Monday, July 11, 2011

Facundo Cabral, Singer of Conscience, Dies at 74

NY Times July 10, 2011

Facundo Cabral, an Argentine singer-songwriter who was one of the most eloquent voices of protest against military dictatorships in Latin America from the 1970s onward, died on Saturday, shot to death while on tour in Guatemala. He was 74 and lived in Buenos Aires.

Mr. Cabral was killed when the car in which he was a passenger, on its way to the airport in Guatemala City, was ambushed by unidentified gunmen in three vehicles. His road manager, Davíd Llanos, and a concert promoter and nightclub owner from Nicaragua, Henry Fariña Fonseca, were seriously wounded in the attack.

The death of Mr. Cabral, who in 1996 was designated a “worldwide messenger of peace” by the United Nations, caused consternation throughout the Spanish-speaking world. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela sent a message via Twitter: “Oh what pain! They have killed the great troubadour of the Pampas.” René Pérez, leader of the Puerto Rican hip-hop group Calle 13, wrote, “Latin America is in mourning,” and other leading pop-music figures, among them Ricky Martin, Alejandro Sanz and Ricardo Montaner, also sent Twitter messages lamenting his loss.

Guatemalan government officials said that Mr. Fariña, the nightclub owner, was most likely the gunmen’s intended target. But Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan Indian leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, seemed to contradict this view when she said Saturday, “I can’t help but think he was assassinated for his ideals.”

Rodolfo Enrique Facundo Cabral was born on May 22, 1937, the eighth child of a poor family that soon thereafter emigrated from Buenos Aires province to Tierra del Fuego; it was in that remote region that he was first exposed to Argentine folk music. As a child Mr. Cabral was rebellious, running away from home several times and serving time in a juvenile reformatory: as the story was told years later, at age 9 he even sneaked into the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, where he met Eva Perón and persuaded her to find a job for his mother.

At 14, while in the reformatory, Mr. Cabral was taught to read and write by a Jesuit priest and acquired the love of words that would make him famous. In addition to recording more than two dozen albums, Mr. Cabral wrote numerous books, both novels and nonfiction, the best known of which is probably “Borges and I,” an account of his friendship and conversations with the writer Jorge Luis Borges.

After holding a series of menial jobs and learning to play guitar, Mr. Cabral began performing in 1959, under a stage name, El Indio Gasparino, suggesting that he was of Indian extraction, like his idol and inspiration Atahualpa Yupanqui. It was only in 1970 that he had his first major success under his own name, the spiritually infused song “No Soy de Aquí, ni Soy de Allá” (“I’m Not From Here, I’m Not From There”).

That hit, which has been recorded or performed in various languages by artists including Julio Iglesias and Neil Diamond, was followed by others, and by the mid-1970s Mr. Cabral was firmly established in the top echelon of folk-inspired singer-songwriters in Latin America.

Many of Mr. Cabral’s songs mixed expressions of mystical spirituality with a desire for social justice, which gave him a reputation as a protest singer. That proved dangerous after the Argentine military seized power in a coup in March 1976, and he fled to Mexico, where he remained in exile until after the collapse of the Argentine dictatorship in 1982. On his return, in 1984, Mr. Cabral was more popular than ever.

His sold-out concerts were an unusual mixture of music and the spoken word, with songs preceded by long introductions in which he would muse on philosophy and religion and often quote from his favorite poets, including Borges and Walt Whitman, and spiritual masters like Gandhi and Mother Teresa.

It was not immediately clear if any immediate family members survived. Mr. Cabral’s wife and infant daughter died in an airplane crash in 1978, which he regarded as just one of many painful episodes in a life full of hardships: “I was without a voice until I was 9, illiterate until I was 14, became a widower at 40 and only met my father when I was 46,” he often said in interviews.

Still, Mr. Cabral’s work was suffused with optimistic aphorisms that have become common figures of speech. “Never allow yourself to be confused by a handful of killers, because good predominates,” he once said, adding, “A bomb makes more noise than a caress, but for each bomb that destroys, there are millions of caresses that nourish life.”

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