Arts Desk

Singer Susana Baca Talks About Her Musical Style

In 1995, David Byrne's Luaka Bop label released Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru, a compilation that begins with a song by then-lesser-known vocalist Susana Baca. Since gaining global attention, the singer has won two Latin Grammys, served as Peru’s Minister of Culture, and from 2011 to 2013 was the chair of the Inter-American Committee on Culture of the Organization of American States.

Described by some as a Latin folk artist, Baca's music is quite a bit more rhythmic; she weaves her strong-voiced  and poetic lyrics with Afro-Peruvian beats played on a wooden box called a cajon and a burro’s jawbone known as a quijada, as well as guitar and bass. But even that doesn't begin to describe Baca's music. Via email (written in Spanish by Baca and translated by her management), she explained more about her musical approach, working with reggaeton duo Calle 13, New York jazz players, and her future recording plans.

Baca has recorded 12 albums since 1987, but she says her performance tonight at the Howard Theatre will include lots of songs from her most recent album, 2011’s Afrodiaspora. "It's difficult to choose the repertoire," she writes, "because I have so many songs, and sometimes I just choose at random which song to perform.” On Afrodiaspora, she pays tribute to African immigrants from throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and New Orleans. Collaborating with Calle 13 on this album and on the song “Latinoamerica” from their album, Entren Los Que Quieran, was also exciting for Baca. “I loved doing this work with people who are young enough to be my children," she wrote. "I admire them and their daring way of talking. They are protest singers of this era.”

Baca, who began singing as a child, is also influenced by Cuban, Mexican, and Argentinean songs she heard on the radio as well as by native Inca singers. She credits the work of vocalist Nicomedes Santa Cruz with putting Afro-Peruvian lyrical compositions on the map beginning in the 1950s. “ I liked [his] authenticity... It gave him a magical force that you could feel when he played music," she writes. "I learned to be persistent from him, in order to get people to hear you.”

Her openness to various musical styles also led her to record several albums with producer Craig Street—who previously worked with Norah Jones—and Big Apple jazz musicians Marc Ribot and John Medeski. And while she  says she “would love to work [again] in New York with people in the scene there,” this musical explorer has a different sort of project lined up: a collaboration with a Nigerian vocal group.

Susana Baca performs at 8 p.m. tonight at the Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW. Tickets are available online and at the Howard's box office.

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