The 27th of November 2004 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the death of the great Paraguayan guitarist /composer Augustin Barrios Mangore. San Juan Battista -the small mission town in southern Paraguay and birth place of Barrios – celebrates this occasion with a concert by the name of Encuentros de Alma.- meetings of the soul. This is the fourth occasion of this festival but with it’s auspicious date this year it is a special celebration.
Augustin Barrios Mangore of course is now a well known figure in the world of classical guitar having finally received a world wide audience with the all Barrios recording of John Williams in 1985.Since that time the compositions of Barrios haver become an established part of the repertoire.
For my part I have been invited to visit Paraguay bu the great contemporary Paraguan guitarist Berta Rojas to take part in this festival , to give a master class in Asuncion and to attend a tribute –as if in some sort of surrealist dream to myself- complete with T shirts.After a flight that seems to go on for several months I arrive like a rumpled heap in Asuncion. I am greeted by Berta ,friends and paraguayan official at the airport and then after several photo ops and a quick rendition of Feliz Cumpleanos for Lizzy a friend of Bertas on a Takamine guitar which is loaned to me by Bertas original guitar teacher for the duration of the trip for we climb in into several cars and begin the journey south. The heat is stultifying.
As we drive south through the flat watery greeness of this part of Paraguay I notice that at least from the road the counry appear to be up to date and well run. At the present time Paraguay is holding free elections . After the thirty five years under the dictatorship of General Stroessner that ended in 1989 but only to endure another period of political tumoil with a few assassinations thrown in for good measure.
With the history of this country it s dictatorships ,political upheavals, Nazis on the run and thriving black market in mind you arrive in Paraguay wondering what you will witness.. But as I travel around I am taken with the friendly and humorous spirit of the paraguayanos and their own concerns about their country . You get the feeling that it is a place that if in the process of healing itself and is looking forward not with cynicism but enthusiasm. A few days later as I give a master class in Asuncion I am struck by the strong attitudes of the young musicians and their interest in blending aspects of Paraguayan music and culture with the more obvious western forms, and that whatever machinations they have been through the desire to make art and music prevails
Laid out in the formal Spanish style San Juan Batista has a grid pattern with the cathedral at the centre where it sits on the edge of a small park.We pull into a small dirt road at the side of the town and are immediately surrounded by smiling officials, several beautiful young girls in traditional costume- white embroidered blouses wide floral patterned skirts and flowers in their hair- uniformed men on horseback and a phalanx of photographers. All of this is accompanied with the plangent tinny moan of a small brass marching band.
Already here and waiting for us are Brazilan guitarist Carlos Barboasa Lima and cuatro virtuoso Gustavo Colina… . we all join in the procession and begin the march toward Casa de Barrios. In an attempt to stave of the jet lag I put myself in between two of the most beautiful girls and march forward with them as cameras flash like machine guns. Suddenly I feel revived.
Twenty minutes later in a jostling wave of bodies we arrive at the site and are ushered into the two rooms which serve as the museum . They are already packed wall to wall with town residents and officials which I find somewhat frustrating as having personally traveled several thousand miles to reach this guitar shrine it’s impossible to feel whatever mystical vibration might be lingering in the walls. But,there is a feeling of celebration in the air and in the festive mood typical of South America you get picked up and carried on it.
A performance begins with songs from the parade girls and then a poem read out to great dramatic effect. This is capped by a dance by Carmen who with a heart breaking smile , ivory skin and green eyes dances before us to a loud soundtrack that sounds as if its from a south American film from the thirties or forties -imagine Rita Hayworth in Gilda. The highlight of this moment is when she places a ceramic pot on her head and then – as we collectively hold our breath -moves through several tricky contortions without losing the fragile vessel. The dance comes to an end , I nudge Carlos and and together we sigh.
Several speeches now follow in praise of the festival, Barrios and San Juan Batista itself The Mayor makes a long speech declaring and Berta, Carlos , Gustavo and myself all receive framed diplomas which is a pleasant surprise although I get Carlos’s ,he gets mine and Berta gets Gustavos etc.
