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Stay Tuned: Pierre Bensusan’s Purifying Performance

by Dan Cohen

Seeing Guitarist Pierre Bensusan play at the Turning Point on Sept 22 turned out to be somewhat of a religious experience for me. Pierre BensusanWell, actually, a substitute for a religious experience because he performed the same night as Kol Nidre, the beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

I started the evening with the right convictions, attending my sister’s temple in the city where there was no formal rabbi.  “He’s actually a doctor,” my sister whispered excitedly. It figured. No doubt an ENT man. He had complete control of his sinuses. I tried to last. I did. But maybe twenty minutes in, I got that old, funny feeling. Like Robert the Rose Horse from the old children’s classic—’my nose began to itch, and my eyes began to itch, and…’ I had to get out of there.

I barely made it to the Bensusan show on time but I felt guilty as hell. The days preceding Yom Kippur are for examining your sins, and on Yom Kippur you cast them out. But now I’m entering the new year with a dirty slate. Hopeless reprobate. And then Bensusan began to play.

It’s a bit hard to describe his music. He plays a classical technique, all finger-picking, but with a steel-stringed guitar. He uses DADGAD tuning, which is common in Celtic and other folk music. I suppose you could classify it as folk, in that the sound of it, the chords and scales he works with are not jazzy or modal at all, but it’s a complicated, filigreed kind of folk music. The closest I can come for comparison is Leo Kottke, the elder statesmen of American folk guitarists. But Bensusan is very much his own animal. It’s like listening to a butterfly, to dappled sunshine coming through quaking aspens. His music flits and darts around like fish in a pool. And his compositions manage to encompass both the calmness of the pool and the flashing of the fish. It’s an entrancing, almost hypnotic thing to watch and hear.

He’s an unassuming presence, longish black hair turning salt and peppery and a lean, wise, quintessentially Gallic face, a certain world-weariness betrayed by the twinkle in his eye. He has a lovely, roguish voice which he uses to great effect on several tunes, and he often scats in his own unique way, singing a pleasant melody to syllables of his own devising. It’s surprising and refreshing, and definitely not Ella. He also whistles quite amazingly! It seems to come out of him without his shaping his mouth at all, he just kind of purses his lips aa tiny bit and this clear, high, flexible tone comes ringing out.

He played Baghdad Café. He played Hymn 11, a tribute to the victims of 9/11. He did a song to a poem by Victor Hugo, Demain de L’Aube (Tomorrow at Dawn), which he read in english before singing it in french. It was a delightful show. He has a wonderful rapport with the audience (‘You don’t mind the key of F? No allergies to F?’ he asked at one point) and seems eager to share his journey, his light. I was struck by how the aim of each song was to be beautiful. Not witty, not avant-garde, not new, necessarily, but beautiful. A great craftsman plying his trade. A shepherd with his flock. As I left I felt all of a sudden that I’d been to temple after all. My own sort of temple, and by the end of the service I felt purified, cleansed, and ready for the new year.

Dan Cohen is a songwriter, music producer, and freelance writer. His reviews and reporting have appeared in SF Weekly, High Country News, the legendary North Conway Mountain Ear, and elsewhere. He performs for kids as Danna Banana. He lives in Nyack.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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