For her most recent album, Felicidade [Onmusic Recordings], Paraguayan classical guitarist Berta Rojas chose to celebrate the music, people, and culture of Brazil. To produce a fitting love letter, the three-time Latin Grammy nominee enlisted the help of three Brazilian-music icons—Gilberto Gil, Toquinho, and Ivan Lins—as well as the National Symphonic Orchestra of her native Paraguay. “At a time of talking about building walls to divide countries, we try to build bridges with music,” says Rojas—who once served as Paraguay’s Ambassador of Tourism—about the making of Felicidade. “I wanted to show the warm-hearted joy of the Brazilian people conveyed through music—the exuberance of Carnival, the African influences felt in the driving rhythms, and the lyrical and harmonic lushness.”
Rojas is acclaimed as a national treasure for her music and her service to her country, and her passionate commitment to mentoring young players is evident by the wisdom she shares with her students and her guitar orchestra (the members of which were selected by winning a YouTube contest).
“I try to communicate what I am feeling when I play a line, and I spend a lot of time on the tone, the sound, the expression, and the phrasing,” she says. “And when it all comes together as an extension of me, the music sounds the way I would sing it, and it’s a moment of true happiness.”
What inspired you to pick up the guitar and play it for the first time?
My older brother played the guitar, and he taught me. I was probably around six years old when that happened. At the time, I was also taking piano lessons, and, for me, it was love at first sight with music. Initially, I didn’t feel the need to choose between one instrument and the other, so I carried on with both. It was later on that the dilemma of growing nails for playing classical guitar pushed me to make a choice. I didn’t hesitate in choosing the guitar. I am still in awe with the instrument and its expressive reach. Also, long nails don’t really work for playing the piano [laughs].
You had some very distinguished teachers such as Abel Carlevaro and Manuel Barrueco. What did you learn from these maestros?
It was a journey. First, Felipe Sosa and Violeta de Mestral were my guitar teachers in Paraguay. I learned many things from them, but more than anything, I came away with a great love and respect for music, and that ignited everything that came afterwards. When I moved to Uruguay, Eduardo Fernandez pushed me to learn the great guitar repertoire. Maestro Abel Carlevaro taught me the elements of his innovative technique—which is “less effort with maximum results.” He was so clever. Mario Payseé also nurtured me as a musician. When I reached Manuel Barrueco, he expanded the work I had already done, and I honestly believe he took me to a deeper level as a musician. He helped me connect with my own musicality. Then, Ray Chester taught me the elements of Aaron Shearer’s technique—Barrueco was a student of Shearer, too—and Julian Gray gave me his vision of the guitar in the context of great music literature. It is difficult to synthesize—or explicitly detail—the contributions these amazing teachers have made in my musical life. But everything I am as a guitar player, I owe to them.
Please describe your Michael O’Leary guitar.
My guitar is made of Canadian western red cedar for the top, African rosewood on the back and sides, Honduran cedar on the neck and, ebony from Gabon for the fretboard. I am in love with this instrument, because it possesses that very special combination of a sweet, beautiful tone with outstanding projection. I string the O’Leary with Savarez Alliance strings—normal tension for the top three, and high tension for the lowest three.
For the Felicidade sessions, you played in a number of settings—solo, with an orchestra, a duet, and so on. How do you vary your playing approach in each of these situations?
For every situation, there should be an understanding of what your role is, so that you can better serve the music. When playing with an orchestra, for example, you must lead when needed, and accompany when required to do so. When you are playing Brazilian music, however, I believe that it is essential to have this laid-back feeling—the sound of that soft-spoken Portuguese accent somehow reflected in your playing. Of course, the other situations on the record depended on the musicians.
When I played “Se Ela Perguntar” with Toquinho, I was inspired by how much he loves working. He gives his best at every chance, and he has such a positive attitude—he’s passionate about everything he does, and he is always trying out new effects, harmonies, and arrangements to improve the music. Getting to know Ivan Lins was truly special. I’ve admired him my entire life, and I felt greatly privileged to have the pleasure of accompanying him on his celebrated song, “Comecar De Novo.” He simply closed his eyes and made such beautiful music. I just needed to be there for him—to help his phrasing and musicality come across. I forgot about concentrating on my guitar for a moment, and I just tried to be one with his voice. Gilberto Gil is like a guru—a gigantic personality, a legend. A moment to treasure was when he picked up my O’Leary guitar, and sang a song he had just finished composing for me. We did “Mis Noches Sin Ti”—a guara-nia [a music style from Paraguay]—and there was a homage from Brazil to Paraguay in his voice. People in Paraguay still cannot believe how poetic his Spanish sounds. Again, when accompanying him, you just need to be there for him, so that you can help his phrasing and expressiveness come across.
“Berimbau” has some interesting tapping and string bending—at least for a classical guitar piece.
Well, the berimbau is a single-string instrument from Brazil that has roots in Africa, so I was searching for a sonority that would resemble it. One of the things I did was to imply a tambora-like percussion effect by tapping the strings. For the bending you mention, I held a D note on the fifth string, and plucked an open D on the fourth string. Then, using two fingers, I’d bend the fifth string to get an “out of tune” effect. I was definitely searching for a sound that was more like a popular player than a classical guitarist, but I love that effect.
When you teach your own master classes, do you find that many students face similar challenges as they strive to improve their technique or musicality?
Often, when students study and perform pieces, it’s obvious to me that they never listened to the music that inspired the composition. For example, a Brazilian choro or a Paraguayan polka are very much alive and performed today, and it’s essential to listen to them in order to capture the essence of each style of music. That essence is not always notated on paper. Frequently, I hear Paraguayan polkas performed as if they were a Milonga from Argentina or Uruguay, and they are far from being the same.
How do you counsel beginning guitarists?
Just yesterday, I was teaching a master class in China, and a nine-year-old played the third movement of “La Catedral” by Agustín Barrios—a very difficult piece. So I asked myself, “How do you play such a piece at nine?” Her teacher gave me the answer. She has practiced two hours a day since she was five years old, and her practice is supervised by one of her parents. All of that time dedicated to the guitar really pays off. So you can have the love for the instrument and the desire, but there’s simply no substitute for discipline.