"San Sereni” from the album Alerta Sings & Songs for the Playground, written and performed by Suni Paz.
"Prisioneros Somos” (We Are All Prisoners) from the album Brotando del Silencio: Breaking Out of the Silence, written and performed by Suni Paz.
"Mujer” (Woman) from the album Entre Hermanas: Between Sisters, written and performed by Suni Paz.
"Al Ajo” (To Garlic) from the album From the Sky of my Childhood, written and performed by Suni Paz.
"NY” from the album Soul Sand, written and performed by Kosta T
Jo Reed: You’re listening to the music of nueva canción Singer and Songwriter and 2020 National Heritage Fellow Suni Paz.
For half a century, Suni Paz has written and performed performed socially conscious music, Latin-American folk music, and traditional children's songs…She’s a cultural force, who engages people of all backgrounds and ages.
Born Elsa Calandrelli Solá, she was raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a large extended family of musicians, writers and artists. By her teens, she was already dancing, singing, writing, and playing guitar.
Her life changed when she heard the music of Atahualpa Yupanqui, an Argentinian legend, who championed the music of indigenous people and awoke in Suni her passion for “music with a conscience.”
She moved to Chile with her husband and they began performing publicly. It was in Chile that Suni learned more about the struggle of workers and they became the subjects of her songs. After her husband passed away and the political situation in Chile grew treacherous, Suni moved to the United States with her two sons and began working at the Latin American Studies program at the University of California, Riverside. She also began performing in folk festivals, singing about farm workers, political prisoners, the salt of the earth.
She chose the stage name “Suni Paz,” which means “everlasting peace. After earning her master's degree, she wrote a curriculum for teaching Latin American culture through songs, stories, and dances, and began performing in schools.
In 1973, she recorded her first album, Brotando Del Silencio/Breaking Out of the Silence, on Paredón Records, accompanied by her son, Ramiro Fauve. Twenty-two albums followed, including 11 on Smithsonian Folkways. She has performed alongside singers like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Don McClean, and Phil Ochs. And for decades Suni has collaborated with celebrated children’s authors Alma Flor Ada and Francisca Isabel Campoy—in fact, Suni has composed over 500 songs for children.
Suni Paz has received many awards and now she is a National Heritage fellow—I spoke with her late last year and—fair warning—our phone line gets a bit spotty, but she’s a vibrant storyteller which comes through clearly….so, here’s our conversation.
Well, Suni, I want to begin by saying congratulations at being named a National Heritage Fellow.
Suni Paz: Yes. That was quite a surprise to me. Music Credits:
Jo Reed: I read your wonderful memoir, “Sparkles and Shadows.” What’s really clear, at least to me, from reading that memoir is you say music has been a central part of your self-expression and it really just seems so tied to your upbringing. Tell us about your upbringing and where you were brought up and that vast, talented clan that’s your family. And please begin with your aunt.
Suni Paz: My aunt was a writer. She was a superb writer, poet. She had awards in Europe, in France. She got two awards from her poetry written in French-- imagine. She was so incredibly talented and I sort of grew up in the same house. We were all living in the same house. We were like 14 people living in the same house. My grandparents were there, my aunts. And my grandma was there who was an artist and she painted incredible miniatures and every kind of painting. I mean, she was extraordinary, and then my grandfather-- my grandfather was a poet, a writer, and a musician. He played violin. He played piano and viola and he was a doctor, but before he took care of his patients, he would play the violin for half an hour before every patient, and the patients would come early to listen to the doctor play the violin and I would sit with the patients and sometimes fall asleep in their laps listening to my grandfather play the violin. I love it so much. I wouldn’t miss that for anything. We always went in the evenings to his room and we said “Tata...” We called him Tata. “Tata, can we draw?” “Yes, of course,” and he would sit at all the tables he had there for us to draw and when he died, they discovered in his room a folder with all the paintings that we did when we were little and he always told us “Put your name and put this date,” and he would give us the date. So, he had all the paintings with our names and with the dates and we would not have recognized the paintings were not for his taking the trouble to write-- to make sure that we had signed and put the date. I mean, he was incredible. ... He was an original.
