One of the greats of Latin America pasted away this past week, well it's going on two weeks by now. Haydée Mercedes Sosa was born on July 9, 1935, in San Miguel de Tucuman, Argentina and produced nearly 40 albums during her musical career, performing in venues such as The Sistine Chapel at the Vatican and New York's Carnegie Hall. She also served as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador for Latin America. She was an unrivalled interpreter of works by her compatriot, the Argentinian Atahualpa Yupanqui, and Chile's Violeta Parra, both icons of the region's nueva canción movement towards the end of the 1960s, whose work often spoke of the struggle for human rights and democracy. One of the greats of Argentinian popular music, she was nicknamed "La Negra" because of her jet-black hair, and was one of the leading exponents of the "Nueva Cancion," a musical style that combined ballads with folkloric instruments, with lyrics that often combined romantic themes, social issues, and the plight of the indigenous of Argentina and all of América Latina.
During her long career that saw her produce 40 albums, Sosa collaborated with musicians ranging from Luciano Pavarotti, Sting and Joan Baez to Latin stars such as Shakira, Caetano Veloso and Joan Manuel Serrat. Upon her death, Shakira paid tribute to Sosa, who she has previously worked and performed with, branding her "the voice of her brothers on Earth who lifted up the music of suffering, and of justice". Undoubtedly, she had the greatest voice, and she had a great capacity for understanding suffering.
I first heard of Mercedes Sosa while visiting the studio of my favorite Latin America artist Oswaldo Guayasamín in Quito and seeing one of his many paintings that he painted of the singer during his lifetime. As a figurehead of the Left in her own right, Mercedes Sosa fell foul of the military junta led by Jorge Rafaél Videla that ruled her nation between 1976 and 1983 and conducted the notorious "Dirty War" against its own people. One of the central themes of my artwork has been the disintegration of the social fabric during moments of political, social, and economic turmoil, of which Dictators and their regimes constitute a major component. It was during this time that she had to live in exile, even though, as she once declared: "An artist isn't political in the party political sense – they have a constituency, which is their public – it is the poetry that matters most of all."
But after the military seized power in Argentina in 1976 and installed a murderous dictatorship, Ms. Sosa, who was publicly identified with parties of the left, began having political problems and found many of her songs banned from the radio. Thereafter, Mercedes Sosa became the object of state surveillance and intimidation by the "Triple A" death squad. At a concert in La Plata, Argentia in 1979, she and her entire audience of 200 university students were arrested and detained. Although she was released as a result of international condemnation, the incident forced her into exile, leaving with just "three suitcases and a handbag". She found life in exile tough, living first in Paris and then Madrid, but her music became a rallying point for those back in Argentina who had themselves been silenced.
With the Argentinian junta's power waning however, Mercedes Sosa returned home in 1982 shortly before the debacle of the Falkland's War, giving a triumphant series of concerts at Buenos Aires' Teatro Colón. These were immortalised on the double album Mercedes Sosa en Argentina, which sold particularly well and cemented her status as a legend of the musical genre.
She was able to go back to Argentina in 1982, as the hold of the Armed Forces was weakening. But Ms. Sosa’s musical tastes had broadened during her years in exile, and after her return she became an early advocate of and mother figure for a new generation of singer-songwriters whose roots were more in rock ’n’ roll and international pop than traditional or folk music. She quickly added songs by future stars like Charly García and Fito Páez to her repertory, giving their careers and music both credibility and an important commercial boost. She continued to champion emerging young talent until her death.
Ms. Sosa was married to a musician, Manuel Óscar Matus, for eight years, and later lived with Pocho Mazzitelli, who was also her manager, until his death in 1978. Fabián Matus is her only child. As her international renown expanded, Ms. Sosa seized on opportunities to collaborate with performers outside of Latin America, like Luciano Pavarotti, Sting, Andrea Bocelli, Nana Mouskouri and Joan Baez. After touring with Ms. Sosa in Europe in the late 1980s, Ms. Baez described her as “monumental in stature, a brilliant singer with tremendous charisma who is both a voice and a persona...I have never seen anything like her,” Ms. Baez added. “As far as performers go, she is simply the best.”
As with many of the most precious and memorable things in life, we rarely appreciate them until they are long past. In the same vein, I find myself listening to her songs and albums now and youtubing her concerts and performances. Que pena no haberla disfrutado en vida, ciertamente ahora que la escucho siento que se fue una voz única, cada día van quedando menos artistas con voces que te hagan emocionar.......la industria musical actual ya no nos ofrece joyas como esta. Que descanse en paz...