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Mercedes Sosa: Argentina’s Most-Enduring Folk Singer

December 30, 1992 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ When Mercedes Sosa sings, she exposes her heart.

During a recent performance at New York’s Lincoln Center, Argentines swayed to her rhythms while waving their sky blue-and-white flag.

Sosa held a large Andean drum called a bombo under her left arm and beat Latin America’s diverse rhythms while unleashing her powerful contralto. On some tunes, she shook a guiro, a dried gourd filled with pebbles.

She performed her wide repertoire during a tour of 10 U.S. and Canadian cities after playing in Israel and Europe. She sang her old standards, along with selections from her latest album, ″De Mi″ (″From Me″).

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When ″the Voice of the Americas″ opens her mouth, out pours the authority of one who has suffered repression, poverty and overwhelming sadness. Her talent lies in expressing a song’s raw emotions with her powerful, earthy voice.

″A flowing current of blood, a silenced people,″ she belted out in ″Retratos″ (″Portraits″), a song about the violent coup that toppled Chile’s elected leftist government in 1973.

She stoped singing and whispered ″disappeared″ to emphasize the more than 2,000 Chileans killed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s soldiers for political reasons.

She abandoned her homeland, as did thousands of other Argentines, under pressure by the military government.

″The police grabbed me and searched my body in public,″ she recalled in an interview 13 years later, near tears, her voice quavering. ″They humiliated me.″

In the 1978 incident, police also arrested her son, then 20, her band and 350 fans.

″They really persecuted me. It was absurd how they punished me right after the death of my husband,″ said the singer, who voices lyrics many dared not utter for years because they feared military dictators.

″La guerra sucia″ (the dirty war) between the military government and left-wing terrorists was splitting Argentina apart in the 1970s. The Montoneros and the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army) began armed insurgencies against the right-wing government.

″I don’t belong to any political party,″ said Sosa, who concedes she’s sympathetic to leftist causes but denies ever being a revolutionary despite the Montoneros using her ″La Arribena″ (″The Place Up There″) as a signal for terrorist attacks.

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″I never sided with the Montoneros. I didn’t agree with killing the military or with killing anyone,″ she said. ″I favor dialogue, talking out differences.″

Her arrest came at the order of Argentina’s military government while performing ″Cuando Tenga la Tierra″ (″When They Have Land″) - a call for agrarian reform. Other concerts were canceled because of bomb threats. The government banned her performances.

Her music barred from the airwaves, Sosa fled the following year; she lived in France and Spain for three years before returning home - to see the generals humiliated by their loss in the Falkland Islands war and relinquish power to civilians.

Still, a measure of sadness and pain lingers.

A large, round 56-year-old woman with chiseled facial features, straight black hair and high cheekbones, Sosa cuts a commanding figure. Her South American Indian heritage is reflected in her music, face and dress. She’s fond of bright, colorful scarves popular in the Andes.

Her most-beloved tune - ″Gracias a la Vida″ (″Thanks to Life″) - isn’t political; rather, it’s a celebration of life.

Sosa grew up in Argentina’s northwestern, sugar-growing province of Tucuman, in view of the majestic, snow-draped Andes.

″We were very poor but very united,″ she said, explaining that her early poverty engendered a lifelong commitment to the poor.

″I always think about why people are born in slums where they have no hospital and not enough food.″

After singing professionally for 40 years, Sosa complains about not having enough time with her two grandchildren but admits to having no plans to ever retire because ″I live for music.″

Her philosophy and life could best be summed up in ″Zamba Para No Morir″ (″Song To Not Die″):

″If the singer falls silent, life itself falls silent, because my entire life is a song. If the singer falls silent, ... hope, light and happiness all die.″

In choosing her repertoire, she spelled out her requirements: ″It’s very important how a song moves us.″