Susana Baca and Quartet perform at Chapin

It’s perhaps a great tragedy in modern culture that the genre known to most American ears as “world music” is generally brought to our attention by middle-aged musos like Paul Simon and Sting, after they’ve laid their grubby, new-age paws all over it. The music then becomes trendy (much like the current Latin boom), winds its way into a Pepsi commercial, only to get steamrolled once again and left in obscurity.

Such is popular music, although it’s not the whole story. As anyone who was in Chapin Hall on Wednesday night can attest to, “world music” is alive and well, perhaps at the fringes of American culture, but existing nevertheless as a body of work as rich and vibrant as any.

Wednesday’s performance, titled “Afro-Peruvian Vocals,” featuring Susana Baca and her quartet, was the second concert in the Widing World Music series. It began with the quartet’s two percussionists, Hugo Bravo and Juan Medrano, wandering on as the house lights dimmed and settling themselves in atop two instruments that closely resembled plain wooden boxes. They began to beat out a simple, syncopated intro as the remaining members of the quartet entered (David Pinto, bass; Rafael Munoz, guitar) and commenced their playing.

Ms. Baca came last, barefoot and dressed all in white, like some shaman. Her vocals were the focal point throughout the performance, breathy and ghostlike with little low end. They fit the plaintive quality of what was to come amazingly well. Baca has an innate stage presence, commanding material that veered from the introspective to the ecstatic with remarkable poise. During instrumental interludes, she drifted across the stage, hypnotized by the rhythmic lull of the music, eyes closed. The whole production might have seemed oddly eerie had her performance not been interjected with frequent flashes of pearly whites. The joy of the music was infectious, and it clearly rubbed off on the audience.

I should add at this moment that due to this particular reviewer’s nonexistent knowledge of Spanish, much of the between song banter was lost on me, presumably including the set list. After the first set was complete, one nice gentleman behind the soundboard wrote down the names of the songs for me, although it’s worth mentioning that this concert was no less memorable for my lack of understanding of its lyrical content. It was easiest to understand the performance as two continuous songs, each stoppage and interlude blending into the next. Due to the amazing expressiveness of the Spanish language, the vocals never seemed intrusive (as they might in, say, German) but rather fell seamlessly into place, one more instrument in the mix.

Stylistically, the songs were characterized by a fluid, oftentimes languorous atmosphere, easier to conceive of as unfolding vertically rather than in a linear fashion. Layered percussion, pointed basslines and very impressive guitar work led to arrangements that traversed the distance between sparse to full-bodied with ease; these were crack musicians whose virtuosity was exemplified not only by their technical prowess, but by their restraint and generosity as well.

Munoz, on guitar, switched effortlessly from contrupuntal plucking to washes of harmony, offering a unique and beautiful textural balance to the vocals and rhythm section. One song, entitled “Zamba Malato,” I believe, even included a solo on the cajon, a gourd instrument that resembles an overlarge junior mint. It was truly a moment of John Bonham-like audacity. Brilliant. The call and response aspects of this music recalled Cuban chan, (featured recently in the film and album Buena Vista Social Club) just as one could hear echoes of French chanson and even Jamaican dub. Most impressive, however, was the life-affirming glow that was given off by this performance, inspiring a not insignificant amount of dancing in the aisles of the, quite sadly, sparsely filled venue.

All that was rather immaterial, though. It was a lovely performance, filled with grace and joy. It seemed almost the perfect soundtrack to a melancholy day spent staring out the window, meditating on the various heartaches and pains of life, while nevertheless embracing some sort of hope of renewal. This and more was represented in the music. Let’s hope it finds Williamstown more frequently in the future.

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