French-Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan is a unique and fascinating player. After cutting his teeth in bluegrass bands, he switched from mandolin to acoustic guitar, adopted the DADGAD modal tuning as his “standard” tuning, and began a long musical journey. Along the way, his dizzying technique and boundless musical scope have proven that almost anything that can be imagined can be played on the guitar.
After releasing a handful of albums on Rounder Records and Favored Nations in the late 70’s and into the 80’s, Bensusan set about purchasing back his master tapes, and started his own label, DADGAD Records. Now, to mark the 35th anniversary of his career in music, Bensusan is releasing a box set of his entire recorded output : Complete Works, 1975-2010.
…and what a body of work it is! Bensusan’s first few albums (the classic Pres De Paris, 2 and Musiques) found inspiration in the folk music of the British Isles and France, with the young Pierre steadily expanding on the instrumental innovations of Brit-folk revival giants like Martin Carthy and Davy Graham. Bensusan also proved himself an exceptional interpreter of Irish melodies, as evidenced in one of his most popular pieces, “Merrily Kissed The Quaker”. This track shows Bensusan’s agility on the instrument, effortlessly adding ornament in every voice of the chord, including the bassline.
As time went on, the sound that Bensusan developed drew from many sources… classical, folk, world, new-age and rock ideas were seamlessly fused together and played in his singular, elegant style. The guitarist began restlessly experimenting with both sonics and song structure, adding a variety of tone-altering effects to color the sound of his Lowden acoustic, as well as a phrase sampler so that passages could be looped, layered and improvised over. These techniques can be heard on the atmospheric Intuité and Altiplanos albums, as well as on Spices, which features Pierre bouncing ideas off of a group of world-jazz musicians.
Though the box is attractively designed, the price of the collection (99,90 Euros, roughly $150 USD) might be a little prohibitive. There is no new material on offer, and for the most part all of these albums are still available, with the few out-of-print titles coming up regularly on sites like Ebay. (UPDATE — according to DADGAD Records, the discs Wu-Wei and A la Carte both contain bonus tracks. Also worth noting, there will soon be a US manufactured box, which should retail for closer to $120 USD + shipping!) I think this package will appeal mostly to collectors, gift-givers with a guitarist in their lives, and perhaps those hoping to replace original vinyl records. Don’t let me discourage you, though… Pierre Bensusan’s music is an absolute treasure, and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in folk music, world music or the acoustic guitar. I’m frankly stunned that so many of the younger guitar players that I talk to these days have yet to discover Bensusan’s work. Hopefully that will start to change with the release of Complete Works and with the upcoming new documentary about Bensusan, entitled Strings Without Borders.
The feature-length film is being directed by Roger Sherman, of Florentine Films. The work is currently in production, and fans and supporters can donate to the project here. Donors who give in excess of $100 will be featured in the film’s closing credits. From the selected preview scenes featured below, it looks like it’s going to be a great documentary!
Vodpod videos no longer available.
When a release date is announced, I’m hoping to talk to both Pierre and Roger Sherman about the film. In the meantime, to learn even more about Pierre Bensusan, I highly recommend this interview, conducted by Todd Ellison. For guitarists, there is also The Guitar Book, Bensusan’s thoughtfully prepared printed collection of (challenging) sheet music, tablature, recipes, poetry and philosophies about life and music.