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A 'New' Voice From Peru

Susana Baca, 50 and unfazed, finally gets a chance in the U.S.

September 21, 1997|Don Heckman | Don Heckman writes about pop and jazz for The Times

Susana Baca, unheralded and largely unknown outside her native Peru, arrived on the international world music scene with startling suddenness. Her performance on the 1995 compilation album "The Soul of Black Peru" created an immediate buzz. The upbeat critical reaction was comparable to the instant enthusiasm that greeted Cape Verdean singer (and now international world music star) Cesaria Evora a few years ago.

And with good cause. Baca's bracing, fresh-sounding voice is filled with a joyous, unfettered enthusiasm. It has the potential to place Baca in the exclusive circle of world music divas.

For Baca, who performs at 8000 Sunset on Wednesday and LunaPark on Thursday, the attention has been a long time coming. Now 50, she has actively worked at the exploration and preservation of Afro-Peruvian culture all her adult life. Her debut solo album, "Susana Baca" (on Luaka Bop), which will be released Tuesday, is a mini-survey of the poetry and music that she has nurtured and discovered both as a performer and as a teacher.

"These are the songs and poetry of my people," says Baca in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter. "They are 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."

Baca underscores the importance of the poetry in the songs, ranging from passionate romance to melancholy to suggestive sensuality. But the tunes will sound surprising to those who think of Peruvian music only in the context of the pan flutes and rhythmic guitars of groups like Uakti. The songs in Baca's repertoire encompass all three of the powerful influences in Peruvian culture--Spanish, African and indigenous native--with a particular emphasis on African rhythms.

Baca was first heard by musician and world music fan David Byrne in the mid-'80s. According to Baca, however, the standard record company reaction at that time was that her voice "lacked commercial potential." So for the next decade she released recordings on the Pregon label (a small company owned by Baca and her husband), and co-wrote a book titled "The Influence of Black Cultural Heritage in Peruvian Music." But in 1995, when Byrne heard her song "Maria Lando," it sparked the compilation and release of "The Soul of Black Peru" on his Luaka Bop label.

"It took a long time," Baca says with a sigh, her speaking voice as fluidly lilting as her vocals, "but it was worth the waiting. And now, I'm ready for whatever happens, I'm fully prepared."

Part of that preparation traces to her own background, growing up in the black coastal barrio of Chorrillos, near Lima, where she experienced everything from traditional music and dance to Mexican musical films and Cuban rumba music. Her talent recognized early, she received grants from Peru's Institute of Modern Art and the National Institute of Peruvian Culture.

But her focus has always been on the importance of her own cultural heritage. Baca and her husband, sociologist Ricardo Pereira, have founded an organization called Instituto Negrocontinuo (Institute of Black Continuum) to explore, preserve and create black Peruvian culture. It contains a library, an archive and a dance space.

"I am very pleased about the attention my singing has received," she says, "and I will pursue it as far as I possibly can. But it is just as important to me to express the foundations of my people's culture.

"I want everyone to know that black people in Peru, aside from being good futbol players and cooks, were also a culture that contributed to the formation of a nation."


SUSANA BACA, 8000 Sunset, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Date: Wednesday, 7 p.m. Price: Free. Phone: (213) 848-2097. Also, Thursday at LunaPark, 665 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. $15. (310) 652-0611.

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