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Acclaimed Paraguayan classical guitarist makes a rare area appearance

The leadoff track “Tambito josephino” (“Tambito from San Jose”) from Berta Rojas’ recent release Salsa Roja will surprise few of her followers for its lithe and masterful guitar work. Rojas is one of the most accomplished classical guitar instrumentalists on the scene today, and the twin hallmarks of her playing — unrelenting humanism and technical precision — are in full evidence on this track.

What may be surprising about the track, though, is that the string and percussion ensemble backing up Rojas’ guitar, The Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura, is comprised of kids from Asunción, Paraguay, playing instruments recovered from, and in some cases constructed from, garbage heaps in the Paraguayan capital.

“One little girl, Noelia, who is 12, played a guitar made of two cans of sweet potato marmalade when I met her in December — now she plays on a formal guitar,” Rojas told NBC News last year. “She plays on the opening acts on my CD — when you hear the part of the second guitar, it’s Noelia playing. I’m very proud of her accomplishments. We are only helping.”

Rojas’ abiding interest in the fortunes of the young in her hometown is hardly the only example of a world renowned classical instrumentalist taking an interest in musical education, or the poor for that matter, but it is emblematic of the deep cultural connection that South American classical guitarists build their careers upon, and especially Rojas, who shares a native pedigree with one of the instrument’s greatest composers, Agustín Barrios Mangoré.

Simply put, no classical guitarist hailing from South America, and few from elsewhere, progress far without coming to a reckoning with Barrios, who composed both classically framed and folkoric pieces for the instrument. Sometimes referred to as “The Paganini of the Guitar,” Barrios was a masterful guitarist from the Paraguayan countryside and a staggeringly prolific composer with over 300 titles to his name (at least those that were written down and survived his death in San Salvador in 1944 — it is thought he composed many others), although his work was largely forgotten in the wider world until Australian classical guitarist John Williams re-animated the catalog with an all-Barrios recording in the late 1970s.

Barrios is now regarded as a national hero in Paraguay, and to some extent Rojas has become something of an inheritor to, and tireless promoter of, that legacy. Born in Asunción, her first recording in 1992 at age 26 was an interpretation of Barrios’ work, and it is a well that she continues to draw from generously. She has been touring off and on over the last few years with Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, on a tour called “In the Footsteps of Mangoré,” and with whom she recorded Día y Medio, nominated for Best Instrumental in the Latin Grammy in 2013. In addition, she was artistic director of the First Agustin Barrios International Competition and Festival in Paraguay in 1994, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Barrios’ death, as well as creating the first online classical guitar competition, the Barrios World Wide Web Competition in 2009.

Rojas has also gained international acclaim outside of South America — she has played concerts at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Washington’s Kennedy Center and opened the proceedings at the Summit of the First Ladies of the Americas, attended by then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. She holds a master’s degree in music from the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University and has been honored as a Fellow of the Americas by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for her artistic excellence.

And for anyone who has picked up a classical guitar and noodled around with it, watching her performances can be a buoyant and beguiling experience — the instrument in its purest expression is fiendishly invested in both nuance and technical discipline, and few players anywhere can approximate her graceful and, at times, furiously aggressive technique.

But the accolades and the honors are, in some basic sense, a little beside the point. Rojas is one of a handful of truly international artists who flourish in both the humanism of folk music and the rigid disciplines of classical repertoire, a distinction in the tradition of South American classical guitar rendered by her countryman Barrios practically without meaning. She is hardly the only player working in this rich genre, but she is frankly one the very best, and lovers of the instrument miss her performance at their peril.

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