Susana Baca / "Rhythm is not always the same ... The element of surprise"

At the risk of placing myself left of center, I must admit the following: something in my blood memory stirred the first time I heard Afro-Peruvian chanteuse Susana Esther Baca de la Colina’s melodies. She sung primarily in Spanish -- which, gotdammit, I pooh-poohed at the opportunity to learn in high school -- so the content of her music remained a mystery to me. But that voice -- I recognized that voice! And that feeling it stirred -- ah, the feeling! It triggered something phenomenally familiar, chipping away at my lethargic spirit. I knew, intuitively, that she and I were connected. Even now, I can’t fully explain it -- it was one of those experiences that escapes words, deftly defying the boundaries of language.

Over the years, I fawned over her, and through my dedicated cyber-stalking, discovered only evidence that proved her worthy of my adulation. Baca is a descendant of enslaved Africans, one of a small minority of black Peruvians. Baca’s popularity grew when her stirring rendition of “Maria Lando” appeared on the David Byrne-produced complication, The Soul of Black Perú. With the cajón -- an Afro-Peruvian percussion instrument -- in the background, Baca breathes life into the tale of a black working-class woman, burdened by sadness and expectation. Now in her mid-sixties, Baca continues to be activist, historian, and singer. She was recently named Minister of Culture by current Peruvian president Ollanta Humala. She is the first black cabinet minister appointed to Peruvian cabinet since the country’s independence.

The two interviews below, which range from roughly five to ten years of age, showcase Baca in her quiet splendor. Baca speaks to the inspiration that she culls form her Peruvian home with NPR’s David Dye and Barnes &’s Mark Schwartz. To Dye, she says, among other things, “Peru: It’s my soul food, my conjurer, my memories. I remember One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. It’s the bones of my ancestors…” Baca’s divine duet with Brazilian musical legend Gilberto Gil, “Estrella,” -- which was recorded in Salvador de Bahia -- is previewed in this dialogue. But the true gems in the twenty-minute interview are found in her lush live performances of several songs, including “Guillermina,” an homage to women’s beauty based on Pablo Neruda’s poetry, which was penned by an exiled and blind Greek musician who found refuge in the poet’s home.

I finally had the wonderful opportunity to see Baca perform live. Her aura emanated as she twirled barefoot across the stage. I was enthralled. At the risk of moving myself even farther left of center, I must admit that I spent most of the night resisting the strange urge to bridge the distance -- and the security detail -- between us and lay my head on her knee. She sings poems, she tells Dye. Yes indeed-y, and she is bliss personified.

Susana Baca: 'The Soul of Black Peru' (NPR World Café)


Black Light: Susana Baca Emerges from the Shadows with Luminous Afro-Peruvian Soul
(SOURCE: Barnes & World)

You don't have to understand Spanish to understand Susana Baca. The stunning Peruvian singer discovered by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label has a voice with the intimate delicacy to caress the soul. On the beautifully titled Eco de Sombras -- "Echo of Shadows" -- the 50-something Baca continues the mission she started with her self-titled debut, ensuring the haunting, nearly-vanished sounds of Peru's African-descended black population continue to mesmerize generations to come. Her music, born from such humble materials as packing-crate drums, jawbone shakers, and ash-box percussion, is rhythmically nimble and heartbreakingly melodic. But this is no bare-bones field recording. Produced by Craig Street, who shaped the acoustic triumphs of Cassandra Wilson and Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Eco de Sombras fuses the forgotten rhythms and chants of Peru's blacks with haunting, avant-garde touches from New York downtown jazz figures Marc Ribot, John Medeski, and others. Susana Baca talked to's Mark Schwartz about the kinship of Afro-Peruvian rhythm and African-American jazz, and her lifelong mission to recapture -- and redefine -- the past.

BN: What is the relationship between Afro-Peruvian music and other black music?

Baca: African music has basically influenced the entire continent. But because of the different local elements in each place, it may sound different. It's still African, though. It's a different way of breathing, a different way of walking and a different way of dancing that results from that mix, but the root of all of it is African.

BN: How would you characterize the African contribution?

Baca: The trademark of this kind of music is its main element of rhythm. That comes from the African music. Basically this rhythm is not always the same. It can be combined with two or three different rhythms, creating polyrhythms. The sensation you get when you hear this music is the feeling of floating.

BN:You worked with a number of jazz musicians on Eco de Sombras. What do jazz and Afro-Peruvian music have in common?

Baca: The common ground between jazz and my music is the element of surprise that the different rhythms in Peruvian music provokes and the surprise of the jazz jam session. I never thought that I was making jazz music until I saw people coming to my concerts from that world. We also leave some spaces for improvisation for the musicians, just like jazz.

BN: There's a lot of infuence of nueva canción in your music, which was the Latin American protest music of the '60s and '70s.

Baca: Yes, that's always a fountain of inspiration. Things have changed so much in Latin America since then. In Peru, President Fujimori is essentially a dictator.

BN: How does that make you feel?

Baca: We have the freedom to protest. You can say what you want and believe what you want. The repression is different: The problem is that we have so much foreign debt in Peru, that in order to pay it, everyone would go hungry. Poverty is our problem. That's the repression, it comes from outside. Our government has actually helped eradicate the most dangerous threat to Peru, the Shining Path guerrillas. We don't have the problems that Colombia does, thank god. But poverty dogs us in Peru, and it's a very difficult situation to resolve.

BN:You were born in a black enclave on Lima's coast, where you experienced a specifically African culture. Do these communities still exist, or has Peru become more mixed?

Baca: I think that the color has been diluted! Peru nowadays is so mixed -- black, Indian, Asian, European all together. But the Afro-Peruvian music and culture touches everyone, not just the blacks. When you hear it, everyone dances. The little communities don't exist anymore, but the culture does.

BN: Is there an Afro-Peruvian musical scene or movement in Peru?

Baca: Younger musicians are mixing rock with festejo, with rap, with salsa. People are looking for a new sound, and they don't respect any boundaries. There's not so much a movement, but we've opened our Institute so that people can come in and listen, read, and learn about the music. I think a movement will come, a group of musicians who come together -- right now there's no centralized place for the artists. That's what we're trying to do with our Institute.

BN: Your Instituto Negrocontinuo (Black Continuum Institute) has been open for a few years now. How is it doing?

Baca:Some of the students haven't been able to continue with classes. Not because of money, because we get scholarships for everyone who is serious. But there's the economic situation. People aren't spending money on bands and music, so there are fewer places to perform and fewer recordings being made. Artists in Peru have to have five, six, seven jobs just to get by. My group, we practice in the morning, which is crazy for musicians, but they have to run around all day doing other jobs.

BN: The world is such a different place from the when you were young and listening to all the protest music from Cuba and Argentina. It seems like the politically conscious artists of Latin America are singing very different songs.

Baca: What's happened? I have to ask, because I don't really know the answer. I have to say that now we see that Cuba is no paradise. When I went to Cuba to perform, I was always stopped by police, always asked for my papers, no matter how long I stayed. It was just me they stopped, because I'm black. The number of soldiers, police, government people is unbelievable. It's a police state. But you know, right now, the most popular music from Cuba is from before the Revolution or it's brand-new. The music we heard -- Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanés, the revolutionary artists of the '70s -- this is not what people around the world are hearing. It's an empty space. (source)

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