A Lifetime Achievement Tribute to Cuban Guitarist Elias Barreiro

Elias Barreiro acknowledges Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by The New School at Mannes and The Americas Society. (Left to right: Elias Barreiro, Mariano Aguirre, Michael Newman, Laura Oltman). Photo credit: Nicolas Manassi-Roey Yohai Photography.

Elias Barreiro acknowledges the Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by The New School at Mannes and The Americas Society. (Left to right: Elias Barreiro, Mariano Aguirre, Michael Newman, Laura Oltman). Photo credit: Nicolas Manassi-Roey Yohai Photography.

Elias Barreiro, the 87-year-old Cuban guitarist, recording artist and pedagogue, was honored in a tribute at this year’s 17th New York Guitar Seminar at Mannes, together with the Americas Society. Barreiro has served as a vital anchor of the classical guitar scene in New Orleans for over four decades He taught for 45 years at the guitar department he helped establish at Tulane University until his retirement in 2012. He also launched the Classical Guitar Society of New Orleans in 1969 and opened his Ace Music Center and guitar studio on Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans in the early 1970s.

Barreiro’s contribution to the guitar is a remarkable story of sacrifice, resilience and grace.  As a concert performer and student of Isaac Nicola the Municipal Conservatory of Camaguey, Barreiro made the difficult choice to emigrate from Cuba with his wife and family in 1966 to start his life anew in the United States. In addition to leaving all that he knew and called home, he left behind a Torres guitar once owned by composer Francisco Tárrega, two Simplicio guitars and the opportunity to complete his degree.

Barreiro’s presence in the U.S. has enriched decades of guitar students, as his career flourished here. He also had the honor of studying with El Maestro, Andrés Segovia, in Santiago de Compostela. Barreiro has produced a considerable catalog of work including ten LP albums and four CDs, along with a number of diverse music arrangements published by Hansen Publications, Willis Music Company and Mel Bay.

“I was about 13 years old when I started playing the guitar in Camagüey, a small town in Cuba” Barreiro says. “I was interested in popular music and became attracted to guitar after seeing Mexican trios play it in the movies. Then I heard a friend play an old 78 rpm of Segovia at his house.

“Eventually, I found a teacher who taught me where to place my fingers on the guitar. After three months or so, he told me I was going to have to learn to read music and I astonished him by asking, ‘What is musical notation?’ I was naïve! I had no idea that you could learn to read music. So I went to study at the music conservatory in Havana.   My first guitar was a Bellini. My parents emigrated from Spain and grew up in the 1930s during the Great Depression. My father, who sold ice cream from a cart in Cuba, came home one day so happy because he’d earned a total of thirty cents for the day. He had four children to provide for and he found a guitar for me at a pawn shop that cost eight pesos. It was very hard to play and had metal strings. I cried because I had to play it and it hurt.

“My father was a ninja,” Barreiro says. “He was in jail for 33 days because he was a Freemason, which I am, too. The authorities had caught a person who was attempting to flee Cuba by boat and they discovered a notebook inside his pocket that had my father’s name written inside it. So all those people mentioned in this notebook were arrested, along with my father, and placed inside a small 6×6 jail cell. When someone was sleeping, another person had to stand. I was going to cancel a concert to go help him, but a good friend asked me not to do so, saying it would aggravate my father’s situation and he would be put into jail, too. How was he able to survive? I can’t — let’s talk about music.”

The author, Antonio Rodriguez Delgado, has written a superb biography, Elias Barreiro: The Man Behind the Guitar. Michael G. Bush has translated it beautifully into English without losing any of its original spirit, inflection and humor. Take for example, Barreiro’s colorfully vivid description of when, as a boy, he first asked his father for a guitar and lessons. “To be honest, my parents had always encouraged me in all of my endeavors and aspirations… However there was something that really bothered my father about the life of a musician. He thought all guitar “strummers” were nothing more than bacchanalian night owls lacking in ambition.”

Elias Barreiro: The Man Behind the Guitar by Antonio Rodriguez Delgado (English translation by Michael G. Bush).

Elias Barreiro: The Man Behind the Guitar by Antonio Rodriguez Delgado (English translation by Michael G. Bush).

Throughout the Mannes event, Barreiro’s wife, Cachy, presented herself as a dynamo of wry humor and watchful patience who absorbed all of the goings-on with quiet astuteness.

“My wife, Cachy, is an angel to me,” Barreiro says. “We’ve been together 57 years.” [Cachy, who overheard this remark, raised her arm high in acknowledgment from a nearby sofa, though it appeared as if she had been napping.]

