But when Byrne's Spanish teacher showed a video in New York of a diminutive black woman singing poetry in Spanish, Byrne leaned forward and said, "What's this?" And a new history began to unfold.
The woman was Susana Baca, and the video was of a performance of her song "Maria Lando," a song that so captivated Byrne that it became the touchstone for Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru, a compilation spanning 25 years of a rich musical history previously unrecorded. First, however, he had to find this unknown musician in her native Lima -- a task which proved no small feat despite the fact that Byrne had long traveled in world music circles, having released several debuts and compilations by African, Brazilian and Cuban musicians on the Luaka Bop label launched with partner Yale Evelev in 1990. It was several months before a mutual friend emerged to bring Baca and Byrne together.
In 1995, Baca gave her first U.S. performance at St. Ann's in Brooklyn, and soon after she signed with Luaka Bop to record her first major-label solo album, 1997's 10-track tour-de-force Susana Baca. A sophisticated blend of literary, ethnic and contemporary music influences, it nonetheless comes easily to the uninitiated listener. Baca's smooth, understated vocals reverberate with the melisma of the supplicating flamenco singer; her music soothes with the warm tones of acoustic guitar, clay pot and pulsating bass notes; and she makes your heart skip with complex, polyrhythmic percussion arrangements. In short, hers is a living music. It's music that celebrates intuition and inventiveness in content and execution; and in the hands of a core quartet of master musicians, it takes on an expression as pure as geometry.
Susana Baca has one poem by Caesar Vallejo ("Heces"), and a couple of songs ("Negra Presentuosa," "Tu Mirada y Mi Voz") by Andres Soto, a young Afro-Peruvian composer "very popular at the moment in Peru," according to a 1997 interview with World Music magazine. It reached the top-10 list on Billboard's World Music charts, and led to a 13-city U.S. tour in 1997, including her performance at UA Centennial Hall as part of the Global Divas showcase. In 1998, she debuted in London at Queen Elizabeth Hall.
While her international success has snowballed in the last four years, Baca is hardly a newcomer to public performance. The 55-year-old vocalist has captivated audiences since 1971. What's more, she and husband Richard Pereira literally wrote the book on Afro-Peruvian music and culture. Published in 1992 to coincide with the fifth centenary of the Spanish discovery of South America, The Cultural Importance of Black Peruvians was a slim volume that marked a giant stride in recovering the collective memory of natives descended from African slaves brought illegally to Peru. It grew from the couple's research travels, started in 1988, to map the black settlements mainly along the Peruvian coast and to gather as much information as possible about their ancestral songs and instruments.
Much like the African-Americans of this country, black Peruvians were forcibly taken from many different African tribes. They didn't share a common language or documented entry into Peru, and mixed marriages through the centuries have made it impossible to trace direct paths back to Africa. But what they do share is a unique and complex cultural history in a largely unwelcoming society. Until Baca and Pereira began to piece it together in the late '80s, this ethnic identity remained fragmented and largely unrecognized. Baca counts it among her greatest accomplishments that black Peruvians today can embrace those roots, through music and through the Centro Negro Continuo, the Lima institution she and Pereira created to house the library of information they collected during their travels.
The center's main focus is experimental music, and teaching music lessons to underprivileged children, but they've also made this extensive archive available to the public. They've also created prototypes -- from descriptions and found paintings of festivals celebrated two or three centuries ago -- for the traditional instruments they use in concert today. These instruments disappeared 80 to 100 years ago in Peru. "Nobody else plays them, or even knows how to make them," Pereira has said in interviews.
Baca's lyrics include traditional songs passed down orally through generations, but her main passion is to set the words of contemporary Latin American poets to music. Singing solely in Spanish, she chooses emotive passages appealing to a modern audience, while preserving and updating in melodic arrangements the distinctly Afro-Peruvian sounds drawn from instruments like the cajón (a wooden box that you sit on to play), the calabash (gourd), quijada de burro (jawbone) and cajita (a percussive wooden box the player opens and shuts in time). It's a point of pride among these Peruvian musicians that Cuban percussionists have trouble keeping up with their rhythms.
Four years ago, Luaka Bop president Evelev told a Billboard magazine reporter they were appealing to the alternative press to get the word out about this exciting discovery. Most of the Afro-Peruvian musicians on the 1995 debut album -- musicians Baca studied and sought to form the foundation of her music -- have since died (of old age) or disappeared. But the effervescent Baca carries the torch grandly, having completed innumerable festival tours in Latin America, one U.S. and six European tours, and receiving glowing articles in The New York Times, Daily News, Miami New Times and World Music magazine, to name a few. She appeared earlier this month on PBS' Americanos series, in a star-studded concert taped live at the Kennedy Center in D.C. Look for her in upcoming issues of Elle, GQ and Rolling Stone as release of her new album, Ecos de Sombras, draws close in February 2000.
The new album will again feature Baca and company's distinctive stamp on Peruvian classics and new originals, with guest performances by Mark Ribot, John Medeski and David Byrne. It was produced by Craig Street (who's backed the likes of Cassandra Wilson, K.D. Lang and Me'Shell N'degeocello).
It's quite a leap from those baleful years in Lima, when she sold live-performance cassettes at her shows because no Peruvian recording company would take a chance on her. Now Pregon, the label Pereira created for those early cassettes, has tapped that unrecognized market, and is recording several young musicians of African and Andean descent.
It's small wonder we couldn't reach her for interview before she lands in Tucson next week (she'll perform in 25 cities on this four-week tour), but her live performance speaks for itself.
Expect her to take to the stage with bare feet and that beneficent smile, her flowing garments swaying to the intoxicating African rhythms she intimates are the essence of life itself. "Our greatest challenge is to find the one true rhythm of freedom," she writes. "Something like the wind that allows a bird to fly, or a new language more powerful than speech, that holds you." She'll be backed by a five-piece band, which adds guitarist Rafael Muñoz Loredo to her core ensemble of bass player David Pinto Pinedo (a strong collaborator on the arrangements and orchestration), and percussionists Juan Medrano Cotito and Hugo Bravo Sanchez.