Interview With Paul Bosauder
By Neill Gordon
Young Kiwi Paul Bosauder thought he was off on a journey to discover his Lebanese roots. Instead, a moment in a Beirut theatre in 2004 ricocheted his life across the globe, to Spain, and a 14-year odyssey mastering the art of flamenco guitar.
As far from his Auckland home as it was possible to be, he pushed through failure and resistance to his cultural gate-crashing, knocking on doors and guitars until after three years he earned a place in the studio of his maestro. And that was just the beginning.
Years of lessons and on the job training accompanying singers and dancers in the flamenco clubs of Barcelona followed.
His simple goal: to hear people say 'el sabe tocar' - he knows how to play. Flamenco aficionados and concertgoers the world over have affirmed that and more but you can judge for yourself when he appears at the Hawke's Bay Arts Festival on October 27.
For the one-off show in Napier's MTG Century Theatre, he will be accompanied by an ensemble of exceptional performers for a night of song, dance, tradition and innovation.
Joining Paul for the Tierra y Mar Flamenco Project are Hastings percussionist Phillip Jones, Auckland cellist Rachel Wells and, depending on Covid restrictions, either Auckland-based dancer Krasna Martinic or Wellington's Jessica Garland, or both.
During his 2020 tour of New Zealand, Paul came to Hawke's Bay to visit his sister, “fell in love with the place” and moved to Napier earlier this year. When not holding a guitar, he is frequently reaching for a surfboard. It was the combination of lifestyle and being closer to family – after being away for 14 years – that won him over.
He wouldn't say it, but today Paul is a maestro himself, driven to bring his art to a wider audience and work with students who comprehend his flamenco obsession.
“I want to be here for a number of years but one of my goals, my real passions, is that at the end of this time there are a handful of good guitarists who've learnt how to play through teaching and that the public starts to realise . . . what it is that is good flamenco. For me, if people can start to understand, what is the essence of this? If they can start to feel things beyond the cliches then that would be super successful.”
Although Paul's father played guitar and his cousin Edrick Corban-Banks was a noted classical guitarist, when Paul left New Zealand in 2004 flamenco wasn't on his radar.
He aimed to discover his ethnic roots and improve his Arabic: “To reconnect with a culture that I'd grown up with second-hand.”
Since 1990 Lebanon had been enjoying peace and growing prosperity and in the early 2000s Beirut was humming.
Paul ended up playing guitar and singing at a renowned hub of world fusion music called MusicHall for producer Michel Elefteriades.
Playing to packed houses of 600 people each night were musicians from all over the world: Palestinians playing traditional instruments, a Cuban pianist, a Romanian guitarist and a Spanish flamenco guitarist, Jose Fernandez.
“When I saw him play, I thought 'Oh my God, you can't do more with a guitar than what that guy's doing; the rhythm, the compás, the expressiveness'.
“The compás is the heartbeat of the music, the pulse of the music. When I heard that I thought I had to investigate further.”
Several months later, on his way home to New Zealand, he stops off in Barcelona and buys a guitar and a book.
I'm sure Paul likes books but when he says this word it thuds on the table in a way that suggests this cheap primer was as useful as a brick in this instance.
But it's all he's got and back home in Auckland he's ready to have a crack at this flamenco thing. “I open my book, first page, ok, Soleá. It's the basic flamenco style that you learn at the very beginning. Page one Soleá, and it says it’s got 12 beats and you're trying to play it with no idea how. It was just impossible. So, I moved to Spain.”
He says it like it was inevitable, like he had no other choice. And for, perhaps, one in a million people, that’s exactly how it is.
Paul says he's not the first Kiwi to tread this path and he won't be the last.
“The last generation before me I'd say there was just one (Kiwi) guitarist before me who understood how to play - really understood - a guy called Darcy (late Taranaki artist Darcy Lange, who in the 1960s studied under flamenco guitar master Diego del Gastor).
“He was a really well-known artist. I never met him because he passed away before I could meet him. There are a lot of people who've gone for a few months and they'd be aficionados (flamenco enthusiasts) but no one I could really learn from. I did a couple of guitar classes and realised there was not the depth. No one I could say who could be my maestro.
“I really wanted to do it well. I was going to do it, or not do it. I was either going to learn how to play properly so anyone who would hear me play, regardless of their own flamenco master, would say 'el sabe tocar' (he knows how to play). That was my goal.”
Back in Barcelona a friend helped him get into a conservatory. While it was a useful stepping stone, Paul quickly realised it wasn't where he would achieve his goals.
