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Dennis Koster Plays 1951 Barbero at Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival | GuitarInternational.com
By: Debra Devi
Monday August 27, 2012

The Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop & Festival kicks off every morning at 8 a.m., with a massive family-style breakfast in the Main Lodge on the banks of Flathead Lake.

As the sun slowly burns the fog off lake and mountains, Sonny Landreth, Julian Lage, Patty Larkin, Dennis Koster and other famed Artists In Residence shovel in eggs, oatmeal and fresh huckleberries along with everybody else racing to get to class.

After three-hour morning classes with top teacher/artists like Jody Fisher (jazz), Matt Smith (blues), Andrew Leonard (classical) and Tobias Hurwitz (rock) and afternoon private lessons, Artist-In-Residence clinics and jam sessions (with equally massive lunches and dinners thrown in), we all eventually amble across the grass toward the huge white tent set up in a nearby pasture for the nightly concerts, which start at 7:30.

Anticipation for tonight’s concert by Patty Larkin and Dennis Koster is especially high at breakfast this morning, for word has spread that luthier Aaron Green has brought an extremely special guitar for American flamenco master Koster to play.

Classical guitarist Eliot Fisk has called Green “one of the most promising young luthiers in the world.” Koster adds, “I can say without hesitation that the guitars made for me by Aaron Green are the finest instruments that I have ever owned.”

Tonight, Koster will mostly play one of his exquisite Aaron Green guitars, but the guitar creating all the buzz is a mythic guitar made in 1951 by Marcelo Barbero that the great Gypsy flamenco master Agustín Castellón Campos a.k.a. Sabicas used to record Flamenco Puro, his most famous album. Few have seen or heard it since.

This magnificent instrument has been hidden away in a private collection for almost 60 years and has now been entrusted by the owner’s family to Green for sale. Tonight will be the first time it will be heard in public performance since Sabicas’s era.

Dennis Koster, widely regarded as this country’s leading authority on flamenco guitar– and one of the nicest, most enthusiastic guys you’ll ever meet–is already practically bouncing off the log cabin walls of the Lodge with joy. Koster is, after all, one of the few guitarists to have studied flamenco with Sabicas.

After lunch, I track down Green and he offers to show me the Barbero.
As he carefully opens the case and picks up the instrument, I’m surprised not only by how small and relatively plain it looks, but by the simple wooden tuning pegs that plug into the back of the guitar’s headstock.

I’m even more surprised when Green hands me this priceless instrument to play. On closer inspection it is a lovely pale golden color, with very little decoration. It’s very light, made of cypress, with an ebony fretboard."

I strum the Barbero gently. It sounds like butter. Golden, melting-on-your-tongue butter, with a hint of pure organic maple syrup sweetness. This is the most flawlessly resonant, well-balanced, musical instrument I have ever touched. Its overtones stack upon each other in warm and perfect harmony.
Suddenly, even I sound like a flamenco master as I fake a rasgueado strum with some Am and Em chords. Wow.

Dear Lord, don’t let me drop it.

Gingerly, I hand the Barbero back to Aaron, and ask him to tell me more.

Debra: What’s the name of your company?

Aaron Green: I have two – The Spanish Guitar Workshop, where I make classical and flamenco guitars. I also restore and deal in vintage classical guitars and have another company called Wesleyan Guitars, with three other people, which is just getting started making arch top guitars.

Debra:  What is so special about this Barbero?

Aaron Green: This is the most famous flamenco guitar in the world. It’s an iconic legend. It was restored about 20 years ago and the fellow who did the work on it published plans. Builders around the world started using these plans to build copies of a guitar they had never seen.

This brought it back into the collective consciousness of the flamenco scene. Soon guitarists were talking about a guitar that hadn’t been seen or heard since Sabicas recorded Flamenco Puro, which had marked a whole new level in virtuosity for flamenco music. To be able to bring it to this event and have it played in a concert setting is a thrill.

Debra: How did you come to have it?

