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Concerto de Aranjuez Transcribed for the Ukulele

by Paul Garson



   “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s that both the game of chess and the piano are percussion instruments,” said my Bisabuelo Domingo de Navarra as he tuned the ukulele he had brought back from Hawaii before I was born, in fact before my grandmother was born. I remember he told me that it still had a sticker on its back, one that said, ‘Welcome to Pearl Harbor.”

    “I thought the piano was classified as a stringed instrument,” I said while wondering how at 94 he could still wrest a tune from the antique ukulele, almost a toy at that.

   “Yes, in the classical sense but when you’re playing Rachmaninoff with the necessary jackhammer hands pounding out the notes, the piano becomes a percussion instrument like a kettle drum. And as far as chess, you never saw Bobby Fisher banging out his variation of the Sicilian Opening. Ten megatons at least.”

    “But chess is a game of finesse,” I said hoping I could egg him on to a game, my regional tournament just a week away.

   “Finesse, schimesse,” laughed my Bisabuelo, then held the ukulele next to his good ear, strumming the four strings until satisfied with what he heard. “Okay, let’s give her a good twanging.” He began to play Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez.

   “How is that you can play that piece with only four strings when it requires at least six if not the eight of a full-sized guitar?”

   “Easy peasy. Just make each of the four strings sound like two.” And he played on for five more minutes. Until his fingernails started bleeding or what was left of his fingernails. He stopped and dipped them in the bowl of ice water he kept ready, then said, “Did you know that Rodrigo who wrote this did not play the guitar himself?”

   “How is that possible?” I said watching the water in the bowl turn red.

   “He heard the music in his head…like the chess moves you see in your head.”

   “When did he write that music?”

   “1939, just about the time the Nazis tore into Poland.”

   “Why did he call it Concerto de Aranjuez?”

   “There was a famous place in Spain, a very beautiful estate, just south of Madrid. So beautiful that only members of the Royal Court of King Phillip II were allowed to dwell there. This was the time of the Conquistadors and Spain’s expeditions to Mexico and South America. A lot of gold was brought back so the King could afford to spend some money making the place even fancier.”

   “Were you ever there?”
   “Yes, during the Civil War in 1936. I was only nine.”

   “Which side were you on?”

   “The side of music,” said his Great Grandfather. “But then one day I played the wrong tune on the small guitar my father had given me.” With that he held up his hands, the splintered nails still bleeding. “They thought they would keep me from ever playing again, but they were wrong. I learned to play through the pain. Just like you and your chess.”

   “But my fingers don’t bleed when I play chess. There is no pain at all. Anywhere.” Then I laughed and said, “Unless I lose.”

    My Great Grandfather put down the ukulele and brought a guitar case out from under his bed and opened it. He held it up close so I can see it its outline. “I have something new to show you.”

     “Is that a Gibson, a Fender, a Martin? I don’t recognize the shape.”

     “No, though they made excellent guitars. This happens to be a Stradivarius.”

     I had to laugh. “Are your trying to trick me. I can tell the shape of a violin from a guitar.”

    “Yes, you can. But it truly is a Stradivarius guitar, one of a small handful. The Stradivari family made about a thousand instruments, some 960 violins, but they also made a few violas, cellos and guitars with the same passion and unique quality of construction.”

   “I wish I could touch it.”

   “I wish you could, too. Do you know what secret makes the Stradivarius violin’s sound so unique?”

    “I understand it was the wood.”

     “True, the wood was a most important part. There was another ingredient that went into the best Stradivarius violins. And also this guitar.”

      I laughed again. “Did they soak the wood in a special pasta sauce?”

      “Close, but no cigar,” said my Bisabuelo. “You guessed the right color. You saw it in my bowl of ice water.”

      “Blood? Are you saying blood was used?”

      “That’s why they say the Stradivarius cries like no other violin…ask Paganini or better yet Ithzak Perlman since he’s still with us.”

       “I will ask Mr. Perlman since I understand he also plays chess.”

        “I get the feeling you are challenging me to a game?”

        “Well, I have the tournament next week and there are a lot of older players, some almost as old as you.”

      “Is that possible?”

       “Well, maybe not. But I’m only 12 and there are old guys in their 30s and even 40s I will have to play. I heard some weren’t too happy about playing me. Because of the gizmo. They say my voice sounds too scary.”

       “Well, if they want to hear scary, let me come along and play my ukulele with my toes.”

         I laughed and said. “So…will you play, just one game?”

         “Okay, but you know I have trouble remembering all those Be5‘s and Nf3’s.  I can’t play in my fuzzy old head like you do.”

        “Don’t worry about the notations. Just use your real board and tell me what piece you moved and where.”

       “Okay, I can do that. Is your gizmo ready?”

        “Is the green light on?”

        “Yes.”

         “You can go first.”

        “Please don’t beat me in three moves again. Remember I’m just an old man who plays the ukulele.”

         “Sorry, I can’t promise to show any mercy.”

         “I understand, completely.”


BIO

Paul Garson is an American writer and photographer who lives and writes in Los Angeles in a small apartment with an old rug and a loyal cat. He has written nonfiction articles—many with his own photography—for over 70 US and international publications as well as written a dozen nonfiction books. He has high hopes of being a space tourist or at least getting to Iceland before it turns into Hawaii.

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