Violeta Parra: I'd rather keep the people.
Today's column was written some weeks ago. Then last Monday I learned of the death of the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa and a little part of me died that day, too. I felt, right there and then, compelled to modify the content of today's post and turn it, maybe, into a tribute to someone whose heartfelt performances made hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Ibero-Latin people like me feel proud of our rich heritage.
However, I have left most of the original material intact because the topic today is also linked to the art form to which Mercedes Sosa dedicated her life during a singing career that spanned more than five decades: the poet as singer.
It was during my adolescent years in Havana when I finally got the opportunity to choose the music I wanted to listen to - within the narrow confines of the Cuban society of the mid 80s and our government's prohibitions - and the first genre I embraced wholeheartedly was rock and roll. Bluesy, earthquaking, musical notes, became the be-all and end-all of my life's soundtrack. To say that I fell for rock's cliches and platitudes would be stating the bleeding obvious (Twisted Sister anyone? How about Quiet Riot?). But after a childhood where most of the music blaring out of the Made-in-the-USSR Selena radio we had in my house was traditional Cuban rhythms, I craved for a different experience.
During these years I turned my back on anything that had too deep a message and too flimsy a melody. Grand bass hooks, never-ending guitar solos and ear-piercing vocals were all the rage amongst my peers and I am not ashamed to admit that for some years the reigning sound in my life was that of a Fender Stratocaster.
That changed when I reached year 12 in college (high school in the US). One of my mates took me to see Arturo Sandoval at the Havana International Jazz Festival. I tagged along reluctantly and to this day I still remember getting butterflies in my stomach when the famed trumpeter appeared on stage and let rip. He was being supported by Irakere, a famous Cuban band, and they both awakened a strong desire in me to explore this genre further. Jazz is such a liberating and liberated music form that I am still amazed it took me so long to like it and accept it.
What came afterwards when I began university was the result of learning a foreign language in depth - English - and growing older and therefore looking at music from another perspective.
Whereas until then I had paid more attention to rhythm than lyrics, once I had begun to delve into the intricacies of English as a lexicon, I came across the poet as a singer, or a better way of putting it would be a singer who is a poet first and foremost, albeit with a good musical voice. An unexpected addendum was that this process allowed me to re-discover musical gems in my own native tongue. Enter Joaquín Sabina, Leonard Cohen and Joan Manuel Serrat. Enter also Patti Smith.
I was already familiar with the poet-as-a-singer genre. After all, the best example we have in Cuba is Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez, whose compositions feed on the writer's poetic and visually artistic nature. I was familiar, too, with Bob Dylan's songbook, but saw him above all as a performer. And as for the Catalán Serrat, the only tunes that appealed to me when I was younger were his immortal 'Penélope' and 'Mediterráneo'. The rest sounded strange to my teenage ears.
But when in 1991 Cuban television showed a very young Christian Slater playing an independent and rebellious pirate radio station DJ in the film 'Pump Up the Volume' I knew my very own 'Road to Damascus' moment had arrived. The opening track of that film was Leonard Cohen's 'Everybody Knows' and it was these two stanzas that brought the volte face in my life I have so far described: Everybody knows that the boat is leaking/Everybody knows that the captain lied/Everybody got this broken feeling/Like their father or their dog just died(...)Everybody knows that you love me baby/Everybody knows that you really do/Everybody knows that youve been faithful/Ah give or take a night or two/Everybody knows youve been discreet/But there were so many people you just had to meet/Without your clothes/And everybody knows
The softness with which the above lines were delivered, in that peculiarly husky voice Leonard had, made one forget for a minute that he was actually referring to someone who'd just cheated on him. Sublime.
From then on, my musical tastes widened up to include new poets-as-singers - Sabina, Tom Waits - and those to whom my younger years had never given a second chance, i.e., Serrat.
The history of these men and women who put pen to paper to create verses that could or would then be musicalised can be traced back to the ancient troubadours in Europe or griots in west Africa. These were poets (and story-tellers, too, but that's another post) who went after the tales that made up the bulk of their material. They were the purveyors of our folk heritage, never mind in which part of the world you found yourself. They were also the main motif for the appearance of a subgenre: the singer-as-a-poet. Joni Mitchell, please come out from behind that sofa. And you don't need any introduction, Baaba Maal.
And this is where the great Mercedes Sosa comes into the picture. She was the crown jewel of what Dante Alighieri called the fictio rethorica musicaque poita: rhetorical, musical, and poetical fiction. Evidence of that is the song that made her a household name in Iberoamerica, Gracias a la Vida (Thanks to Life). This melody had already been popularised by its author, poet-as-singer Violeta Parra. And yet, when you hear it in Mercedes's rich, alto voice, the emotional range through which it takes you makes you connect deeper with the lyrics: Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto/Me ha dado el sonido y el abecedario/Con él las palabras que pienso y declaro/Madre, amigo, hermano, y luz alumbrando/La ruta del alma del que estoy amando. (sorry, no translation)
Mercedes was not a poet (can I still write 'poetess' in English without any fear of being prosecuted?) and some people might even consider her to be an unnecessarily intrusive element between the poet-as-singer and his/her song. She wasn't a composer either, as far as I know. However, each melody she sang, every song she performed, she made it hers, both through her imposing stage persona and her prodigious voice. And to me that is enough proof, if any was needed, of poetry and the power of it. Here she is, performing one of her most famous numbers, Como la Cigarra (Like the Cicada), originally a poem by the Argentinian writer María Elena Walsh (I'm extremely sorry that I coud not find a good translation on youtube, I hope you can still enjoy it). Thanks.
Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer' by Zadie Smith, to be published on Tuesday 13th October at 11:59pm (GMT)