Singer-songwriter has friends in high places
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/07/2022 (327 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Not many artists can say they have received a seal of approval from a future pope.
It’s part of Onna Lou’s origin story that begins in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, and continues with her move to Winnipeg, where the Spanish-language singer-songwriter calls home, and a Thursday night concert at the Centre culturel franco-manitobain, where she will debut her latest album, Diamante.
She met Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — who, prior to becoming Pope Francis in 2013, was archbishop of Buenos Aires — while playing guitar during her teens at church performances.
“I studied classical composition in Argentina at a Catholic university,” Onna Lou says. “You have to pay — it’s a private college — and my family was broke so they couldn’t pay for tuition anymore, so I got student loans and I was working, Monday to Monday,”
Pope Francis was a cardinal at the time and Onna Lou’s mother knew his secretary. “She talked to her about all my effort to study and graduate and (asked if) maybe he could write a letter (for a scholarship).”
The cardinal wrote the letter and Onna Lou was able to get financial help for the final two years of university.
“It really changed my life; it was such a relief. He allowed me to study differently. Up to that moment it was crazy,” she says.
“I’d listened to him at Mass many 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 accessible person. The way he wrote a letter for me, there are many stories like that.”
Onna Lou went on to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving with her partner, Julian Vidal, to Winnipeg in 2016.
Diamante was first scheduled to be released in May 2020, but she put the official release on hold for more than a year, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, choosing to release songs from the record every few months or so to whet folks’ appetites, both here in Manitoba and in Argentina.
She was finally able to perform songs from Diamante — a mixture of Latin American folk songs, jazzy tangos and Cuban rumbas — during concerts in Argentina in June.
“It was such a joy because I was also performing for my family and friends,” she says. “When I perform here, I hand out translations for the lyrics so people can understand, but in Argentina, people speak the same language (as I do). I put so much into the words. I love writing the lyrics and the messages I convey and the images, so I really enjoyed that.
“It was a treat for my soul.”
While many artists took to social media during the early days of the pandemic to connect with fans when there was no way to perform in-person, Onna Lou has kept her Wednesday lunch-hour habit on Instagram Live going for two years now.
“Many of those people came to the shows (in Argentina) and I got to meet them in person. It was incredible to me, unexpected and beautiful,” she says.
Onna Lou’s livestreams are more than a “Hola!” and a song for fans, though. The locations she films from have offered Canadian fans who tune in a chance to see sunny beaches in Argentina or Buenos Aires neighbourhoods, while those from Argentina see sides of Manitoba they’ve never imagined, she says.
“People who knew me when I moved here six years ago and new people, everyone is so surprised,” she says. “There’s a perception of Canada and Winnipeg that you’re living in a cube of ice, but they’re 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 getting to show where I live.”
Among the songs she has performed on those streams are the romantic Ojos de almendra — she wrote it while visiting Grand Marais — and Serpentinas, which means “streamers” in English and pays tribute to Carnival celebrations in Latin America, especially in the northern Argentine town Humahuaca, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Andes Mountains near the Argentina-Bolivia border.
“Thousands of people gather there and it lasts for days,” she says. “There are elements of the Aboriginal, Hispanic and Catholic (cultures), thanking the land, the Pachamama; starting the new year with a new heart.
“(In the song), the streamers are like the arms of the other person as we dance.”
While Onna Lou usually performs solo on her livestreams, Thursday night she’ll be joined by musical friends from Winnipeg who have “helped navigate the cultural waters of the city,” and also were part of recording Diamante: Rodrigo Munoz and Victor Hugo Lopez Bustamante of Papa Mambo; bassist Gilles Fournier; and her partner, Vidal.
Two Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra musicians, trumpeter Chris Fensom and cellist Emma Quackenbush, also join the group.
“I’m very happy how it’s coming together, and also I’m better, my health is better,” she says, adding she’s recovering from a non-COVID respiratory infection. “In Argentina, I got very sick down there and I had a couple of shows and it was awesome and stressful and since I got back two weeks ago I was more relaxed and feeling better. It was a lot of accumulated stress and your immune system goes down… I was the most sick in 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’s visit to Canada later this month, when the pontiff is expected to make an official apology on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the effects of colonization and the church’s participation in the operation of residential schools, where Indigenous children were taken and abuses were rampant.
“Giving an apology, to try and mend things here, I think that is so good, and so important for everyone.”
If you value coverage of Manitoba’s arts scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow the Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music and galleries while also ensuring the broadest possible audience can access our arts journalism. BECOME AN ARTS JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.