With ceremonies over it’s time to walk back through the town to the cathedral for the concert itself. When we arrive there it is already packed to the rafters. Somehow I manage to lose everyone and I arrive alone in a crowd, Knowing I have to play in about forty five minutes I stagger about at the side of the chuch looking for the Takamine . I finally find it and pull it out to have a little warm up as I haven’t seen a guitar for two days. I start practising in the gloom at the side of the church but unfortunately this proves to be a magnet for the local paparrazzi so it becomes a very self concious moment and I quickly pack up. A figure appears from the dark to lead me to the front of the building and the official designated Salon des Artiste that no one told me about. Berta Carlos and Gustavo are practising nicely together and just about to go on stage or rather to the altar which is where tonights stage is located . I grab a café cito and whip out the Takamine again and wish them well as they head toward the stage .
The concert begins with a beautiful rendition by Berta of“Jha Che Valle”, which Barrios dedicated to San Juan Bautista, his “valle”. Later Berta tells me that in Guarani, “valle” means the small town in the countryside, specially in the rural areas, in which you are born. It needs to be a town though, Asuncion for instance is not a “valle” but a city. Their “valle” is something the Paraguayans love deeply and they are very proud of them. Being born in Asuncion, says Berta I am very jealous for not having a “valle”.
“Jha che Valle”, means in Guarani “Oh, my hometown” an exclamation of admiration by Barrios to his beloved San Juan Bautista. So, that was the only possible opening piece for a concert in San Juan Bautista!
Carlos Barboza Lima is next playing “Brazil”, and Gustavo Colina follows playing a “Venezuelan Joropo”. After these solo spots A series of duos, between Carlos and Berta , Carlos and Gustavo and Gustavo and Berta continues the program. “Son de Carrilhoes” by Joan Pernambuco in duo with Carlos and Berta , followed by “La Reina”, in duo between Carlos and Gustavo.
A second section of the concert is devoted to Barrios and it opens with “Danza Paraguaya” performed by Carlos Berta and Gustavo “Junto a tu Corazon” is then performed by Carlos, and then the third movement of “La Catedral” performed by Berta . The audience – the biggest they have seen for years- listens in rapt attention and I notice that Berta apart from great taste and sensitivity has a remakable technical facility and her playing of this allegro movement is rapid and flawless . This is followed by the trio playing the beautiful “Sueno de Angelita” by Felix Perez Cardozo.
Berta -who is a celebrity in Paraguay- now announces me and I take the stage in front of the altar wondering if maybe I should offer up a prayer for myself -Un Alma por Yo
Berta very kindly allows me to use her Robert Ruck guitar and I feel better about playing .I begin with a piece from last album called Roseville this goes well and then I follow that with Julia Florida a seminal Barrios composition . You don’t get many chances to do things like this and I feel compelled to play at least one Barrios piece while I have a captive San Juam Batista audience .The beautiful melody sings on the Ruck and it goes down well with the audience receiving a sustained applause at the finish- maybe they have mistaken me for John Williams or David Russell. Berta joins me on the stage and we improvise our way through a couple of Jobim songs ‘the Girl from Ipanema and the One Note Samba and then Gustavo and Carlos come up and we finish with an ensemble version of Chico Chico.
That seems to be the end, but due to vociferous audience response Berta ,Carlos and Gustavo play an encore of Maxixe by Barrios and the concert comes to an end. with a standing ovation.
After we finally leave the cathedral we drive out into the lush country side to the estancia of the Llanos family where we end the night under a star filled sky among gauchos roasting meats and herds of cattle grazing in the fields around the ranch. I fall into bed around four am with the sound of Danza Paraguaya ringing in my head.
