An Interview With guitarist Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas

Performance Reviewed had the opportunity to ask Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas a few questions on his unique style and upcoming performance Cubania at the Royal Opera House, London, in July. Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas is recognised internationally for his fusion of classical music with 1940s American Jazz and has worked with some of the most respected names in the classical music world, such as Leo Brouwer, John Williams, Eduardo Martin and Jose Antonio Rojas.

Can you tell us about your fusion of classical music with 1940s American jazz? Which artists have heavily influenced this music?

For more than 10 years I have been championing the musical creations of Jose Antonio (Ñico) Rojas, the great self- taught Cuban guitar composer who since 1942 created works that merged Cuban genres with western classical styles.

These pieces were heavily influenced by the likes of Gershwin, Chopin, Nat King Cole and traditional Cuban bands like “La Aragón” or “Maravillas de Arcaño”.

Would you consider the duo Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli the pioneers of fusing classical music with jazz?

Both performers were more jazzers than classical players though Grapelli had had a classical education. There were slightly earlier attempts by both European and American classical composers to insert jazz harmonies into their compositions. But somehow these efforts didn’t reach the levels of success and coverage that Django and Stephane enjoyed.

How do you reconcile the improvisational aspect of jazz music with the very structured classical score?

It can be done. A classical score is always a template on which each performer decides whether to establish their own vision or not.

Jazz performers could improvise on top of almost anything but the quality of such a feat will always depend on the taste and preparation of the jazz player as well as the quality of the classical score.

There are many great musicians from either jazz or classical spectrums who have been expanding or blurring the boundaries between jazz and classical structures. I can think of Michel Legrand, Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Miles Davis.

You have had a very international upbringing. Which culture has been the most significant in forming your idiosyncratic style?

It’s been a lucky set of events that I’ve always been in the right country at the right time of my life. Cuban culture was instrumental in nurturing my talent and my artistic sensibility. I studied with wonderful teachers in an environment that propelled the assimilation of both classical and cuban musical languages. The UK has been and is crucial in honing those skills with the addition of even more musical languages. Here in England I have found the opportunity to perform frequently and to also collaborate with people from all over the world and who resonate with my vision. The best of both worlds.

What has been your most challenging performance to date?

It has to be my final exam from Superior Institute of Arts in Cuba. I had to perform a 2 x 45 minute programme of music. The first half with western classical music including Bach, Ponce and Rodrigo. In the second half I introduced my transcriptions from Ñico Rojas’ music. The scary element was that everybody in the jury was a top guitar professor who knew everything about classical works but they also had known Ñico’s works way before I was born. They all were friends of his and had heard him play some of those pieces over many years. I had to be stylistically accurate in order to convince them with such contrasting sets.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming collaboration with Carlos Acosta in Cubania at the Royal Opera House in July?

It is an honour and a great pleasure to collaborate with such a prominent star. For many years I’ve wanted to work with Carlos Acosta and this event represents a validation of my musical efforts.

The rehearsing stage has been very intense. He has gathered an incredibly talented group of artists around him and the show will be full of sparks.

Cubania goes on show at the Royal Opera House, London, from July 21st: