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Salsa Roja; the New Album from Berta Rojas

A Latin American journey of life and love

Following on her immensely successful and Latin Grammy-nominated collaboration with Paquito D'Rivera entitled “Dia y Medio”, Berta Rojas continues to educate, inspire and enlighten with her 2013 release “Salsa Roja.” It is a work backed by heart-warming experiences and intriguing stories. It is a work of sublime beauty and delicate sensitivity. It is a work of incredible compositions and flawless performances.

The seeds of the album were planted while Berta was on tour in England. She met the brilliant English composer for guitar Vincent Lindsey-Clark himself intrigued by the music of Berta’s Latin America. She invited him or maybe challenged him to write a “salsa with development.” In other words, she asked him to write a guitar suite. The result of this invitation is a work of wonder and imagination.

She also brought to the album some of Latin America’s most interesting and yet unknown composers and innovators. From Argentina comes the music of Quique Sinesi’s “Danza Sin Fin.” Edin Solis offers the tambito rhythm of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. The “dreamy and nostalgic” work of Julio Cesar Oliva from Mexico. Lindsey-Clark himself employed the galopa rhythm of Berta’s beloved Paraguay.

Once again, Berta plays the role of ambassador for Latin American music to the rest of the world who remains unacquainted with such exquisite works of beauty.

The album is partitioned into sections according to the composers. It is a strategy that works well in an educational and thematic approach. The first section belongs to Edin Solis, a two-time Grammy winner who learned classical guitar in Spain and France. Solis has been a teacher of Costa Rican music to over 30 countries.

The opening piece is entitled “Tambito josefino” [Tambito from San Jose] and is built on one of the two most popular rhythms of Costa Rica, the tambito (the other being the pasillo). The tambito is a festive 6/8 syncopated rhythm to which Solis added harmonies usually not found in that style. The arrangement in this track was specifically prepared for the The Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura who appears on this track with Berta. Solis himself conducts the orchestra.

That orchestra is comprised of young people, even children, who came from the impoverished outskirts of Asuncion, Paraguay, in a community called Cateura. The children wanted to learn music but had no financial means of obtaining instruments. Their parents and others began scouring landfills for raw materials from which to make instruments. Those materials were taken to Don Nicholas Gomez who began crafting musical instruments out of marmalade tins, cigar boxes, galvanized pipes and more.

The instruments Don Nicholas crafted and the musicianship of these energetic and artistic young people is enthralling. When I asked Berta if these instruments on the track were the very same as the recycled instruments, Berta said that they were the very ones shaped from the raw materials of the landfill. However, to soften the sound a bit, guest musicians with violin, viola, cello and double-bass were added.

One of the stars is a 12 year-old girl named Noelia. She plays 2nd guitar to Berta’s 1st guitar. Berta calls Noelia “a gift to the world.” When Berta first met the young girl, Noelia was playing a guitar fashioned from metal marmalade cans for the body. Two days later, Noelia received from Berta a Yamaha guitar from Berta’s own collection. Berta incidentally plays a guitar made by Michael O’Leary with Savarez strings.

“Tambito josefino” is a beautiful melody with mesmerizing harmonies on top of that hypnotic syncopated rhythm. Solis’ arrangement is exact and appropriate. The story behind the music and the music itself renders the piece irresistible.

“Calle de Viento” [Street of the Wind] is the second piece from Edin Solis on the album. It is the title track of Solis’ own 1998 solo album. There is a melancholy here that is called to remind of the all-too-brief passage of life. Berta said that, although the classical guitar genre has been dominated by men, perhaps it requires a woman’s touch to bring such delicate sensitivity. This is especially true of this particular work. It is impossible to imagine any other artist surpassing Berta’s work on this all-too-brief song.

The second section belongs to Vincent Lindsey-Clark, a British guitarist who is better known for his compositions for the guitar. His compositions on “Salsa Roja” will only enhance and expand that renown.

While Berta was touring alone in England, she met Vincent Lindsey-Clark and struck up an instant friendship with the Englishman. She discovered his interest in exploring Latin American music and she offered him a chance to compose a “salsa with development.” He took up the invitation and within a short time, Berta received the charts for the first of four movements of what would become a suite called “Fiesta Americana.”