“How we came to the United States—that was tough. Castro opened the gates for a brief time. There was a program called the Freedom Flights, which made two trips daily to reunite families between Cuba and the U.S.–but only if you could prove that you had family in the U.S. I had two children from a previous wife. I applied to join my family in New Orleans and my family in the U.S. was required to complete paperwork as well because it had to be a mutual application process. Officials from both the U.S. and Cuban governments scrutinized everything closely to ensure you matched the families in both places.

“It took me two years to complete the process and I became a candidate for emigration. However, I had to leave my guitars and everything behind. We arrived in America with only the clothing we were wearing. When my family was about to board the plane, my wife was forced to remove and relinquish her wedding ring and they asked us to remove our shoes as well, in exchange for sandals. It was punishment for our leaving the country. It is hard to believe. Unbelievable! They seized our luggage, too. I lost my briefcase along with the large duffel bag filled with our entire family’s clothing. When we landed in Miami, it was raining,” he says. “We’d lost everything.

“We arrived in New Orleans on September 23, 1966 and the first thing I did was get a haircut. Though my family lost everything, I do believe the hand of God was upon us. The man who gave me my haircut turned out to also be a Cuban refugee. He’d asked, ‘What do you do?’ I told him I was a musician who played classical guitar. He told me, ‘There is an engineer who plays guitar who lives just a couple blocks away.’

“This engineer allowed me to practice at his house. When I played for him, he was impressed and asked me to perform for his teacher. His teacher invited me to give a concert and everything kept climbing higher and higher like this until I met people at the university. Within two months, I was teaching guitar at Tulane.

“In 1966, a total of seven Cuban guitarists were already living here, teaching the guitar and performing. Among them were Jose Rey de la Torre, Alberto and Rolando Valdes Blain in New York, Juan Mercadal in Miami, Hector Antonio Garcia in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Mario Abril in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Ramon Ybarra,” Barreiro says.

It did not take Barreiro long to catch on to the some of the more unsavory aspects of life in New Orleans. “I always played at the Chateau Flamenco on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter,” he says. “I made a mistake. All I did was get out of my car, walk across the street and open the door to Chateau Flamenco to tell one of the guys I wouldn’t be able to be there to play that evening. He asked me a couple questions and by the time I returned to the car, I found the window broken and my guitar stolen.

A year into his arrival, Andrés Segovia offered Barreiro a scholarship to study with him.

“When I went to study with Segovia in Spain, I borrowed a student’s guitar. Once I lived in the U.S., travel abroad was easier and learning English had a big impact on me. It took some time. I learned to speak English by speaking to people. I never went to school to speak it. The vowels between English and Spanish sound so different!”

For Barreiro, who first encountered the guitar from listening to a 78 rpm record of Segovia at a friend’s house when he was a boy, the experience of studying with Segovia was a dream come true.

In Delgado’s book, Barreiro speaks at length about his experience studying with Segovia. He reports that Segovia was aware that five weeks was not sufficient time to impact a student’s technique he focused primarily on improving their interpretive skills.

Also, when you flip through the book’s back pages, the photographs of various master classes and concerts that Barreiro held at Tulane begin to draw together a family of familiar classical guitar faces spanning over the decades who have grown into their own flourishing guitar careers: Manuel Barrueco, Sharon Isbin, Michael Newman, Berta Rojas and countless others.

Barreiro was formally presented with a lifetime achievement award on June 27, 2017 in conjunction with The New School at Mannes and the Americas Society. In acknowledgment of the honor, Barreiro recounted a few stories, including one of his first meetings, in Cuba in 1964, with a then 12-year-old guitarist named Manuel Barrueco.

“His father wanted me to assess Barruequito’s talent. I was preparing to return to Havana and gave the boy a score written by Granados, which I informed him was a very difficult piece. I felt he should copy it in order to learn it and I would be glad to hear him perform it when I returned from Havana in a month’s time. The next day, when his father took me to the airport, he appeared with his son. Barruequito’s father said to me, “He does not like to copy music. He memorized it last night and would like to play it for you now.” And he did so, flawlessly.”

Barreiro’s other story, about how he came into possession of his legendary Torres guitar formerly owned by the composer Francisco Tárrega, also speaks volumes about the depth of Barreiro’s friendship with composer, Leo Brouwer.

Barreiro’s Legendary Torres Guitar

“The Torres guitar arrived in Havana in 1920 to a student of Pascual Roch who lived and taught in Havana until he passed away,” Barreiro says. “Because of the climate, the guitar was kept for years inside its case and I knew it would be playable. I enlisted a friend to help me locate the family who was in possession of this guitar and I arrived at their house to prove to them that I was a concert musician, worthy of the instrument.

