Colombian Classical guitarist
Ricardo Cobo is considered one of the leading guitarists of his generation. He gave his debut in Botota at the age of seventeen, and has since taken the guitar world by storm. Born in the City of Cali, Colombia, Ricardo Cobo is the son of Lebanese immigrants who came to the Americas looking for a new life
In this interview with Guitarra Magazine, Ricardo Cobo shares his views about the guitar, where it is, where is going to and also gives us a brief insight about future projects.
GUITARRA MAGAZINE: Coming from Colombia, a culture so different from that of the U.S., how did you become interested in the classical guitar?
RICARDO COBO: Before I played guitar, I was already immersed in the piano by the time I was six years old. My mother, a terrific pianist, loved music and instilled in me a fascination for music as far back as I can remember. Colombia’s “culture” was quite different when I was growing up. It was more deeply rooted in European and Iberian traditions than American culture. Hence, the only existing music schools or conservatories were patterned after traditional European-French models complete with solfège, theory, ensemble, and lots of one-to-one lessons. In addition to my studies in the Conservatory, I was also attending a bilingual high school, which had no real music program.
In Colombia however, the environment was quite tropical. “Serious” music was constantly competing and mixing with native and regional music, which really dominated the airwaves. Cali, after all, was called “the capital of salsa”. The wealth of regional music included cumbia, vallenato, musica del llano, traditional trio, tango viejo, trova cubana, and a fascinating diversity of native instrumental and vocal songbooks. The guitar was a central player in this melting pot, but it had never become a solo instrument per se.
GM: Whom did you study with before moving to the U.S.?
RC: My first guitar teacher was Alvaro Ramirez Alvarez, a guitarist/arranger and composer who still lives in Cali. He taught me the ropes of basic flamenco rhythm and picado when I was about 7. I studied theory, arranging, and ensemble with Ciceron Marmolejo, a very colorful musician and arranger who was well known in the Cali “ambiente bohemio”. Simultaneously, I enrolled in the City music Conservatory and worked with Luis Alfonso Castillo, a talented guitarist who spent many years studying in Spain, Germany and Holland. I was deeply involved with guitar methods and traditional repertory during this time. I also worked privately and in many classes with the late Abel Carlevaro and Miguel Angel Guirollet. All in all, this ten-year stretch was a very rich and unique period of lessons for me. I remember it fondly.
GM: What is the future of classical music in Colombia? Does the political struggle of the country directly affect the development of the arts?
RC:Many people ask the same question about classical music in America. I think the future is uncertain for “classical” music in general, but that is a discussion for another time. Colombia’s political and social struggle has affected and dramatically altered the direction and long-term survival of classical arts. Colombia has a central Ministry of Culture, which distributes moneys for arts organizations. Traditionally, orchestras, conservatories and museums are supported and run by the state, which places individuals from the governing parties in power; often, individuals who have limited or no musical training in the arts or arts management.
In addition, Colombia’s very bloody war on terrorism has taxed the country to such a degree that any arts-sponsored entity has undoubtedly felt a serious loss in funding across the board. Our current president continues to raise taxes to fight the guerillas, and the citizenry has felt these tough demands. As you know, Colombia battles for survival in a continuous state of emergency, and the arts are the first casualties of war. It has taken miraculous self-sacrifice and personal courage for individuals who love the arts to stay alive and work in Colombia today. On the other hand, there are more college students today (such as yourself) who study applied music and pursue postgraduate study than at any other time in history. This surge in interest and awareness can only be good for the future of music in Colombia.
GM: Is there anything in particular that we can do in order to promote the growth of classical guitar, not only in South America but in a global fashion?
RC: I think the guitar is in a uniquely positive place at the beginning of this millennium. The music industry is having serious growing pains keeping up with the wild frontier of the digital era. I think guitar has to move out of its “classical” box in order for it to participate more fully in the mainstream. I realize this idea may not jibe with many traditional classical players, but I think it’s time people realize they have to embrace the wild variety of music from around the planet and present it to the public with the same conviction and level of excellence as the brightest stars in the classical world have done all along. There are far too many “career guitarists” today trying to squeeze into a shrinking box of vanishing venues. There are dozens of chops-driven, cookie-cutter young bloods who play for each other in the same festivals and competitions and criticize each other to oblivion. This insular and self-perpetuating environment may exist in academia but has no meaning to the public at large. While this multiplicity of talent is exciting and fun to witness, I believe true musical creativity and adaptability far outside of this box will rule the day.
GM: Why did you choose to move to the US in particular?
