To this day and after having lived in Madrid for over 16 years, the streets of this stately city still play the entire repertoire to me. From the vihuela to Tarantas, from Albeniz to Mompou. I could never ever even say the “Classical “ repertoire exclusively. I love how there is just the “Guitarra Española” here and that’s all! Not the “Classical Guitar” as it is known abroad, for some lines are better off blurry in their mystique and beauty and Spanish people know this! And, as once succinctly stated by luthier Pepe Romero Junior in agreement with his legendary father, a great guitar is one that you feel you could play classical or flamenco on (among other things!) I wholeheartedly have always shared this bias and guitars that don’t speak to me in this exact way, simply aren’t my friends.
The Contreras design brilliantly married time – tested innovation and tradition in perfect measure and simply stated, placed aesthetic bullseyes in my lap more than once.
Above all, the faithful velvety tonal palette that the Contreras guitar has provided me has been my “ Go To” source when inspiration has struck.
So here is my 2 cent Contreras story – mi grano de arena– as they say.
I simply hope to tell it with the utmost fondness, respect and humility.
During the Semana Santa of 1993 Danny, my guitar duo partner, and I were about to play our debut recital, which would consist of some solos and a duo arrangement of the third Bach French Suite by Jack Duarte. Danny and I had met while studying with the late great Julio Prol, a Gallego, a founding member of the New York City Classical Guitar Society in the 1950’s and real pupil of Segovia for over 10 years. Julio was New York’s Jose Tomas and the only one who sounded like Segovia to which many have attested.
At that time, I was a young obsessed newly sober guitar monk working as little as possible in a posh French restaurant as a waiter and actively trying to call in sick as much as possible to catch all the great guitar concerts going on in NYC at that time.
I saw all the greats and have the moments catalogued in my musical lexicon of concerts. You name the player, and if he or she passed through New York between 1984 and 2004 chances are I saw them and heard many great works premiered. A great existence!
Anyway, on a Sunday night that Danny and I would normally have practiced our duo in my barren kitchen, we took the night off to see the Assad brothers perform.
Danny showed up earlier than usual saying he needed to talk to me.
He starts in his heavy Queens accent: “Hey Mac ( R removed for effect ) If money weren’t an issue, were would you go to buy a guitar?”
I said Madrid of course!
Without batting an eyelash he said: “We’re going!”
Danny was a good friend, a mentor to me and a man of great integrity. He was also the local High School principal.
I was a self-imposed bohemian scraping by with no regrets whatsoever.
Then he said: “ I know you’re going to say no because of the money”.
He changed to a “tongue in cheek” tone of voice and said: “ You have to understand me my friend. I’m in a real bind here and need your expertise. I can’t possibly play OUR debut recital on this cracked laminated Takamine! It sounds like it’s made of cardboard next to your 1970 Ramirez 1A ! “ (pre Alberto Valdez Blain guitarra).
He rubbed it in even more half jokingly by saying: “I’m not even blessed with half the ears you have! I need my first concert guitar and I am depending on you!”. Then he bought my ticket!
He chuckled and said: “Now you understand this Marc, this is a job for you, got it? You will have to hit all the streets of Madrid with your spanish and listen to every guitar in my price range and give me your opinions”. This was only sheer ecstasy for someone like me and, as a good friend, he knew exactly what he was doing, just as he knew how much I just couldn’t afford vacations in those days.
Once we had our flight dates, Julio, our teacher, outlined the history of the Madrid school of guitar making explaining the significance of Ramirez and its various “oficiales” who branched out to develop their own voices. He also was sure to mention culinary delicacies as he knew how much of a “Foodie” I was.
The big day finally came and we arrived to our hostal on Calle Arenal early.
We got a jump on a few guitar shops that morning – Ramirez, Bernabé and Rozas and then thought to take a nap when the jet lag started to kick in.
At 2:00 pm, in inocente “Guiri Mode”, but without the white socks under sandals and Bermuda shorts, we set off again on our treasure hunt to find Contreras!
Just the pictures I’d seen over the years of their emblemic headstock design in magazines and on CD covers had peaked my curiosity!
The sun at 2:00PM gleamed down Calle Mayor, but could never be strong enough to deter our excitement after a few robust cortados!
We passed the Rozas shop again, but didn’t seem to find the Contreras shop. Any closer, it would have bitten our noses off! I blamed it on jet lag!
There was no one in the streets now except for an elderly man walking toward us. Armed with my 10 Spanish verbs left over from Don García’s freshman high school Spanish class, I mustered up the courage to speak to the man. He was our only hope and remember, I was technically working!
I said: “Señor”… or actually it probably came out as Signore.
“Signore, Venir New York, Buscar Contreras Guitarras!”
Torero! I thought !
We had a great stroke of luck, mind you as this was before google maps and the internet. The man was in fact Manuel Contreras himself!
He just smiled sensing our overflowing enthusiasm and gestured for us to follow him into his sanctuary. Danny and I looked at each other as we thought that this private showing, in this way, during closing hours would have never happened in New York City.
The built in showcases housed Contreras’ gems and the walls oozed of the international acclaim he had acquired over the decades.
Still shaking in our boots, we watched Manuel place a phone call. Within minutes the ever so empathetic eyes of Vicky entered the room! She was the most gracious, soft-spoken, classy soul – a godsend for us who spoke great English and even greater guitar!
We explained our little mission to Vicky and without delay, she opened up the little private audition room they had just past the showroom. She must have pulled out more than a half a dozen guitars for us to savor!
True to this day, she was so tactful- I think she realized just how far over our heads we were there sitting in that world renowned firm. She just insisted that we take all the time we needed . She really meant it and closed the door to let us play!
What a treat it was for us budding guitarists to meet Manuel and Vicky as our first spanish Friends! I consider Vicky my Spanish sister today.
As circumstances would have it for me, in time I would not be able to continue playing classical music the way I used to and had subsequently lost the obsession and personal connection for it, which I believe is fundamental to performing this art form well. Nonetheless, my love for the Spanish guitar as a concert goer never left me!
I did feel that I was invariably going to give up playing though due to the circumstances I’d found myself in. My wonderful brother Tom, former electric bass player with the legendary Tom Jones, gingerly suggested that I try learning to sing, write simple songs about my life stories and try to use the guitar in a different way. I wasn’t convinced, still depressed from the thought that I’d never “Chaconnear“ or “Regondear “ well again. How’s that for Spanglish?
Then on the sad night I attended the very moving memorial service for our beloved Pablo Contreras, my first spanish brother taken way before his time, the larger than life spirit of the great David Broza soothed our pain as he played his song “Estuve Aquí”.
He brought the house down as they say and moved the energy!
I don’t remember being so moved as David with his passionate voice, armed with his trusty black Contreras, seemed to usher our Pablo safely to his eternal resting place, and simultaneously plant the seed for my new journey as a singer songwriter.
I think it was a sign that the time was right for me to change . The moment also brought back some of Pablo’s immortal ironic words to me that I still cherish to this day. Once while discussing music with Pablo he said to me in his beautiful Drop D baritone voice (la sexta cuerda a Re), “Marc, I hate anything that smells like conservatory”.
I laughed so hard and knew I’d never let him down there!
I have owned 4 Contreras guitars and I think I can say for all of us in this international family, our guitars are like the belts we need to wear and we feel vulnerable or naked when they’re not on us.
It has been nothing short of a great honor to meet Marina Contreras too and be taken in by these great people in Madrid !
My fondest regards,