Prague is an unlikely place to fall in love with Latin music, but for Czech-born singer/songwriter/guitarist Marta Topferova, that was the place she first encountered the music that would change her life. “My parents had Chilean friends who had given them an Inti-Illimani record,” she explains. “It became one of my favorite records as a kid, I learned all the songs. 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 emigrating to Seattle with her family as a teenager in the 1980s, Topferova found herself gravitating toward 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 came to the music.
“I’ve always loved the rhythms and styles of Latin America,” she continues. “Son, trova and bolero. I’m definitely inspired by the folkloric styles, but my own music is difficult to classify.” Indeed, the music that Topferova plays today is the result of years of study, apprenticeship and travels that took her to Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Her music is a deeply personal mix of the aforementioned styles, as well as Venezuelan vals and meringue, Colombian jaropos and musica llanera, and the pan-Latin nueva cancion style.
Onstage, the willowy Topferova accompanies herself with a galloping quarto guitar while delivering her original compositions in Spanish with a husky, smoky voice that most Latin divas would kill for. She’s joined by Venezuelan percussionist Neil Ochoa and Colombian harpist Edmar Casteñeda, who add depth and punch to her music. Casteñeda is especially impressive, playing basslines with one hand and melodies with the other; he rocks his harp the way Jerry Lee Lewis rocked the piano.
All of this comes together on Topferova’s newest release, La Marea (World Village/Harmonia Mundi), which delivers on the promise of her 2000 debut Sueño Verde on the now-defunct Ryko Latino label. La Marea (The Tide) is a gorgeous, luminous record that showcases the impressionistic poetry of Topferova’s songwriting. Awash in watery images, from the title track to the existential lament “Grano de Arena” (“Grain Of Sand”), the album’s lyrics will remind many of the work of Pablo Neruda.
Poetry is a big inspiration for Topferova, too. “I speak English every day, but I only read poetry in Spanish and Czech,” she explains. “Garcia Lorca, and especially the Argentine poet Atahualpa Upangi, have been very important to me.”
“I’m very proud of this record,” she continues. “It brings together so many different experiences that I’ve lived through and images I’ve lived with. I’m also very proud of the arrangements and personnel. I feel very lucky to have Edmar and Neil, and all the other players like Jenny Cheinman and Urbano Sanchez who joined me. I’ve worked with all of them over the years and I consider them friends. Everything came together so naturally, I couldn’t have planned it better. I couldn’t wish for more.”