Music was Irene Farerra’s first language. Her earliest memories of Venezuela are full of song and dancing feet. “Music is part of every celebration and social occasion,” says the Oregon-based vocalist. By the time she was six she could sing dozens of aguinaldos or holiday songs. She loved the rhythm of Venezuela’s gaita music too so much that she insisted on organizing her brother and three sisters into a band to perform for the family. Impressed by their fervor their father bought a drum for the brother maracas for the sisters and presented Irene with a cuatro a Venezuelan four-stringed guitar. The instrument became her constant companion.
What began as a childhood diversion has become a deep commitment to the universal language of music. Farrera’s album Soy de Ti (Indígena Records) is a testament to her mastery of the guitarwhich she wields as both melodic and percussive accompaniment and her skill in translating emotion and observation into poetic lyrics. Accompanied by steel drum master Andy Narell (who produced the album) and Afro-Latin percussionists Michael Spiro, Jesús Diaz and Jackeline Rago Farrera weaves her silky voice through verses of caressing tenderness urgency and hope.
“These are songs about being in love being on fire,” she said. “Some are songs to embrace the world to bring people together in the dance. Ideally I would like my music to reinforce the sense of positive activism and power that each of us carries within.”
All but one of the 11 tracks are originals that Farrera penned over the last ten years. The arrangements with lyrics in Spanish and English cover a range of styles: the samba-reggae rallying cry of “For the World” a romantic rumba flamenca for “I’ll be There” and the title track a bossa nova performed with Brazilian guitarist Carlos Oliveira and violinist Darol Anger of The Turtle Island String Quartet.
Farrera’s siblings indulged her every Christmas season by crooning the choruses to the aguinaldos that quickly became a family tradition. By the time she was a teenager Farrera was lead singer and the family bandwith the addition of her sisters’ boyfriendswere playing paid gigs at holiday parties. “They were having fun but I was serious ” she recalls. “I was certain that this is what I needed to do. Something in me could not separate from the music. I went everywhere with my guitar.”
Still a musical career seemed unrealistic. After high school she packed up her guitar and moved to New York to study architecture. She returned to Venezuela to work but grew restless, a scholarship offer eventually brought her to Oregon where she completed a degree in humanities. At one point short of cash and encouraged by a voice teacher she auditioned at a jazz club in Ashland. “I played ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and they hired me for the weekend!, “she said. “I had no formal training and was thrilled to get paid. The audience was supportive and wonderful. Word spread the gigs got bigger and better. I didn’t think I would stay but the music has kept me here.”
The club gave her the opportunity to play with Charlie Byrd since then she has toured extensively and opened for the likes of Cesaria Evora, Tish Hinojosa and Susana Baca. Critics lauded her first two albums “Walking in the Jungle” (Same Sea Music 1993) and “Alma Latina” (Redwood Records 1995) comparing her voice to fine chocolate.
Her live sets continue to pay homage to the Venezuela of her childhood. “The cuatro makes you want to play joropo the folk music that goes with that instrument. The way I strum the six-string guitar now is as a percussive instrument, charrasqueado with all the fingernails together. The gaita also is very percussive. The two styles are very strong. Of course I have now traveled the world and been exposed to many musical styles. Most important to me are the music of Cuba and Brazil with their rich and compelling rhythms and melodies. ”
Much of Farrera’s repertoire has a message a plea for enlightenment action or redemption. Beyond the words however rings her dedication to a universal and non-verbal language of rhythm and expression. “Many people tell me that my music is passionate. I like to think it’s from the heart that it awakens those places in you that feel strongly about life and love. I want to move people with my music. Often when I play some of the audience doesn’t understand the words whether they’re in Spanish or English. But they feel the meaning in every cell of their bodies.
“It’s not that music breaks geographic borders,” she added. “It simply demonstrates that they don’t existthey’re imaginary lines drawn to divide us. I need to perform my music as a Latina and as a woman to represent my culture con pasion to bring us all together. I think we are ready for it.”