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Afro-Peruvian songstress Susana Baca has spent a lifetime uplifting and celebrating her culture, first as an educator, folklorist and ethnomusicologist and later as Peru’s Minister of Culture. But music has been her greatest loudspeaker by far. Baca, 77, learned from the legendary singer Chabuca Granda, a friend, mentor and source of inspiration, and worked in relative obscurity before David Byrne came across her stirring rendition of “Maria Lando,” a song he later included in his 1995 compilation Soul of Black Peru. The rest is history. Together, under Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint, they made a string of albums throughout the late-’90s and early aughts that were worthy of all the international accolades that they garnered.
On her new full-length recording, Palabras Urgentes (Urgent Truths), released by Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, Baca, a three-time Latin Grammy winner, reflects on her 50th anniversary as an artist in a collection that encapsulates themes of defiance, anger and hope during troubled times. Recorded in 2018 — before last year’s A Cappella, the Latin Grammy-winning album she made at home in Cañete, Peru, during the pandemic lockdown — Palabras Urgentes coincides with Peru’s bicentennial and also doubles as a tribute to some of the forgotten women who fought for Peru’s independence. Snarky Puppy founderMichael League,the project’s main producer and arranger and contributing musician, fulfills Baca’s signature vision of crafting songs rooted in tradition while embracing a contemporary, outward-looking approach defined by eclecticism and experimentation. Reached by Zoom at her home in Cañete, Baca talked to JAZZIZ about her latest release, the important milestone in her career and the power of music to heal.
What compelled you to record Palabras Urgentes?
In those moments, when we were planning this album, very sad, very serious things were happening in my country. The corruption that we always knew existed was exposed at the highest levels; this time it was evident by audio [wiretap recordings] and all the information coming from Brazil [the scandals revealed in the Panama Papers] and the names of those involved. The people and politicians who we thought were very correct turned out to be criminals. The disappointment was like saying they have been deceiving us all this time. So that’s where the songs emerged from. I selected these songs and worked on them with that idea, that feeling. Palabras Urgentes is also the name of a manifesto put out by a group of poets, Hora Zero, some decades ago, also during a critical time in our political history.
Are there any parallels between your album and what the Hora Zero poets were proposing in 1970?
They were very radical in those times and I got to know them well. Their poems came at a much- needed time to change things. It’s the same. The songs on this album are songs to help us overcome.
Poetry and social justice have always gone hand and hand in your music. On Palabras Urgentes, it’s more palpable than ever before.
Well, on this album more than ever because it arises from a very difficult political moment in our country — from that disappointment, from that situation of deep sadness seeing how the people who, as politicians, promised to do something for Peru were really just concerned with benefiting themselves and lining their own pockets. We are now seeing the result of all of this compounded by the pandemic. So, I continue to sing poetry. “Color de Rosa” is a poem about anger and I sing it because it’s something we can’t ignore.
On the album, which coincides with celebrations around Peru’s bicentennial, you pay homage to some of the overlooked women who played important roles in Peru’s independence. "La Herida Oscura,” written by Chabuca Granda, is about Micaela Bastidas, a guerrilla leader and Indigenous Peruvian who fought for independence from the Spanish. How important to you was it to elevate the contributions of these revolutionary women in the recasting of a narrative historically written by men?
Yes, of course, we have had heroines that, thanks to the bicentennial and the work that others have been doing, are now being recognized. There are many women in our history, but [their stories] are being rescued little by little now.
Chabuca Granda has had an indelible influence on your life and music and you continue to breathe new life into her songs.
She was like a mother to me, a musical mother, and we were also friends. We knew each other well and we were very close. I learned a lot from her. I have already recorded a new album of her songs with my new band and a chorus of young people who will be performing the songs in concert with me to shed awareness on the Indigenous population that is being impacted by COVID.
Palabras Urgentes also marks the 50th anniversary of your career. What reflections can you share on this important milestone in your career?
I feel that we should always look ahead to the possibility of being in a constant state of giving something to people that moves them to search within, so that they rediscover those values of solidarity, kinship and community. Women have realized that we cannot be against each other and that we should instead build communities, forging a path with that in mind.
What does it mean to you to be the voice of Afro-Peruvian music on the world stage?
I came to understand where I came from, what my roots were, little by little. As a child in school, you’d be singled out by other students for being Black. You start to ask yourself what it means to be Black. And then, at home, you get together with your family on Sundays, all of them Black, all of them full of laughter and grace. Once the music started, everything would change for me. I’d stop playing with my little cousins and would run to where the music was coming from. This same enthusiasm is what has led me to identify with who I am. Who am I? That family, that world that surrounded me in my childhood, and to be able to share that, as well.
What did you take away from your time as Peru’s Minister of Culture in 2011 that influenced your music?
I traveled to many parts around the country. I learned from the music of the places, I learned from the soul of the people and I think that is in my singing anyway.
Palabras Urgentes is framed by classic melodies and traditional Afro-Peruvian rhythms mixed with contemporary sounds. On this album Michael League takes the lead in production. How did that encounter come to be? What were League’s contributions and how did that translate into the magic that was captured in the studio?
Michael had already known my music for a long time, from when he was a student at the University of Texas, in Austin. He had a band, and he tells me that one of his professors made him listen to my music and so he would play my music with his band around different venues in Austin. When I met him for the first time in Peru, he invited me as a guest on his album, Family Dinner – Volume 2. I offered to do two Afro-Peruvian songs. Afro-Peruvian rhythms are difficult to play, but Michael mastered it right away. And so, we traveled to New Orleans and recorded the songs.
The confluence of traditional Afro-Peruvian music and contemporary sounds from across the globe are points of reference in your body of work. Was there a turning point in your career where you decided to go in a broader direction?
I’m very curious. What would my music sound like mixed with this? For instance, I’ve worked with guitarist Mark Ribot on other albums and I’ve loved working with him. On other projects, I’ve invited John Medeski, a pianist who is at the forefront of the new generation of free jazz. Of course, the producers play a role. The producer will say to me, ‘Susana, listen to this musician. Do you like it? If you like it, we’ll invite them.’ ‘OK, let’s invite them. How wonderful.’ And they come. They enjoy my music and I enjoy their sound. These encounters are something beautiful. They are the best of what globalization has to offer.
In other areas, globalization hasn’t fared so well, and on the track, “Cambalache,” you sing about the chaos in a world turned upside down. Originally written as a tango in 1930, you updated the lyrics some, but the song still applies to our current state of affairs.
It was almost like a premonition; it’s still relevant.
The album closes with “Vestida de Vida,” a song that has a strong message of hope. Do you feel hopeful about the future?
Yes, I still am. I think it’s what helps us overcome disease, sadness, depression, feeling that the world is coming to an end, that it has nothing left to offer. So then you have to think about things that help you to persevere and shake the fear of pushing ahead. And if you have the voice and can transmit feeling in your music then you have to share that with people. That’s what came to mind when I made my album A Cappella, which I recorded in the middle of the pandemic. I began the album reciting the words of [Argentine rocker] Fito Paez — ‘Who says everything is lost? I come to offer my heart.’ So that’s what compels me to always give. I see people around me in extreme situations and feel that we must give people some spirituality, happiness, something they can reflect on, like Palabras Urgentes. Palabras Urgentes is an album about reflection and perhaps about tackling problems head on. - Lissette Corsa
Featured photo by Javier Falcon.