With Voice, Will Travel: Susana Baca, Afrodiaspora

By Daniel Garrett

Susana Baca, Afrodiaspora
Producers: Ricardo Pereira and Greg Landau
Luaka Bop, 2011

“I grew up on one of those streets where families shared cultures and experiences, people who came down from the mountains, fleeing drought and hunger, and people who worked in the houses of the rich, like my parents did.”
—Susana Baca

Mystique.  Passion.  Insight.  Authority.  There is a special aura that surrounds certain artists, who entertain and intrigue and suggest a realm of meaning beyond the ordinary: artists who signify—and the Peruvian singer Susana Baca is one such artist.  On Afrodiaspora, Susana Baca’s voice is earthy, feminine, spiritual, and her music full of soul: from the first song, “Detras de la Puerta,” a Colombia cumbia about a journey, to the last, ‘Canta Susana,” which was written in tribute to Baca, a daughter of Africa by way of Lima, Peru, once a girl who heard all kinds of music near where she lived in Chorillos.  Peru, the large South American country bordered by Ecuador and Colombia to its north, Brazil and Bolivia to its east, and Chile to its south, with the Pacific ocean to its west, is a land of plains, forests, mountains, and valleys, known for its petroleum, copper, silver, iron, cedar, and oak, and its ancient Inca heritage, and some of its native (“Indian”) cultures—Aymara and Quechua—that have changed little in centuries.  Africans arrived in Peru as part of the crew with Spanish conquistadors and also as living merchandise.  Susana Baca’s album Afrodiaspora connects the influence of Africa in different parts of the world, particularly in Latin America.  “The culture, the music and our whole selves are all about the mixture of Spanish, Indian and African cultures,” she has said.

On Afrodiaspora, Susana Baca’s voice is almost plaintive in “Bendiceme,” a song devoted to the infant Jesus, the kind of Catholic processional tune popular among black Peruvians, and her voice— which begins with a nearly formal firmness and goes high and tender—and that near-plaintive or plaintive tone touches something within the listener.  Baca is joined by a chorus, which can seem like a false accent, a cliché—but not here: the chorus is the community and a musical strength; and theirs is an old, possibly timeless, sound, echoing beyond logic.  One hears the atmosphere of a village in the composition; and I do not know if Baca has players of flutes, pipes, and shells among her musicians but they can be imagined.  The guitar in the song “Bendiceme” would be recognized as elemental and classical in almost any tradition.  Guitar and drum are prominent in “Yana Runa,” with a quickened rhythm and lyrics about African blacks.  (The words yana runa mean black man in the Quechua language, spoken by longtime native Peruvians, and according to Baca, “In the north, near the Ecuadorian border there are many communities where indigenous and black Peruvians lived side by side and also intermixed their cultures and spirituality.”  She refers to a resulting Afro-Indian tradition.)  Listening to “Yana Runa,” I think of both Peru and New York, of Baca’s home country and of where I first heard her music.  The song’s light rhythm—sparkling, short, spiky—is part of a morphing arrangement that changes tempos and blends praise with sorrow, achieving a mood that is historical, mischievous, tribal.

There is a classical guitar sound, with tropical (Puerto Rican) drumming, as support for the lead voice and chorus in “Plena y Bomba” (joined by a rapping male voice, that of Calle 13’s Rene Perez).  The beat sounds like something dropped from a height and caught at the last moment, as it begins to touch ground.  Dramatic and elegant is “Reina de Africa,” a tribute to African women with the tango in it, and in which Baca’s voice is caressing.  There are different kinds of authority—personal and impersonal, authority rooted in personal experience and rooted in communal vision; and Baca has both.  Susana Baca’s voice has its own roar in “Baho Kende + Palo Mayimbe,” a song with a traditional African spiritual theme and nature sounds, and though it is more celebratory than reverent, Baca’s voice is more playful in the Brazilian “Coco y Forro,” which has an opening akin to a very relaxed country blues but quickly becomes a fast, Spanish dance and features soulful horn playing.  (Some kind of counting is part of the lyrics—the counting of money?—and Baca has noted that the lyrics have a double meaning.  I cannot be entirely sure of that meaning as the album’s jacket was not included with the music I received, and I have not seen its details, whether photos or confirming information.)  Susana Baca’s singing has form and force, art as well as emotion and energy, throughout and remarkably so in “Taki Ti Taki,” with its robust choral singing (the Venezuelan song is in tribute to San Juan; and Baca, noting all of her music’s shared roots in Spain and Africa, distinguishes between these divergent, rich Venezuelan rhythms and those found in other countries).  “Que Bonito tu Vestido,” a spoof of vain self-regard (Baca does not sound spiteful), is waltzing and whimsical.  The horn-driven Meters song “Hey Pocky Way” is here a duet between floating voices, as if lovers were meeting in another dimension, featuring Baca, who was in New Orleans shortly before hurricane Katrina, and the song, her tribute to New Orleans, is imaginative and fun, though possibly a little too careful.  It is impossible not to think of the African dancing and drumming that took place there, or of the city’s jazz and funk music—impossible not to think of all the places Africans have been.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett has said, “Being an artist is not a pursuit of success or an acceptance of failure; rather, it is an openness to life and its deepest possibilities, an openness to imagination, intellect, and spirit, and a correspondent commitment to craft experience and objects influenced by that openness.”  Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com