Susana Baca was born in Lima, although she grew up in the small black coastal barrio of Chorrillos, “populated with fishermen and cats,” Susana remembers, where the descendants of slaves have lived since the days of the Spanish empire.
She grew up surrounded by music and her mother’s good cooking. Señora Baca taught her daughter what she knew of both. “My father played guitar and my mother showed me my first steps – she was dancer, not a singer. I listened to the radio and watched Mexican movies, all those great rumba dancers and Cuban musicians like Pérez Prado and Beny Moré.”
As a child, she would accompany her mother when she cleaned homes and says that the only way she could keep still was when her mother put on classical music. Her father, who was a driver, was also the barrio’s own street guitarist and would often play outdoors with a group of neighborhood musicians. Their instruments were usually guitars and a percussive instrument called the cajón (a wooden box).
Despite childhood asthma, Susana avidly pursued folk singing and dancing. “Every June 29, there was the Chorrillos festival, with a religious procession for the patron saint. It was very pretty. The townspeople carried the image of Saint Peter onto a boat out to sea to bless the water and the season’s fishing. The next day everyone in town went down to the beach. The old folks played guitar and cajón, everyone sang.”
It was at school that her talents were noticed, and as she took an interest in the poets of Peru, she began to see herself as a link in the cultural work of preservation and instruction. She formed an experimental music group combining poetry and song. 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.
Susana began to attract attention, the most flattering of which was the admiration of the late Chabuca Granda. One of the great figures of Latin American song, composer and singer Granda was known throughout the Americas for her works in many idioms, but it was only late in her life that she turned her attention to the sounds of Afro-Peru. In Susana she must have seen a worthy successor, and hired her as personal assistant, inviting the young singer into her home. “She was the mother of my singing,” Susana recalls. “One of her records she dedicated to me, and it had a lyric, ‘Don’t forget about missing me.'”
At Chabuca’s insistence, Susana was given her first opportunity to record professionally in Peru. But the composer’s sudden death in 1983 left all deals off. Susana’s work continued, but it would be years later before any label sought to bring her to a wider audience.
Her journey to success has been a long one. She fondly remembers the day in 1995 when she got a phone call in Peru saying that David Byrne wanted to meet with her. She could not believe it at first, and admits that, while she knew of him, she did not know much about him. “He wasn’t in my world at the time,” she says.
She decided that it would be better to cook a meal for him at her house rather than go out to a fancy restaurant. She recalls, somewhat embarrassed, that she had to take her large dog outside to keep him from excitedly jumping on Byrne when he arrived for dinner. It was the first meeting in what has proved to be a fruitful artistic partnering since she signed to his recording label, Luaka Bop.
“My repertoire is both old and new. It has to be that way. That’s how you mature in life, and how you grow into your culture. I have traditional songs about the life of our grandparents in the countryside, others are more about rhythm and dancing. These are the festejo, the landó, the golpe é tierra. There are songs more tied to city life and more ‘composed’ music: the waltz, the marinera and the zamacueca. Then there are those which in their joy and pain share a diversity of rhythmic and interpretative aims like Afro-Peruvian culture, they are mixtures of very different forms.”
The resilience of Susana Baca’s talent lies in these tensions, ones which have haunted a people for centuries, and continue to rattle like ghosts throughout the history of the Americas. With her gifts of song and dance, Susana lights a way beyond the past, a way into healing. “I never wanted to become a museum for the dead. Interpreting the old and traditional songs in a new way has always been my greatest goal,” she avers. “This is what unites the old and the new, all that is ours in an unending story.”
Susana Baca’s year 2000 release Eco de Sombras, represented her further emergence from the rich Afro-Peruvian musical tradition first introduced to North American listeners on The Soul of Black Peru, and her self-titled Luaka Bop debut. Alongside the cajón are the modern sensibilities of such guest musicians as John Medeski and Tom Waits, and veterans Marc Ribot on guitar and Oreg Cohen on bass.
Baca does not consider herself a pan-American artist. She is not seeking “crossover” success in the English-speaking realm. She is quite comfortable staying in Peru and worries what would happen to her art if she ever left for good. Besides, she says, “I suffer without the food of Peru.”
