(Photo: Buika performs at BAM on October 26, 2007 in New York City. Culture)
Once heard, never forgotten. Concha Buika’s voice is one of the most glorious sounds to have emerged on the international stage in the past couple of years. All sorts of metaphors come to mind: blood-red wine, the sharpened blade of a knife, a cry of pain in a darkened church. The language barrier is really no hindrance at all. When you listen to the Spanish singer, you know instantly that you are in the presence of a rare talent.
She has a chance to convert a new audience this month when she appears at the London Jazz Festival, a season that has cannily expanded its range to include everything from the dub pioneer Dennis Bovell to the Afrobeat showman Femi Kuti (Fela's son) and that quirky string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. With its core audience increasingly made up of thirtysomethings feeling their way into jazz’s core repertoire, the event has made a virtue out of venturing to the periphery.
Ironically, despite being hailed as the queen of flamenco fusion, Buika thinks of herself as a jazz singer. Names of great American artists of the past — Coltrane, Ella, Dinah Washington and Betty Carter — are scattered through her conversation. We even devote part of our interview, conducted on a hotel terrace with a serene view of the Lisbon skyline, to a discussion about the relatively obscure Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen. Buika is infatuated with his music.
There are lots of things she loves, in fact. This is a woman who exudes passion and fire, who bursts into volcanic roars of gap-toothed laughter every few minutes. You sense she crams a week’s living into every 24 hours. When she tries to find a way to describe how she approaches her vocation, she eventually opts for one of the oldest metaphors of them all: “Art is like — sorry for the expression — f***ing,” she says in heavily accented English. “When I sing to you, I want to be inside you. That’s what films do, that’s what literature does. That’s music.”
Buika’s background is every bit as colourful as her philosophy of life. Born in Palma de Mallorca, she was raised in a poor, all-white neighbourhood where gypsy music and flamenco were part of the soundtrack of the streets. Her father, a left-wing activist and writer from equatorial Africa, returned home when she was still a child, leaving his six offspring to be raised in a strongly matriarchal atmosphere. (Her left arm bears the names, tattooed in her tribal language, of her mother, grandmother, aunts, sisters and nieces. “My muses,” she explains.)
Singing was a natural part of daily existence; her mother had a love for the recordings of Charles Aznavour, Sinatra and Miles Davis. In a house full of friends and music, Buika learnt to play guitar, piano and bass. More recently, she has taken up the cello.
Her career began when one of her aunts, a singer, pulled out of a local engagement and asked her to take her place. In the years that followed, Buika led a footloose existence, recording dance singles, playing all sorts of gigs and, at one stage, relocating to London and — believe it or not — Slough. Eight years ago, she even went to Las Vegas, where she found a niche as a Tina Turner tribute singer.
The mother of a young son, she was once part of a bisexual ménage à trois. All in all, she makes Amy Winehouse seem almost staid.
In retrospect, she sees her wanderings as part of a quest: “My voice is older than me. She was waiting for me. I wasn’t ready before.” She begins to laugh again. “Thank God, after 36 years, I see myself in the mirror and I recognise myself. That’s success.”
Her career hit its stride when she was taken under the wing of the renowned producer and songwriter Javier Limon — best known for overseeing the hit album Lagrimas Negras, a collaboration between the elderly Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes and the charismatic flamenco singer known as El Cigala. Buika’s 2005 album Mi Niña Lola proved a runaway success, Limon providing an elegant, jazz-tinged backdrop for the singer’s mesmerising vocals. Think of Billie Holiday mixed with a hint of the 1980s pop star Sade, and the spirit of the buleria, and you have some idea of the album’s range. The follow-up release, Niña de Fuego — which features a striking nude photograph of Buika on the cover — is every bit as accomplished.
She seems unaffected by all the attention. Working with Limon, she says, involves none of the usual record-label compromises. When she was first making her way in the world, she got used to tucking her wages down the front of her dress. Not much seems to have changed since then. What matters, she says, is “living with an open heart”.
Not that she neglects the technical side. Studying the cello is part of a mission to push herself as hard as she can as an artist and songwriter. She has no time for vocalists who do not trouble themselves with theory: “They complain there is a machismo in the music world. Then you ask, do you know about harmony? No. Do you compose? No. Do you play an instrument? No. I love the freedom playing an instrument brings. Can you imagine if, any time you needed to write, you had to ask someone to come to your house with a pencil? You are in jail. You are enslaved to someone.”
Concha Buika plays the QEH, SE1, on November 20; 0871 663 2505,