Baca on Top

Chorrillos, the black neighborhood outside Lima, Peru, where Susana Baca grew up, borders the sea, and her speech mimics the rolling rhythm of breaking waves. Laughter rims Baca's rich voice, even as she talks on the phone from a hotel room in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on a recent afternoon. The 50-year-old singer girlishly confesses that she is anxious to dispense with the interview so she can go out and explore the "strange" landlocked American city with her band members and her husband before their concert that evening.

Baca, who will perform at Miami's Big Fish Mayaimi restaurant this weekend, is in the middle of a thirteen-city tour to promote her new release on Luaka Bop records. The self-titled CD is the first album that the singer and her band have recorded on a major label.

For three decades Baca has been ignored by record companies in her native country; the only way she could record was by founding her own label. It was an American, Luaka Bop founder David Byrne, who gave Baca an opportunity for international exposure. "On this record I was able to work peacefully, with total freedom," Baca says. "No company in Peru was ever interested in my work. They said that my kind of music doesn't sell."

Baca's kind of music, Afro-Peruvian, has been considered a marginal genre by Peruvian record and radio executives, and until recently it had been overlooked by the public at large. But Baca has long been committed to preserving the musical traditions of the country's black population -- the descendants of African slaves brought to South America in the Fifteenth Century.

"Blacks are very integrated into Peruvian society and they've become diluted into the rest of the population, so they may not even look black," says Baca, a striking woman with cafe con leche skin, cropped hair, and a broad smile. "But even if the color is faded, the culture is still present -- in the food we eat, in the way we talk, in the way we sing. There are recipes that have been passed down through generations. The same is true of the music we play."

Susana Baca offers a sampling of rhythms from Peru's black barrios and features a mix of poetic ballads, country dance tunes, a danzón, even religious processional music. Ismael Rivera's Latin black power anthem "Caras Lindas" is given new conviction when set to a sultry Afro-Peruvian beat called the lando, which builds to a climax with driving ritualistic percussion and chanting. The lando dance derives from a tribal fertility rite in which partners come at each other with pelvic thrusts, like the vacunao in the Cuban rumba.

Baca's four-piece band -- Rafael "Fallo" Munoz on guitar, David Pinto on bass, Juan Medrano Cotito on cajon (a wooden box), and Hugo Bravo on conga and bongos -- creates roots music with contemporary appeal while sticking to the spare instrumentation of traditional rhythms. Cotito and Bravo also play more obscure percussion instruments, such as a mule's jawbone and resonant clay pots. Andean bamboo panpipes called zamponas -- which sound like a desolate wind blowing -- were added to the ensemble for the recording. Logically, black Peruvian rhythms recall other percussive Afro-Latin styles such as Cuban rumba, Puerto Rican bomba, and Brazilian samba. The Afro-Peruvian sound, as interpreted here, is musically minimal but highly emotional. A distinctively Spanish guitar style gives Baca's music the poignancy of flamenco, and it often has a melancholy feel typical of Andean mountain melodies. Dance tracks are subtle, almost lazy, with a lush, swaying beat.

Baca's hypnotic voice sets the tone. An understated performer, she exudes the easy sensuality of Gal Costa and a poetic mood that recalls Argentine folksinger Mercedes Sosa. Baca can be saucy and seductive, chanting the words to an African-rooted dance rhythm on "Se Me Van los Pies" or playful on "Enciendete Candela." Her delivery on the plaintive love song "Luna Llena" is thin and high, like an echo in the mountains. And Baca's passion on ballads such as "Tu Mirada y Mi Voz" should place her among the leading troubadours of Latin America.

Baca has been surprised by the enthusiastic reception in cities like Bloomington, Indiana, where there have been few Hispanics in the audience. "You'd think that since I'm singing in Spanish it would make it hard for Americans to relate to," she says. "But there doesn't seem to be any problem at all. People want to know about this music, and I think this tour has really served to inform people about Afro-Peruvian culture."

If American listeners have any prior knowledge of Baca's music or of the black Peruvian sound in general, it is probably due to Luaka Bop's 1995 release The Soul of Black Peru, a collection featuring traditional Afro-Peruvian singers and revisionist contemporary performers, including Baca doing her rendition of "Maria Lando." Byrne, who had become interested in Afro-Peruvian music after catching Baca on a video, subsequently signed her to do a solo album.

Baca does not write her own material, but she often chooses to perform songs that take a woman's point of view. "Maria Lando," for example, tells the story of a poor woman whose back and soul are broken from menial work. Baca says that whether she sings traditional lyrics or those by contemporary writers, she stays away from the explicitly sexual, misogynist lyrics of Peruvian popular music. "Like everywhere in America, the lyrics in Peru can be very macho," she says. "I didn't like the idea of singing words that didn't move me, so I began to looking at poetry to use as lyrics for popular music."

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