The next morning at my request Berta, myself and friends head back into San Juan Batista to have a quiet visit to Casa de Barrios. Here in the two rooms that set aside to constitute at least a small hommage to Barrios we wander about play ,the guitar that sits in a chair against the wall and a hope that gretaness rubs off. I have the following conversation with Berta.
A- Berta- I notice that the guitar leaning in the chair over there is actually a nylon string guitar not a steel string which Barrios played and I understand that you were trying to obtain an original Barrios guitar to return to Paraguay – what is the story…
B- The guitar that was sold to an American Collector was the one Barrios’ used for his first recordings, which happened to be the first recordings ever made on the classical guitar.
Regarding the auction of that guitar, again it was question of money Andy, and Paraguay doesn’t have much, I wish we could have bought it. Jorge Gross Brown could have probably bought it but he missed the email I sent him telling him about the auction of the guitar
My efforts were concentrated on acquiring the biggest collection of Barrios’ letters and manuscripts that were in Uruguay, under the ownership Martin Borda Pagola’s heir, Barrios’ patron and great friend. I couldn’t afford to buy them myself but I thought they belonged to Paraguay, so I worked very hard to try to get the Paraguayan government interested. I talked to Ministers, Senators, Diplomats, people with power and money (or both) to understand what Barrios meant for Paraguay and help me with my endeavor. But in the years that followed 35 years of Dictatorship that killed almost every cultural aspect of Paraguay, it was hard. In short, they were not acquired by the government, but by Dr. Jorge Gross Brown, a lawyer, and his wife Maria Gloria who saw the value Barrios’ music had for Paraguay and bought the collection just to keep it in our country.
A- Rico Stover has recently published a revised and complete edition of Barrios compositions did you give him some original manuscripts for this book…
I have to go back in history to answer your question. The friendship between the young Barrios and Borda Pagola, gave Barrios stability and protection in times of uncertainty. Living with him for a long time, Barrios produced a lot of music at his house. It also allowed Pagola to own, the biggest collection of Barrios’ manuscripts under one person’s ownership, 14 letters and 25 manuscripts of pieces such as Danza Paraguaya and La Catedral, a collection he treasured and preserved with love for his entire life. When Pagola passed away, his only heir, his daughter Aida Borda de Piovano, who became a good friend of mine in her last years, inherited the collection which she, as her father, preserved her entire life with love. During her lifetime, she only sold the letters, which with my advice were bought by Jorge Gross Brown. At her death, her son Daniel Piovano, sold the manuscripts to Jorge and Ma. Gloria Gross Brown.
Stover was going to publish the new collection of Barrios’ music. Stover visited her in Uruguay and I knew that Aida Borda Pagola never allowed Richard to see the collection. I thought it was important for Stover to study this manuscripts which in my impression, were going to be a great contribution to the Mel Bay’s new edition. Jorge Gross Brown was very generous in allowing me to provide Stover with copies of the entire collection.
A- Tell me something about these Encuentros De Alma, who organizes them, how often are they put on etc
“Encuentros del Alma” is a concert series created by Oscar Cardozo Ocampo, member of the most prestigious musical family of Paraguay. Family of composers, singers, pianists, guitarists, they moved to Argentina in times of the dictatorship. Oscar, who was in part Paraguayan, in part Argentinean, worked as arranger for the most renown Argentinean musicians, from Mercedes Sosa to Jairo, and was awarded the “Konex Prize” as Arranger of the Decade, in Argentina. Cardozo Ocampo was preoccupied about the isolation of Paraguay from the rest of the world, musically as well as in other aspects. He thought that by inviting his Argentinean friends to perform in Paraguay with Paraguayan musicians, it would expand Paraguayan musicians’ horizons. His dream was to open that door to musicians from the rest of America also, and eventually the rest of the world. His tragic death, two years ago on a car accident when he was driving from Argentina to Paraguay, didn’t stop his dream from becoming a reality. His friend Lucha Abbate, director of the Tierranuestra Foundation for the Education, http://www.tierranuestra.org.py followed his dream and continued with this “Encuentros del Alma”, Meeting of souls.
