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The sultry power of the Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca

Wednesday, Oct 2 2002
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Afro-Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca was in New York the week of Sept. 11, 2001, recording her fifth and most impressive album, Espiritu Vivo. According to her resultant liner notes, rather than let the horror of the World Trade Center attacks lead her to the rhetoric of revenge (like many of our political leaders), Baca "reaffirmed [her] belief that it is up to everyone to work towards a universal understanding among men so that there will never be any reason for murder and criminal acts."

In the past, the singer has demonstrated universality by imbuing songs from the Afro-Peruvian tradition with contemporary relevance. On her new disc, she takes this concept to its logical next level, expanding the range of both her ensemble and her repertoire. New Yorkers Marc Ribot (guitar) and John Medeski (keyboards) add their world-class chops and energy to her sultry sound, augmenting Baca's outstanding quintet of guitarist Sergio Valdeos, bassist David Pinto, and percussionists Hugo Bravo and Juan Medrano Cotito. On an update of "13 de Mayo," a classic tune by Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso, Medeski drops a few urgent, dissonant chords into his piano solo, marrying cross-cultural aesthetics in an organic way. Other titles of note include a sorrowful version of the jazz ballad "Autumn Leaves," a haunting reworking of Björk's "The Anchor Song," and a natural fusion of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro-Blue" (made famous by jazz legend John Coltrane) with the percussion-rich Cuban folk song "Zum Zum." Though Baca covers a broad range of compositional styles, she retains the passion and purpose of her spirit throughout.

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Sam Prestianni

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