Susana Baca, more than just a singer, is a poet, a historian, a spelunker and explorer of Afro-Peruvian folklore and music. Her career in song has been clearly marked by a deep interest in singing and performing songs by her musical mentor Chabuca Granda as well as so many other musical genres in the Afro-Peruvian diaspora. Taking the stage of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, Baca, her guitarist Ernesto Hermoza, bassist Oscar Huarango and longtime percussionist Hugo Brava prepared to entertain, educate and entrance a sold out crowd with a musical melange of rhythms, melodies, beats, and dance.
Within the first few strains of a plucky galloping rhythm, a sinuous guitar line and Baca’s melting mellifluous voice, the feeling in the room reached a giddy and rapturous fever. Young, old, Latino, hippie, boho, hipster, all rocked and grooved to the Afro-Peruvian tunes. Baca, dressed in a diaphanous, blue veiled dress danced with elegant ease, embracing the music with her entire body. Her delicate hand movements and slow, slinky slither mirrored the soaring spirit of her song. In gesture, body and voice she was able to translate the grace and beauty of her words into the universal language of life, love and poetry.
One of the most captivating aspects of Baca’s performance was her interplay with her band. While Ernesto Hermoza plucked and picked his nylon stringed acoustic guitar he smiled widely at Baca as she slowly glided towards him singing with verve and exuberance. Hermoza’s riffs and chords danced in perfect step with Susana’s vocal phrasings. Feeling the funky and furious beat, Baca would turn to percussionist Hugo Brava as he palmed, pounded and patted all manner of drums, congas, blocks, jawbones, boxes and cymbals. His speed and skill on the skins at times made him seem like the Buddy Rich of Afro-Peruvain soul.
The bits and pieces of between song stories that Baca unveiled in a soft and shy voice displayed her joy and happiness to be a singer of songs; a poet of the people. She expressed a heartfelt joy to be bringing the folklore of all Peruvians: black, brown, white, Indian, man, woman, worker, rebel to the hearts and minds of an attentive audience. Whether it be the beauty of the tango or the rousing folk fiesta stomps of the native peoples Baca and band performed in harmony, riffing off one another, nodding, smiling and urging each other to profound heights of musical mastery.
One of the greatest touchstones with the audience was “Molino Molero” with its rising and falling beat, its disquieting quiver and boisterous repetitive vocal harmony chants of the title. The thunder and clatter of bongos and congas echoed by Baca’s vocal crescendo. Likewise, Baca’s version of Chabuca Granda’s “Un Cuento Silencioso” hushed the audience with an inspired poetry of song. Baca’s unique voice, rare and refined, stamped this gem of a song with the pure mark of a jazz diva. In Baca dwells the alma and sangre of a grand Peruvian songstress.
Unfortunately and inevitably this night of magic and mystery, this noche of sol y sombre would come to an end but not before multiple and extended standing ovations brought Baca back for her most notable song “Maria Lando”, a Chabuca Granda classic first previewed by Baca on David Byrne’s masterful collection The Soul of Black Peru. “Lando” begins slow and mournfully with a wistful guitar strum, brooding bassline and heavy and weary drumbeat. Baca eventually sings soft and sweet, her voice infused with the dark passion of her character’s life defined by “solo trabajo” (only work).
The rhythms and choruses rose with verve and vigor, enchanting the crowd to clap and sing along. As the final strains of this tune’s folk melody faded into the rich fabric of Baca’s hushed hum, one couldn’t help but be moved by the lush, lyrical lessons of this dramatic and poetic musical interlude. More than any other venue in Chicago, the Old Town School of Folk Music constantly makes good on a shared promise to bring the music, history and folklore of so many cultures to a captive and demanding audience.