Berta Rojas: Finding ‘Felicidade’ in the Music of Brazil

Rodrigo Da Silva (Aura Audiovisual) Photo
BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE FALL 2017 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

It has been quite a ride for Paraguayan guitarist Berta Rojas since she last appeared on the cover of this magazine in the fall of 2014. There have been professional triumphs—such as well-received albums pairing Rojas, first, with Buenos Aires’ Camerata Bariloche chamber orchestra for an exceptional 2015 disc of Argentinian music called Historia del Tango; and her exciting spring 2017 Brazilian-music venture, Felicidade, on which Rojas was joined by an even larger orchestra—the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional del Paraguay—and, on several more intimate tracks, by some of Brazil’s best-known singer/musicians: Gilberto Gil, Toquinho, and Ivan Lins. 

But on the personal side, part of those last three years was consumed by something outside of her thriving music career—a shocking breast cancer diagnosis which effectively took her out of circulation for nearly a year, as she devoted most of her time to fighting the disease. The greatest news of all is that she appears to be on the other side of that battle, fully energized and committed to continuing her always-intriguing musical explorations of Latin America (and beyond).

“I had to cancel all my concerts in the year 2015,” she says by phone from her home in Asunción, the capital city of Paraguay, where she grew up. “It was a difficult year due to surgery and chemotherapy, but I am now, two years after, completely recovered and healthy. Through cancer I learned that you need to live a balanced life, with time to work, to rest, to enjoy life, to exercise. You need all colors in your life.

“I also learned that you cannot take playing the guitar for granted. You may one day lose your ability, so we have to appreciate it when we can play.”

That spirit of renewal clearly helped make the recording sessions for Felicidade among the most enjoyable and satisfying of Rojas’ long career. She made a point of savoring every moment, and her collaborations with the orchestra, with her guest duet partners, and with producer/arranger/conductor Popi Spatocco, inspired her to new creative heights. “Felicidade” translates as “happiness” from the Portuguese, and that pretty much sums up her feeling about the project. You can hear it throughout the album, even as the music navigates a tonally complex landscape of emotions: breezy takes on Antônio Carlos Jobim classics, such as the title track (in the widely admired arrangement by the late Roland Dyens), and the oft-covered Desafinado (Rojas’ own arrangement); an homenaje to Brazilian jazz composer Baden Powell (a medley arranged by Sebastian Henriquez), and Powell’s own Berimbau (written with Vinicius de Moraes); moving and heartfelt duos with Lins, Gil, and Toquinho (who is splendid on Ernesto Nazareth’s lovely Odeon, as well as in two pieces on which Rojas and the orchestra also appear); a beautifully rendered guitar-and-orchestra version of Egberto Gismonti’s suddenly popular Água e vinho; a nod to the father of modern Brazilian classical guitar, Heitor Villa-Lobos (Choro Tipico); and even Paulo Bellinati’s popular romp, Jongo.

Some of the more extravagant orchestrations sound like they would be perfect accompanying some ’60s or ’70s James Bond or Jean-Paul Belmondo action movie set on Rio’s Copacabana Beach and Sugarloaf Mountain, but many of the other songs feel like deep dives into the very soul of Brazil. It’s a wonderful, varied journey that will likely broaden Rojas’ audience, as Historia del Tango did.

For those who might not be up to speed on the trajectory of Berta Rojas’ story, a quick review is in order. Her guitar education was spread over many years in Paraguay, Uruguay, and the United States, and with an assortment of excellent teachers, each of whom imparted something different to her. As she noted in an interview with Dr. Annett Richter of the Minnesota Guitar Society, “My first teachers in Paraguay instilled in me, above all, the love for music, which was the main driving force for everything that came afterward, and they introduced me to the person who would embody perseverance and the continuous pursuit of excellence: [Paraguayan composer/guitarist] Agustín Pío Barrios. Little by little, with the guidance of my teachers in Uruguay, I kept advancing, strengthening my Latin American roots, and transitioning until my own voice could be heard through the guitar.” Among her teachers in Uruguay were Abel Carlevaro, Eduardo Fernandez, and Mario Paysée, and in America—at the Peabody Institute, where she earned her advanced degrees—Manuel Barrueco, Ray Chester, and Julian Gray.

Since the beginning of her professional career she has been closely associated with the music of Barrios, recording what some consider the best all-Barrios album ever made—Intimate Barrios (1998)—and promoting his works far and wide. Indeed, since 2009 she has made countless appearances in Paraguayan schools, introducing nearly 45,000 young people to the country’s greatest composer, and has also undertaken several long tours dubbed “In the Footsteps of Mangoré [Barrios]” to 20 countries in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. She told Richter, “I felt, given my background and sense of belonging to Paraguay, perhaps I could musically portray the various scenarios that Barrios described with his music, and in that way, make a contribution. The public received it with amazing warmth, and the truth is, at present, I could hardly play a concert without including Barrios—the audience would request it if I didn’t!”


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But as she has shown repeatedly through the years, there is much more to her than Barrios—or even what many would strictly categorize as “classical guitar.” On her albums and at her live programs, she has championed numerous contemporary composers, such as Vincent Lindsey-Clark, Alberto Rojo, Juan Manuel Acevedo, Walter Heinze, Ismael Ledesma, and so many others. And she has also made stunning duet albums and toured with Cuban saxophonist Pacquito D’Rivera (Día y medio; “A day and a half”) and Brazilian guitarist and arranger Carlos Barbosa-Lima (Alma y Corazon).

