Mercedes Sosa, the Argentine diva of popular song, often cries when she sings. When I talked to her before a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall last week (she appears at Berklee Performance Center this Tuesday), tears welled in her eyes even when she sang a short snippet of melody to illustrate a point. Most often, hers are tears of exile, as she remembers Zion by the rivers of Babylon. And on stage, her only prop a handkerchief, a world of Latin American émigrés cries with her. In the audience at Carnegie Hall, I saw a carefully turned-out woman in a red pantsuit and gold accessories slowly dissolve during Sosa’s set, until her shoulders were shaking with emotion.
Although Sosa now lives again in Buenos Aires, she knows the pain of exile first-hand: under the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina in the ’70s, her music was censored and she was harassed, until finally she fled the country. She settled in Spain in 1978 and proceeded to build a successful career in Europe, where she was dubbed the "Voice of the Americas." But after several years away from Argentina, she found herself unable to sing. "When I was in exile, I lost the middle tones of my voice. I had no energy, and those tones take strength. I needed the energy of my people. I recovered it after I came back. But when I first returned to Buenos Aires, in 1981, I was mute — no voice. A problem of nerves."
If the émigrés who flock to see Sosa perform around the world have similarly lost their strength, it is she who gives it back to them. At Carnegie Hall, the crowd was thunderously enthusiastic, yet no one danced — the audience seemed less jubilant than refreshed, or even relieved. It is as if Sosa brought South America with her. "No one wants to leave their country — but now, there is no opportunity for young people in Argentina. There is no opportunity for old people! It is a very difficult moment for Argentina. So when they see me, they start crying. It’s very hard for me to sing while all these people are crying, are suffering."
Sosa’s repertoire draws on songs not just from Argentina but from all of Latin America — two of her signature tunes are "Gracias a la vida," by Chilean protest singer Violeta Parra, and "Maria, Maria" by Brazilian pop star Milton Nascimento. Recently she has begun to include songs from Italy (where she tours frequently, because of the many Argentines living there), Greece, and even Israel. At Carnegie Hall, she performed in Hebrew a song that she learned in Tel Aviv, describing it as "a banner for peace."
Such gestures — as well as her own history of entanglement with oppression — have made Sosa into a political figure, whether she welcomes the label or not. After her return to Argentina, and the subsequent fall of the military dictatorship there, she became an international symbol for resistance to tyranny. "It doesn’t bother me to call my music protest songs, but I think that time is over. I am an artist who sings plainly, for my people, Latin Americans."
"Plain" is not an inaccurate description of Sosa’s style, though it is far too humble to convey her singing’s effect. Joan Baez once kissed her feet after a concert. Like Baez, she is not a technician — she keeps her powerful alto in a narrow range. Neither is she an improviser; on stage, she sits and reads off a music stand. And though her repertoire incorporates a wide range of traditional Latin rhythms, she does not swing like the Cuban or Brazilian virtuosos. (She’s backed by a band of acoustic guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums.) Indeed, for all her South American élan, Sosa’s delivery perhaps most resembles the masters of European popular song, like Edith Piaf.
And like Piaf, Sosa has come to stand for more than her music. She has been honored with awards from UNESCO, UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women), and governments around the world, not just as a musician but as a symbol for greater understanding between peoples. After more than 30 years of recording and international touring, she’s practically an ambassador; in New York, entire families turned out to see her, as if for a visit from the pope. And when toward the end of her set she incorporated the names of Latin American nations into a song, the ovations — now full of pride as well as nostalgia — were deafening.
Nevertheless, when I ask whether she considers herself a political artist, Sosa demurs: "No, no, not at all! I simply have friendships with people around the world, people everywhere. I give back what they give to me."
Mercedes Sosa appears at Berklee Performance Center this Tuesday, March 26, at 8 p.m. Call (617) 661-1252.