Jo Reed: And your father insisted that you all listen to an opera before you went out on the weekend.
Suni Paz: Oh, yeah. We couldn’t go out at all unless we sat with my father and my mother, both of us, listening to a complete opera and sometimes, he gave us the-- what do you call it? I don't know what you call it...
Jo Reed: Libretto?
Suni Paz: Thank you, the libretto. So, we would be following the libretto, my father with his finger will guide where we were going and we heard from Wagner to every conceivable French opera because my mother spoke perfect French. So, that’s why French became very familiar to my ear, because we were listening to every conceivable French opera that was there and then sometimes if we didn’t listen to the opera, he would put the recordings and he would put recordings of Marian Anderson. That was our superhero. We adored Marian Anderson. So, we were listening to her for hours on end because we thought that there was not another voice as beautiful as hers. So, it was a real musical education. I mean, very complete, very complete.
Jo Reed: And when did you begin singing, Suni?
Suni Paz: Well, I sang for myself only when I was 13 years old that I wrote my first bolero, a loving song. I wrote two boleros, two loving songs and I sang it only for myself and to my sister, Ana Maria, who was my pal, and I will share with her whatever. And the only one that remembered the bolero was Ana Maria. I wrote it. I sang it two or three times and then I forgot about it, never remember it. One day I hear Ana Maria singing and I say “Ana, that is a very familiar song. Where did you get it?” and she said “You dummy, you did it. It’s your song. That was your love song. Remember?” No, I didn’t remember. She remembered my songs. I didn’t remember at all. I had forgotten my only songs.
Jo Reed: When did you start playing instruments?
Suni Paz: I was probably 16, I start to play the guitar. My father, who doesn’t play the guitar, taught me-- he felt sorry for me because I had the guitar in my hands and I couldn’t do anything and I was just struggling and struggling and he said “Look, I don't know how to play guitar, but I’m going to teach you three chords that I know. Do you want to learn them?” I said “Yeah.” So, he taught me three chords and with those three chords, I start playing everything in the world, every bolero that I knew at that time-- it was my time of boleros, I play every bolero I could with three chords and then I began going to the peñas folklóricas, folk gatherings, with my mom and the musicians were there on the stage playing folk music all the time and we were dancing.
Jo Reed: Excuse me, just one second. So, you and your mom used to go out to gatherings where there were folk singers.
Suni Paz: Yes. It’s called in Buenos Aires, it’s called peñas, and they were folk gatherings and we were going there to dance folk music and also sometimes we sang with the singers that were there on the stage, but the singing and the playing was in the hands of the folklóricas that would come to the peñas, get on to the stage and start playing and then we start dancing. It was a lot of fun and was a familiar place for the kids to go with the parents. It was a very family place and I learned-- I was looking, sometimes getting to the top of the stage on the back, where I couldn’t be seen, but I was seeing very closely the way the musicians were playing because there were songs that I wanted to learn how to play and I couldn’t do it because I didn’t know the chords and I would struggle imitating them. So, one of the musicians saw me and when they have the break, he came and he said “You want to know this chord? Okay. Here they are. This is what you have to do,” and he showed me and he taught me and that way, I was improving every time I went to the peñas, I came home with a new song with new chords. So, that improved my playing the guitar enormously. Now, I can play and sing.
Jo Reed: When did you first play publicly?
