As Luaka Bop celebrates 21 years of bringing crucial music from far-flung locales…
- Posted on May 17th 2011 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
So she never expected to have some light shined on her own perspective while riding the streetcars of New Orleans. She was in the Crescent City the summer of 2005 on a fellowship at Tulane University doing a comparative study of Afro-Peruvian and African-American music and their respective cultural contexts. She'd arrived at the beginning of August, just in time for Satchmo Summerfest, the city's annual celebration of native son/jazz god Louis Armstrong's birthday -- he claimed to have been born on the 4th of July, but it was actually a month later.
Baca, speaking by phone from Lima via translation by her longtime producer Greg Landau, recalls the excitement of what proved to be New Orleans' last big festival before levees failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the city was flooded. She saw a concert by Ellis Marsalis, one of the area's great jazz pianists and educators, not to mention father of Wynton and Branford, et al. She saw Henry Butler, another essential local piano player continuing the traditions that run from Jelly Roll Morton through James Booker, Professor Longhair and Dr. John.
"There were parties all over the city in honor of Louis Armstrong's birthday," she tells Spinner. "So, for me it was an amazing connection to hear all this music, the special music."
And she remembers a real surprise in going to a park near Tulane, hearing various brass bands and Mardi Gras Indian krewes getting early starts on their Mardi Gras rehearsals and being reminded of her youth in a fishing village near Lima.
"For me it was like being in Chorrillos in my girlhood, where people would get together and drink beer and later barbecue chicken," she says. "Later, we presented the work, looking at things that linked the two cultures -- Jelly Roll Morton playing the mambo in the left hand, the contra dance that was very similar to our own rhythm. Very interesting."
And she remembers listening to radio station WWOZ-FM, a non-commercial outlet dedicated to the wide variety of New Orleans' musical heritage, where she heard the Meters' classic, funky Mardi Gras shaker 'Hey Pocky Way.' So much of an impression was made her own Peruvian-influenced arrangement of it, with such instruments as the percussion box cajon and jazz trombonist Wayne Wallace guesting. And now that is a highlight of her new album, 'Afrodiaspora,' which takes a journey through the African-rooted music of various locals in the Americas and Caribbean.
"It was very hard to pronounce the words the way that black people in New Orleans do," she says, not surprisingly given that not only is there a specific patois in New Orleans African-American culture, but that this song features some rather idiosyncratic phraseology, right down to the title. "I wanted to get it right. There's a very particular way of talking and singing and I struggled hard to learn it. Just like black people in Peru have their own way of speaking Spanish. But we got great people to work with us and the cajon fits in perfectly. At the end of the song we mixed the funk rhythm with the special festejo, which is a party rhythm from Peru, to hear the two rhythms going simultaneously." (To compare versions, listen to the original here.)
New Orleans may seem on the surface an unexpected place in which to find insights to Peruvian culture, but it's not the farthest afield in which Baca had an epiphany. The whole impetus for this album's musical journey came in the course of her travels far away from home.
"Lately I've been touring a lot around the world and run into people form other Latin American countries," she says. "I saw [Colombian singer] Toto La Monposina in Slovenia. Saw people like Pollito Boogaloo playing cumbia drums in the US. Saw groups from Venezuela. And outside of your country you can see reflections of your own country in a new way. Traveled to Brazil and Argentina and especially Cuba where I've traveled many times and was part of my life since I was a little girl as my uncles were singing those songs to me.
"Also, salsa's been very popular in Peru and through this I got to know Puerto Ricans were the main exporters of this music and wanted to know more about Puerto Rico and where the songs came from -- the culture, their food and what the songs are about," she says. "So elements of Puerto Rican music are in this record."
Another country, and another distinctive music event, also made a big impression that is captured on the album.
"Mexico's also very present on my record," she says. "There as piece a song from Veracruz, in the son jorocho style. Before I went to Mexico I was happy to learn that there were Afro-Mexicans. I was very fortunate to go to a festival in a town, Jaltipan. I went to a festival there in December and was amazed to hear the music and participate in the festivities with a lot of the people that I had heard about and to get to know this culture."
That is all honored in one song on 'Afrodiaspora' called 'Que Bonito Tu Vestido.'
"The song was by Amparo Ochoa, a Mexican singer I met years ago and heard singing this song," she says. "It made me think of her in my tribute to Mexican culture."
Venezuela also stands out as a source of great inspiration here, represented by the song 'Taki Ti Taki.' which she heard at a festival honoring San Juan held in the summer.
"One of the styles that really impacted me was music from a region called Miranda," she says. "I would watch videos and listen to the music and especially the drummers of San Juan that play around this time in June. For me this spiritual drumming was like going to a small town in Peru and hearing similar music. I would love that Afro-Peruvians would be able to hear the music like I did and feel the music was theirs like I did."
Remarkably, the members of her band sound as if all this music is, in fact, theirs. It was important to find a balance of authenticity and interpretation.
"There's a little of both," she says. "We took the time to try to learn the authentic rhythms in the countries to play them correctly. But there's also our own interpretation in using our own way of hearing the music to perform it. For the musicians it was rougher because they're influenced by salsa and rock and all the different styles. They picked it up very well and showed a great interest in learning the styles and trying to perform them in the most authentic way they could. They're very professional in that. They put a lot of emotion into it. We're very happy with what we accomplished."
One goal left, though, is to play this music where the project began. Her New Orleans stay was cut short due to the 2005 storm and she has yet to go back.
"I felt terrible when I had to leave New Orleans," she says. "I went to play in a jazz festival in Finland after that and explained to the musicians that I felt a profound sadness on stage and felt a great love for New Orleans. When I came back from Europe I couldn't go back to New Orleans and I'd left all my stuff there. Losing that was nothing compared to what other people lost. Now I want to play 'Hey Pocky Way' there, see how people react. I've never sung in New Orleans, not with my band."