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Quiz for October, Hispanic Heritage Month: What's the one Spanish-speaking country that always gets forgotten, or at least saved until the last minute, during Hispanic history celebrations?
Although she wasn't actually born there, Afro-Spanish singing sensation Concha Buika has the answer, and you'll find traces of it in her emotive vocals. It's Equatorial Guinea, an African nation so filled with political strife and corruption that Buika's parents fled it for the all-white Spanish island of Palma de Mallorca in the early Seventies.
"I don't know if I represent anything, but I am the consequence of a historic fact," the 35-year-old says in her throaty voice, during a phone interview from Mexico.
Buika is on tour behind her latest album, Mi Niña Lola, a work of flamenco fusion, both originals and standards, mixed with jazz, blues, and tango. It was produced by popular Spanish producer Javier Limón, the mastermind behind the flamenco fusion found on Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés and Spanish singer Diego El Cigala's Lágrimas Negras. Fleshing out her exotic sound are master flamenco guitarist Niño Josele, Latin jazz trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez, Cuban drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernández, Uruguayan jazz pianist José Reinoso, and Cuban bassist Alain Pérez.
For more than a decade, Buika's "steel wool" voice, as one critic called it, has scrubbed up the shine on numerous house, funk, hip-hop, and electro-jazz albums. Finally, in 2000, she released her jazzy first independent album, Mestizou. In 2005 came the all-encompassing fusion album, Buika, but it's the flamenco spirit found on La Niña Lola that really grounds her in the roots of her upbringing.
Growing up as the only black kid on the Mediterranean island, Buika sought solace in a well-known community of outsiders — the gypsies. "They sang a lot in the streets, and that felt very familiar to me," she recalls. "My mother came from a very small town where she sang to greet the neighbors in the morning, she sang when she was sad, she sang when she was happy, and she helped me to sing to express myself."
When Buika was 17 years old, her mother encouraged her to take her show public. It was the Eighties, and post-Franco Spain was exploding with foreign pop music. "Everything was amazing. I was influenced by Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna — there was a lot of jazz fusion," says the singer, who also plays the piano, cello, bass, and guitar.
But later, like many adventuresome Mallorcans influenced by the masses of British tourists, Buika moved to London to find herself as an artist, singing in local pubs and learning a bit about dramatization. But soon some friends who worked in a casino in Las Vegas invited her to sing there. So she donned a wig and jumped onstage as a Tina Turner impersonator.
Over the past six years, she has partially returned to her geographic roots, dividing her time between Madrid and Mallorca, where she composes and performs. Buika was an instant sensation, and shortly thereafter, she went from scraping by on 60 euros a night to filling concert halls.
"I still can't believe it. I feel funny, but I think I'm in my place," says the artist, who swears she never reads her interviews in the press and never watches her music videos. "It could be a very African way of thinking, but if humans were made to look at themselves, they'd have one set of eyes to see outward and another set to look inside. I'm made to feel myself, not see."
That feeling has captured audiences worldwide. Take, for example, her interpretation of the title track and flamenco classic "Mi Niña Lola." Assuming the character of a single father trying helplessly to console his daughter, she worries with awkward concern that the young girl won't say what's on her mind. "As long as your father is alive, you're not alone in this world," Buika wails like a gypsy as the flamenco transitions into light jazz.
After Buika's father returned to Africa, her single mother helped her articulate thoughts and feelings amid the clamor of five other siblings. The habit stuck, and a serendipitous example is Buika's original number "Jodida pero Contenta" ("Screwed but Happy"). Over a background meshed with jazz and Cuban soul, her voice sings proudly of her having escaped a destructive relationship in which she didn't feel appreciated. "I'm leaving here screwed but happy/You've doubled me over, but I maintain the hope within myself/Hurt but awake for my future," she slurs with a typical Spanish lisp.
Buika says her sound as well as her lyrics are rooted in a philosophy that any good music is made by people who felt like they were in the margins. It's why she classifies the blues of Billie Holiday and the country of Bonnie Raitt in the same genre. "Music is a universe that has no limits, and in reality we're all the same," she insists.
Strange as she has always felt on this awkward planet, that universal understanding of music has helped Buika become the embodiment of multiculturalism she is today. "I don't fear life, because I don't look for paradise; my body is my paradise," she philosophizes excitedly, her words peppered with Spanish slang. "Art is the only really legitimate religion that has us all in community, because it goes directly to your soul. The music is deep within us. We just have to remember it."