Concha Buika refuses to hide behind a false veneer of personality. She needs no carefully crafted persona, media image or handlers.
Instead, the singer who has won a devoted following in Spain and beyond with a powerful blend of flamenco, jazz, African and Latin American music prefers to reveal all - from her emotional reflections on her life to a cover photo in which she appears without clothes.
"I'm not nude; it's simply that I'm not dressed," Buika says of the photo for her most recent album, Niña de Fuego, released last year. "Because I find that to accurately portray yourself on a CD or in a given moment to show part of your soul, there's no need to dress. Clothes don't exist for the soul. You have to be brave with music."
Buika takes the stage Thursday at Miami's Gusman Center, accompanied by Cuban pianist Ivan "Melón" Lewis, one of the stellar musicians featured on her recent album. The recording reunited Buika with producer Javier Limón, who worked with the singer on her 2007 release, Mi Niña Lola, a highly acclaimed recording that thrust her onto the world stage.
Limón's masterful and sparing flamenco-jazz fusions are a perfect foundation for Buika, who uses her deep and raspy voice to deliver heart wrenching renditions of Spanish copla and Mexican ranchera music, genres that allow her to sing of the joy and pain in her life - sometimes at the same time.
"I think that to love a person is to walk toward the person," said Buika, 37. "Falling out of love is to walk toward oneself again. It's hard, it's painful, but it's not bad. It's beginning to regain your time, your wants, your things and your entire identity. I think that breakups are a good thing. It's the same as falling in love. To fail in love is to succeed. A failure would be to stay with a person who isn't for you."
Buika likes to remind a listener that she speaks from experience. Several years ago, after she married the father of her son, she fell in love with a woman and arranged for the three of them to marry -- short-lived union she referred to on her previous album in Jodida Pero Contenta (Screwed But Happy).
"The title says it all," Buika says. "I'm screwed because I feel bad but I'm happy because I've been able to push away something that harmed me. To recognize that something has harmed you is the first step towards overcoming it, by talking."
The song occurred to her before the breakup.
"Curiously the timelines are very allegorical. I wrote Jodida Pero Contenta without knowing things weren't right. The song simply occurred to me. I thought, 'damn what a cool song' and I wrote it. And what you don't know is you're writing about something that's happening. You know?"
A black singer might seem an unlikely champion of Spanish and Mexican torch songs, but Buika has an affinity for them.
Born Maria Concepción Balboa Buika, she grew up playing guitar, piano and bass on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Her parents came to Spain as political exiles from Equatorial Guinea.
"We were practically the only African family that lived on the whole island. Of course I felt different everywhere," she recalls. "I was the only black person around, always the only black person in class, the only black in the disco, the only black in the store, the only black in just about any place. And that was a very strange feeling. You get used to it but you never feel comfortable."
As a child, she immersed herself in the culture of gypsy families who settled in the capital city of Palma de Mallorca and embraced flamenco. But her vocal style is inherently African. So it was only fitting that she began performing as a blues singer for a Mallorca hotel. She also explored jazz and soul music and worked as a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas.
Concerts in Mexico introduced her to famed songstress Chavela Vargas, a singer she idolizes. Buika's latest CD includes "Mienteme Bien," a song she wrote after Vargas did not invite her to share the stage in Madrid. On stage, she sings it to solo piano.
But Buika hasn't lost her love for Vargas and plans to release a tribute to the Mexican singer. El Ultimo Trago, recorded in Cuba's Abdala studios with pianist Jesus "Chucho" Valdes and his trio, will be released in September.
The other Cuban pianist in her life is Lewis, a masterful musician who plays Afro-Cuban rhythms, the blues, jazz and the graceful tones of the black church for Buika to embellish upon.
Their appearance in Miami follows a show that promoters cancelled last September after they had difficulty obtaining a visa for Lewis to enter the United States, even though he now lives in Spain, problems that perplexed Buika.
"That just doesn't seem right to me. He has a Spanish passport but everything stopped because it said he was born in Cuba. A man who only wants to play the piano. We had to cancel a show at a full house because they wouldn't allow us to work. And then here we had to stop a tour because we couldn't travel. I think this man has never seen a policeman in his life. I don't understand any of it."
But what she does understand is the stage, particularly those small settings in which she can see her audience while delivering soulful and earthy renditions of new compositions and old classics.
She defies categories, choosing instead to invite listeners to interpret her art.
"Music is a container that comes to us empty," she says. "The person that fills it is you."
Buika at Gusman Center (174 E. Flagler Street, Miami) July 9. Doors open at 8 p.m. $27-$52 are available through Ticketmaster.com, and 800-745-3000. Tickets also are available through the center's box office, 305-372-0925. Rhythm Foundation members can call 305-672-5202.
-- David Cazares
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