Susana Baca’s voice isn’t so much an instrument to name things but to paint them through sound so that we can see them perfectly if we close our eyes. When she sings, the sound is glacial, uninterrupted and echoey like that of a mournful wind sweeping over the Peruvian páramo . With her music, she recreates Peru, the brilliant light and the melancholy of the cordilleras , as well as the history of black slavery, imbued nonetheless with sensuality.
In person, Susana Baca is as complex as her music. Five minutes into our interview, she manages to establish an atmosphere of intimacy: Susana laughs, sings to illustrate a point, weeps (remembering the breakup of her parents) and expresses her outrage (without bitterness) about racism in Peru. She is unaffected, warm, supremely serious about her work as a historian and performer of Afro-Latin music, a conversation with her is as pleasurable and as richly rewarding as listening to one of her discs.
Jaime Manrique Susana, tell us a little about the black culture in Peru.
Susana Baca Its presence in terms of color has disappeared; there’s a very small black population—you find mixed people, like me, or even lighter, like you. But as a culture it is present everywhere.
JM What was life like in Chorrillos, the neighborhood where you grew up?
SB It was a very small place, a resort where rich people used to spend the summer. There were lovely big houses that faced the ocean, a port, and the population was made up of fishermen and people who worked the fields. A lot of people were from the mountains. The city had five streets and then there were small farms. I grew up in Chorrillos, but I was born in Lima.
JM What did your parents do?
SB My father was a chauffeur for a powerful family and my mother worked as a cook and sometimes washed clothes. My mother could have been a very famous chef.
JM Your parents were musicians as well?
SB My father played the guitar. In Lima we lived in an alleyway, the kind that are off the main streets beyond the fancy neighborhoods—where the servants lived. Father was the official musician of the alley. Whenever there was a party they called him. He played serranitas, tales of the Golondrinos, people who came from Los Andes toward the coast in the epoch of cotton-picking. They traveled from place to place, entire families, like nomads. My father learned the serranitas from them in his childhood. They’re sung at Christmas: (singing) Ay, my dove is flying away, she’s gone. Let her go, she’ll soon return.
JM Did you have brothers or sisters?
SB Yes, an older sister and brother. I was the youngest.
JM Are they singers?
SB The three of us would sing together. My mother taught us how to dance. She’d say, “How can my children not know how to dance?” And so we sang and danced every afternoon. Later on, my mother bought—it was an event—a record player; I imitated everything. She had albums of Marinera con Banda.
JM That was the epoch of Cuban music, the music of Beny Moré…La Sonora Matacenera, Bola de Nieves, of course.
SB Yes, the music of Beny Moré, what were referred to as the “compadres.” Later on, Compay Segundo, who was the youngest of them all, became very famous.
JM When did you start thinking you would be a singer?
SB It was a longing. My sister enrolled in a singing contest on the radio, and we went to watch the broadcast. It left a very strong mark on me. I saw her there and felt as though that was where I wanted to be.
JM You mean, in front of an audience?
SB Yes, my brother made me a stick with a can on the end, that was the microphone. People came and we put on a show. I would drop anything for music.
JM You had music in your bones. That’s what artists are like. Once we’re hooked, we can’t stop—no matter what. Doing what one wants becomes the only way to survive.
SB I tried not to do it—mainly for my mother. She thought I wouldn’t have anything to live off. That’s my mother’s image of musicians. My mother told me many stories. I used to come home late from work, or studying, she’d wake up and start talking about musicians who were not famous—like Felipe Pingo, a renowned musician and composer who died of tuberculosis. She said, “This is the destiny of my daughter,” and she pushed me to become a teacher. I liked studying to be a teacher; I dedicated myself to being a singer later.
JM Do you think your mother’s fear had to do with the fact that you’re a woman?
SB That too. Chabuca Granda told me that she used pseudonyms for her first compositions. It was terrible for a woman to be an artist. It was seen as a lowly profession, like prostitution.
JM You studied, but you kept on singing.
SB I was always the singer at school. I’d represent the university against other universities. It was something I liked to do, nothing more.
JM How did you meet Chabuca Granda?
SB It’s a funny story. She was very well known.
JM I knew her songs even in Colombia.
