Peruvian Singer Dances in Shadows

The title of Peruvian singer Susana Baca’s excellent new album, Eco de Sombras ( Echo of Shadows ), suggests that she’s singing about something that somehow doesn’t really exist. That would be the music and culture of black Peru. African slaves followed hard upon the heels of Peru’s Spanish conquerors in the 1500′s, but, contrary to the experience of Brazil and Cuba, those two hotbeds of Afro-European musical fusion, the slaves were deliberately drawn from disparate African cultures and then dispersed throughout the country. They were numerically dwarfed not only by the white colonists but also by the indigenous Andean peoples who gave us wool ponchos, little guitars and those folkloric musical groups that play in the New York subway system. Post-slavery, Afro-Peruvians melted into Peru’s mixed-race society, doing their best to “disappear” as a distinct race and culture. Cue the panpipes for the entrance of Ms. Baca and world-music maven David Byrne.

A decade ago, Ms. Baca, now in her early 50′s, wasn’t a complete unknown in her home country-there had been a vogue for Afro-Peruvian music in the late 60′s and 70′s. But as someone who was devoted to the slow sway of the traditional rhythms like the lando and the vals (waltz) instead of the more uptempo, dance-oriented stuff, she certainly flirted with invisibility. That is until Mr. Bryne’s Spanish teacher, an Argentine musician, played him a video of Ms. Baca. Suitably enchanted, Mr. Byrne set about organizing an anthology of Afro-Peruvian music for his Luaka Bop label that came out in 1995, The Soul of Black Peru , that included one standout Baca cut. Two years later, he released the eponymous Susana Baca , the singer’s first commercial release anywhere. And now we have her second album, Eco de Sombras , produced by Craig Street, the mastermind behind Cassandra Wilson’s crossover pop success, with guest contributions by “downtown” New York jazzers, electric guitarist Marc Ribot and acoustic bassist Greg Cohen.

At this point (cue those little Andean guitars), it would be customary to decry the slick, homogenizing influence of the hepcat First World on delicate Third World talent that withers away from its nourishing indigenous roots. But that’s manifestly not the case here. Ms. Baca is reinventing a “shadow” tradition in her own cool image, and Mr. Street and company’s clean, atmospheric production only serves to refine and strengthen her approach.

Ms. Baca articulates precisely in a clear, light alto voice; in matters of lyric content, she favors fragments of poetry by her Peruvian contemporaries. In short, a highfalutin cabaret air sometimes attaches to her work (a young, more restrained Edith Piaf singing the love poems of Pablo Neruda gives you a rough picture), and on the first album it can mix oddly with folkloric chorus chants and percussive flourishes. (On the song “Heces,” lyrics that translate, “And I remember/ The cruel caverns of my ingratitude/ A block of ice above your poppy flower,” would be a bit much even in French.)

Eco de Sombras does a much better job of sorting out the singer’s persona and her material. On the opening track, “De Los Amores,” the girlish drama of Ms. Baca’s voice is a perfect match for a Javier Lazo lyric that would do Neruda proud: “I cry in the usual place/ I fill myself with your sweat.” The succeeding nine cuts offer an artful tour of the explicitly Afro-Peruvian, borrowings from Cuba and Brazil to fill in the considerable musical gaps, and a touch, mercifully just a touch, of an Andean sadness heard in Mr. Street’s deployment of the panpipes. Especially deft is the way Ms. Baca shifts back and forth from the ardent self-involvement of the romantic ballads to a harder, more impersonal voice she uses on traditional-sounding tunes like “El Mayoral” and “Panalivio/Zancudito” that recall the miserable lot of Peru’s African slaves.

Here, I think the singer is blessed to have been raised in the Spanish language, which sounds equally stirring in the bedroom or on the chain gang. On the song “La Macorina” (no, not “The Macarena”), Ms. Baca has it both ways, sublimely so, commanding her lover to touch her in certain places (“Ponme la mano aquí, Macorina”) like she’s an outgunned Republican leading the troops against Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.