Susana Baca Radiates Afro-Peruvian Spirit At Star-Laden Show

David Byrne, John Medeski, Marc Ribot guest at end of sold-out, three-day run.

NEW YORK — Her smile said it all.

Susana Baca easily commanded the stage at the final concert of her sold-out, three-day run Friday night (June 16) at Joes Pub. With slow, graceful gestures, the Afro-Peruvian diva — a real diva, in the goddess sense — embraced the audience with music, her generous spirit filling the intimate room with a radiant warmth.

Expectations were high for Baca's first New York shows since the release of Eco de Sombras, her second Luaka Bop collection. The room was filled with fans curious to hear how Baca's performance would integrate the album's stellar downtown New York collaborators: keyboardist John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood), guitarist Mark Ribot (who leads Los Cubanos Postizos) and guitarist, Luaka Bop honcho and erstwhile rock star David Byrne.

The diplomatic downtowners hovered gracefully in the background for the most part, never overshadowing either Baca's evocative singing or her band's dexterous accompaniment. Instead, they added sonic layers and improvisational impetus to the Peruvian ensemble's slow-burn grooves.

A cultural activist and ethnomusicologist, Baca fashioned a set that ranged from sensual poetry to pointed songs about African resistance to slavery. Like Cesaria Evora and Cassandra Wilson, Baca is an understated singer prone to whisper-soft dynamic shifts.

The evening began with a conga invocation by percussionist Hugo Bravo, with Rafael Muñoz's jazzy guitar, David Pinto's supple upright bass and Juan Medrano Cotito's expressive cajon (a percussive wooden box) soon joining in. Most songs opened with memorable melodic statements, then switched gears into call-and-response choruses and shifting, yet subtly insistent, syncopated sections.

Medeski concentrated on atmospheric organ swells rather than the percussive style for which he's better known. On the passionate "La Macorina," Medeski's melodica joined Muñoz's Iberian guitar to evoke an Argentinean tango.

When Ribot joined the ensemble, his angular guitar began poking through the textures. Ribot and Byrne had joined in by "Panolivio," ringing guitars cutting through the sleigh-bell rhythms; concerned with a brutal slave driver, the tune is rooted in a traditional Peruvian Christmas song.

The evening's high point was "Valentin" (RealAudio excerpt). The lyrics' violent undercurrent ("No, Valentin, it's unfair if you use a stick") were reinforced by Medeski's noirish organ groans. But Baca eventually turned it upside-down, into a joyous, hand-clapping sing-along.

The band stretched out on the set's finale, "Xanahari" (RealAudio excerpt). As Baca thanked her musicians in turn, each player cut loose with a healthy solo showcasing his individual strengths. Following a standing ovation, the group returned to lay down the evening's funkiest groove yet, the celebratory dance number "Se Me Van Los Pies" (My Feet Go).

Part festival, part history lesson and part jam session, Baca's performance provided a lesson in the use of music as a healing force. And that's something worth smiling about indeed.

In upcoming weeks, Baca and her Peruvian band will crisscross North America. Stops will include Denver (Thursday), Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, culminating in Detroit's "Concert of Colors" on July 9.