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July 24, 2014, 11:02 am

Peru's first black minister: barefoot singer

  • Written by FRANK BAJAK
  • Published in Lifestyles

SAN LUIS DE CANETE, Peru — Elementary school students serenade Susana Baca in this former sugar cane-milling town where both she and Peru's slave trade are rooted.

One girl recites a paean to Baca, and five other children tap a complex rhythm on boxes known as cajones, a legacy of Africans brought in chains to harvest sugar cane in this fertile river valley. The library of the humble school is being dedicated to the 67-year-old diva, herself living proof of Afro-Peruvians' enduring struggle.

The gracious, elegant Baca is not just Peru's best-known musician but also the Andean country's first black Cabinet minister.

She accepted the offer to join President Ollanta Humala's government in July, and says she's determined to end the discrimination that has long made second-class citizens not just of blacks but also of Peru's indigenous.

Baca has been Peru's de facto ambassador to the rest of the world for more than two decades, a musical anthropologist and a chanteuse who seduces audiences with her velvet voice and barefoot dancing.

"I am the symbol of inclusion," said Baca in her Lima home. "I don't hate the people who segregated us, who punished us, who hurt us. I just don't want anyone else in our country to go through what I did."

Her thin experience in cultural bureaucracy has drawn concern from some arts promoters, academics and stewards of Peru's archaeological riches, of which she is now curator-in-chief. They worry she lacks the pugilistic chops for a job fraught with bureaucratic and political confrontation.

Baca is known among world music fans for her soulful, inventively phrased interpretations of centuries-old rhythms, lyrics and dances. Her earthiness distances her from Peru's widely discredited political class.

A recent Ipsos Apoyo poll showed Baca to be Peru's most popular Cabinet minister, with a 62 percent approval rating.

To be sure, endearment is Baca's style, and she's already begun employing it to try to boost the $30 million annual budget of a ministry that is just eight months old. She's a slight woman careful not just with her words but also her enunciation.

"I am the beggar minister" is how she put it to Peru's finance minister, Baca was quoted by a Lima newspaper as saying. "I don't even have leather for my tambourine."

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Baca grew up in Lima's seaside Chorrillos neighborhood but her clan hails from Canete, where black field workers today earn little more than $5 a day picking cotton and corn.

Thanks to the perseverance of Baca's mother, who raised three children cooking and washing clothes for Lima's wealthy, she's among the estimated 2 percent of Afro-Peruvians with a post-secondary education.

The lot of Latin America's blacks has improved little since Baca, as a girl of five or six, earned her first tips dancing at band concerts on Chorrillos' promenade.

Most of the region's 155 million descendants of African slaves are jobless or eke out a living by working in the informal sector, according to organizers of the first U.N.-sponsored Summit of Afro-Descendants held in Honduras last month.

The estimated 100,000 African slaves brought to Peru toiled in sugar plantations and silver mines, with some becoming urban artisans. At one point, they and their descendants were more than 40 percent of Lima's population.

Blacks now amount to less than a tenth of Peru's 29 million people. Yet socially, they've barely advanced in the 157 years since emancipation.

They "have always lived in misery because they never had access to property," said prominent Afro-Peruvian academic Jose Campos, a dean at the National Education University from which both he and Baca graduated.

Leftist dictator Gen. Juan Velasco expropriated large tracts from rich landholders in the late 1960s but his land redistribution benefited not blacks but Andeans. Many blacks migrated to cities, often in the continued employ of their white "patrones."

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Baca didn't know fame until middle age, when former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne introduced her internationally in the mid 1990s through his Luaka Bop label. Success came, she said, "little by little with great sacrifice."

Her family was musical; some of her cousins eventually would go on to formed the well-known Peru Negro troupe. Baca's father played the guitar, her mother danced. Yet she was barred from choral and dance troupes in both primary and secondary school.

"I said, 'You've got to choose me because I'm the "bailarina.'" I danced marvelously well. I inherited it from my mother. So I said, 'I'm surely going to be chosen.' But I wasn't. None of the Indian or black girls in my class were chosen. I remember my hurt, my anguish."

