by Maglyn Bertrand 14C
Even though I have been working on finalizing my thesis before I present my work in April, I have been reflecting on the beginning of my project, the time when I was first inspired to begin my research on Chilean nueva canción (new song) and Argentinean nuevo cancionero (new songbook). Inspired by the folk revival of the 1960s, Chilean and Argentinean musicians and lyricists deliberately created nueva canción and nuevo cancionero in an effort to musically and lyrically represent rural and indigenous peoples and their traditions. With guitar and indigenous Andean instruments, they accompanied lyrics with themes of love, reflection, unity, brotherhood and justice. What initially attracted me to nueva canción and nuevo cancionero were not their identities as cultural creations or as musical and lyrical accompaniments to political voices during the 1970s, rather the performance of a song entitled, “Gracias a la vida” (Thanks you life) by nuevo cancionero singer, Mercedes Sosa initially caught my attention. Since first hearing “Gracias a la vida” I have experienced the music of this piece in two ways. During the first time I heard it, I listened solely to Sosa’s voice and the guitar accompanying her. Like any listener hearing a piece for the first time, the experience was in the act of listening. However, after developing my project, I listened again, analyzing Sosa’s voice, the music and the lyrics. Now, “Gracias a la vida” is featured in a chapter on the politicization of nuevo cancionero during the 1970s. It represents Sosa’s contributions as a nuevo cancionero performer. With her alto voice and unique vocal nuances she showcased the power of performance and the ability of a talented performer to transform a musically simple ballad with themes of love, gratitude and self reflection into an anthem for her listeners. During the time of the 1970s, when Argentina was under military dictatorships, the contributions of Sosa as a powerful interpreter of nuevo cancionero garnered special attention from the military, which often labeled her as a leftist protest singer.
While there is certainly much more to say about how I interpret Sosa and “Gracias a la vida” within my paper, I wish to direct attention to the first time I heard the piece and Sosa’s voice, the time when I was personally inspired by Sosa, her vocal sound, and the lyrics. Often referred to as the voice of the voiceless, the voice of hope, or more informally as La Negra, because of her jet-black hair and part indigenous Aymara Indian heritage, Sosa is today considered a Latin American music icon. She was instrumental in the creation of a formal Manifesto written to define nuevo cancionero, she has collaborated with numerous Latin American and international musicians, and has recorded more than 70 albums and CDs, three of which have won the Latin Grammy award. Even though Sosa’s accomplishments provide information that support my thesis, her accomplishments have also personally inspired me as a performer, as a singer, and as a person with their own Latin American identity and indigenous heritage. When I listen to Sosa singing a piece such as “Gracias a la vida” without technical analysis, I hear her emotional and resonant alto voice singing “gracias a la vida que me dado tanto” (thank you life for giving me so much) and I am personally affected. In these moments I feel I too understand why many listeners of nuevo cancionero say it was the music and the voices of the singers that initially attracted them to genre. Sosa even once stated, “I sing for music, not the lyrics” (Braceli 17). I have to admit too, that I am a bit envious of Sosa’s voice. As a classically trained soprano who has long admired the alto voice for its particular quality and singers such as Nina Simone and Carole King who have made a career with their distinctive low sound, Sosa’s voice moves me, and I now consider it one of my favorite singing voices. Now too, the piece, “Gracias a la vida” symbolically represents the time when I discovered new song.
Even though research provides the opportunity for both self-education and sharing with others, it is the personal aspect that I wish to emphasize. This personal aspect is often the beginning, the time when one is first inspired, the time when one decides which topic to explore, which person to research. This is an exciting moment, it is the time when academic ideas often are not yet even part of the process, and when the act of discovering and becoming passionate about something begins. These personal aspects are often ignored in presentations and classrooms (certainly personal thoughts do not need to be used to justify academic ideas), but they are always present and should be acknowledged. Chosen topics and research subjects reveal a bit about the researchers themselves, and allow for the researchers to have the feeling of being connected in some way to the chosen topic, even when personal attachments cannot be publicly announced. Even though researchers may present their work and pose new questions, add to the existing scholarship within a certain academic framework, their personal passion, interest or love for their topic in some way shines through. These personal moments, the ones that have ignited an inquisitive side, that have transformed people into sleuths piecing together clues to solve a mystery, that have allowed for smiles, laughs and even frustrations, are certainly some of the gifts that research provides. I hope that my future will be full of more of these moments.