Alirio Díaz

by Thomas Stiegler

In the highlands of Carora, until a few years ago you could see a man standing in the fields at dawn listening to the singing of birds. A lonely man, perhaps, who looked at the blowing of a leaf, followed the flight of the condor and created a wall of silence around him.

From a distance he looked like a simple farmer, content with himself, contemplating God’s beautiful nature and looking towards a quiet old age in the circle of his grandchildren.

Strangers hardly ever strayed to this place, and the local people knew who he was. One of their own, of the same blood that had set out to conquer the world outside. …and yet always returned to this very spot that was his home.

Alirio Diaz was considered by many to be the horror of the guitar. A dazzling virtuoso, one of the great interpreters of the 20th century, whose playing was completely different from that of his contemporaries.

Anyone who saw him once on his way to the stage, with the swaying step of a primitive peasant, was surprised by his playing, in which the primeval power of his homeland united with a noblesse that is rare on our instrument.

But who was he, the man who said of himself that he came from silence? And who always fled into silence, to the places of his childhood?

Who was this man, and where did he come from?

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It takes endurance and courage to reach La Candelaria. But above all it needs a road map, a car with good shock absorbers and some bottles of cold water.

Because even today it is still an adventure to follow this road, at the end of which one only finds a small group of houses that seems to defiantly resist the course of the world.

It is a quiet place, a place where the locals say that even the goats go crazy here because their ancestors already ate the last leaves from the trees.

 

And yet it is a place that gives people a home. A place where they bear their children, where they grow old and finally die.

Just as Alirio Diaz, who was born here on November 12, 1923, the son of poor farm workers, seemed destined to die.

 

It was a dark world into which he was thrown.

For Venezuela was a poor country, and the poorest of the poor were the simple people in the countryside, who often lived by hand.

Even the children had to work from morning to night in the fields to plant corn and potatoes or to help feed the few pigs and goats. And yet they usually went to bed with a growling stomach.

But as poor as the people were, they loved to laugh and sing. In every house there was an instrument, be it a cuatro, a violin or maracas. There were even guitars and bandolines.

And so the few days off, the Sundays above all, were full of dance and music that illuminated the hard life.

Such an early immersion, such a natural growing up with the music of his homeland was a blessing for a musician who would later become one of the most important interpreters of South American music.

 

Alirio made his first attempts at the cuatro at the age of eight and learned to play the guitar from his uncle, who also taught him to read and write. He showed such a zeal that he was soon able to perform with other musicians and thus contribute a little to the family’s livelihood.

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But how much a stronger spark must have glowed in the little boy during those years, for everywhere he looked for books, for reading, to feed his still immature mind.

In one of his grandfather’s boxes he finally found material for dreaming. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” fell into his hands, which he learned by heart. And, an early omen for his future path, the guitar school of F. Carulli.

But despite these small points of light, his life consisted primarily of hard work and a poverty that prevented him from breaking with the narrow boundaries of the traditional.

 

But one day he decided to follow in the footsteps of a few friends and leave his homeland.

But while they were drawn to the oil fields of Zulia to become rich, he wanted to go to Carora, the only city he knew that could satisfy his hunger for knowledge.

And so he, only sixteen years old, quietly packed his things and sneaked out of his parents’ house, never to return for many years.

 

The first step towards freedom had been taken, but the foreign city was waiting for him only with a new disappointment. For them he was just one of the many boys from the country, one of the nameless, hoping for a better life within their borders.

In order to survive, one of his brothers, who earned his miserable bread as a typographer here, got him a job as a ticket ripper in a cinema. But the education and culture he so longed for was still denied him.

Then he happened to read in a newspaper that the state awarded scholarships to talented young people. On the same day he made preparations for a trip on which he wanted to speak to the president personally.

Through his persistence he made it to the office of his personal secretary, but on this very day the President had left for a trip through his country and was therefore not able to speak.

So he turned back for the moment, determined to try again soon.

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But then one of those coincidences happened, which could give even the greatest mocker an inkling of the predestination of all life.

The famous journalist Chío Zubillaga heard the young Alirio fantasizing on the guitar and said to him: “Don’t go to Barquisimeto. You must become a great artist. Go to Trujillo to study music.”

 

Diaz listened to this advice. Armed with a letter of recommendation, he set off on his journey and was welcomed by Laudelino Mejias, the director of the institution.

Over the next few years he not only received a comprehensive musical education here, but he finally had access to the education he had longed for so long.

But this time was far harder than it appears in retrospect. For no scholarship was linked to the permission to attend school, and so during all these years he had to stand in a printing press for eight hours a day, day after day, to provide for his daily bread.

 

During all these years, his wish to become a musician and to make the guitar the centre of his life became stronger.

But Laudelino warned him to take his time: “Wait. I know when to leave so you can continue your studies and become what I would like to be.”

That moment seemed to have come in 1945.

Alirio was now 22 years old, a young man endowed with a new self-confidence and the certainty that he was destined for the guitar. He also knew how hard he could work and was ready to devote his life to learning the basics of the classical guitar and mastering this instrument.

Raúl Borges was the right teacher for a young man with this ambition. A friend of Agustín Barrios Mangoré and Antonio Lauro, he was a composer himself and a well-known virtuoso, through whose hands the best virtuosos of Venezuela passed.

The most gifted among them was certainly Alirio Diaz, and under his guidance he succeeded in mastering the instrument to perfection.

 

Now, finally, after many years of learning and struggle, all the work was finally to bear fruit. On 12 February 1950 A. Diaz made his debut in Caracas with works by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Johann Sebastian Bach and Manuel María Ponce and was celebrated by critics as the new star in the guitar heaven.

In order to further his artistic development, he completed his studies and planned to travel to Europe. This time the state granted him a scholarship and in the same year he travelled to Spain to study with Sáinz de la Maza.

 

But even here he did not stay long. When he learned that Andrés Segovia, whom he had already had the pleasure of admiring in Venezuela, was gathering a small circle of students around him, he set off again.

Segovia was immediately enthusiastic about him. It was not only his impeccable technique and his extensive repertoire, but also the fact that he had made his style completely his own on the basis of some of the master’s records.

Segovia would later describe him as one of the best students he had ever taught and as one of the greatest promises to the world of the guitar.

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In the following decades, A. Diaz would fulfill that promise. He gave concerts on all important stages of the world and conquered the hearts of countless people with his playing.

It is not without reason that his name seems to me to be engraved in the pantheon of the greatest interpreters of the classical guitar.

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