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3-time Latin Grammy winner Susana Baca marks a career spanning 50 years

LULU NAVARRO-GARCIA, HOST:

Susana Baca works a lot. The Peruvian folklorist has won three Latin Grammys and become known for singing Afro-Peruvian music to stages around the world. She also runs a music school and has served as Peru's minister of culture. Now 77, the singer-songwriter is in the 50th year of her career. NPR's Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento has this profile.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLOR DE ROSA")

SUSANA BACA: (Singing in Spanish).

ISABELLA GOMEZ-SARMIENTO, BYLINE: Before she was famous as an artist, Susana Baca was a researcher. She was studying education at a university in Lima when she got a side job helping the late journalist and historian Juan Jose Vega organize his library.

BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: Baca, who is Afro-Peruvian, says that's when she first learned about the history and cultural impact of Africans in the Americas. She was inspired.

BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: Baca went on to travel throughout Peru - to the mountains, the coast, the jungle - learning all about Afro-Peruvian culture. She attended festivals, studied the dances, learned the stories and compiled the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEGRA DEL ALMA")

BACA: (Singing in Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: Baca launched her career as an artist in 1971 performing Afro-Peruvian poems and existing compositions in her own way.

BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: It was a way, she says, of expressing herself. But it wasn't until 1995 that Susana Baca gained an international audience when, gearing up for a South American tour, David Byrne of the band Talking Heads decided to take Spanish classes.

BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: His teacher played him this song by Baca - "Maria Lando."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIA LANDO")

BACA: (Singing in Spanish).

(Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: Byrne was inspired by the performance and put the song on a compilation album called "Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul Of Black Peru." Baca was catapulted into the international spotlight as an ambassador of Afro-Peruvian music and history. That's a legacy she still carries today on her new album "Palabras Urgentes."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA HERIDA OSCURA")

BACA: (Singing in Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: The album, titled "Urgent Truths" in English, is about raising awareness, she explains, and denouncing the political corruption that Baca says Latin Americans have experienced all too closely in recent decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA HERIDA OSCURA")

BACA: (Singing in Spanish).

(Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: This song, "La Herida Oscura" or "The Dark Wound," is about Micaela Bastidas, a guerrilla leader and Indigenous Peruvian who fought for independence from the Spanish. On "Cambalache," a Tango originally written in the 1930s, Baca updated the lyrics to directly address who she calls the lying politicians of today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAMBALACHE")

BACA: (Singing in Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: To give these old stories new meaning Baca worked with producer Michael League of the band Snarky Puppy, who she met a few years ago while recording together in New Orleans.

BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: She says League put a lot of care into writing and pulling in collaborators - musicians to play on the album. When he played her one of the songs months after recording...

BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: It brought Baca to tears.

BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: Baca says she likes that part of globalization. It's beautiful. Sharing her art with a younger musician from a different background who can add his own touch to her music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAMBALACHE")

BACA: (Singing in Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: Even though the issues she sings about are serious, Baca says there's a lot of fun and love in these songs, and she hopes they resonate with listeners as they did with her.

BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: Baca looks forward to performing the album live and says that when she does, she will embody its themes of liberation by gracing the stage barefoot, as she's been known to do.

BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ-SARMIENTO: It's better for keeping the rhythm, for dancing, feeling grounded, she says, and for feeling free.

Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.