Appreciation

Soraya, a Singer Who Needed No Translation

Soraya at last year's Billboard Latin Music Awards.
Soraya at last year's Billboard Latin Music Awards. "I have so many things to do," she said in 2004. Her breast cancer was first diagnosed six years ago. (By Frank Micelotta -- Getty Images)

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By Achy Obejas
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 12, 2006

Soraya, the Colombian American pop star, walked anxiously in circles, wanting the magazine photo shoot to be over. It was December 2004, and the session was part of a carefully staged comeback after the singer-songwriter's four-year bout with breast cancer. Ringlets of gel-stiff brown hair framed Soraya's face and sweat threatened to stain her sleeveless white top, which showed off both her buffed arms and the generous curve of her bosom.

The message of that cover photo: This is one sexy, but tough, woman.

"I have so many things to do," she said, less with annoyance than sadness. "This is taking up an entire day of my life. Every hour, every minute counts. They don't know that yet," she said, looking toward the photo staff, "but I do."

She seemed to know how numbered her days really were. Back then, Soraya was being publicly hailed as a breast cancer survivor and the album about to be released, "El Otro Lado de Mi," was her testament. On Wednesday, at 37, she died of breast cancer in Miami, where she'd lived most of her adult life.

Soraya Lamilla, the American daughter of Lebanese immigrants to Colombia, worked not to be stuck in any category or stereotype. She sang and wrote flawlessly in Spanish and English. Intensity and intelligence were part of her sex appeal.

By age 31, when her cancer was diagnosed, she had already scored No. 1 hits all over Latin America and Europe. She had sold out shows worldwide, worked with Rod Argent, written songs with Carole King, opened for Sting, Michael Bolton, Natalie Merchant and Zucchero, and recorded duets with Japanese multimedia artist Ryuichi Sakamoto, German popster Erkan Aki and Arab superstar Andy.

She was doing a self-exam in the shower when something "didn't seem quite right," as she later recalled. She was acutely aware of the disease. Her aunt, grandmother and mother had all died of breast cancer. The title song of her first album, 1996's "En Esta Noche/On Nights Like This," was a tribute to her mother's struggle.

She had Stage 3 cancer. "I'd already read the literature, I already knew the options," she said. Radiation, chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction followed. Suddenly her life seemed to be completely taken up with survival. She became a spokeswoman for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and traveled the country doing outreach.

Almost lost was the fact that Soraya had accomplished what almost no artist before her had: simultaneous careers in English and Spanish markets, with the same material -- almost all of it self-composed.

While most Latino artists with non-Latino fans work the Latin market and then cross over (think Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony) or focus on English-language careers with little effort toward the Latino market (Jennifer Lopez, Cypress Hill), Soraya's first two albums were released in separate Spanish and English versions, featuring the same songs, with lyrics that respected not only the same themes, but frequently the same images and metaphors. On later albums, she laid songs in Spanish next to English ones, but never mixed the two languages.

"It really isn't something I think about," said Soraya. "The songs come out in whatever language they come out. I don't really have a method. I'll stop doing this when I have a method. Of course, I have the musical knowledge and I pay attention to syntax and to meter and all that."

She crafted sophisticated lyrics about love -- and later, about survival, about finding a true spiritual path -- set to rock, folk and Latin rhythms. She also sneaked in Middle Eastern modalities. She was a trained classical violinist and laughed about how she played "technically incorrect chords" on guitar, the instrument for which she was best known in her pop career.

Soraya was born in Point Pleasant, N.J., but spent her early years traveling to and from Cali, Colombia, her family's home town. Her earliest musical influences included Colombian folk and pop, as well as American artists such as Carole King and Fleetwood Mac.

English was forbidden in her family home, where her mother insisted that Spanish be honored and that Latin American and Lebanese cuisine be preserved.

Soraya graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in English literature and French philosophy. She was working as a flight attendant and playing coffeehouses and clubs around campus when her demo tape, featuring almost all the songs that would be on "En Esta Noche/On Nights Like This," made its way to executives at Polygram/Island, who promptly signed her. Success followed success, even after the cancer diagnosis. Her fourth album and the first after her illness, "Soraya," received the 2004 Latin Grammy in the singer-songwriter category -- no small feat, since she was up against Latin music legends Juan Gabriel, Joan Sebastian and Joan Manuel Serrat.

Her last album, "El Otro Lado de Mi," was released last year and took a number of honors, including a Latin Grammy nomination. The album was darker, more urgent, marked by an intense focus on social justice. It was as if she were trying to get everything out, one final time.

On Monday, the final posting on Soraya's Web site included this epilogue: "I lived my dream, and today I can't ask for anything else."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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