RC: I came to the United States over twenty years ago to go to college; in particular, to study with Aaron Shearer and later with Bruce Holzman. I felt the U.S. offered the most advanced and comprehensive training for a musician, not just in classical music. As for my teachers in the U.S., I was looking for a proven pedagogue, not necessarily a player whom I wanted to emulate. Often, the greatest teachers are not well-known players themselves but possess the rich experience of working with many uniquely talented musicians.
GM: How was the experience of studying with two of the world’s leading pedagogues, maestros Aaron Shearer and Bruce Holzman?
RC: My experience with these two marvelous and different teachers was life-changing, profoundly enlightening, and rewarding well into my professional career. I was fortunate to meet Shearer at a time when he was completely devoted to his teaching and writing. He was easily the most generous, articulate, pragmatic, and consistently challenging teacher I had met. His deep knowledge of the guitar and how it worked is daunting. His method and the bar he set were unyielding and exhaustive. He was a true guru or “Yoda” in his field. Regardless of the criticism you may hear, this man was the genuine article, and passionate about his work to boot.
When I worked with Holzman, he too was completely devoted to his students and present in countless ways. I believe I was the first “Shearer school” player to cross lines to study with Holzman. I can tell you I had a blast making music during my lessons. He was the most meticulous, fastidious, and analytical coach I had ever encountered. I grew enormously as musician and performer at FSU. I am deeply grateful to Bruce in every regard.
GM: Please tell us about your experience living in New York City in contrast with life in other US cities. Is there a larger demand for the classical guitar there?
RC: I moved to NYC in 1990 after competing intensely for years and finishing doctoral work at FSU. I had lived in the lazy heat of the Deep South for 5 healthy and productive years. Tallahassee was a wonderful and peaceful place to train, practice and study. I always felt that if I had a choice, I would like to live in NY because of the demand and level of classical music in general (I was young and naive, after all). It would be difficult not to express excitement and fascination with a city which had become synonymous with the best and the brightest in the arts. That is no longer the case, of course, and NYC for all of its greatness is also one of the most difficult, complex, expensive, cynical, unhealthy and neurotic cities in the U.S. I really don’t think there is more demand for classical guitar there currently. If anything, there is less opportunity and infinitely more competition at every level of music. NYC has always had a love-hate dynamic with everyone who lives and works there.
I lived in a brownstone in Hell’s Kitchen for nearly ten years. I recorded for different labels in the city, toured non-stop, arranged and recorded jingles and commercial spots, performed locally, taught privately, and made a very lucrative and successful career on my own terms. But it came at a price–personal, physical and financial. I wanted to disconnect and take a breather to pursue other interests and regain my quality of life. I moved to Las Vegas shortly before 2000, and I wouldn’t move back for all the money in Wall Street.
GM: Are you presently teaching through the University of Nevada, Las Vegas? How are your students coming along?
RC: I have one graduate student enrolled at UNLV this year. To be honest, institutional teaching has been less than rewarding both financially and personally for me. In order to build a department realistically anywhere and devote heart and mind to teaching, one would have to reduce performing and recording substantially as well as deal with a tsunami of university politics and red tape for surprisingly little money. This, I’m not ready to do. I have far too many interests beyond the guitar to justify working in this environment full-time.
I much prefer teaching privately and on my own terms. I have many out-of-town students who commute and several professional players who work with me regularly. My private students in Las Vegas are a joy and have been with me for several years now.
GM: Please tell us about the new recordings that you did recently. Will they be released anytime soon?
RC: I’m currently recording for commercial projects and a variety of high-end instrumental mixes. As for my guitar recordings, NAXOS, with whom I’ve worked in the past (Brouwer-Guitar Music Vol.1), has released my new CD of Latin American standards for solo guitar this fall (CD# 8.5573.29) . I’ve also just recorded another CD of guitar and flute music with Alexandra Hawley for release next year, and I’ll record another CD of traditional South American classics in January for a summer release. The latter will be available at: buythiscd.com
GM: What are your future plans and projects?
RC: Recording takes an enormous amount of time, energy, detailed labor and constant reassessment. I’m dedicating a lot of time to recording and producing in ’04. I’m working on an interesting mix of traditional classical chamber music CDs of Paganini, Beethoven and Bocherini and also arranging and producing a program for a mixed Middle Eastern CD where I play oud, guitar and requinto. Later in the year I’ll record another Latin CD of Colombian and Venezuelan solo music. In a slightly different focus, we are also organizing the first Las Vegas classical guitar and fitness camp for next fall. In the meantime, I’d like to climb Telescope Peak(11,100ft), ride the 67-mile salt-flats track in Death Valley, and ride the 27-mile Arches trail in Moab as well as ride 100 mi. in next year’s “Tour de Tucson”. Other than that, good wine, good friends and lots of practicing and hiking.
Did You Know?
Ricardo Cobo lives in Las Vegas!
Ricardo Cobo Recordings
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