I rarely conduct interviews using email and don’t really like doing them over the telephone either. In my view, the talking and listening – more listening than talking, as I prefer it to be – is best done in person, and preferably in a quiet space where I can savour (I use the gastronomic term, “savour”, because it suggests a rather visceral experience), in this case the sound of the words; the way they are intoned gives them a particular colour and texture. They are alive, these words spoken by the person with whom I speak. Alphabets strung together and which ring and resonate making a particular luxurious sound, echoing in this quiet space have more meaning; accented vowels and diphthongs that are formed by the curl of the lips, blushing purple and rushing to meet the wind between her and I sitting close together from music not only to my ears but seem to float their ghostly visages across my eyes. I get so ravenously hungry in situations like this that I devour each word, each phrase and sentence as if I were receiving Holy Communion itself. And so hot are these to the touch of my skin that they burn themselves in the memory.
Rarely, if at all, such incredible magic takes place over the telephone. And when it does happen, I am left breathless as I was when I spoke to the great musician and guitarist Berta Rojas in Paraguay twice over a month and a half. Although she was thousands of miles away, I ‘saw’ her lips part into a perfect, radiant smile. And when she spoke to me it was as if she ‘sang’ her lines; now bubbling as if cascading through laughter, now sombre as if muffled by the ache of a memory, twisting in the gut, now wistful and blurred as if spoken through the translucency of tears; and no matter what, always spoken as if grateful to be alive and present with me – in this case, no matter how separate we may have been, in a place, in space where it felt that if we reached out, we could touch each other and hold hands through shared pain and joy. Berta Rojas is a special person; she has as have I, come face to face with death and been blessed instead by the grace of God smiling as He sent her back from the dead to play music again, and again for a world scorched by fire and drenched by rain. He sent me back too. And I write now not only giving thanks for having my life given back to me (twice), but so that I could not only speak to Berta Rojas but live to write about it too.
Berta Rojas speaks in words adorned with syllables that are redolent of the aroma of frankincense burning quietly somewhere, floating towards the guitar strings that she is plucking with the tips of nails of long, slender fingers, urging them to conjure images of Paraguay, Argentina and Brasil. The music that ensues echoes in between my ears like notes cut in high-fidelity, into a vinyl which spins around and around occasionally accompanied by the strings of an enormous, well-drilled orchestra. The words playback again and again when I listen to Felicidade, a grand work of art made up of the music of Brasil. The song is “Berimbau” by the great Brasilian guitarist Baden-Powell, to whom Miss Rojas is paying homage here, with Toquinho and the wonderful Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional del Paraguay, conducted by Popi Spatocco. The song melts into “Se ela perguntar” by Dilermando Reis. Toquinho is alone with her this time; he is replaced by Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional del Paraguay on “Choro Tipico” and the bracing, lyrical, bittersweet sound-world of Heitor Villa-Lobos, which, in turns melts into Paulo Bellinati’s “Jongo”. I am speechless, and “Jongo” also fades into space – and into silence…
I break the velvet silence between us with what I believe must be mundane questions, such as “How are you?” and so on. But Miss Rojas always finds a meditative and introspective way to answer, capturing in her special way, BIG emotions on a small scale, with a poetic concentration that only an artist with her particularly powerful calibre can. Her answers are short, spoken intimately as if for me alone. Yet there is nothing hermetic about her approach at all. Gently, insistently, quietly, she draws me into her world – which is all melody and wonderfully chordal – and the effect is always thoroughly absorbing. I ask her if her gorgeous auburn hair has grown back again (after the virulent chemotherapy that she had recently been through) and first she laughs disarmingly, with a bright child-like giggle, then she sings a short line in praise of God and it is as if a whole Barcarolle has unfolded, its rhythms exploding like a box of rioting crayons, the echo of which beams its dynamic melody across the stratospheric miles that separate us: “By the grace of God…” (She breathes into the telephone). “He is a mighty God, and he is good,” she says.
The disc in my player runs out and I switch it back to the beginning. Felicidade begins to play, and Berta Rojas’ fingers make the song shimmy out of the speakers like a diaphanous gown unfurling. Song after song plays and I live each moment in the present, looking ahead and trying to fix my mind’s eye onto some distant point from where it appears safe to look back. Throughout, I feel as if I am in the presence of the finest of tour guides as Miss Rojas ushers me into secret spaces in of her choosing in a Brasil I am ever-grateful to discover. As Pliny once said, albeit in a different context, I feel that I am “choking with gold”. The history of Brasilian, in the spirit of the music, is gently unfolding as I follow Miss Rojas, walking past the long, long sleep of kings: Vinicius de Moraes, Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, Ernesto Nazareth, Baden Powell de Aquino, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Dilermando Dos Santos Reis… Their great names echo with legends of valour and epic stories, their waking and sleeping marked by iconic songs emerging from effervescent pens overflowing notes to sing in songs that will last forever. Miss Rojas makes each song a magnificent votive offering as if in a cathedral, joined here by three great Brasilians: Gilberto Gil, Toquinho, Ivan Lins. “A distinct honour,” was how she described the experience.
