Mercedes Sosa, the celebrated Argentinian folk singer and political activist, has died of kidney failure aged 74. Sosa possessed a deep, alto voice, a strong sense of conviction and had a warm, engaging persona. Combined, these qualities helped to make her one of the few Latin American musicians who could, across five decades, command a wide international audience. Described as “the voice of Latin America”, she was revered as a commentator on the political and social turmoil that afflicted the continent.
Born Haydée Mercedes Sosa, in San Miguel de Tucumán, the capital of one of Argentina‘s smallest provinces, to a working-class family of mixed French and Amerindian (Quechuan) ancestry, she began singing and folk dancing as a child. Aged 15, Sosa won a singing concert sponsored by a local radio station. The prize was a two-month contract to perform for the station, and this allowed her to turn professional. Initially singing a wide variety of popular songs, Sosa gained a local reputation as a rising talent and, on marrying the musician Manuel Oscar Matus, the couple began looking to new developments in Latin American music. In the early 1960s, this led to them embracing the “nueva canción” (new song) movement, which unconsciously mirrored the US folk movement as Chile‘s Victor Jara and Cuba’s Silvio Rodríquez reshaped Latin America’s troubadour tradition to reflect the struggles under way across the continent.
Sosa and Matus chose nueva canción songs that suited her voice, such as Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida (Thanks to Life) and Horacio Guarany’s Si Se Calla el Cantor (If the Singer Is Silenced), and her success helped to popularise the movement. Sosa’s ability to convey a wide emotional range meant that listeners connected strongly with both songs, and singer, and by the mid-1960s, she was very popular in Argentina. Nicknamed “La Negra” because of her long, jet-black hair and Amerindian heritage, Sosa issued a series of albums, including Romance de la Muerte de Juan Lavalle (Ballad of the Death of Juan Lavalle) and Mujeres Argentinas (Argentinian Women), that established her as one of Latin America’s most celebrated and distinctive artists. By the late 60s, Sosa was drawing material from across Latin America (including Amerindian material) and this established her as a pan-Latin American star. When Sosa and Matus’s marriage ended, Matus forged a respected solo career in Argentina.
In the early 70s Sosa acted in the film El Santo de la Espada (The Saint of the Sword), a biopic of the Argentinian independence hero José de San Martín. Sosa’s popularity found her touring internationally, her leftist political sympathies – a 1972 album Hasta la Victoria (Until Victory) celebrated workers’ struggles – making her especially welcome in the Soviet bloc. As a champion of the rights of the poor, Sosa became known as “the voice of the voiceless ones”. These political leanings caused Sosa trouble when the Argentinian military, under Jorge Videla, staged a coup in March 1976. Initially, only some of Sosa’s songs were censored, but as she became seen internationally as a literal voice of freedom, the harassment increased. In early 1979, Sosa was performing in the Argentinian university city of La Plata when the military stopped the concert. Humiliating Sosa by searching her on stage, they then arrested her and 350 members of the audience. Sosa was detained for 18 hours until international pressure forced her release (she was fined $1,000) but this event – alongside increasing numbers of death threats – forced her to flee to Europe, where she lived in Madrid and Paris.
Sosa found exile difficult and returned to Argentina in early 1982. The military junta remained in power, but Sosa’s fame excluded her from punishment, and a series of concerts she gave at Teatro Colon (Buenos Aires opera house), with guest appearances from celebrated Argentinian singers, found her truly welcomed home. A live recording of these concerts was issued after the junta fell. Sosa continued to tour (performing in the UK several times) and to record, her fame growing on an international scale – she shared stages and/or studios with Luciano Pavarotti, Sting and Shakira. In a career spanning almost six decades, she released 70 albums. She won three Latin Grammy awards and received a huge number of honorary titles including the UN Voluntary Fund for Women (Unifem) prize from the United Nations, in recognition of her defence of women’s rights. She remained politically active and vocally opposed Carlos Menem when he was Argentinian president.
“I didn’t choose to sing for people,” Sosa said in a recent interview on Argentinian television. “Life chose me to sing.” Overweight for many years, Sosa began suffering serious health problems in this decade. She was admitted to hospital two weeks ago suffering from liver problems. Progressive kidney failure and cardiac arrest followed. She is survived by her son, Fabián.
• Haydée Mercedes Sosa, singer, born 9 July 1935; died 4 October, 2009