Why is it that one of Latin music’s true virtuosos – an acknowledged master of his instrument for over forty years – has never made his own album until now? “There were some previous opportunities,” says Francisco Pancho Navarro, the Argentine-born, New York-based guitarist. “But I think this was the right time to do it.”
Sweet Guitar shines an overdue spotlight on an artist who has spent most of his career enhancing the work of others. Maybe you heard him playing throughout Elliot Goldenthal’s Oscar-winning soundtrack for Frida, or accompanying Plácido Domingo in a recording of Die Fledermaus made in 2003 at the Washington Opera. The Rolling Stones used Navarro on a 2006 remake of “I’m Free,” their early single; Paulina Rubio (“Perros”), Cristian Castro, Victor Jara, Celia Cruz, and Armando Manzanero sang to his backing. “I always worked with my guitar to make my ends meet but I’ve been fortunate to meet the right people in show business,” he explains modestly.
Pancho, as he’s commonly known, can equal any of them. Out of his fingers comes an orchestral array of string and percussive sounds; a rhythmic and harmonic flair that few jazz musicians can equal; an elegance born of years of classical study; an arranger’s sense of architecture; and a wealth of beauty, feeling, and wit. Sweet Guitar is a diary of the music that shaped him, gathered in his lifelong travels through South America. "The way I play my guitar comes from absorbing the different styles and colors of our Latin American culture and blending them with my style of performing classical music,” he says.
It’s an approach that endeared him to Soundbrush Records founder Roger Davidson, a fearlessly adventurous composer and pianist with a special affinity for Latin music. He and Pancho played together on Roger’s album of boleros and rumbas, Pensando en Ti; he’s also a member of another of Roger’s ensembles, The Tango Group, which made its first CD, Amor por el Tango, in 2003. But on Sweet Guitar, Pancho’s only partner is his occasional overdubbed self.
Navarro was born in 1944 in La Consulta, a township in Mendoza, Argentina’s wine state. Pancho wasn’t quite a teenager when his father, a policeman and amateur guitarist, gave him his first guitar and showed him the basics of playing it. He began taking formal lessons at thirteen. While working with local dance bands he immersed himself in tango and the Argentine folklore that surrounds it; as he studied classical guitar he pored over recordings by Andrés Segovia, Los Romeros (the Spanish guitar-playing family of the ‘60s), John Williams, and Paco de Lucía.
Meanwhile, he brought his guitar all over South America, settling the longest in Chile and Mexico. Wherever he went he was hired by the best local musicians and singers. In 1984, after a decade in Mexico City, Pancho took his wife and three children and moved to New York: “the city I have looked up to ever since I was a kid, and considered to be the most important place for a musician's career.” The gamble paid off. He became a first-call Latin guitarist on A-list sessions – everything from the soundtrack of The Mambo Kings to hip-hop and reggae tracks.
On this album, he had the luxury of playing the music he cares about most. Pancho wrote Sweet Guitar/T.Q.P.S. some years back in New York. “When I met my wife,” he says, “we used to communicate with each other by letters, and at the end of our love letters we had this beautiful way of saying goodbye: T.Q.P.S., Te querre por siempre. That means, I will love you forever.”
Singer-songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez (1926-1973) has been called the Woody Guthrie of Mexico; his oftentimes patriotic songs celebrate the life of the common man. Jiménez specialized in ranchera, the music of the rural countryside. Tu Recuerdo y Yo (Your Memory and I) is one of his trademarks; Pancho brings out its lazy hillbilly quality.
As a child in Mendoza, Pancho looked up to Santiago Bertiz, a local guitar wizard and family friend. Bertiz wrote the jaunty, Brazilian-flavored Chichi Bonita for his daughter Chichi. In 1939, two top guitarist-composers of the day – Alfonso Medina (Ecuador) and Nelson Ibarra (Colombia) – merged cultures in their original duet, Esperanza (Hope). Pancho plays it as a duet with himself. From the same vintage comes Boedo, an historical tango named after a blue-collar neighborhood in Buenos Aires. It was written by Julio de Caro (1899-1980), a violinist and composer.
Tico-Tico no Fubá is a Brazilian choro from 1917, and it tells of the ruckus caused when a sparrow invades someone’s cornmeal. The composer, Zequinha de Abreu (1880-1935), wrote a string of Brazilian hits in the teens and ‘20s; none scored bigger than Tico-Tico. Sadly, he didn’t live to see it become an American smash as well, thanks to performances by Carmen Miranda and Donald Duck (in the Disney cartoon Saludos Amigos). Pancho handles its dizzying rush of notes with the poise of a master juggler. He goes on to mimic the sound of a trotting horse in Las Mudanzas (The Moves), a song by his early teacher, guitarist Tito Francia.
The same year Pancho was born, one of his artistic forefathers died. Agustín Barrios Mangoré was an iconic Paraguayan composer for guitar, an instrument he played with startling dexterity. Like Villa-Lobos, Mangoré wedded folk and classical music; he’s credited with making the first classical guitar recordings in history. Pancho chose his lilting Vals No. 4, composed in 1923.
In his own composition Pájaro Bobo, Pancho overdubs himself into a whole Argentine street band. He named the song after a wild plant that grows in Mendoza. The guitarist dedicates Pájaro Bobo “to the warm memory of my brothers Miguel and Paul and my little sister Rosita.”
From the 1940s through the ‘70s, two mysterious guitar-playing brothers, born of the Tabajara tribe of northern Brazil, toured the world to huge popular success. Los Índios Tabajaras wore ceremonial Indian garb and performed pop versions of the classics, along with native Brazilian folk songs and originals in that style. The latter included Ternura (Tenderness), written by the duo’s Antenor Moreyra Lima, known by his Indian name of Muçaperê.
In the next two tracks, Pancho revisits dance forms known almost exclusively in South America. De Sobrepaso is a famous example of the milonga, a quicker-paced predecessor of the tango. Milongas are played in 2/4, with syncopated rhythm and improvisation. The composer here is Abel Fleury (1903-1958), an Argentine guitar master who wrote many of his country’s important folk tunes. Coastal Peru birthed the vals criollo, a brisk waltz. Antonio Lauro (1917-1986), a Venezuelan composer of semi-classical guitar works, wrote the Vals Criollo heard here.
Rio-born guitarist Luiz Bonfá (1922-2001) composed his brooding Manha de Carnaval (Carnival Morning) for Black Orpheus (1959), the film that introduced America to a sophisticated new wave of Brazilian music. Pancho’s version of this bossa nova standard intertwines two arrangements, Bonfá’s and his own. A generation before Bonfá was born, a celebrated Paraguayan harpist and composer Félix Pérez Cardozo (1908-1953) had a hit of his own with Pájaro Campana – “one of the most important songs in Paraguay,” says Pancho.
The album ends at the beginning of his story. Alma de Nogal (Soul of the Walnut Tree) is another of Pancho’s originals; he dedicates it “to the precious memories of my father Anselmo, my first guitar teacher, and to my mother Catalina” – the people who gave him his life and helped him discover his gift.
James Gavin, New York City, 2006
[James Gavin, the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, has written extensively for Time Out New York and the New York Times.]