Her reputation is that of a “difficult woman,” but famed flamenco vocalist Concha Buika doesn’t much care about the names or labels used by people who attempt (and fail) to wrestle her into submission. Hailed by NPR as one of the 50 greatest voices in the world, Buika knows the loneliness of conviction, exile, racism and of being a single mother; the loneliness of survival.
Buika, the daughter of refugees from Equatorial Guinea, grew up on the Spanish island of Mallorca and was raised in a Gypsy neighbourhood, surrounded by music: African, Gypsy and Spanish traditions, later soul, pop, R&B and jazz. Following an out-of-left-field stint in Las Vegas as a Tina Turner impersonator and a few other false starts, Buika hit it big in the U.S. with her 2008 album, Niña de Fuego (Child of Fire), which earned her two Latin Grammy nominations and ignited a series of high-profile collaborations with artists like Chucho Valdes and filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.
CBC Music interviewed the fascinatingly candid Buika (in what is, thus far, the most interesting email exchange of this journalist's career) in advance of her upcoming show in Toronto on Jan. 25 at the Royal Conservatory of Music, discussing everything from finding her voice to sexism to her notorious reputation.
In the past you’ve talked about how empowering it was to find your voice. How has this liberated you in your music?
I found my voice because I found my thought, when you know what to say it does not bother you more if your voice is pretty, ugly, louder or lower, if you know what to tell you are safe. It is just being careful on how you say it.
You’ve said of yourself, “I’m not an easy musician to work with.” What do you think are the qualities that make you difficult?
I am an animal star and I disagree with some imposed rules by nobody knows who in the music world. I don't really like the industrialization of the feelings.
If a man exhibited those qualities, do you think he would be labeled difficult?
Man, woman, who cares? We are all semi-gods and goddesses in lowercase, I know that somebody from America said "Do not let history to exalt or praise you, get out there and do something great."
I feel that by trusting in faith with the idea of what I am is finally what helps me. I also feel that the purpose of a dream is that it will end up becoming a great idea, a new project. I think that these projects will gradually lead us to holiness.
People have hailed you as the queen of new flamenco. Did you think what you were doing was subversive originally?
I am black and aspiring to an original African, as a little girl I discovered that queens don't stain their clothes, could not be mischievous and were never allowed to play "If I catch you, you touch me." I feel that to some of us, my friend, it gets quite small, the human stars are like the ones in the firmament, glow but they don't give heat. I'm an animal star, I told you before, I'm from the friction and sweat, from faith, not from boring hope. I do not belong to the action, I am action, I do not know what or who is subversive, my name is Concha Buika.
There’s a tremendous amount of longing and pain in your songs. Even though I don’t understand the words, I feel it. Whose story are you telling?
I know from where I sing, but I don't know where from do you listen to me, only you may know why do you hear that beautiful melancholy, the tiny and sweet heartache that like the constructive massive weapon, little by little, seed down peace where maybe one day there was a hint of conflict. I have heard in many songs that apology that I waited one day and it never came. I recognize that at this time I feel the pinch tighten at the same time it eases.
You were once a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas. What were those first few shows in Vegas like?
Now it seems all a dream in my head, was poetic and violent incredible truth.
What did they teach you about performing?
Sometimes it is me who puts the limits. I used to sing for 11 hours a day and I even recall that I was feeling proud of it, I think that I was living in a trance state like many others out there.
You’ve fused more genres than almost anybody: flamenco, jazz, Gypsy, Latin, African, electronic, soul to name a few. Can you tell me a little bit about how you became acquainted with each of these styles of music?
Papi, you are asking me questions that I do not know how to reply. I sing what appears to my head, I don't know where from, the energy that guides me is much greater than myself, my three mouths talk and they feel for themselves. I do not guide them, I am an instrument from this conception idea of life, from this union and disunion, everything and everyone on Earth makes me say what I say, sing how I sing.
[It] is also your fault; do not learn about me, do not follow me, do not learn that I exist. I am not responsible of half of my blood and from the other half either, I did not choose my heart. At times I feel dumb presuming of a body that does whatever I want and even so I must say that is mine ... I cannot tell you how nor why I do what I do. I would never open the golden eggs hen's belly to know how does she makes them, I don't ask myself that type of questions, I just close my eyes and sing.
Chucho Valdes Q&A
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on Jan 23, 2013