October 5, 2009 - Mercedes Sosa, an international symbol of protest against the dictators of Latin America in the 1960s and '70s, died Sunday in Buenos Aires. Through her five-decade career, she teamed up with a wide range of musicians, from Joan Baez to Sting to Shakira. She was 74.
Sosa was born in northwest Argentina to a day laborer and a washerwoman, and those humble roots influenced her music throughout her career. After her debut at a prestigious folk festival in the country's capital of Buenos Aires, Sosa became part of a movement called Nueva Cancion, or "New Song." It revitalized Latin American folk traditions with new lyrics about social justice, non-violence and a veneration of the land and the people who work it.
"She really represents, I would say, the Mother Earth for us," Gustavo Santaolalla says.
Santaolalla met Sosa when he was a young Argentine rock musician. He's gone on to become a multiple Grammy winner and producer who also won and Oscar for his soundtrack to the film Brokeback Mountain. He says Sosa's talents as a singer are what made her so revered.
"She's an incredible artist with an absolutely gifted voice and a gifted way of expressing herself," he says.
A Leading Voice
By the end of the 1960s, Sosa's interpretations of other composers' songs made her a leading voice of Nueva Cancion. During the next decade, her influence spread beyond Argentina to musical movements throughout Latin America. Along the way, she caught the attention of the military dictatorship ruling Argentina in the late 1970s; it harassed and threatened her. She was forbidden to perform, and her songs were banned from radio and television. In 1979, she fled to Europe.
After three years, she returned to Argentina, and even though a weakened dictatorship remained in power, she received a hero's welcome, performing a dozen concerts in a row at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
"She's like a national treasure," Santaolalla says. "And I think, you know, she goes beyond Argentina."
Gustavo Santaolalla says that, after her return, her musical scope expanded.
"She was always, you know, in contact with, I think, the widest spectrum of artists to being a folksinger, you know? She didn't just retrieve herself to that corner," he says. "She opened herself and shared her artistry with people that came from different genres."
Her final album features duets with a new generation of Latin singers, including Colombian pop star Shakira. It is called Cantora, which means "singer" — a word that represents perhaps her greatest legacy.