On Susana Baca's covers
By Mtume ya Salaam
14 The Anchor Song (Baca).mp3 (7.99 MB)
Susana Baca is an interpreter of song. On occasion, she writes or arranges lyrics or music, but for the most part, she performs the music of others. Baca doesn’t just sing songs though, she inhabits them. She chooses only songs that have meaning for her, songs that resonate with her either personally or culturally.
On her early albums, Baca performed Peruvian songs almost exclusively, but it’s been ten years since Baca’s international debut. Since then, she’s branched out to sing music from all over the world. Through all of it though, two trademarks remain. The dry, thumping sound of the Peruvian cajon (box drum) and Baca’s sweetly ethereal vocals.
After watching Baca and her band perform live, one reviewer was struck by Baca’s seemingly contradictory combination of voice and drum. He wrote: “On tune after tune, Ms. Baca’s gorgeous voice, with its intimations of fragility, repeated phrases with a tranquility that bordered on stillness. The percussionists, using complicated, loping patterns, made a rhythmic mesh behind her that grew solid and intense, only to slip away into languor.”
Baca’s latest album, Travesías, is a collection of songs from Europe, South America and different islands of the Caribbean.
We’re going to hear two songs from that album, “Né Quelque Part” (“Born Somewhere”) and “Volcano.” The former is composed by singer-songwriter Maxime le Forestier, a Parisian whose music I’m not familiar with but who has apparently had a long and storied career in his native France.
The songs lyrics talk about birth and identity—“One chooses not his parents / One chooses not his family.” On Baca’s version, both the heavy backbeat and the Marc Ribot’s rock-style guitar solo are indicative of the ‘internationalization’ of Baca’s sound.
I hesitate to use the word ‘commercialization,’ because none of Baca’s music is particularly commercial. I doubt that a Top 40 hit is in her future.
The second song from Travesías is a cover of “Volcano,” a tune by Irish neo-folk/alternative singer Damien Rice. “Volcano” is one of my favorite songs of recent years. I like the original a lot, but I might like Baca’s cover even more. The instrumentation is absurdly lush, creating a beautiful setting for Baca’s delicate vocals.
Another great cover from the Espíritu Vivo album is Baca’s remake of Caetano Veloso’s “13 De Mayo.” Veloso wrote (translated from Portuguese), “May 13th in Santa Amaro / In the Market Square / Black people used to celebrate / Still do, maybe.”
The song’s lyrics remind me of New Orleans’ Congo Square, where the slaves used to congregate on Sunday to sing, dance and play the drums.
And indeed, Baca comments about the song, “Caetano Veloso tells a story that is common to all people. When there’s something to celebrate, black people have something that is without time, place, language, belonging—it is part of everybody, it is a thread that joins the body with music.” Both of these versions are wonderful—Veloso’s melody sounds like a dancer looks, swaying and bending with the music.
We’ll close with my favorite Susana Baca cover—“The Anchor Song,” originally written and performed by the Icelandic chanteuse Björk Guömundsdóttir, who, understandably, records and performs using her first name only.
At first, “The Anchor Song”—a hymn to the seductive power of the sea—would seem an odd choice for a black Peruvian to sing, but recall Baca’s description of the small coastal town where she grew up: “There were lovely big houses that faced the ocean, a port, and the population was made up of fishermen….” About “The Anchor Song,” Baca says, “It transports me and I feel it could be mine. That sea, that door to the house, it’s a bridge….” In other words, the ocean is in Baca’s blood.
Susana Baca is not only one of the great singers of South American and African-derived music, she is also one of the great interpreters of song.
She is more than a premier performer. To simply call her a "diva" diminishes her contribution. Susana is the Queen Mother/Griot of Afro-Peruvian music. Moreover, I know of no Black singer who occupies a similar position and has done comparable work in both the artistic and intellectual spheres.
She doesn’t sing purely for the pleasure of making music, but to convey, with drama and joy; that life is stronger than ever and continues with a living Spirit.
With thanks to www.kalamu.com/bol where this piece was originally posted.
Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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