Last week, in the days leading up to my father's funeral, I played Susana Baca's album Espiritu Vivo (Living Spirit). The beat of the cajon, the wooden box that speaks Afro-Peruvian rhythms, might have seemed incongruous to my brothers and sisters as they sifted through photos of our childhood in the Midwest. Baca's Spanish would surely have been unintelligible to the man in the pictures: a young soldier in World War II, a Detroit salesman grown prosperous with the U.S. auto industry, a favorite son of America's century. My father was famous for belting out the chorus to Frank Sinatra's "Road to Mandalay" at parties. What has he to do with the sad songs of Peruvian slaves or the sophisticated fusions of South American folk music and Manhattan jazz?
That's what I wondered as I dialed the number a publicist gave me for Baca in Peru. My dad had died two days before, so I didn't much feel like calling -- but the interview was longstanding, the funeral was a few days in the offing, and, grief or no grief, there would be a column to write the next week.
Baca's voice on the phone was a balm. Here was the instrument that captivated David Byrne, whose label Luaka Bop has released three of her discs. Here was the vehicle that popularized Afro-Peruvian folklore, resuscitating the songs of centuries of sadness and survival. Long before becoming a world-music star, Baca preserved Afro-Peruvian music on cassettes she distributed at concerts and organized a group to protest the terror visited on Peru by guerrillas and military alike. Her very tone is an affirmation; a yes, yes, yes to life in spite of Peru's violent history, from conquistador to terrorist.
"The music of Africa has always sung for life, for death," she says comfortingly, "for the birth of children, for the flowering of the earth. Music in itself does this."
That's why Baca went forward with the recording sessions for Espiritu Vivo before an invited studio audience she had scheduled in Manhattan a year ago, beginning on September 11. "At first it seemed like we were going to suspend the recording," she recalls. "Then after that first moment passed, we realized we had to do this work. We were sitting in the studio lounge, everyone in very low spirits. The North American musicians [guitarist Marc Ribot and keyboardist John Medeski] were devastated. We [Peruvians] remembered our own history that we have been living for eleven years. We knew exactly what people were feeling. That the world was falling into pieces. It was something we didn't talk about even to each other. We stood up and we took our places. What came out at that moment was something like the force needed to continue. We are going to detain death with music.
"When we went out into the street, we couldn't hold back the tears. That place [Manhattan] that is always so full of life was filled with people praying and carrying candles. It was so desolate. Then we returned to the studio, because no matter what we had to play. We were in a very big hall, sitting almost in a circle. Next to me was Ribot. The percussionists were in the corner behind a kind of glass. We communicated from the depths of our emotion. The studio was converted into an island where the music was a remedy. Something that lifted us up.
"We had to drag out the people who were invited. People were burrowed in. They were brought out by friends to hear a little bit of music. We felt this responsibility to alleviate the sadness. They left thanking us, saying, It's so good we came."
In Peru, in Manhattan, in Miami, Baca's music breathes the living spirit for all who are bereaved.
"A man grabs a shell in the middle of all this desolation," says Baca. "It's a way of saying, this is what I have to convert all of us into a community. We are alive. This is music."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.