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Susana Baca: A Musical Journey With a Legend 

 

 

Saturday/Sunday, September 8/9, 2007.

 

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com 

To listen to Susana Baca’s music is to become immersed in the history of her people, the descendants of enslaved Africans in the country of Peru.

 

Some of Susana’s repertoire is recent, but a lot of it is years and years old. Baca says that she chooses the songs she sings not just because she likes them, but also to honor those who wrote the songs and those who the songs are about. You might say that Susana Baca’s music catalogue is the world’s most beautiful and funkiest history lesson.
 
Baca’s personal history is as fascinating as her music. From her beginnings, growing up in a servant’s alley in
Lima, Peru, to her current status as an internationally-known diva of song, it’s been an inspiring and unlikely journey. But let’s let Susana herself tell it. Along the way, we’ll check out some of her music.

* * *


I was born in Lima and grew up in a small town in Peru called Chorrillos. It was a very small place, a resort where rich people used to spend the summer. There were lovely big houses that faced the ocean, a port, and the population was made up of fishermen and people who worked the fields. A lot of people were from the mountains. The city had five streets and then there were small farms. My father was a chauffeur for a wealthy family and my mother worked as a cook and sometimes washed clothes.
 
I grew up with music all around me. My father played the guitar. In
Lima we lived on a small street, really more of an alleyway where many servants lived, off the main streets past the fancy neighborhoods.

 

My father was the official musician of the alley. Whenever there was a neighborhood party, he would be called to play. He played serranitas which are tales of the Golondrinos, people who came from Los Andes near the coast in the time of cotton-picking.

 

My father learned the serranitas from them in his childhood. They are sung at Christmas: (singing) “Ay, my dove is flying away, she’s gone. Let her go, she’ll soon return.”

 

* * *


“Maria Lando” – from Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul Of Black Peru (1995)
 
This is the song that led to Baca’s international fame. David Byrne, the ex-lead singer of the well-known rock band Talking Heads and current record label owner and champion of South American music fell in love with Baca’s music and included her version of “Maria Lando” on a compilation called The Soul Of Black Peru. The whole collection is good, but even before she became famous, Baca’s song stood out.

In prosaic yet beautifully-worded verse, the song begins with a description of the early morning hours in a small town of
Peru:

 

The dawn breaks like a statue
Like a winged statue spreading across the city
And the
noon rings, a bell made of water
A golden singing bell that keeps us from feeling alone

 

But the rest of the song talks about a servant girl named Maria Lando, for whom “there is no dawn,” “there is no noon,” there is only “lack of sleep,” “suffering,” and “work for others.” The song was composed by Chabuca Granda, a noted Peruvian composer who Baca often mentions as one of her heroes and mentors.

* * *


My mother was always singing. She loved music. I’ll always remember the day she bought a record player. It was a huge event. That was the first time I got to hear those great Cuban records of Beny Moré and Compay Segundo. I have an older sister and brother, and the three of us would sing together.

 

My mother taught us how to dance. She’d say, "How can my children not know how to dance?" And so we sang and danced every afternoon. My sister enrolled in a singing contest on the radio, and we went to watch the broadcast. It left a very strong mark on me.

 

I saw her there and felt as though that was where I wanted to be. My brother made me a stick with a can on the end, which was the microphone. People came and we put on a show. I would drop anything for music.
 
My parents didn’t support this idea in the beginning. My father was strongly opposed to the idea, and my mother originally wanted me to be a teacher. Women in
Peru weren’t supposed to sing on stage. Chabuca Granda told me that she used pseudonyms for her first compositions. Her name did not appear anywhere; otherwise, she would have been ostracized by her family. It was terrible for a woman to be an artist.

 

It was seen as a lowly profession, like prostitution. I tried not to become a professional singer, mainly for my mother’s sake. She thought I wouldn’t be able to earn a living. That’s my mother’s image of musicians. My mother told me many stories about musicians who were not famous like Felipe Pingo, a renowned musician and composer who died of tuberculosis.

 

She said: "This is the destiny of my daughter," and she pushed me to become a teacher. I liked studying to be a teacher; I dedicated myself to being a singer later.

