Crossing borders between nations can be a risky business. The same holds true for crossing musical boundaries. But singer/ songwriter Marta Topferova crosses both with a beguiling grace and ease.
The songwriter's brand of Latin-American music, a fusion of folk and jazz, is accentuated by the cuatro, a four-string Venezuelan guitar that she plays with rigorous rhythmic vitality. Her poetic lyrics, sung with a sultry swing, are all in Spanish. All of which is remarkable when you consider that Topferova is a Czech whose first exposure to South-American music began when she was a child behind the Iron Curtain.
"Little by little, but in very powerful ways, Latin American and Spanish music had a profound affect on me," says Topferova (pronounced Tope-fehr-oh-vah), who repeatedly listened to a recording of Chilean music at age 6.
The singer/songwriter won critical and popular acclaim for 2005's "La Marea (The Tide)," a set of her original songs written and performed in Spanish. Her second CD on the World Village label, "Flor Nocturna," released this week, is likely to attract the same kind of attention.
"My mother and sister and I immigrated to the US in 1987," explains the singer, now a New Yorker. "I was cut off from my own culture ... so starting my life over in new surroundings, I felt most drawn to the diversity of this country, the immigrants. And since I liked the sound of the Spanish language so much – and was fascinated by Latin music, rhythms, and culture – I learned Spanish as a teenager."
In the studio and on stage, the 30-something singer surrounds herself with musicians who back her with light percussion, violin, flute, and accordion.
But what leaps out at listeners is her husky, forceful, slightly bluesy voice, an instrument colored with a smoky undercurrent hinting at spirited struggles with world-weariness and seeking consolation for exile in poetic song. She's capable of dramatically singing jazz swing, elegiac lament, or poetic declamation, and even some mix of all three styles at once. Here's a voice perfectly suited to her songs about spiritual searching for home. As Topferova writes in the intimate notes to her new CD, "Since I did not truly feel completely at home anywhere, I made music my home."
Her lyrics are steeped in the vivid imagery of renowned poets writing in Spanish, notably that of Federico Garcia Lorca and poet-troubadour Atahualpa Yupanqui. The title song from "Flor Nocturna" ("Nocturnal Flower") opens with: "Half moon of borrowed light falls on my shoulder/ Through the window how much peace it emanates!/ I'd like to be just the same raised up in the sky/ And not as alone as I feel now."
Topferova delivers the words with a passionately silky vocal tone suggesting that she is sharing an intimate secret with her listeners – but she would sing the lyrics even if the moon were her only listener.
"I do find that I 'paint with words' so to speak," she says. "I believe that images, colors, and emotions are completely connected with the magic of music. That is why I love songwriting so much. I strive to make each of my songs a distinct landscape through the play of sounds and lyrics I choose."
Her distinct musical landscapes transcend her Eastern European heritage, though she is planning a future recording of the Czech music she still loves. Perhaps Topferova's songs now are best described by the Argentinian word "huella," meaning, "the song you make up as you travel your path." Topferova's path is one no music lover should miss.