Suni Paz: Well, the funny thing is I was on a stage but not for singing. That didn’t happen until I came really almost to the United States because in Argentina, I was in the stage, yes, but I was dancing Spanish dances. I learned how to dance. I play the castanets. I was a very good dancer and I was a very good player of castanets. I play castanets still today. I play for the children when I go to the school. So, my first stage performances were with dancing, not with singing. In Chile, I performed a lot in parties with my husband, who was a great singer, great guitarist. He played wonderfully and we started a tour with him. So, in Chile with my husband, we went to every party they invite us. Every time there was a party, we were invited because they wanted us to sing at the end of the party. So, we were singing. That was my performance and then I did a program for the University of Chile for the TV after my husband passed away. They offer me if I wanted to do a program a week for the University of Chile on TV and I said “I’m going to do it only if I can sing and talk only about Atahualpa Yupanqui. They were so surprised and they said “Okay, fine.” So, I did this program, Atahualpa Yupanqui and all I was singing were the songs of Atahualpa Yupanqui.
Jo Reed: For those of us who might not know-- tell us who is Atahualpa Yupanqui? Describe his influence on your work.
Suni Paz: He was my idol. Atahualpa Yupanqui was of Indian descent, indigenous descent. He lived in Northwestern Argentina, where that’s the cradle of folklore. He was a collector of folk songs, but also, he wrote his own songs and his own songs paint a portrait of the countryside of the Andes, of the struggles of people there, I loved those songs that he created and his poetry is extraordinary. It’s beautiful and many of those were songs, became songs. He put the music to it and he sang. He became very political and eventually, he had to leave Argentina and went to live in Paris and he died in Paris. I met him in New York exactly the year before he died. He was 84 years old. So, it was very important to me, very, very important. He opened a world that I didn’t know existed. Imagine, he was opening a world for me that didn’t exist for me. I was just a little girl in the capital sitting in my house going nowhere, just around the block. So, all of a sudden, he came, painting portraits of the real world and he talked about the farm workers and their struggle, the miners and their struggle. It was fantastic. To me, it was opening my eyes to the world. So, I adored his music and I became very political eventually because of him, because I saw the plight of the working man and of the farm worker that was mistreated, looked down, and they were putting the food on our tables. We owe our health and our life to them. They were treated like they were no one and that was very painful to me. So, when I came to the United States, I met Cesar Chavez and the farm workers and I became a singer for their cause because it was very important to me.
Jo Reed: I’m also assuming that you saw was how powerful music was to tell their story.
Suni Paz: Exactly. Exactly. Thank you for saying that because that is exactly what it happened, the way it happened. I said “Oh, look at that. He opened a whole world for me, a world,” and I said “How? Through a song, through music.” So, when I came to the United States, started singing for the children, I said “These children have to see their world open like a map in front of their eyes so they can see themselves who they are, how important they are, how vital their function in this society,” and I began finding songs and when I didn’t have them, I had to write them and I would write the songs for them. So, they would see themselves with strength and power and see how important they were. They were put down all the time. There was an incredible amount of racism. Do you know that when I arrived, I went to the park and I went to the bathroom and I saw outside a sign that said “For blacks only, for whites only,” and I said “What am I going to do? I am not black and I am not white. So, where am I going?” and I had to go back to the people that brought me to the park and said “Can you please tell me where do I go to the bathroom?” I was overwhelmed by racism. I didn’t know anything. So, I began studying about civil rights and everything. I became educated.
Jo Reed: Well, Suni, when and why did you come to the United States?
Suni Paz: Well, I came to the United States. I had to leave Chile. That was no question about that. In ’65, I have to leave because there was Communist Revolution. I could see that very clearly that was going to be bloody and that was going to be horrifying and I was with two little kids, barely two and four-- two and four, what am I going to do with my kids? I had to get out of there. So, my neighbors, who were North American, they say “You have to come to the United States. That’s the place for you. You will be able to study. You will be able to do all the things that you haven’t done that you want to do and you told us about. You can do that in the United States. You have to go to the United States,” and I said “No, I don’t know anybody and without a contract, and she said “No, no, no. We’re going to get you a contract,” and they put themselves together with three other guys that I had helped in Chile, they were North American, and I had helped them with their PhDs. So, between all of them, they convinced the Department of Latin American Studies in Riverside that I was the person they had to hire and a contract came my way. When I received the contract, I said “Okay. I’m going to the United States.” So, I came here.