The move toward Rojas’ fuller, more orchestral sound actually began on the first track of the otherwise-solo 2013 album Salsa Roja: a piece called Tambito Josefino, by Costa Rican composer Edin Solis. But it would truly blossom on Historia del Tango, for which Latin Grammy winner Carlos Franzetti wrote lively arrangements for the 17-piece Camerata Bariloche, directed by Freddy Varela Montero and conducted by another Latin Grammy winner, Popi Spatocco. Their collaboration on Astor Piazzolla’s famous title suite and other pieces by Argentinian composers ranging from Carlos Gardel to Mariano Mores to Aníbal Troilo to Julián Plaza felt completely new and different; clearly the chemistry was there at every stage of the production. The album earned Rojas a much-deserved Latin Grammy nomination, her third (the first two were for the D’Rivera album and Salsa Roja).

Even before she made Historia del Tango, Rojas had her eye on someday making an album devoted to Brazilian composers, and the fact is she had been recording Brazilian pieces throughout her career, including ones by a handful of the composers represented on Felicidade: Gismonti, Jobim, Villa-Lobos, and Nazareth. The close bond she formed with Popi Spatocco on the Tango album continued after those sessions and after her recovery, so when she decided to proceed with a Brazilian album, he was the natural choice to produce again. “I had never worked with a music director before and I really liked it,” she says. “He always was so full of ideas, and it was nice having someone I could rely on to work with the musicians and take care of the project when I was tired.”

What made her think Spatocco would be the right person to also handle the orchestrations this time? “I had heard his arrangements for the great Argentinean singer Mercedes Sosa on the two Cantora CDs and loved them, so I thought it would be nice to hear Popi’s arrangements for guitar and orchestra. Then, when Toquinho and I played in Paraguay with the National Symphonic Orchestra [in late 2016], I had asked Popi to make the arrangements and he proved to be an amazing arranger. I had the time of my life working with Popi—he’s such a great musician and a great human being. His arrangement of [the song] Felicidade made Roland’s arrangement feel like it always had to be played with an orchestra.”

I asked her if she ever felt overwhelmed by playing guitar in such a large pop orchestral context, which is considerably different than, say, playing a classical guitar concerto. “Well, it was not too hard, but that’s because on this recording my biggest allies were the contrabass and the percussion—I really listened to them, and if I was together with them, it was alright. So we became very good friends,” she says with a laugh. “The whole thing was really a beautiful experience. All the musicians were excited, and Popi was wonderful, and it was also so special to record the orchestra here in Paraguay.” Some additional recording also took place at studios in Brazil and Argentina.

Each of those countries has its own unique folk and popular music which has been adapted to varying degrees by “classical” composers in South America (just as European composers of every era borrowed from folk sources). Rojas observes, “There are some similarities between Brazilian, Argentine, and Paraguayan music, but one thing that’s different in Brazilian music is the presence of so much of an Afro influence, which you hear in some of the rhythms.”

She says she doesn’t think much about categories of music—folk, pop, classical, jazz—so making an album that draws freely from all four of those genres felt completely natural to her. “It was Carlos Barbosa-Lima who told me: ‘There is only a border between good and bad music,’” she says. “He is able to arrange popular music that is so full of nuances. And of course he really knows how to orchestrate the music for two guitars. I learned a lot from him.

“In the end I just record the music that touches my heart, and I don’t worry about whether it’s this type of music or that type of music—I just want to play that piece, so I do that.”

But, I ask, do you see a natural connection between, on one side, the Villa-Lobos choro, and on the other, Bellinati’s more “pop” Jongo? “Yes. For one thing, both were inspired by popular idioms. The choro is everywhere in Brazil. I remember years ago being in a choro club in Rio de Janeiro; I believe it was the Casa do Choro. And people seated at different tables started to play and sing from their tables—table one proposed a piece, table four responded singing, table three with guitars, table two with percussion. Soon the whole place was united singing and playing! I found the choro to be very much alive in Brazil.

“Part of what I wanted to do on this album is combine different rhythms and textures, different feelings and sounds, and have the guitar sound good in each case. Like, there’s  quite a difference between Agua et Vinho and Odeon, no? Part of the challenge of making this was to decide: Can the guitar part really be heard? And is it appropriate? I like that there are so many kinds of music on here.”

Once the initial surprise of hearing the orchestra so prominent on seven of the 13 tracks wears off, attentive fans of Berta Rojas’ exquisite and evocative playing will find much to enjoy throughout this album—as accompaniment, counterpoint, and punctuation to Spatocco’s arrangements; as a reflective and sympathetic complement on the pieces with Toquinho, Lins, and Gil; and beautiful in its purity on the two solo guitar showcases, Jongo and, especially, Homenaje a Baden Powell. That last is also one of Rojas’ favorites—“We picked five pieces by Baden Powell and asked [Argentinean arranger] Sebastián Henriquez to develop a piece around them; so there are a few different styles in there—you can even hear some Baroque in there. I love that people can be so creative: Baden Powell and also Sebastián.” 

Rojas says she’d love to perform the pieces from Felicidade in concerts. but when we spoke in mid-June, nothing had been planned. On the more immediate horizon: starting in September, she will be a new associate professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

And then? “Well, I haven’t really decided yet, but I do want to explore the music of Central America more . . .”

Whatever her next move is, it is certain to be interesting, full of passion, and also fun.