There’s a good reason that Pierre Bensusan, the French–Algerian guitarist scheduled to play at Barking Legs Theatre on Thursday, May 17, remains in relative obscurity despite his reputation among guitar aficionados as one of the world’s top players. Shaped by that brief, shining moment in the late 1960s when musicians privileged strong values, tolerance, and music over money and fame, Bensusan, 54, is still the idealistic 14-year-old who fashioned from Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline a model for his own idiosyncratic artistic path.
Dylan has, of course, served as a muse for thousands of singer-songwriters. What sets Bensusan’s 40-year career apart is his refusal to allow the business of music to interfere with the ideals that originally informed and inspired it.
Growing up in Paris, Bensusan started playing piano and studying classical music at age 7 and within a few years began teaching himself to play the guitar. It was slow going at first, but then he discovered English guitarists Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. “I heard Jansch and Renbourn when I was about 14,” he said. “They made the guitar sing in a very different, romantic, sensual way. It was elegant, striking, but never flashy, meaningful and original. And yet they carried that sense of baroque and medieval that has always touched me.”
Graham, in particular, proved a potent influence on young Bensusan. Widely credited with having developed the DADGAD (pronounced “dad-gad”) tuning method on the guitar, Graham had spent time in the early ’60s in North Africa. After returning to England, he began to try to replicate the music he’d heard in Morocco on his guitar. The Moroccan oud looks like a lute, but sounds like a high-pitched guitar with a couple of droning bass strings. It’s a bit like a stringed version of the Scottish bagpipes. Graham approximated that sound by tuning down his lowest and two highest guitar strings. Jansch later used the tuning for his arrangement of the Irish folk song, “Black Waterside,” famously re-recorded by Jimmy Page on the first Led Zeppelin album as “Black Mountainside.”
“I consider this instrument like a little orchestra,” Bensusan said of his technique in an interview in Guitar Messenger last year. “I cannot play everything, but I can suggest that some of those things are there.” And singing gives him “two extra strings,” as he put it.
With his light tenor, Bensusan sometimes sings a lyric (usually in French) and at other times scats, adding a wordless vocal line reminiscent of George Benson that complements his guitar. On other occasions he sounds more like Bobby McFerrin, as in the song (purportedly about his dog, Garlic) “Le Chien Qui Tourne,” from his most recent album, Vividly.
For Bensusan, music is both a spiritual and an emotional form of expression, and no divide exists between voice and guitar. Moreover, the combination of guitar and singing actually creates a third instrument.
“I like to look at the guitar part behind a voicing that would help the voice and the text to carry another voicing, but also to not be in the way of whatever qualities are vehicled by the voice,” he said in an email.
Although Bensusan claims both Dylan and Donovan as early influences, he seems to have more in common with Donovan in his use of the voice as an instrument. His gentle, romantic ballad, “Par un Beau Soir de Dimanche,” for instance, hardly requires a literal translation to understand or appreciate.
Bensusan is refreshingly dismissive of his famous fingerstyle technique.
“You need to train your physical tool so that you can let the music use you and shine through you,” he said. “For me, technique is transparent, fluid, effortless. It should not be distracting, never in the way. It should just let the music speak.”
7:30 Thursday, May 17
Barking Legs Theatre
1307 Dodds Ave. (423) 624-5347