Sharp accents

By JON GARELICK  |  June 30, 2008

“I think it’s the way the guitar is being played,” Refosco says, “and maybe because the lyrics are so strong that maybe it influences the way we play, even if it’s not something we’re thinking.”

Elsewhere on the new EP, the guitar rhythm of “Sebastião” says hello to Bo Diddley, the instrumental “Lost in the Ballroom” hits the forró groove with Continentino’s pifano work in the lead, and the title track has a smooth, almost bossa feel underneath softly rapped vocals, the arrangement enhanced by chirping wood flute and bass clarinet. As opposed to the debut CD, with its array of guest stars, the vocal work on Dia de Roda is all by the band. “We found our own voice, and so we don’t need them anymore,” Refosco says with a laugh.

Marta Topferova is a band’s worth of multi-lingual complexity. Born in the former Czechoslovakia, she heard the renowned Chilean nueva canción band Inti-Illimani as a child. Her family moved to Seattle when she was 11. There followed music education, more immersion in Spanish-language music, a stay in Spain, and study of the four-string cuatro guitar.

Except for one album, Homage to Homeland: Czech, Moravian, and Slavic Folk Songs (Lyra), Topferova has sung all-original songs written in Spanish. By 2006 and her Flor Nocturna (World Village), she had honed an acoustic chamber-folk style that — though Spanish — was all her own. The combination of her rhythmically acute deep alto vocals with percussive use of the spare dry sound of the cuatro and a mix of bass and flute, and perhaps some light hand percussion or an accordion, created unforced but powerful grooves. Each song has its own rhythmic character based on a particular folk-dance rhythm or form, especially the zamba of northern Argentina. It all conjured that poetic borderland where celebration and sorrow meet. She was a Czech living in America, but she was dreaming in García Lorca.

When I talked to Topferova after a show at Scullers a couple of years ago, she said that Spanish liberated her imagination in a way that English or even Czech did not. She’s also said in interviews that the rhythmic quality of Afro-Latin music is more compelling to her than traditional Czech music. When I caught up with her again recently on the phone from Brooklyn, she said, “I never fulfilled my dream of moving to Argentina or Havana and living there for years, so I’m partly immersed, but part of it exists just in my imagination. A lot of the music I love is from the ’50s and ’60s. Maybe part of me is a little old-fashioned.”

Her relationship to language is complex: “I think an immigrant may think they want to lose their accent, but the truth is they don’t really want to lose their identity as a Cuban or Czech or Russian, and I think that losing your accent sort of signifies, okay, I have become a true American.”

Despite her authority, Topferova still finds a bit of resistance in Spanish-speaking audiences — perhaps because she’s playing in an “old-fashioned” acoustic style, but also because she’s a non–native speaker. But in the past few years she’s also begun to tour the Czech Republic. “Little towns that I haven’t seen since I was like two years old, and sold-out houses — so for the first time in the past two or three years I’ve experienced what it’s like when people do claim you as their own.”

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