Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Oh, Susana!

By Kevin Klein

MARCH 16, 1998:  Susana Baca went into the musical and ethnic history of her own country to find herself. The singer, born in 1944 in a poor suburb of Lima, is as much a historian of Afro-Peruvian music as she is a performer of it. She is now, like Celia Cruz and Cesaria Evora before her, poised to take her brand of indigenous music into the ears of the world.

For years, Peruvian music was thought of in terms of mountain people in shawls playing indigenous flutes and drums carved from wood topped with animal skins. But slavery scattered African music all over the Americas, in a great musical pollenation. While the trade's musical offspring--blues, jazz, Afro-Cuban, Salsa and others--have been plumbed, Peru was overlooked abroad.

"Being black meant being a slave, being lazy or having rhythm in your blood," Baca says, through an English-Spanish translator. "As economic conditions improved, people didn't want to be considered black, and many Afro-Peruvians didn't want to talk about the old slave songs. For this reason, a lot of music was lost."

Baca spent years searching the coast for singers of those songs, and compiled them for a book project, began an archive, released several CDs of the music and with her husband began a conservatory of Afro-Peruvian culture, the Instituto de Negrocontinuo. It has studios, archives, performance spaces and a library.

"When I was born, everything was in place," Baca says. "Food, dance, singing, it was around me all of the time. I got these things from my aunts and my grandmother. Culture is brought through the women. But so much of the music and culture has been lost. None of it was written down, and very little was recorded. I was always around black music, but I never heard about it on the radio. You could never learn about it in school. But now you can. We have made a school. They are studying songs, music, theory and analyzing traditional music and pop. They take a real academic course in voice and theory."

But any sense that her project is an academic exercise is thrown out the window with one waft of Baca's voice. The old songs alight with her enthusiasm, the melodies sing with her deft treatment and she affirms that these songs are about the heart. On her self-titled record, she unearths "Tu Mirada y Mi Voz," done in the rhythmic style of danzon, and "Zamba Malato," a song believed to be derived from traditional lando. Several traditional instruments are used including the cajon, a wooden box held between the legs and played with the hands, and a quijada de burro, a burro's jawbone with loosened teeth that rattle. New songs feature the poetry of Peruvian masters set to rhythms that are propulsive and sensual. They move with the beats that are exotic and sure, the music done with a minimum of accompaniment. Baca's sensual and strong voice too takes its seductive place up front.

It was the strength of her voice and the strength of the material that David Byrne heard on The Soul of Black Peru, a Luaka Bop compilation released in 1995. It began a relationship that led to a brand new world of fans, possibilities and opportunity for Baca.

"It took a long time to make it, but it was worth the waiting, " Baca says. "It was difficult to reach anyone before the meeting with David Byrne. I didn't have an album, and there was no way to do it, though I had been singing for many years. It's wonderful to know people in the United States are interested in Afro-Peruvian music. I was singing this for a long time before I met David, but when he became interested in my music, it just opened a huge door."

In through that door came Baca's rendition of the soul of Peru, and it shot to the top of the World Music charts. They have been unleashed together, and the musical galaxy found a star that was always there. The propulsive beat survived time and sought her to sing it. "Look at how my feet go," she sings in "Se Me Van Los Pies." "My hips and my shoulders, too/How my feet go to Chincha/To New York, to San Francisco/Look at how my feet go."

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Music: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Weekly Alibi . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch