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Susana Baca - Travesias

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Artist: Susana Baca

Album: Travesias

Label: Luaka Bop

Review date: May. 7, 2006

Listeners familiar with Susana Baca, Peru's unofficial ambassador of Afro-Peruvian culture and song, won't be surprised that the title of her latest release, Travesias, translates as “crossroads.” Her hipness and street cred at least have Luaka Bop's blessing, but Baca's dry, melancholy whisper – a song for the desert and the coast in itself – has eluded great popularity or success in the US, perhaps in part due to the disorienting nature of the complex bedrock of Afro-Peruvian rhythms beneath her sweet cantos. The crossroads at which Baca stands, though, may not be solely the juncture between commercial success (she's been releasing albums through Luaka Bop for close to a decade) and continued artistic achievement. In fact, this album stands as a beautiful and bittersweet portrait of an artist in the gulf of myriad dilemmas and conundrums, including her Katrina-driven displacement from a fellowship at Tulane University (our gain in the 312; she's now at University of Chicago) and the increasing reliance of diasporic imagery.

Stylistically, Baca and her many celeb guests (most notably Gilberto Gil and Marc Ribot) keep the lid on the mix, employing great restraint and confining most of the music to the sounds of nylon string guitar, the crackle and thump of the Peruvian cajon, and Baca's mournful, breathy voice. Something's up, however, in the small corners of sound that surround Baca's Peruvian heart. Travesias begins predictably, with the even-handed ballad “Viento Del Olvido,” perhaps the most likely candidate for glossy world beat synth washes (from which the listener is mercifully spared). As the album progresses, however, Baca's co-conspirators begin to make their presence felt. Ribot leaves his Aylerisms and hypertremolodic bee-stings on the Lower East Side, and instead perches on the shoulder of the proceedings, whispering plinkety harmonics throughout and punctuating the end of a few verses of “No Quelque Part” with a dubby slice of reverb. “No Quelque Part” also features the most overt of Ribot's playing on the album, including an octane passage that straddles Wes Montgomery and Fareed Haque, as well as an admirably straight blues-funk solo.

Baca’s percussionists focus almost entirely on the cajon, leanding Travesias a subtle confidence. Longtime bandmember Juan Cotito Medrano unveils throughout the album an almost scientific approach to percussive accompaniment, carefully choosing the minute spaces that cradle the warms pops and bass strikes. He elevates a few tracks from what otherwise may have become collisions of Peruvian folklore and Aspen fireside jam-bandery. Medrano cleverly emulates other instruments, too, such as his flamenco-inflected approach to “Merci Bon Dieu.”

Aside from her detours with longtime collaborators like Ribot, Baca yields to the influence of others, clearly in evidence as the romantic strains of “Luna Rossa” give way to the poignant queasiness of The Tosca String Quartet. Ever the polyglot, Baca simply shifts languages when she needs to take an idea further: she sings in French, Italian and English, which comes in particularly handy for her cover of Damien Rice's “Volcano,” safe by comparison to her past proclivity for bigger challenges like “Summertime” and even a Bjork song.

Baca's journey, in any translation, sounds poised to continue. Whether it follows the well-lit roads of commercial success or somewhat darker sidestreets is up to time.

By Andy Freivogel

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