More Than a Guitarist | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

More Than a Guitarist

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French-Algerian guitarist and composer Pierre Bensusan plays Duling Hall in Fondren May 18.

Pierre Bensusan is not a guitar player. He is a composer who uses the guitar as his creative instrument, and he does it with complexity, precision and passion matched by few.

Born in Oran, French-Algeria in 1957, Bensusan tunes his guitar exclusively using the DADGAD method, rather than the standard EADGBE. DADGAD is an alternate type of tuning with roots in Celtic music. (You can hear it in Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir.")

He never plays using a pick: All 10 fingers are active as Bensusan performs his compositions. Every note has a thought and feeling riding its sound waves. Nothing is accidental, and no music is excluded from his repertory out of laziness or lack of ability.

Most guitar players bring their limitations to the instrument, whether they've never played or played for more than 40 years. In Bensusan's hands, an acoustic guitar seems to have found its perfect match, one who can speak through its six strings without limitation to anyone who hears, the way Bach could on a piano.

The title of his latest album, "Vividly" (Favored Nations, 2010, $12.50), describes how Bensusan plays the guitar and sings, and how he wants listeners to take it in. Some refer to it as "world music," because it cannot be wrapped up in traditional genre labels.

With influences from early American rock 'n' roll, blues and jazz to traditional Irish and french music, Bensusan blends them all into a style all his own.

Bensusan first began to teach himself guitar at age 11, but it wasn't until he heard Planxty, an Irish folk band, at a music festival in Brittany that Bensusan found his sound in traditional musical styles played in DADGAD tuning.

"I took my guitar (and) started to play, in open tuning, Irish music on the guitar," Bensusan said. "I felt like: 'I am now playing instrumental music on the guitar. I am not going to take lessons. I am not going to play classical. I am not going to play Spanish. I am not going to play Jango (Rheinhart). I'm not going to play jazz. I'm going to play that stuff, and I'm going to find room for me where I can find my own identity and my own little niche.'"

Other instruments join from time to time on the album, but Bensusan's voice is usually the only accompaniment the dense, multi-layered guitar playing needs or gets. Most of the lyrics are in French, although Bensusan shows a strong understanding of the English language on one song, "The In-Between."

In concert, Bensusan, who lives in Ch√Ęteau-Thierry, France, plays guitar and sings unaccompanied on stage. His live performances are not about one man performing alone while others sit around, though.

"We should not be passive," Bensusan said. "We should also be participating (in) this. We should feel that we are contributing to this art (taking) place, just because of the very basic reason that we listen to it. The fact of listening to it already is a participation, almost in the way that a composer is going to write his stuff ... because someone is going to listen. So the composer is also going to play with the people's ability to listen. He is going to challenge them and is going to sort of enter a two-way conversation with them."

Bensusan kicks off a 31-show tour of the United States and Canada May 16 in Nashville. The third stop on the tour is Jackson's Duling Hall in Fondren on May 18. Despite the mostly-French lyrics, Mississippians should not worry about a language barrier keeping them from connecting to the music.

"I feel that this is totally linking and bridging with all different cultures," Bensusan said. "It's like an amazing language, fantastic language. It makes the world like being one. It's beautiful."

Bensusan plays Duling Hall May 18. The show starts at 8 p.m. with cocktails at 6:30. Tickets are $18 and are available at the Coliseum box office or ticketmaster.com

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