It's possible you may not know who the legendary South American musician Mercedes Sosa is, so keep reading: You'll be surprised to know that such big names as Sting, Luciano Pavarotti and David Byrne know her very well.
The proof is onscreen in Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America, now playing at the San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF). Sosa was one of those few elder musicians who could seamlessly connect with young musicians of today. Her last release, Cantora, featured compelling collaborations with Shakira, Calle 8's Rene Perez and Julieta Venegas.
After watching the documentary's SDLFF debut on Thursday, I marveled at what a powerhouse voice she had, not to mention the political impact her music made, ultimately getting her exiled from her native Argentina. The biographical documentary, which was written and directed by Rodrigo H. Villa and narrated by her only son, Fabian Matas, paints a stirring portrait.
Sosa, also known as La Negra, died of organ failure in 2009 at the age of 74. She is widely regarded as Latin America's "Icon of Democracy" because of her politically charged lyrics. Via archived audio recordings, the singer explains in the film that she never thought of herself as a folk musician or as a political figure, maintaining that she only sang the truths of her oppressed people in Argentina. While performing in Argentina, the government kept the singer under surveillance and she was also the recipient of death threats during that time.
At one point during the film, a heartbreaking audio recording reveals Sosa's phoning a plea to Argentina's then-first lady Eva Peron, a supposed champion for the descamisados (working class). The call fell on deaf ears, though, rejected by an assistant claiming that Peron had more pressing matters to attend to.
The stressful times continued for La Negra. Under the next president. Jorge Rafael Videla, she was ordered to not sing political songs at a concert in La Plata, but she did and was immediately arrested, along with her son, Fabian. She was then "pursuaded" to leave, fleeing to France with her family, a nation that welcomed Sosa despite the language barrier, and on Oct. 30, 1978, Sosa was presented as the "Ella Fitzgerald of Argentina" at the prestigious Theatre Mogador, in Paris.
Finally, she was able to return to Argentina in 1982 after the militant regime weakened.
The voice that could move mountains didn't fit the archetypal female musician celebrity. Instead, Sosa was a small, rotund woman with striking Indian features crowned with beautiful, sleek, black hair who's signature look were indigenous patterned shawls. Sosa's musical ability and lyrical content convinced her working-class fan base that democracy was needed. A music career spanning more than 60 years and 40 albums was capped in 2000, when she received her first Latin Grammy, for Misa Criolla. In subsequent years, Sosa's albums continued to win Latin Grammys, in the Best Folk Album category.
In one interview, Sosa told a reporter she was content and had no regrets; eventually, her native country offered official recognition. The first directly elected female president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, ordered three days of national mourning after the death of La Negra, for whom a public wake was held at the National Congress building in Buenos Aires for fans to pay their respects. Sosa's last recording Cantora, a double album, won her two Latin Grammys posthumously.
Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America's next and final showtime during the festivial is on March 23 at the SDLFF. Get tix here.
Dita Quinones is a multimedia journalist born in Tijuana with a passion for Latin alternative and hip-hop music news. Her main goal is to uplift and inform so that the Latino, Filipino and Hip-Hop community get knitted into the fabric of American history. In addition to SoundDiego, she contributes to Latina, FOX News Latino, Poder, VidaVibrante, San Diego CityBeat and HipHopDx. She is also the founder of the infamous music and politrix blog GN$F! Follow Dita on Twitter or on Facebook.