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Ariel Ramirez, 88

Ariel Ramirez dies; Argentine composer wrote 'Misa Criolla'

Argentine pianist and composer Ariel Ramírez's career spanned seven decades.
Argentine pianist and composer Ariel Ramírez's career spanned seven decades. (Daniel Muñoz/télam)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Argentine pianist and composer Ariel Ramírez, 88, who died of a neurological condition Feb. 18 in Buenos Aires, wrote his signature work "Misa Criolla" (Creole Mass) in the early 1960s, just as the Second Vatican Council permitted the celebration of the Catholic Mass in the vernacular.

"Misa Criolla," widely regarded as a stunning artistic achievement, combined Spanish text with indigenous instruments and rhythms. Its effect is that of a reverent carnival, and it has sold millions of albums and been performed countless times across the world by artists including opera star José Carreras and Latin American folklore singer Mercedes Sosa.

For all its verve, "Misa Criolla" had its origins in a post-Holocaust visit to Germany. "I felt that I had to compose something deep and religious that would revere life and involve people beyond their creeds, race, color or origin," the composer told the Jerusalem Post. He added in another interview that the song was a tribute to human dignity, courage and freedom, with a distinct message of "Christian love."

Mr. Ramírez's career spanned seven decades and reportedly hundreds of compositions, many like "Misa Criolla" in collaboration with the late Argentine author, diplomat and lyricist Félix Luna. They worked together on "Mujeres Argentinas" (Argentine Women), an ode to women active in the country's liberation and later cultural development, and "Cantata Sudamericana" (South American Cantata), both of which were hits for Sosa in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He and Luna also wrote a stirring musical "Los Caudillos," about early Argentine and Uruguayan strongmen, that won them work scoring a 1968 Argentine film about the fictional gaucho rebel Martín Fierro, based on a celebrated epic poem. In addition to his compositions, Mr. Ramírez held a prominent public role as the longtime secretary-general of the Argentine Society of Authors and Composers, an organization that guards the publication and performance rights of writers and musicians.

Mr. Ramírez was born Sept. 4, 1921, in Santa Fe, a province in northeastern Argentina. He was expected to follow his father into teaching, he told the publication Americas, "but in my first job as a fourth-grade teacher in Santa Fe I lasted two days. I couldn't say no to those schemers. I had discipline problems."

Instead, he followed his passion for music -- initially tango but then his country's folklore tradition. One of his earliest mentors was Atahualpa Yupanqui, the popular Argentine folklore musician, who paid Mr. Ramírez's way to travel and study regional music of the country's north and west.

By 1943, Mr. Ramírez was playing with Yupanqui in Buenos Aires and on the radio. But this steady income was short-lived, he told Americas: "The Peronist government bought out the station and demanded employees sign a statement of political loyalty. I was an independent and my father was an active radicalista, so I was out of a job."

After World War II, he left for a performing and music teaching career in Europe, and an encounter with a group of nuns in southern Germany led him to contemplate writing a spiritual piece that evolved into "Misa Criolla." After returning to Buenos Aires in the mid-1950s, he recorded more than a dozen records under the RCA label and began collaboration with Luna on folklore-inspired campaign songs for the successful presidential candidate Arturo Frondizi.

The popular success of "Misa Criolla" established Mr. Ramírez's name in concert halls around the world, and he told the New York Times that he felt pressured by "the church, my friends and the public" to write a second mass in the same spirit. The result was "Misa por la Paz y la Justicia" (Mass for Peace and Justice), with liturgical texts by Luna and Osvaldo Catena.

The newer work, finished about 1980, featured folklore rhythms such as the zamba and chacarera, along with Spanish choral harmonies. Mr. Ramírez said he considered it "a more ambitious work," both compositionally and morally, than "Misa Criolla."

"I believe this combination makes us ponder the meanings of the words 'peace' and 'justice' -- peace as the only way to live together and justice as a binding between the people of the world," he told the Jerusalem Post. "Without this peace and justice, it would be impossible to compose, paint, write and enjoy all the gifts God has given us in life to share with our children and friends."

Mr. Ramírez was married to Inés Cuello de Ramirez, and they had two sons.


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