As Old Cabell Hall was reaching capacity on last Sunday evening, there was an air of anticipation and wonder with soft chatter, clicking cameras and families. A scan of the room saw a broad reach of demographics — older couples, University students, faculty and young children. The buzz of the room was infectious, and when Baca stepped out — barefoot — to the roar of the crowd, the audience and Baca were one.
Susana Baca is an Afro-Peruvian singer/songwriter whose style refuses to be confined to singularity. She taps into traditional Latin samba music, soul music, folk music and a plethora of other genres — making for an exciting and engaging live experience. Her artistic prowess doesn’t go unnoticed — Baca is a two time Latin Grammy winner, winning best folk album in 2002 and in 2011 for her collaboration with Latin supergroup Calle 13.
Her influences reside in Chorrillos, a barrio on the coast of Lima in Perú. Here, she was surrounded by Afro-Peruvian music and engaged with her complex and convoluted identity through the expression of music. The history of non-indigenous black Peruvians is intricate — arriving in chains to the South American coast in the early 16th century with the Spanish conquistadors. Baca opened the performance Sunday night with a small monologue, stating “los esclavos llegaron a Perú con los conquistadores” — roughly translating to “enslaved laborers arrived in Perú with the Spanish conquistadors.” The harsh reality of the root of her identity is one of the most prevalent themes in her music, and the country’s mainstream neglect of this reality is taken head-on by Baca.
Baca’s live arrangement does not venture into the spotlight without the company of the troupe who accompanied her. Hector Aguirre supported the act with some wistful piano-work. Alvin Huaranga provided some important bass contributions, which slotted in nicely with Hugo Sanchez’s work on the cajón and the conga drums. The concert spotlight was not reserved to the headliner — the instrumental trio more often than not stole the show. Whether through some creative, jumpy interplay between conga drum patterns and piano riffs or through Sanchez’s jaw-dropping, tireless work on the cajon, Baca certainly felt no responsibility to carry all the weight — it was a family affair.
The performance itself took a little while to get its feet of the ground. The first few songs didn’t seem to stick well with the crowd. The energy seemed to shift from fascination, to fixation, to skepticism. It certainly did not help that, about three songs in, Huaranga’s bass picked up a seemingly unfixable reverb — which made Baca’s stage aura go from angelic god-send to unamused international superstar. However, after the technical difficulties were fixed — and the on-stage tensions were quelled — the concert shifted into a much-need restart.
Baca’s weathered, yet raw croons guided the crowd and its energy back on track. Sanchez’s energetic licks and fills on the cajón made a noticeable amount of white heads of hair awkwardly bob back and forth. There were even a handful of crowd-stage interactions — accompanied by a few clap-alongs that did not entirely know when to stop until social influence said time was up. But the essence of that all-essential second phase was just that — togetherness.
Baca’s air of togetherness is unlike any other. She came hundreds of miles away from her native Lima to share her stories, her challenges, her lessons and her struggles with identity. Baca not only came to entertain — she came to enlighten, and she came to empathize, to tell stories untold and to understand stories unshared.
Baca and company exited to the humming music of a passionate, enthralled standing ovation.