Agustin Barrios, the virtuoso Paraguayan classical guitarist and composer, last played in Trinidad more than 70 years ago in 1936. Four years previously his alter ego-Guarani Chief Nitsuga Mangoré (his Christian name reversed, followed by the name of a Timbu cacique) had also performed in Port-of-Spain, to rapturous acclaim. Barrios/Mangoré was a mestizo, proud of his indigenous Guarani genes. Last Sunday at Queen’s Hall, neither the Guarani chief nor ‘the Chopin of the guitar’ made an appearance but Barrios’ spirit manifested for two glorious hours, reincarnated in a programme of some of his most outstanding compositions, performed by two colossi of contemporary Latin American music.
Berta Rojas, Barrios’ compatriot, is widely acknowledged as the best Latin classical guitarist, while Cuban-born Yanqui resident and multiple Grammy-winner Paquito D’Rivera uses clarinet and saxophones as instruments of divine illumination, tempered by his rootsy Cuban humour. Rising masterfully to the occasion were two local musicians: pannist and ethnomusicologist Mia Gormandy and drummer Sean Thomas. The local duo played the curtain raising ‘Un Sueño en la Floresta’ (A Dream in the Forest) with Gormandy giving the first ever interpretation of Barrios’ demanding guitar score on pan. Despite the very different timbres of steel and string, Gormandy was able to modulate her delivery, performing the piece with the ethereal romanticism it requires.
Strangely, in terms of programming and the focus of the concert, the local duo’s second offering referenced Trinidadian popular music, but this could have been a case of ‘all protocols observed.’
Berta Rojas, in pernicious stilettos, launched into the Barrios’ canon she has become the foremost exponent of since British guitarist John Williams, beginning with his last composition ‘Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios’ (Alms for the Love of God).
Influenced equally by the folkloric dances of South America and European Baroque composers, particularly Bach, Barrios wrote intricate and densely elaborate scores suffused with emotional, sometimes, as in this case religious colour, which must have tested even his virtuoso skills. Rojas emphatically staked an indisputable claim to be a worthy Barrios interpreter from the first, with her combination of thrilling technique—breakneck tippling arpeggiated chords rippling over contrapuntal yet harmonically satisfying basslines—and attuned sensitivity.
To appropriate the old Jazz adage—it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing—so flawless technique can never substitute for the soul of music. Rojas supplied a suitable hors d’hoeuvre for the feast to follow, simultaneously rendering Barrios’ epitaph while serving notice that she came with music to smell, taste and savour, everything you might expect from New World, creolised classical music. Her breathtakingly fluid touch continued into a Brazilian-style waltz before she came to her solo finale—Barrios’ masterpiece ‘La Catedral, inspired by a religious epiphany in Montevideo’s cathedral and heavily influenced by JS Bach. The war-torn Paraguay of his childhood and adolescence may well have inspired Barrios’ in-concert wanderings throughout South America and eventually Europe, exposing him to the tango, galopera, chorro and other genres en route and it was during a sojourn in Cuba, 19 years after writing the original score for La Cathedral, that he composed the Saudade (nostalgia) prelude, another Creole voice through which we filter the following Andante Religioso and Allegre Solemne.
If the audience by this stage was overawed by Rojas, a perfect balance was provided in the second half of the programme with the introduction of Paquito D’Rivera. A veteran of both the Cuban national orchestra and founding member—along with el maestro Chucho Valdes—of Irakere the first Afro-Latin Jazz supergroup, Paquito comes to any stage not only as a virtuoso soloist but also as a consummately urbane performer. Like Chucho and indeed Barrios, he is conversant with the widest South American repertoire. Starting with clarinet, Paquito joined Rojas for the Mauricio Ocampo arrangement of Barrios’ Chorro da Saudade, based on a traditional chorro from Rio de Janeiro, wood, reed and string perfectly complementing each other.
The duo then segued into the playful Paraguayan popular song Ca’azapa, with Paquito nudging the tempo along ready to dive into the river flow of another Brazilian rhythm, the Maxixe, which Paquito casually asked Rojas to translate for him, subtly defusing and humanising a quasi-sacrosanct performance. Recognising Relator a few rows from the stage, he hailed him out and slipped a couple of bars from the local bard into the Maxixe, instantly establishing partisan audience rapport. Introducing Barrios’ Preludio en Do Menor (Prelude in C Minor) Paquito cited jazz legend Duke Ellington’s comments on arrangers by way of crediting Ocampo, whose arrangement gave the flavour of tango great Pizzaiola. Ocampo was also responsible for arranging the next dizzying Barrios’ piece Las Abejas (The Bees), with Paquito’s sax buzzing frenetically.
Between picong and ole talk (“I’ll be brief as I only have 100 words of English”) Paquito joked about “never having played so well”—having been forwarned by friend Andy Narell of high Trinidadian musical standards. At Rojas’ invitation Paquito departed briefly from the programme to reprise an impro he’d delivered at their previous concert in Puerto Rico. Recalling his jazz mentor Dizzie Gillespie (to whom he defected during an American tour) he invited the audience to join him in a typical Dizzy call and response, which had Queen’s Hall irreverently calling back ‘Salt peanuts’ to his scatting sax and offbeat footstomp.
The duo completed their stunning performance with Demetrio Ortiz’s Recuerdos de Ypacarai (Memories of Lake Ypacari) a Paraguayan polka and Guillermo Breer and Ocampo’s Pajaro Chogui a galloping galopera before being joined by Gormandy and Thomas for the grand finale of Barrios’ Danza Paraguaya. In less than the span of two hours the Queen’s Hall audience had travelled through South America, accompanied by virtuoso talent—and humour. The rush to buy post-concert CDs was only corroborating evidence of a magnificent performance. Adios Rojas y D’Rivera. When will Queen’s Hall follow up with a concert of the Cuban composers Caturla and Roldan? There is a whole canon of South American and Caribbean Creole classical music waiting to be discovered by an ever-thirsty Trinidadian audience.