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Guitarist makes her way in male-dominated field

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Whenever Berta Rojas returns to her native Paraguay, she pays a visit to the cemetery where her great-grandmother is buried.

Though she never knew her, Rojas shares her forebear's first name — and a passion for the guitar.

"My great-grandparents came to Paraguay from Switzerland," Rojas said. "Berta played the guitar. My great-grandfather, Wilhelm, the violin, and they would play together."

"Now, I always pay Berta a visit when I go home. It's part of the ritual."

Rojas, a critically acclaimed guitarist with a busy international schedule, plays as a guest of Austin Classical Music Society on March 3.

Rojas, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a bit of an anomaly among professional classical guitarists, an instrumental specialty still largely populated by male luminaries.

"It's a male-dominated world," she said of the classical guitar scene — and, well, the world in general. "But little by little women are making their voices heard."

To its credit, the Austin Classical Guitar Society has always featured women in its international concert series, something Executive Director Matthew Hinsley said he purposely decided to do when he took the helm of the organization in 1996. "We have a lot of young women in our youth programs," Hinsley said. "By featuring women like Berta, we're able to provide an important context for our" young women students.

For a guitar festival in Paraguay last year, Rojas participated in "Divas de la Guitarra," a concert featuring herself along with three of her gal-pal guitar friends: Ana Vidovic, Xuefei Yang and Grammy-winner Sharon Isbin. (Both Vidovic and Yang, incidentally, have been guests of the Austin Classical Guitar Society.)

But perhaps more intently than championing gender diversity in the classical guitar world, Rojas has long focused attention on bringing the music composers from the Americas to greater international attention.

"We tend to think of Latin America as one whole, one place," she said. "And by labeling it simply ‘Latin America' like that, we forget the vast differences of each country and all the nuances that music has."

Through busy concertizing and several recordings, Rojas specifically spotlights Paraguayan virtuosic guitarist and innovative composer Agustín Barrios (1885-1944), featured in Rojas' 2010 CD "Intimate Barrios."

Though he was recognized for his deft and original blending of folk music traditions with classical stylings, Barrios' compositions never quite received their due during his lifetime, particularly outside South America. Nevertheless he performed relentlessly, leaving Paraguay for decades to traverse the Americas. By nature an audacious person, Barrios created an alter ego to perform, adopting the name Nitsuga Mangoré ("Nitsuga" is Agustín spelled backward) and performing dressed as a Guaraní Indian chief. (Barrios was partly Guaraní, an indigenous people of South America.)

Last year, Rojas embarked on one of her most ambitious projects yet: "In the Footsteps of Mangoré," a three-year tour during which Rojas will essentially follow Barrios' itinerary with concerts of his music.

"Imagine what it must have been like for Barrios to travel (the Americas) by boat, by train, by horseback at times," Rojas said. "He knew his region well and embraced its diversity. He was such an idol for so many musicians."

Joining her for certain concerts along the way are some of Rojas' all-star friends, including Cuban jazz great Paquito D'Rivera. In fact, Rojas and D'Rivera just finished recording a CD that will be released in March.

"Barrios always tried to make a connection between popular music, local musicians and the" classical guitar tradition, Rojas said. "I wanted to honor that, too."

Rojas will play some Barrios on her Austin program. But she also is including a number of new pieces by emerging composers. "I like to promote the music of younger upcoming composers, too."

A few years ago in Paraguay, Rojas discovered that a collector of old musical instruments had a beautiful antique guitar about which he knew very little except that it had once belonged to a German-speaking Paraguayan woman named Berta. It was clearly Rojas' great-grandmother's instrument, of which the family had long ago lost track.

"He didn't want to sell it, unfortunately," said Rojas of the collector. "Maybe some day, I'll be able to buy it."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

Berta Rojas