On her second Luaka Bop release, Afro-Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca is backed by a traditional Peruvian band augmented with such North American hotshots as David Byrne on electric guitar and charango, a type of ukelele; Marc Ribot and Greg Cohen (best known for their work with Tom Waits) on electric guitar and contrabass, respectively; and avant-jazz pianist John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin & Wood. Sensitively produced by Craig Street (who has also worked with Cassandra Wilson and Meshell Ndegéocello), the 10 songs on this CD are at once playful and somber, fierce and fragile -- in short, enthralling.
The synesthetic title, Eco de Sombras (Spanish for "echo of shadows"), aptly describes the bittersweet core of Baca's project. As an ethnomusicologist and interpreter, Baca seeks to preserve and promote the musical contributions of blacks to Peruvian culture, a legacy largely ignored by Peru's mainstream media. In numeric terms, blacks are not demographically significant: The population of Peru is complex, comprising indigenous Indians, people of Spanish extraction and mestizos, such as Baca, racially mixed descendants of African slaves who intermarried with other ethnic groups. As Baca demonstrates here, the shadows of her African ancestors, however spectral, still reverberate in the cultural traditions of Peru and make for a uniquely beautiful musical style.
Combining understated acoustic arrangements with poetic, mysterious lyrics, this collection showcases the rich and heterogeneous musical culture of Peru, its sinewy rhythms and minor-key melodies. "De los Amores," the opening track, is a slow, dreamy ballad penned by Javier Lazo. Baca's subdued but passionate delivery perfectly complements the wistful lyrics: "I don't understand about love/And of pain I was the first/Fisherman, I'm not pretty/How love hurts." "Valentí n" begins with simmering percussion and a modulating chant; a pedal steel guitar hovers over the mix of acoustic and electric guitars, imparting a ghostly atmosphere to lyrics whose incipient violence lurks beneath the deceptively bright surface. "El Mayoral" is a tense denunciation of slavery ("Take out your machete, Cipriano/ Sharpen your shovel, José") underscored by Medeski's subtle, spooky organ. Another song that deals with slavery is "Panalivio/Zancudito," a traditional Afro-Peruvian Christmas song whose lilting melody and loping rhythms belie the poignant lyrics: "I've cut myself with a sickle/And I'm bleeding profusely ... It's not blood that pours out of me/It's the hunger that's killing me."
Other songs, such as "Reina Mortal," "Los Amantes" and "La Macorina," are tender and often erotic, but the melancholy tone prevails, fostered by Baca's elegant contralto and the dark, economical instrumentation. Ultimately, Eco de Sombras not only attests to the enduring influence of Africans in Peruvian music, it also reveals the power of great music to transcend the confines of culture and genre.