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Susana Baca, the Golden-Voiced Government Bureaucrat

Remember George Clinton’s fantasy verse in Parliament’s “Chocolate City,” imagining a future government in which Stevie Wonder holds a cabinet post, Secretary of Fine Arts? We’re probably lucky Clinton never got his wish to have Richard Pryor serve as Secretary of Education. But something like his basic idea occurred in Peru this summer. President-elect Ollanta Humala chose one of my favorite singers, Susana Baca, as the new Minister of Culture. The New York Times reports that she will be the first minister of African ancestry to serve in the Peruvian parliament.

Susana Baca’s smoldering and gorgeous version of “Maria Lando,” written by her mentor Chabuca Granda, is the standout track on David Byrne’s uniformly excellent 1995 compilation, The Soul of Black Peru, and also appears on one of her solo albums. Since “Maria Lando” is a heartfelt ode a woman who works hard for the money, I’ve sometimes put it on playlists that also include Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” But the ache in Baca’s voice is so intense that it makes the protagonist sound like her hours are 9 AM to 5 AM.

Baca is actually highly qualified for her new post, as an adept music historian and the co-founder of a cultural organization, the Instituto Negrocontinuo. The appointment comes just in time to promote Baca’s new album, Afrodiaspora, which takes her out of her traditional ballad comfort zone and on a journey to survey the threads of African influences in all the Americas (with a brief stop in Spain as well).

If this sounds like one of those sentimental, grooveless world music projects that drowns in self-importance, it isn’t. When the minister wants to get out of the office, she knows how to throw a good party. Afrodiaspora includes suitably moving (in both senses) tributes to Mexican singer Amparo Ochoa and Cuban salsa icon Celia Cruz. But Baca also ventures in more unexpected directions. She drastically reinterprets the Meters’ classic New Orleans funk strut “Hey Pocky Way.” Things get even sweatier on “Plena y Bomba,” a collaboration with Puerto Rico’s Calle 13 and its often-shirtless leader/MC, René Pérez Joglar (AKA Residente). Baca also sang on Calle 13’s “Latinoamerica” last year. Although 2011 is far from over, I’ll predict now that Afrodiaspora will win the award for Best Nontraditional Latin Album by a Credentialed Burecaucrat.

Susana Baca, “Maria Lando”

Susana Baca (with Calle 13), “Plena y Bomba”

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