Her bare, cinnamon-colored feet stepping softly on the stage of the Knitting Factory on Thursday, Susana Baca began her emotional show Thursday with "Toro Mata," the anthem of Afro-Peruvian music.
A lot has happened since this classic tune was featured on Luaka Bop's 1995 compilation album "The Soul of Black Peru." In the intervening years, Baca has become a world-music diva along the lines of Cesaria Evora or Mercedes Sosa, turning her unlikely dream of rescuing the black roots of Peruvian music into reality.
Recognition has done Baca plenty of good. Her Knitting Factory Hollywood performance was luminous, her powerful yet delicate voice resonating with remarkable purity. Backed by her longtime quartet, the singer presented material from "Espiritu Vivo," a stirring, uplifting album she recorded in New York City during the week following Sept. 11, 2001.
Older Baca staples such as "Valentin" and "Zancudito" were greeted with shrieks of delight by the capacity audience. But the evening's most flavorful moments came courtesy of the new songs, such as a revised version of Mongo Santamaria's classic "Afro-Blue," which adds lyrics to its sensuous melody.
Whereas the singer's previous Los Angeles engagements suggested a timid, restrained performer, Baca was relaxed Thursday, dancing wildly whenever the music picked up steam and projecting an effervescent energy that had an almost healing quality.
Baca's persona is recognizable by anyone familiar with Latin culture. With her warm smile and soothing movements, she evokes the archetypal image of the nourishing mother, the powerful priestess. She represents the indestructible Latin American woman who, metaphorically speaking, has for centuries supported an entire continent on her tireless back.