It was May 17, 2002. I was home in Paraguay, on my way to the countryside, getting ready to begin my very first guitar tour in my homeland. Having done many outside of Paraguay, I was very excited to begin my journey. Juan Cancio Barreto, one of the most popular artists in Paraguay, and I were on our way to the city of Encarnación, located in the southern part of Paraguay, where the country shares a border with Argentina. All of a sudden, we were stuck in a traffic jam that extended for miles. Worried we were going to be late to our first performance, we drove off the main highway and continued traveling down a dirt road, until we witnessed firsthand what had caused the traffic jam: a strike by humble fishermen from the area who were protesting the loss of income, due to the construction of the Yacyretá dam that Paraguay shares with Argentina.
We got out of our car, and spoke to the fishermen who immediately recognized Juan Cancio Barreto. After he introduced me to the group and asked the men why they were striking, they requested that we play them a song. So, in the middle of the road, as we sat on asphalt, we serenaded them. After the private concert ended, the fishermen unanimously voted to end the strike. This allowed us to continue our journey, uninterrupted.
The unique exchange made front-page news in "Noticias,"with a headline that read: "Serenade on asphalt." After the unexpected press coverage, our tour became an immediate hit. From then on, my zest for learning more about my homeland grew and provided me with additional opportunities to tour. First with Cancio, and then by myself, I visited schools throughout Paraguay in the hopes of instilling in youth an appreciation for their culture. Although it has been 26 years since I last lived in Paraguay, my love for my homeland continues to grow exponentially. This is why I believe I wasn't the least bit surprised when Paquito D'Rivera openly shared with me his heartfelt admiration for my country, its culture, music and people. A formidable musician who plays Paraguayan music as if he were a native, Paquito was deeply moved by his brief visit to Paraguay. A short stay of only a day and a half, yet powerful enough to leave an indelible mark in his psyche. This memory comes alive in the album we just released titled Día y medio - A Day and a Half.
Paraguay has lived an ugly history of wars and dictatorships. The Triple Alliance War, for example, ended in five years of battle with our neighboring countries of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay; and the deaths of 75% of the population. Unspeakable death and destruction that led to the brutal 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Today, my beloved homeland has been able to elect a few democratic governments; however not free of corruption. Nevertheless, we remain hopeful. Paraguay experienced economic growth in 2012 that totaled 15%; and in 2011 it was 4%. This year, however, a minus 1.5% rate is projected due largely to a drought in the first quarter of 2012; and the outbreak of Aftosa fever which reduced the level of meat exports, one of our main products. Inflation in 2011 was 4%; and this year it is estimated to reach a rate of 5%. Our debt at 13.5% represents one of the lowest in Latin America. The foreign exchange reserve in relation to the country's GDP is 22%. We know we have a long road ahead, given that Paraguay has a poverty rate of 34% and an extreme poverty rate of 19%.
In contrast, the country is rich in culture and music, most of which is still unknown to the rest of the world. From the music composed by Agustin Pio Barrios Mangoré, the greatest guitar composer of all time, to José Asunción Flores, a composer whose compositions have been performed by the Moscow Symphony, Paraguayan music reflects the traits of my people and my land. Some of these include innocence, joy and an appreciation for the finer things in life. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that one of the most romantic types of Latin American music, along with the Bolero, comes from Paraguay -- the guarania.
This month we celebrate the release of Día y medio - A Day and a Half in the hope that the world will get to know this small corner of the globe a little better.
Music transcends boundaries, like the one we overcame when we serenaded the fishermen in the middle of the road. It also allows us to get closer to the soul of a people, as in the case of a Cuban like Paquito who embraced the music of Paraguay; and in our case as a result of this musical union.
Berta Rojas is world-renowned classical guitarist. One of the top five in the world, and the only woman.