With two well received albums and a string of acclaimed concert dates in North America and Europe, Susana Baca has succeeded in her mission to preserve the unique musical heritage of Afro-Peruvians and bring it to listeners worldwide. From her childhood in the Chorrillos neighborhood of Lima, Peru, where she first learned the traditional folk music of her Afro-Peruvian ancestors, to her work with the Instituto Negrocontinuo, dedicated to preserving those folk-ways, Baca’s talent, integrity, and perseverance have earned her an esteemed place on the world music scene.
To many listeners, Baca’s music is strikingly contemporary in its sensual expression of identity, struggle, and endurance; however, the singer’s connection to her African ancestors, who were transported to South America as slaves, provides the focal point for her efforts. As in the rest of the Western world, these enslaved people brought cultural forms from their former African homelands together with the new languages, cultures, and experiences they encountered during their captivity. The act of remembering through cultural expression was a means of survival, but also of immense creativity and power. As Baca recalled on the Luaka Bop Records website, “This is what united the old and the new, all that is ours in an unending story.”
While the mixed, or creole, culture derived from African and Peruvian influences endured for generations after its emergence in the 1800s, the hardship endured by the freed Afro-Peruvians meant that their culture would face an equally difficult battle for survival and recognition. In particular, the enduring racism—a legacy of slavery—meant that Afro-Peruvian culture would often be met with derision or indifference by Peruvian society in general. At the time of Baca’s birth, around 1950, the second-class status of Afro-Peruvians had not been erased. Subtle—and sometimes overt—racial discrimination in employment, housing, and educational opportunities persisted.
Baca’s parents, who raised Susana in the poor Afro-Peruvian community of Chorrillos, outside of the capital of Lima, Peru, discouraged their daughter from pursuing a career in music in favor of teaching and a more secure future. Yet they instilled in their daughter a love of music and performing from her earliest days. “My father played guitar and my mother showed me my first steps—she was a dancer, not a singer,” Baca remembers at the Luaka Bop Records website. In addition, the community of Chorrillos valued the traditional songs and performances—often linked to religious festivals—as part of its social interaction and expression. Baca also was influenced by the popular media made available through radio broadcasts and movie screenings, and gained the opportunity to see and hear some of the greatest Latin American, Caribbean, and South American musicians and dancers of the day. Living in a neighborhood without electricity, however,
Born c. 1950 in Chorrillos, Peru; married Ricardo Pereira.
Worked as a teacher but left the profession to take up singing, early 1970s; collected Afro-Peruvian folk songs throughout the 1970s and 1980s and adapted them for live performance; compiled Afro-Peruvian collection Del Fuego y del Agua, c. 1990; founded the Instituto Negrocontinuo (Institute of Black Continuum) with her sociologist husband, Ricardo Pereira, 1992; contributed the song “Maria Lando” to the collection Soul of Black Peru, 1995; released first full-length album, Susana Baca, and performed concerts in the U.S., 1997; released second album, Eco de Sombras (Echo of Shadows) in 2000, accompanied by another U.S. tour.
Addresses: Record company —Luaka Bop Records, P.O. Box 652 Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276, phone: (212) 255-2714, fax: (212) 255-3809; website: http://www.luakabop.com. Booking —International Music Network (U.S.), 278 Main Street, Gloucester, MA 01930, phone: (978) 283-2883, fax: (978) 283-2330; website: http://www.imnworld.com.
meant that Baca’s main influences were those immediately around her: family, friends, and neighbors who gathered together to play homemade or improvised instruments, producing unique and complex music that remained with Baca and shaped her professional outlook.
Despite her obvious love of music, Baca at first followed her parents’ advice about the value economic security over artistic pursuits, and through her early twenties worked as a writing teacher to primary school students. However, the pull of music was too great to overcome. As she recalled to Kim Sevcik in Arts International magazine online, Baca’s determination to perform caused her to put aside her teaching after just three years in the field: “Enough! I want to be a singer, and that’s what I’m going to do.” Baca soon learned how difficult it would be to find success as a performer and interpreter of traditional Afro-Peruvian music. In the early 1970s, Black Pride movements—influenced by both the American Civil Rights movement and decolonization by European powers in most African countries—had just begun to penetrate Latin America and South America. In addition, as Baca found, most audiences preferred commercial fare that focused on superficial romantic themes instead of more serious material.
Undaunted by these challenges, Baca and her husband, Bolivian-born sociologist Ricardo Pereira, concentrated on collecting and preserving traditional folk music from around Peru and reinterpreting it through Baca’s live performances. “I would go to small towns where Black Peruvians lived, and I would approach old men and ask them to sing the songs their great-greatgrandfathers had sung as slaves, and then I would take notes, or I would just try to remember them,” she recalled to Sevcik.
