Multi-award winning Berta Rojas is not only one of the top classical guitarists in the world, she is also one of the only women in the male-dominated field.
Her new album “Salsa Roja” was released globally this week, paying tribute to her beloved Latin America. But what makes this collection of classical pieces extra special is the collaboration with the Recycled Instruments Orchestra of Cateura — or Landfill Harmonic Orchestra — a 19-member ensemble comprised of children from Asunción, Paraguay who perform using instruments they have built from garbage. Presently, Rojas is also working to design what she hopes will be the Cateura Music School, the town’s very first music school with real instruments.
“What happened to these kids was a miracle,” says Rojas, who is also originally from Asunción, but has been based in Washington, DC for the past 15 years. “This used to be a completely forgotten area in Paraguay — the parents of these kids are garbage collectors, and thanks to this program kids have a voice, and thanks to them the area will no longer be forgotten. We invited them to play on our CD is a symbol of our relationship of love and admiration.”
Rojas says she learned about the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra last December when she was invited by them to visit the school where they rehearse. She says she was so moved and touched by their story, that she started a guitar program. Since December, the project she envisioned (and still needs more funds to be completed) has turned into a collaboration of the whole community — from the mayor of Asunción to organizations who might help in the U.S.
Rojas’ friend and owner of Middle C Music in DC, Myrna Sislen, donated 39 instruments (a cost of $25,000) to the children in Paraguay “…so they can play with a good sounding instrument,” says Rojas who also travels there whenever she can to teach them classical guitar and when she can’t, she hires a guitar instructor to take her place on a weekly basis. “The guitar program can be imitated for every instrument of the orchestra.”
The accomplished classical guitarist got a master’s from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and was a Kennedy Center Fellow of the Americas in 1996 for her artistic excellence. She says she is very proud of these children, who live only 15 minutes from where she grew up.
“One little girl, Noelia, who is 12, played a guitar made of two cans of sweet potato marmalade when I met her in December — now she plays on a formal guitar,” says Rojas. “She plays on the opening acts on my CD — when you hear the part of the second guitar, it’s Noelia playing. I’m very proud of her accomplishments. We are only helping.”
Rojas hopes the children keep music in their lives, but ultimately, she hopes they go farther in their education in whatever they want.
“I just wish that they become what they wish to be in life,” says Rojas. “What is good is that they are learning the discipline that classical music requires — you have to put in many hours. It’s an instrument of change.”