While she fully intends to stick to her roots in Peru, she was on quite a journey in 2005: recording her album ‘Travesias’ (Passages) in upstate New York in the spring, and traveling to the Congo before returning to the United States to begin a fellowship to study the music of the African Diaspora. As fate would have it, she began her fellowship in New Orleans-three weeks before Hurricane Katrina came along. The year-long fellowship began in August of 2005 at Tulane University, where Baca planned to study Creole music and the work of Louis Armstrong. When the hurricane hit the city, everything came to a halt.
“I couldn’t believe-the situation,” she recalled from her small office at the University of Chicago, where she was offered a place to continue her fellowship. “When you live in Latin America you expect the government to do nothing. You know that you are on your own.”
Luckily, an artist friend arranged for a car to get her out of the city shortly before it was decimated. As she fled New Orleans with nothing but a suitcase, she looked out at the drowning city and felt an intense, deep-sinking feeling as she saw the faces of people staggering on the side of the road. “I felt that they had been abandoned,” she said softly, tears welling up in her eyes. “I felt paralyzed.”
She was scheduled to perform a series of concerts in Helsinki immediately after the evacuation and described the experience as cathartic following the destruction in New Orleans. “I had to alleviate that tragedy through music.”
It is this kind of quiet intensity that pervades her Travesias album. It is a record she describes as a personal dialogue, a collection of intimate moments for the person who is alone and who is in love. The songs are stripped down, quiet, like a late-night conversation.
In the hauntingly poignant “Merci Bon Dieu,” which was written by Franz Cassius, the childhood music teacher other guitarist Marc Ribot, she sings:
Thank you Lord
Keep all that nature provides for us
Keep it for when misery comes for us
While she does not consider herself a religious person in the traditional Roman Catholic sense that dominates Latin America, it has influenced who she is. “The first thing you learn in religion is to share. I feel that that is what I am doing.”
Baca and her husband, Ricardo Pereida, started a cultural center, the Instituto Negro Continuo “Black Continuum” in Lima in 1998 with the goal to teach children about music and art in her hometown of Santa Barbara, Peru.
She is very hands-on with the center and describes a Christmas concert the children performed as one of the happiest days of her life. One of her ideals is to give a voice to people who otherwise might not be heard. “I proposed to learn the foundations of our past – to know more about the blacks and their grandparents, who were my grandparents as well. I wanted to know that, aside from being good football players and cooks, we were a culture that had contributed to the formation of a nation,” she says.
Years of labor have created this facility for the exploration, expression and creation of black Peruvian culture. “It began as a need for a place where young people could experience cultural investigation and music making. Now we have a library, an archive, a performance and dance space.”
The artistic growth demonstrated on her debut album have developed concurrently with the institute. “I express myself with the songs and poetry of my people,” Susana explains. “I choose songs that speak to me: they’re tender, melancholic, rhythmic and poetic. And a few of them are a little risqué.”
Despite the tenderness in Baca’s music, it is influenced by a history of political engagement that was aroused with her increasing awareness of societal oppression. As a young woman, Baca was compelled to protest the stark role for women in the church and in a machista society. “I have always been a leftist,” she says, adding how she would sing with a feminist group at fiery, anti-establishment rallies.
Her main literary influences include writers like Arturo Pérez Reverte, Alfredo Bryce, Javier Marias and Mario Vargas Llosa. She has a kinship to Vargas Llosa, in the tradition of Peruvian social protest in her understated manner and actions against machismo and racial prejudice-a manner that never becomes propaganda.
On her trip to the Congo, she saw firsthand the legacy and impact of colonialism on the population. “It’s hard to get people to think and act for themselves after so many years of colonial rule,” Baca says. While there, she performed along with a children’s choir for a series of concerts. “When children learn to think for themselves, it opens doors,” she says.
Her success and performances around the world have admittedly changed her perspective on life. “It’s embarrassing to be applauded in restaurants.” But she takes it all in stride.
* Susana Baca (Luaka Bop 72438-49034-2-8, )
* Eco de Sombras (Luaka Bop 72438-48912-2-0, 2000)
* Espiritu Vivo (Luaka Bop 72438-11946-2-1, 2002)
* Travesias (Luaka Bop, 2006)
* Seis Poemas (Luaka Bop, 2010)
* Afrodiaspora (Luaka Bop, 2011)