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Tucson Weekly Pop and Circumstance

Susana Baca graduates from obscurity to Peru's leading "Afro-Pop" diva.

By Brendan Doherty

MARCH 9, 1998:  FOR SUSANA BACA, singing is an act of cultural preservation. Baca, Peru's leading Afro-Pop diva, is unheralded and largely unknown outside her native country. So she's ecstatic, after almost 40 years of professional singing, to have a chance to be on a big-scale tour announcing her as one of the "Global Divas," alongside Tish Hinojosa and Zimbabwe's Stella Chewishe.

"It's strange to be on tour with these two," says Baca through her English-language translator. "Tish sings Texas-Mexico stuff, but I understand the Spanish; and Stella's music is African, and I understand the beats and the rhythms. It doesn't feel complete to me until the end, when we bring all of these things together. It's powerful."

The tour's an overnight success that's been years in the making; and Baca's arrival and sudden success on the international music scene has placed her on the precipice of international stardom.

Her song "Maria Lando," on the 1995 compilation The Soul of Black Peru (Luaka Bop, www.luakabop.com) catapulted her music out of Peru and to the attention of David Byrne. It led to a brilliant full-length release, and greater exposure in the United States and Europe.

"It took a long time to make it, but it was worth the waiting," she 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'd 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."

Byrne, a world music fan, started the Luaka Bop label to showcase emerging world artists, and to give them a platform in the United States. Many performers deemed "commercially un-viable" by other labels have thus found their champion.

Baca's music is filled with passion and exotic rhythms, but it's her voice that finds its way into the hearts of listeners. It's not necessary to understand the language to feel Baca's timeless themes of love and loss, and her celebratory, rhythmic cool. Like Celia Cruz and Cesaria Evora, two singers who electrified and transfixed different generations with their passionate music, Baca's songs are based on African rhythms and melodies. Their shared elements make the musical elements of rhythm and scale familiar, but for listeners the style and the songs themselves are entirely new.

Baca's self-titled release is a soulful, joyous celebration of her culture and infectious spirit. Susana Baca, released late last year, is a combination of traditional songs and collaborations with poets as lyricists. It went straight to the top of the world music charts. Simple accompaniment--hand drums, bass, acoustic guitar--highlight the songs' elegant construction. Baca's sultry voice renders these lush and captivating tracks with depth of feeling and conviction.

Several traditional instruments are used including the cajón, 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. Sung in her native Spanish, her cantos reflect the musical and cultural influence of Africa on the Spanish and Andean musical forms of her native Peru. Baca treats listeners to danceable poems woven with cultural threads. It's almost impossible not to dance to the spicy "Se Me Van Los Pies," a traditional song that bounces with a delicious irresistibility.

"The exposure helped people to discover me," says Baca, now in her 50s. "These are the songs and poetry of my people. They're a mixture of old and new, traditional and more contemporary. And the differences between the songs, and even within the songs, express the diversity of Afro-Peruvian culture, which is a blending of many different forms."

Her strong belief in her heritage has remained her guide throughout years of performing, whether in obscurity or to international audiences. Baca grew up in a poor neighborhood in Lima. Her father played guitar and sang, her mother danced, and young Susana displayed early talent.

Her focus has always been cultural preservation. For several years, she traveled across the Peruvian coast to meet with old local singers, documenting and archiving the music, dance and art. After seven years of tracing the songs and stories of elders, Baca recorded her findings in a 150-page book of historical and folkloric articles about Afro-Peruvian music; she also produced a 16-track CD entitled Del Fuego y del Agua.

The success of Del Fuego led Baca and her husband, Ricardo Pereia, to found an organization called the Instituto Negrocontinuo (Institute of Black Continuum). Its sole purpose is to preserve and foster black Peruvian culture.

"Being black meant being a slave, being lazy or having rhythm in your blood," says Baca. "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."

Much of the attitude toward the music was an extension of economic and racial discrimination against blacks, says Baca. But prevailing attitudes about slaves and their descendants ruled the way people treated their cultural products.

"When I was born, everything was in place," says Baca. "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 it on the radio. You could never learn about it in school. But now you can. We've made a school. They're studying songs, music, theory, and analyzing traditional music and pop. People can take real academic courses in voice and theory."

The institute has music and dance studios, a library and an archive, and their efforts are producing visible results. The young kids play rock, like they do almost anywhere else. But the ones she sees in the institute fuse it with more traditional elements, and end up with brand new hybrids, and brand new voices uniquely Peruvian.

Her accomplishments in the classroom-studio are admirable, but in her heart, she's a performer above all; and for her, performance means preservation.

"To do this in the world--to play the States and release CDs--is redeeming for all of the other singers that never got the attention," she says. "I'm doing what I can to make sure that (our) tradition doesn't die out."

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