Mercedes Sosa: song with no boundaries.
She has been called the doyenne of Latin American folksingers, la gigante de la nueva cancion, and la voz de las Americas. Friends also refer to her as la pachamama (the earth mother) or even la negra Sosa because she favors black gowns and ponchos and still has hair the color of a raven. But for most of her fans, this woman of imposing stature, with her striking Andean features, stands for conscience and justice, survival in the face of hardship, hope for the poor and disenfranchised.
Argentina's Mercedes Sosa, now in the thirtieth year of her professional career, has played the biggest houses of Europe and the Americas and recorded hundreds of son's that run the gamut from traditional folk music through jazz and rock to popular masses and epic hymns. But what still matters most to her are la gente del pueblo, her solidarity with their struggle, her conviction that goodness will prevail even in the direst of times. This is the essence of her music whether she delivers it with stentorian bombast and a driving beat or the quiet tenderness of a lullaby. Either way people listen intently.
From the outset was there a presentiment of this quest for freedom? Perhaps. Afterall, sixty years ago, Sosa was born on July 9, which is Independence Day in Argentina. And did the locale play a role, as well? Undoubtedly. Tucuman, her birthplace, remains the cultural heart and soul of Argentina's northwest; it is known for its civic pride and political activism. Sosa's paternal grandparents, from Santiago del Estero, were of Quechua stock, whereas her maternal grandmother was French. "That's where I get my pale skin, the French side of the family," the singer explains. "My deceased sister, Cocha, had green eyes." Sosa began as a dancer, especially a dance teacher, and even now, her ample proportions notwithstanding, as she sings she moves about the stage with agility and grace. "I always enjoyed singing for friends. I still do. At age twenty I won a contest, the prize being a two-month contract with a local radio station. I made my professional debut in 1965 at a regional folk music festival in Cosquin, a small town near Cordoba. That's when la nueva cancion [the new song movement] really got going."
Until the 1960s, regional folk music usually meant sentimental paeans to the landscape and romanticized images of quaint country folk going about their business. The songs rarely acknowledged the limited horizons defined by poverty, ignorance, poor health, and periodic violence that characterized the harsh life of most campesinos. In keeping with the times, the so-called new songs changed all that. In form and instrumentation they remained faithful to the folk tradition, but with new candor they talked about real social issues: human rights, enduring peace, a decent standard of living for everyone. Were they protest songs? "I've never liked that label," Sosa states pointedly. "They were honest songs about the way things really are."
Throughout the seventies, Sosa developed a devoted following performing what became nueva cancion standards: compositions by Argentina's Atahualpa Yupanqui, Eduardo Falu, and Horacio Guarany, as well as those of the Chileans Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. On occasion she wrote her own songs, but for the most part her reputation grew out of an ability to perform material of others in such a personal way that the words and music seemed to be her own. Unlike many of the other old-guard nueva cancionistas who were also guitarists, Sosa depended on others for accompaniment, although occasionally she would join in using a traditional drum, or bombo leguero, which became something of a trademark. But it was the Sosa voice that people came to hear. She was blessed with an earthy, warm contralto, one that seems to soar effortlessly even above the largest chorus or orchestra. Other trademarks were her crystal-clear intonation, impeccable phrasing, and unerring sense of the emotional content of the words. In another life Sosa might have tackled the Wagnerian repertoire, because even as a young singer she had the necessary vocal skill, stamina, and power. But it was her destiny to embrace the folk idiom, chart a course far removed from the opera house, and that meant bagualas, carnavalitos, milongas, zambas, chayas, malambos, and other traditional song forms.
