Blending politics and music

October 21, 2009

Bridget Broderick celebrates the life of "La voz de América," Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa.

I WAS reminded again two weeks after her death of just how many people miss Mercedes Sosa, the renowned Argentine singer who died October 4.

At a fundraiser for the resistance to the coup in Honduras, musicians played a tribute to "La Negra," (Sosa's nickname due to her indigenous heritage).

The next day, in an Argentine grocery store, the owner spoke about Ms. Sosa in loving terms. He had pasted the front cover of the local newspaper with the singer's face on the windows of his store, and while a soccer game blared on in the background, he talked about "La voz de América" (The voice of America), and her influence on everything from Latin American music and politics to soccer.

Mercedes Sosa was born in Tucuman province in northwest Argentina, far from cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. She was of French and indigenous descent, and her parents were day laborers. She showed early talent as a singer, and won a local radio station amateur hour contest at 15 years old. From that point, she became involved in forging the Nuevo Cancionero, or New Song, movement in Mendoza, Argentina, in 1963.

Mercedes Sosa performing in 1973
Mercedes Sosa performing in 1973

Its manifesto claimed a search for a new national music based on new content--traditional instruments and music styles should be used and experimented with, from folclor to tango, without commercial interests or attempts by the market to create niche audiences and divisions. While aspiring to a national music, the movement eschewed a "closed regionalism," aiming to communicate with and exchange ideas with artists and movements throughout America. Finally, the New Song movement claimed it would:

struggle to convert the Argentine people's current support of a national music into an inalienable cultural value. [We] affirm that art, like life, should be in permanent transformation, which is why popular song seeks to integrate with the creative process of the people, to accompany the people in their destiny, expressing their dreams, their happiness, their struggles and their hopes.

The New Song movement was influenced by Argentine folk songwriter/musicians such as Atahualpa Yupanqui as well as Chilean artists Víctor Jara and Violeta Parra. In turn, the New Song musicians inspired and worked with songwriters and artists throughout the continent, from Daniel Viglietti in Uruguay and Carlos Mejía Godoy in Nicaragua, to Cuban Nueva Trova singers Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez, and Puerto Rican salsa innovator Willie Colón.

IN THE 1960s and 1970s, during a general period of political and cultural radicalization in Latin America--in the face of U.S. political and cultural imperialism, and national dictatorships and repression--the New Song movement artists conveyed the dreams, struggles and hopes of many throughout the continent to older and younger generations of activists. Their songs incorporated traditional instruments and political yet poetic lyrics that spoke to millions.

Sosa was a pivotal singer in the New Song movement. She didn't compose songs, but her beautiful contralto voice gave poignant expression to some of the best works by her peers, such as Leon Gieco and Víctor Heredia ("Todavía Cantamos"/"We Sing Still") and Violeta Parra ("Gracias a la Vida"/"Thanks to Life").

She brought to life the composition "Como La Cigarra" ("Like the Cicada") by Argentine poet and children's songwriter Maria Elena Walsh, and sang a loving eulogy to female poet Alfonsina Storni ("Alfonsina y el Mar"/"Alfonsina and the Sea") based on her final poem before her suicide. Her repertoire expanded five decades as Sosa sang throughout Latin American and Europe and the U.S.

As an artist, Sosa was admired greatly for her voice and stage presence. Yet she became "La Voz de America" because of her commitment to blending politics with music during a time of social and political upheaval in which speaking out publicly could mean imprisonment, or in the case of Víctor Jara in 1973 Chile, torture and death.

Sosa continued to perform politically charged songs after the Argentine dictatorship of right-wing nationalist Jorge Videla came to power in 1976. The military junta that ruled was responsible for the disappearances of at least 30,000 leftists and social activists. Mercedes Sosa sang many of her songs in defiance of a government ban.

In 1979, Sosa performed "When They Have the Land" about agrarian reform at La Plata, a university city. Security forces arrested 200 attendees, and an officer publicly performed a body search of the singer on stage to humiliate her.

As a result of international pressure for her release, Sosa was set free, paying a $1,000 fine. Yet she was forced into exile after facing threats to her life and surveillance by secret death squads. She was unable to perform in Argentina, but from abroad, she continued to sing about the dreams and struggles of Latin America.

But Sosa couldn't stay abroad for long. Forced exile impacted her mentally and artistically, and she returned in 1982, shortly before the military junta crumbled. She was able to perform to thousands in Argentina and throughout Latin America, and continued to perform works of well-known artists for over 20 years, winning three Latin Grammys and numerous music and social justice awards from around the world. She performed with Luciano Pavarotti, Charly Garcia, Silvio Rodriguez, Sting and Joan Baez.

SOSA CONTINUED to sing and incorporate new sounds into the tradition of the New Song movement, and support political cultural causes until her health prevented her. In June 2007, I had the good fortune to finally see Mercedes Sosa perform with special guest Guadalupe Piñeda at a benefit for the Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The concert's title was "Building Communities without Borders," particularly appropriate in a city in which hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants had marched to gain respect and political rights for undocumented immigrants.

The artist was clearly in failing health--she needed to sit throughout most of the concert and took extended breaks to allow Piñeda to sing. But when Mercedes Sosa performed, she took command of the stage and made us forget the background noise of the margarita machines in the large basketball stadium. Her voice was strong and clear and beautiful.

Several Chilean attendees were outraged that people were talking during the concert, and asked them to "have some respect." They grew silent in appreciation (or intimidation). Sosa sang new songs from her 2006 CD Corazón Libre as well as familiar hits "Gracias a la Vida," "Canción con Todos" ("Song with/for Everyone") and "Sólo Le Pido a Dios" ("I Only Ask God").

But for me, the one that stood out was, as always, "Como La Cigarra"--poetic and evocative of how one can face and survive a violent but beautiful world again in the community of others.

Cantando al sol como la cigarra
después de un año bajo la tierra,
igual que sobreviviente
que vuelve de la guerra.

Tantas veces me borraron,
tantas desparecí,
ami propio entierro fui
sola y llorando;
hice un nudo en el pañuelo
pero me olvidé después
que no era la única vez
y seguí cantando.

Tantas veces te mataron,
tantas resucitarás,
cuántas noches pasarás
Y a la hora del naufragio
y la de la oscuridad
alguien te rescatará
para ir cantando.

Singing to the sun like the cicada
after a year under the earth
Just like the survivor
Who returns from war

So many times they erased me
So many times I disappeared
To my own burial I went
Alone and crying
I made a knot in my handkerchief
But then I forgot afterwards
That this was not the only time
And I continued singing

So many times they killed you
So many times you will come back to life
How many nights you will spend
Desperately losing hope
And at the moment of the shipwreck
And at the time of darkness
Someone will rescue you
To go on singing.

''There's no better example of artistic honesty,'' her nephew and fellow singer Chucho Sosa said in 2007. ''Her songs reflect how she is in life.'' Mercedes Sosa's death on October 4, 2009, in Argentina leaves us to remember her tremendous voice and spirit in life through her songs.

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