Singer Mercedes Sosa: The voice of the 'voiceless ones' outlasts South American dictatorships
(Associated Press WorldStream Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) LA PLATA, Argentina_A series of falls has forced her to sit while she sings on the concert stage. But Mercedes Sosa's voice still carries the same power that she used in the 1970s to inspire opponents of South America's brutal military regimes.
Known as the "voice of the voiceless ones," Sosa has recovered her health. And at 72 she is singing her signature song, "Gracias a la Vida," or "Thanks to Life," with the appreciation of one who has long outlasted exile and Argentina's 1976-83 dictatorship.
"I give thanks to life just to be alive!" she shouted to a concert audience.
With South America's military regimes now consigned to the dustbin of history, Sosa remains relevant by tapping powerful, universal emotions, singing about stopping war and ending poverty, about finding love and losing loved ones.
"There's no better example of artistic honesty," said her nephew and fellow singer, Chucho Sosa. "Her songs reflects how she is in life."
Sosa returned to performing in late 2005 after a two-year hiatus taken while she recovered from her injuries. She's since performed throughout Latin America and in New York, Boston, Chicago, Toronto and Vancouver.
Next year she heads for Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Israel _ traveling far for someone who not long ago could barely negotiate the sidewalk outside her Buenos Aires apartment.
"I fell in the bathroom three times and, after the last fall ... the doctor told me, `Just a little bit more and you would have been left paralyzed,'" she said.
She has never been one to give up easily. The daughter of a poor worker living in the sugarcane country of Tucuman province, Sosa won a local radio contest in 1950 at the age of 15.
By the 1970s she became recognized as one of the South American troubadours who gave rise to the "nuevo cancionero" movement _ singers including Chile's Victor Jara and Violeta Parra, Argentina's Victor Heredia and Uruguay's Alfredo Zitarrosa who mixed leftist politics with poetic musings critical of the ruling juntas and their iron-fisted curtailment of civil liberties and human rights abuses.
It was a dangerous occupation.
Jara was shot to death by soldiers following Chile's 1973 military coup. In 1979, a year after being widowed from her second husband, Sosa was detained with an entire audience of some 200 students while singing in La Plata, a university city hit hard by military rule.
At the time, Argentina was ruled by the military and terrorized by the Triple A right-wing death squad. Killings and disappearances were common alongside leftist rebel violence.
"I remember when they took me prisoner," she said in her dressing room before another La Plata concert three decades later. "I was singing for university kids who were in the last year of veterinary school. It wasn't political."
Authorities freed her 18 hours later under international pressure and after she paid US$1,000 in fines, but forced her to leave Argentina.
"I knew I had to leave," she said. "I was being threatened by the Triple A. The people from the navy, the secret services were following me."
With three suitcases and a handbag she headed to Spain, then France, a wandering minstrel until 1982, when she returned to wide acclaim in the final months of the dying dictatorship.
Her pianist and musical director, Popi Spatocco, said exile was exceedingly harsh for a woman who loved Argentina _ "a human being created to make music."
"At the time of the dictatorship, Mercedes was the underground reference point for a ton of people who weren't allowed to express their own ideas and convictions," he explained.
Now she fully speaks her mind, nearly a quarter century after democracy's return _ belting out a song called "Earth, Sky, Water and Air" extolling her love of country.
In concert, her voice starts low, quickly gaining strength while her lyrics flow like her long, black hair that cascades over her red poncho _ common clothing of Argentina's highland Indians.
She's nicknamed "La Negra," an endearment meaning the "The Black One" that has long followed this singer of mixed Indian and distant French ancestry.
Her set ranges across genres from a Brazilian bossa nova, a Chilean rock ballad to Argentine folk tunes and even an occasional tango. She is the quintessential interpreter of songs written by others. Parra composed "Gracias a La Vida" but Sosa gave it such wings it's often mistaken as her own.
She doesn't sing in English, but still has a thriving fan base among Spanish-speaking Hispanics in the U.S.
"I've sung in many places in North America but I sing in Spanish and I wait for my people from Latin America to come to me," she said.
Some 2,000 fans in La Plata clap wildly, rising to demand an encore, requesting favorites such as "Maria Maria" and "Cancion para mi America" _ "Song for my America."
Sosa stands for just the last song, taken from her 2005 album _ "Corazon Libre" or "Free Heart" _ a return to her folklore roots.
As the curtain falls, someone shouts "Thank you Mercedes for your life!"
Later she headed home to an apartment overflowing with the accolades of five decades of song, including a Latin Grammy Award for Best Folk Album in 2000 for "Misa Criolla," and again for "Acustico" in 2003 and "Corazon Libre" in 2006.
"I hope that this voice just accompanies me for as long as I can," she said.
Pausing, she said she was grateful for all her fans, all the tributes. Then she concluded in a near whisper: "I have so much to give thanks for."
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