Near the end of the seventies, as Sosa's songs took on more bite by dealing with themes like agrarian reform, human rights, and democracy, she ran into trouble. This was threatening stuff to the military regime then in power, and she became a target for harassment and intimidation. During one concert in the resort town of La Plata, security forces arrested Sosa, her son, the band, the entire audience. The singer, dressed in Argentina's national colors of blue and white, was body searched on stage, although afterwards an embarrassed policeman kissed her hand and whispered, "forgive me, Dona Mercedes. They have ordered me to do this." By 1978 repeated cycles of arrest and release, bomb threats during her concerts, and eventually a decree by the military governor of Buenos Aires completely outlawing her performances made it impossible for Sosa to continue. Denied her livelihood yet not content to serve "as some decoration or ornament for the left" (her words), she took up residence in Madrid for what proved to be three years in exile.
Adjusting to life in Spain was difficult, all the more so because she had lost her husband to cancer just before leaving her homeland. Still, she did her best not to mourn but rather went to work experimenting with a new form of music she hoped would appeal to European audiences. "I had started as a folklorista and at first had no interest in classical music or jazz. But somewhat earlier my husband had taken me to a concert by Oscar Peterson, and after that I started listening to jazz. Then the Moscow Philharmonic came to Buenos Aires and again, I didn't want to try it, but Macitel [a friend] nudged me, and I went and I loved it. So eventually, I didn't abandon folk music, but I began singing some of the jazz-inflected compositions in Portuguese by Milton Nascimento, Chico Buarque, and other Brazilian pop masters. I'm still experimenting, searching. These days I'm trying things in Greek, which is quite hard, also a Japanese lullaby, which is easier because it's so phonetic. My career has been a continual search not for applause but a personal musical quest involving change, taking chances!"
Soon after her arrival in Spain, and not sure when she might return to Argentina, the expatriate bought a house in Madrid and purchased a little car so she could drive herself to musical engagements in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium. In 1979 she appeared in the first Amnesty International concert at Royal Albert Hall in London. She also performed in Israel and flew to Canada, Colombia, and Brazil, where she was offered permanent residency. But Sosa experienced a mounting sense of "disease," not because her throat was acting up or some other physical problem. It was "rather a problem of morale," she told Larry Rohter of the New York Times. "When you are in exile, you take your suitcase, but there are things that don't fit. There are things in your mind like colors and smells and childhood attitudes, and there is also the pain and the death you saw. You can't deny those things because to do so can make you ill."
In 1982, of her own volition, the singer returned to her homeland. "They said, 'who gave you permission?'" the singer recalls, "and I said I was a citizen and didn't need permission." Fortunately, the military regime fell soon after, and a civilian government under Raul Alfonsin took its place. Then, rather triumphantly and in rapid succession, Sosa gave thirteen concerts at the Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires to standing-room-only audiences, her old fans as well as newcomers hungry to share her sense of restored faith, optimism, and hope. Gone were the somber themes about survival and enduring, and in their place she performed Maria Elena Walsh's celebration of rebirth, "Como la cigarra" [Like the Cicada] and Julio Numhauser's "Todo cambia" [Everything Changes], which became an unofficial anthem for those heady times. Sosa's rendering of "Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazon" [I Come to Offer My Heart], by Fito Paez, also captured a mood then widespread, that of healing and coming together: "Who says that everything is lost? I come to offer my heart. So much blood has been carried away by the river, I come to offer my heart."
To commemorate these concerts, the singer issued a double album, Mercedes Sosa Live in Argentina. Sosa emerged as a folk hero, a symbol of resilience, maternal courage, and integrity as an artist. It was also a period of great personal growth for the folksinger from Tucuman as she continued to explore different musical forms, especially those of a younger generation rooted in jazz, rock, and related popular idioms. In 1986 she invited a rising star, Leon Gieco, to tour with her. Repeatedly they brought crowds to their feet stomping and clapping as the two singers hammered out the words to Gieco's "Solo le pido a Dios" [All I Ask of God] with its Dylanesque harmonica accompaniment. Sosa also hit the road or, more accurately, the airports, as she and the best of Argentina's new breed of folkrockers and balladeers toured the Americas and Europe. "At one point I feared we wouldn't be understood, that the poetry of the songs wouldn't come across, because we always sang in Spanish. So we introduced a translator. But the audience became paralyzed, frozen, so I said no, it's only going to be castellano!"
