Marta Topferova’s new album, Flor Nocturna (Night Flower), on World Village, follows the widespread critical success of 2005’s La Marea (also on World Village), but takes a purposefully different approach.
The new disc arrives as Topferova has toured extensively, broadening her global audience. She has headlined at Manhattan’s top jazz showcase, the Blue Note, shared a bill with the great Peruvian singer Susana Baca at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, and performed at the Centro Cultural de la Villa in Madrid.
Although based in New York City, she’s won new fans for her music in South America, where the authentic spirit of her songs has found welcome ears.
“This record is definitely more folkloric,” says Topferova, who writes and sings in Spanish, delicately evoking a sympathetic range of Latin American musical styles and rhythms, particularly those of Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina.
Though she travels in the company of some of New York’s finest jazz improvisers, percussive masters and traditional musicians – several of whom appear on these songs – Topferova decided not to arrange the pieces for a full band. There is no drummer, although you will hear Neil Ochoa playing the cajón – a box-drum of Peruvian origin – and Adam Cruz playing marimba on various tracks.
You will also hear the cellist Erik Friedlander and the violist Ljova on “Mar Amargo” (“Bitter Sea”), which closes the album with a kind of lush chamber music arrangement. However, even these flourishes are fairly simple, and often aim to spotlight an individual soloist – such as violinist Jenny Scheinman, who is featured on the songs “Zamba Gris” (“Grey Zamba”), “Los Hermanos” (“The Brothers”), and “Ojos Poderosos” (“Powerful Eyes”).
Topferova wanted to keep things simple. Organic, even. “I wanted the cuatro and the bass be the core of the sound,” says the performer, who accompanies herself on the four-stringed Venezuelan guitar, along with Pedro Giraudo on acoustic bass. “I didn’t want to have drums or cymbals or anything metallic. I envisioned this as a ‘wooden’ record. And that’s what it is. Even the flute (played by Yulia Musayelyan) has a warm, organic sound.”
The tactic draws more attention to the flow of Topferova’s voice and lyrics, which capture sensations both fleeting and eternal, and take much inspiration from the world she walks through. “I wrote “Gaita de Los Chiquitos” for my nephew,” she explains. “He’s very cute, very sweet. I wanted to write a very upbeat children’s song. It features accordion and lots of percussion and a chorus of musicians singing all the words.”
Far from such cheer, the album’s opener, “Zamba Gris,” reflects on the grim, chaotic street life of the singer’s New York neighborhood in somber language, which floats over the downtempo Argentinean rhythm implied in the title.
Other songs, such as “Dia Lluvioso” (“Rainy Day”) and the title track, “Flor Nocturna” (“Nocturnal Flower”), discover in everyday vistas and natural phenomena the elements of bittersweet yearning. These are very much the qualities that first drew Topferova to the various Latin American, Spanish and Caribbean musics that have become her life. “They’re telling a certain story,” she says of such traditional songs. “They’re not just love songs, like a lot of jazz standards might be. They are fascinating to me lyrically; they are about so many things: children, death, something in nature, all these poetic images.”
Her selection of two songs composed by Atahualpa Yupanqui illustrates Topferova’s deep affection for such material. The legendary Argentinean folksinger and poet is little-known in the U.S. and Marta wanted to bring attention to his work here. She was surprised to discover that the co-author on of “Los Hermanos,” “Pablo Del Cerro,” was actually a woman. “It was the nickname of the companion he lived with for years and years,” she says. The second selection, “Tu Que Puedes, Vuélvete,” also offered up a secret. Its co-author, Hector Roberto Chavero is Yupanqui’s birth name.
Topferova first heard music of rural South America as a child growing up in Prague. Friends of her parents, exiled from Chile, brought recordings by the legendary Andean group Inti-Illimani. “I absolutely fell in love with them,” she says. “I had no idea where this music was coming from. Later on, when I moved to the United States and heard more Latin American folk music I thought: This is it. This is the music that really speaks to me.”
The singer taught herself Spanish and began studying guitar while in high school in Seattle, and eventually took extensive journeys – to Spain, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, and other destinations – to absorb as much of the music as she could.
She arrived to New York in 1996, where she immersed herself in performances with various traditional ensembles, most notably with Lucia Pulido & Fiesta De Tambores, a group devoted to Colombian music and musica llanera (music from the plains).
In recent years, Topferova has gradually begun to step out as an instrumentalist as well as a vocalist. “The cuatro has so many capabilities. It’s a percussion instrument, and it’s like a guitar. It can be fast and aggressive, or you can get harp-like sounds from it. I’m also adapting new rhythms that are like nothing I’ve really heard. You can adapt a lot of things to that instrument that are not traditional.”
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