Folk singer Mercedes Sosa performs at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv, Israel, in October 2008. Her latest album is nominated for three Latin Grammys this year. (Pavel Wolberg/Associated Press)
Known as the “voice of Latin America,” Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa, whose music inspired opponents of South America’s brutal military regimes and led to her forced exile in Europe, died Sunday. She was 74.
Sosa was best known for signature tunes such as Gracias a la Vida (Thanks to Life) and Si Se Calla el Cantor (If the Singer Is Silenced). She had been in a Buenos Aires hospital for more than two weeks with liver problems and had since been suffering from progressive kidney failure and cardiac issues, according to her family.
Her latest album, Cantora 1, is nominated for three prizes in next month’s Latin Grammy awards in Las Vegas, including album of the year and best folkloric album.
Affectionately dubbed “La Negra” or “the Black One” by fans for her mixed Indian and distant French ancestry, Sosa was born July 9, 1935, to a poor, working-class family in the sugarcane country of northwest Argentina’s Tucuman province.
Early on she felt the allure of popular traditions and became a teacher of folkloric dance.
‘Life chose me to sing’
At age 15, friends impressed by her talent encouraged Sosa to enter a local radio contest under the pseudonym “Gladys Osorio.” She won a two-month contract with the broadcaster.
“I didn’t choose to sing for people,” Sosa said in a recent interview on Argentine television. “Life chose me to sing.”
By the 1970s she was recognized as one of the South American troubadours who gave rise to the “nuevo cancionero” (new songbook) 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 human rights abuses.
In 1972, Sosa released the socially and politically charged album Hasta la Victoria (Till Victory).
Her sympathies with communist movements and support for leftist parties attracted close scrutiny and censorship at a time when blending politics with music was a dangerous occupation — Jara was tortured and shot to death by soldiers following Chile’s 1973 military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
In 1979, a year after being widowed from her second husband, Sosa was detained along with an entire audience of about 200 students while singing in La Plata, an Argentine university city hit hard by military rule.
“I remember when they took me prisoner,” she said in late 2007. “I was singing for university kids who were in the last year of veterinary school. It wasn’t political.”
She walked free 18 hours later under international pressure and after paying a $1,000 fine, but was forced to leave her homeland.
Life of exile
“I knew I had to leave,” Sosa recalled. “I was being threatened by the Triple A,” a rightist death squad that terrorized opponents of the 1976-83 military junta in an era known as the Dirty War. “The people from the navy, the secret services were following me.”
With three suitcases and a handbag, she headed to Spain, then France, becoming a wandering minstrel.
Sosa returned home to wide acclaim in 1982 in the final months of the dictatorship, which she would ultimately outlive by a quarter-century.
The following year she released the eponymous album Mercedes Sosa, which contained several tracks considered among her greatest hits, including Un Son para Portinari, Maria Maria and Me Yoy pa’l Mollar, together with Margarita Palacios.
Performed with contemporary stars
Late in life, Sosa remained relevant by tapping powerful, universal emotions, singing about stopping war and ending poverty, about finding love and losing loved ones.
Sosa won Latin Grammy Awards for best folk album for Misa Criolla in 2000, Acustico in 2003 and Corazon Libre in 2006.
Early this decade she took a two-year hiatus to recover from a series of falls — one of which, she said, nearly left her paralyzed. Sosa returned to the stage in 2005 and performed in some of the most prestigious venues of Latin America, the U.S., Canada and Europe.
All told, Sosa recorded more than 70 albums. The latest, a double CD titled Cantora 1 and Cantora 2, is a collection of folkloric classics performed with contemporary Latin American and Spanish stars such as Shakira, Fito Paez, Julieta Venegas, Joaquin Sabina, Lila Downs and Calle 13.