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Tim Sparks


Have Guitar, Will Travel
Tim Sparks, formerly of Rio Nido, lets his fingers do the walking `round the wide world of music

Minneapolis Star Tribune
April 16, 1995
by Jon Bream

Tim Sparks won the national guitar finger-picking championship in 1993 in Winfield, Kan., but he didn't make any announcements back home in Minneapolis or send out any press releases. He merely added the information to his resume.
    Guitar ace Leo Kottke asked Sparks to give him lessons about harmony a few years ago, but Sparks didn't put that choice assignment on his resume. Sparks, best known for his work in the 1980s Twin Cities vintage jazz group Rio Nido, maintains a resume primarily so he can apply for grants to continue his various guitar explorations: such projects as transcribing Tchaikowksy's "Nutcracker Suite" for guitar or immersing himself in the fado folk-guitar culture in Portugal.
    Sparks' resume ought to bill him as Minnesota's most adventurous, unassuming, underappreciated guitarist.
    Listen to Kottke, who resides in Guitar Player magazine's Hall of Fame as well as in Wayzata: "His stuff is very difficult to play, but it doesn't sound difficult. I think that's real musicianship. He's really one of the best musicians I know."
    Dean Magraw, probably the Twin Cities' most in-demand jazz guitarist, will share the Guthrie Theater stage Saturday with Sparks and two European guitarists. Like Sparks, Magraw is fascinated by the music of other cultures. And he knows how hard it is to make a living as a guitarist.
    "Given all the economic and artistic pressures we face when the Muzaky-type artists are commercially successful, those who take risks are often ignored," Magraw said. "The people who have the most to say are not the ones working. Tim tries to stay true to the music and true to his heart and true to his own feelings."
    In a roundabout way, Magraw has explained why we haven't heard much from Sparks since Rio Nido broke up in 1987. Sparks, 40, has been woodshedding, studying the music of other cultures by traveling abroad and by playing around the Twin Cities in Persian, Brazilian, Greek, French, Jewish and other ethnic bands.
    "After the end of Rio Nido, I'd had my fill of guitar in the context of being the accompaniment to something else, although I do a lot of accompanying," Sparks said recently over Chinese food. "What interests me is when a person is playing {guitar} by themselves and trying to carry all the lines together: the motion, the bass line, the chords, the melody and improvise. I want to challenge the prevailing notions of what constitutes real interesting guitar music and contribute new work that other players can utilize."
    So even if he's an accompanist, it's a special kind of accompaniment - perhaps using an oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument similar to a lute, to back a cantor in a Jewish choral concert. This spring Sparks was hired to create African music for a CD-ROM project about two bicyclists riding from Tunisia to the Cape of Good Hope.

The road to the oud

The oud (rhymes with food) has been a curious adventure for Sparks. About six years ago, while playing in a Brazilian band, he received one from a friend in Turkey. Kottke feared the instrument would be a permanent detour for Sparks.
    "About the time the oud came along, I envisioned Tim wearing one of those little leather hats that makes you look like a bar stool, and drinking some kind of Turkish coffee," Kottke said. "I thought we were losing him; I thought he was getting Balkanized, and we'd never hear from him again. But we have, and he came back and brought it all with him."
    Kottke, in fact, was fascinated by what Sparks has done with his Middle Eastern studies, as evidenced by his 1993 album "Balkan Dreams."
    "It sounded as if he'd grown up in Sofia {Bulgaria} in his dad's string band because he understood it so well," Kottke said. "But he managed to bring some Tim Sparks to it after a while, so it no longer sounded like Bulgaria or Minnesota. It sounded like something else. It's very hard to do that. He can do that. "Being an uneducated musician, I think one of the dangers of being literate in music {is that} you kind of lose your own voice. Tim keeps growing his."
    Sparks would blush at the praise from someone he considers a "cultural icon." To Sparks, who comes from the rural South, the guitar is "a metaphor for reconciling and expressing the tensions and differences I see in the world around me."
    He has been attracted to music in which artists strive "to build a bridge to resolve a real strong cultural tension - whether it's music from the Balkans or the Mediterranean or the Middle East or jazz," he said. "Jazz was a cultural attempt to resolve the inherent cultural conflict here in the United States.
    "The guitar is a common denominator to all these cultures. So if I juxtapose a Celtic melody with a Turkish rhythm, or a traditional northeast Brazilian song form with a dance rhythm that comes from Kurdistan, these are all things that I've actually played. I try to get that real feel so when you play, it sounds like a boogaloo."

