Small settings help Bensusan connect

For French fingerstyle guitarist Pierre Bensusan, connecting with his audience is key.
French fingerstyle guitarist Pierre Bensusan will play Saturday and Sunday at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs.
French fingerstyle guitarist Pierre Bensusan will play Saturday and Sunday at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs.

For French fingerstyle guitarist Pierre Bensusan, connecting with his audience is key.

Since the release of his debut album, “Pres de Paris,” Bensusan, 50, has gained a reputation as one of the world’s foremost acoustic guitarists, even winning Guitar Player magazine’s readers choice award for best world music guitar player this year. His audience is what inspires him to continue to perform today.

“I don’t only [play guitar] for myself, I do it with other people — for myself and for other people,” Bensusan said during a phone interview from his home in Paris. “The fact that I do it for other people has sort of helped me to understand what’s good for me — to forget about me, to have my ego at peace and at rest, but always on the edge and on the move.”

Bensusan’s desire to connect intimately with his audience has led him to perform regularly in smaller clubs and venues. When he returns to Caffe Lena for two shows this weekend, Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m., it will be his 11th appearance at the venerable folk venue.

“I’m like the furniture there,” he joked.

According to Bensusan, smaller clubs are his background. Although he has performed at much larger venues, a club setting tends to work better with his style of music and performing, he said.

“I look at what I do a bit like a storyteller, someone who will tell stories,” he said. “You can tell stories in a big room with lots of people, but it’s good to be able to relate to that one to one.”

Bensusan’s method of telling stories is through his guitar. His playing, rooted in the folk and classical traditions, also encompasses elements of jazz, world music from Africa, his native Algeria and other countries, and even some rock and roll. Bensusan counts Jimi Hendrix as one of his influences.

Classical beginnings

He got his start in music playing classical piano beginning at age 7. Inspired by his piano teacher, Madame Russo, he continued on the instrument until age 11, when his teacher left Paris. Bensusan’s musical career almost ended there.

“When she left, I stopped playing, I lost the desire to play piano; it was too much related to her — something was missing,” Bensusan said. “I thought that would be it with piano.”

However, when Bensusan’s father sold the family’s piano, he also purchased a cheap steel string guitar on a whim. Bensusan immediately took a liking to the instrument, and began teaching himself to play.

“The desire to play music came back very, very strong,” he said. “I taught myself how to play guitar.”

At first, he experimented in different guitar tunings, but in 1978, he began to focus solely on one tuning, DADGAD. He enjoyed experimenting, but wanted to become more familiar with just one tuning.

“I came to the conclusion that it was good to be able to forget the tuning so I could know my fretboard better,” Bensusan said. “Of course, you can always experiment with tunings and create beautiful tonalities, but when you improvise you need to know your fretboard, the path for your fingers.”

To this day, Bensusan has never had any professional training. After releasing 11 solo albums, including at least one live and two compilation records, he has no regrets.

“All roads lead to Rome, anyway,” he said. “Music, it’s a non-ending, never-ending process of creativity, of playing better, being a better musician, a better servant of music, being able to express myself more accurately.”

In the past, Bensusan has played with numerous other musicians and bands. He has toured with a saxophonist and percussionists, but his Caffe Lena shows will feature a solo Bensusan on guitar, with occasional vocals.

New material

Although he will perform older material and improvisations, Bensusan will also use the Caffe Lena shows as a chance to work on new material for his next album. His previous album, “Altiplanos,” was released in 2005. Although he is writing new material “all the time,” he likes to take his time between albums, performing new songs on tour before recording them.

“I need new material to be performed as well,” he said. “It’s a matter of taking time to [let the material] mature. So I bring it out on the road, play it, then record it.”

And despite his long career, Bensusan doesn’t seem to be running out of ideas.

“It will be like this till the end of my life, and I know it will be better and better,” he said. “I have lots of ideas still, things in me that scream to be played.”

Pierre Bensusan

when: 8 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday

where: Caffe Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs

how much: $22; $20 (members)

more info: 583-0022, www.caffelena.org.

Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

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