SB It’s incredible, but in our countries, people can’t live off their music. Fortunately, she had an economic base; she was middle class, not exactly big money. She was a composer, everyone admired her, but you only heard the three or four songs she was well known for. The radio and television didn’t play everything. One day, I met some musicians looking for their roots in Andean music. I had played with one or another of them on different occasions, though never as a group. Sometimes I’d search them out, and we’d work on my songs. Along the way I’d walk under the Miraflores and I always heard music, Chabuca’s voice and a guitar. I thought maybe she lived there.
Then a friend of mine took me to a poetry gathering for the university. It was at Montairo, on the border of a lake in Cauca, and I participated: the poets read and I sang songs by Neruda.
JM Have you recorded any of those?
SB Yes, a few years ago in Cuba—I have enough to do a record.
JM That would be beautiful. And so you met Chabuca Granda at the poetry gathering?
SB Her life was tied to poets. My friend came to me and said, “I’ve got the opportunity to meet Chabuca Granda. Do you want to come?” Ay, I was ready in five minutes.
JM Did you sing for her?
SB She had a guitarist accompanying her, and then I stood up—I wouldn’t do that today—the audacity of youth. But I stood up and sang her songs. She loved it—my voice, everything. From that moment, she adopted me. My husband and I went to her house and made plans. She said, “I’m putting you in charge of my estate, I’m giving you the keys.”
JM Was she indigenous?
SB Yes, she was born in the highlands of Apurima. Her father was a mining engineer and went up there with his family to work. When she was older, she returned to her native land. Her whole family hides the fact that she was from Apurima.
SB Because there is incredible racism against Indians and blacks in Peru, although the country has never wanted to accept that fact. I have these memories of racism—in childhood you don’t realize what it is, but when you’re grown up you say, “Ay, that’s racism.”
JM My father was white and my mother is black. He always referred to my mother’s family as “those negros!” Of course I felt ashamed of my mother’s family, because that’s how my father talked about them.
SB Right, as though you’re living inside those words. In Peru, the blacks fighting Indians is a terrible thing. At university, I met Indians, people who came from the mountains, classmates who lived in my dormitory. After university I went to the mountains with a friend of mine to the harvest of the choclo and learned about their culture.
JM Did you encounter a lot of racism when you started singing songs about blacks, like “Negra Presuntuosa,” for example?
SB It’s different now. There’s been some change in Peru since the ’60s.
JM There’s been a little change throughout Latin America.
SB Nicomedes Santa Cruz, who had a TV program, came onto the scene. He was very important for us blacks, because he revealed the contributions of Afro-Peruvian culture and what had been taken from African culture. He was the first one to demonstrate that Africans who came to Peru hundreds of years ago, and their descendants, are still here. He presented lots of black music on his show. There have been evident changes since then. But even today, if you were to ask a woman—not a young woman, younger people mix more—if you were to ask an older woman what would happen if her daughter married a black man or an Indian; she wouldn’t approve for the world. People lose logic in racism.
JM Strange, it seems to me that in Peru whites are probably a minority. I imagine that the majority of the population is of indigenous Andean origin.
SB Yes, and another thing: blacks also segregate themselves. By class, or the lighter from the darker. I’ve heard my aunts say, “Marry someone lighter, even an Indian, so that your children will have hair they can comb.”
JM Talk a little about your voice.
SB When I first met my husband, Ricardo, I was busy, but everything moved so slowly. I dedicated myself to music, and couldn’t dedicate myself to looking for work or figuring out how to record an album. I thought that if I worked hard enough, I’d find someone who was interested in working with me. I realized, after many years, that no one was interested in what I was singing—poetry. I was black, singing black music. It was a big problem. We knocked on so many doors looking for backers. Then one fine day, Ricardo said, “I’m not looking anymore. I’m not knocking on anymore doors.” We held a concert and recorded it. That’s how I made my first recording. We created our own record label together.
JM He’s your manager, too.
SB He’s my manager. He works very hard, always coordinating. You don’t know what it’s like for us to come here. It’s still difficult to accept the internationalization of our lives. It takes so much time and dedication.
JM How long have you been together?
SB About 20 years.
JM How did you meet him?