Her debut was just as straightforward: a simple performance with just a guitarist to accompany her singing. The response from the audience was overwhelming, and Baca continued to perform throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Securing a recording contract, however, was a more difficult challenge to overcome. Although Baca came close to recording in Peru through her work for composer and singer Chabuca Granda, Granda’s death in 1983 put these plans on hold. Instead, Baca focused on continuing her series of performances as well as compiling some of the best works by fellow Afro-Peruvian singers. The result, Del Fuego y del Agua, was an album that explored the range of African-influenced music styles, both in traditional and contemporary arrangements; the 150-page book that accompanied the release also interpreted and preserved this musical heritage.
Following the album’s release, Baca continued with this mission of interpretation and preservation by opening the Instituto Negrocontinuo in Lima with her husband in 1992. As an organization devoted to fostering Afro-Peruvian artistic achievements, a new generation of performers looked to Baca’s work for inspiration. Baca reached wider audiences in Peru as well during the 1980s and 1990s as Afro-Peruvian musical styles influenced contemporary musicians across ethnic and socioeconomic lines.
A chance viewing of Baca’s performance on video by Luaka Bop Records founder and former Talking Heads front man David Byrne, led to Byrne’s interest in compiling an album of Afro-Peruvian songs for his label. Released in 1995, The Soul of Black Peru featured Baca’s rendition of “Maria Lando,” acknowledged by critics as the collection’s outstanding track. Baca followed this international recording debut with a few concert appearances in the United States, which were, as expected, enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike.
Baca returned to Peru to record most of her first full-length album for Luaka Bop. The 1997 release, the self-titled Susana Baca, featured striking, seemingly sparse, arrangements that set off Baca’s voice for results that were alternately soothing and electrifying.
In particular, the multi-rhythmic percussion arrangements, coupled with Baca’s pure vocal delivery, resulted in a “tremendous U.S. debut,” as Tom Moon noted in Rolling Stone. Critics appreciated the authenticity of Baca’s effort as well as its achievement in adapting traditional forms and themes for contemporary audiences. A series of acclaimed concerts in North America and Europe followed, one of them in celebration of Luaka Bop Records’ tenth anniversary in 1999.
Baca is not only among the best-known Afro-Peruvian performers, but one of the best-known performers on the Luaka Bop label as well. The label chose her second album, 2000’s Eco de Sombras, to re-launch its distribution deal in Europe and publicize its back catalogue in America. Recorded mostly at her home studio in Lima with a range of musical colleagues, Eco de Sombras explored the range of themes that had by now become strongly identified with Baca’s work “Eco de Sombras’ tingle-factor lies in the way it straddles past and present and so creates it own climate,” as a reviewer in New Internationalist noted. While the arrangements were more complex due to the greater emphasis on collaboration with other musicians, the standout quality of Baca’s voice scored the singer another critical success.
Part of an increased awareness of world music in Europe and North America, Baca has also benefited from the popularity of Latin music among audiences throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Ironically, her international popularity had in a few years far eclipsed her status in her home country. “People here [in Peru] don’t know who I am,” she noted to Sevcik. “Mean-while, I’m being written about in England, the United States, and France.” Yet this international success has helped Baca achieve her goal of preserving Afro-Peruvian music. Already passed along to the new generation of performers and audiences in Peru and abroad, Baca’s contribution to the world music scene has carried far beyond her South American home.
Del Fuego y del Agua (producer; multimedia project), Tonga Records, c. 1990.
(Contributor) Soul of Black Peru, Luaka Bop, 1995.
Susana Baca, Luaka Bop, 1997.
Eco de Sombras, Luaka Bop, 2000.
Broughton, Simon, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman, and Richard Trillo, editors, World Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1994.
Billboard, March 25, 2000, p. 57.
Gentlemen’s Quarterly, May 2000, p. 129.
Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2000.
New Internationalist, September 2000, p. 32.
New York Times, October 15, 1997, p. E3; August 9, 1999, p. E5; June 20, 2000, p. E5.
Rolling Stone, October 16, 1997, p. 110.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 24, 1997, p. E3; July 4, 2000, p. E1.
Arts International, http://www.artsinternational.org/knowledge_base/ai_magazine/current/baca.htm (February 8, 2001).
Luaka Bop Records, http://www.luakabop.com/susana_baca/cmp/info.html (February 8, 2001).
Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com (February 3, 2001).