Born in Ostrava, in the former Czechoslovakia, the young Marta Topferova (pronounced Tope-fehr-oh-vah) moved with her family to Prague, where she began her musical career at age 8 singing in the Miadi children's chorus, whose repertoire was mostly classical and folkloric pieces. As a child she studied piano and guitar, and got her own first guitar at the age of thirteen. Prague may have been an unlikely place to fall in love with Latin music, but for Marta, that was where she first encountered the music that would change her life. "My parents had Chilean friends who had given them a collection of Inti-Illimani records," she says. "They became my favorite records as a kid. In those days (the Communist era), it was still hard to get a lot of music; but I know if it had been possible, I would have searched out a lot more Latin music."
Eventually, she did just that. After immigrating to Seattle with her family as a teenager in the 1980s, Topferova found herself gravitating towards the Latino community and teaching herself Spanish. "It was just me, my mother and my sister and I felt isolated, thinking I would never go back to my country. Then I met Hispanic friends at school and that community drew me in. It was like a second home. Through those friendships I penetrated Latin music and culture more deeply."
In her teens Marta sang with The Seattle Girls' Choir for four years. Later, she would major in music and dance at Bard College in New York. Marta also began to get serious about her guitar playing and researching Latin music, searching out rare folkloric recordings and finding the originators of the styles she loved. "I've always loved the rhythms and genres of Latin America," Marta says. "Son, trova & bolero... I'm definitely inspired by the folkloric styles, but my own music is difficult to classify." Indeed, the music that Marta plays today is the result of years of study, apprenticeship and travels that took her to Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
In Spain, Marta lived in Moron de la Frontera, a gitano stronghold in Andalucia, where she studied flamenco at its source. In Mexico, Marta gained one of her first onscreen experiences when she performed on Fiestas Patrias, a popular television program shot in Merida. Her travels also brought her to Havana's famous casas de la trova - those bastions of Cuban traditional music - where she soaked up decades of Cuban musical genius.
After a short stint in Miami, Marta moved to New York in 1996, where she immersed herself in the burgeoning Venezuelan and Colombian communities. She acquired a Venezuelan voice teacher who introduced her to Venezuelan vals, gaita and merengue, and began performing duets with Lucia Pulido, who in turn introduced Marta to Colombian joropos and musica llanera. Eventually she traded in her guitar for the smaller, higher-pitched Venezuelan cuatro, and began to incorporate these new styles into her repertoire.
For anyone who doubts the authenticity of a Czech woman playing Latin American music, Marta offers this response: "People only question me if they don't know me, but once they hear me and realize that I study this music very seriously, they're usually very convinced. Really, music travels the way we do nowadays, and borders can't keep people in or out anymore."
Marta's music is a complex, lived-in mix of all of the aforementioned styles, shot through with a poetic sensibility. Citing the work of Argentine singer and nueva cancion icon Mercedes Sosa, Marta explains that it's difficult to categorize her music. "I suppose I'm kind of a part of the nueva trova movement," she laughs, "but I'm reluctant to call it that."
Poetry is a big inspiration for Topferova, too. "I speak English everyday, but I mostly read poetry in Spanish and Czech," she explains. "Garcia Lorca and especially the Argentine poet Atahualpa Yupanqui have been very important to me. "I've always loved Lorca," she continues, "a lot of his work was inspired by flamenco, and I've always identified with gypsies, since so much of my childhood and adult life has been so nomadic."
In 2000 she recorded Sueño Verde for Circular Moves/ Rykodisc (the album wasn't released until 2003) with her former partner, guitarist Enrique Lopez. The album won critical praise, and gave audiences their first taste of Marta's luminous songwriting and impressionistic lyrics.
With her 2005 release, La Marea, ("The Tide"), Marta is joined by an impressive pair of seasoned musicians - Colombian harpist Edmar Casteneda and drummer Chris Eddleton - as well as a raft of from the New York music community. Together the trio blazes through a sultry set of original material; Marta accompanying her own husky, smoky voice with a galloping cuatro guitar, Eddleton laying down a percolating stream of percussion, while Casteneda absolutely rocks out on his arpa, playing bass lines with one hand and melodies with the other. The ensemble takes Marta's lyrics and arrangements to new places, adding gentle bossa nova ("Manana Nevada") and even a touch of Spanish tangos ("Limonero") to the mix.
"I'm very proud of this record," Marta says about La Marea. "It brings together so many different experiences that I've lived through and images and ideas I cherish. I'm also very pleased with the arrangements and personnel. I feel very lucky to have been joined by so many wonderful guest players - violinist Jenny Scheinman, flutist Yulia Musayelyan, French horn player Chris Komer, pianist/accordionist Angus Martin, bassist Pedro Giraudo and percussionists Neil Ochoa and Urbano Sanchez. I've worked with all of them over the years and they're good friends. Everything came together so naturally, I couldn't have planned it better."
"Their contributions reflect the generous and welcoming spirit of the Latin musical community. When I first set out to sing in Spanish, I didn't know how far this music would take me - or how far I would take it. But I certainly hope that, with La Marea, I can give something back to the culture and music that's brought so much to my life."
Sueño Verde (Circular Moves/ Rykodisc, 2003)
La Marea (World Village 468040, 2005)
Flor Nocturna (World Village 468062, 2006)
Trova (World Village, 2009)