Susana Baca

Espiritu Vivo (Luaka Bop)

In many cases, decoding the general intent of a song performed in a different language isn't too tough: Bleakly rendered ballads probably deal with death or lost love; perky, repetitive numbers usually call for motion or celebrate life. The most accomplished vocalists, though, make it easy to translate specifics. When Afro-Peruvian chanteuse Susana Baca lets her rich voice quiver with defiant longing, listeners won't have to scramble to the liner notes' English text to understand I want you to love me/Even if the world dies in sadness or If they took my words or my tongue/I would speak from the heart.

Baca's soulful singing commands such attention that her stellar backing band, which includes organ player John Medeski and avant-garde axman Marc Ribot, seems to disappear during her most emotionally charged moments. At other times, however, Baca's players seize control, indulging in percussion solos and spotlighting Medeski's jazzy drone and Ribot's confrontational clang. Despite this accomplished instrumentation, the album suffers when the magnetic Baca vanishes for significant stretches. On "The Anchor Song," the Björk cover that closes the record, these dual elements find an ideal compromise; Baca sings sweetly with little accompaniment, then her group responds with mood-setting strings that appear with each downbeat. "Ese es mi hogar," she coos, sounding so comfortable with this arrangement that her meaning ("This is my home") comes through with startling clarity.

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