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."

"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.

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