The Barrios Renaissance: The Great Paraguayan Composer/Guitarist has Never Been More Popular

BY MARK SMALL | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

The recent wave of interest in the music of Agustín Barrios Mangoré, as powerful as it is surprising, continues to surge across the guitar world. It’s been more than three decades since editions of Barrios’ compositions became widely available, and today, an ever-growing number of guitarists are mining the Barrios catalog. This point of arrival, however, took about a century to reach.

Born in 1885 in San Juan Bautista de las Misiones in southern Paraguay, Barrios undertook formal studies with Gustavo Sosa Escalada, who schooled him in the Sor and Aguado guitar methods. At 25, Barrios left Paraguay, and as a concert guitarist he visited and/or lived in 20 Latin American countries and in Europe. He spent his final years in El Salvador, where he died in 1944 at 59. After his passing, his reputation was kept alive by a coterie of friends, former students, and performers.

Today, acclaimed Paraguayan guitarist Berta Rojas proclaims Barrios a “national treasure” in Paraguay. During his lifetime and afterwards, Barrios was celebrated as a performer and composer in Latin America, but it took time for the rest of the world to catch up. Although many tireless devotees helped preserve Barrios’ music and bring it to the worldwide guitar community, three figures—Rojas, Barrios scholar Richard “Rico” Stover, and guitarist John Williams—have done much to stoke the renewed interest in Barrios.

SEEKING A CHAMPION

There are varying opinions about the 1921 meeting between Andrés Segovia and Barrios in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At the time, Barrios was famous throughout Latin America, while Segovia was known internationally. In a recent phone interview, Stover related that Barrios played many of his compositions for Segovia on the Maestro’s guitar during a two-hour meeting at Segovia’s hotel room. In the Segovia biography Don Andrés and Paquita, author Alfredo Escande reproduces an upbeat letter dated October 15, 1921, from Barrios to his Uruguayan friend Martín Borda y Pagola, in which Barrios reports that he had “won Segovia over,” and that Segovia wanted to play his piece La Catedral in concerts. Barrios didn’t have the music with him and urged Pagola to send it to him so Segovia could have it before sailing for Europe on November 2.

Escande also quotes Paraguayan guitarist Sila Godoy, who claims he was present years later when Segovia spoke of the fabled meeting to members of his 1959 summer classes in Siena, Italy. According to Godoy, Segovia said he felt Barrios had “a magnificent concert piece” in La Catedral, and that he had asked for the music, but it never arrived. Barrios was hopeful that Segovia playing his music would bring him the widespread attention he felt his music deserved. Many view the failed connection as a severe setback for Barrios.

Stover, however, is skeptical that Segovia ever would have become a champion for Barrios. “Segovia played Norteña by [Argentinian] Gomez Crespo, Natalia, a waltz by [Venezuelan] Antonio Lauro, and some preludes and etudes by [Brazilian] Heitor Villa-Lobos,” Stover says. “That’s about it. He was not too interested in Latin American music.” In the 2010 BBC Radio 4 program Great Lives, John Williams went further: “[Segovia] used to forbid people in his classes in the 1960s and ’70s from playing Barrios’ music. The Spanish culture looked down on Latin American culture—not so much today, but in [1921], when Segovia met Barrios, it was quite strong.”

Even if Segovia had liked La Catedral, other things about Barrios clashed with Segovia’s artistic sensibilities. Among them were Barrios’ performances in traditional Paraguayan Guaraní garb and his unique blending of elements from popular music, South American rhythms, and European classical influences in his compositions. Williams characterizes Barrios’ style of playing as “straight from the heart.” “Being so open—heart on sleeve—had been frowned on,” Williams told the BBC. “I don’t think that would have gone down well with Segovia.” None of these things, however, troubled Williams.

ADVOCATES AT LAST

The album John Williams—Barrios, released in 1977, was the first full-length album of Barrios’ music. As a teenager, Williams had been introduced to a few Barrios works by the late, great Venezuelan guitarist Alirio Díaz. “When I was a student at summer classes in Italy, Alirio gave me two pieces by Barrios, which I always played,” Williams said. “In 1969, Carlos Payés, a medical student from El Salvador, came through London with copies of 50 or 60 manuscripts and early publications of Barrios’ music. I went through them very thoroughly and was knocked out by the range and quality of the music. It was an absolute revelation to me. [Those pieces were] what my recording in the 1970s was based on.”

Williams began performing Barrios’ music around the world, and in 1995, he released From the Jungles of Paraguay: John Williams Plays Barrios, which offered updated renditions of many pieces from the first disc and introduced five additional titles—including Julia Florida, Las Abejas, and Vals No. 4, which are now staples of the repertoires of countless performers. “The contribution of John Williams is invaluable,” says Stover. “He put the music at the level it needed to be on, right away.”

Williams remains a staunch advocate for Barrios. For a London concert in July 2018 [see review in the Winter 2018 issue of CG], Williams invited Barrios standard-bearer Berta Rojas to split the bill with him, asking her to play all Barrios in her half. Before the two performed the duet version of Danza Paraguaya as an encore, Rojas publicly thanked Williams for all he has done to bring much-deserved attention to Barrios. Her heartfelt sentiment elicited prolonged applause from the audience.

