’t like

amplification,"

he says. "It doesn’t respect the sound of the acoustic guitar.

Acoustic guitar doesn’t have lot of power. But once in the middle

of a concert, I was so unhappy with the amplified sound, I switched

off the power and played without amplification. It was such a joy

for the audience to listen to the sound of the instrument."

Gambetta plays a variety of guitars. His main instrument is a Taylor

810. For traditional Italian music he uses an old "harp"

guitar,

which has an extended neck, and, in addition to the standard six

strings,

eight bass strings without frets that encompass an octave. Sometimes

he uses a German-built Greek bouzouki guitar.

His various instruments can be heard on his CDs. The most recent items

in his discography are "Good News from Home" (1995) and

"Serenata"

(1998). "Good News" is a trip through the ethnic communities

whose music Gambetta has annexed. He is the composer of six of the

eleven tracks on the recording. "Serenata" is a collection

of the dance music popular in Italy at the turn of the 20th century.

He has three recording projects underway at the moment:

A CD with Dan Crary recorded live during the duo’s 2000 European

winter

tour and encompassing a wide range of ethnicities; a recording with

Carlo Aonzo and David Grisman focusing on Italian musicians who

emigrated

to North America; and a solo project, about which he says in print

"My solo album will be a surprise!!!" The exclamation points

are his.

Various guitars appear not only in Gambetta’s recordings, but also

as illustrations in his cookbook "Beppe Cooks." An addicted

lover of food and its preparation, his luggage often includes a

zucchini

slicer and several pounds of chestnut flour. He has cooked for his

concert host John Weingart, who also hosts "Music You Can’t Hear

on the Radio" (Sunday evenings on WPRB radio, 103.3 FM), and who

has been happy with what Gambetta served him. The cookbook consists

of 22 traditional Italian recipes, each with a recommended wine and

a suggestion about what music to listen to while eating the dish.

Gambetta thrives on the Italian tradition in music, in food, and in

his choice of where to live. His home is in Genoa’s large medieval

area. "Unlike Brussels and Milan," he says, "the center

of the city was not destroyed and modernized. Genoa has an even bigger

medieval area than Venice. It has an incredible beauty that needs

to be rediscovered. Musically, I’m rediscovering it through the harp

guitar."

The format of our interview has an Italian quality, fused with an

American flavor. We talk as he waits for the taxi to take him from

his overnight lodging to his first appointment of the morning. Shortly

into the conversation he notes that the taxi has arrived. Then he

observes that it will be fine to let it wait for five minutes. His

behavior echoes Italy, where punctuality is low on the list of virtues

when something meaningful conflicts, as well as the United States,

where shoe-horning in a conversation with a journalist underscores

the belief that time is money. Gambetta is fusion all the way.

— Elaine Strauss

Beppe Gambetta, Delaware River Mill Society,

Prallsville

Mill, Route 29, Stockton, 609-397-9470. The Italian virtuoso guitarist

and singer who combines American bluegrass with traditional and

original

Italian tunes. Reservations. $15 adult; $5 children. Saturday,

October 14, 8 p.m.


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