PERU: Susana Baca - Susana Baca
Updated: Jan 20
One can understand why ex-Talking Heads front man David Byrne wanted to showcase this singer's work after listening to this painfully poetic album in which Africa meets the Andes
I recently heard a quote from American civil rights activist Maya Angelou who said: “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”. I could not help but be reminded of this idea, which appears in Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, when listening to Susana Baca’s self-titled 1997 album. Baca’s album felt like a cathartic experience in which the singer was able to find beauty within tales of sorrow, particularly those that refer to the persecution of black people throughout history. Whilst being able to understand the lyrics is not a necessity to still enjoy the enchanting melodies of Susana Baca, it is perhaps a far more fulfilling experience to first learn a bit about the context in which this album was produced and why Baca’s work still bears relevance today.
“More often than not she reminds me of the frustration of the Afro-Peruvian experience, that even a sparrow-hawk or a heavy shower of rain can lead to her total despair with the injustices of life itself.”
Baca, at points within the album, sings with a deep melancholy about the treatment of black people in Peru, both throughout history and at the time when she released the album in the late '90s. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that she is proud of her African heritage, and showcases it perfectly on this album. Part of the way that she does that is through the use of the cajón (a Peruvian box-shaped percussion instrument that is played whilst sat on top of it) throughout the album, including at the start of her showcase opening track Negra Presentuosa (Conceited Black Girl). The reason why the cajón serves as a reminder of her African heritage is due to the fact that it brings a uniquely African beat to it that is not heard in most traditional Latin music. This can be heard especially clearly in the songs Molino Molero (Windmill Maker) and in the soothing Tu Mirada Y Mi Voz (Your Face and My Voice). Like any form of resistance art, the cajón is thought to be a product of a burning desire that African slaves in Peru had to create new instruments and new dances that resembled those from their homelands. Simply in using the cajón as a major instrument in this stunning album, Baca is demonstrating the ingenuity of the ‘bozales’ (a derogatory word used to describe those slaves who were born in Africa) who created an instrument that can make an array of wonderful sounds.
Lyrically her music contains tragic albeit empowering messages about the Afro-Peruvian experience. The song Caras Lindas (Pretty Faces) dedicated to this theme includes the line ‘las caras lindas de mi raza prieta, tienen de llanto de pena y dolor’ which means ‘the pretty faces of my dark race, they have tears of pain and suffering’. This song is particularly hopeful as it crescendos with wonderful harmonising that gets louder, faster and more powerful. Another comes from the final track Señor De Los Milagros (Lord of Miracles) in which Baca sings to ‘Cristo Hermano Negro’ (Black Brother Christ) in almost a prayer-like fashion of devotion and desperation.
Moreover, Baca’s songs do not exclusively point towards her African heritage. Whilst for the most part Baca’s voice is almost caressing in its tone, there is one song that takes a wholly different approach. Se Me Van Los Pies (My Feet Go) has a primal shamanic chant-like quality, perhaps a recognition of her country’s tradition of ayahuasca shamanism. Nonetheless for the majority of the album she sings poetic lyrics with an equally forlorn tone to songs that allude to the treatment of black people in Peru. The Peruvian star, who for a short while entered the political arena and became the second Afro-Peruvian cabinet minister in the nation’s history, often simply dramatises mundane stories and fills them with emotion. An example of this is the opening line to the song Heces (Faeces),’ in which she sings about the drudgery of life in the capital city Lima. She sings ‘esta tarde llueve, como nunca; y no tengo ganas de vivir, corazón’ (this afternoon it's raining like never before, and I don’t have energy to live, my love). These theatrical lyrics had me smiling straight away, before I got to then enjoy the modest guitar sound that accompanies Baca’s tremendous vocals.
My favourite song from the album Lunas Llenas (Full Moons), which features a pan flute demonstrating the fusion between African and traditional Peruvian music, contains the line ‘anda muchacho a la casa y me traes la carabina pa’ mata’ este gavilán que no me deja gallina’ (Go boy to the house and bring me my rifle to kill this sparrow-hawk that won't leave my turkey alone). The vivid imagery that Baca paints is sometimes comical on the surface level, but dig a little bit deeper and more often than not Baca reminds me of the frustration of that the challenging Afro-Peruvian experience has entailed. She subtly does this through her seemingly throwaway lyrics about her irritation with a bird or even a heavy shower of rain. The fact that these more trivial things can lead to her entering a state of total despair, to me indicates how fed up she is with the injustices of life itself, and this is likely to be a result of centuries of societal oppression. Overall, whilst this album demonstrates exasperation and pain about the Afro-Peruvian journey, the very fact that she can express these emotions and gain some commercial success, demonstrates that the African soul that exists in Peru is flourishing and is able to speak out, despite the hardships it has faced surviving in the Andean nation throughout history.