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Mercedes Sosa: Gracias por TU vida

4 October 2009

Mercedes Sosa, “la Negra”, who — as Adam Bernstein writes in a fine Washington Post obituary — “emerged as a electrifying voice of conscience throughout Latin America for songs that championed social justice in the face of government repression,” died 2 October in a Buenos Aires hospital.  She had been in declining health for the last several months, suffering from liver, kidney and heart problems.

Sosa was a major figure in the nueva canción movement of the 1960s, which rescued traditional Latin American music from the anthropologists and returned it to the people, giving the old music new relevance both musically and politically. Although born (9 July 1935) in provincial Tucamán, the Argentine singer was an international figure who interpreted music from throughout Latin America… and beyond, performing with everyone from Sting to Joan Baez to Pablo Milanes.  And — more to the point — she had an amazing contralto voice that reached two octaves.

As an indigene from the poorest of backgrounds (her parents were migrant workers) in Argentina, as well as a leftist (Bernstein says “Marxist”, but “left-wing Peronist” might be more accurate) it was increasingly difficult for her to work after the 1976 coup that put her county in the hands of a right-wing, fascist military oligarchy.  She continued working, despite regular bomb threats until 1979, after police strip searched her on stage during a concert in La Plata.   She went into exile, working in France and Spain until 1982 when Argentina returned to sanity, and she to her native country.

She returned to Argentina in 1982. About her United States tour in 1987, Esquire Magazine said, “Mercedes Sosa requires no translation. Hers is the song of all those who have overcome their fear of singing out.”

Poets — and those who sing their words — may, as Shelley said, be the “secret legislators of the world”, something Sosa seconded when she said:

Human beings have to resolve their own problems. But music can console people who suffer from problems, and perhaps it can inspire people to try to solve their problems. Singers have to sing whatever they believe in. They have to stay true to themselves. These are the songs I believe in, so I have to keep singing them.

The clip is subtitled in Portuguese. Here are the English lyrics to her signature piece, lyrics and music by Violeta Parra:

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me two beams of light, that when opened,
Can perfectly distinguish black from white
And in the sky above, her starry backdrop,
And from within the multitude
The one that I love.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me an ear that, in all of its width
Records— night and day—crickets and canaries,
Hammers and turbines and bricks and storms,
And the tender voice of my beloved.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me sound and the alphabet.
With them the words that I think and declare:
“Mother,” “Friend,” “Brother” and the light shining.
The route of the soul from which comes love.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me the ability to walk with my tired feet.
With them I have traversed cities and puddles
Valleys and deserts, mountains and plains.
And your house, your street and your patio.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me a heart, that causes my frame to shudder,
When I see the fruit of the human brain,
When I see good so far from bad,
When I see within the clarity of your eyes…

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me laughter and it gave me longing.
With them I distinguish happiness and pain—
The two materials from which my songs are formed,
And your song, as well, which is the same song.
And everyone’s song, which is my very song.

Thanks to life
Thanks to life
Thanks to life
Thanks to life

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 October 2009 12:02 am

    Gracias Mercedes.

    Mercedes Sosa gave one of the most famous (and wonderful) interpretations of the song “Gracias a la vida” but the credits for music and lyrics go to Violeta Parra, please.

  2. 5 October 2009 12:14 am

    Thanks, Jochim. I assumed that because Sosa credits the song to Parra in the video, that was enough, but to avoid any confusion, I made a slight change to my text.

  3. 5 October 2009 12:22 am

    No prob.
    Here a video of Mercedes in her last recording session, singing with Shakira (!):

  4. 5 October 2009 1:25 am

    You are not? I am dissapointed 🙂

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