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Remembering Mercedes Sosa.

On a fresh spring day three years ago in Buenos Aires, I stopped at a sidewalk kiosk to select just the perfect bouquet for the special lady I was about to meet for the first time. Arriving moments later al her 1960s era apartment building, I marveled at its privileged location opposite the architecturally imposing French Embassy on the city's imperial Avenida Nueve de Julio.

A smartly uniformed maid met me al the door and escorted me into an airy living room overflowing with treasures and trophies. With burning incense filling the white-walled room with a spicy fragrance, I took in the surroundings while waiting for my hostess' entrance. Vases of flowers filled every corner, stacks of books every nook. Oriental rugs and glass sculpture complemented walls blanketed with contemporary paintings and indigenous art. On the balcony, a forest of ferns, flowering plants and cacti framed a view that included the city's signature monument, the 220 foot tall obelisk, and the storied Teatro Colon opera house. An electronic keyboard, adjacent to an elaborate sound system, occupied the room's center stage. Nearby, plaques documenting some of the world's most esteemed awards provided insight into the life of the renowned artist I was about to meet. And then, Mercedes Sosa swept regally into the room.

When, on October 4, 2009, the 74-year old Argentine singer lost her long struggle with failing health, the world lost one of its most ardent champions of the oppressed. Throughout her life, with a voice as strong as the will of the disenfranchised masses she passionately defended in song and through personal example, Sosa remained committed to a belief that her music could help the downtrodden triumph over their abusers.

Born July 9, 1935 in the remote provincial capital of San Miguel de Tucuman, Sosa won a local singing contest at the age of fifteen and recorded the first of her 40 albums, La Voz de la Zafra, nine years later. A proud mestiza who claimed Quechua ancestry in her bloodline, she became one of the primary interpreters of the songs of Atahualpa Yupanqui (nee Hector Roberto Chavero Aramburo), Argentina's greatest folk music composer.

Sosa also emerged as an early exponent of the movement that became know as nueva cancion, a tradition of balladry that boasted folkloric roots and poetic lyrics that addressed social injustice and other societal ills.


Her fame grew internationally when she began to incorporate the music of other Latin American nueva cancion artists. Among her favorite composers were Brazilians Francisco "Chico" Buarque de Hollanda and Milton Naschnento and Cubans Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez. She was particularly attracted to the artistry of Chilean nueva cancion singer and composer Violeta Parra, whose iconic work "Gracias a la vida" became one of Sosa's signature songs. Her feminist bent was demonstrated through her landmark 1969 album Mujeres Argentinas.


In the mid 1970s, when many Latin American nations were under the control of brutal military dictatorships, Sosa's music served as a beacon of hope for millions whose liberties had been usurped by authoritarian rulers. In 1979, she was arrested by the Argentine military government and forced to leave the country. The singer remained in exile in Europe until the dictatorship ended in 1982. A year later, her album Como un Pajaro Libre (Like a Free Bird) became a veritable soundtrack for her country's return to democracy.

Even in the last decade of her life, as a succession of illnesses disrupted her once hectic touring and recording schedule, Sosa reaffirmed the universal appeal of her talents. In 2000, her albura Misa Criolla won a Latin Grammy for best folkloric album of the year, followed by other Grammys in 2003 for Acustico and 2006 for Corazon Libre. Her final recording, Cantora 1, released just six months before her death, provided further evidence of her ageless appeal. The album, also a Grammy winner, features Sosa's burnished and still potent contralto voice in duets with some of some of today's most popular Latin American singers, including Shakira, Jorge Drexler, Juliete Venegas and Caetano Veloso.

As we sat on her couch, Sosa spoke about the enduring popularity of the style of folk music she had helped popularize and the power of its message. "When we stood up against the military dictatorship, young people came with guitars, not bombs," she recalled. Then, in a voice as robust and majestic as ever, she sang a verse of one of her favorite songs by Chilean composer Julio Numhauser. "Cambia lo superficial. Cambia tambien lo profundo. Cambia el modo de pensar. Cambia todo en este mundo. Cambia, todo cambia. Cambia, todo cambia...."

A musician and journalist, Mark Holston is a regular contributor to Americas.
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Title Annotation:LATITUDES
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Previous Article:Who was B. Traven?
Next Article:From the editor.

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