SB He’s Bolivian. After he left university he came to Peru on his way to his brother’s in Venezuela. His mother wanted to get him out of the country because he was going through an adolescent phase of extremist ideology. But he stayed in Peru; there’s something about Lima that traps you. We met each other and thought we’d live together for a little while, not too long, just to be together and enjoy each other. Then one day, we realized we couldn’t be apart. Meeting him was fundamental to my life. He organizes my life, my things, my work. I can dedicate myself to music.
JM Do you have a house in Peru?
SB In Lima. We built a house so we could fulfill our desire to do research. For the past two years, we’ve dedicated ourselves exclusively to an investigation of the contribution of blacks to Peruvian music.
JM Have you published it?
SB We edited a book and an album in ’92 called Fuego y Agua (Fire and Water) here in the United States. You’d think we did it somewhere else. (laughter) I came face to face with the past and I had to be strong. It’s something that everyone of African origin has to do because our past is immersed in the history of slavery; and that has to be confronted and acknowledged. Ricardo calls it an exorcism. I read a lot; it wasn’t very pleasant. There were moments I didn’t want to continue, I didn’t want to know anymore about the atrocities of history. There’s really no access to this information in Peru, for example, because no one has written about it in history books.
JM It’s the same in Colombia, complete silence.
SB People have to liberate themselves from the obstacles—from the conquest, from colonization. It’s happened, it’s over, we’ve already lived through it.
JM Tell me about your relationship with the rest of Latin American music, Afro-Latino music for example. Colombian music. What about Brazilian and Cuban music?
SB Nothing as in-depth as in our Peruvian work, but I’ve done research. It is difficult to follow the route of the slave in Latin America. I’ve gotten close to black music in different countries and I also did an album called Vestida de Vida (Dressed with Life), using music from Uruguay, called candonbe. I had some recordings of candonbe by Silas Rosas and I have the instruments in my house. Of course, we all know the milongaand the chicarera.
JM Does the milonga have an African origin?
SB The tango, too. This new album has been a challenge. I chose the songs for their lyrics.
JM Almost all of them have the same tone; lyrical and also melancholic. That’s what impresses me most, the tone.
SB That’s what tango is like: I’m interpreting. A piece like “La Mecorina,” for example, is about the contradanza in Europe and its influence in America. We have so many rhythms, we wonder which one is the mother of which? I sense it’s the contradanza, but I can’t prove it yet.
JM You are a historian as well as an interpreter of Latin American music?
SB Just curious, I’d say. In Argentina, you don’t find blacks, it’s a very small population. African influence is denied in history. It’s the same in Peru, Argentina and Uruguay.
JM And in Chile and Bolivia?
SB Bolivia has incredible music; sometimes it feels American, and sometimes African. I’ve put a lot of emphasis on Afro-Bolivian music. Los Jareas are at the root of that; Julio Iglesias brought them to Europe and made them known throughout the world. They play the saya, which is Afro-Bolivian.They have one way of playing it and if you listen to interpretations by other Afro-Bolivian groups, it’s different. Nuances, important nuances.
JM Speaking with you makes me realize how important recuperating the past is to you. Singing it makes it as though it wasn’t all in vain. It didn’t disappear.
SB The amount of songs and music lost in Peru is incredible. An old musician dies and his tradition dies with him. The worst part is that the youth don’t know about it. They’re searching through the music they hear on the radio, which is too heavy. Young people go to the Andean, but they can’t locate the Afro. Nicomedes and all the others are dead. What’s heard on radio and TV is very commercial. At times, I’ve felt that it denigrates the memory of the musicians who came before with its triviality.
JM It’s been vulgarized.
SB Exactly. What you can say or teach is erased in one blow by TV. The young musician growing up at home has the TV as his sanctuary. But the eagerness among students and young musicians in the university brought them to knock on our doors. The professors told them, “Susana Baca has information, go look for her.” And so they’d knock on my door and I would let them into my home. “There are the books, read them, sit down.” By the time our research was done, we had boxes full of documents and recordings. In Piura, for example, in the north, up close to Ecuador, there’s a radio station owned by some Spanish priests dedicated to gathering and saving recordings. They let me in their archive to search and record whatever I wanted. I have all that material in my house. So now I’m going to look for a bigger house where I can exhibit all this marvelous information.One of the other things I did to survive monetarily in Peru was teach dance, which I really liked because it was within my realm. I’d go to schools and teach the kids, kids that are now grown up and will never forget those classes. Now they’re professed lovers of Afro-Peruvian culture. I wanted my own dance space to keep teaching. So we sank everything into building an institute in Chorrillos offering rehearsal space to young musicians, a library and a place where they could listen to music. We gave singing classes, dance classes, everything. It’s still operating and people come from everywhere to use the resources.
