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Streets of homeland spark songs for Soraya CD

by Ramiro Burr, March 2005 - San Antonio Express-News

Colombian pop singer Soraya returned to her homeland seeking inspiration for her new CD, "El Otro Lado de Mi."

The result is a mix of her familiar pop tunes and new socially conscious songs.

"It helped me a lot to return to Colombia," Soraya said in a recent interview from her Miami home. "I started being a musician when I was 5, and what always inspired me was that amazing music down there. There's the guitar-based music, the storytelling music, the cumbias and more.

"And I went down there just to kind of, not remember, but just to lose myself in that again. And I met some amazing musicians. And I made a friendship with Alma de la Calle."

Alma de la Calle is the pen name of Maria Amparo Amaya, a poet who shines shoes on the streets of Bogota. Soraya found out about her after reading a story in Miami's Spanish-language daily paper, El Nuevo Herald, about Amaya winning a national poetry contest.

She became fascinated by the poet's story.

"She's a grandmother now, a shoeshiner by day, a very poor woman," Soraya said. "But as it turns out, she's an amazing woman. And all these things started to come together in Colombia, and that lit a fire in me again and reminded me of what really mattered as a musician, and that's what I set out to do."

Soraya was so fascinated by Amaya that she wrote the song "Alma de la Calle," which details the poet's struggle to survive on the tough streets of Bogota and finding escape through reading and writing.

As on the rest of the songs, Soraya balances her vocals with emotive wails and light whispers. Her yodeling evokes comparisons to the Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan.

For Soraya, "Alma de la Calle" is about much more than a poor woman.

"It depends on how you read it," she said. "It is a statement about a particular human being whose name is Alma de Calle, but it also represents a whole part of our social fabric that gets ignored," she said.

Soraya also is helping Amaya with her lifelong dream of building a library for her community.

Another tune with political undertones is "Gotas de Perdon." Riding rock guitars and urgent percussion, the song describes the struggle to find sanity in a world beset by political wars, crime and poverty.

"It was not the first time that I thought about it, about writing about such political themes," she said. "But it was the first time that I thought I had risen to the challenge well enough to record these songs. That wasn't easy because, sometimes, those songs could be a little bit, 'Oh gosh, what's this person trying to say? Who does she think she is?' But I thought that for the first time, I was up to the challenge, so I wanted to do it."

Soraya can emphathize with people who struggle. In 2000, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She canceled her tour to fight the disease, along the way becoming a spokeswoman for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

The 12-track "El Otro Lado de Mi" also features traditional Colombian guitars and percussion instruments, including the tres, the tiple, the gaita and maracas.

"It all made sense to me. It just all clicked," Soraya said. "I thought that it was also a way to give the music a different coloring. It was a way to give it roots. It was a way to make it feel as organic as I was feeling it inside. And it just felt right."

Soraya was born in New Jersey to Colombian parents. Growing up, she heard everything from American folk singers to Latin roots music. Among her main influences are Sting, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Gabriel.

The album was produced by Soraya and her longtime producer Sebastian Krys, who has worked with Carlos Vives and Gloria Estefan.