DVD review: Benise – The Spanish Guitar

Review by Dawoud Kringle

Benise-spanish-guitar_t614A few years back, PBS aired a production of Benise: The Spanish Guitar as part of a fundraiser. The production was released as a DVD. Described in concert reviews as “The Latin River Dance,” this promised to be a monumental artistic statement in the Spanish guitar tradition, and beyond.

After a careful viewing, its real merits are obvious. The production is well paced, the musicians and dancers were spot on professionals, well rehearsed, and the production values are very well done.

But the whole thing leaves me with a profound sense of betrayal. Benise and his desperately needed plethora of musicians, dancers, elaborate stage sets, and CGI all conspire to evoke well planned emotional responses from audiences of limited taste and musical sensitivity – all with a meticulously choreographed technical perfection that is insincere and mechanical. It is, in fact, for those who have more musical sensitivity than the type whose idea of fine Mexican cuisine is an evening at Taco Bell, an insult to one’s intelligence.

The entire work fails utterly to achieve exactly what it pretends to do: evoke sensuous and erotic scenarios of various cultures that some audiences would believe to be “exotic.” Benise and company shamelessly looted Spanish, Indian, Arabic, Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean and other cultures as if they were his to steal, and came up with nothing beyond cheap parlor tricks as a result.

One example; “The Prince” was a hash of cheap imitations of Arabic and Indian music, and kept dragging itself back again and again to a Spanish flavor. There were sporadic blobs of someone’s pitiful attempt to play the sitar, and occasional ejaculations of quasi-Desi singing to remind the listener that this is supposed to be Indian. The dancers tried to hybridize “erotic” belly dancing and some facsimile of Kathak dance, to little effect; and relied heavily on the sexually suggestive undulations found throughout the whole video that they seemed to feel justified their paychecks.

Another example was “Aranjuez”; a shameless and tasteless butchering of Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez;” which reduced the beauty and sublimity of the original to a shadow of itself. It doubtless has the late Spanish composer spinning in his grave fast enough to generate electricity.

Benise’s guitar playing is the focal points of the performances. Or is supposed to be. Granted, he can play the guitar. He has chops. But he relies too heavily on gimmicks that have little or no musical value. His guitar playing, while technically well done, is simply not interesting, and fails to create a real emotional response. And he adds to this endless posturing, moving the guitar in dramatic gestures, and occasional dancing that is embarrassing to look at.

If it weren’t for the modern production technology, and cheap gratuitous sexuality on steroids with Fabio walking out of a calendar photo strumming a guitar, it would have about the same musical and artistic merit as a re-run of the Laurence Welk Show. Expecting “Benise: The Spanish Guitar” to live up to its own hype, and any acceptable level of musical excellence and good taste is like searching for the love of one’s life while walking through a red light district, being seduced in the most cheap and pornographic way imaginable, ending up with a quick-and-dirty-wham-bam in a stinking alley… and having one’s wallet lifted in the process (not to mention an STD as a souvenir).

PBS! How could you do this to us?