Adiós Mercedes Sosa, the Voice of the Voiceless under Dictatorship

Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa, one of the most celebrated voices of Latin America, died on Sunday, 4 October 2009, at the age of 74 after a long illness, according to the announcement by the hospital where she had been under intensive care since 18 September 2009.

Nicknamed “La Negra,” she won the hearts and minds of the Latin American masses with her powerful and profound voice, without ever renouncing her political commitment, which drove her into exile during the years of dictatorship (1976-1983).  Kept away from the music scene several times in her last years due to health problems, she managed to release a double album this year: Cantora [Singer], a work of collaboration with Spanish and Latin-American stars (Joan Manuel Serrat, Luis Alberto Spinetta, Caetano Veloso, and Shakira).

Canción para un niño de la calle

This woman of Indian origin with long, dark hair, who left more than forty records, still declared recently: “I never thought I would make a living by singing.”  Born on 9 July 1935 in the province of Tucumán in the north, in the city where the independence of Argentina was celebrated on 9 July 1816, Mercedes Sosa grew up in a modest neighborhood, cradled by popular culture, before becoming a teacher of folk dance, clad in her traditional red poncho.  Her first artistic steps date back to the 1960s.  Together with her husband and musician Manuel Oscar Matus, with whom she had a son, she joined the Nuevo Cancionero movement, which renovated folk music, and made her first album Canciones con fundamento.

In the 1970s, she also tried cinema, particularly in two films (El Santo de la espada [The Knight of the Sword] and Güemes) by Argentine director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson.  However, the end of the decade brought a period of exile for this communist militant.  In 1979, she was arrested, with her audience, during a concert in La Plata.  Mercedes Sosa no longer enjoyed the right to sing.  Though she was not prohibited from remaining in her country, she chose to go into exile, first in Paris and then in Madrid.  She did not return to Argentina till February 1982 when she gave a series of concerts in Buenos Aires.  Later, she performed in the most prestigious venues, such as the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (1994), the Carnegie Hall in New York (2002), and even the Coliseum in Rome (2002) where she took part in a concert for peace with Ray Charles among others.

Musically, Mercedes Sosa was a born provocateur, defiant of the guardians of orthodoxy, mixing folk music with rock and recording with opera singers.  She also helped the world become acquainted with the work of Chilean poet Violeta Parra.  Her career earned her numerous awards: for instance, in 1992, she was declared a citizen of honor by Buenos Aires.  Once she said: “These prizes were not given to me just because I sing, but because I think.  I think of human beings and injustice.  I think that, if I hadn’t thought, my destiny would not have been the same.”

Gracias a La Vida

The original obituary “La chanteuse argentine Mercedes Sosa est morte” was published by Le Monde on 4 October 2009.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at]