Mercedes Sosa... The voice of the voiceless falls silent

October 06, 2009 -- 12:00 am PDT

By Fernando González

Three time Latin GRAMMY winner Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa, one of the great voices in popular music and  long a symbol of resistance and human rights struggles, died in Buenos Aires, early Sunday morning. She had been hospitalized 13 days ago suffering from “progressive  kidney malfunction” and related liver and lung problems. Sosa was 74.


A portly woman with Indian features, jet black hair and an Andean earth mother look, Sosa had a powerful, rich alto voice with surprising shadings. Even while singing sitting down center stage, as was her custom, Sosa, had a commanding stage presence. One moment she could turn an arena into a living room and a song into a whispered confession among friends – and the next, she could be all fire and brimstone, bringing forth the full power in her voice to a rallying cry. And both moments would sound just as compelling and true.


Born in poverty in Tucumán, a province in the Argentina’s Northwest,  on July 9, 1935, Sosa began her career as a singer by winning an amateur hour competition sponsored by a local radio station. She was 15 years old and sang under the name Gladys Osorio. As part of the prize, she got a two month contract to perform at the station.


Sosa started as a traditional folk singer, but soon, she became part of a movement updating Argentine folk music, which in time led to her involvement in the Latin American “Nueva Canción,” a style that blended folk styles and lyrics addressing social and political concerns.


In the 1970s and early 80s, a time of  brutal military dictatorships in Argentina and much of Latin America, Sosa became a symbol, “the voice of the voiceless.”


It was a role she didn’t choose, but one from which she didn’t retreat – although she once complained about being turned into a symbol in detriment to her role as an artist.


"Sometimes, one is made to be a big mouth or some sort of Robin Hood and it's not like that," she once told me, with an edge of frustration in her voice. "I am a woman who sings, who tries to sing as well as possible with the best songs available. I was bestowed this role as big protester and it's not like that at all. I'm just a thinking artist."


Still, and while there was no official censorship, many of her songs were banned, and after she was detained, on stage, in 1979, she went into exile, first to Paris and then Madrid.


She returned to Argentina in 1982.


While she never lost touch with her roots and her programs still included a healthy dose of zambas and chacareras, Sosa opened up her repertoire, embracing not only pop and rock but MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) and collaborating with, and often becoming an artistic godmother to, a broad range of artists, including Milton Nascimento, Fito Paez, Caetano Veloso, Joaquin Sabina, Charly García, Shakira, Gustavo Cerati, and Julieta Venegas.


She also collaborated with artists such as Sting, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Baez.


In the 90s Sosa enjoyed great artistic and personal recognition (she was even declared Ciudadana Ilustre de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, or Illustrious Citizen of Buenos Aires, in 1992). But even while living under formal democracy, and with the adulation, she remained outspoken, denouncing anything from petty corruption and amiguismo (cronyism) to the wobbly prosecution of those who had committed human rights abuses.


"I don't use the stage to speak about these things. On stage I sing. Singing is my noblest side," she once said. "But I pay my taxes, I have grocery bills, pharmacy bills -- just like anyone else. So what are we artists to do? Are we supposed to be dummies? Not think, not talk about anything?"


Sosa had had some health problems as recent as 2003, when heart problems kept her off stage for nearly two years.  Her latest recording, “Cantora,” featuring collaborations with Charly Garcia, Franco De Vita, Joan Manuel Serrat, Shakira, and Fito Páez among others,  has been nominated for three 2009 Latin GRAMMY Awards, including best album and best folk recording.


The 10th Latin GRAMMY Award ceremony, takes place November 5 at 8 p.m. in Las Vegas and will broadcast live by Univision.