Few artists can say they’ve received the stamp of approval from a future pope.
It’s part of Onna Lou’s origin story that begins in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and continues with her move to Winnipeg, where the Spanish-language singer-songwriter lives, and a concert on Thursday evening at the Center culturel franco-manitobain, where she will launch her latest album, Diamond.
She met Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio – who, before becoming Pope Francis in 2013, was Archbishop of Buenos Aires – when she played guitar in her teens at church performances.
“I studied classical composition in Argentina at a Catholic university,” says Onna Lou. “You have to pay – it’s a private college – and my family was broke so they couldn’t afford tuition, so I got student loans and worked, Monday to Monday,”
Pope Francis was a cardinal at the time and Onna Lou’s mother knew his secretary. “She told him about all my efforts to study and get my degree and (asked if) maybe he could write a letter (for a scholarship).”
The cardinal wrote the letter and Onna Lou was able to obtain financial aid for the last two years of university.
“It really changed my life, it was such a relief. It made me study differently. Up until that point, it was crazy,” she says.
“I’d listened to him at mass several times and he’s a great person. Strong opinions always – he’s not afraid to say things – and he’s known to be a very approachable person. The way he wrote a letter to me, there are many stories like that.”
Onna Lou then studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving with her partner, Julian Vidal, to Winnipeg in 2016.
Diamond was supposed to be released for the first time in May 2020, but she suspended the official release for more than a year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, choosing to release songs from the disc every few months or so to sharpen the people’s appetite, both here in Manitoba and in Argentina.
She was finally able to perform songs by Diamond — a mix of Latin American folk songs, jazzy tangos and Cuban rumbas — at concerts in Argentina in June.
“It was such a joy because I was also playing for my family and friends,” she says. “When I play here, I distribute translations for the lyrics so people can understand, but in Argentina people speak the same language (as me). I put so much into the words. I like to write the lyrics and the messages that I convey and images, so I really enjoyed that.
“It was a feast for my soul.”
While many artists took to social media at the start of the pandemic to connect with fans when there was no way to perform in person, Onna Lou stuck to her Wednesday lunchtime habit on Instagram. Live for two years now.
“A lot of these people came to the shows (in Argentina) and I was able to meet them in person. It was amazing for me, unexpected and beautiful,” she says.
Onna Lou’s live streams are more than a “Hola!” and a song for the fans, however. The locations she films from have offered Canadian fans who tune in the chance to see sunny beaches in Argentina or neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, while those in Argentina see sides of Manitoba they’ve never seen. imagined, she said.
“People who knew me when I moved here six years ago and new people, everyone is so surprised,” she says. “There is a perception of Canada and Winnipeg that you live in an ice cube, but they are blown away by the beauty.
“Sometimes I drive to Grand Beach and they can’t believe I’m surrounded by this beauty every day…I love showing off where I live.”
Among the songs she has performed on these streams is the romantic Ojos d’almendra — she wrote it while visiting the Grand Marais — and serpentineswhich means “streamers” in English and pays homage to carnival celebrations in Latin America, particularly in the northern Argentinian town of Humahuaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Andes near the Argentina-Bolivia border .
“Thousands of people gather there and it lasts for days,” she says. “There are elements of Aboriginal, Hispanic and Catholic (cultures), giving thanks to the land, the Pachamama; starting the new year with a new heart.
“(In the song), the streamers are like the other person’s arms as we dance.”
While Onna Lou usually performs solo on her live streams, on Thursday night she will be joined by musician friends from Winnipeg who ‘helped navigate the cultural waters of the city’ and also took part in the recording Diamond: Rodrigo Munoz and Victor Hugo Lopez Bustamante from Papa Mambo; bassist Gilles Fournier; and his partner, Vidal.
Two musicians from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, trumpeter Chris Fensom and cellist Emma Quackenbush, also join the group.
“I’m very happy with how it’s going, and also I’m better, my health is better,” she says, adding that she is recovering from a non-COVID respiratory infection. “In Argentina I got really sick there and had a few shows and it was great and stressful and since I came back two weeks ago I was more relaxed and felt better. C was a lot of stress built up and your immune system goes down… I’ve been the sickest of my adult life.
“It’s like life, sometimes it’s really great and really bad at the same time.”
She is hopeful about Pope Francis’ visit to Canada later this month, when the pontiff is expected to issue a formal apology on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the effects of colonization and the Church’s involvement in the operation of residential schools, where Aboriginal children were taken and abuse was rampant.
“Apologizing, trying to fix things here, I think that’s so good and so important to everyone.”
Alan Small has been a Free Press reporter for over 22 years in a variety of roles, most recently as a reporter in the Arts and Life section.
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