Hard on Baca, too, were her early years as a primary school teacher. She was assigned to ill-equipped public schools in the chilly highlands and in Lima's dirt poor Cerro del Augustin district.

"She suffered a lot and there's the additional ingredient of her being asthmatic, which makes her fragile," said her husband and manager, Bolivian sociologist Ricardo Pereira.

He knew almost no one in Lima when he arrived in the early 1980s, fleeing a right-wing Bolivian dictatorship. One day he happened upon a folk festival and saw Baca, on stage, for the first time.

"A skinny, diminutive woman, dressed in black," he recalled.

Baca was lucky she sang a capella well because she rarely could afford to put together a band and pay for rehearsals, Pereira said. She was "adopted" by poets and musicians, taken in for a time by Chabuca Granda, a legendary Peruvian singer/songwriter.

"She said, 'If I have to sing trivial songs in a nightclub I won't do it,'" Pereira recalled.

For about five years, the couple made ends meet making guayaba and quince preserves that Baca would sell to friends. Pereira motions to a kitchen tool hanging near their refrigerator as a reminder: "With that big spoon we rowed to Greece and back about 50 times."

Baca toured Brazil and Russia, yet "Susanita" couldn't afford to cut her own album. Ironically, a 1986 recording made in Cuba but released 15 years later without the couple's consent would win her a Latin Grammy.

Baca's recognition by world music audiences came in 1995 when Byrne arranged for her to perform in New York. The New Wave rocker had just put her version of the painful slave lament "Maria Lando" on his "Soul of Black Peru" compilation.

She arrived with two percussionists and a bassist but no guitarist, who had been denied a U.S. visa. Baca's performance nonetheless seduced The New York Times, which called her "cool, distinct voice as beautiful as any working in pop."

Baca and Pereira were soon converting their Lima home into a musical academy, hiring Cuban teachers, expanding its library and moving into a back room.

"We managed to train 50 young people but it was always an economic disaster," Pereira said.

The experiment ended in 2000.

But that hasn't stop Baca from continuing to extend her reach and musical collaborations.

Her latest album, 'Afrodiaspora,' blends African-influenced styles from across the Americas, including New Orleans and Mexico.

Rene Perez of the Puerto Rican hip-hop band Calle 13, among other musicians, perform on the album, and Baca sings on the chorus for Calle 13's hit "Latinoamerica." On Saturday night Sept. 10, she joined the hip-hop group on stage in Peru's highlands city of Cuzco to perform the song.

The next night, the barefoot minister was swirling and dipping in Lima's La Reserva park in a flowing white dress and shawl. Her five-person band joined a multi-artist benefit that gathered warm clothing for the needy in Peru's frigid highlands.

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Baca turns her attentions to the political stage as head of Peru's youngest ministry.

"It is still a ministry in diapers," awaiting shape and vision, said Santiago Alfaro, a Catholic University sociologist.

Baca is in charge not just of Peru's cultural and archaeological riches but also of promoting "interculturalism," a vaguely-defined, politically charged mandate.

While Humala won office by promising to end the monopoly of Peru's European-descended elite on economic and social power, it remains to be seen how his center-left government will reconcile with indigenous groups' anger at environmental contamination from mining and oil and gas exploration.

Baca's most urgent priorities, for now, include ending the looting of and encroachment on Peru's archaeological sites and recuperating a thousand volumes recently stolen from the National Library.

Given the job's demands, some have wondered whether Baca shouldn't cut back on performing. Second Vice President Omar Chehade even suggested Baca stop touring altogether. When she took the job, Baca said, it was with the understanding that she would be able to honor her concert commitments.

Nonetheless, she canceled three dates in California last month when Congress convened the Cabinet. but she's going ahead with five European concerts beginning Sept. 15.

"It's really difficult for me to put singing aside," Baca said when asked about the issue.

Another musical great-turned-politician, Gilberto Gil, didn't stop performing when he was named Brazil's culture minister in 2003, a job he held for five years.

Baca said she's ready for the similar challenges of balancing her lifelong love with her new responsibilities.

"I don't know if I could live without singing," Baca said. "It's like food for me." -- (AP)