Aaron Green: Sabicas didn’t have the guitar for very long, it was given to his friend Fidel Zabal and then Zabal sold it to Robert Schultz, my friend and client, in the mid-to-late 1950s. Bob was a good friend and client of mine, and a student and friend of Dennis Koster. When he passed, his family asked me to sell the instruments in his collection and to babysit this guitar, which I’ve been doing for the last couple years.

As a luthier, it has been an incredible experience to be able to study it, but it’s also a lot of responsibility. So I called them and said perhaps we can share it with some other people who will take good care of it. At that point I became the broker for this instrument.

Debra:  I’ve never seen wooden tuning pegs like this, plugged into the back of the guitar’s headstock.
Aaron Green:  Pegs are the traditional tuning apparatus for the flamenco guitar.  This is an economic distinction; they are cheaper than mechanical gears.  Flamenco is the art of the Spanish Gypsy, and Gypsies are poor so there you go.   Pegs are also lighter in weight, which helps as cypress (the wood the guitar is made from) is lighter in weight than rosewoods.   Properly fit, they are quite easy to use.
Debra: So you brought it here for Dennis to play?

Aaron Green: Yes, when Dennis described this event to me it just sounded so great. I don’t normally attend guitar festivals because I find them to be kind of painful – they’re not a lot of fun! But this sounded like such a special one and I wanted to be a part of it. I spoke with [COCGF founder] David Feffer and explained the significance of the instrument and said I’d be happy to bring it out. That sounded good to them so here I am!

With that Green carefully packs the Barbero away, noting that the air “is getting a little dry for it.”
Tonight, singer/songwriter Patty Larkin takes the stage first, immediately disproving any notion that lovers of classical and flamenco guitar can’t also enjoy a great song accompanied by some powerful acoustic steel-string playing. In fact, every record exec in the country should be required to visit this festival to see the exuberant standing ovations that spontaneously erupt at each genre-mixing, mind-bending concert.

Larkin knocks us out with one wryly observed, sharply written song after another, and the inventive guitar wizardry that has earned her an Honorary Doctorate of Music degree from Berklee College of Music and 11 Boston Music Awards. I can’t wait to listen to her new album, 25, on which she has reworked 25 love songs to celebrate her 25 years of recording music, inviting 25 friends like Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega to contribute to them.

As Larkin leaves the stage, a hush falls over the crowd broken only by the whinnies of the Lodge horses in their corrals. The fabled Barbero is about to make its first public debut in almost 60 years.
Before playing his opening number on it, Koster gives us a brief history of flamenco, recalling a time in Spain prior to 1492 when Catholics, Moors and Jews co-existed peacefully, before Columbus’s patrons Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand outlawed all religions save Catholicism. Flamenco, he explains, carries within it music from all three streams of Spanish culture.

With that, Koster serenades us with “Zambra Granadina” on the Barbero, rippling through it with a look of rapture on his face. As he completes the piece, he receives his first of many standing ovations throughout the evening, complete with Montana hoots and hollers and the occasional whinny.  The concert only goes up from there, as Koster takes us on a magical journey, explaining each piece before he plays it so we understand, for example, that his intricate tapping on the guitar soundboard during his original piece “Homage to Carmen Amaya” mimics the steps of a flamenco dancer.

As Koster performs with grace, power and exuberance, a feeling that I can only describe as unconditional love begins to flow back and forth between him and the audience. The energy rises and rises. Koster returns for a final encore, taking up the Barbero again for a rousing “Malaguena,” which was Sabicas’s most popular encore in his day.

I run into Aaron Green, who says, “That was some of the best I’ve ever heard Dennis play. He was on fire!  The energy from this whole experience has been so loving and positive. So enthusiastic and grateful. People out here are genuinely thrilled to have us and it’s very exciting to be part of that.”
Koster is ecstatic to play, we are ecstatic to listen. Life is joy. Lest we forget, one person playing a guitar can bring us back.

Read Aaron's interview in Guitar Connoisseur Magazine.

Barbero Label