It is 5 p.m. on an October afternoon and already the sun is setting. Susana Baca is trying to communicate to a waiter that she would like a coffee. She is seated on the side of a long, stately corridor leading into one of the many cafeterias on the University of Chicago campus. It is approaching mealtime and the waiter whose attention she has captured smiles at her request and says that the café is around the corner. She does not understand him. He will show her the way. "Que lindo," she says (how nice).
Baca does not consider herself a pan-American artist. She is not seeking "crossover" success in the English-speaking realm. She is quite comfortable staying in Peru and worries what would happen to her art if she ever left for good. Besides, she says, "I suffer without the food of Peru."
Born in Lima, she grew up in a small coastal town called Chorillos. Baca describes life in the predominantly Afro-Peruvian barrio as "filled with music." As a child, she would accompany her mother when she cleaned homes and says that the only way she could keep still was when her mother put on classical music. Her father, who was a driver, was also the barrio's own street guitarist and would often play outdoors with a group of neighborhood musicians. Their instruments were usually guitars and a percussive instrument called the cajón (a wooden box), which is played by her longtime band member Juan Cotito Medrano and can be heard on all of her albums.
While she was growing up, families in Chorillos would often gather in parks for festivals and religious processions. It was at these festivals that Susana found a place to perform, entering dance contests and singing before audiences of familiar faces. It was also at these gatherings that she began to hear old slave songs, which had been passed down through generations, but were not often performed publicly.
Despite the tenderness in Baca's music, it is influenced by a history of political engagement that was aroused with her increasing awareness of societal oppression. As a young woman, Baca was compelled to protest the stark role for women in the church and in a machista society. "I have always been a leftist," she says, adding how she would sing with a feminist group at fiery, anti-establishment rallies.
Her main literary influences include writers like Arturo Perez Revete, Alfredo Bryce, Javier Marias and Mario Vargas Llosa. She has a kinship to Vargas Llosa, in the tradition of Peruvian social protest in her understated manner and actions against machismo and racial prejudice—a manner that never becomes propaganda.
Her success and performances around the world have admittedly changed her perspective on life. "It's embarrassing to be applauded in restaurants." But she takes it all in stride."The party is great," she says. "But then later you find yourself in a corner and this is the music for those times."
These days she can stroll through the University of Chicago campus anonymously, reading about Louis Armstrong, learning English and visiting Chicago's legendary jazz clubs. She doesn't feel the need to try to fit into any mainstream Latino explosion; she is perfectly content doing what she is doing—it's an authenticity that is hard to find in the music world.
"My only regret is having this knowledge, traveling around the world and not having the vitality that I need," she says in complete modesty. But after listening to her latest album and seeing her perform, you'll have to politely disagree.