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Travesías by Susana Baca

Reviewed by Living Abroad Contributing Editor Volker Poelzl

Susana Baca has risen to international stardom in recent years, but her fame came only after spending most of life as a singer and songwriter in relative obscurity. Although she has been instrumental in preserving the musical traditions of her Afro-Peruvian community for decades, she did not gain international attention until David Byrne included her in his compilation “Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru ,” which was released in 1995. Since then Susana Baca has released several CDs of Afro-Peruvian music on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and in 2002 she won the Latin Grammy Award for Best Folk Album, for her CD “Lamento Negro .”

Baca belongs to a small Afro-Peruvian minority, descendents of African slaves, most of whom live in small fishing communities along the Peruvian coast. She began to perform folkloric dance and songs as a child, and she later became increasingly interested in researching, documenting, and preserving the musical and folkloric traditions of her Afro-Peruvian community. Most of her music is based on or inspired by Música Criolla, as Afro-Peruvian music is known in Peru, which includes the landó, a dance song brought to Peru by African slaves, but she also includes elements of Brazilian and Cuban music. This Pan-American approach to songwriting perhaps explains why her music is so well received all over Latin America.

In her latest release Travesias (2006), she moves beyond her Afro-Peruvian musical roots and ventures into new territory. Although the CD includes some Afro-Peruvian songs, Baca mainly explores folk music from other parts of the world. But as much as she opens up her repertoire to music from other cultures, she always remains true to her musical roots in the Música Criolla, as Afro-Peruvian music is known in Peru, which is a unique blend of African and Spanish musical elements. What makes “Travesías” (which means “Passages”) such a successful experiment is the fact that Susana Baca is able to combine the various songs into one coherent musical statement by giving the songs a uniquely personal interpretation similar to her own style of Afro-Peruvian music. She accomplishes this with the characteristic sound of her backup band with acoustic instruments which include guitar, bass, cajón (a wooden box drum) and other percussion instruments, background vocals, and by adding gentle Latin rhythms to the songs from such diverse places as Brazil, Italy, Africa, Haiti, and France. Baca performs a duet with Brazilian songwriter Gilberto Gil (Estrela), which was recorded while touring in Brazil, and even sings a cover of Damien Rice’s “Volcano,” both in English and Spanish. Baca also reveals a penchant for Latin American poetry, and Travesías includes two songs based on poems by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (La Guillermina) and Peruvian poet Manuel Escorsa (Viento del Olvido), which are among the most soulful and emotional songs on the album. In an NPR interview, Baca explained that she particularly likes these two poems because they express the beauty of women. While the overall mood and tempo of her songs are relatively similar, the songs are always enriched by interesting guitar riffs and solos, and her gentle and soulful voice brings great emotion to the songs she performs. “Travesías” is no doubt a successful expansion of Susana Baca’s repertoire and shows her creative spirit and love of experimentation with new musical styles and influences.

Here is a list of Susana Baca’s CD releases:

Susana Baca (1997)
Eco de Sombras (2000)
Lamento Negro (2001)
Espíritu Vivo (2002)
The Best Of Susana Baca (2004)
Travesías (2006)

For more information check out Susana Baca’s page on the Luaka Bop label website.

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