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In his first visit to Mexico, Carlos Bonell describes his impressions of the country, the people, the guitarists and the Festival of Mérida Yucatán. Carlos was born in London of Spanish parents, and both his playing and his observations reflect that mixture of cultures, or, as he puts it himself, of being "mixed up!"

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He was a handsome and distinguished-looking man, intensely artistic, and on the cusp of a brilliant international career. His name was Eduardo Mata, the finest Mexican conductor of his generation. After the recording he smiled and said "you must come to Mexico". The venue was the BBC studio in Delaware Road, London, and we had just finished my first BBC recording of Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto. The year was 1976.

I did go to Mexico, but not until 2003, 27 years later! When I landed in that great country, I remembered the words of Eduardo Mata, so tragically killed in an aeroplane crash not long after the recording, and thought, well, here I am.

I had been invited to play and teach at the Mérida Yucatán Guitar Festival in November, an event directed by the courteous and gifted guitarist Manuel Rubio, organised by the Guitar Foundation of America, and supported by organisations including the Univeridad Autonoma de Yucatán, the D'Addario Foundation, Savarez, and many others.

I did not know what to expect. Was it to be a dedicated Festival, in a small town, relying for its audience on a local enthusiastic population? It was clear, as I was driven into Merida from the airport, that this was not the case. Here was a large sprawling town, vibrant with young people from the university, and older folk with long memories of the changes and history of a town whose origins go back to the pre-Aztec Mayan Civilization.

The Hotel Maison Lafitte was in the heart of Mérida, where the Spanish conquistadores had built their huge, single-storey houses, from their arrival in the 16th century. Although not particularly imposing from the outside, inside they reveal large courtyards with palm trees, fountains, and room with wooden-beamed ceilings 5 metres high, cleverly designed to encourage cooling breezes during the long months of hot weather. The Spanish architectural influence is everywhere to be seen throughout Latin America, always with those splendid courtyards and fountains.

Sunday in down-town Mérida

After the long flight from London via Mexico City, I woke up the next day feeling quite refreshed. The hotel served what I imagined to be a typical local breakfast in an open patio area. And on enquiry, so it proved to be. But the next day, and the day after that, different dishes appeared at the breakfast table, and so I bestowed upon the hotel the distinction, of being unique, in my experience, in providing a varied breakfast menu each day.

It was Sunday, 9th November, and it was already hot. Immediately opposite the hotel there was a scene strangely reminiscent of a car boot sale in London. Market stalls had filled the square selling clothes, artesan jewellery, old rusty knick-knacks from house clearances, and some photographs dating back nearly 100 years.

"Where was this taken?" I asked the stall-holder, pointing to a black and white photo of about a dozen women, mostly dressed in white lace, posing without smiles, in front of a large house, some good-looking, some young, and some not so young.

"That was taken in the 1920's here in Mérida", was the reply, "in front of the bordello where they worked".

The market began to fill with the sound of tourists from the USA, from the UK, from other parts of Latin America, and with local people. I left the market, and walked along the straight avenue, passing car rental firms, bars serving local savouries, and within a couple of minutes found myself staring at myself on a huge poster outside the main theatre. There too, was the smiling face of my old teacher John Williams, and also Alvaro Pierri, Wolfgang Lendle and Pavel Steidl.

I walked five blocks down a side street, past some sadly neglected colonial houses, reached the Plaza Mejorada, and found a massive restaurant, Los Almendros, under a glass roof, with waiters in red uniforms. An elegantly dressed old gentleman, walked slowly around the tables, chatting in a familiar manner to the waiters. "Must be the owner" I thought. Eventually he stood next to a keyboard player and a saxophonist in their '60's who were playing Frank Sinatra tunes, picked up an electric bass, and launched into a Salsa tune with them.

At the break, someone thrust a Festival brochure into my hand, and then I realised, this is a huge festival

My first class with the students was scheduled for Monday morning at 10.00am. When I turned up at the University course centre, almost opposite the theatre with the posters, I saw about 100 people in a crush outside the office. In the courtyard area, some students were playing guitars, some sitting on the ground. The crush took the organisers by surprise, for some 200 students had turned up from all over the world, although mostly from Mexico and the USA. Local journalists came to the scene, asking me for impromptu interviews :

"What is your impression of Mérida, the Guitar Festival, of Mexican folk music, of the level of playing here?" Hang on, I thought, I have only just arrived, and we haven't started yet!

Once my class got going, a large audience, and some nervous, but talented students turned up. I discussed tone production, playing in time, style and phrasing - subjects which keep on recurring wherever I go. At the break, someone thrust a Festival brochure into my hand, and then I realised, this is a huge festival. The brochure outlined 13 recitals, 17 master classes, 3 lectures, and a major International Competition.

Among the artists listed there were some old friends including John Williams. My association with him goes back to student days, when he was my teacher at the Royal College of Music in London. After that I was privileged to play many concerts with him and to record the first John Williams and Friends album. Also there was Richard Stover, with whom I had already shared many pleasant moments over the previous years in Festivals in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. And here too was Carlos Bernal, thoughtful, considerate and generous in all his words and deeds, whom I had first met in the Velez Malaga Festival, Spain in 2002.

