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"There's something in the air of Andalucía"

British cellist Michael Kevin Jones. SUR
British cellist Michael Kevin Jones. SUR
  • Michael Kevin Jones , The British cellist took Andalusian folklore on board and blended Spanish guitar with his own instrument gaining international success

Michael Kevin Jones (London, 1969) has lived and worked around the world, but Spain is the country that he's always come back to. He talks to SUR in English about how his musical career brought him to Gibraltar, Cadiz and Madrid after a truly international early life.

How did you first find music?

I first discovered a piano at the age of about three in a hotel lounge in Lourenço Marques [now Maputo] in Mozambique. I was born in London but in my early years my family moved to Johannesburg as my father worked on the radar space tracking station outside the city. He had a lucky win on the Grand National and took me, my mother and baby sister Carol for the weekend to a lush colonial-style hotel. There I remember my mother teaching me to swim in the hotel pool and discovering an old upright piano with ivory keys in the usually empty lounge in which I played and I was fascinated with it; it seemed familiar and magical, I remember. A few years later we returned to England and my parents arranged for me to have piano lessons and bought a piano.

So, in early childhood you changed countries...

My 'expat' childhood was multicultural and happy. My great-grandfather Fumasoli, on my mother's side, moved to England from Lugano. Together with his brother he started a guest house and tea shop in London in 1908. Actually, due to his successful business he was able to pay for music lessons for my grandmother who played piano and her brother who played cello and later went to live in Nigeria. My father loved classical music, read gramophone magazines and had a fine collection of records. He knew every recording and version of all the great classical repertoire. But he hated David Bowie, whom I loved at 14, so I never appreciated certain things until later.

So, you have musical roots. How was your talent developed?

I was amazingly lucky to be educated within the UK comprehensive system at a very musical school. I'm happy that I had fantastic teachers for the cello which I started at 13. Three years after taking up cello, I went to study at Dartington College of Arts. To live and study music in college I received grants from the county. When I was 18, I entered the Royal College of Music in London where I studied for four years.

Michael with Agustín Maruri.

Michael with Agustín Maruri. / SUR

I know you speak German like a native. Why?

Germany came when I was about 10. My father had a contract for Telefunken in Ulm. We lived close to the Danube with a permanent smell of apple juice and Bavarian sausages. Both for me and my sister it was a challenge. We were sent to the local primary school without knowing a word of German. Later I realised that it had been a very wise choice of my mother. As a result we learnt German and mum taught us our other classes at home in the afternoons. Then we went back to UK and later I won a German government scholarship which gave me the chance to continue my studies in Cologne and Dusseldorf and from there start my professional experience playing in my teacher's chamber orchestra.

It seems you didn't have to work to pay for your studies...

At 17 and as a music student I was always auditioning for grants and loans to buy bows, etc. and I was lucky enough to meet the multimillionaire music lover Sam Alper, who owned what was then called the Both Worlds hotel on the rock of Gibraltar. He gave me a loan to buy a bow and my first paid job as a musician outside England playing string quartets in the hotel during the evenings and in the restaurant. We used to come over the border on jet skis to drink in Estepona after finishing; those are the things you do at 18 and fall in love for life with certain places.

So, then it was when you had your first encounter with the Mediterranean coast, was it?

Almost. I would say with my Italian origin the Mediterranean has always appealed to me. Actually, my professional career as a musician took me to Catalonia. I think at 24 my Latin roots were stronger than my head and I took a job in Barcelona playing in the famous Gran Teatre del Liceu. At that moment Spain became my home. Later, when I visited Madrid I immediately got that special connection with the city. In Madrid I feel comfortable. It's a city I love.

But your life in Spain was interrupted...

New York has always been a dream. From my childhood I remember my father talking a lot about New York and telling stories of when he was there in the Royal Navy in the 1950s. I liked to listen to his fantastic descriptions about the Broadway shows he saw and how the skyscrapers were so tall you couldn't see the sky. I can't forget his phrase "you could find anything and everything there". And I always dreamed of going there to find something, and maybe myself. I was lucky to visit New York several times before moving to live there for three years between 1999 and 2003. While there I recorded the Bach suites at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Strad and did some things you can only do at a certain point of your life, and in NY! Thank God I had that chance and was able to get that particular obsession out of my system.

For most people home is synonymous with "house"...

I understand what you mean. I know, home and "a house" can be confused and I did have that experience, or "learn that lesson" with a house in the wonderful village of Jimena de la Frontera which has a thriving musical and expat life. I was introduced to the village one Christmas by American classical music entrepreneur Jane Carhart and I fell in love and continued to visit until I had the opportunity to buy a small house, which unfortunately was, and had been, rat-infested for generations. I had to renovate and sell but I made many lasting friendships and ties in that village and also in Gibraltar and on the Costa de Sol, where I still play and teach.

Why, do you think, Andalucía entered your heart?

Definitely there is something in the air in this part of Andalucía where the provinces of Malaga and Cadiz merge and from which you can see the magnificent rock of Gibraltar and the African coast, which maybe somehow brings me back to my childhood in Africa. Frankly, I love Spanish music but didn't know how to play it until I was fortunate enough to meet and get to play with Spanish classical guitarist Agustín Maruri. He helped me learn how to blend playing my cello with the guitar sound. We formed the only established cello-guitar duo and had several CD hits in Hong Kong early on in our adventure, which helped us organise concerts in many countries.

Recording Bach's last notes for solo cello in the San Miguel basilica in March.

Recording Bach's last notes for solo cello in the San Miguel basilica in March. / SUR

Did you manage to "cover" countries you had not been to before?

Yes. We gave cello-guitar concerts all over the world. We had the chance to go to the US, to Florida, to play in the historic San Augustin. We combined that with concerts in New York and returned many times to play all over the USA, Canada and throughout South America and later Asia, Japan, China, Korea etc. It seems amazing now that we travelled so much and did so many concerts because every little trip now is a major affair, but I am happy to be able to have had this experience of touring the world with my best friend and a wonderful duo partner.

How did you spend the lockdown?

I lost my teaching job at the Madrid Dance School where I had been teaching children piano for the last year. Also, with no private pupils or concerts, for musicians like me who do not work for the state it is suddenly zero income. However many people are much worse hit so I try and use these things as challenges. By the way, I was very lucky to have the use of the iconic basilica San Miguel in Madrid the day before the shutdown on 13 March, and together with talented director Ramón Gullon and Sean Murray, we recorded Bach's last notes for solo cello and edited the video together online during the quarantine.