John Edwards Gunn
The diva of black Peru comes with her response to 9/11 – ‘to sing is to overcome pain and death’ – an album recorded in New York with a band including reknowned avant/world/fusion guitarist Marc Ribot, and featuring songs by Cateano Veloso, Mongo Santamaria and Bjork, along with traditional Peruvian songs. With lyrics and copious sleevenotes in English and Espanol, as well as a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez on the cover, you can’t complain you don’t get where she’s coming from.
This is one of those World Music albums where a Third World star is brought to the West and given a bit of a makeover. I don’t know anything about Peruvian folk music, so I can’t tell how authentic this is, but why does authenticity matter? Well, for me fusion and crossover usually result in the essence being diluted. It’s not really purity I’m concerned with, it’s more a question of who’s controlling the fusion. Who’s the dominant partner?
When Orchestra Baobab borrows from Cuba, Cheikh Lo incorporates Pee Wee Ellis, and Cachaito Lopez hires Hugh Masekela, these are collaborations between equals, learning from one another. Parachuting a Peruvian singer into a US studio with an American producer and musicians to release the result on David Byrne’s label might be more problematic.
Espirito Vivo is unfailingly tasteful and the musical settings are sympathetic to Baca’s singing, which is dramatic, but never overblown. She is emotional and expressive without ever losing her grip on subtlety and detail. She has an impressive range, but she’s never flaunting it. All the songs are sung in Spanish and it’s like a voice from a different tradition, another era. Most songs are five or six minutes long and there’s not enough respite from mid-tempo. The music is varied, sensitive and beautifully played, but it lacks energy and a certain roughness in the rhythm. Everything is just a bit too controlled. It’s accompaniment rather than expression from this band.
Still, they make no major concessions to rock, jazz, dance music or electronica. This is very much a style carefully tailored to Susana Baca. I just wish I’d discovered her before David Byrne did.