Farewell 3 Great Souls

We’ve lost some truly great souls over the last few months. Howard Morrison had his final curtain call and his send off became a national event. His talent as a singer was in some way eclipsed by his greater ability to cross cultural boundaries, bringing people and cultures together through his art; his funeral testimony to that. It was the first time I’ve heard a pakeha newsreader on TV one speak for so long in Maori on prime time without sounding like they’d just spent the last half hour practising and then had to madly race through it without having any idea what it meant. We seemed to be watching the first baby steps towards a genuine biculturalism.

In August, Alistair Campbell, arguably one of New Zealand’s finest poets died. Somehow it was comforting to know that the author of such great poems as ‘Wild Honey’, or, more recently ‘It’s love isn’t it?’, was still alive somewhere in New Zealand. I’d like to think that he and Baxter had a few on his arrival at wherever good poets go but also hope that his work, like Baxter’s, doesn’t get relegated to the odd NCEA exam or New Zealand anthology but instead, like the great Spanish speaking poets became part of our larger cultural heritage.
Mr. Campbell also knew a thing or two about living with different cultures. A boy from the islands, he came to Dunedin in the 1950’s to a boarding school having lost his mother at only eight. Antarctic or Himalayan survival stories fail to impress in the same way that the emotional survival story of the young Alistair does. He must have been the only Pacific Islander there, in a frigidly pakeha 1950’s world. Yet his work is infused with warmth and humanity and while he mastered the stringently academic English of his environment – his poems still manage to carry with them the naïve charm and lilt of the islands.

On Monday night the world lost another great soul – one perhaps who is not so well known here in New Zealand but who is being mourned all over South America and in many places in Europe. How a woman from such a poor dusty forgotten place as Tucuman in Argentina managed to record her work with everyone from Nana Mouskouri to Shakira and all the Spanish greats in between – who sold out Carnegie Hall in 2004 when she was already in her 70s and who managed to get the world’s very richest people singing poor peoples’ songs is testimony to her talent. Mercedes Sosa had a spectacular voice. I went to her come-back concert in Argentina in 1998 and watched her throw away her microphone when the sound system broke down. Instead of waiting for the technicians she carried on without it and, already ageing and in poor health her voice still filled the entire auditorium. From the cheap seats at the back her voice resonated around us until the entire audience was singing with her. She had the ability to cross cultural and class barriers and move people with the simple beauty of her art.

There are two excellent reasons to learn Spanish – one is Pablo’ Neruda’s poetry, the other would definitely be Mercedes Sosa’s songs. Exiled from Argentina in the 70’s after she was arrested on stage during a concert at a time when many artists were killed for protesting against the military regime of the times, she could have become one of the more than 30,000 ‘disappeared’. Instead, from the living death of exile her renditions of songs like ‘Como le pido a dios’(I only ask of God) and ‘Como la cigarra’ (Like the Cicada) became left wing hymns for whole nations in what must have seemed like a never ending struggle against oppression. They also became personal rallying calls long after the civil wars had finished, helping get people through their own hard times. ‘Gracias a la Vida’ her song thanking life itself for all the good simple pleasures is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry ever sung. Gracias Negra – I truly loved your work.

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