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A unique figure in the history of music, Agustin Barrios (1885 - 1944) was a Paraguayan composer, poet and virtusoso guitarist.

Born in San Juan Bautista de los Misiones, he came from a musical and cultured family, and was introduced early in his childhood to traditional and popular music. At high school in Asuncion, in his teens, he studied classical guitar and performed his debut under Pellegrini, the noted music teacher at his school.

At age 27, having started to establish his musical career, he departed for a concert in Argentina, having promised his girlfriend to be back in a week with money for their coming marriage. But he didn't return for 12 years.

He traveled extensively in South America, and toured Germany and Spain in 1935, performing concerts with programmes from his repertoire of guitar transcriptions of Bach, Chopin and other classical composers, pieces for the guitar by composers such as Tarrega, and his own works.

During one period, he insisted on performing in his traditional Indian dress, and adopted the name of Mangore, a Guarani chief of legend.

He was inspired by religion of a theosophical cast and by the traditions of his own Guarani people, and his most famous works, La Catedral and Una Limosa por el Amor de Dios (An Alm for the Love of God) reflect these preoccupations. Other works lean more heaviy on the traditional music of the area.

He was influenced by the great guitar comoposers Sor, Tarrega and Aguado and by classical and romantic western composers, especially J.S. Bach and Chopin. The noted guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer says of him: "Just as Bach continued to write superb baroque music up to the year of his death [...] Barrios was writing exquisite romantic music long after its passing in Europe." and guitarist John Williams adds "This romantic musicality is expressed by a far more imaginative and developed guitar technique than anything that had gone before."1

It is hard to convey the flavour of Mangore's work. I think the influence of Bach is predominant (he transcribed and performed many of Bach's works on the guitar) but warm lilting Latin cadences and rhythms are never far from the surface. His Preludio in G minor, openly modelled on Bach, has a baroque form and harmonies, but there is a subtle Latin beat underlying its stately rhythm. In other pieces, he employs, dazzlingly, many of the tricks of guitar technique, including tremelos, unusual uses of open strings and melodies which hop from the bass to the treble register, while the other strings provide the harmonies. In all this, the musicality and unique personality shine through.

Although he became relatively obscure in the years immediately following his death, Mangore was a great influence on performing guitarists of the time (Segovia was said to have learned his Aquado technique from viewing one Barrios performance) and his music can justifiably be said to extend and develop the guitar repertoire beyond the best efforts of his contemporaries.

Fortunately, he made many recordings, which document in full his incredible virtuoso technique and are the only source for many of his compositions. These are scratchy, and at times almost undecipherable, but are nonetheless stunning and a bit awe-inspiring for a playing guitarist. Thanks to the work of Barrios biographer Richard Stover in bringing these to light, many contemporary guitarists are giving his work due exposure on the international recording and performance circuits.

Mangore was also a poet, and in 1930 he wrote his Profession of Faith to explain his adoption of a traditional Indian name and dress:

Tupa, the supreme spirit and protector of my people,
Found me one day in the middle of a greening forest,
Enraptured in the contemplation of Nature,
And he told me: "Take this mysterious box and reveal its secrets."
And enclosing within it all the songs of the birds of the jungle
And the mournful signs of the plants,
He abandoned it in my hands.
I took it and obeying Tupa's command I held it close to my heart.
Embracing it I passed many moons on the edge of a spring fountain
And one night, Yacy (the moon, our mother),
Reflected in the crystal liquid,
Feeling the sadness of my Indian soul,
Gave me six silver moonbeams
With which to discover its secrets.
And the miracle took Place:
From the bottom of the mysterious box,
There come forth a marvelous symphony
Of all the virgin voices of America.
Inappropriate in this writeup, perhaps, but I can't help wondering if this was the inspiration for Rush's concept album 2112 :-)
1. John Williams' sleeve notes for "The great Paraguayan. John Williams plays Barrios" Sony SK 64 369
2. Richard Stover, "Agustín Barrios Mangoré, His Life and Music Part III: Cacique Nitsuga Mangoré" Guitar Review, No. 100 (Winter 1995): 17

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