JM In the 21st century in Latin America—for the first time in our history since the conquest—all our indigenous, Afro-American and Latin American cultures are going to be of great importance. They are just beginning to flourish. Blacks and Indians have been completely oppressed and it seems that will start changing. The change appears to be happening in music and with icons like you.
SB There’s a lot of hope. David Byrne’s album of black Peruvian music was very important. It created a gateway for the rest of us. It generates interest; people come to Peru searching for our music. I hope doors will be opened for all kinds of music. Many people are doing things of great value in complete anonymity.
JM Is there government support for artists?
SB Not a lot, because our country is always in crisis. The most important concern is to rebuild the country, regain strength. We are at the bottom of the list in Peru, and penniless. Now there’s no more terrorism and the economy has recovered. But we still have only pennies in our pockets. We can’t just go buy things; we have to save what little money we have.
JM Now you’re world famous and highly admired. What dreams do you still have? What more is left that you haven’t yet done?
SB I would like to expand Negro Continuo, our institute. We have expanded a lot lately, we made a recording space. There are so many talented young people with tons of compositions who can’t record them. They’re not commercial, so record labels aren’t interested. It’s the same old story. I also have a bunch of things to record—songs I want to leave on records.
JM In addition to your dream of having a place to record all your songs, and those of young musicians, what else do you desire?
SB I’d like to do the camino de regreso (journey backwards): research, investigation, traveling to Spain and then Africa.
JM Have you been to Africa?
SB Only to change planes, I don’t know it at all. Of course, I know it through the music. I know the music of Spain and Africa, how it’s diffused through Europe.
JM When was the liberation of slaves in Peru?
SB In 1844.
JM And when did the slaves start to arrive in Peru?
SB In about 1500, the same time as the conquest and the discovery of America. The continent was colonized and as soon as they arrived, they brought in slaves to do all the dirty work. It’s so sad, that part. But slave influence has been fundamental in the formation of Peruvian culture and music. Afro-Peruvian music, or my music, utilizes the old music, old songs as well as the ones from today. The culture is Indian, African, Spanish. I sang the serranitas for you a little while ago, from Afro-Peruvian folklore, but Peru is a mixture. We are those three fountains.
JM What you mean is that you’d like to express everything that Peru is made of.
SB It’s important, because young blacks are not proud of being black. There is an extraordinary singer in Peru who’s Afro-Peruvian, like I am, but she doesn’t want to be black. She doesn’t feel it. Why? Because she doesn’t know about the past, she doesn’t realize how important the African presence is. Blacks are always stigmatized. The result of that stigmatization is that young black people do whatever they can not to feel black.
JM Is there something you don’t have that you wish for?
SB To sing in my own country. To give a concert in my own country, I’d have to pay for it myself. People are very poor, you have to charge practically nothing so that people will come. I’d like to give concerts for free, but it’s expensive. We’ve gone to sing in dining halls, public cafeterias.
JM When was the last time you gave a big concert in Peru?
SB We gave a concert at Christmas, but it was hosted by an entity that only invited ambassadors. We wanted to give it in a plaza. They said no, because there were too many problems. There had just been that terrorist attack at the Japanese Embassy. They didn’t want to expose the ambassadors to a large crowd. In Peru, you still have to be careful about things like that.
JM But your songs are on the radio, right?
SB No, my CD doesn’t sell there. People look for it and they can’t find it because the distributors aren’t interested in carrying it.
JM Even with your international fame?
SB Even with all that. I was on CNN in Peru the other day, and afterwards I was walking in the street and the people recognized me. I went to the market and people ran after me, called my name. They hugged me and told me nice things. And when I do interviews on the radio and sing, people call in and ask, “But when are you going to perform in Peru?” It might happen in October at an event around Afro-Peruvian culture; there will be many musicians. If I sing, it would only be two or three songs.
JM What is it that motivates you? What is the force that maintains your creative flow?
SB Seeing the work of others fills me with life.
Translated from the Spanish by Eva Golinger.