Dancing with the Diaspora
Interview Susana Baca Arts Alive festival 2000
Interview conducted in third person with Spanish translator
How do you feel to be here?
It had an impact on her feelings and her way of seeing life, on expressing solidarity and expressing solidarity for Mandela, not in the music itself but in her view and projection on life.
Where does Peru fit into the revival of Latin American music?
What they have is a mixture of the influence of the slaves with the African beat, plus the original Andean music of the Native Indians of Peru and also from Spain, the original colonisers. It is like an assimilation of all these influences that makes it singular and unique. It is very recently that it has begun to be known in the world. This music began to be launched into the world after David Byrne heard one of her songs and began to disseminate it because before that it was only in the academic world, at universities where different scholars would play some of the music and try to get it known. This is a Peruvian drum and this is how it plays. They would showcase it always in the universities and within the intelligentsia and not as it is beginning to be known now.
Where did Susana start?
She was born in a place where music was already there. It was music and a way of expression that was only practiced within the family ghetto. When she was a very small child she would leave her playmates as soon as she heard someone playing music, her uncles or her mothers singing. She learnt all the songs that later on, when there occurred an opening in Peru, she heard on the radio and she would remember the lyrics that she knew from very small.
Music was not banned as such in Peru. But for many years neither the black music, nor the Andean music was taken into account. It was a popular expression of the lower classes. It was not disseminated and not made known. There was a term creole for all the types of popular expressions and never any recognition at all for the Afro-Peruvians. For the government and society, the blacks in Peru did not exist. Therefore their ways of relating to themselves, relating to their families, enjoying life and seeing life was never even mentioned because they did not exist officially. They were always making fun of the blacks in Peru and they would never recognize them and believed it was impossible that there could be any manifestation of culture among the Afro-Peruvians. So, all they were was stereotypes, being made fun of as people with no intelligence and no way of making themselves a space within the cultural fields of Peru.
First of all, Afro Peruvian music is a very complicated music, it is a very sophisticated music, very elaborated. You have to study the roots, to be able to play it. Now it has become a fashion and a lot of musicians who would never have considered playing this music believe that as it comes from the Afro Peruvians it is going to be something simple to do. But, to be able to really play it, you have to study it, you have to know it.
How did the musicians survive?
There was a very small community, but due to the prejudices and racism, many Afro-Peruvian musicians were ashamed of being black, so they didn't integrate into this community, so actually it was a very small community where they played their music.
The thing is because they have never been in the ruling class and have always been discriminated against, they tried to carry out research in Peru. They travelled extensively trying to get by word and mouth what the music was and they saw much to their dismay that many of the old people didn't want to talk about it because they believed that they were associating them with the songs of slaves, so it has been very difficult to even record a history of this music because people do not want to be associated with it because what it meant before hand. So, this forgetfulness that was very badly intentioned, has made them be deprived of a lot of their music. Music, they could have saved, could have recorded, has been lost by people who simply do not want to remember.
Have many musicians exiled or died as paupers?
She has even had to create her own record company so that her songs be made known because nobody, no record company in Peru would record her because she is black. And during her research in Peru, they went to these tiny little places, where they found extraordinary musicians. And these musicians had never even been heard and listened to because no record company, nobody wanted to hear their music because it did not coincide with the music of the ruling class. Yes, there have been a lot of musicians who were ignored and died very poor and it had to be someone from the outside, this person who came and rescued their music and made them known. She is now an older person and it is only now that she is being recognized as an Afro-Peruvian singer because of the efforts she herself and her husband have made to create this record company to be able to disseminate this Afro Peruvian music.
What role does she play as an Afro Peruvian music representative?
In her research she is very happy to be able to say she has exerted an influence not only in international scenes to make Afro Peruvian music known, but also inside the country, so now young musicians are interested to see how their roots can be expressed and are finding new ways of expressing their music through their own Peruvian roots and not through the roots of any other international music. They have found even the memory of musical instruments that have been lost for generations and they are now reviving. For example, they found a very old man, who was the last person who still played a pumpkin, it is a round musical instrument. In Spanish it is called calabassa which is pumpkin.
This pumpkin was the measure of the corn or maize that was given to the slaves. It was a round pumpkin that was cut and hollowed and there the food was given to the slaves. At night, what they would do is turn it upside down and play it.
They went to a very small town called Sanya . There they found this very old man, he was 94. He showed Hugo Bravo, her drummer, how to play the different beats you can get out of this pumpkin and she learnt the song. They recorded it. And disseminated it. They went back to Sanya to tell this very old man what had happened to the music and he had already died. So, he gave his inheritance to her, to make it known.
What is her role in popularizing Afro-Peruvian music and keeping it authentic?
When you become known in the international scene there is always the risk of your music becoming commercialized, of loosing some of its elements. For example when Ry Cooder plays on Buena Vista Social Cluh and Ibrahim is singing and he intervenes on his guitar, sometimes he is not listening to what Ibrahim is saying, he is playing his own thing. He is not feeling the Cuban part of the music, he is feeling his own part of the music and trying to introduce it and that does loose some of its originality and its essence. It might also happen in her case but the music will not be lost, it will be sometimes distracted from its original roots, but its original roots will always be there. Craig Street collaborated on her latest CD called Eco de Sombres, which means the Echoes of the Shadows. And he at some point asked her if she would allow him some American musicians to play. She likes to explore and see new tones and new music, so they came into the recording. But these musicians first sat down and listened to the music and internalized it and then they played, their music but wit the beat and the sentiment of her music.
Since this interview Susana has continued to touch the hearts and minds of the world, winning a Grammy in 2002 and being elected into the presidency of Peru (Minister of Culture in 2011). Despite not speaking the language, Susana Baca touched my heart both in performance and interview. She is grounded, sincere, honest, truthful and beautiful.
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