 

* * *


“Molino Molero” – from Susana Baca (1997)

This is a working man song that can be traced back to the early 1800s. The liner notes of the CD describe the song’s history:

It was recovered by José Durand, who heard it from Bartola Sancho Dávila, the famous Peruvian dancer, who had learned it from her aunt, the slave Juana Irujo. The song dates back to the beginnings of the 19th century, and is part of an older work of recovery. The second stanza was added by Ricardo Pereira.

The original lyrics are basically a chant, which translates as: “The mill, crushing mill / Mill alone, grinding.”

* * *


The first African slaves were brought to Peru in about 1500, the same time as the conquest and the discovery of America. The continent was colonized and as soon as they arrived, they brought in slaves to do all the dirty work. It’s so sad, that part. But slave influence has been fundamental in the formation of Peruvian culture and music.

 

Afro-Peruvian music, or my music, utilizes the old music, old songs as well as the ones from today. The culture is Indian, African, and Spanish. African music has basically influenced the entire continent. But because of the different local elements in each place, it may sound different. It’s still African, though. It’s a different way of breathing, a different way of walking and a different way of dancing that result from that mix, but the root of all of it is African.

In
Peru
, black culture in terms of color has disappeared; there’s a very small black population—you find mixed people, like me, or even lighter. But as a culture it is present everywhere. And another thing: blacks also segregate themselves by class or by skin tone. I’ve heard my aunts say, "Marry someone lighter, even an Indian, so that your children will have hair they can comb.”

Nicomedes Santa Cruz, who had a TV program, came onto the scene. He was very important for us blacks, because he revealed the contributions of Afro-Peruvian culture and what had been taken from African culture. He was the first one to demonstrate that Africans who came to
Peru
hundreds of years ago, and their descendants, are still here.

 

He presented lots of black music on his show. There have been evident changes since then. But even today, if you were to ask a woman—not a young woman, younger people mix more—if you were to ask an older woman what would happen if her daughter married a black man or an Indian; she wouldn’t approve for the world. People lose logic in racism.
 
I came face to face with the past and I had to be strong. It’s something that everyone of African origin has to do because our past is immersed in the history of slavery; and that has to be confronted and acknowledged.

 

Ricardo (Baca’s husband) calls it an exorcism. I read a lot; it wasn’t very pleasant. There were moments I didn’t want to continue, I didn’t want to know anymore about the atrocities of history. There’s really no access to this information in Peru, for example, because no one has written about it in history books."

 

* * *


“Caras Lindas” – from Susana Baca (1997)
 
Sometimes, the racism and self-hate suffered by black people all over the Americas seems virtually universal. This is the reason that songs of black pride are so important—they aren’t about self-aggrandizement or feelings of superiority.

 

Instead, they are intended to counteract the ceaseless oppression of being a black person in a hostile environment. Many of Baca’s tunes—including this one—are ‘black pride’ songs. “Caras Lindas” (“Beautiful Faces”) begins:

Las caras lindas de mi gente negra
Son un desfile de melaza en flor
Que cuando pasan frente a mi se alegra
De su negrura todo el corazón

The beautiful faces of my black people
Are a parade of molasses in bloom
And when they pass before me
Their blackness cheers my heart

 

The hesitating, stop-and-start rhythm of this song - and many other Baca songs - is a centuries-old style called landó which originated with the African slaves who were brought to Peru to work the fields and mills.
 

* * *


The trademark of this kind of music is its main element of rhythm. That comes from the African music. Basically this rhythm is not always the same. It can be combined with two or three different rhythms, creating polyrhythms. The sensation you get when you hear this music is the feeling of floating.
 
The common ground between jazz and my music is the element of surprise that the different rhythms in Peruvian music provoke and the surprise of the jazz jam session. I never thought that I was making jazz music until I saw people coming to my concerts from that world. We also leave some spaces for improvisation for the musicians, just like jazz.

When I first met my husband, Ricardo, I was active as a musician, but everything moved so slowly. I dedicated myself to music, and couldn’t devote myself to looking for work or figuring out how to record an album. I thought that if I worked hard enough, I’d find someone who was interested in working with me.

 

I realized, after many years, that no one was interested in what I was singing, which was poetry. I was black, singing black music. It was a big problem. We knocked on so many doors looking for backers. Then one fine day, Ricardo said, "I’m not looking anymore. I’m not knocking on anymore doors." We held a concert and recorded it. That’s how I made my first recording. We created our own record label together."

