Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Dec 15th 2009 6:00PM by Steve Hochman
Marta Topferova knows of just one. And she made it.
Ironically, for the Czech-born New York resident, recording for the first time ever in her native land (a converted farmhouse studio outside of Prague, to be exact) allowed her to maximize the Caribbean sounds of the bolero and son and other roots of 'Trova,' her just-released album.
"I've never recorded in Prague before," she says. "It just turned out that way. My New York band was on tour with me in Europe and this violinist, Roland Satterwhite, I had worked with before in New York, had moved to Berlin, so he joined us. The stars sort of aligned."
Still, you'd think that being back in her birth country, socializing with family and friends, would have brought something of the surrounding culture into the sessions.
"The setting was amazing," she says. "The studio is a kind of farmhouse converted into a studio, had a hotel and restaurant attached. We basically stayed there, forest around, fresh air, incredibly relaxed. Was nice also to see my family in between sessions."
But there are certainly no signs of Czech influences in such songs as the sinewy, seductive 'Largo el Camino,' which with its sandy rhythms and interweaving strings from Cuban tres, cuatro and violin, sounds like it was made in tropical Havana, not Central Europe.
Marta Topferova, 'Largo el Camino'
"Well, the way I envisioned this record was to capture some of the music I've been listening to and involved with for years, highlighting the Caribbean son and bolero. And because I was there with my New York crew, I focused on that particular flavor."
Topferova not only plays the four-stringed cuatro and sings authoritatively in Spanish (which she's spoken since her teen years) but wrote most of the songs on the album. She's not exactly a purist, mixing and matching some elements across national and cultural borders, reflecting the mix of Latin cultures she's lived alongside in New York for many years now. Over the course of several earlier albums focusing on Spanish-language material, she's developed an easy flow of ideas that avoids any rigidity of form.
"A lot of people seem to like 'Largo el Camino,' and I wrote it in the spirit of the moment," she says. "I wanted to use the Brazilian cajón drum my percussionist Neil Ochoa plays but didn't want to do anything really Brazilian. So I crossed Brazilian with Cuban guajira."
She notes that it would be untrue to the band's roots and her own to try to sound as if they were Cuban natives.
"For example, Aaron Halva, the tres player, is actually an American guy, from Iowa originally, and has been playing tres his whole adult life -- superdedicated, leads his own son band in New York," she says. "But he's a very open-minded musician, plays traditional but is open-minded."
The song 'Madrugada,' another Topferova original, really spotlights the approach.
Marta Topferova, 'Madrugada'
"It's really an Argentine rhythm, an Argentine samba, not traditionally played with a Cuban tres and a conga," she says. "But I wanted this album to have a certain sense. If we do it with tres and conga and I play cuatro and adapt the rhythms -- it developed in that seamless way. The musicians rehearsed a lot and all the colors seemed to work well on these songs. Didn't matter the setting of the rhythm, but the colors seemed to complement the song."
Topferova does understand that some might find the whole thing odd -- a Czech native recording Latin American music outside of Prague with an American band.
"In world music there is a big side to it where I think people like to seek out authenticity," she says. "It's not like jazz or classical where everyone's welcome and accepted. People like Cubans singing Cuban music and so forth, and people crossing the boundaries, while it's happening naturally people are threatened by the idea. 'Well, if anybody can sing any kind of music ...' I understand. I've seen singers who try to do things in a non-native language and think it doesn't sound very good. My case happens to be unique. I did grow up with the music. I did immerse myself in it for 20 years now. In my case, it's not just experimenting but been part of my life. So it can be a little tricky. On the other hand, I've gotten responses that have been really positive. I have something unique as a composer which sets me apart from someone just doing covers and like that."
Topferova became comfortable with multiple genres and languages via her classical training in Prague vocal choruses as a child, singing in Czech, Russian, German and Latin, among other languages. For reasons she can't readily finger, she found herself drawn increasingly to Latin American and Spanish music as she matured, boosted from living in Spain for six months as a teenager. With her family moving several times, she lived some in New York and went to high school in Seattle, settling on her own in the Big Apple in 1996.
It was there that she really got the full exposure, both through the local community and concerts by some of the greats.
"Living in New York is amazing," she says. "A lot of my heroes played here. Mercedes Sosa, Celia Cruz , João Gilberto , Eliades Ochoa -- saw him twice. Was at the Buena Vista Social Club concert in Carnegie Hall. Definitely feel in touch with the culture."
There she started writing songs and worked with both a Cuban quartet and a Colombian singer. After two independent albums, she signed to World Village, for which this is her third release.
Latin music isn't her only outlet, though. She did in fact devote her second indie album to Czech folk songs -- recorded in New York. She has plans to do another such project in the future and is also writing and developing her first English-language project, with songs leaning in a more rock direction.
Never, though, will it all overlap.
"I have these different languages as part of my life," she says. "Maybe it's the purist in me, but when I have a concept for a record I don't like to fuse too many things. If I'm doing a Czech record, I do those songs. If Spanish I do that. Hard to feel I can combine it all on one record."
Wherever she may record it.