By Isabel Morales
Latin America’s dictatorships censored the voices of many. However, it also led people to think of ways to express the injustices committed by their governments. Some people fought in the form of songs and helped create what is now known as the nueva canción (new song) movement. Nueva canción, or new song, is a musical movement that emerged in the 1960s. It renewed Latin American folk music which expressed people’s grievances against the dictatorships of the time (Bibliotieca Nacional de Chile, n.d.). Mercedes Sosa was an Argentine singer who played a key role in the emergence and development of the nueva canción movement (Scruggs, 2009).
Mercedes Sosa was born in Tucumán, Argentina, in 1935. One of her grandparents was a French immigrant and another had Indigenous roots and spoke Quechua. Sosa’s European and Andean roots were heavily reflected in her personal style and music. She would often wear an Andean poncho to reflect her Diaguitan Indigenous heritage while still identifying as an Argentine, showing that Argentina’s culture goes beyond its European heritage (Scruggs, 2009). After winning a singing contest for the local radio, Sosa started becoming famous throughout South America and was praised for her voice and song lyrics. Most of her songs were about societal issues in Argentina that expressed the injustices against the people. Therefore, her voice was very powerful in different ways. Sosa not only received the support of millions of people with messages about peace and justice, but her voice itself was strong. As a result, Sosa became known as “the voice of Latin America” and helped expand the new song movement throughout Latin America (Scruggs, 2009).
The new song movement began in the southern cone of South America, which encompasses Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Songs from the movement spread quickly throughout the region and were more politicized as time went by. The rise of totalitarian military governments during the 1960s and 1970s in South America increased political oppression and worsened social conditions (Smithsonian, n.d.). This phenomenon caused people living in rural areas, especially native communities, to move to cities. As a result, these people brought unique musical traditions to cities that the middle class and students used to blend with European musical styles that did not follow class distinctions. This blend of musical elements became a means to protest against governments. The lyrics of the new movement’s song expressed the unconformity of the common people by focusing on issues such as poverty, imperialism, democracy, human rights, and religious freedom (Smithsonian, n.d.). An example of this phenomenon is when Mercedes Sosa went into exile in 1978 following the military coup of 1976. During her exile, she became one of the most internationally well-known singers and collaborated with many musicians (Rohter, 2009).
As the new song movement gained popularity in the southern cone, it spread to other parts of Latin America with the help of artists such as Sosa. In other Latin American countries, the movement was adapted to show the political and social environments of other countries, especially in the Caribbean (Smithsonian, n.d.). For instance, the nueva canción movement in Cuba became known as trova, or nueva trova, where artists such as Carlos Puebla, Silvio Rodriguez, and Pablo Milanés made use of Cuban and Afro-Cuban rhythms while using new song lyrics to express calls for social change (Smithsonian, n.d.). Mercedes Sosa not only focused on Argentinian issues, but she identified sentiments of frustration and hope across all Latin America which she reflected in her songs. Therefore, Sosa not only helped expand the movement throughout the region, but her songs erased national borders and united a whole region of people (Scruggs, 2009).
One of Mercedes Sosa’s songs composed by León Gieco, an Argentine composer, called “Sólo Le Pido A Dios,” or “I Only Ask God,” exemplifies the new song movement. The song expresses the request to God to not live in indifference towards war, injustice, and pain that was felt by people in the nation. It also reflects the hope for freedom and peace while simultaneously showing the value of human life (García, 2008). In one of the song’s verses, she expresses the distress of being exiled and having to live in another country with a different culture.
Sólo le pido a Dios
Que la guerra no me sea indiferente
Es un monstruo grande-y pisa fuerte
Toda la pobre-inocencia de la gente
I only ask of God
That I not be indifferent to war,
It is a huge monster, and it steps hard on
The poor innocence of the people
Sólo le pido a Dios
Que el futuro no me sea indiferente
Desahuciado está el que tiene que marchar
A vivir una cultura diferente
I only ask of God
That I never grow numb to the future
Or to the desperation
Of those forced from their homes to live a different culture
Though this song was interpreted by Mercedes Sosa during the time of Argentina’s dictatorship, the song’s message also resonates with people in other Latin American countries who have experienced oppression and injustice (García, 2008). Through this song, we see the power of the new song movement’s lyrics and how it was not only a means of protest, but also of unification.
Biblioteca Nacional de Chile. (n.d.). Nueva Canción Latinoamericana - Memoria Chilena, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile. MemoriaChilena. http://www.memoriachilena.gob.cl/602/w3-article-96422.html
García, M. (2008, April 10). Sólo le Pido a Dios | ARSNOVA. Universidad de Los Andes. https://arsnova.uniandes.edu.co/wordpress4/?p=265
Scruggs, T. M. (2009, November 1). Singing Truth to Power: Mercedes Sosa, 1935–2009. NACLA. https://nacla.org/article/singing-truth-power-mercedes-sosa-1935%E2%80%932009
Smithsonian. (n.d.). La Nueva Canción: The New Song Movement in South America. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. https://folkways.si.edu/la-nueva-cancion-new-song-movement-south-america/latin-world-struggle-protest/music/article/smithsonian
Rohter, L. (2009, October 5). Mercedes Sosa, 74, Argentine Folk Singer Who Took Up Social Issues, Dies. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/05/arts/music/05sosa.html