Redneck roots

Musically, Sparks is one of the most ethnically diverse players in the Twin Cities, but his own ethnic background is not readily apparent.
    "I'm a redneck, basically," he blurted.
    Growing up near Winston-Salem, N.C., he was influenced by his grandmother, who played guitar and piano in an Appalachian gospel quartet. His first guitar lessons came from a moonshiner uncle.
    Because Sparks lived in the county where the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts was located, he was able to attend that high school, where he studied classical guitar with Jesus Silva, a protege of Spanish guitar giant Andres Segovia.
    Not long after graduating from high school in 1973, Sparks was on tour in a Midwestern R&B band when he came to the Twin Cities to visit a former North Carolina schoolmate, guitarist Tony Hauser. He liked the liberal society here, so he stayed.
    He fell in love with the publicist for the Guild for the Performing Arts on the West Bank. Chyrll Weimar had two young children, for whom Sparks became an instant daddy. Now he has four grandchildren, and Grandma does promotions for the We Fest, the country-music festival in Detroit Lakes, Minn., of which she is part-owner.

Born on Halloween

"He's the nicest guy on the planet, whatever planet he lives on," said LeeAnn Weimar, his sister-in-law, who promotes concerts at First Avenue in Minneapolis. "Of course, his birthday is Halloween. He is in his own little world. He finds all types of music interesting. I remember he played at Thumper's {bar} in country bands. He's done the Christmas strolling at Lund's thing. He's a worker."
    Kottke said that Sparks is hilarious, though he can't recall any specific jokes. Weimar goes on about sitting around Sparks' south Minneapolis house listening to him play the oud and invent silly song titles like "I'm in the Oud for Love."
    Sparks' home reflects his broad and eclectic interests: a poster featuring reggae king Bob Marley, window boxes he's painted Turkish style, furniture he's painted with a Mexican look, naive paintings by a North Carolina artist, a chess game on the computer screen, his huge finger-picking championship trophy atop the stereo, his grandchildren's bicycles on the front porch.
    "Tim has a positive outlook. He's open to all kinds of ideas, " said Magraw, who has toured Europe with him. "He's always trying to help people out." Sparks gave a Magraw tape to Peter Finger, the German guitarist who heads Acoustic Music Records, for which Sparks records. Magraw ended up on the German label, too.
    Sparks has finished recording his soon-to-be-released album, "Altered Native," which includes his adaptation of a Bela Bartok piece and such original multicultural sojourns as "Bluezookie" and "Bach and Aziya." The guitarist has given a tape of the album to Kottke and asked him to write liner notes.
    What does Kottke say about his former teacher? "I'm Tim Sparks' biggest fan."

Tim Sparks
Born/ Oct. 31, 1954, in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Residence/ A house in south Minneapolis, a farm in Detroit Lakes, Minn.
Family/ Wife Chyrll Sparks, promotions director and part owner of the We Fest in Detroit Lakes; two stepchildren, four grandchildren.
Education/ North Carolina School of the Performing Arts (with Minnesotan Tony Hauser); master classes with Andres Segovia.
Work experience/ Shortly after moving to the Twin Cities in the mid-'70s, he joined Rio Nido, a vintage vocal jazz group; he also played with other bands, ranging from country to jazz. Since Rio Nido disbanded in 1987, Sparks has played in various ethnic bands, including Mandala (Brazilian), Robayat (Persian) and Marc Stillman (Jewish wedding band), and worked solo.
Recordings/ With Rio Nido: "I Like to Riff," "Hi Fly" and "Voicings." Solo on the Germany-based Acoustic Music Records: "Nutcracker Suite" and "Balkan Dreams." "Altered Native" is scheduled for release later this year.
Awards and distinctions/ Winner of the 1993 National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship at Winfield, Kan.; arranged Russian folk song for solo guitar for the 1989 Guthrie Theater production of "Uncle Vanya"; arranged Carla Bley's "Jesus Maria" (written for piano and clarinet) for guitarist Leo Kottke; received Jerome Foundation fellowship to study fado music in Portugal; received a grant from Minnesota State Arts Board to study Eastern European music, resulting in his writing "Balkan Dreams Suite," which will be published as an instructional book; adapted Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" for guitar; published arrangements in Guitar Player magazine.

Copyright 1995 Star Tribune.


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