Around the World on Six Strings

Nicholas Mah plays guitar with a grace that seems effortless.

Although it might seem out of place that Mah is playing classical and Spanish guitar music in Flipper’s Pub on Whitewater Wednesday, he still captures his audience’s attention.

Rick Sward of the Sophisticated Cavemen sits next to me, watching in awe. “He shreds on that thing,” Sward says amazed.

Originally from Ottawa, Mah came to Whitehorse with a friend a year and a half ago and decided to stay: “I made a living for a long time playing classical music,” he explains as he sips his tea at Baked Café.

“In classical music, unlike other genres like pop music, it’s not about personality. Someone has to play the notes as they’re written on the page and often it doesn’t matter much who it is.

“With classical gigs, you’re told be here at this time, wear a tuxedo and pink shoes. And don’t forget the pink shoes,” he emphasizes, wagging a finger. “That’s what it’s like at the small town level. Of course it’s different for the international stars. They’re more like rock stars … at that level it’s about personality.”

Mah began his classical training as a kid and continued training at the University of Ottawa, finally travelling to Spain.

“I went to Alicante, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, where I studied under José Tomás, who was regarded by many as the best teacher in the world at that time, at least for Spanish music.”

He smiles and gestures as he explains Tomás’ teaching methods. “The funny thing about European guitar teachers is they will talk about anything but guitar in order to inspire you.

“They’ll tell you about the poor Gypsies who dance under a certain tree that has very bitter fruit and this is the music for that dance. They won’t teach you the technical stuff, to play this string with this finger here.

“When you’re at that high a level, people stop talking about technique.”

But Mah wasn’t alone, studying in Spain. “My education in Spain also came from meeting people from all over the world who were also studying there: Japanese, Americans, Swedes, Icelanders.

“I sat on the street and played with the Gypsies, I got to jam with Japanese guitar player, who were technically hot, and have jazz jams with the Americans.”

Mah especially enjoys playing Johann Sebastian Bach. “I like to take his work written for keyboard and transcribe it to guitar. In a piece of music there are often two lines of melody, called counterpoint,” he draws each line across the table to illustrate this, “and that’s ideal for guitar. You play one line with the the thumb and the rest with your fingers.

“Bach wrote inventions, which would sometimes have three or four melody lines. Most guitarists would do those in duets or trios. I’ve done three-part inventions solo, I’ve even done some four-part inventions. A conductor might have 20 parts, synchronous and asynchonous, all going at the same time.”

Mah’s diagram is becoming more complicated.

“And that requires a master musician. That’s my main interest, multi-part music.”

Just then, Mah perks up, listening to the jazz music playing over the stereo. “I love this. This is West Coast Blues, by Wes Montgomery. I’m actually a big jazz fan. I play some jazz guitar, too, but not very well. I’m trying to improve.

“I’m playing some jazz, blues and flamenco. I go to the Gold Rush on Thursdays for the blues jam and play along. I also play flamenco in a dance class.

“Playing classical or jazz in a bar is much like the other performing I’ve done,” he adds, philosophically. “It’s work. What you do either grabs people’s attention or it doesn’t. Even if you’re playing a pop song, people will listen for a few seconds, then resume talking. It’s not what they’re in the bar for.”

Even so, Mah’s skillful and easy guitar playing can grab the attention of even the hardest bar-goer, often receiving drinks in appreciation.

“He certainly adds a touch of class to jam night,” Peggy Hanifan says. And he also proves that on any given Whitewater Wednesday, anything can happen and usually does, with amazing results.

Five things you should know about Nicholas Mah:

  1. The only thing he like better than being somebody’s Dad is being two somebodies’ Dad.
  2. He played trumpet in university. “It’s hard to practise trumpet … it’s such a loud instrument.”
  3. He doesn’t know how to drive a car and ain’t planning on to learn. He likes bicycling, even at -40.
  4. He thinks lefties are in their right mind, especially left-handed guitar plays, like John Williams, Jimi Hendrix and himself.
  5. He’s never seen audiences as appreciative as Yukon audiences. “People love the arts here, they’re so supportive. They’re not at all blasé.”

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