I need to say something that sings to people’s spirits: An Interview with Susana Baca

By - 03 October, 2010

Susana Baca shot to international fame with the release of Afro-Peruvian Classics: Soul of Black Peru, a collection of Afro-Peruvian songs released in 1995 by Luaka Bop, of which Susana’s rendition of “Maria Lando” was one of the highlights. It has led to a slew of recordings over recent years, including the Grammy award-winning Lamento Negro and live-recorded Espiritu Vivo with a number of New York’s finest new wave jazz musicians. This has all helped her life’s mission, which is to promote the Afro-Peruvian culture within Peru, a culture that has at times been maligned in the past. We wanted to find out more about her music, her influences and her centre in Peru where she champions the music she has grown up singing.

First off, I wanted to ask a really broad question, what is it about Afro-Peruvian music that has made you dedicate to your life to the performance and investigation of it?

It’s the music that I grew up with since my first years, and I go back to my childhood with the music. To discover the Afro Peruvian music I realized that it was marginalised by society, and my history lay within this music.

Just how important was Chabuca Granda, first to you, but secondly, to Peruvian folk music in general?

She was an important composer in Peru and she had a sensibility to understand Peru and all its musical diversity. She was inspired by the Andes and the coastal music and she surrounded herself with afro Peruvian musicians and they helped her develop her music. To watch her work and her dedication taught me a lot.

Who are some of the other Peruvian (or Latin American) artists who have really made an impact on your music?

Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodriguez, when they were a part of the Nueva Trova Cubana they influenced me a lot, also Bola de Nieve, Violeta Parra; I learned a lot from her sensitivity and passion. I enjoyed rock and I got to it through Santana, who had a Latin sensibility, I thought it was too noisy but Santana brought out the Latin elements for me. Nicomedes Santa Cruz was one of the Peruvian artists I learned from.

The fact that perhaps a lot of this type of music has been lost in the past, as it has not been recorded, does this make you even more determined to research and perform as much Peruvian music as possible?

Afro Peruvian music was marginalised in Peru and there have been incredible composers who took their work to the grave with them because no one recorded it and that is why I try to recover as much as I can, interviewing elders and I include their songs in my repertoire. I also support young composers like Andres Soto, singing their songs and encouraging them to write more and to take chances.

Would you be able to tell us more about the Centro Experimental de Musical Negrocontinuo? I’ve heard this is where you spend a lot of your time?

El Centro Experimental de Musica has become part of a bigger project, the Cultural Center of Memory, 110 kms South of Lima in the South, in Santa Barbara where there were sugar and cotton plantations where slaves worked. Among Negro Continuo’s latest works have been to organise workshops with children from that region to learn about their history from the music and to create paths to inclusion in society. It went on in 2008-2009. Now I am planning a work to compile music from the province of Canete; to capture the last remaining strands of Afro Peruvian music that have survived and I hope we get there in time to save them.

When you originally received the call stating that David Byrne wanted to come and speak to you, did you ever realise what that would lead to, that you would then release so many albums internationally?

I never imagined it. I only knew that David Byrne had won a Grammy with Talking Heads and an Oscar for the music of the Last Emperor, and the only CD I had was Rei Momo, that belonged to the children of one of my friends. I asked why is a famous guy looking for me? Famous people usually look for other famous people.

Obviously the Mario Lando song from Soul of Black Peru was a breakthrough for yourself in North America, was there a breakthrough in Peru too? I know you’ve spoken before about the fact that women singers were frowned upon in the past in Peru. Now Eva Ayllon is very well known there, as yourself, so when did this stop being an issue?

This was in the generation before ours, Chabuca Granda had to use a pseudonym for her songs, because it was seen as un-becoming for young women to write songs, but this was the generation that preceded us, but we had to struggle, my mother was horrified that I was writing songs. My father was angry that I was singing.

Since you found some fame internationally and have been able to tour worldwide how has your perception of music changed? You have chosen some interesting covers on some albums, such as the songs by Bjork and Damien Rice, yet on the last two albums it seems as if you are just as focused on Peru as ever.

Well, its a permanent search, happily this is the good thing about globalisation and you feel things from other types of music, now I am returning to my roots and my latest CD I return to Afro Latin roots.

I really want to know how you originally met with Marc Ribot and John Medeski for the Espirítu Vivo album. What was it like playing with these musicians?

It was a great human and musical experience. I came to them through the producer Craig Street, when he heard my music and told us that he would like to experiment with musicians form the new wave of jazz in New York.

Your last release Seis Poemas was part tribute to Chabuca Granda and also highlighted the use of poetry again in your music. Why is it that you so often choose poetry as a source for your lyrics?

It is common in Peru, there is a lot of poetry everywhere. In popular music there are songs with lyrics aggressive against women. I didn’t want to sing these songs, so I looked for the words of poets. To sing what the poets say, I need to say something that sings to peoples spirits, sing them poetry.

Okay, I think that’s almost enough questions, just one more. What are your plans for the future? Are there any albums, shows, studies or improvements to the Centro Experimental forthcoming?

The Center is working on research that I told you about and also to continue the workshops for kids, we are finishing a new CD of songs from the Afro Latin diaspora that includes songs from all over Latin America and includes guest artists like the rapper Rene form Calle 13. I just recorded on his new CD.

Buy Susana Baca’s recent EP Seis Poemas at Amazon. We would also recommend her Espiritu Vivo and Travesias albums as well as Afro-Peruvian Classics: the Soul of Black Peru, the compilation that started it all.

More info:

Susana Baca official page at Luaka Bop
Susana Baca Myspace page


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