The universal language of music did prevail as foreigners came to know the inspired compositions of her companions, Paez, Heredia, Teresa Parodi, and Antonio Tarrago Ros. "At the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam it was incredible, mostly young people, tremendously enthusiastic, three and four encores," Sosa remembers with a smile. "Afterwards my feet were so swollen I couldn't get my shoes off, but it didn't matter."
During 1987-88 Sosa did a series of concerts in the United States, appearing for the first time at major venues like Carnegie Hall in New York City as well as college campuses. Sold-out crowds embraced her at every turn. "I have never seen anything like her, the New York Times quoted Joan Baez, who had performed with Sosa in Buenos Aires and Europe. "She is a brilliant singer with tremendous charisma, who is both a voice and a persona. She may not look like Tina Turner, but from the stage she can really hold an audience."
In October 1988 Sosa returned to her homeland and joined an Amnesty International musical caravan that included Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, and Sting (with whom she sang "They Dance Alone," his homage to Argentina's desaparecidos). In 1991 she packed the Estadio Parque Luna in Buenos Aires with fans who came to witness her extravaganza, Sin fronteras, which included appearances by fellow Argentines Parodi and Silvina Garre, Colombia's Leonor Gonzalez Mina, Venezuela's Lilia Vera, Brazil's Beth Carvalho, and Mexico's Amparo Ochoa. Equally memorable was the marathon performance by Sosa and many other artists the same year at the soccer stadium of Ferrocarril Oeste. To the tens of thousands gathered she dedicated the concert to the now-famous mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, or as Sosa went on to say, "tambien las abuelitas de Plaza de Mayo," who had risked their lives in the name of justice. Although much of the program was devoted to songs by the current generation - Nascimento, Heredia, Gieco, Paez, Numhauser, and Cuba's Silvio Rodriguez, there were the standards, too. Parra's enduring "Gracias a la vida" and Yupanqui's "Los Hermanos," the words of which - "I have so many brothers, and I can count each one, and a very beautiful sister, whose name is Liberty" - also took on special meaning.
Success in no way has corrupted Argentina's grand lady of song. She lives in a comfortable apartment overlooking the broadest avenue in the world, the Avenida 9 de julio in downtown Buenos Aires, but there is nothing pretentious about her life-style nor ostentatious about the furnishings in her home. In the entry area is a photograph of Neruda embracing Picasso, which the poet inscribed to Sosa, also a drawing of the singer by her good friend, Joan Baez. Sosa is particularly attached to some traditional pieces of silverwork by the Mapuches of the southern Andes, also a print by David Alfaro Siqueiros, which the artist gave her during the inauguration of his last mural for Mexico City's Hotel de Mexico. "In his honor I sang a song, 'Por Candido Portinari,' the great Brazilian painter who also created murals and was in touch with the people." Sosa pauses and then reflects, "Family, that's what matters to me! I don't give a hoot about owning an airplane or a swimming I just want to live in peace. All that lawn cutting! No! Paradise is nature, living in the country."
Also dear to Sosa's heart are her own recordings. Stacked near the stereo are dozens of tapes and compact discs that she studies often, critically, and with great concentration. But sometimes she interrupts with the hint of a tear in her eye: "Ah, that was in Tucuman. They really loved me," or "That's my other son, Cacho. He's a barber. Beautiful voice." Then her eyes wander to a magazine and a photograph of Astor Piazzolla, "Ay, el pichuco, what a good boy. He was a person who loved the idea . . . the idea of Buenos Aires. I saw him one night at the Teatro Colon, such a great composer and musician. He worked so hard even without popular support. Only the young people supported his experiments with the traditional tango. But then I've struggled, too, to reach the ordinary people, people in the slums, and I could never make it. It's been a tremendous desperation of mine."