In the late afternoon, I decided to do some practise for my concert the next day, and became so immersed, that to my great regret missed Alvaro Pierri´s recital, variously described by members of the audience as elegant, poetic and imaginative. As surprising as it may seem, one of the hardest things to do during Festivals, is to find the time to practise, such are the demands of teaching, meetings, and interviews. And so I missed Alvaro Pierri's recital, but did catch Carlos Bernal the next day in an extraordinarily intense programme, which included Brouwer´s Sonata and Tippett´s The Blue Guitar. Carlos played with enormous charm and lyricism, gracefully jumping the many musical and technical hurdles of these landmark works.

I woke up on Tuesday feeling strangely uneasy

Here I was in Mexico for the first time, playing to a crowd, which included not only 200 guitar students, but also to a distinguished range of guitarists. "How can I allow myself to be nervous after so many years of giving concerts?" I said to myself. But I was. So I put into effect the advice I always give others: slow, quiet practise. I repeated many times all the passages, which felt least secure. I focused for long minutes on the atmosphere I wished to create in concert. I paced up and down my hotel room, thinking of the sound, the phrasing, the ambience of each piece. I planned at which points I would speak to the audience, and what I would say, in English and in Spanish.

I arrived at the theatre an hour or so before the concert and saw John Williams, relaxed and happy, just arrived from Mexico City. He immediately put me at my ease, helping with the amplification in the large theatre.

As the concert started I gradually eased into my stride, concentrating on the music, and projecting the moods as clearly as I could. I had decided to play my Millennium Guitar: the first 1000 years programme which starts with a 1050 Mozarabic Chant and includes my tribute to the Spanish poet and musician Federico Garcia Lorca, containing music directly linked to him. I decided to end the concert with In Evangelium by the 12th century composer Hildegard von Bingen, which is always slightly risky, since it is a quiet, intense monodic chant, but which completes the musical circle of my programme. My first encore was an imaginary musical encounter of my own devising between Hildegard and the Shakespearean clown Kempe (as in John Dowland's Kempe's Gig). This is a semi-improvised piece, in a rather tongue-in-cheek style, which I have sometimes played to break the rather sombre mood of In Evangelium. I am rarely completely happy with my concerts, and this was no exception, but it was OK.

After the concert we all went out for a meal, where I was able to renew my acquaintance with Matanya Ophée, who is much more good-humoured and friendly than some of his polemical articles would suggest!

If the world could reflect the warmth of the Mérida Festival, then indeed, there would be no more hatred

On the next day I had had the good fortune to hear Richard Stover´s carefully researched lecture on the life and music of Agustin Barrios to celebrate the launch of his massive new anthology of Barrios music for Mel Bay Publications. Richard also sings and plays Latin American folk music with passion and flair, which he does at the drop of a hat, much to everyone´s delight, wherever he happens to be, in hotel lobbies, around a restaurant table, and of course, in concert halls!

Carlos Bonell presents to Alirio Diaz the new recording of John Williams dedicated to him

In the evening I heard Wolfgang Lendle in concert for the first time. He presented an interesting programme alternating Scarlatti Sonatas with Turina works in the first part. In the second part the highlight was a complete reworking of Paganini´s Grand Sonata, in an astonishing display of virtuosity and invention.

Thursday was sadly my last day in Mérida, since I had to move on to a concert in Caracas, Venezuela. And so I missed concerts by Pavel Steidl and by John Williams. By all accounts, Pavel´s was an extraordinary event, and John Williams lived up to, and excelled, all the enormous expectations of this, his first concert in Mexico for 25 years.

In the morning I acted as interpreter for John in a radio interview which, interestingly, focused more on his philosophy of life rather than his music. In response to the question "what would you most change in the world?" his answer was

"Hatred - The hatred due to ethnic and religious intolerance." He proceeded to expand on this concept articulately and movingly.

If the world could reflect some of the cohesiveness, warmth, and positive outlooks of the Mérida Festival, then indeed, there would be no more hatred. Hundreds of guitarists and townspeople gathered together to celebrate music by performers from all over the world, playing in all sorts of styles and genres.

As I parted from John Williams he asked me to deliver a copy of his wonderful new CD of Venezuelan music El Diablo Suelto, to his old teacher the great Venezuelan guitarist Alirio Diaz. Much of the CD includes arrangements by Diaz. And so I did, eventually catching up with Alirio Diaz at the Lauro Festival in Táchira, Venezuela. Another circle had been completed: I, a student of John Williams, in turn a student of Alirio Diaz, had delivered to the old maestro in his 80th year, a CD dedicated to him.

As my plane departed for Venezuela, flying over the huge expanse of Mexico City, I remembered the words of Eduardo Mata "you must come to Mexico". A long journey, which had first been suggested in London 27 years previously, had taken me to that country, and beyond, to another magical country, Venezuela.

But that´s another story.

Copyright Carlos Bonell 2003