‘My mission has been accomplished’: how Susana Baca resurrected Afro-Peruvian music

Susana Baca has lived multiple lives in her 77 years. She is one of Peru’s most celebrated singers, and a champion of Afro-Peruvian music, amplified by a partnership with David Byrne’s Luaka Bop record label. She is trained as an ethnomusicologist and manages a cultural centre in Peru, and she was only the second Afro-Peruvian minister in the history of independent Peruvian government, serving as minister of culture in 2011.

“It was not an easy path to achieve all that I have,” Baca says, speaking over video call. She is draped in a black shawl, speaking via an interpreter, from her home in Cañete. “My parents used to play music all the time when I was a child – my earliest memories are of my father singing and my mother dancing – but when I decided that I wanted to be a singer, my mother was horrified. We were very poor and all the musicians she had heard of had died from tuberculosis. It was an extreme life.”

Testament to her tenacity, Baca is marking her 50th year in music with the release of her 16th album, Palabras Urgentes (Urgent Truths), on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. Produced by Snarky Puppy bandleader Michael League, its 10 songs are “premonitions of the difficult times we are living through”, she says, comprising standards such as Chabuca Granda’s La Herida Oscura, as well as new compositions that speak to political corruption and the climate crisis. It is full of vitality, from the fanfare of horns on Negra Del Alma to the choral ecstasies of Sorongo, and she hopes anyone who listens to it will “question what our place is in the world and how we are damaging it”. She adds, with a husky laugh: “At my age, I’m not interested in pleasing others any more.”

As a young woman, however, Baca was concerned with keeping her mother happy. She studied to become a teacher but kept singing the music of her childhood after noticing how it was constantly marginalised. Anti-Blackness endures in Peru, stemming from the slavery instigated by the Spanish in the 16th century. Its legacy has carried on to popular television characters such as the blackface El Negro Mama and the mocking Indigenous stereotype La Paisana Jacinta, which appeared on air as recently as 2014 and were ultimately targeted by a UN convention against racial discrimination. “Peru has had a difficult relationship with its Black and Indigenous population,” she says. “They are a reminder of its history of slavery and so our music was often ignored or forgotten. I felt I needed to help keep it alive.”

Working with popular Peruvian singer Chabuca Granda from 1970, initially as her personal assistant and then as a musical mentee, Baca brought Afro-Peruvian rhythms into Granda’s work, slowly increasing mainstream awareness of her culture. The ensuing two decades saw her touring Latin America while playing traditional Afro-Peruvian music, as well as folk songs that were unearthed through research undertaken with her husband, Ricardo Pereira.

It wasn’t until the mid-90s that she reached the global stage. A chance introduction to her music by a Spanish teacher prompted David Byrne to include her composition Maria Lando on his 1995 compilation Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru. The song exemplifies Baca’s music, its immense warmth carried by the richness of her voice, which glides atop the traditional percussive instrumentation of the cajon and udu. The same warmth and emotion crosses the language barrier as she reflects on their relationship: in 2011, she recorded a collection of Afro-Peruvian standards, Afrodiaspora, for his label. “He opened up the doors to the world,” she smiles. “There is a lot of respect between us and it is a collaboration that has continued for many years.”

Looking back on her “mission” has been an integral part of the past year: the pandemic halted her usually active touring schedule. Stuck at home, she started work on her memoirs. “It has been very interesting to remember everything I have done and even to remember my mistakes,” she says. “You have to be very honest and bring to life the emotions that made it all real. Luckily, I have my husband Ricardo to help, since he’s been with me for the past 30 years.”

One recent sticking point was Baca’s stint in government, where she was criticised by some for continuing to work and tour as a musician while she was minister of culture from July to December 2011. In an interview with the New York Times during her tenure, she said: “I think that the job’s going to eat into my work as a musician. But I’m not about to give up music.” Now, she adds, “I wanted to give back to my country but I attracted all the press attention for my role. I tried to put the same emotion I give onstage into my time as a politician.” Ultimately, she was replaced during a cabinet reshuffle.

Would she enter politics again? “It depends who asks,” she smiles. “If José Mujica [the former president of Uruguay] did, I would say yes because he left power with zero corruption.”

If her work in politics remains unresolved, Baca’s musical legacy is robust. Afro-Peruvian music is no longer a niche interest, with younger artists from the country such as the band Novalima and singer Renata Flores incorporating its rhythms into their sounds. “My mission has been accomplished,” she says. “I am a bridge between the older generation and the new, and I see the young people now really embracing Afro-Peruvian music and making it their own – it is flourishing and I don’t fear that it will disappear. It has deep roots.”

As for her musical career, after 50 years in the industry and with a memoir on the way, you might assume that Palabras Urgentes is her swansong. But Baca has other plans, including a forthcoming album to honour her late mentor Chabuca Granda. “I’m not so young any more, so I get tired, but I’m always finding new things that move me,” she says with her eyes briefly closed in thought. “We create with such liberty and that is so powerful. The work only continues.”

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