Jo Reed: You have written so eloquently about the loneliness of leaving one’s country. You talk about immigrants reinventing themselves and I wonder how you reinvented yourself.
Suni Paz: Well, if I didn’t reinvent myself, I would have died. Why? Because I realized that the loneliness of not having people around that speak your language and that you can move around and all the time hearing a language that is not mine, I said “If I don’t sing, I die. It’s that simple. I have to sing.” So, I asked the teacher that I met. They said “Do you have a curriculum in your school?” “Yes, sure.” “Can you lend it to me?” She lent me the curriculum. I wrote all the songs following her curriculum and then I told her “Can I sing in your classroom?” So, she invited me in. The other teachers became crazy. They were all at the door listening “Can you come to my room? My room? My room?” So, I began singing in every room. So, I would go to school and sing for the person that had invited me and then I would go room after room after room singing and doing the program. So, I began getting instruments that came from Africa and other places because I had to relate to these kids. I had ponchos so I could relate to the indigenous people that were in my classroom and drums and beads from Ghana that were just gorgeous and I would bring those oldest instruments and invite them to play with So, thus started my career as a singer first in school for the children.
Jo Reed: And you also renamed yourself.
Suni Paz: Oh, yes, of course. With the last name Calandrelli, an Italian name, very difficult to pronounce, more difficult to write, I couldn’t sing folk songs. It was ridiculous. So, I said “Okay, for my folkloric life, I need a new name.” So, I named myself Suni Paz, means lasting peace, comes from Bolivia. The instrument that I play comes from Bolivia, the charango, and also, it’s in Quechua. In Quechua, it means “lasting peace.” I like that. Also, Paz, I love it because it’s the last name that you find in every conceivable class. So, I said “Okay, that is my name.” I am from the top all the way to the super bottom all the way to the middle, all the way around and so, that was my folk interpretation of the world with the name Suni Paz.
Jo Reed: You taught in my hometown of New York City. Tell me about that experience.
Suni Paz: Well, I lived there for 14 years in New York and I love New York and I sang there. They start inviting me to the coffee houses. I start singing in coffee houses. Then I began singing in all the folk joints that were in the Village. So, I began interacting with very famous people, which was not my interest at all. But I was very happy and was very pleased and I was very proud that I was singing. I was singing with Phil Ochs, who I absolutely went crazy with his music. I was singing with the man from “Bye, Bye My American Pie.” You know who he is?
Jo Reed: Don MacLean?
Suni Paz: Don MacLean, he was in the Village the day-- we sang together in a place in the Village the day that he put out, I think, for the first time “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie.”
Jo Reed: Suni, when did you begin to record?
Suni Paz: I began to record-- let me think. I would say probably ’71.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Do you remember that first experience in the studio?
Suni Paz: Oh, yes, of course. My first recording was for Paredon Records for Barbara Dane. Barbara Dane called me out of the blue and he said “I’ve been listening to your political songs and I want to record you,” and I was so surprised “Okay.” So, Ramiro, my son, who always played with me, always sang with me since he was seven years old, he said “Okay, I’ll accompany you.” So, we recorded on Paredon Records my political songs and it was such an extraordinary experience and then later on-- it’s only a couple of years ago, not very long, they put a book that is called “The Social Power of Music,” and in that “Social Power of Music,” they put a whole page with one of my songs with a translation, with everything and words that I said about my music. I have it right here if you want to hear it. It was very interesting. Those were my own, very own words.
Jo Reed: Sure.
Suni Paz: I said “The work of poets and singers is like the wind. One may choose to blow sun in the eyes of the people, blinding them to reality or one may scatter seeds of consciousness that help to nurture in the people’s heart a passion for justice,” and I think that explains exactly the reasons why I was choosing my songs, the way I was choosing them, and the way I was singing them. And so, that book “The Social Power of Music” blew my mind. It was an enormous book and there is a whole chapter of me there with my thoughts. I thought that was unbelievable. I was very moved by that.
