“Don’t forget me, sing me.” Those were the words Chabuca Granda wrote on her deathbed more than twenty years ago in a letter to Susana Baca. For Baca, Chabuca’s plea is as powerful today as when she first read it.
Seis Poemas, her latest six-song EP is partly a tribute to Chabuca Granda, one of the great figures of Latin American song.
Baca, who got her start spinning the poems of others into wistful melodies, also borrows the verses of Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish avant-garde poet who was assassinated during his country’s Civil War, and in a nod to her ancestry she delves into Peru’s overlooked, yet rich African legacy.
It’s not the first time Baca interprets Granda’s songs and poems. In 1984, a year after Granda’s death, she reworked some of her music, and in 1995 the single “Maria Landó,” a Granda composition with words by César Calvo, became the North American breakthrough that catapulted Baca from relative anonymity onto the world stage.
“I’ve recorded this series of songs about things I think are important to my life,” Baca says. “Time passes and I feel as though I have to leave a testimony of things that I’ve worked.”
Baca first met Granda as a university student in Lima around the time the singer/songwriter had begun exploring Afro-Peruvian rhythms and incorporating them in her music. Granda, who was born in the Peruvian Sierra to an upper-middle class family of European and Andean extraction, saw Baca as a link to a younger generation of artists and the black Peruvian sub-culture she was beginning to delve into.
Considered a pioneer, Granda is credited with bridging the cultural divide, at least in music, between the indigenous and mestizo majorities, the white ruling minority, and the nearly invisible blacks who account for less than five percent of the population.
It’s only been in the last half century that Peruvians have reluctantly acknowledged their African heritage, and Granda — along with black poet, historian, journalist and musician Nicomedes Santa Cruz –helped pave the way for legitimizing a black identity within the country’s social fabric. She embraced Afro-Peruvian music and made it a relevant part of Peruvian popular culture.
Granda was known to regularly perform in peñas, small underground music clubs where musicians crossed racial lines to play with each other, and once she heard Baca sing at a poetry reading, she took the young singer under her wing as a worthy successor from that moment on. The two became inseparable, so much so that Baca became Granda’s personal assistant and came to live with her in her home.
Reminiscing about the friendship they shared, Baca still expresses a mix of schoolgirl giddiness and reverence for the woman whom she refers to as her musical mother. “She was very generous to me,” Baca says. “I was a very poor young woman and she saw something in me. I remember her telling her housekeeper ‘This is Señorita Baca, she will come to my house whenever she wants, you open the door so that she can read and listen to music even if I’m away.’”
Susana Baca was born in Lima but grew up in the small black coastal barrio of Chorrillos, “populated with fishermen and cats,” she says. Since colonial times the town has also been the home to an enclave of African slave descendants. Baca was immersed in music and flooded by the smells from her mother’s kitchen from an early age. Both gifts were passed on to her. Her father made a living as a driver and was the go to guitarist for neighborhood street parties and impromptu musical gatherings.
As a child Susana Baca listened to Cuban musicians like Pérez Prado and Beny Moré. But seeing her sister stand behind a radio station microphone to sing was a defining moment in her life. Then and there she caught a glimpse of her destiny.
Baca’s talent as a singer got her noticed in school and at the same time she began to develop an interest in the poets of Peru. She formed an experimental music group combining poetry and song and through grants from Peru’s Institute of Modern Art and the National Institute of Peruvian Culture, she began performing.
At the prestigious international Agua Dulce festival in Lima, she took top honors. But it wasn’t until after meeting Chabuca Granda that Baca was given her first real opportunity to record professionally in Peru. However the composer’s sudden death left Baca in limbo. She continued to work, especially in her role as historian and preservationist of Afro-Peruvian culture through music and dance.
In 1992, alongside her husband Ricardo Pereira, she founded the Instituto Negro continuo dedicated to researching the dances and songs of her ancestors and passing on that knowledge to a new generation of Peruvian artists. Baca’s own voice finally found the outlet to reach a global audience in 1995 with the release of The Soul of Black Peru, a compilation disc that led to the recording of four solo albums under Luaka Bop.
It’s been said before that Baca’s voice is like a quiet storm. But it’s worth repeating. Like all storms in their myriad manifestations, Baca’s restrained tempest, transcends Chorrillos. It transcends her people’s history, Peru, her personal story, and even language. On Seis Poemas Baca deftly melds the quotidian fabric of poetry and age-old songs passed down orally with a universal sound that enthralls the listener no matter where they’re from.
“El bosque armado – la canoa” was written by Granda and tells the story of poet Javier Heraud’s death. An idealist and a revolutionary, Heraud was a charismatic figure and popular among his peers. Shortly after he was killed Granda and a tight-knit group of poets and musicians, including Baca, came together to mourn him. “She [Granda] was very impacted by this, because she had just gotten to know him,” Baca explains. “His friends had brought her his works and she composed eight songs dedicated to him. At first she remained silent for a long time and eventually she wrote these songs, the first one being the one I’ve recorded.”
Just as life pulses with emotion, often swinging from one extreme to the other, Baca naturally segues from a somber song to a festive mood on “Resbalosas,” done in the spirit of musical improvisation, a common strain of African culture transplanted across the Americas. “It’s very old and very Afro-Peruvian,” Baca says. “Resbalosas is the second rhythm. The night begins with the marineras and the the resbalosas represent the climax of the party, there are no limits.” The buoyancy is subtle, nothing is ever over the top with Baca, but there’s a sense of abandon captured by an inching crescendo that draws the listener into the unscripted sonic conversation between the the cajón, acoustic guitar, and Baca’s voice.
Baca even weaves in an allegorical song in “Venadito de los montes.” Wrapped in the whimsy and delicate plucking of the charanga, courtesy of Juan Luis Pereyra, love and the innocence of childhood are threatened with predatory danger that can be lurking around any corner. On Lorca’s “Los lagartos,” Baca materfully conjures the foreboding mood and mystery that the late poet created through the essence of words. Baca ends the disc with a mellifluous rendition of Granda’s “Un cuento silencioso,” her bittersweet voice carried by the slow and distant ripple of nostalgia.
Buy Susana Baca’s recordings:
8/8/10 – Corona, NY – Queens Theatre in the Park Gala
8/9/10 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live
8/11/10 – New York, NY – Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center Plaza
9/23 – San Francisco – Palace of Fine Arts