“Palabras Urgentes”: Susana Baca’s New Album as Past and Prophecy

    Susana Baca

    Susana Baca is constructed as a two-headed figure in Peruvian cultural and political life. Over the course of her 50-year musical career, 77-year old Baca has gained international recognition as an Afro-Peruvian musician and folklorist, whose music weaves together pieces of Peruvian history in every album, song, and lyric. A writer and singer of Afro-Peruvian folk music, Baca is also cemented in the political realm of Peru. Her second head emerged in 2011, when she joined the Peruvian cabinet as the Minister of Culture under President Ollanta Humala. While she had committed her musical career to verbalize the racial and class struggle she both lived and witnessed in Peru, her position in the cabinet granted her newfound visibility and power to institutionalize change. Her two heads—as both an artist and a leader—are inevitably connected and entangled.

    On October 8th, 2021, Susana Baca released her latest album “Palabras Urgentes,” translated as “Urgent Truths” in English. Listening to “Palabras Urgentes” I found myself entranced by the sheer sonic power of the album. Enveloped in complex instrumentals, Baca’s rich vocals generate the sort of urgency connoted by the album’s title. For non-Spanish speakers listening to the album, I imagine a desperate itch for translation; the desire to understand the meaning behind Baca’s words perhaps generating an even greater urgency. I find myself wanting to simply experience the auditory pleasure of the album, but also tempted to pause after the song and ruminate on her lyrical offerings. In her urgent messaging about racism, global warming, and general conflict in her country: Baca is both an orator of history and prophet of the future. 

    In “Palabras Urgentes,” the ghosts of Peruvian icons and history are not only conjured, but reimagined and remapped in their contemporary forms. “Her music is not [just] museum music,” asserts Felix Contreras from NPR’s podcast “All Things Considered” in response to the description of the album as featuring small history lessons in every track. Rather Baca’s music “is still very vital. It’s still very present.” 1 “La herida oscura,” the album’s opening track, was written by Baca’s friend Chabuca Granda as an homage to the guerilla Micaela Bastidas, a guerilla leader in the fight for Peruvian independence.2 The “trenzas” Baca sings of making reference to the braids that forever memorialize the Incan leader who led the revolt against Spanish colonial rule alongside her husband Tupac Amaru II. The evocation of an 18th century revolutionary on the opening track of an album entitled “Palabras Urgentes” or “Urgent Truths” implies that the past should be treated with a sense of urgency or as an informant of the future.

    Slow and ominous at its start, “Color de rosa” journeys across musical tone and historical memory. Although initially centered on Baca’s wailing vocals, the emotional quality of the track slowly shifts with the introduction of a guitar. The track ultimately morphs into an expression of hope in the final minute and a half with the addition of percussion. Baca’s lament on the legacies of bloodshed and displacement on Peruvian lands is met with possibility of change and transformation. “Y la tierra robada color de llanto/ Y mi casa, y mi corazón color de fuego/ Color de combate/ Color de esperanza.” “And the stolen land color of tears/ And my house, and my heart color of fire/ Color of combat/ Color of hope.”

    In a 2011 interview, Baca describes how her music skyrocketed in international recognition following David Byrne’s discovery of her track “Maria Lando.”3 Following his discovery, Byrne, the former frontman of the Talking Heads, had Baca record six albums on his label Luaka Bop. “Para que me hagan caso en mi país mi música ha tenido que salir fuera y regresar cuando David Byrne sacó el primer disco mío en los Estados Unidos.” Baca states, “In order to be noticed in my country, my music has had to go outside of it and return when David Byrne put out my first album in the United States.”4 In this statement, Baca nods to the luck and randomness that facilitated her musical career’s success internationally and domestically. Byrne’s cherry picking amongst the Peruvian musical landscape has a direct impact on which names are immortalized and which are erased. 

    Music reviewers across the globe laud Baca as a summation of the various influences of Peru. She sings of the experiences of marginalized Peruvians, namely, the indigenous and Afro-Peruvian communities. Despite the grain of truth in popular culture’s larger-than-life conception of Baca, the result is that the complexities of an entire nation are reduced to a single individual. Baca, in effect, is required to embody Peruvian history. To be a representative or a prophet is to also participate in the death of humanity. The individual, nuanced experience becomes silenced and sacrificed to a larger amalgamation of “Peruvian identity.” In that sense, she shoulders one head for herself as an individual, and another head for a larger symbolic identity. In the face of this impossible task, Baca persists in producing beautiful music that captures transformations across geographical time and space.

    Footnotes

    1 Ayana Contreras, Felix Contreras, Robin Hilton, John Morrison, Ann Powers, and Anamaria Sayre, “New Music Friday: The top 10 albums out on Oct. 8,” October 8th, 2021, in All Things Considered, produced by NPR, podcast, MP3 audio, 36:23, https://www.npr.org/2021/10/07/1044033884/new-music-friday-the-top-10-albums-out-on-oct-8.

    2 “Susana Baca to Release New Album “Palabras Urgentes”,” World Music Central, July 39, 2021, https://worldmusiccentral.org/2021/07/30/susana-baca-to-release-new-album-palabras-urgentes/

    3 James C. McKinley. “Music, Activism and the Peruvian Cabinet,” The New York Times, last modified August 20, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/20/arts/music/susana-baca-peruvian-musician-and-culture-minister.html.

    4 Charles Henry Rowell, Marcus D. Jones, Mónica Carrillo, Susana Baca and Ana Martinez, “An Interview With Susana Baca,” Callaloo 34, no. 2 (2011): 301.

    Susana Baca is constructed as a two-headed figure in Peruvian cultural and political life. Over the course of her 50-year musical career, 77-year old Baca has gained international recognition as an Afro-Peruvian musician and folklorist, whose music weaves together pieces of Peruvian history in every album, song, and lyric. A writer and singer of Afro-Peruvian…

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