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Susana Baca
Espíritu Vivo
Luaka Bop (

cd cover What sets much of South American song apart from that of other parts of the world is that it often starts from a basis of poetry. Not song lyrics - actual poetry. It's what gives the melodies their undulating flow, the forms their supple elasticity. The music follows the words, not slavishly, but adoringly, with love and reverence. It's what makes this release a delight to listen to. Peruvian singer Baca has chosen songs with words that beg to be caressed, words by poets like Javier Lazo, Alejandro Romualdo and Chabuca Granda. The words reflect a magical realism and Baca delivers them with warmth and gentle conviction. Romualdo's words on "Si Me Quitaran...(If They Took Away)" are heart wrenching in the wake of 9/11: "If they took away everything from me/If they took away the singing of the birds/Or the sweet days of sun on the earth/One word would remain/ I would still have words...." Granda's words in "El Fusil del Poeta (The Poet's Gun)" are equally effective: "He's winning the war with his rose/His mouth from the river/His birds, his trees/Because he fought the war of men/Making a gun of anything that wasn't a gun/That day he armed himself with a rose/The poet's gun is a rose."

You may find more technically powerful singers out there, but you won't find a more expressive one. Baca's voice is light and relaxed, with a casual vibrato, and yet it packs an emotional punch. The arrangements are subtle and unobtrusive but before you know it, your hips are swinging. Hugo Bravo's percussion is crisp and imaginative. John Medeski's work on keys adds just the right touch, whether it's the humorous toy piano effect on "13 de Mayo" or the moody meanderings on "Les Feuilles Mortes." The latter is a French-language take on the jazz standard "Autumn Leaves" which elevates this hackneyed chestnut into something sublime. Another jazz classic, "Afro-Blue," gets a new lease on life with exquisite words by Ricardo Pereira: "Life cries out/For forgiveness/I ask for no more/The wind brings freedom." Baca closes out the disc with a melancholy rendition of Bjork's "The Anchor Song." It's the perfect quiet finish to a thought provoking collection of work. - Peggy Latkovich

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