In Profile: Mercedes Sosa

By - 26 August, 2010

When it comes to Latin American revolutionaries, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevera, without doubt, is the name that most people think of immediately. However, hailing from the same hometown was a little niña that not only sang her left-leaning songs to the Argentinian people but to the whole world. Through her music and political ideals Mercedes Sosa also made a significant impact on Latin American history.

Last 4th October [2009], the sound of Luna Tucumana was in the air and people were queuing in front of the Argentine National Congress in Buenos Aires, they had all come to pay their respects to Haydée Mercedes Sosa, dead at 74. Sosa, also known as La Negra (for her long, jet black hair) – the descendant of French and Quechua Amerindian. When ‘Che’ turned to school age, she was born in San Miguel de Tucumán, one of the largest cities in northern Argentina, and it was there where young Mercedes began her showbiz career after winning a contract in a talent contest.

She began to establish herself as one of Argentina’s foremost singers following the content and released her first album, La Voz de la Zafra (The voice of the Zafra), in 1959, and fell in love with her first husband, Manuel Óscar Matus. The newly-married couple would play an important role in the Nueva Canción (new song) movement springing out of Chile that would soon emerge in Argentina and spread across all other South American countries in the mid-60s. Nueva Canción was a breed of folk music, influenced by music in Spain, that would refresh the folk styles of the continent, adding powerful political meanings, showing a greater understanding of South American history as well as perfecting the obligatory love song. It was often used as a weapon against the brutal governments. Artists like Sosa despite being from different places with different backgrounds, joined together with the goal of improving South American people’s lives from poverty, sickness and persecution. Other important musicians in the movement included Chile’s Violeta Parra and Víctor Jara and Sosa’s countryman Atahualpa Yupanqui. In 1971 Sosa would record a collection of Parra’s songs, including “Gracias a la Vida”, a song which would become her own. Under Argentina’s military dictatorship Nueva Canción offered the people a left-wing point-of-view within its poetic structure.

Nobody could argue that Mercedes Sosa played an important role in this new folk song movement. Her deep, emotionally powerful voice and pleasing melodies evoked the dormant, working class people to stand on her side and fight against the military government. She was a big supporter of Perón, the dually intolerant left-wing and conservative Argentinian ex-president. While Perón had rightist tendencies he also performed many acts that focused on labour, women and gay rights, with which Sosa sympathised. It was these minorities that she wished to perform for. However, following the death of first lady Eva Peron, the Government was taken over by Jorge Rafaél Videla and the atmosphere changed to one of oppression. In 1979, Sosa, performing in concert to a crowd of 200 university students, was arrested on the scene, and banned from treading foot on stage for the rest of her life. Following this she had little choice but to leave Argentina, spending time in Madrid and Paris in her years of exile.

Sosa returned to her beloved country in 1982. Argentina was in the last throes of the Falklands War with England. Its end saw the military regime collapse and meant Sosa could perform again. She returned to the stage singing again for huge audiences in Argentina again, but also internationally, performing in renowned and glorious venues like London’s Royal Festival Hall in UK, Lincoln Center in New York and the Théâtre Mogador in Paris.

During her life she co-operated with many well-known stars such as Caetano Veloso, Sting, Joan Baez, Shakira and countless South American artists. One of her most important creative relationships was with Atahualpa Yupanqui, one of Argentina’s finest songwriters and composers. She released 70 albums, won several Latin Grammy awards, and married twice! Although many of her albums took from the tradition of Argentinian folklore she also showed a willingness to try different styles, and has recorded tangos, bossa novas, nueva trovas from Cuba and rock songs during her career, as well as recording Misa Criolla in 1999, Ariel Ramirez’s mass based on Argentine folk styles. Recently her song Balderrama was featured in the 2008 film Che, starring Benicio del Toro. Sosa turned out to be the icon of her generation, an active microphone holding warrior giving thanks to life and devoting herself to the world, replacing the gun with guitar, and bullet with music, her voice searing into the night:

Si uno se pone a cantar / If one begins to sing
Un cochero lo acompaña / A driver will join in
Y en cada vaso de vino / And in each glass of wine
Tiembla el lucero del alba / Trembles the morning star

Zamba del amanecer / Zamba of the dawn
Arrullo de balderrama / In adulation of Balderrama
Canta por la medianoche / Sing through the Night
Llora por la madrugada / Cry by the morn

Balderrama

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