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New Orleans’ Afro-Peruvian Star

Have you heard the latest about Susana Baca? Do you even know who she is?

Didn’t think so. She is, in fact, the recently appointed minister of culture for the new populist government of President Ollanta Humala of Peru. Not only is she the first black member of a Peruvian cabinet, but she is also the first musician ever to be appointed to that position. Thanks to a record produced in the mid 1990s by David Byrne, ex lead singer of the Talking Heads band, she’s also that country’s most famous singer.

So what does that have to do with New Orleans? Well, according to an Aug. 20, 2011, article in The New York Times, she was one of us until Hurricane Katrina. The Q and A story, written by James McKinley Jr. and edited from their telephone conversation, reports how Susana came here in 2005 for Louis Armstrong’s birthday. In New Orleans for only a month, she says she was entranced by “a lot of music, a lot of food. It seemed to me I was in paradise.”

But, like all of us, at the approach of the hurricane, she had to leave.

In New York last week to perform in a South Village club, the 67-year-old Afro-Peruvian singer, winner of a Latin Grammy in 2002, was also promoting her latest album, Afrodiaspora (Luaka Bop), a work that features African-influenced music across the Americas. When asked if there is one particular track she feels is special, you’ll like what she said: “The one from New Orleans. It was important to do this work because I lived in New Orleans and got to know the musicians there. When I do this song, I remember all that I lived through, and I think it is a homage to the music of that beautiful place that is New Orleans.”

Susana, like hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Americas, is the descendant of African slaves brought to Peru by the Spanish in the early 1600s, an activity banished in 1854. Her early memories have an eerie similarity to life in many neighborhoods in New Orleans. Growing up in Chorillas, the poor black neighborhood in the southern part of Lima, she recalls how working-class families would gather on Sundays to cook food and play music. It’s how and when Susana Baca de la Colina found her muse.

No wonder she felt at home here, although I suspect the similarities end there, since chances of us having anything even remotely like a minister of culture are slim and none. Still, we wish she would come back and visit.

If you would like to read more about Susana Baca and hear her music, click here.




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