By Stephen Vargha
Guitarist Renato Albornoz and comedic genius Mel Brooks have something in common. Neither of them can read or write music.
Brooks confessed he is a “hummer.” He is a composer who came up with the melodies and left it to others to transcribe and arrange them. That is what he did with “Springtime for Hitler” and “Prisoners of Love” for his 1967 hit movie, “The Producers.”
Following the advice of Brooks who said, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty,” Albornoz came up with a plan. “Music comes into my head, and I start playing it. I also listen to music and interpret it,” said the Cuenca native Albornoz. “After that, I record it in my studio.”
The 55-year-old guitarist never had any formal training. What he learned was all by happenstance. “I started playing the guitar when I was nine years old,” said Albornoz. “When I was 11, I met an American who was working for Coca Cola. He would stay at my mother’s hotel when doing business in Cuenca.”
The American businessman played flamenco music, which he learned from his Gypsy (Roma) parents. They were Europeans who travel from place to place, usually in caravans, rather than living in one place.
Flamenco is an art form comprising of songs, dances, and instrumental music associated with Andalucía, in southern Spain. Performances were associated with the ostracized Gypsy population, and they usually took place in seedy urban areas.
“Every time he came to Cuenca, he taught me more and more about playing flamenco music,” said Albornoz. “The American would play his guitar only for me. I was his number-one fan.”
The American guitarist would stay at the hotel for two or three days, playing his guitar in front of the young Albornoz. “I would watch him carefully to learn his techniques,” said Albornoz.
Music came naturally for Albornoz. His mother used to play the accordion, which she got from her father. Her father ordered it out of catalog in the 1920s. Since the city was rather isolated a century ago, it took a year for the accordion to make it to Cuenca. Albornoz laughs about that to this day.
The mother also played the guitar. “I took the guitar from her,” said Albornoz. “And she loved the music I played on it.”
Pressed vinyl was another big factor for Albornoz’s love of music. “She had a huge record collection. My mother had classical music and Spanish music,” said Albornoz. “I loved listening to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.” When prompted, Albornoz added Mozart to his list.
Cartoons were a huge influence on the music Albornoz played. Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes cartoons was well-known for its classical music, including Tales from the Vienna Woods, Op. 325 by Johann Strauss II, Minute Waltz in D-Flat by Frédéric Chopin, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt, and Träumerei (“Dreaming”) by Robert Schumann.
Maybe the most influential cartoon was the 1940 Walt Disney Productions movie, “Fantasia.” Performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the music included Toccata and Fugue in D minor by J. S. Bach, selections from The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, and much more. “I loved the music in this movie,” said Albornoz.
It wasn’t all classical. “I loved to watch old movies,” said Albornoz. “Cowboy movies with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry as well as television shows were great to listen to and watch.”
Sitting by his radio at night, Albornoz would listen to Bambuco, a fusion between Spanish and indigenous styles. Its beat structure is very similar to the waltz or polka. It became extremely popular all over Colombia between the 1920s and the 1930s.
“I would also listen to Cuban music, French music, as well as Venezuelan music,” said Albornoz. “I related to Venezuelan music as it talks about the fields where people worked and the green landscapes full of hardworking people.”
As a young teenager, Albornoz started performing at private parties. It was at one of those private parties in Cuenca that a Russian embassy employee spotted the teenager.
That led to a bigtime performance in Quito. “When I was 14, I played for the Russian embassy. They loved how I played the guitar,” said Albornoz. “Because of that, my mother wanted me to go to a conservatory in Russia. I told her, ‘Nyet!’” Albornoz laughs at telling this story of flat out refusing to go overseas.
Instead of going to Russia, Albornoz performed at a lot of embassies in Quito when he was 17 and 18 years old. His life as a musician had begun.
“My mother did not have any lifetime goals for me,” said Albornoz. “She knew I was going to play the guitar when I grew up.”
Albornoz has been playing with the same Spanish guitar for 22 years. It is a Vogel Guitar, made by Californian Bob Vogel, who opened his guitar making facility in Quito in 1995.
The Spanish guitar is significantly louder than an acoustic guitar. The sound it produces is fuller and has more depth than the acoustic guitar.
Andrés Segovia, a virtuoso Spanish classical guitarist from Linares, Spain, is regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time and the grandfather of this genre of music. He said, “The guitar is the most unpredictable and least reliable musical instrument in existence… and also the sweetest, the warmest, the most delicate, whose melancholic voice awakes in our soul exquisite reveries.”
That warm sound of his new Vogel Guitar was used in 1991 for the famous Latin American music contest, Festival OTI. Just like “America Got Talent”, it started out as a singing competition television show for an organization of television networks in Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. The festival served as a platform to launch the careers of several Latin music icons even when they didn’t win the competition.
Albornoz played “Amigo de la Luna” (“Friend of the Moon”) by Cuban American Willy Chirino to be the representative for Ecuador. In the contest held in Guayaquil, Albornoz ended up fourth out of 300 Ecuadorian contestants.
Since Festival OTI, Albornoz has produced six CDs. Four of the CDs are remakes of other artists’ music. Two CDs are completely the work of Albornoz.
“I am working on a new project, and I hope to have it ready in three months,” said Albornoz. “I am testing something new including reggae with a Spanish guitar, a violin, bass, and drums.” The goal is to debut his new music at a local performance “for all to enjoy.”
The venue and date have not been determined. In the meantime, you will be able to hear this talented guitarist with his current repertoire of music at bars, coffeeshops, and restaurants in the city. He has also performed with Jim Gala at the Jazz Society Café.
Hopefully soon, you will be able to hear his beautiful Spanish guitar music online. “My goal is to upload my music to the Internet for all to enjoy and to relax,” said Albornoz with a smile.
Renato Albornoz, Tel. 098-492-6344; email: email@example.com, Facebook
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.