LATIN AMERICAN INVESTIGATION

Stover recalls first hearing about Barrios in 1962, when, as a high schooler, he was an exchange student in Costa Rica. “I bought my first guitar there and began playing chords and songs,” Stover says. “I went to a party where a man named Juan de Dios Trejos was playing classical guitar. I’d never heard that before and asked him how he learned. He said he had a great teacher named Mangoré. Juan was the first person to put the name of Barrios in my head.” Stover went on to devote years of serious study to the classical guitar. In the process, he began encountering the name of Barrios and obtained a couple of his pieces.

The summer before his final year at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Stover returned to Central America to formally investigate the life and work of Barrios. “I came back with about 80 of his pieces, recorded interviews with people who had known him, and a cassette tape of his playing,” Stover says. “I realized that he was a major figure for the guitar, but nobody knew about him.” For his senior project, Stover presented a recital of Barrios’ music and wrote his thesis about him.


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According to Stover, the composer only edited about ten pieces for publication during his lifetime, but he had liberally shared copies of his works in his artistic calligraphy with friends, students, fellow performers, and a few publishers. Barrios’ extensive travels and vagabond lifestyle as a touring artist added to the complexity of collecting his music. Some selections survived only on 78 rpm recordings made by Barrios, which have been transcribed by various parties. (Notable transcriptions of all the Barrios recordings were published by British guitarist Chris Dumigan as The Recordings of Agustín Barrios; in 2017, Dutch guitarist Chris Erwich released two volumes titled The Agustín Barrios Recordings.)

The same Carlos Payés who supplied Barrios manuscripts to Williams five years earlier aided Stover in his search for Barrios’ music in El Salvador. In 1975, Belwin-Mills published the first of four volumes of the works collected and edited by Stover, making Barrios’ many compositions widely available. In 1992, Stover penned a 271-page Barrios biography titled Six Silver Moonbeams: The Life and Times of Agustín Barrios Mangoré. For its third printing, a limited edition in 2010, it was expanded to 432 pages.

In the two-volume The Complete Works of Agustín Barrios Mangoré (Mel Bay, 2003), Stover painstakingly edited the 112 then-known Barrios compositions he collected and supplied bio information, a thematic index, and critical notes about the musical sources, with comparisons of variant bars found among them. The package also includes a link to audio files for 21 of the Barrios recordings.

KEEPING THE FLAME

Born in Asunción, Paraguay, Berta Rojas took up the guitar as a schoolgirl in the 1970s and was introduced to the music of Barrios through her teacher, Felipe Sosa. “Back then, Barrios was known among Paraguayan guitar teachers as an enigmatic figure who wrote beautiful pieces,” she says. (Rojas later studied with Abel Carlevaro, Eduardo Fernández, and Manuel Barrueco, among others.) She has kept the Barrios flame burning with two solo albums, a production video, and countless recitals devoted to his music. The album Día y Medio, made with Cuban saxophonist/clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, successfully adapts Barrios pieces for their guitar and clarinet duo and earned a 2012 Latin Grammy nomination.

Many have undertaken Barrios pilgrimages, including Stover, Sila Godoy, and authors Cyro Delvizio (Brazil) and Alejandro Bruzual (Venezuela). Rojas and D’Rivera’s “In the Footsteps of Mangoré” tour in 2012 included concerts in 16 of the countries where Barrios played; Rojas visited the final four as a soloist. “A plaque with an inscription about our journey was placed at the grave of Barrios in El Salvador, which is an immense honor for us,” she relates. Rojas also completed at ten-year project to play Barrios’ music at 154 Paraguayan schools for 54,000 students.

“I wanted to motivate them with the story of Barrios, who courageously sacrificed to follow his passion,” she says. “So many people I encountered thanked me for encouraging them to go for their dream. That was the most rewarding part of this project.”

The piece below is also known as Danza Paraguaya No. 2:

TIME AND VALIDATION

Stover believed that after Williams released his first Barrios album in 1977, the world would instantly embrace the music. Instead, he found that the old guard in the guitar community missed the appeal of Barrios’ music. Younger players enamored with modern trends dismissed it as anachronistic. “It took two decades,” Stover laments. “But I always knew that Barrios would be given his due.”

Recollecting a conversation with Leo Brouwer, Stover shares that the Cuban composer told him, “Barrios was basically composing Romantic-era music years after the fact. But he was also blending other influences, like Latin American music in its popular forms.” This is readily heard in Maxixe, based on a Brazilian dance, and the Chilean rhythm of Cueca. “There are dances he composed that are based on rhythms I danced to as a child—like the Paraguayan polka,” Rojas has said. “You feel the very soul of Latin America in his music.”

Williams lauds those qualities and feels that Barrios’ music fills a lacuna in the guitar repertoire by adding music in the Romantic tradition. “He used what we would say are very ordinary harmonies, but in a way that was a little bit special,” Williams told the BBC. After playing a few bars of the “Preludio” from La Catedral, Williams stated, “The chords are not modern [like] the harmonies of Arnold Schoenberg, but are different from those of a composer in the 19th century.”

Time has validated those who believed in Barrios. Stover points to Enrqiue Robichaud’s 2013 tome Guitar’s Top 100—A Guide to Classical Guitar’s Most Recorded Music, in which Barrios has ten entries. Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Capriccio Árabe placed first and second, and following titles by Villa-Lobos and Sor, La Catedral is number 6.

BBC host Matthew Parris asked Williams if Barrios had been born in another time or place, would he have been a star? “Unquestionably, he would have been a star today,” Williams answered. “In a way—in the long haul—he is a star. So justice is done in the end. One has tears to think that he didn’t live to see it.”

(To read Graham Wade’s article on Barrios’ ‘Unsung Years,’, also from the Spring 2019 issue, click here.)