by Frank Bajak

SAN LUIS DE CANETE, Peru (AP)—Elementary school students serenade Susana Baca in this former sugar cane-milling town where both she and Peru’s slave trade are rooted.

One girl recites a paean to Baca, and five other children tap a complex rhythm on boxes known as cajones, a legacy of Africans brought in chains to harvest sugar cane in this fertile river valley. The library of the humble school is being dedicated to the 67-year-old diva, herself living proof of Afro-Peruvians’ enduring struggle.

BAREFOOT DIVA—In this photo taken Sept. 11, Peru’s Culture Minister and singer Susana Baca dances barefoot during a benefit concert in Lima, Peru.

The gracious, elegant Baca is not just Peru’s best-known musician but also the Andean country’s first Black Cabinet minister.

She accepted the offer to join President Ollanta Humala’s government in July, and says she’s determined to end the discrimination that has long made second-class citizens not just of Blacks but also of Peru’s indigenous.

Baca has been Peru’s de facto ambassador to the rest of the world for more than two decades, a musical anthropologist and a chanteuse who seduces audiences with her velvet voice and barefoot dancing.

“I am the symbol of inclusion,” said Baca in her Lima home. “I don’t hate the people who segregated us, who punished us, who hurt us. I just don’t want anyone else in our country to go through what I did.”

Her thin experience in cultural bureaucracy has drawn concern from some arts promoters, academics and stewards of Peru’s archaeological riches, of which she is now curator-in-chief. They worry she lacks the pugilistic chops for a job fraught with bureaucratic and political confrontation.

Baca is known among world music fans for her soulful, inventively phrased interpretations of centuries-old rhythms, lyrics and dances. Her earthiness distances her from Peru’s widely discredited political class.

A recent Ipsos Apoyo poll showed Baca to be Peru’s most popular Cabinet minister, with a 62 percent approval rating.

To be sure, endearment is Baca’s style, and she’s already begun employing it to try to boost the $30 million annual budget of a ministry that is just eight months old. She’s a slight woman careful not just with her words but also her enunciation.

“I am the beggar minister” is how she put it to Peru’s finance minister, Baca was quoted by a Lima newspaper as saying. “I don’t even have leather for my tambourine.”

Baca grew up in Lima’s seaside Chorrillos neighborhood but her clan hails from Canete, where Black field workers today earn little more than $5 a day picking cotton and corn.

Thanks to the perseverance of Baca’s mother, who raised three children cooking and washing clothes for Lima’s wealthy, she’s among the estimated 2 percent of Afro-Peruvians with a post-secondary education.

The lot of Latin America’s Blacks has improved little since Baca, as a girl of five or six, earned her first tips dancing at band concerts on Chorrillos’ promenade.

Most of the region’s 155 million descendants of African slaves are jobless or eke out a living by working in the informal sector, according to organizers of the first U.N.-sponsored Summit of Afro-Descendants held in Honduras last month.

They “have always lived in misery because they never had access to property,” said prominent Afro-Peruvian academic Jose Campos, a dean at the National Education University from which both he and Baca graduated.

Baca was lucky she sang a capella well because she rarely could afford to put together a band and pay for rehearsals, Pereira said. She was “adopted” by poets and musicians, taken in for a time by Chabuca Granda, a legendary Peruvian singer/songwriter.

Her latest album, “Afrodiaspora,” blends African-influenced styles from across the Americas, including New Orleans and Mexico.

Rene Perez of the Puerto Rican hip-hop band Calle 13, among other musicians, perform on the album and Baca sings on the chorus for Calle 13’s hit “Latinoamerica.”

Baca is in charge not just of Peru’s cultural and archaeological riches but also of promoting “interculturalism,” a vaguely-defined, politically charged mandate.

Given the job’s demands, some have wondered whether Baca shouldn’t cut back on performing. When she took the job, Baca said, it was with the understanding that she would be able to honor her concert commitments.

“It’s really difficult for me to put singing aside,” Baca said when asked about the issue.

Baca said she’s ready for the challenges of balancing her lifelong love with her new responsibilities.

“I don’t know if I could live without singing,” Baca said. “It’s like food for me.”

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