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|Born in a barrio outside Lima/Peru but growing up in Cuba, Susana Baca and her husband later founded the Black Continuum Instituto Negrocontinuo in Lima. Like her music, this institution is dedicated to preserving Peru's native African culture.
Baca first came to the attention of US audiences when David Byrne included her ballad "Maria Landa" on his Soul of Black Peru compilation. Her present release, Live Spirit or -- since recorded in NYC in the direct wake of the 911 disaster and thus perhaps more aptly renewal of Spirit -- features her usual Peruvian backup musicians as well as Blue Note's John Medeski on Hammond organ and guitarist Marc Ribot.
In her liner notes' opening address, Baca shares how being within blocks of the WTC on that fateful day emphasized the raison d'être of her song - to overcome pain and death. As she puts it, "the tracks on this album weren't sung purely for the pleasure of making music, but to convey, with drama and joy, that life is stronger than ever, and continues with a Live Spirit."
Espiritu Vivo's tangible live feel was encouraged by recording it before an intimate special-invite audience. The majority of the material has Afro-Peruvian origins, but her Cuban roots are echoed by Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue". Then there's Caetano Veloso's "13 De Mayo" and, surprisingly but beautifully integrated, the closing "Anchor Song" by Icelandic super star Björk.
Especially in her slow minimalist ballads like "Si Mi Quitaran", Baca's transcendental yet gripping delivery, tensioned between despair and defiance, recalls the legendary Mercedes Sosa. There's the bottomless depth and powerful projection of this being the music of the poor and destitute, farming the fields with aching backs yet breaking into deeply poetic song and unrehearsed dance with the spontaneous exuberance that only comes from profound parallel suffering.
"Caracunde" is a Cuban-flavored song traditionally performed at Afro-Peruvian religious Christmas festivals. With its gently hip-swaying rhythm and talk-song group chorus, it serves as a potent sign of how religious and secular life are much stronger intertwined in many so-called Third World countries - the baby Jesus and sensual dance coexist with cande-lit prayer and trance possession.
Espiritu Vivo is a rootsy, deeply felt album from an authentic barefooted diva who embraces the tradition of her upbringing as a means to provide contemporary expression. Her songs carry the rebellious power of protest and compassion, and listening to Espiritu Vivo is like diving headfirst into a sacred Andean pool - you'll emerge changed and purified, and profoundly humbled by the encounter.