Jo Reed: Yeah. I can see why you would be. Suni, you’re such a prolific songwriter. Is that what fuels your music, that passion for culture and belief in social justice?
Suni Paz: Oh, definitely, of course. Of course. But it’s also the respect that I feel for the children. The children, people don’t sometimes respect them for who they are and they don’t give them the certainty of who they are and very important that they have a culture behind that inspires them to learn about themselves, about where they come from, about their origins, the parents-- what do the parents do? Where do they work? They have to know and be proud. You know what I did? I’m so proud of that-- there was a guy in the corner of my college, my high school, that was selling ice cream. You know those ice cream, little outfits that are in the corner in the summer at the pier?
Jo Reed: You mean an ice cream cart?
Suni Paz: Yes. Okay. So, I thought he was so kind and such a nice-- I see him every day and I bought always an ice cream and so, one day, I began talking to him “Who are you? Where you are from?” and this and that and he told me about him, his children, his life. He had been selling to make a living for his children, but he wanted his children to be someone and to study and he had already one of his sons was going to be a doctor and the other one was going to be like a lawyer or something like that. It was incredible and this guy was-- did all his life, rain or sun, he was in the corners of the school, in the corners of the neighborhood selling little ice cream in a little ice cream thing. So, I said “Would you come to the classroom and talk to my students and tell them about your life?” and so, he said he was surprised. “Well, yes. It’s kind of weird. What am I going to tell them?” “Everything. What you just told me, tell them. Tell who you are, how you struggle, what was your life, what are you doing, what kind of family you have-- everything, so they can open the eyes to reality and to see the value that they have in you standing there. You are a powerful person, an important person,” and so, he came to my class. My children were so moved and I think after that, they didn’t work the same. They made an effort to study. They become new children for me and it was the inspiration that this man brought to the class and we don’t do that. It’s very, very, very important
Jo Reed: Suni also had a long-time collaboration with the children’s author and poet Alma Flor Ada. Alma Flor Ada asked Suni to put her poems to music. Suni was uncertain, but Alma Flor came to her apartment with a book of her poetry…. And the rest is history
Suni Paz: I open the book and I see a poem and I said, “This is a perfect Cuban song,” and I sing the song from beginning to end with a Cuban rhythm. Turn the page and I began like that and I said “And this is a perfect, an absolutely perfect corrido, <musical sounds>,” and I sing it. At this point, when I came to the third song and I say “This is a perfect song from the heights of Bolivia,” she said “Wait a minute, wait a minute, let me take this little cassette.” She took the cassette out and she began recording because I was singing the songs as I was reading. That is the kind of poems she writes. They come with the music. So, I was singing every one of the songs. So, at the end, she said “Tomorrow, I’m picking up the cassette to take it to Addison Wesley that wants to have a contract on my songs,” and I said to her “No, no, no. Leave it here. I’m going to re-record them properly, every one of them with an instrument, not acapella like that.” So, I record them with an instrument. I was amazed at the quality of her poetry and intelligence of her poetry and I did the recording and in the morning, she pick it up and took it to Addison Wesley. One week later, Addison Wesley, the owner calls me and I signed the contract for 84 songs. So, I wrote 84 songs. I sang and recorded 84 songs and that was my biggest contract ever. It was the first time that I was making money in the first place. But I was so happy and then after that, I continued working with her forever until today, until now because last year, we just put together 34 songs of everything that we wrote.
Jo Reed: Let me just ask you this, Suni. When you’re writing music on your own, when it’s your own songs, the lyrics and the music, how do you begin that? Is it with the words? Is it the rhythm? Is it the style? Is it an idea?
