"Someone once told me that in order for a woman to be successful, she needs three things: health, talent, and luck," says legendary Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa during a phone interview from her home in Buenos Aires. "If you're missing one of the three, it could be a disaster." Despite a nearly six-decade musical career spent partly in political exile, as well as the loss of friends and compatriots along the way, Sosa has held on to those three things. She expresses her gratitude by constantly breaking into spontaneous song, the notes booming through the Miami end of the receiver in spite of an otherwise muffled connection.
"My voice will break the afternoon to the echo of yesterday. I wind up alone after all, dying of thirst, tired of walking, but I keep growing in the sun, alive," she belts into the phone. The lyrics are from "Zamba para No Morir," a folk tribute to resisting death. Her rendition of the song launched her career when she was fifteen years old, in 1950, during a singing competition sponsored by her hometown of Tucuman's annual folklore festival.
But more important, she explains, is the number she chose to perform earlier this year in memory of fellow Argentine singer Tamara Castro, who died in a car accident this past December.
It's the latest in a long line of tragedies Sosa has sung about over the years. But she is best known among Latin Americans for the way her interpretations of popular folk songs have denounced oppression and encouraged healing.
Yet ask about her role as a folk troubadour, and she demurs. "I interpret the very best of the best Latin American singer-songwriters," she says, "as well as a few Italians." (She has shared the stage with Luciano Pavarotti.)
Sosa was first influenced by Argentine President Juan Peron's more progressive political ideas. But by the time Argentina's Dirty War rolled around in 1976, her life-embracing folk songs no longer jibed with the establishment. It's not that they were inherently political, but many of them spoke up for the oppressed or denounced violence.
In 1979 Sosa was arrested onstage in La Plata for threatening the public order. After authorities banned her performances and recordings in her homeland, she sought exile in Paris and Madrid until 1982, when family and fellow singers encouraged her to return home. Later that year, the war with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands sparked the downfall of Argentina's military dictatorship.
So she became an even bigger phenomenon.
"I remember my parents listened to her before the war, but then during the dictatorship, her recordings were prohibited," recalls Veronica Fascie, a Buenos Aires native who now lives in Miami. "They didn't even listen to her in the privacy of their own home. So when she returned, it was like this huge explosion."
Hence it should come as no surprise that 30 Años, one of Sosa's best-selling recordings, was taken straight from the first live concert she gave after arriving back home. Her return represented not only healing but also rebirth: Many Argentines would have the pleasure of listening to her music again, and some of their children would be able to hear it for the first time.
But her social messages about loving life and not remaining indifferent to war didn't stop with her homeland. In fact since then, Sosa's interpretations have helped to diffuse politically loaded situations throughout Latin America.
In 1999, for example, she gave a massive concert in San Salvador, El Salvador. It had been seven years since the signing of the UN peace accords that had ended the country's twelve-year civil war, but the spiral of violence continued. Yet men in business suits cried as they reached over and embraced tattooed Mara Salvatrucha gangsters standing next to them in the bleachers, all singing along with Sosa on numbers like "Solo Le Pido a Dios," "Gracias a la Vida," "La Masa," and "Todo Cambia."
Afterward, a Che Guevara look-alike taxi driver sat in his cab and silently rubbed his eyes as he listened to a radio report of the concert. His car was a guerrilla shrine covered with photos of leftist revolutionaries. "This was not just a concert," declared the voice over the airwaves. "This was like a mass, a kind of national healing."
Even though many Latin American guerrillas have appropriated Sosa's music for their causes, the artist is quick to point out she has always been a pacifist. For instance, she has been a longtime supporter of movements like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. (This group of women has spent the past three decades walking weekly in front of Argentina's presidential palace, demanding answers about the disappearance of thousands of citizens during the Dirty War.)
Sosa delights in the warm welcome she is expecting on a May 25 tour stop in neighboring Chile. "I'm going to dine with [Chilean President Michelle] Bachelet in the Argentine embassy, something that I'd never even have considered doing because of the presidents that we used to have," she says proudly. During the Seventies and Eighties, governments across South America collaborated to maintain their respective military juntas, and such a reception would have been impossible. "It's different singing these songs now. Many years have passed, and I think people have a better understanding of what was happening at the time."
For the tense political climate of Cuban-dominated Miami, Sosa plans a repertoire to bridge the emotional and historic gap between el exilio and artists on the island. During a performance here in 2003, she highlighted Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez's romantic side by performing his song "O Melancola," an ode to the universal question: "Is there someone out there to love me?" Although hard-line exiles despise Rodriguez for using music as a platform to promote socialist ideology, this particular tune was a nostalgic crowd pleaser for later waves of émigrés who grew up listening to him. Youth with practically no geopolitical knowledge of Cuba's nueva trova, a socially conscious folk-rock movement that began in the Sixties, simply liked the way the song sounded, Sosa notes.
"I don't sing political songs, but rather beautiful songs," Sosa reaffirms. "Cubans are very emotional people, and they just went crazy when they heard that song."
Her gift of interpretation has even transcended language barriers in places like Germany, France, and Holland, where Sosa has also sung to multitudes of fans. "You know, I think I put my heart out there," she says, "and they [the audience] pass it back to me even though they aren't quite sure what I'm saying."
Asked to explain the meanings of her songs in her own words, she gives an even more heartfelt and appreciative response. Of "Gracias a la Vida," she exclaims, "Thanks for everything life has given me! I still find it hard to believe that I can perform for crowds of 94,000 people in Argentina who have all purchased tickets to hear me."
In the case of "La Cigarra" ("The Cicada"), she uses a different strategy. Each spring in the Argentine countryside, the cicadas come alive in song, she explains. The harder the sun beats down on them, the louder they chirp.
Prodded about whether the cicada is a metaphor for her people, she simply recites the lyrics: "So many times they've killed me, so many times I've died, but nonetheless I keep on singing ... singing to the sun like a cicada, after a year under the earth, just like the survivor who returns from the war." Even now her voice cracks as though she might weep with the intensity of lyrics she has repeated thousands of times.
She expresses gratitude once again for the phone interview and explains she must move on to the next caller, but before she does, she breathes deeply and issues forth her own words in a poetic cadence. "This is my life. I sing with all the love in my heart. I'm going to die singing; just let me keep giving all this love to the people."
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