I go, to be burned in the sky by the sunlight . . . / hoarse from shouting that I will return / splitting the air with my cry, forever.
These words come from “Zamba para no morir” (Zamba to Keep From Dying), the song whose interpretation at a 1950 music competition launched a young Mercedes Sosa into a musical career that ended only with her death on October 4. A personal favorite of La Negra, as she was affectionately known, the song describes her own perseverance to sing truth to power throughout her years of exile from her native Argentina during the military dictatorship. Her appeal to “Sing with me, sing, American brother and sister” in the song “Canción con todos” (Song With Everybody) resonated with a broad spectrum of activists and everyday people in a call for social solidarity and progressive action. Hailed as “the voice of Latin America,” or just “the voice of America,” she probably came the closest of any musician to embody a hemispheric identity that erases national borders.
Sosa’s career spanned five decades. Her prolific musical output produced more than 70 albums and major contributions to half a dozen films. Her voice was powerful both metaphorically, in its power to represent popular desires for freedom and justice, and literally: She made microphones superfluous as she filled halls with the strength of her voice, a quality readily evident on her many live recordings. She was not a composer herself but an interpreter of others’ songs. She played piano, guitar, and the ukulele-like charango but most often sang solo or accompanied herself on the bombo, the wood and sheep-skinned drum of the Andes.
She also commonly wore an Andean poncho to cement her identification with her Diaguitan indigenous heritage while clearly representing herself as Argentine, a move that helped to subvert the perception that the nation begins and ends in Buenos Aires. She masterfully interpreted various Argentine genres—chacareras from the interior, milongas, and urban tangos—as well as musics from the rest of the Southern Cone, including her best-known (and -selling) song, an interpretation of “Gracias a la vida” (Thanks to Life) by the iconic Chilean folk-revivalist Violeta Parra. She would go on to embrace a wide stylistic palette that drew from throughout Latin America, especially the generalized ballad form that serves as the vehicle for so much song infused with social commentary.
Born into a working-poor family in Tucumán on Argentina’s independence day in 1935, Haydée Mercedes Sosa first rose to prominence in the mid-1960s as part of the movimiento del nuevo cancionero, the Argentine wing of the continental movement of socially committed song most famously known by its original Chilean name, nueva canción. She became nationally known in 1965 after her stellar performances at the annual National Folklore Festival. This success enabled the release of her first album, Yo no canto por cantar (I Don’t Sing Just to Sing), which remains a seminal work emblematic of her sensitive rendering of folk melodies and socially conscious lyrics. The 1972 album Hasta la Victoria helped to cement her position as a major figure in a folk-based music that gained wide acceptance in urban areas. The tremendous popularity of these early albums also established her as one of the principal artists in the burgeoning radical political movement in South America; she herself gradually moved from an early Peronist formation to a more broad leftist and anti-imperialist position.
Sosa remained in Argentina following the military coup of 1976, but in 1978 she was arrested onstage during a concert, along with the audience of students, roughed up, and released. With the death of her second husband that same year, she considered suicide; instead she went into exile in France and Spain and redoubled her musical efforts. Together with the Chilean groups Inti Illimani and Quilapayun, both of which had escaped a similar dictatorship, Sosa became a beacon from afar for the hopes and aspirations of the many Latin Americans under tyranny even as her music was banned from public sale and broadcast. She returned to Argentina in 1982 to such acclaim that the government, still under military control, intervened and expelled her again. In 1984, with the definitive fall of the generals, Sosa returned to her native country for good, though she remained in a whirlwind of international touring and recording.
During her European exile, Sosa became one of the most internationally well-known singers. Less known is Sosa’s historically important role in using her fame to cross supposedly unbridgeable musical boundaries. When Brazilian music remained typecast as bossa nova, she collaborated with now world-recognized musicians, like Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque, and helped to integrate Brazil into Hispano-America’s conception of South America. When she first returned home in 1982, she brought several musicians on the stage of the Buenos Aires Opera House, including Charly García, a top figure in rock nacional. The resulting live album, Mercedes Sosa en Argentina, came at the time the dictatorship was crumbling (the title itself was a political statement) and demonstrates the wide musical net that Sosa had already cast in collaborations with not only rockero García but also the Cubans Bola de Nieve, Silvio Rodríguez, and Pablo Milanés, as well as Argentine folk and popular music fusionist León Gieco. Her impact on rock and pop musicians, evidenced on the 1999 Alta fidelidad, which García produced, helped bridge the political divide between generations. It seemed natural, if not inevitable, that contemporary Argentine rocker Fito Paéz would re-record his “Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón” (I Come to Offer My Heart) with Sosa in a live version whose popularity rivals the original version.
She won her first Grammy in 2000 for Misa criolla during the inaugural Latin Grammy Awards, and her presence helped to grant a seriousness of purpose that the awards were supposed to represent. She won two more Grammys, in 2003 for Acústico and 2006 for Corazón libre. She continued to collaborate with an impressive and eclectic list of musicians that includes Joan Baez, Sting, the Greek pop star Nana Mouskouri, Luciano Pavarotti, and more recently Shakira and Lila Downs. She may yet win more Grammys: Her last album, Cantora 1, which continues her history of collaboration, is nominated in three categories.
Throughout her artistic career Sosa remained a towering non-sectarian figure fully and unhesitantly committed to political struggle. Her fearless assertion for social justice in the 1970s and early 1980s, when fear ruled most of Latin America, was consistent with her strong opposition to neoliberal Carlos Menem in the 1990s, as well as her support for the national reforms of the Kirchner presidencies in this century. She never hesitated to use the platform that her artistic accomplishments offered to give voice to a political perspective rarely granted space in mainstream media. I witnessed an example of this courage when she performed in Miami in the early 1990s despite bomb threats and criticism from local diva Gloria Estefan. Ignoring the hostility that greeted her at the related press conference, Sosa deftly parried the reporters’ barbs; her printed statements represented one of the few times progressive political views appeared in a Miami daily newspaper.
Sosa remained open to collaborate with artists without any political agenda while never renouncing her clear, unequivocal support for social justice, however unpopular with some audiences. The generalized statements in the songs she sang and her own words never stooped to bland platitudes but were always linked to an unfailing involvement and connection with real social struggles to transform the world and empower the powerless. Her life’s work represents one of the most successful and enduring linkages of social and artistic endeavor, made possible by someone who could uncannily express the feelings of so many. As she once said: “In my voice sings neither you nor I, but South America.”
T.M. Scruggs lives in Berkeley and taught ethnomusicology at the University of Iowa.