"As the Argentine singer Sofía Rei led her multinational band, the passion and clarity with which she assayed a tricky mix of South American rhythms and jazz-inflected harmonies made clear why she has been embraced by New York City audiences from Carnegie Hall to the hippest downtown haunts." - The New York Times
Paying tribute to an exceptional artist demands an exceptional work of art.
Chilean singer, songwriter, folklorist, social activist, poet, and visual artist Violeta Parra would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year. In her new recording, El Gavilán, vocalist, songwriter and producer Sofia Rei celebrates her legacy by approaching her music with the imagination and daring that characterize Parra's work.
Recorded as a duo with guitarist Marc Ribot and featuring guitarist Angel Parra, Violeta's grandson, on one song, Sofía re-imagines Parra's music in a contemporary setting. It is, in essence, the classic folk voice-and-guitar format, but framed here by both, electronics and traditional instruments. Besides providing all vocals and the sound sculpting, Sofia also plays caja vidalera, a hand-held single head drum from Argentina's northwest, and charango, a small, five double string guitar from the Andean region of South America. The results - spacious and almost minimalist, the vocals layered with loops and pedal effects - illuminate Parra´s work from unexpected angles.
"When I decided to do a tribute to Violeta, my first questions were 'Which Violeta are we celebrating and for what? What do we want to achieve by it?,' "reflects Sofia. "Her lyrics have a new force today. But there is much more to Violeta than great songs such as 'Gracias a La Vida," or 'Volver a los 17.' Violeta was an innovator. Beyond the music and the words, it's her concept, her ideas. She not only worked at preserving traditional Chilean songs, styles and rhythms [as a folklorist], but then made a great synthesis of it all and that became the New Song movement. She invented a new tradition. To have a tribute that would recreate what she already did so well 50 years ago didn't make sense. It seemed to me a better idea to celebrate her spirit, take chances and create something new."
The set includes classics such as "Casamiento de Negros," "La Lavandera," "Maldigo del Alto Cielo" and "Run Run se fue pa'l Norte," but its heart is Parra's little-known masterpiece, "El Gavilán," an ambitious work originally intended for ballet, vocalist, choir and indigenous instruments. It´s an astounding piece, written in the late 50s, before her best-known songs, and in it, Parra mixes elements of Chilean folk tradition and 20th Century classical music. It´s a remarkable piece for a self-taught musician, and especially so for one who, up to then, had worked in the folk idiom.
"There is little known about this piece except for a famous radio interview in 1960 in which she talks about 'El Gavilán' and sings and plays its first movement, " says Sofia. "And in this interview she also talks about the idea of the gavilán (the sparrow hawk) representing the idea of the masculine, of the oppressor and connects it with capitalism. The other main character is a hen, representing the feminine, the oppressed, the betrayed. And what she does musically, singing and playing is remarkable."
Born in Argentina, Sofia started her career as a member of the Children's Choir at the Teatro Colón, the La Scala of Buenos Aires, at age 9. She was classically trained at the National Conservatory and later became part of the avant-garde vocal scene. In 2001, she moved to Boston to study jazz and improvised music at the New England Conservatory where she received her Master's Degree. She moved to New York in 2005 and since she has released three critically acclaimed albums under her own name. Two of those recordings earned an Independent Music Award for Best Album.
She met Ribot, an eclectic and adventurous guitarist who proved a key contributor in El Gavilán, as members of The Song Project, premiered during John Zorn´s 60th Birthday celebration. Ribot became intrigued by Sofia's re-imagining of Parra's music, especially in the ambitious "El Gavilán," and their chance collaboration grew into a duo.
"He asked me for translations of all the lyrics and dove right in," says Sofia. "Marc is a politically engaged musician and I believe Violeta's work spoke to him not only musically but because of its social and political message."
"I´ve always thought I owed myself a Violeta Parra record, but done like this, differently," says Sofia, who was a child when she first heard Violeta's songs but only interpreted by Mercedes Sosa. "It took many years until I actually heard Violeta herself in a recording. I find that there's a sort of revisionist view of her, a pink version, almost naïve - and that is not Violeta. Violeta was a very strong, intense woman."
Her personal life in shambles, Parra, as an artist, folklorist and social activist, found herself "alone in a quixotic struggle," as Sofia puts it. Violeta Parra died by her own hand in her performing tent in La Reina, an area outside Santiago, on February 1967, months short of her 50th birthday.
The closing track, "Run Run se fue pa'l Norte," was written by Parra for her companion of five years, the Swiss musician Gilbert Favre, nicknamed Run Run, who left her to start a new life in Bolivia. Sofia's subtle arrangement sets it to a landó, a Peruvian rhythm. The cloud of sound, at times luminous and ominous, is by guitarist Angel Parra, Violeta's grandson and a member of the Chilean rock group Los Tres, who has "his own contemporary approach to Violeta's music" says Sofia.
"'Run Run' is a long song and the opening verse closes with the line "... y cuenta una aventura que paso a deletrear ..." (And speaks of an adventure that I now begin to spell out ... ) " and that's where we left it," explains Sofia. "It's like a point where Violeta ends and her legend begins. It was the perfect line in which to end the album."
SOFIA REI - EL GAVILÁN SHOWS
April 29: Subrosa NYC ft. Marc Ribot - New York, NY
April 30: Atlanta Jazz Festival - Atlanta, GA
May 26: Arts Garage - Delray Beach, FL
May 27-29: Spoleto Festival - Charleston, SC