Berta Rojas is on song. Her music is coming from the springtime of her being. Her guitar is a small orchestra. It is polyphonic. Every string is a different colour, a different voice. She is playing softly now; then a little louder as the strings of Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional del Paraguay begin to argue with her. She finds her voice and begins to illuminate the melody of “Homenaje a Baden Powell” a rare composition by her and her guitar opens like a great tome from Jorge-Luis Borges’ mythical library Tlön, Uqbar, or Orbis Tertius. Miss Rojas then proceeds to reveal the guitar’s huge vocabulary of sounds and effects – song after song – that combine to make it sound as big as an ensemble, but which have always needed her insight to deploy effectively. Her sounds range from harmonics and pizzicato to technique exotica, such as ‘nut-side’, ‘nail sizzle’ and ‘bi-tone tapping’ (plus) she suddenly unleashes a battery of percussion possibilities (on Paulo Bellinati’s “Jongo”, for instance) as if her guitar has come with a drum set attached.
I am astounded by her technique and find, when I ask her about it, that she practices incessantly. She used to practice a lot more before her troubles, I find out. But now she is much more relaxed and makes time for many other things in life, such as events dedicated to women, women musicians and women who have come through breast-cancer, and to children – especially those who are severely underprivileged: For instance, she was joined by La Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura (literally the Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura) played by children on instruments recycled from rubbish that they (the children) mine on the Cateura landfill on the outskirts of Asunción, haunted by these very children to eke out a meager existence. The song was Edin Solis’ “Tambito Josefino” and the album was Salsa Roja (ON Music, 2013) from which she began a Latin-American journey, albeit kick-started by an earlier encounter in Paraguay with Paquito D’Rivera, a recording entitled Día y Medio (ON Music, 2012). Those efforts resulted in a musical adventure in Argentina, Historia del Tango (ON Music, 2015) where Berta Rojas and Camerata Bariloche undertook to re-discover and re-imagine the work of Mariano Mores, Aníbal Troilo, Ástor Piazzolla, Virgilio Expósito, Julián Plaza and Anselmo Aieta. Here Miss Rojas was joined by Carlos Franzetti, whose magnificent arrangements animate the record like glimmering gems. It is also here where the guitarist came to work with Popi Spatocco, who conducted the Camerata Bariloche, and returned again later to (produce and) conduct the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional del Paraguay, on Felicidade.
By then the die was cast. “I have a dream,” Berta Rojas tells me when we speak, “Of travelling throughout the length and breadth of South America to bring the great traditions to life from everywhere I go.” “What a wonderful idea!” I find myself saying to her. “And what a tiring journey that will be by the end of it all,” I add, thinking of how much of a strain it will be on her spry body as it recovers from the exhaustion of her two-year sorjourn to bring Felicidade to fruition from the day it took birth as she (Miss Rojas) began to feel the urge to glorify the unique (in all of South America and, indeed, the world) and extraordinary guitar music tradition of Brasil. The very thought of Berta Rojas making circling North and South America, and even branching out to Europe to promote Felicidade exhausts me. I ask her how she thinks she will feel doing all the legwork. “It is a labour of love,” she shoots back. “For me the enigma of arrival at my destination is so exciting, it fills me with energy,” she says. “No time to feel the melancholy of departure,” I tell her, as images of the pre-surrealist paintings of Giorgio de Chirico flash by. “Besides the feeling of being alive in the music is a beautiful way to begin each day,” she adds, as if icing a delicious marble cake before my eyes. “There is nothing more beautiful than to be sustained by music, from the word ‘hello’ to the word ‘goodbye’… what else is there in the world, after all, but ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’” she says to me. I struggle to hold back the tears that suddenly fill my eyes; then run down my cheeks to my trembling lips. Are they tears of joy? Or sorrow? I cannot tell. But they taste bittersweet.
(I would be remiss if I did not thank Diane Blackman, Miss Rojas’ publicist, for putting up with me and my requests; and offer a cornucopia of gratitude to Berta Rojas for making time to speak with me)
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