A- How many times has the Encuentros del Alma been put on -what years?
The first “Encuentros del Alma” took place under the direction of Oscar Cardozo Ocampo during the year 1995 (4 concerts), and in the year 1996 ( 3 concerts). I performed in the first edition of Encuentros del Alma in 1995. In the year 2002, Tierranuestra, whose institutional Anthem was composed by Cardozo, takes over the project and decides to continue with “Encuentros del Alma” (registered name that the Cardozo Ocampo’s family donated to the Foundation in honor to Oscar Cardozo Ocampo and in support of its many educational projects in Paraguay). The latest was then, the third Encuentros del Alma in Asuncion and the first in the countryside.
A- Who sponsored the Festival in San Juan?
Tierranuestra and the City of San Juan Bautista sponsored the concert in San Juan. Oscar dream was to bring Encuentros to an audience in the rural areas. I did this for two years with my duo parter Juan Cancio Barreto, touring the countryside and performing free concerts for an estimated audience of 12.000 people in two years in Paraguay.
When Lucha Abbate and I talked about Encuentros, we both thought that it would be lovely to take this Encuentros to San Juan, this time to honor Barrios. The Mayor, Víctor Hugo Pereira Alcaraz assigned his general secretary, Dr. Andrés Riveros Obregón and Cultural Affairs Secretary, Gill Alegre (also owner of the Barrios’s House) as organizers of the event. Many social organizations from San Juan also collaborated strongly with this event, such as the one presided by Rumilda Marin, teacher of San Juan who gave a celebration party after the concert and accompanied our visit to Barrios’ house the day after.
A- Is San Juan Bautista a mission town established by Jesuits?
When the Jesuits founded the first reduction in San Ignacio Guazú in Misiones, in the year 1609, they also founded the “posta” of San Juan. The small “posta” was later on transformed in a “villa” populated by correntinos (Argentineans from Corrientes, located near San Juan) . Many ranches were established and these were the first Jesuit Ranches. Later, after the expulsion of the Jesuits, these ranches where known as “Estancias de La Patria” in the times of the Lopez’ government.
It was Carlos Antonio López, first constitutional President of Paraguay, who gave San Juan, its status as “town”. Some other historians attribute the establishment of San Juan to the German Jesuit Antonio Sepp in the year 1697. Sepp, who was a pioneer in steel production and the first person who worked in the system of cotton cropping, today the number one export of Paraguay. Sepp also played more than a dozen musical instruments and taught the guaranies how to play the violin and other string instruments as well as the organ. Antonio Sepp built the first organ of South America in the Jesuit Missions and is known as having been the one who introduced the harp in Paraguay, the national instrument of the country.
A – tell me about the gentleman who owns the house now and the situation
B -His name is Gil Alegre Nunez, an artist who came back from Italy a few years ago and saw the ad of a house being sold in San Juan Bautista. He knew that that house belonged to the Barrios’ family and that it was the house in which Barrios lived his entire childhood. He felt the need of buying the house to preserve it and one day, to turn it in a Museum. This is a one man effort, and Paraguay is indebted to him for his courage and vision. My hope is that the City of San Juan would buy this house and with official help, turn it in a proper museum where perhaps the Gross Brown’s Collection could be preserved along with some other objects that belonged to Barrios and that are preserved in Paraguay.
A -Thank you for letting me playing your Robert Ruck -last night tell me about it
B- I play a 1993 Robert Ruck which was a present from Ruck himself to me. It is a cedar top and he made this guitar for himself. It has an inscription below the rosette that reads “made by Robert Ruck for Robert Ruck”. He thought it was going to be in better hands since he plays very little so he gave it to me. It is a very special instrument, precious to me.
I put away my mini-cd recorder and Berta and I take turns in playing pieces on the funky “barrios guitar including a left hand right hand duet . and then leave and head south to the Iguacu Falls.