Susana Baca

July 19, 2006

It is 5 p.m. on an October afternoon and already the sun is setting. Susana Baca is trying to communicate to a waiter that she would like a coffee. She is seated on the side of a long, stately corridor leading into one of the many cafeterias on the University of Chicago campus. It is approaching mealtime and the waiter whose attention she has captured smiles at her request and says that the café is around the corner. She does not understand him. He will show her the way. “Que lindo,” she says (how nice). Baca does not consider herself a pan-American artist. She is not seeking “crossover” success in the English-speaking realm. She is quite comfortable staying in Peru and worries what would happen to her art if she ever left for good. Besides, she says, “I suffer without the food of Peru.” Folkloric Afro-Peruvian songs, passed down through generations of people who struggled, fought and loved are her main source of inspiration. And it is the people of Peru that keep her grounded. While she fully intends to stick to her roots in Peru, she has been on quite a journey in the past year: recording her latest album ‘Travesias’ (Passages) in upstate New York in the spring, and traveling to the Congo before coming to the States to begin a fellowship to study the music of the African Diaspora. As fate would have it, she began her fellowship in New Orleans—three weeks before Hurricane Katrina came along. The year-long fellowship began in August of 2005 at Tulane University, where Baca planned to study Creole music and the work of Louis Armstrong. When the hurricane hit the city, everything came to a halt. “I couldn’t believe the situation,” she now recalls from her small office at the University of Chicago, where she was offered a place to continue her fellowship. “When you live in Latin America you expect the government to do nothing. You know that you are on your own.” Luckily, an artist friend arranged for a car to get her out of the city shortly before it was decimated. As she fled New Orleans with nothing but a suitcase, she looked out at the drowning city and felt an intense, deep-sinking feeling as she saw the faces of people staggering on the side of the road. “I felt that they had been abandoned,” she said softly, tears welling up in her eyes. “I felt paralyzed.” She was scheduled to perform a series of concerts in Helsinki immediately after the evacuation and described the experience as cathartic following the destruction in New Orleans. “I had to alleviate that tragedy through music.” It is this kind of quiet intensity that pervades her latest album. It is a record she describes as a personal dialogue, a collection of intimate moments for the person who is alone and who is in love. The songs are stripped down, quiet, like a late-night conversation. In the hauntingly poignant “Merci Bon Dieu,” which was written by Franz Cassius, the childhood music teacher of her guitarist Marc Ribot, she sings: Thank you Lord Keep all that nature provides for us Keep it for when misery comes for us While she does not consider herself a religious person in the traditional Roman Catholic sense that dominates Latin America, it has influenced who she is. “The first thing you learn in religion is to share. I feel that that is what I am doing.” Baca and her husband, Ricardo Pereida, started a cultural center to teach children about music and art in her hometown of Santa Barbara, Peru. She is very hands-on with the center and describes a Christmas concert the children performed as one of the happiest days of her life. One of her ideals is to give a voice to people who otherwise might not be heard. Born in Lima, she grew up in a small coastal town called Chorillos. Baca describes life in the predominantly Afro-Peruvian barrio as “filled with music.” As a child, she would accompany her mother when she cleaned homes and says that the only way she could keep still was when her mother put on classical music. Her father, who was a driver, was also the barrio’s own street guitarist and would often play outdoors with a group of neighborhood musicians. Their instruments were usually guitars and a percussive instrument called the cajón (a wooden box), which is played by her longtime band member Juan Cotito Medrano and can be heard on all of her albums. While she was growing up, families in Chorillos would often gather in parks for festivals and religious processions. It was at these festivals that Susana found a place to perform, entering dance contests and singing before audiences of familiar faces. It was also at these gatherings that she began to hear old slave songs, which had been passed down through generations, but were not often performed publicly. Despite the tenderness in Baca’s music, it is influenced by a history of political engagement that was aroused with her increasing awareness of societal oppression. As a young woman, Baca was compelled to protest the stark role for women in the church and in a machista society. “I have always been a leftist,” she says, adding how she would sing with a feminist group at fiery, anti-establishment rallies. Her main literary influences include writers like Arturo Perez Revete, Alfredo Bryce, Javier Marias and Mario Vargas Llosa. She has a kinship to Vargas Llosa, in the tradition of Peruvian social protest in her understated manner and actions against machismo and racial prejudice—a manner that never becomes propaganda. On her recent trip to the Congo, she saw firsthand the legacy and impact of colonialism on the population. “It’s hard to get people to think and act for themselves after so many years of colonial rule,” Baca says. While there, she performed along with a children’s choir for a series of concerts. “When children learn to think for themselves, it opens doors,” she says. Her journey to success has been a long one. She fondly remembers the day in 1995 when she got a phone call in Peru saying that David Byrne wanted to meet with her. She could not believe it at first, and admits that, while she knew of him, she did not know much about him. “He wasn’t in my world at the time,” she says. She decided that it would be better to cook a meal for him at her house rather than go out to a fancy restaurant. She recalls, somewhat embarrassed, that she had to take her large dog outside to keep him from excitedly jumping on Byrne when he arrived for dinner. It was the first meeting in what has proved to be a fruitful artistic partnering since she signed to his recording label, Luaka Bop. ‘Travesias’ is the fourth album she has made under its imprint. Her success and performances around the world have admittedly changed her perspective on life. “It’s embarrassing to be applauded in restaurants.” But she takes it all in stride. “The party is great,” she says. “But then later you find yourself in a corner and this is the music for those times.” These days she can stroll through the University of Chicago campus anonymously, reading about Louis Armstrong, learning English and visiting Chicago’s legendary jazz clubs. She doesn’t feel the need to try to fit into any mainstream Latino explosion; she is perfectly content doing what she is doing—it’s an authenticity that is hard to find in the music world. “My only regret is having this knowledge, traveling around the world and not having the vitality that I need,” she says in complete modesty. But after listening to her latest album and seeing her perform, you’ll have to politely disagree

Travesías Album Art