Buika - in a sunshine state of mind

Concha Buika doesn’t just have possibly the most extraordinary singing voice to have arrived on the international stage in the past decade. The flamenco singer from Majorca who holds a similar view on performing music to Bill Shankly’s on football (it’s not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that) has a laugh that might test the strength of the phone line from Miami to Scotland.

Your reporter has just greeted her with congratulations on her Grammy nomination for her latest album, La Noche Mas Larga, to which she responds with mock coyness that, yeah, she’d heard about that too before telling me that it hasn’t excused her from the school run every morning. If you listen carefully you’ll hear the sound of a leg being pulled and soon a guffaw begins somewhere deep in Buika’s diaphragm that breaks like a tidal wave as she confirms how proud she is.

She’s carefree now and clearly loving life in Florida, where she moved towards the end of the noughties as her career began to require her to be in Latin America and the U.S. and yet still a relatively short flight from mainland Europe. But that voice, so full of struggle, sadness, defiance and sheer soulfulness, to say nothing of its smokier-than-smoky timbre, didn’t come from an easy upbringing.

As the fourth child of six in one of only two or three African families living on Majorca at the time (her parents were political refugees from Equatorial Guinea), Buika often felt weird, she says, when she was growing up.

“It wasn’t just because of the people around me,” she says. “Sometimes you feel different even if they don’t make anything of it. I was always aware of being the unique black girl in the supermarket, in the cinema, in my class at school. It was uncomfortable but I found ways of dealing with it.”

One of those ways was music. Her father left the family when Buika was nine and her mother used music and movies both as a place to deal with her tears and as a way of controlling her brood.

“Music gave us a focus,” she says. “It was like a big instrument that kept us occupied. My mother would play songs like the Billie Holiday song (Don’t Explain) and the Abbey Lincoln one (Throw It Away) that are on my new album and I was too little to understand the feelings in the words but I could see the effect they had on my mother. There was always music playing and I think I became a singer before I could talk. I mean, I could always find the note I wanted to sing but I couldn’t always find the right word to say, and I’m still like that.”

Another mighty laugh causes a lull in the conversation before we arrive at the moment where she discovered she had a voice that can move people to tears, be it tears of sadness or joy.

“That must have been the first time people applauded me,” she says. “But that took me by surprise. Being a singer was one of my fantasies, and I’m going to confess something to you: I was a big liar when I was young. I was tough to control and I made up all these stories. I wasn’t bad. I think when children make things up, it’s creative. It can be beautiful and that’s where my songwriting comes from, not so much from the lies but in being able to put what I want to say into a story.”

In 2000, aged twenty-eight, Buika made her first album, Mestizuo and followed this five years later with Buika. It was when she began to work with producer Javier Limon, who has also worked with other singers of character including fado star Mariza and Israeli ladino specialist Yasmin Levy that she really began to make an impact, however. Limon produced three albums for Buika, including the heart-stopping classic Niña de Fuego and El Ultimo Trago, on which she performed duets with Cuban piano master Chucho Valdes. Her appearance, singing two songs, in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 movie "La piel que habito" (The skin I Live in) further enhanced her growing international reputation.

Her latest album, La Noche Mas Larga, was produced by Buika and her touring musicians, pianist Joán “Melón” Lewis and percussionist Ramón Porrina, who form a team that typifies Buika’s us-against-the-world attitude to live performing.

“I like small teams because if you’ve played piano for twenty years, I want to hear you,” she says. “I don’t want you to be swamped by bass and backing vocals and all that stuff. I love to build cathedrals of sound with two or three musicians. Sometimes on festivals we have to follow nine-piece bands and we’ll be sitting backstage saying, They’re killing us out there. But if you can live in your music and put all of your life into the songs, you can have the audience jumping. You have to let it go because once you’re out there onstage, it’s a life and death issue – maybe more than that.”

Buika appears at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday January 21.

From The Herald, January 14, 2014.

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