The first movement, and third track of the album, is “Danza Galopa.” Berta calls it “the most serious piece of the suite.” It is a cross-rhythm of 3/4 and 6/8 and it is the 3 against 2 rhythm that Berta finds so attractive as she performs it. In her words, she has an “affinity” with that rhythm.

What is so haunting about the composition and performance is the four-note motif that is developed in a minor 2nd which gives it the richly sad character. It is wondrously crafted and executed. The delivery is absolutely spell-binding.

“Salsa Roja” is Lindsey-Clark’s second part of the suite. There is a major shift for the motif which ties it to “Danza Galopa” splendidly. The regret of the previous track is transformed by the rhythm and key into a celebration.

It is based on the tumbao bass groove but Lindsey-Clark’s melodies and progressions created a one-piece salsa band for Berta’s lone guitar. Salsa is a Cuban genre with several sub-genres. With salsa’s complex Afro-Cuban rhythms and the fused elements of Jazz, it is a difficult piece. If salsa is Cuban dance music, as has been described, then this piece is well-suited for it.

The third movement of the suite is “El Vuelo de la Mariposa” [The Flight of the Butterfly]. The imagery is of a butterfly taking off from an English garden and, taken on the wind, crosses the Atlantic to finally comes to rest in Berta’s beloved Paraguay.

Berta, asked which of the pieces touches her the most, said that “La Mariposa” is truly something special. Especially since it was written for Berta and for the way she plays. All of the pieces, however, are important for her.

The final movement of the suite is “Fiesta Finale.” It is Lindsey-Clark’s own musings on Latin American music. It is almost a developed recapitulation of the first three movements. The ties of motifs, runs and progressions create an almost symphonic feel to the suite. Berta indeed received what she had requested—a salsa with development.

The third section is devoted to the “dreamy and nostalgic” music of Mexico’s Julio Cesar Oliva. It includes five pieces written by Oliva, with one of them being an extended five-part variations on a lullaby.

“Vengo a Decirte Que Te Quiero” [I’ve Come to Tell You I Love You] is the first of Oliva’s compositions and serves as the seventh track on the album. It is the first of 25 pieces for solo guitar, inspired by the art of Mexico’s Fernando Pereznielo (d.2001). It is almost a neo-Impressionist piece and in places calls to mind the warmth of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune.” There are moments of shyness as a would-be lover professes affection.

Berta’s approach is achingly beautiful. It is touching and it is so very memorable.

Variaciones Sobre Una Cancion De Cuna—Duermete Mi Nino” [Variations on a Lullaby—Go to Sleep, My Child] is the five-part piece that offers five variations of a Central American lullaby. The theme is introduced in the “Andante Calmo” followed by three variations and the finale “Allegro.”

The pieces are virtuosic, delicate, sensitive and demanding and Berta handles them with such apparent ease.

This is followed by a three-part Romantic piece still by Oliva. “Tres Instantes De Amor” [Three Moments of Love] is a study in the beginning and advance of infatuation. Part one, “Aparicion” [Appearance] is a lovely first-sighting of the loved one. It is a sweet reminder of the blossoming of new love.

Part two “Te Contemplo Desde Mi Ventana” [I Gaze Upon You from My Window] carries a profound sense of longing, almost like the oboe’s sustained note in the Overture to “Tristan und Isolde.” Berta brings that imagery to multi-faceted life in such sustained sensitivity. Part three is “Obsesion” [Obsession]. It is lively and single-minded as the theme rolls over and over.

The final section is a single piece written by Quique Sinesi entitled “Danza Sin Fin” [Endless Dance]. It is a 6/8 and 7/4 piece that was originally composed as a duo for piano and guitar. Sinesi himself arranged it just for Berta. It is the dance of life without end.

Even though titled as a dance, the song is a rapturous and joyful hymn to life. It is the sound of wonder and delight. If one were forced to choose a one-word description of Berta Rojas and her artistry, "skilled", "sensitive", "virtuosic", or even "genius" would fail to carry the full impact and import of her. She is...delightful. No one could say that of Segovia or Bream or Parkening but it is true of Berta.

From the first track with instruments from a landfill to a final track of celebration, “Salsa Roja” is a portrayal of life and love. Above poverty, above loneliness, above sadness, love and music and the love of music carries on in a dance without end. And Berta Rojas plays the tune.

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Travis Rogers