Mercedes Sosa was often called the “Voice of the Americas.”
At one time her voice could have gotten her tortured, probably murdered: though as seductively sweet and full of emotion as the aroma of your mother’s best holiday meal, it was considered by some to be powerful enough to threaten a military government.
Her powerful voice stirred unbridled adulation, even among her most sophisticated listeners: though as penetrating, stalwart and steely as the sharpest ripsaw blade, her voice caused folk singer Joan Baez, who was touring with her in Europe, to weep through all of Sosa’s performances, until one night Ms Baez actually got down on her knees to kiss the singer’s feet.
Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa’s effect on people is anything but neutral. In Austin, Texas, a modest Mexican-American restaurant owner and political activist made it her goal to present Sosa to Austin audiences—it took her more than 15 years, but in 1992, Cynthia Perez realized her dream when Sosa performed at the University of Texas. Later, in 1995, Sosa was honored for her “commitment to the world’s women” with an award from the United Nations Development Fund for Women—a heady addition to a list that already included top-level accolades by the French, German and Ecuadorian governments.
Must have some kind of powerful voice, you say.
She inarguably did—a voice as solid and imposing as the Texas state capitol dome, while at the same time, wrapped in layers of the softest silk.
Influenced by her Indian, Spanish and French roots, and by the music of her native Argentine pampas, her voice earned her a radio contract at the age of 20. Later it became a voice that many on the left looked to for inspiration in the battle of ideologies during the turbulent 1960s and ’70s that produced global unrest from Kent State to the military dictatorships of Chile and Argentina, albeit, much of Latin America.
“Our folk music makes me cry, it makes me feel connected to those who are committed to the survival of ordinary people,“ Sosa explained in a phone interview we conducted in 1995. “But I do not sing protest or denunciation songs. I never considered myself political. I have always sung honest songs about love, about peace, about injustice. Unfortunately some people feel threatened by the truth.”
The leaders of Argentina’s military government apparently didn’t like what they heard, and in 1978 banned her from radio, television and the concert hall. Because thousands of lesser figures were “disappearing” (the common euphemism for the military’s torturing and murdering of political activists), Sosa thought it better to exile herself to Spain and France. As a result, her career blossomed in Europe, and the influences of rock and jazz began to enter her folk-based repertoire.
She deeply felt the loss of her homeland.
“Loneliness,” was how she described the influence of exile on her music, “I was always surrounded by people, but I was always alone. I had to leave too many memories behind, like colors, smells, friends, family. Now my music has evolved from the pampas of Argentina thirty years ago. One complicates one’s music because one’s life becomes more complicated.”
Sosa returned to Buenos Aires as a triumphant figure in 1983, singing to packed concert halls and recording in a newly democratic Argentina. Her mission also evolved into helping struggling young songwriters and performers get a foothold in the always crowded field of popular entertainment.
After her return, she offered a boost to many careers in her home country, though sometimes even the stamp of the “Voice of the Americas” was not enough.
“The military dictatorship in my country paralyzed people. Now a new generation is coming alive filled with young songwriters experiencing the passion of their freedom.”
Sosa elaborated, “Unfortunately this coincides with the worst time for folk music in Argentine history. The radio is full of rock music in English. And it’s funny because, since my own music has changed over the years, some new folk singers don’t want to associate with me because they think I’m too close to rock.”
Here she offered a consumer note of sorts, “Many people think my Atahualpa album is my best. It is simple and direct. I must say that I agree with them. [The album, entitled Mercedes Sosa Interpreta Atahualpa Yupanqui, is a collection of acoustic treatments of music by the consummate composer of pampas folk songs, Atahualpa Yupanqui.]
“In some ways she is like Bob Dylan,” explained former Argentine resident, the late Kelly Fero, who lived in the pampas region in the 1960s when Sosa’s career was taking off.
“There’s the acoustic versus electric aspect. And because everything in Argentina is political, her music can be interpreted that way. But more importantly she connects to the Argentine people on a deep level, deeper than politics. Her music is more than entertainment or politics because she speaks to, and appeals to the melancholy that is at the soul of the Argentine psyche.”
The powerful voice of Mercedes Sosa connected locally in Austin.
“Her music commands your attention,” said Cynthia Perez, the woman who was responsible for getting Sosa to Texas for both her Austin performances, “she captures the heart, souls and minds of anyone who hears her.”
Since her first exposure to Sosa on local radio station KUT in the 1970s, Perez became obsessed with the idea of luring Sosa to the Texas capital to sing. [Your humble writer confesses to being the DJ responsible for exposing Perez to Sosa on the above mentioned radio station.] By the mid-1980s Perez had formed La Peña, an organization dedicated to the promotion of Latin American culture. It should be no surprise that the first grant application submitted by La Peña to the National Endowment for the Arts was to fund a performance by Mercedes Sosa.
“The underlying idea was to bring an artist of her stature to help enlarge our audience base,” explained Perez, “and I couldn’t imagine sponsoring any performer but her.”
La Peña did not receive the requested funding, but Perez was persistent in her campaign to see Ms Sosa perform in Austin. In 1992 she convinced La Peña’s board of directors to take the financial risk of presenting Sosa at the Performing Arts Center. The gamble paid off with a near sell-out crowd. Perez, of course, felt victorious.
“They gave her a standing ovation before she even opened her mouth. The management of the Performing Arts Center was amazed that a Hispanic artist could draw such an audience. And that’s what we wanted to show them with the hope that they would be persuaded to bring other performers like her. But no matter what, my dream finally came true,” concluded Perez.
Mercedes Sosa was a passionate artist whose tremendous force erupted from deep within like a volcano. To watch her on-stage was nothing short of inspirational: a stout figure shrouded in a black poncho, effortlessly unleashing the vocal equivalent of an emotive, loving hurricane. She clearly put everything she had, her heart and soul into her work.
She agreed with this.
“After recording my last album I was so drained I spent an entire month recuperating. I get very tense recording because it reflects how people will see my music for all time.”
And thanks to her commitment to the music, but perhaps simply owing to her impressive command of that powerful, steely but tender voice, that one-of-a-kind instrument, there is no doubt that people will continue to reflect on the music of Mercedes Sosa for all time.