“Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America”, the title of a documentary that opens today at the Quad Cinema in NY, is no hyperbole. She was such a voice just as much as Um Khaldoun was the voice of the Arab world. The Argentinian nueva cancion legend died four years ago at the age of 74 and the film is a loving tribute made up of her performances, reminiscences by a wide range of musicians from Pablo Milanes to David Byrne, and interviews conducted with the great musician up until her death of endocrinal and respiratory ailments. After her passing, President Kirchner declared 3 days of mourning in marked contrast to the gorilla military leaders who drover her out of the country in 1979.
The idea for the film came from her son Fabián Matus who is seen in conversations with family members throughout the film who help to understand the personal fears and insecurities of a musician who had achieved immortality. Indeed, as the film nears its conclusion we learn that the greater her popularity, the more lonely she felt—so much so that bouts of depression left her feeling suicidal.
Of mestizo, French and American Indian ancestry, Sosa was born to a desperately poor family in the state of Tucumán in Argentina. Her father shoveled coal in open pit furnaces in a steel mill and died relatively young. Her social protest ballads came directly out of the experience of being oppressed.
I heard Mercedes Sosa in Carnegie Hall on October 18, 1987. Just to refresh my memory of her performance, I found the N.Y. Times review that stated:
Ms. Sosa has a full folk contralto that is especially beautiful when she dips to the bottom of her lower register. But it can also rise to express a staunch defiance. Ms. Sosa, whose pan-Latin American taste in songs has earned her the nickname ”the voice of the Americas,” performed a program that included everything from mountain folk tunes in which she accompanied herself on the drums to chromatically advanced pop ballads (Alejandro Lerner’s ”Solo le pido a Dios, or ”All I Ask of God,” was particularly wrenching) and stalwart political anthems. The spectrum of songwriters ranged from Argentine composers like Mr. Lerner, Nito Mestre, and Leon Gieco to Cuba’s Silvio Rodriguez and Brazil’s Milton Nascimiento.
In 1987 Sosa symbolized the hopes of the Latin American left as well as activists in the United States like me who were working in Nicaragua. You can see concert footage of Sosa in Nicaragua from that time that includes the remarks of ordinary Nicaraguans who went to the concert feeling that something important was happening in their country.
Nearly thirty years later, the Central American revolution remains little more than a memory. Nueva Cancion was the art form that expressed the determination of an oppressed people to take control of their economies and produce for human need rather than private profit.
While the specific forms of the struggle have changed from guerrilla warfare to the electoral front, Mercedes Sosa will be an inspiration to a new generation of artists following her example. The film ends with Sosa performing alongside René Perez, a young tattooed rapper who leads Calle 13, a Puerto Rican band that is known for its social commentary.
For people who are part of René Perez’s generation in New York who are unfamiliar with Sosa, I recommend a trip down to the Quad to learn about one of the hemisphere’s most important musicians.