Events of the week have intervened, as usual, to flavour my writing. At a party in Pittsburgh, I was in the presence of my cousin’s wife’s family, a very musically talented group of Paraguayans. Into the night, the family regaled us with tales of the military coup which had toppled the dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1989.
At the night of the coup, a gunfight erupted in Asuncion, practically on the front yard of the family’s home. I found the description of event fascinatingly mundane, from the fact that the family had to drag mattresses from room to room to find the most sheltered part of the house, to the fact that they decided to eat all the chocolate in the house in case tomorrow never came. They found it amazing not so much that they had survived, but that they, almost alone in the city had not lost electricity or phone service, and that annoying phone calls kept coming despite the gunfire.
My cousin-in-law’s sister is a wonderful singer, and earlier in the evening I had commented about how I was moved by her eulogy to the great Argentinean singer, Mercedes Sosa, when she’d died in 2009.
The sister pointed out that she had often attempted to translate the songs Mercedes Sosa had covered into English, for American audiences, and had finally given up, because certain things just couldn’t be translated. You can’t translate into English the rattling of the plates in the cabinets as the tanks roll down your street. You can’t translate the smell of fresh plaster as the propagandists hurry to patch holes so that they can claim the machinegun fire of the night before never happened. You can’t translate the nagging wonder in the back of your mind of which neighbours might not survive the crossfire.
When she put it that way, I understood her point. I remember the first time I ever heard the sound of a machine gun — I remember thinking how fake it sounded, not at all like the manly blasts in the Hollywood movies. It sounded more like frenetic construction, a jackhammer perhaps, than it sounded like the ultimate de-construction: war. Somehow the fact that it sounded fake, made it ugly and real.
I agreed with the sister, that the music that so moved us in Argentina just couldn’t resonate for most Americans, when the majority of the people here get their exposure to tragedy through video games where life has a reset button and movies pretty much all have happy endings. Here, thank God, if something doesn’t go your way, you can always change the channel.
This week, as I read your news, the death of Azam Khan stood out as the most important item. For the first time since I have followed Bangladeshi news, I noted that the BNP and the AL were putting their differences aside, and doing so to honour this remarkable man. I began to read about the life of Azam Khan, and tried to discover translations of his lyrics. The first thing I discovered is that his music is very accessible to Western ears. Azam Khan’s voice is hypnotic, and from the translations of his songs, I concluded that the messages in the songs seemed deceptively simple. I wondered: did the lyrics invite deeper interpretations? Are Alal and Dulal, the two bad boys in his song of the same name, reflective of politics in Bangladesh? What does Ami Jare Chaire mean? Is it religious? Is he speaking about God? I don’t know enough to know. I suspect that his songs are snapshots of life, well-composed images that we can interpret as we see fit.
In any case, I can enjoy the music at the simplest level. I find the tunes to be catchy, and the singer’s voice is warm and inviting, like a musical conversation with a friend. Still I wonder. I have heard the song Ami Jare Chaire, which while it seems very ‘70s pop, just seems deeper, it invites me to ask me questions about myself.
You mourn the loss of a great singer and freedom fighter. I know how it feels to lose such a voice. Mercedes Sosa left the same gap in my heart when she died. It caused me to wonder — is the world losing the tradition of the singer who longs to liberate her people, or do such singers abound wherever there is oppression, hunger and frustration? Perhaps even today, maybe in China, or somewhere in the Middle East such singers are secretly rallying the masses. Perhaps I don’t hear about these singers because the music of freedom cannot easily be packaged and understood outside a singer’s homeland.
In any case, I am sure that God will want Mercedes Sosa and Azam Khan to meet in heaven. They will have much to talk about. In some ways, they are kindred spirits, and in others, they are opposites. Azam Khan brought pop music to Bangladesh, which, in itself, was a revolutionary act. Sosa brought her Folk/Indigenous musical roots into the mainstream. They both sparked the pride of their nations, and came to define an era. I understand the depth of your loss, because even now, I miss the possibility of being able to see Mercedes Sosa perform again.
So, as I discover Azam Khan, my dear readers, let me offer you a little world culture in exchange, the life of an extraordinary singer. I want you to understand Mercedes Sosa, because I believe that you can. I think that if some pop star of this generation were to translate the songs that she sang for her people, much of what she sang about would resonate there in a way they could never resonate in the United States.
Mercedes Sosa began her career in dangerous times. She sang songs of freedom and maintained an activist lifestyle during the dangerous years of the military dictatorship in Argentina. The sound of her voice, even in the context of an apolitical setting, like a Catholic Mass, could inspire the masses who longed for freedom.
As she fearlessly raised her voice, it became increasingly difficult for her to remain in Argentina. The military throughout Latin America believed that to silence a singer was to break the spirit of the revolution itself. In Chile, Sosa’s friend, pop star and guitarist Victor Jara had already paid the ultimate price for his music. One September day in 1973, in Santiago de Chile, all suspected “subversives”, including Jara, were rounded up and forced into the national soccer stadium where they filled the stands. From there, they were taken to be tortured, raped or murdered. Jara was dragged onto the soccer field, and soldiers mangled his hands into bloody stumps in front of the crowd. He was then mockingly ordered to play the guitar. Instead, he fearlessly began singing a rendition of the song of freedom, “Venceremos (We Will Win)”. When the crowd defiantly joined in from the stands and the officials were unable to still the voices, they put a bullet through Jara’s head.
Sosa expected the same fate from the Argentinean military, and felt it was only a matter of time, but she refused to leave the country. Her recordings were banned, and her songs were declared subversive speech. One night, after a concert, she, and her entire audience were detained by the military police. She finally realised that she could no longer sing without compromising the safety of her audience, and she fled into exile. That concert may have coincided with my first visit to the country, and simple happenstance prevented me from having attended that particular concert myself, as a very clueless young fan. Sosa was forced into exile in Spain to prevent her fans from being arrested. She declared that she carried her people in her voice.
Years later, I saw her at a concert in New York. Times had changed and Argentina was free. Her presence, and her strong contralto filled the Lincoln Center. She still carried her people in her voice, as she sang songs that claimed America for the Native People, and thanked life for all the gifts that it had given her.
“Thank you, Life, for giving me so much
You have given me laughter and you’ve given me mourning.
That’s how I distinguish joy and misery-
Those two materials that form my song
And the song of you all, which is the same song,
And the song of everyone, which is my very own song.
The world has changed, but in the midst of upheaval and revolution, the subsonic rumble of the tank and the “fake” cadences of the machinegun, there rises above the strains those “Redemption songs”, as Bob Marley called them.
In one of the most famous songs Mercedes Sosa sings, she says,
“I only ask of God that my suffering not leave me indifferent. That death not find me alone and void, without having done my share.”
If you have done your share, then your life has had meaning.
And finally, I share this sentiment from Mercedes Sosa’s music with all of those who mourn the passing of their beloved musician:
If the singer is silenced, life is silent.
Because life, life itself is all a song.
Luckily for us, a great singer’s work can’t be silenced. Not by machine guns, or tanks, or even death itself. Instead, like a tree, it can continue to sink its roots into the ground, and spread its comforting shade and bear fruit for generations to come.
Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, is scheduled to be released by Findhorn Press in May of 2011.