y Fernando Gonzalez
It’s perhaps fitting that Cantora, simply woman singer in Spanish, turns out to be the last recording by Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa, who died of kidney and liver failure, Sunday, October 4, at a clinic in Buenos Aires. She was 74.
Cantora is a disc of collaborations with a stellar roster of Latin music singer and songwriters, some young enough to be her grandsons and granddaughters, representing a broad musical spectrum including conventional pop and rock, but also alterna-folk and classic tango. The set up could suggest that Cantora is just another gimmicky “concept” disc, trading on brand names, searching for that mythical wider audience. If it’s not, it’s because, well, it rings musically true.
For starters, Sosa sings Sosa. Her voice might not be as strong, but it remains an admirable instrument, rich, powerful but also malleable, still stunningly expressive. Her vibrato has grown wider with age but she uses it with restrain. There is almost an audible affection and admiration in the work of her collaborators (some of whom were not even in the same studio with her) and it’s all warm and fuzzy, but the arrangement is clear enough — it’s their move. It’s up to them to stay true to their own style and still keep up and blend with Sosa – and to their credit, most do.
Also, musically Cantora succeeds because it stays true to Sosa and coherently close to folk music throughout. And while it includes songs in traditional folk styles, it also acknowledges other, newer, popular genres such as rap and cumbia villera, a take on cumbia that emerged in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires, as if suggesting that this might be today’s folk music. It´s a subtle but powerful statement — and one that fits Sosa´s character and extraordinary career.
Sosa was born in poverty, her father a day laborer, her mother a washer woman, in Tucumán, a province in northwest Argentina, on July 9, 1935. At 15, she won an amateur-hour contest sponsored by a local radio with a two month contract for appearances as its grand prize. It turned out to be the start of her career.
By the late 50s she had moved on from traditional folk and embraced the Movimiento del Nuevo Cancionero, a fledging movement with a new approach to folk music that updated the standard folk lyrics to sing about the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. This, naturally, led her in time to champion the Nueva Canción (New Song), a movement in Latin America in the 60s that blended traditional rhythms and lyrics addressing social and political concerns. This became a deadly serious business in Latin America in the 70s, as ruthless military dictatorships took power. Sosa was detained and body searched on stage at a concert in 1979. Many in the audience were detained. In the following weeks, her concerts were cancelled after anonymous bomb threats were called in. And while there was no cause open against Sosa, her songs were banned on the radio and she was prohibited from performing.
Understandably feeling persecuted and unable to make a living, Sosa left in self imposed exile to France and Spain.
She returned to Argentina in 1982, just as the military dictatorship was beginning to disintegrate. (In fact, in retrospect, Sosa´s epochal 13-night comeback stand at the Opera Theatre in Buenos Aires, captured on the disc Mercedes Sosa en Argentina, was in itself a measure of the increasing weakness of the regime.)
Sosa had been an international artist, performing in the United States and Europe, since the 1960s, but in her condition as an exile she transcended her role as a folk singer and became a symbol of resistance and the struggle for human rights. It was a heavy mantle that she carried effectively – while also making clear to whoever wanted to listen that she was an artist first.
“Sometimes, one is made to be a big mouth or some sort of Robin Hood and it’s not like that,” she once told me, in the 90s, with an edge of frustration in her voice. “I am a woman who sings, who tries to sing as well as possible with the best songs available. I was bestowed this role as big protester and it’s not like that at all. I’m just a thinking artist.”
And being a “thinking artist” for Sosa not only meant singing questioning lyrics, but also opening up her musical world.
Since her return to Argentina and for the past 20 years, rather than basking on the warm glow of her status and playing it safe musically, Sosa increasingly crossed over stylistic boundaries, taking a Pan-Ibero-American approach. She would still sing Argentine folk music and remain true to her Nuevo Cancionero roots, but also integrate music by Brazilian artists such as Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque; Spanish singer songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat and rocker Joaquin Sabina. And in Argentina, where the music communities long lived in parallel worlds that rarely acknowledged, much less addressed, each other, Sosa seemed to make a point of ignoring stylistic boundaries. She worked with neo-folk singers such as Leon Gieco (a Bob Dylan-like figure) but also recalcitrant rockers such as Charly Garcia, pop rockers such as Fito Páez and new tango stalwarts such as bandoneonist Rodolfo Mederos. And it wasn’t just big names but also up-and-coming songwriters, playing sort of fairy godmother by calling attention to their work, giving them, in a word, her blessing.
Which brings us back to Cantora, which includes collaborations with old friends such as Serrat, García, Spinetta and Paez, but also Shakira, Gustavo Cerati, René Perez (Calle13), Lila Downs, Julieta Venegas and Franco De Vita, as well. (This is, by the way, an international edition of an original two-disc set released earlier this year in Argentina. Other artists from that collection who are not featured here include Pedro Aznar, Luis Salinas, Luciano Pereyra and Ruben Rada.)
Most of the songs were written by the guests, although there are also intriguing reprises. Some weak (Shakira over emotes her part in Silvio Rodriguez´s “La Maza”). More are exceptional such as the smart remaking of Victor Heredia´s “Canción Para un Niño en la Calle,” (Song for a street kid) by René Perez, who alternates his rapping with Sosa´s singing creating a truly touching counterpoint.
Nine, or exactly half, of the songs in the set feature strings arranged by long time Sosa’s pianist and musical director Popi Spatocco. And while the sound is lush and lustrous it also at times gets too precious, almost reverential and it covers the program with a certain melancholy. (Brazilian singer Daniela Mercury, even toned down from her usual high energy, hyperkinetic self to perform Chico Buarque’s “O Que Será,” comes as a welcome relief.)
Sosa sounds at ease with pop rockers Cerati, Garcia, Páez and Spinetta, but truly shines in her collaborations with Lila Downs (Heredia’s classic “Razón Para Vivir”) and Julieta Venegas (her own “Sabiéndose de los descalzos,” which could easily have been part of Sosa’s 70s repertoire). At the risk of reading too much into it, she sounds then as if passing the torch to a younger generation of folk singers, also reinterpreting their tradition to make it of their time.
Open minded, respectful of the past but decidedly forward looking, Cantora is a worthy finale for an extraordinary career.
To read other reviews and commentary by Fernando Gonzalez clilck here.