Artists You Should Know: Astor Piazzolla and Mercedes Sosa

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Two of my favorite Argentine artists have always been Astor Piazzolla and Mercedes Sosa.  They represent very different musical styles, nuevo tango and nueva cancion, the first a fusing of classic tango with modern classical music styles, the second a musical movement that championed human rights in the midst of cruel dictatorships in Latin America.  Piazzolla was born in Argentina in 1921, but came with his family to New York City while still a child.  When the great tango singer Carlos Gardel was in New York City in 1934 to film Tango on Broadway, Piazzolla got a small role.  I was amazed when returning to a cassette aircheck I made while interviewing him in 1985, that he spoke perfect, unaccented American English.  I had forgotten that he had grown up in New York.  He had gone shyly to the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in the 1950s to study piano and composition; she told him she loved the bandoneon and to keep playing it. He returned to Buenos Aires and changed tango forever, much to the dismay of tango purists.

Mercedes Sosa was born four years later than Astor, in 1935 in Tucumán Province, northwest Argentina.  She sang songs about freedom and liberty during the 1960s and 70s, and was exiled to Spain after being threatened by death by the army.

I wondered, as I sat across from her during several interviews at KCRW, how could this stout, grandmotherly woman pose a threat to the Argentine dictatorship.  Of course it was through the power of music to communicate the message of freedom.

There is a truly anthemic album called “Mercedes Sosa Live in Argentina”, recorded in Buenos Aires in February, 1982.  Democratic elections had triumphed, and the dictatorship was on the way out.  Students, activists, and her fans who had formerly been arrested, beaten, jailed or maybe thrown out of planes, felt free to applaud and celebrate Sosa, who had just returned from exile in Spain.  The winds of freedom were returning.  Holding their lighters up, the sound of the crowd cheering is amazing.  The live concert was an amazing testament to the power of music, and the fact that it was recorded allows us to enjoy it many years later.