* * *


“La Noche Y El Día” – from Espíritu Vivo (2002)

A love song that was recorded in
New York City the week of September 11th. Baca says: “Hopeless love to the rhythm of landó. … I am drawn to the journeys of this song. You travel through the rhythms of black Peruvians, seamlessly on to Spain and back again, all the while the song remains, without doubt, Afro-Peruvian.”

I like the dichotomy of this song, how the dramatic, forlorn style of the melody, which draws on European culture, contrasts with the thumping sound of the cajon, or box-drum, which can be traced back to Africa.

 

* * *


"When I was young, I found myself singing old folksongs and was curious where they came from. I then started asking my mother about the origins of both the music and the instruments, including the cajon. This led to a magnificent mother-daughter dialogue and spawned my passion to research Afro-Peruvian music. There was nothing ever written about our music or our history, so I went out in search of oral history.
 
One of the other things I did to survive monetarily in
Peru was teach dance, which I really liked because it was within my realm. I’d go to schools and teach the kids, kids that are now grown up and will never forget those classes. Now they’re professed lovers of Afro-Peruvian culture. I wanted my own dance space to keep teaching. So we sank everything into building an institute in Chorrillos offering rehearsal space to young musicians, a library and a place where they could listen to music. We gave singing classes, dance classes, everything. It’s still operating and people come from everywhere to use the resources.

Younger musicians are mixing rock with festejo, with rap, with salsa. People are looking for a new sound, and they don’t respect any boundaries. There’s not so much a movement, but we’ve opened our Institute so that people can come in and listen, read, and learn about the music. I think a movement will come, a group of musicians who come together—right now there’s no centralized place for the artists. That’s what we’re trying to do with our Institute."

* * *


“Estrela” – from Travesías (2006)

A Gilberto Gil composition from Baca’s newly-released musical travelogue. On her new album, Baca sings songs from all over the world, including Brazil, Chile, France, Ireland, Haiti, Italy and of course, Peru. As a result, the album is less ‘traditional’ and more ‘musical’ sounding then some of her other recordings.

 

If you like the sound of this song, you’ll probably like the entire album. If you prefer the more stripped-down, rhythm-heavy approach Baca used earlier in her career, try the Susana Baca album. By the way, “Estrela” is collaboration with Gilberto Gil and the Tosca Strings from Austin, Texas.

 

* * *


"Some of the students haven’t been able to continue with classes. Not because of money, because we get scholarships for everyone who is serious. But there’s the economic situation. People aren’t spending money on bands and music, so there are fewer places to perform and fewer recordings being made. Artists in Peru have to have five, six, seven jobs just to get by. My group, we practice in the morning, which is crazy for musicians, but they have to run around all day doing other jobs.
 
I would like to expand Negro Continuo, our institute. We have expanded a lot lately, we made a recording space. There are so many talented young people with tons of compositions who can’t record them. They’re not commercial, so record labels aren’t interested. It’s the same old story.

 

I also have a bunch of things to record—songs I want to leave on records. It’s important, because young blacks are not proud of being black. There is an extraordinary singer in Peru who’s Afro-Peruvian, like I am, but she doesn’t want to be black. She doesn’t feel it. Why? Because she doesn’t know about the past, she doesn’t realize how important the African presence is. Blacks are always stigmatized. The result of that stigmatization is that young black people do whatever they can not to feel black.

My CD doesn’t sell in
Peru
. People look for it and they can’t find it because the distributors aren’t interested in carrying it. My dream is to sing in my own country, [but] to give a concert in my own country, I’d have to pay for it myself. People are very poor, you have to charge practically nothing so that people will come. I’d like to give concerts for free, but it’s expensive. We’ve gone to sing in dining halls, public cafeterias.

I was on CNN in
Peru the other day, and afterwards I was walking in the street and the people recognized me. I went to the market and people ran after me, called my name. They hugged me and told me nice things. And when I do interviews on the radio and sing, people call in and ask, "But when are you going to perform in Peru
?"

I would like to be remembered for my voice, of course. But also for helping to spread the music of my ancestors—all those people who were never recognized for their work or for their beautiful culture.
 

 

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 mtume_s@yahoo.com.

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