Marta Topferova, a Czech-born, New York-based Latin singer

Marta Topferova, photo:

One critic wrote of Marta Topferova that you could be better off not seeing what she looks like - just listening to her husky jazz vocals you might guess she's a 50-something Latin American singer-songwriter. In fact, the "tri-cultural" Marta was born here in the Czech Republic, though she has lived in the United States for most of the last two decades.

Marta Topferova: "I started singing when I was eight, in a choir here in Prague called Mladi, for about three years. We sang mostly folk music, Czech folk songs and some classical pieces.

"Then when I emigrated [in 1987] to the United States I continued singing in another chorus, the Seattle Girls Choir. It was a really high level...ages about 13 to 18, but we were at a very professional level, we had a lot of sight singing and ear training and sang in many languages, doing classical as well as contemporary pieces."

Topferova has built up an enviable reputation on the world music circuit, singing in Spanish. How did she first get into the Latin-American music that has shaped her life?

"I first heard South American music, from Chile, back home in Czechoslovakia, which was a kind of very lucky coincidence, because my parents got hold of these recordings of a group called Intilimani through some Chilean people who came to live in Czechoslovakia in the '70s.

"Immediately I felt a connection with this music, a very, very strong connection. But it wasn't until I emigrated that I could feed that passion some more, because there wasn't so much international music available, at that time."

Today Marta Topferova, who is in her early 30s, is based in New York, a city she finds inspirational.

"New York has been the best school that I could ever have wished for - on a musical level, on a cultural level. I've just been learning so much there through my collaborations with different musicians, from different genres as well - jazz musicians, classical musicians, musicians that cross over between these worlds. And of course the Latin American music community there."

When you sing to Spanish native speakers do they hear an accent in your voice? And how do they react to you?

"No, they actually don't hear an accent in my singing. A lot of people guess that maybe one parent is Latin American, and that I'm somehow mixed, or something like that.

"I think in Latin American culture people are very proud of their music, but in a way where they want to share, they embrace you, they want you to learn their language. It's more of a triumph when other people do participate in the music, as opposed to a feeling of, this is mine and I don't want other people to get involved.

"That's been my experience, although in Spain it's quite different. Among the flamenco musicians there's definitely a certain kind of hierarchy that's probably very old. It's much more difficult to penetrate that circle."

Your first CD, which I think you released on your own label, was of Bohemian, Moravian and Slovak folk songs. After so many years away from here, how close do you feel to Czech culture now?

"First a kind of history of how that Czech album came about - it was actually the second record I recorded. I first recorded a record of original songs in Spanish in the year 2000, but that wasn't released until 2003. And during that time, because there were problems with the record label, that's when I decided to record a collection of Czech folk songs.

"I'm very torn. I do love the [Czech] folk music and I actually want to work it more and more in the future. But...I have my father here, I have my grandmother here, I'm very close to my family, but I haven't been pulled to come back and live here in a long time.

"I feel very much at home in New York. I'm a trilingual, tri-cultural person and I feel more distant.

"In fact it's difficult for me to maintain my Czech language in perfect shape, I don't speak it very often, I don't have family in New York City. It can be challenging; I come back and reconnect and have memories, but somehow...I feel at home in New York."

I understand the title track of your most recent album Flor Nocturna was somehow inspired by the Czech photographer Josef Sudek.

"Yes. I had been familiar with his work before but I was at an exhibition but there was a particular photograph that I fell in love with.

"It was a photograph of roses in a beautiful kind of Art Nouveau glass and behind it was the window of a studio overlooking an old, old apple tree, it was at dusk and the window was all kind of misty...the photograph is called Posledni ruze [The Last Rose]. I just fell in love with it and somehow I associated that image with the song - that poetic image of an artist's studio.

"But then I expanded it and the lyrics in Flor Nocturna are actually dedicated to my mother. It's about struggling along in life and getting advice, and a relationship of a close family member."

Another close family member, Marta father's Tomas Topfer, is a very popular actor in the Czech Republic and actually became a member of the country's Senate last year. Eighteen years ago, just two years after she left Czechoslovakia with her mother and sister, Tomas Topfer played an active role at the start of the Velvet Revolution.

Before saying goodbye to Marta Topferova I asked her what she recalled of that era from her exile in the US, and when she first returned to the country of her birth after the climactic events of 1989.

"The revolution happened just a couple of years after we left. It was something that we all hoped would happen, but I certainly didn't think it would happen that fast. So it was a very powerful moment for all of us, in and outside the country. I was not in touch with my father at that time - that's a very complicated family story.

"As for coming back, the first time was in 1992, or 1991. It was very emotional; it was very, very emotional. My sister and I flew to Amsterdam and took the train here. As we crossed the border we had tears in our eyes and it was, yeah, a very moving moment."