Sound of the soul of African Peru


SUSANA BACA has a reputation as something like a gentle force of nature. Speaking from New York, in-between flights, and with a translator and speaker phone between us, she still manages to communicate the warmth and commitment that have made her something of a national treasure in her home country of Peru, and won her many fans abroad.

Baca is now in her late 60s. She almost single handedly brought about a revival in Afro-Peruvian music and culture, having championed the cause of the marginalised community of Peruvian descendants of African slaves, who arrived in the country in the 16th century.

On stage, she wears flowing robes, dances barefoot and commits completely to the music – tears are common, and fans describe her concerts in terms usually reserved for spiritual experiences.

David Byrne, one of music’s great innovators, is probably her most high-profile supporter, and the person mainly responsible for her international exposure.

“We first met at a photography exposition. I was in one of the photos and – no, no, no, wait that’s all wrong.” Baca dissolves into gales of the most infectious laughter, and it’s easy to imagine the effect she has on an audience.

“Yes, now I remember. David wanted to learn Spanish and he went to a film-maker from Argentina that was here in New York, and he gave David lessons, some of them with songs and poems. Bernardo Palombo was in Peru and made a film of me singing and giving an interview. He showed David this video in the lesson and David wanted to know what rhythms those were, and he loved the text. That was the song Maria Lando.”

Byrne was hooked, and in 1995 his label Luaka Bop release a compilation album, The Soul of Black Peru, featuring Baca and Maria Lando. It was a hit, and the label has continued to work with Baca. International success, critical acclaim and a pair of Grammys have followed.

Many traditional musicians, when they gain some international recognition, have a tendency to look abroad for fresh inspiration, but Baca has concentrated on her well-honed oeuvre of traditional music, often drawing on poetry for lyrics. “I have kept to this way of singing, and I use new poems as well. It’s not merely a really traditional Peru, this is a new way of showing it.

“Now, I am working with a group of young musicians . . . ” Again, Baca and her translator erupt into laughter and struggle to get their story straight, admitting that perhaps the musicians aren’t exactly young. “The modern music nowadays is all around us, of course, and there will be some influence, but we keep the roots, the traditional sounds and instruments – that is the fundamental thing.”

This recognition of tradition has been the driving force in her music, and her life. Her campaigning for the rights of Afro-Peruvians brought her to the attention of the political class, and in July 2011, she was appointed minister for culture by President Ollanta Humala. She was the first Afro Peruvian to hold a ministerial position, and came into office under the premiership of Salomón Lerner on a wave of promises of change and of a brighter future.

It was a short-lived burst of optimism. A few months after the election, violent protests opposing a massive mining project led to the government declaring a state of emergency. Humala replaced more than half his cabinet, Lerner resigned and was replaced by Óscar Valdés, and government policy took a pro-business focus.

By December 2011, Baca’s brief moment in government was over.

“Our current president, he was elected with a certain plan, a way he wanted to govern, and it was going to be a major transformation. And after a few months it became apparent that this transformation was going to be impossible, and that is when the prime minister resigned, and when I also resigned,” she says plainly.

“Although I went to a university that was very political, I didn’t work and end up in politics until I was elected a minister. I am very thankful I was elected, it was a wonderful experience . . . it made me understand profoundly the problems of our country. It is this knowledge now that I want to reflect in my music.”

David Byrne may have helped her get international fame, but being a minister has made her a talking head. Although she is now in demand at international think tanks and conferences, she is firm when it comes to the prospect of another ministerial post: “No, I would never again accept such a position.”

While in office, Baca came under fire for refusing to relinquish her musical career, and now she maintains that she can better serve her causes from the stage than the political podium. She travels relentlessly, and views music as a shared heritage that ignores borders.

“I was in South Africa, in the Congo, in Morocco, and that is where I felt the music is most close to us,” she says.

“The people there are participating in the music in a way that they really understand the rhythm. In South Africa we had a lecture about music with some musicians, and one young player from there, he played their music but using our instruments; it was a very special, a very beautiful moment.”

She finishes with an emphatic flourish: “The roots are the thing, and that’s the rhythm.”

A force of nature then, with its roots deep in Peruvian soil.

Choose Baca

* Susana Baca performing with her band and guests David Byrne, John Medeski and Marc Ribot:

* Baca performing Maria Lando, the song that gave her an international career and brought her to the attention of David Byrne:

* Baca’s page on the Luaka Bop site, with a stream featuring samples from her album Afrodiaspora:

Susana Baca plays the Mermaid Arts Centre on Saturday night as part of the Bray Jazz Festival (sold out). For highlights and full listings for the festival, see today’s edition of The Ticket