Summertime in Argentina finds the people of Buenos Aires deserting the gray landscape of the city for a couple of weeks spent bathing in the gray waters of the Atlantic Ocean. During January and February, anyone with a little bit of money in his pocket travels to a seaside resort with an exotic name, like Mar del Plata, or Pinamar, or Villa Gesell. At the beach, women wear revealing outfits, while men spend a considerable amount of time waxing poetic about the beauty of thongs. Kids spend their lazy afternoons playing video games at gaudy arcades that remain open until the early hours of the morning. At night, you stroll down the main boulevard, have some freshly made ice cream, and go to little cafes where some of the country‘s most famous musicians perform by the sea.
As she does every year, Mercedes Sosa had plans to summer in the Southern Hemisphere touring the coast. But Argentina’s steady economic decline has recently reached an all-time low. Now only the richest of the rich have money to spare. And the 66-year-old singer decided to stay home.
”People are just starving,“ she says from a hotel room in Austin a few days before flying to Los Angeles, where she will perform this Sunday at UCLA. ”The economy is so bad right now that touring the coast didn‘t feel right. I have enough problems of my own, so I decided to spend the first two months of the year resting. Then, in March, we flew to New York and performed at Carnegie Hall.“
The Carnegie Hall show was a success, even though the only people in this country who know who Mercedes Sosa is are usually college graduates with degrees in Latin American studies. Sosa is associated with the leftist movement of the nueva cancion, in the company of soulful singer-songwriters such as Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanes, Violeta Parra and Milton Nascimento.
Unlike the above-mentioned artists, however, ”La Negra Sosa,“ as she’s known in Argentina, doesn‘t write songs. And because she is unusually open-minded when it comes to selecting her material, her repertoire offers a kaleidoscopic journey through the many genres of Latin American music, from the obligatory classics of the nueva cancion (”La Maza“) to the rustic folk ballads of Atahualpa Yupanqui (”Luna Tucumana“) and the melancholy pop hits of Fito Paez (”Un Vestido y un Amor“). The importance of Sosa’s achievement, her unification of everything that is bewitching about Latin music, is hard to grasp at first. Every song she touches becomes hers, the reflection of her glowing Mother Nature persona.
”When I pick a song, its beauty is my sole motivation,“ she explains in a stern tone. ”I don‘t sing tunes because I’m friends with their composers. I‘m not interested in being anybody’s friend.“
Sosa‘s voice is unpretentious and melodious. She hails from Tucuman, a poor, tiny province in northern Argentina. Consequently, she lacks the petulance and fatalistic bitterness that you encounter in most porteños, the natives of Buenos Aires. Sosa represents the hidden Argentina, a long way from the Rio de la Plata bordellos where the morbid tango was born. Taking a moment to reminisce about her childhood, she remembers evenings sitting around the table eating boiled wheat with salt while her mother joked about having roasted pheasant instead.
”We were an honest family, something that cannot be said about too many people,“ she says. ”And very poor. In my case, I was able to prosper thanks to my voice. Others, of course, stay behind, condemned to suffer all of their lives in a shantytown or a home for the poor.“
Suddenly, Sosa begins to cry. She is tired after a morning filled with interviews, and the thought of her dead mother, buried in a Tucuman cemetery, makes her sob loudly.
”I miss her so much,“ she says. ”I used to spend fortunes calling my mother while I was on tour. To everybody else, I was Mercedes Sosa, the strong woman you all believe me to be. But to my mother, I was still a baby. I was her daughter, and not much else.“
At Royce, Sosa will most likely perform some of those timeless songs that manage the seemingly impossible: bringing together the many disparate cultures and sensibilities of Latin American nations. All become one as the anthemic ”Unicornio“ and ”Gracias a la Vida“ are chanted along. At times, when her band embarks on a lengthy instrumental passage, Sosa stands up (a large woman, she usually performs seated) to do a little dance. The audience goes wild. Sosa’s physicality is devoid of the mischievous sensuality that defines other veteran songstresses like Susana Baca or Omara Portuondo. But her earthy presence can calm the most anxious of souls, and her voice is as quietly seductive as a summer night in Mar del Plata.
Mercedes Sosa performs at UCLA‘s Royce Hall, Sunday, April 14.