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
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,
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
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
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
Watson on Stage" and Norman Blake’s "Whiskey before
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
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
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
"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
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
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"
which has an extended neck, and, in addition to the standard six
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
(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
tour and encompassing a wide range of ethnicities; a recording with
Carlo Aonzo and David Grisman focusing on Italian musicians who
to North America; and a solo project, about which he says in print
"My solo album will be a surprise!!!" The exclamation points
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
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
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
Mill, Route 29, Stockton, 609-397-9470. The Italian virtuoso guitarist
and singer who combines American bluegrass with traditional and
Italian tunes. Reservations. $15 adult; $5 children. Saturday,
October 14, 8 p.m.
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