Suni Paz: It depends on the message. My best song was about Chile, “Chile, Paloma Herida.” That was my best song and we did a phenomenal recording that Ramiro did with that one to have it forever. How did I write it? I wrote it almost together. The words were coming out like a river and together with the words was the music was coming as well. So, I have all the lyrics very quickly and then I began working more with the music and I finished with the music. So, in this day, it was always the lyrics. I think that that was more like I did it. Sometimes I said “I want this rhythm. That is very important.” You know, my best song was also called “To Garlic,” “Al Ajo.”
Jo Reed: “To Garlic?”
Suni Paz: “To Garlic.” I’ll tell you why it was so fantastic. When I went with Alma Flor, we were teaching in Spain in the summer. Alma Flor said “Hey, I know the head of the Spanish language.” It’s the most important organization of language in the whole of Spain. It’s the top. They make the rules on the Spanish language. She said, “I want to present the Ajo song to him.” “The Real Academia Española, the head is going to hear my song on ajo? Okay.” Well, I went with a guitar and I sang it. He said “This is the most poetic song I ever heard. Can you record it for me and make me a recording for me so I can keep it?” “Yes,” I said, “Of course.” Nobody can imagine that you can write a song that is poetic to garlic, but I love garlic. I adore it. I blame my mom because my mom as a Catalonian, Catalonians use garlic for their cooking always. So, I blame my mom, my love for garlic.
Jo Reed: And Italians do too.
Suni Paz: And Italians also. So, I have a double whammy, the Italians and the Catalonians, both of them. So, I love garlic. So, to me, it was a poetic song.
Jo Reed: So, Suni, tell me what you’re doing now.
Suni Paz: What am I doing now? Now, I’m trying to write the story of Chile and I never talk about Chile. So, it’s about time that I have something on the story of Chile and I have incredible stories about Chile. I’m also writing about my trips. Like, I did a trip throughout Puerto Rico singing with a group of people. It was a group, pretty big. I think we were 14 and we went through town after town after town all around Puerto Rico and the islands. The women there were out of their minds because they never have seen a woman alone singing and playing the guitar with such a flare like it was nothing and playing the guitar like a drum at times because I do that a lot. When I finished singing, they would not let me get out of the place. The women were all talking at the same time and asking questions and questions and questions because they wanted to know how a woman could have done such a feat, such a thing. They couldn’t believe it and I realized at that moment how oppressed women were. We were very oppressed, but I didn’t never notice. I never really realized it and I decided “Okay, I have to do something about this,” and I put out a recording called “Entre Hermanas,” “Between Sisters.” That one, I had all the things to say in that recording, “Between Sisters,” “Entre Hermanas.” It was necessary and important that I would do something for women and so, I did this recording. It was nothing really fabulous, the recording, but it was important.
Jo Reed: But you have been given many awards and now, a National Heritage Fellowship and I’m just so curious about what receiving this award means for you.
Suni Paz: Well, I’m astonished. I have to say I am surprised and overwhelmed. I was not expecting that at all.
Jo Reed: Well, it is so well-deserved and I love your music and your writing is extraordinary. That memoir is wonderful and it’s one that will stay with me for a long time, Suni.
Suni Paz: Oh, thank you so much. Thank you. Nobody told me things like that about my writing. Thank you so much.
Jo Reed: No, you’re welcome. Thank you for writing it and thank you for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.
Suni Paz: Thank you. Thank you for taking the trouble to do this incredible interview. Really, I appreciate it. I appreciate it. I thank you so, so much, Josephine.
Jo Reed: Not at all, Suni. It was my pleasure, truly.
That was nueva canción Singer and Songwriter and 2020 National Heritage Fellow Suni Paz.
On March 4, take a virtual trip across the country to visit the Heritage Fellows in their homes and communities. Celebrate the 2020 National Heritage Fellows in an online broadcast on March 4, 2021 at 8pm ET at arts.gov. That’s 8 pm eastern March 4 at arts.gov…mark those calendars
You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. And don’t forget to subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple it helps people to find us. And follow us on twitter @NEAarts. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Stay safe. Stay Kind. And thanks for listening.