Michael League on the making of ‘Palabras Urgentes’, sending a strong political message and celebrating the rich black history of Peru

Multi-instrumentalist, producer, band leader and record label founder Michael League is the co-producer (alongside Fab Dupont) of the new Susana Baca record 'Palabras Urgentes', released on Real World Records on 8 October, 2021. In this article he gives us some insight into how he first met Susana Baca and the making for this new record. He also delves a little deeper into some of the songs on the album, taking us into the heart of the wonderful music on 'Palabras Urgentes.'

I first heard about Susana Baca when I was studying at the University of North Texas and I was asked to play in a group that was essentially a Susana Baca cover band. We covered a bunch of songs from ‘Eco de Sombras’ (2000) and the self-titled ‘Susana Baca’ (1997) record and that’s when I fell in love with her music. Obviously, I never imagined I would ever have the opportunity to meet her. I was a 19-year old upright bass player living in Texas… but that’s how I first became acquainted with who she was.

I actually met Susanna, I think, in 2013, or somewhere around then. I was spending a week in Lima teaching at a place called the Jazz House that was at the time run by a good friend of mine from college named Carolina Araoz. On my last day, actually, the day of my flight back home to New York, Carolina arranged an opportunity to meet in a park with Susana and Ricardo [Pereira – Susana’s partner and manger]. I remember that day very well. It was overlooking the sea and Susana was with a Norwegian guitar player, someone who was currently touring with her at the time, and we had the opportunity to meet and to talk for a little while before I went to the airport.

Michael League, Ricardo Pereira, Susana Baca & Carolina Araoz. Photo: Fab Dupont

The big connector in this record was really Carolina Araoz who introduced me to Susana several years before Snarky Puppy made Family Dinner Volume 2. Carolina is a saxophone player, singer and songwriter from Lima who studied in Texas and lived in New York for a long time and now lives in Spain.

But at the time of this record she was living in Peru and she is the one that contacted me about whether I was interested in producing the record or not. I’m sure she had conversations with Susana – and I don’t know whose idea it was in the first place – but, Carolina was the intermediary. She also organized a lot of logistics of the album recording and generally took care of things, as well as performing on the record beautifully. As soon as Carolina asked me if I was interested, my response was a very quick ‘yes’ and we immediately started the planning process. It wasn’t an idea that sat around for a long time before it happened. It materialized very quickly.

I think that Susana and Ricardo had a very clear idea of what they wanted, at least what they wanted the emotion of the record to be, from the very beginning. So that was really my charge, to fulfil that brief. They wanted a record that was raw and simple and, as Susana and Ricardo said many times during the album process, that represented the black part of Peru, that spoke to Peru’s historical blackness. Being fortunate enough to have experienced, in a small way, the variety of Afro-Peruvian music and to experience it there in Peru over the years was a big help for me. I was also able to lean on her musicians who really understood what Susana was going for on this record. That was a huge part of why the record sounds the way that it does. She wanted a record that sends a strong political message, but also recognized and celebrated the rich black history of Peru. So that was our mission.

Carolina Araoz, Fab Dupont, Michael League, Susana Baca. Photo courtesy of Fab Dupont

The truth is that a lot of the songs that we ended up recording on ‘Palabras Urgentes’ I didn’t even know we were going to record until we were there in the studio. The whole process was very fluid, it was very natural. Some days Susana would walk in and say, I want to sing this song. I would ask for the band to play the song for her to sing and then we’d come up with the arrangement and approach the recording in a very fluid, natural, un-invasive kind of way. I really wanted to make sure that I stayed out of the way of the music instead of succumbing to the temptation to overproduce.

I look back on that time in Cañete, living in Susana’s house, eating her cooking – which she would sometimes leave the recording sessions to do – hanging out there with my co-producer Fab Dupont, who’s from France, but normally he and I are working together in New York. It was kind of surreal to be in a setting that was so tranquil and so laid back in every way, with this person who I normally share a space with in a very chaotic and frenetic environment like New York City.

I think for both Fab and I, it was a really relaxing, deep and natural process. A natural way of approaching the recording of an album. People passing by your house and you record them versus the overly-stressy, normal studio environment of very expensive places in cities like New York. It was beautiful, every day we saw the sea, we’d pet dogs, they were in the room with Susana when she was recording most of her vocals, sometimes barking! It was a very familial environment for sure.

