The Spanish singer Concha Buika has built her celebrated career on the risky business of stylistic border crossing. But instead of setting up shop in the heady duty-free zone of international pop, she by and large honors the traditional sources she draws upon.
Buika, who bills herself using only her last name, released four albums in the last few years that brought together elements from her native country’s flamenco, Mexico’s rancheras, America’s soul and blues, and Caribbean-style jazz. Checking her bursts of hard-belted passion with quavering, smoky-voiced restraint, she’s worked with or won the praise of some of the forms’ most distinguished adherents: Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, and Spanish filmmaker and flamenco aficionado Pedro Almodóvar.
“So young, she makes me tremble because she gives the impression that each performance is the definitive one, the last one,” wrote Almodóvar on his blog. No wonder he chose Buika to sing in his 2011 feature, “The Skin I Live In.”
“It’s always gone well with me,” Buika says, speaking by phone during a brief respite on a global tour that brings her to the Sanders Theatre on Oct. 19, in a presentation by World Music. “The only rule is to follow my free note, and she takes me where she wants to go,” she continues. “I know that my ideas don’t fit everywhere. Not even my body. Not even my love. But my free note fits everywhere in the world. You understand?”
Perhaps crossing borders is Buika’s means of self-validation, if not salvation. Before she learned to adopt and adapt various musical styles, she had to do the same with the competing cultures of her childhood, she says, none of which she could naturally call her own.
Born on the Spanish island of Majorca to political exiles from the tiny African nation of Equatorial Guinea, she grew up as part of what she calls “the unique black family on the island.” Though she felt accepted by the gypsy families in her neighborhood, strangers would also come up to touch her Afro. Then when she was 9 or 10, her father left home with barely a word, completely disappearing for the next 26 years. To cope, her mother turned to tribal customs.
“The education in my house was very African,” Buika says. “But it was impossible to sustain that education once you were walking out, and you were trying to have your ideal life in the street. [You couldn’t do that either], given the fact that, wherever you went, you were the only black woman — the only one at the movies, the only one in the supermarket, the only one in the store, the only one in class. . . . It was very difficult.”
Still, her mother also gave her the ultimate escape: “For her, music saves. It doesn’t matter which music.” At 16, Buika impulsively jumped at the chance to earn 10,000 pesetas by singing for a local band. Once onstage, she never left, performing everything from heavy metal in bars to Julio Iglesias songs at weddings. It began a peripatetic musical life that led her by the time she was 30 to Las Vegas to perform as a Tina Turner impersonator.
Looking back, she remembers mostly Vegas’s grueling performance schedule: “That taught me that really, physically, we have no limits; we’re animals.” Along with the work, it seems, came focus. She returned to Spain, where, she says, “finally, I was getting my dream, which was to sing in the jazz clubs.”
The title track to Buika’s 2006 breakthrough album, “Mi Niña Lola” (“My Girl Lola”), exemplifies her achievement. For many, the song is instantaneously captivating. In 2009, the Madrid-based booking agent Miguel Marin asked American
publicist Cindy Byram to take on Buika as a client, and he used “Mi Niña Lola” as a lure. Byram protested that she was too booked, but as a favor she agreed to listen to the song. “He sent me the YouTube clip,” says Byram. “And that was the end of that for me.” She’s been working with Buika ever since.
Part of the song’s appeal is in Buika’s smoky delivery. Though her voice is tinged with despair as the chorus suddenly rises, she fights it with the flinty dignity of a soul-jazz artist like Nina Simone. But the lyrics contain their own hidden drama. They’re sung from the perspective of a father trying to console his daughter, who won’t explain her sorrow, while his wife has inexplicably disappeared.
“It’s a song that for me isn’t easy,” Buika says. “When my father returned, I didn’t want to see him and don’t want to know him. . . . The only thing I remember about him was that he was very violent, and he hit me and my brothers a lot. . . . And so, of course, every time I sing that song, it’s like destiny is giving me an opportunity, telling me, ‘Let it be,’ you know? But I’m very stubborn, and I don’t want to.”
Though “Lola” was a standout when it was released, as contained in the impressive 2011 double-CD anthology “En Mi Piel” (“In My Skin”), it becomes part of a complex international tapestry, brash and sophisticated.
Now relocated to Miami, a multinational city of all skin tones and languages, Buika has only begun to once again reinvent herself on tour and on an upcoming album of torch songs.
As she says, “We who invent, dream.”