When they opened the case, the guitar was in perfect condition and it contained a handwritten letter from Tárrega’s widow, Maria Rizo Rivelles, the official bill of sale—a lengthy piece of documentation on par with a deed of a house. The guitar was a black rosewood made by Antonio Torres in 1888 from his 2nd period, numbered 114, and it came inside the only rosewood case ever made by Torres, as well. I paid $2,000 for this guitar, which was a fortune for me.”

When Barreiro fled Cuba, he was forced to leave the instrument behind in the care of a student.

“I traveled to Cuba some years later, during the Christmas season of 1979, and I visited my friend, Leo Brouwer. To my surprise, he had my Torres!” Barreiro says. “Leo explained that he had dropped by a nightclub one evening and found my old student inebriated and strumming the guitar carelessly. Leo took the guitar away from him, saying, ‘You don’t do this to my brother!’ Leo urged me to look inside the case to see it for myself.   He said to me, ‘Next year, I am going to the United States to give a concert and I will bring it to you.’ Here, I must tell you that everything in my life has come to me like God himself was responsible.

“Leo Brouwer saved my guitar for me. He held a diplomatic passport as a musician. He told me he was going to bring the guitar in its original case, too. He brought three guitars with him and told the authorities he was bringing one of them into the States for repair. He told to me to be prepared to lose the redwood case. However, no one bothered to count Leo’s guitars on his return.”

Barreiro retired from Tulane in 2012. “45 years of teaching was enough for me,” he explains. When asked if he continues to play for his own enjoyment, Barreiro reveals surprisingly that a mini-stroke deprived him of some dexterity in two of his fingers, though nobody would ever guess this.

“Realistically,” he says, “nobody can play the way they used to, past the age of 82. I compare it to baseball. Like Hank Aaron, I hit 40 to 50 home runs during my best years. My last year, 10.”

Barreiro has since sold the Torres guitar and its rosewood case for an undisclosed sum to a private buyer. “I wanted to be able to help my grandchildren,” he says.

New Orleans and the Barreiro Special Collections Archive at Tulane

What Barreiro loves most about New Orleans is, “It is a very European city. Many cities are very much alike in the U.S. but New Orleans is a place unto itself,” he says. “I lived on Louisiana Parkway first when I worked at Tulane and then in Metairie and I now live in Covington, north of the lake. It is a shame that the politicians eliminated the street cars 20 years ago but now the street cars have returned. The street cars of the 1960s were much bigger and sounded like a train with the noises they made!”

Pontchartrain Bridge from the air. Photo: Julia Crowe

Pontchartrain Bridge from the air. Photo: Julia Crowe

During our interview Barreiro and I discussed the peculiarity of the French Quarter being named thus when, in fact, most of its architecture screams of everything Spanish. Barreiro concurred, citing his visits to Santiago de Compostela, Sevilla, Córdoba and Granada. “The beautiful gardens of Granada!! And everywhere, vineyards of grapes and orange trees in the south of Spain. We were making stops in different places, including La Mancha! When I heard La Mancha, my hairs raised on end. The famed windmills still stand so we visited La Mancha for five days, the land of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza! The Spanish are so proud of their culture they keep everything intact!!”

Barreiro endured some of the brunt of Hurricane Katrina. “Our house was damaged but insurance covered it. Tulane University suffered a lot,” he says. “They have the most beautiful library of any university in the South. They possess thousands of musical scores, including original, handwritten scores by Schumann. These scores were kept in the basement, which for 30 days, was under eight feet of water. Fortunately, the library was able to salvage about 70% of their archival material. They achieved this by removing the books and sending them to a company in Fort Worth, Texas that froze the books for 6 months. Very gradually, each book was defrosted, one page at a time.

Tulane is currently working with Barreiro on developing a special collections archive of musical material for researchers based on all the programs, photographs, handwritten scores, notes and documentation he has amassed during the course of his career. “They say the material already covers an expanse of 18 feet along their tables. I saved everything!”

“I will continue donating archival material, even from here, from this week,” he says. The materials will be made available to researchers at the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University. For more details, please visit this link.

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Thank yous are in order for this story to Elias and Cachy Barreiro, and Michael Newman and Laura Oltman. Also thank you to Sebastián Zubieta of the Americas Society for his encouraging textsand to Martha Cargo for her coordination wizardry. Thank you to Rene Izquierdo and also to Paul Herzman for the astute Wayne Shorter quote, “If all you have is music, then you don’t have music,” to which I will add another from Shorter as well, “Go out on the stage as a human being and do not be afraid to show struggle in your music. It is a struggle in life and then struggle and then victory.”

Spanish moss. Photo: Julia Crowe

Spanish moss, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Julia Crowe

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