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Argentina’s Mercedes Sosa Emerges as a Survivor

Times Staff Writer

Like a character in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Mercedes Sosa has survived bloody military dictators, the depredations of youth, the oblivion of exile to emerge propitiously as English-speaking North Americans are discovering Latin American music.

At least that’s how the 53-year-old Argentine singer’s long-delayed courtship of the United States might be told. In contrast to the near neglect encountered in her two previous visits, Sosa (who will be at the Wiltern Theatre tonight) now receives glowing coverage in major city newspapers and comparisons with Linda Ronstadt and Joan Baez. Further, her new album is launching PolyGram’s Spanish-language label in the United States.

Even Baez, though familiar with her music, rediscovered Sosa in sharing the stage with her during a recent European tour. “Her talent is just a mega-talent,” Baez said this week. “I didn’t realize it till I was on stage with her.”

At first, Sosa, who stands like a mountain draped in a poncho, seemed genuinely humbled by all the good words, framing the moment with a bitter-sweet irony one would expect to hear in her songs. “This trip to North America is very important to me,” Sosa said in a telephone interview. “These are my last singing years. I don’t have a desire to travel anymore. I’m very tired.”

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But Sosa’s no secret in Europe or to the Latin Americans who have filled soccer stadiums to hear her richly textured contralto applied to Latin America’s folk-rooted, politically conscious nueva cancion (new song) repertoire. Translating her talent and songs for English-speaking North Americans had, until recently, however, proved problematic.

To begin with, Sosa rejects the labels of folk or protest music often used to describe the movement that revolutionized the content, language and aesthetics of Latin American popular song. Sosa said the lyrics she sings are instead buttressed by a broad popular and literary culture created by Latin America’s best poets and songwriters.

But she admits that her insistence on artistry has made her enemies on the left, while her leftist sympathies made her enemies on the right.

“Many years ago,” she said, “I recorded a poem by (Peruvian poet Cesar) Vallejo. It talks about the death of his brother without ever once mentioning the word death. A lot of people didn’t want to admit that I recorded that. The only way they could bury me was to say Mercedes recorded (protest songs).”

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But she doesn’t back away from taking a stand in her music. “Sometimes a song needs to have a social content. But the primordial issue is one of honesty. In Latin America, the mere act of an artist being honest is itself political.”

In 1979, three years after the Argentine military grabbed power and began rounding up, torturing and executing thousands suspected of being Communists and leftists, Sosa was stopped and frisked on stage in mid-concert by the police. Her subsequent efforts to sing in public were thwarted. Her friends continued to be “disappeared.”

“They wanted me to leave,” she said. “I had no place to sing, no recording company to support me, so I had to go look for applause in Europe.”

In the end, Baez said, exile helped Sosa add new influences to a music that had stagnated. For several years now, Sosa--who returned to Argentina when civilian rule was restored in 1982--has gone beyond nueva cancion to record melancholy tangos, the pop songs of Milton Nascimento put to jazz arrangements, even rock. Sosa now performs two songs by Sting--"They Dance Alone,” which is dedicated to the Chilean mothers whose sons were among “the disappeared,” and “Fragile,” the story of a Nicaraguan journalist killed by the Contras.

“Mercedes has also changed her attitudes toward the left,” Baez added. “ ‘I don’t want to be angry anymore,’ she told me. ‘I’m not so interested in ideology anymore.’ ”

Inspired by the Chilean plebiscite that repudiated Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial rule, Sosa now espouses the virtues of democracy like a true believer: “Democracy has many frailties, but it’s the only road I see for Latin America.”


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