Susana Baca (and dog) during the recording of 'Palabras Urgentes'. Photo: Fab Dupont

I think the most effortless song to record was ‘Negra del Alma’. It was such a simple song, texturally, just double bass, percussion, and marimba de agua as a rhythm section base, Susana’s voice, and of course, these incredible saxophones from Jauja. So, I think this was the most natural of all the songs on the album, simply because it’s a very direct, straight-forward piece in which the style of the saxophone gives the song a very strong colour. Susana is also referencing the Jauja vocal style, which sets it apart from other tracks on the album.

The most difficult for me was ‘Color de rosa’, because Susana had recorded it previously in the eighties, I think, and it’s always difficult to take a song that’s been recorded and listened to a lot (and celebrated) and put it into a new space that simultaneously speaks to your intuition about this song and at the same time gives people what they liked about it when it first came out. That was the mission with ‘Color de rosa’ and it was one of the last songs that we finished because of the efforts to reconcile those two elements.

‘La herida oscura’ is a very special track on the album because it creates a thread across all of Susana’s discography in a certain way. It has the same sound to me of when I first heard ‘Echo de Sombras’. It has the same emotion, but obviously with new colours and a new message, in certain ways. Hearing this song reminds me of the first moment that I heard Susana.

"The whole process was very fluid, it was very natural. Some days Susana would walk in and say, I want to sing this song. I would ask for the band to play the song for her to sing and then we'd come up with the arrangement and approach the recording in a very fluid, natural, un-invasive kind of way." Michael League

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‘Sorongo’ is a very interesting track because of its history with Calle 13 and because it’s a powerhouse track on a record that doesn’t really have powerhouse tracks. This is like a freight train and stands apart from the rest of the record in that way. Susana was really adamant about feeling Africa in ‘Sorongo’, so we made a lot of really interesting decisions during the recording process about textures and sounds and structure to make you feel the connection between the sugar fields in Peru and the African roots of the people who were enslaved and working them. One of the decisions that was made in that process, that Susana was very excited about, was the use of a percussion instrument called dohola, which is Egyptian in origin. Obviously, an African drum but not normally found in South American music so when this drum was added to the track, I think it gave a deep power that Susana felt connected these worlds of Peru and Africa.

‘Negra del alma’ is by far my favourite song on this record. I think it creates a beautiful montage of very different sounds within the musically rich nation of Peru. The combination of the Jauja saxophones, the way that Susana is singing, the way that the groove is swinging, even the texture of the marimba de agua which you don’t often find in Susana’s music, based on its geographical zone, all these different elements colliding in this song make it something unique in terms of its story. More than anything, and most importantly for me, this song elicits the most visceral, emotional reaction and when we were listening back to it, after it was recorded, it was difficult not to cry, feeling the power of the saxophones and the power of the vocal that Susana sings, in a very unique way. For me, this is the ambassador of the record.

The amount of post-production that was done on this record was very minimal. In the mixes we tried to keep things very natural and make it really sound like there were just musicians playing. There was actually very little recording done after we left Lima. I recorded some percussion and some electric guitar at my studio in Brooklyn, Atlantic Sound as well as at Fab’s studio in Manhattan, Flux. We recorded Becca Stevens on charango and Magda Giannikou on accordion, the two of them on the song ‘Juana Azurduy’, but aside from that we really kept it very minimal. We wanted to make sure that the record was raw and bare and laid the lyric in front of everything else.

One of the things that I love about Susana and Ricardo is that they believe deeply in the message of the music and they talk a lot about it during the recording process. It is imperative to them that the song is understood by the producer, by the band and ultimately by the audience when it’s heard. There were a lot of philosophical conversations about how to achieve the desired effect and because this record is so unified in its messaging there were a lot of conversations about how to achieve that and make that come across as clearly and succinctly as possible to the audience.

Palabras Urgentes by Susana Baca is out now on LP, CD and all digital platforms.


By Michael League

Michael League is a 4-time Grammy® Award-winning, 5-time nominated producer and musician based out of Catalonia, Spain. He is the creator and bandleader of instrumental music ensemble Snarky Puppy and the Real World Records signed group Bokanté, as well as being founder of the record label and music curation source GroundUP Music, and artistic director of the GroundUP Music Festival.

Published on Fri, 08 October 21

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