When I moved to Guadalajara, I started buying the newspaper Público every Friday so I could read its weekly magazine of cultural offerings in the city. Everything is included in the Público, from events for children to events at gay bars, from poetry readings to concerts to films.
Last April, I noticed that one of my favorite singers, Tania Libertad, was scheduled to give a free concert as part of an all-Mexico artists' conference. My friend Consuelo was as excited and eager to hear this artist as I was. We agreed to leave the car at home, take a bus to the Centro Histórico, and take a taxi home after the concert.
The night of the concert we jumped on a city bus and in no time were at the huge Plaza Fundadores behind the Teatro Degollado. The stage was set up, but most of the folded chairs were still stacked alongside the plaza. It wasn't that early, but there were only a few people sitting in ragged rows. Consuelo and I eyed one another, afraid that the concert might have been canceled. We agreed to wait a while and pulled two chairs from the stacks and sat down.
Just before the concert was to have started, it was announced that the arrival of the conference participants would be delayed. The concert had been postponed for an hour. Consuelo and I laughed and kept up our conversation: Tania Libertad would be worth the wait.
Born in Perú, Tania Libertad now lives in Mexico City. She has an ethereal voice and dedicates her personal and professional life to the advancement of peace in the world. Beyond those sketchy details and the long list of recordings including music from many cultures and genres that she has to her credit, we knew little else about her.
And then, just as the sun went down and the cool evening breeze came up, the concert started. "Señoras y señores, les presento—TANIA LIBERTAD!" The announcer bowed and held out his hand to greet her as she swept onto the stage.
For more than an hour and a half she sang the typical boleros (Mexican romantic standards) known to the whole audience, highly rhythmic music from South America, and politically charged music designed to rally her listeners to the consciousness of peace.
Her group—skilled vocalists and musicians playing keyboard, guitar, drum, and accordion—backed her impeccably. The audience roared its approval after every song. Finally, the musicians sat silent and Tania sang her final song, Alfonsina y el Mar, a capella in the huge dark plaza, her crystalline voice echoing poignantly among the 19th Century buildings.
Te vas Alfonsina
You leave, Alfonsina
Con tu soledad With your loneliness
Qué poemas nuevos What new poems
Fuiste a buscar? Did you go to look for?
Una voz antigua An ancient voice
De viento y de sal Of wind and salt
Te requiebra el alma Breaks your soul
Y la está llevando And takes it away
Y te vas hacia allá And you go toward the distance
Como en sueños As if in a dream
Dormida, Alfonsina Sleeping, Alfonsina
Vestida de mar. Dressed in the sea.
The audience sighed as if it were one person, sat silent for a heartbeat, applauded wildly and stood cheering long after Tania had left the stage. When Consuelo and I finally started moving toward the street, I noticed that there was a guard standing vigil at the door to the tent dressing room next to the stage. "Va a salir Tania?" ('Is Tania coming out?') I asked him. He shook his head, and then said, "They're going to let some people go in to talk with her."
All thought of leaving gone, Consuelo and I stood in the milling crowd until we were motioned to duck through the door into the white tent. There were just a few of us, three or four, taking turns talking with Tania. I asked for an interview for Living at Lake Chapala. Tania's personal manager, Mireyda Garza, graciously said of course. Two weeks later I received word that I could go to Mexico City to talk privately with Tania at her home.
We sat together in her lovely living room and she began to answer my questions.
"My family didn't know I was singing. My father was in the military, my mother worked from seven in the morning till nine at night. My eight older brothers took care of me—you can just imagine how that was.
"It started when I was in preschool. The teacher was planning a little night of performances and there was to be a flamenco dancer. I wanted to wear that costume; it was my heart's desire. But the costume was for a skinny girl, and I was chubby. I wanted to wear it so much!
"What did I do? I sneaked a girdle of my mother's! It was like an enormous bandage, and I wrapped it tight around and around myself—and the dress fit! I tried to dance, I tried to sing, and that's how I got my start." Tania laughed. "Think of this, there I was, a little Peruvian girl in black patent leather shoes, singing an old Mexican song, "La Historia de un Amor" What in the world did I know about the story of love? But that's what I sang, my very first time on stage. I was five years old.
La Historia de un Amor sung by Tania Libertad and Eugenia León.
