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POP MUSIC | Latin Pulse

Baca Joins List of Legends From South America

March 05, 2000|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For years, fans of quality Latin American popular music have been awaiting the arrival of an artist who could join the legends of the genre--somebody able to make a resonant artistic statement as Agustin Lara, Silvio Rodriguez and Mercedes Sosa did in decades past.

A new name can finally be added to that select list: Susana Baca. With her second album for New York-based Luaka Bop Records, the Peruvian singer confirms that she's much more than a colorful world diva to be enjoyed by college students and public radio listeners with a taste for the exotic.

In the middle of the current hoopla about everything Latin, Baca's "Eco de Sombras" (Echo of Shadows), due in stores Tuesday, does what most Latin pop collections fail to do: distills the essence of what living in an underdeveloped Latin American country really feels like.

The record's acoustic tone and its supple beats (generated by the Peruvian cajon), together with Baca's pure, effortless delivery, echo the bittersweet realities of life as experienced in the continent's rural areas.

There's no doubt about it: Baca's insight into Latin America is deep. Before becoming an international star along the lines of Cape Verde's Cesaria Evora or Brazil's Virginia Rodrigues, she spent years researching the myriad shadings and permutations of the African roots of Latin music as they traveled from country to country, coupled with various influences from European and indigenous cultures. An early Baca album was accompanied by a 120-page booklet detailing "the black contribution to the formation of Peruvian popular music."

"When you think about the African slaves and the music they developed in the new continent, it's just bewildering," Baca, whose own heritage is African, said recently. "Black people suffered so much, and yet their spirit remained intact. They returned from the dead with a lot of life. Music is what allows us to explore these matters of the spirit. Oral tradition was very important in keeping the flame alive."

Though it preserves a musical tradition steeped in suffering, Baca's material has a peaceful airiness about it. One of the most moving songs in the new record is "Poema," a delicate bolero as soothing as a cup of herbal tea on a rainy night.

"We live in a world flooded with moments that go by too quickly," she said. "That's why it's nice listening to music that caresses and hugs you, that gives you a pleasant feeling inside.

"I've heard of people all over the world who listen to my records when they get home from work, when they need some peace. I feel very happy to know my music serves that purpose."

Produced by Craig Street, known for his work with Cassandra Wilson and k.d. lang, the album follows a tendency that has revitalized the world music genre in the last decade: preserving the artist's own ethnic roots while bringing in American mainstream musicians to flesh out various instrumental passages with their own sensibilities.

In this case, Street invited some notable session players, including guitarist Mark Ribot, who has worked with Tom Waits, and bassist Greg Cohen, who lists both Waits and jazz renegade John Zorn in his resume. Although subtle, their contributions affect the overall feeling of the album, creating a collage of cultural references that enhances Baca's own style.

"It was interesting to see how these foreign musicians identified with what we do," said Baca. "We were a bunch of different souls feeling exactly the same thing. Their presence is necessary for our music to continue to be heard."

Baca's recognition in her homeland hasn't matched her success in Europe and the U.S.

"Peru's commercial radio stations don't play my music," the singer said. "They expect you to pay them for that. . . . But I think with time, everything can change. The people of my country, however, are fascinated with my worldwide success."

The singer--who doesn't disclose her age but by most accounts is in her early 50s--feels lucky that she was discovered at an age when she can still enjoy her fame and create a significant body of work.

"I know the story of the Buena Vista Social Club," she said with a melancholy tinge. "I've traveled throughout the Peruvian coast and saw all sorts of forgotten artists. Every country has its own Ibrahim Ferrer. Nobody appreciates them until the day they die."


QUANTUM LEAP: It started out in 1992 as a photocopied fanzine that sought to keep readers informed about Southern California rock en espanol shows, but thanks to the persistence of its publishers and the growth of the movement, Long Beach-based La Banda Elastica has become the most influential publication in the Spanish rock world.

An extensive photo gallery included in the new issue, the 35th, is a pinnacle of the magazine's seven-year run. Ranging from the solemn to the irreverent, the candid snapshot to the posed portrait, the pictures remind one of the enormous distance Latin rock has traversed in the last decade.

"Rock 'n' roll is all about passion, and the faces [in the photo gallery] reflect that," explains editor and founder Emilio Morales, whose bimonthly publication now claims a circulation of 50,000 in the U.S. and Mexico. "We can't help but feel nostalgic when we see these photos, because we were doing this at a time when the movement was virtually nonexistent."

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