“So I started going to the streets, taking my guitar, going to the dance schools, I'd go with the gitanos (gypsies), to play . . . anyone who would be willing to sing, or play or do palmas (rhythmic hand clapping), like a madman for a year.
“Mainly what I did was play in dance schools because that teaches you the rhythm. And I used to get paid to go to the dance schools and play and that was great. That was how I started getting my work because after six months or so the girls said 'hey, we've got a concert coming up do you want to come play for us' and I was like 'Who me?' I did that first concert with them and pretty soon I was doing five or six concerts a week all around Barcelona and I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do this.”
After three years it's 2010 and Paul finds himself auditioning for a government-funded spot at one of Spain's top flamenco conservatories at the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya. Just getting accepted was a real achievement. He graduated with Matricula de Honour in 2016.
“Trying to survive in that world I learnt very quickly it was going to be a mistake to worry what everybody thought about my playing. Initially it was heartbreak, you'd meet some singer and they might not be the nicest people . . . in fact more often than not you're working with people in these clubs and they're not always your friend. I lost a lot of work because I wasn't Spanish. Sure, that happened. But then there were a lot of opportunities that came up from the school where I studied. My maestro, Rafael Cañizares, who was a really well-known maestro supported me.
“There comes a point where, I believe, music is fundamental. If you sit down and play and are able to communicate something to the people who are listening to you . . . if you can show that you can understand the palos (styles), not in your head but you understand it with your heart. If I, for example, pick up the guitar and play palo Soleá, that first style, and they feel they want to sing, they can't help it. And that's what I learnt, if I learnt how to create the environment, then I would have work. I struggled with lots of things in flamenco – but never with understanding the feeling of flamenco, with understanding the essence of what I want to say. I always understood what it was, I always connected with the feeling of each style and I was always able to communicate that feeling to the people around me.”
Paul says that through all his successes and failures it was this that got him through – his heartfelt connection to the music and his ability to transmit that connection to his audience.
Next month's Napier concert will include both very traditional aspects and some of Paul's own compositions.
When composing, he finds the rules of flamenco are a creative spur.
“If I write a composition in Siguiriyas (style) that will tell me a lot of things about the rhythm, it will give me a structure in terms of the harmony I can use, sort of motifs I can work with but then beyond that it’s up to my creativity to work within those bounds and I find it freeing, it’s almost easier to be creative that way, the more bounds I have. The scariest thing for me is a white piece of paper with no rules on it but when you've got that framework within a style it creates the opportunity to really innovate.
Like a poet sticking to a traditional form, it seems Paul is as constrained by rules only as much as Shakespeare was by iambic pentameter.
The depth and breadth of flamenco have perhaps been lost in its use in tourism promotion cliches along with bullfighting, red wine and cold cerveza.
There are sixty-plus flamenco styles, some with specific regional roots, and each style differs depending on the context, whether it is being played to accompany song or dance for example. There are styles which are tragic, humorous styles, styles for heartbreak and everything else under the sun.
Carried away by a performing frenzy, the dancer and the singer can suddenly break off in a new direction. The guitarist has to follow the dancer’s beat and the singer’s improvisation while improvising as well. Miss a chord change, drop a beat, and an audience of aficionados can politely drop you too.
Even after a decade's study there is still so much to learn.
“Flamenco is one of those things where you're forever going to be a student. I don't have a maestro anymore. After all this time, I've got my own process and I generally tend to be my own maestro to myself. I think you'll always be a student and always be surprised by what other people produce in this music. That's very exciting when you see someone doing something amazing and then perhaps go away and work out what that is, try to understand it for yourself.”
While flamenco may be complex to perform, the audience need not worry about anything but enjoying themselves, Paul says.
“I would love people to come to the concert, to hear it, and just feel like it was easy and be drawn away to some other place. That's the experience we're offering, the opportunity for people to travel with us back to the south of Spain.
“People can get up and dance if they want to, they can do what they like, they can ole if they want to. It’s one of those funny things, the cliché of ole. When someone does something musically that just sticks a knife in your gut (in a good way) and just turns it (still in a good way) you've got to respond, it’s just something beautiful and people in Spain feel free to express that. In the theatre here it's not that common, you get the occasional keen bee who’s keen to let one go. There'll be Spanish people in the audience too for sure.
“This show is a great opportunity to experience something you're not going to be able to find every month, or every year. Come with an open mind and an open heart because I'm going to bringing some of the most talented people I can find to be on stage in Hawke’s Bay and it’s going to be a one-off. We'll be up there with our heart, soul and mind aligned to try and create a moment on that stage for everybody.”
Tierra y Mar Flamenco Project, Wednesday October 27, MTG Theatre, Napier and Friday October 29, Toitoi Hastings