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Soraya Straddles Spanish, English Musical Worlds

Soraya 'Cuerpo y Alma' CD cover
Soraya 'Cuerpo y Alma' CD cover

Soraya has spent her life traveling between two worlds -- both in her home life and in her musical career. Growing up, she shuttled back and forth between her parents' native Colombia and the United States, where she was born.

And the 33-year-old singer-songwriter has made a name for herself by writing and performing songs in Spanish and English. She has had hits on Spanish-language charts and her success in English has caught the attention of Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos and Sting, who all asked her to be an opening act on their tours. She's also collaborated with her childhood hero, Carole King.

On Morning Edition, NPR's Felix Contreras reports on Soraya's career and a personal challenge that threatened to derail it.

The artist remembers the "defining moment," at the age of five, that opened her eyes and ears to the world of music. She was in Colombia, "sitting on the floor in my uncle's house and hearing my uncle play with his uncle. They were playing an instrument called the tiple, which is a kind of guitar with triple strings and they were singing in three-part harmony... I knew at that moment, listening to a song called 'Pueblito Viejo' ('The Little Old Town'), that that is what I was meant to do."

As Contreras reports, when she was in high school Soraya began writing her own music, in English and Spanish, learning to express herself in both languages.

"You need more words in Spanish to say the same thing.... It's a much more fluid language, more melodic. And you can get away with more romanticism without coming off a bit too corny. There are things that I can get away with in Spanish that I would not be able to translate well in English so I have to give it a different spin," she says.

Her bilingual musical skills landed her a record deal in 1996 and each of her first two CDs were released in both languages. Her singles became hits on Spanish language radio in the United States and all over Latin America while her English records were very popular in Europe. She built a broad base of fans in both languages.

But as Soraya prepared to embark on a major tour in mid-2000, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

As Contreras reports, Soraya was considered at high risk: her mother lost a battle with cancer, as did her mother's sister and Soraya's grandmother. As the singer underwent treatments, she put a partial hold on her career -- continuing to write songs, but not touring or recording. Soraya did record a video for Spanish language television telling her fans what had happened. She received thousands of e-mails of support.

Hearing the stories of others who were dealing with breast cancer inspired Soraya to see how she could help in the fight against the disease. She became an adviser and spokesperson for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and is working with Procter & Gamble to launch a breast cancer outreach campaign.

"People went through the treatment with me and now that I am finally finished with everything -- thank God, and I'm doing very well -- they're celebrating with me," Soraya says. "So it has actually been a very incredible experience."

She remains healthy and is in the third year of the five needed for the cancer to be considered in remission.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Felix Contreras
Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.