"By the time I was seven, I was singing in contests. And by the time I was nine, I was making records in Peru. I was born on the north coast, where the descendents of African slaves lived, and the music I heard there, the music I grew up with, got into my bones. It's the music that still fascinates me more than any other. My CD Costa Negra is really homage to that music, and my latest CD, Negro Color, carries the theme onward."
Tania talked about her father, who for a time supported her desire for a career in music, taking her to Lima to search for a recording contract. But, she told me, after a certain point he no longer wanted her to sing and certainly didn't want her to study after she graduated from high school. Although she had made ten successful recordings in Peru, her father wanted her to end her career.
"I wanted to go to university. The only way he let me enroll was if I promised to study what my brother studied." She grimaced.
"What did you study, Tania?" I thought I was ready to hear anything.
"Oh, you won't believe it. I studied the science and engineering of fisheries." She rolled her eyes until I couldn't suppress my laughter.
"And has it been useful in later life?" Now we were both laughing.
"At least it got me into the university, where I could meet people who were more involved in the arts and in politics—my thinking was very far to the left, very much in tune with resistance to war, very much looking for a way to find peace.
"When I was 20, I actually ran away from home, because my father's thinking was completely different from mine. I needed to be taken seriously as a person and as a woman, and my father no longer wanted me to pursue my career as an artist, a singer. So I hid for two weeks with friends until my father accepted me as an adult with the rights of an adult." She sighed.
"And then?" I asked.
"And then I started to travel and sing in other countries. I went to Cuba in 1976 and was so intrigued with the music there. I began to understand the new music that had so much to say politically. The songs can be heard on different levels: as love songs, as love songs to a country, as songs of resistance and peace. These are what we call canciones camufladas—camouflaged songs. Since I was an adolescent, it's been important to me to take a stand for what I believe, to show my ideas. In Perú, so many were extremists. And I stood up for peace, for an end to war, for people's right to live freely.
"In 1977 I came to Mexico. Here in Mexico, I fell in love—with the country, with the audiences that gave me such an enormously warm welcome, and with the music. I've recorded many CDs of boleros (Mexican romantic standards) and they've all been very well received. I've had the opportunity to sing and record with so many extraordinary Mexican singers: Vicente Fernández, Armando Manzanero, and Marco Antonio Muñiz, to name just a few."
"Como Han Pasado los Años" with Armando Manzanero: Tania Libertad.
I was curious. "Just how many CDs have you recorded, Tania?"
She thought for a moment. "Thirty-five or thirty-six. Or maybe thirty-seven. It's about time for me to make a new one. The last one, Negro Color, was released at the end of 2004. I've been thinking about what the new one will be. And so many of the CDs have sold—millions, really. I have so much to be grateful for.
"I've sung on every continent. I've sung with so many incredible singers from every country: Cesarea Evora, Plácido Domingo, Mercedes Sosa, Kiri Te Kanawa, Miguel Bosé, and others, so many others.
"In 1997, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) gave me a great honor when it named me an honorary Ambassador of Peace, an artist for peace. It's something that is tremendously important to me. I was thrilled to sing for UNESCO at their headquarters in Paris, and I take my role very seriously."
She flashed her beautiful smile. "And now I am a Mexican. A Peruvian still, but a few years ago I also became a Mexican citizen. I love this country, I love this city. This is where my whole life is, this is where I live and work."
"Do you worry about the dangers in Mexico City to a well-known and visible person like yourself?"
Her look became very serious. "Of course I do. So many people have been assaulted, so many kidnapped. As you said, it's mostly the very visible who are assaulted. I worry about my family. We've actually been assaulted four times; it's terrifying. There is so much violence in society now—violence in homes, violence in the streets, violence in films and on television. It's taken so little time for private society to become inculcated with everyday brutality. I don't think it can get much worse.
"In June, I sang in Ciudad Juárez on behalf of the efforts made to stop the killing there. All of those young women are gone and so little seems to be done to put a halt to that killing. Here in the Distrito Federal, there are so many kidnappings and so much violence. Of course we're frightened. But on the other hand, life must continue. Our daily lives can't be so intimidated with what might happen. We have to do our part to stand up for peace, stand up for a peaceful way of life. It's the greatest gift we can give to one another and to our future: the right to live in peace."
There were more questions to be asked, but Tania was packing for yet another tour. The time had come to say not 'Adios', but 'Hasta pronto'—until soon.
Tania Libertad is a soaring voice, a soaring mentality. Her life work is the definition of her name: Libertad. Freedom.
For information about Tania Libertad and the locations of her world-wide concerts, please visit: her website.