"I am the consequence of a particular type of demographic movement, one that has always involved paying a high price,” Buika said when that idea was suggested to her. “But I don’t know much about styles or genres. I only know notes and chords. I have no preferences, really. I think that at one moment you’re apt for one thing, and at the next moment you’re apt for something else.”
The singer, whose full name is Concha Buika, but who is known professionally by just her surname, performs Friday night at Town Hall in Manhattan. As she acknowledges, hers has been a long uphill struggle. A decade ago she was stuck working in Las Vegas casinos as a Tina Turner imitator. But the times seem to have caught up with her catholic taste. Her latest CD, “El Último Trago” (“The Last Drink”), released by Warner Music Latina, has been nominated for a pair of Latin Grammy awards, she will soon appear in a Pedro Almodóvar film, and she has collaborated recently on recordings with kindred spirits like the Canadian-Portuguese vocalist Nelly Furtado and the Anglo-Nigerian-Brazilian pop singer Seal.
Buika, 38, comes by that eclecticism naturally. She was born on the Spanish Mediterranean resort island of Majorca, where her father, an intellectual and political figure originally from Equatorial Guinea, and mother, a member of a minority tribe there, had settled after fleeing their homeland, which many human rights groups consider to have the worst dictatorship in Africa, and she grew up hearing her mother nostalgically singing Guinean folk songs.
Outside the house, though, Buika (pronounced BWEE-kah) spent time with the local Gypsies and absorbed their passion for flamenco and the tradition of “cante jondo,” or “deep singing.” “I identified with their solitude,” she explained, speaking Spanish in an accent close to Castillian, “because we were the only black family on the island, and I was the only black kid, which was very difficult for me.”
But American music also fascinated her, both jazz and pop. When asked about female singers who influenced her style, notable for its dark and raspy intonation and bent notes, she mentioned not just the flamenco singers Lola Flores and Remedios Amaya but also Bonnie Raitt, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, whom she probably most resembles. Her favorite male singers include both Michael Jackson and Julio Iglesias, and she said her preferred instrumentalists are John Coltrane and Bill Evans.
“What Buika does is to drink from many sources,” said the Spanish record producer and songwriter Javier Limón, who has worked with Buika on three CDs that achieved commercial and critical success in Europe and Latin America. “But even though she sang jazz and has African roots, she’s clearly Spanish in the way she feels music and life. She’s not really a flamenco singer, because that would require years and years of study. But she has an Andalusian way of phrasing to go with her African sense of rhythm.”
Among Buika’s most fervent admirers back home is Mr. Almodóvar, the acclaimed director of films like “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “All About My Mother.” He not only created a pair of interludes in his next film, “La Piel Que Habito” (“The Skin I’m In”), for her to sing, but also attends her concerts when he can and has written enthusiastically about those performances on his blog.
“Buika belongs to a lineage of artists that is found very rarely,” he wrote after a recent show, before putting her in the same category as Edith Piaf and Judy Garland. “Her voice has an unusual color and a very wide tessitura, gifted for the most intimate caress and for the deafening shriek. Buika only knows how to sing ‘with her heart ripped apart.’ So young, she makes me tremble because she gives the impression that each performance is the definitive one, the last one.”
The idea for “El Último Trago” also came from Mr. Almodóvar, she said. She had performed a version of “Se Me Hizo Facil” (“It Was Easy for Me”) a song associated with the Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, for a scene in his film, and he liked it so much that he urged Buika to record an entire CD of songs from the Vargas repertory.
In Latin America, Ms. Vargas, 91, is a legendary, or perhaps notorious, figure, famous for her gender-bending antics onstage and off. In her heyday in the 1950s and ’60s she dressed as a man, sometimes packing a pistol or a bullwhip to heighten that macho image and addressed her lyrics to women; in an interview nearly a decade ago she acknowledged that she was a lesbian and implied that the painter Frida Kahlo had been one of her many lovers.
Buika responded enthusiastically to Mr. Almodóvar’s request, even though her initial contact with Ms. Vargas had been bruising to her ego. On tour in Mexico a few years ago, Buika met Ms. Vargas, who, as Buika recalls it, said, “Sing something for me, child” and then bluntly commanded “ ‘Stop, stop, you’re not prepared.’ And so I was crying.”
But because Buika considers Mr. Almodóvar “an astute career adviser” with “the exquisite taste of a great painter,” she persevered and ended up recording “El Último Trago” in Havana last year with a small jazz ensemble that included the Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés (and Mr. Limón in the control booth and on occasional guitar). Ms. Vargas said she heartily approved of the result, and refers to Buika as “my black daughter”; in turn Buika now calls Ms. Vargas “my white mother.”
“Buika has really developed as a singer in a truly startling way,” Ms. Vargas said in a telephone interview from her home outside Mexico City. “She’s added the influence of flamenco and other genres to my songs, but the raspy roughness in her voice when she sings reminds me of myself. She’s still young, and has a lot to learn, but I think she has a very promising future, both in music and film.”
On her first extended tour of the United States, Buika seems to be aiming for a crossover audience. “It would be easy for her to play just for the family there,” Mr. Limón said, referring to the Spanish-speaking population. “But she is not exclusively for Latinos. She’s trying to break barriers and become a singer in Spanish for people who don’t speak Spanish.”
With so many opportunities emerging, Buika said she planned to move to Miami early next year, both to improve her English and to finish a CD of electronica that she has begun at the studio in her home in a farm village outside Madrid. She said she also hoped to study audio engineering. She began her career as a drummer and bassist, turning only to singing only because “in Spain nobody wanted a female drummer, and I got tired of hearing no, no, no,” and would like to explore further the rhythmic possibilities the recording studio offers.
But the future in cinema that Ms. Vargas foresees for her seems to hold little interest, at least for now. Asked about the possibility of a parallel film career, Buika laughed uproariously at the notion.
“It has cost me a great deal to become myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be another person.”
Fuente: New York Times