Stern’s string theory

Guitarist Denis Stern talks about growing up on Indian film music, the struggles of Soviet-era musicians and finding love through Bharatanatyam

“Did you know the guitar has its origins in Asia?” asks Russian guitarist Denis Stern, to the surprise of the amateur musicians at the ProMusicals workshop organised by Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in the city.

The string instrument, according to Stern, originated somewhere in the West Asia. “They had an instrument called chartar and then came guitar… The etymology is the same, don’t you think?” he remarks.

It’s not just guitar trivia that Stern shares; he is here to teach the students the techniques involved in Nuevo (new) Flamenco, a style of playing guitar developed in the seven years he was in Spain.

“Every country you go to, its local culture is bound to seep into your style of playing music,” says Stern. And so it was with Spain. The fast paced finger playing of the flamenco — the arpeggios, the tremolo, the picado — all heavily influenced Stern, who used the traditional flamenco sound and overlaid it with jazz guitar notes.

One of Stern’s most popular pieces is ‘Way to Alhambra’, which also features tabla player Arup Kanti Das, whom he met in Kolkata in 2010. Stern’s advice to the students at the workshop is to make fusion music. “You should know a little bit of everything. Only then will you find your own unique style. Play Western music, but use Indian notes,” he says.

Hard times

When conflict riddles reality, people often look towards art as an escape. Stern’s journey as a musician has not been a smooth one. Born in St Petersburg in 1970, he grew up at a time when the USSR had not yet disintegrated.

Rock music had a growing following but was still underground, given the Soviet government’s constant efforts to ban bands it considered violent or lewd. “Before the 1990s, it was not great to be a musician in Russia. Record stores were being shut, you could even go to prison,” says Stern.

Things came to a head in 1991, when the Soviet broke down and the Iron Curtain was lifted. With the new relaxed emigration laws, a million Jewish people migrated to Israel, Stern one of them.

“I remember my mother was very upset with me leaving. But I had to do it,” he says. Stern fondly recalls that it was his father, himself a musician, who bought him his first guitar when he was 10.

Stern’s first introduction to Spanish music was during a concert by Paco De Lucia in 1989, back when he had no idea he would be living in Spain someday. “Spain is the capital of guitar. Every guitarist should go there once in their lives,” he says, citing De Lucia and John McLaughlin as his influences.

Before the 1990s, it was not great to be a musician in Russia. Record stores were being shut, you could even go to prison.

The India connection

Stern moved to Spain after staying in Tel Aviv from 1991 to 1998, training under jazz-fusion guitar player Yosi Levy. Eight years ago, he made his maiden visit to India. Since then, he would keep finding different reasons to come back to the country. He collaborated with Das many times over the years to create ‘global’ music. “Fusion music should be such that when we play on stage, you should hear six continents in one place,” he says.

It was at one of the Indian Consulates in Italy that he met his girlfriend and long-time partner, Lucrezia Maniscotti. “She was learning Bharatanatyam and I was playing Indian fusion music, so we bonded over the culture and philosophy of India,” says Stern. Maniscotti brought Stern to Chennai in 2015.

Stern’s connection to India, in fact, goes back to when he was a child. “American movies were not easily available in Russia back then. So we grew up on Indian movies and Indian film music,” he says.

Stern returned to Chennai in August last year, teaching and researching at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music. He will be there until September this year.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 4:44:05 AM |

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