Sosa is genuinely saddened by what she perceives to be a growing inner solitude within the young people of today. She fears they only see loud music and drugs as the answer. "Reading, knowing one's roots, history: that's how we come to know ourselves," she states emphatically. "Some years ago, I recorded the "Terceto autoctono" [Autochthonous Tercet] of Cesar Vallejo from Las Heraldas Negras [The Black Heralds], and this young couple, deeply puzzled, asked me what he was looking for." At this point, Sosa begins to sing the first stanza: "En puno labrado se aterciopela, yen cruz en cada labio se aperfile. Es fiesta! El ritmo del arado vuela; y es un chantre de bronce cada esquila." [The laboring fist becomes soft as velvet, and traces a cross on every lip. It's fiesta! The rhythm of the plow takes flight; and every cowbell is a bronze precentor.] She stops singing: "Vallejo is difficult, but that's no excuse. Of course, if you don't speak Spanish it's impossible to comprehend his metaphors, the mix of religious beliefs with pagan ones." Then Sosa laughs and tells a story about a music critic from a Buenos Aires daily who lauded her recording of the verses of "Carlos Vallejos." "Carlos Vallejos! No one knows the names of the authors, the composers! They don't even put the composers' names on the recordings anymore! Where would we be without them!"
During concerts Sosa always sings from the printed page. "I'm not sure why because I have a good memory," she explains. To prove it, she launches into a passage from the Romance de la muerte de Juan Lavalle, an epic saga about an Argentine military hero set to music which she recorded years ago with guitarist Eduardo Falu and author Ernesto Sabato. Unfortunately, the phone rings, and the splendid, private miniconcert that can be part of a conversation with Sosa comes to a halt. It is Ariel Ramirez on the line, composer of Misa criolla, the folk mass that became an enduring bestseller in the late sixties. Sosa shifts gears effortlessly and at full volume over the phone line intones several passages from the Misa, testing and discussing different levels of pitch. Returning to the sofa, she explains that Sony wants to issue a new version, an enormous production with full orchestra and several choral groups from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. "I'm restudying the libretto already," she explains. "Singing above a thousand or more voices plus all the instruments will not be easy!"
In October and November 1995 Sosa performed in ten cities throughout the United States and Canada. The tour, which she called Gestos de amor, or Gestures of Love, was organized by Nestor Rodriguez Lacoren, her agent in New York, also the author of La nueva mujer-poemas (1989), a versified homage to Sosa composed during the 1987-88 tour. As always, her own son, Fabian, served as her manager. She also relied on the veteran sidemen who have worked with her for years: Nicolas Brizuela on guitar, Gustavo Spatocco on keyboards, Ernesto Lobo on drums, and Carlos Genoni on bass. Each concert was vintage Sosa, a solid offering of the standards her adoring fans have come to expect as well as new material or revised interpretations that the artist in Sosa demands. A high point of the tour was a special ceremony in New York, at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, at which UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, presented Sosa with their Anniversary Award. Afterwards, in an interview with Katherine Monk of the Vancouver Sun, Sosa said: "I accepted the prize with a great deal of responsibility. It's important that the north and the south understand each other more than ever. I'm also proud because the prize is on behalf of women."
Using her music to build bridges between people and their disparate viewpoints has been Sosa's mission during her entire career. As a native of Argentina's northwest, she has persuaded the urban Europeans of Buenos Aires and many other cities to heed the nobility and wisdom of the Quechua, the Guarani, and other indigenous peoples of the Americas. In the face of repression, when the state has presumed to limit and define the very thought processes of its citizenry, stubbornly Sosa has demanded free expression of ideas even at risk to her own life. By living what she believes and presenting a model for others to follow, she has encouraged women to claim their rightful share of all forms of human endeavor. Also, she has argued the cause of those too poverty stricken or ignorant to speak for themselves, reminding us that true prosperity is a collective state of being, not for a select few.
A former professor of art, Caleb Bach is currently working on a book. He is a regular contributor to Americas. The author would like to acknowledge the gracious assistance of Nestor Rodriguez Lacoren in the preparation of this article.