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Argentine Singing Legend Mercedes Sosa, 74, Dies

FILE - Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa in this undated  file photo poses for pictures in her hometown of San Miguel de Tucuman, northern Argentina. Sosa, the
FILE - Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa in this undated file photo poses for pictures in her hometown of San Miguel de Tucuman, northern Argentina. Sosa, the "voice of Latin America" whose music inspired opponents of South America's brutal military regimes and led to her forced exile in Europe, died Sunday, her family said. She was 74. (AP Photo/La Gaceta, file)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009

Mercedes Sosa, an Argentine singer who emerged as an electrifying voice of conscience throughout Latin America for songs that championed social justice in the face of government repression, died Oct. 4 at a medical clinic in Buenos Aires. She was 74 and had liver, kidney and heart ailments.

With a rich contralto voice, Ms. Sosa was foremost a compelling singer whose career spanned five decades. She performed with entertainers as varied as rock star Sting, Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés and folk singer Joan Baez, who said she was so moved by Ms. Sosa's "tremendous charisma" and emotive firepower that she once dropped to her knees and kissed Ms. Sosa's feet.

Ms. Sosa's towering artistry, which led to several Latin Grammy Awards, belied her physical dimensions. Short, round, dark-skinned and often dressed in peasant clothing, Ms. Sosa was affectionately nicknamed "La Negra" (the Black One) as an homage to her indigenous ancestry.

It was a term of endearment that followed her throughout the Spanish-speaking world, said ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter, who has written about Ms. Sosa. "It's hard to overestimate her popularity and importance as a standard-bearer of folk music and political engagement through folk music," he said.

Ms. Sosa once declared that "artists are not political leaders. The only power they have is to draw people into the theater." While not defining herself as a political activist, Ms. Sosa asserted herself in the "nueva canción" musical movement of the 1960s and 1970s that blended traditional folk rhythms with politically charged lyrics about the poor and disenfranchised.

This "new song" movement, formed by singers, poets and songwriters with Marxist leanings, cast light on the struggle against government brutality and the plight of the downtrodden throughout the hemisphere.

Ritter said that many of the nueva canción songs favored by Ms. Sosa "drew upon the rich heritage of Latin American poetry and literature to score their political messages." This, he said, gave it a far-more enduring fascination than protest songs in the United States during that period, whose "blunt, direct lyrics were part of their political efficacy, but also limited their long-term poetic appeal."

Here are the lyrics of "We're Still Singing," which she sang accompanied by the large Andean drum called the bombo:

"I was killed a thousand times. I disappeared a thousand times, and here I am, risen from the dead. . . . Here I am, out of the ruins the dictatorship left behind. We're still singing."

Ms. Sosa came under harassment and intimidation by the right-wing, nationalist junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The government was responsible for the deaths and disappearances of an estimated 30,000 real and perceived leftists, and Ms. Sosa transformed her sold-out concerts into rallies against the abuses of power.

Her songs were banned from Argentine radio and television, and she courted arrest by singing anthems of agrarian reform such as "When They Have the Land" at one performance in the university city of La Plata. Many in attendance were arrested by security forces, and Ms. Sosa was publicly humiliated by an officer who walked onstage and conducted a body search.

Ms. Sosa scheduled more concerts in the face of threats against her. They were subsequently canceled when anonymous bomb threats were called in. The military governor of Buenos Aires prohibited her from further performances. Unable to earn a living or speak out as an opponent of the regime, she moved in exile to Europe in 1979 and lived for three years in France and Spain.

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