By Jacob Katel
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"Heces" ("Sediment"), a haunting ballad on the new album, is based on a poem written by countryman Cesar Vallejo. Accompanied only by Munoz's guitar, Baca practically keens as she pines for lost love on a rainy afternoon.
Baca first concentrated on the works of Peruvian poets when she was in high school. Back then, she formed a group that set poetry to music. She had already been singing for years. At home as a child in Chorrillos, she would sing along when her father played the guitar. During festivals in the fishing district, her family and their neighbors would gather on the beach for dancing and singing.
Baca's mother, who catered parties for upper-class families, schooled her daughter in traditional Afro-Peruvian dances. She also taught Baca to cook, choosing her as an apprentice over her two other daughters. "She would give her secrets away only when she knew that they would be used to advantage," recalls Baca. "She watched to see who showed talent for the kitchen, and she called me to be her helper." Baca had promise as a cook, but she wanted to sing professionally. She began performing publicly and soon won the top prize at a music festival in Lima. Chabuca Granda, one of Peru's best-known singers and composers (and the author of "Maria Lando") took note of Baca's talent and hired her as a personal assistant.
"My parents were worried because in countries like mine musicians who play popular music don't have anything to eat," recalls Baca. It turned out they had reason to be concerned. Even with Granda's support, none of the record executives Baca talked to in Lima would give her a chance. They had no interest in producing black music. "I can't say that there is no racism in my country," Baca says. Like rhythm and blues in this country, Afro-Peruvian music was seen as a lascivious, lower-class diversion. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, however, sexual liberation and the black pride movement sparked new interest in the music. The dawn of a leftist military dictatorship that favored national arts over European and American imports also helped boost the status of Afro-Peruvian singers and composers.
Baca and her husband Ricardo Pereira decided to start their own independent company, Editora Pregon, to record her music and the work of other like-minded artists. The project evolved into the Instituto Negrocontinuo, a cultural center in Lima that offers classes in Afro-Peruvian song and dance, which have now become popular among young urban Peruvians. After years of living in other parts of Lima, Baca has moved back to Chorrillos, where she might be found on a weekend afternoon cooking up beans from one of her mother's secret recipes.
She plans to return from the tour in time for the annual festival honoring El Senor de los Milagros, the Lord of Miracles, the image of a black Christ painted on a wall in colonial Lima that has become a patron saint of the city's Afro-Peruvians. Baca pays homage to El Senor on the last track of her new album. In the past, she has performed the song while marching in the festival procession.
Local fans will get a chance to enjoy Baca's singular style in an aptly poetic setting -- on the Miami River. With fishing boats and freighters gliding past, and the smell of seafood coming from the kitchen, it's as close as Miami comes to Chorrillos.
Susana Baca and her band perform Friday and Saturday, October 10 and 11, at 10:00 p.m. at Big Fish Mayaimi, 53 SW Miami Avenue Rd, 672-5202. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door, and $12 for reserved-table seating.