In advance of Buika’s upcoming performance at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal on July 4, we had a long and insightful phone conversation with the outspoken Spanish singer. We’re bringing it to you in two parts. Part two, the interview, can be found here. Here’s part one….
María Concepción Balboa Buika, A.KA. Concha Buika, or just Buika , now 45, has been singing professionally since she was a teenager, born and raised on the small Spanish island of Majorca. Her parents fled there in the early 1970s from Equatorial Guinea, as her father, a poet and teacher, became an enemy of the terrorist regime of Macias Nguema. She grew up in hiding, as she calls, “in a hood,” a poor Gypsy neighborhood where, by her account, “there wasn’t any black person around me. We were the unique black family in all the neighborhood, and practically all of the island.” While her grade school choir teacher told her one day she “sang like a dog,” and not to come back to choir class, it didn’t deter her from developing both a love of music and a desire to sing. Today, with a Latin Grammy award (along with numerous nominations), collaborations with artists as diverse as Anoushka Shankar, Nelly Furtado, Seal, Pat Metheny, Charles Aznavour, and Me’shell Ndegeocello, she has certainly proven that schoolteacher to be very wrong. NPR dubbed her one of the “50 great voices in the world.”
“I was growing up in a flamenco neighborhood,” Buika says, “and that was the first music I met. Flamenco, jazz, blues. But my mama did something really cool. She was from a tribe, see, she’s not even from a village. She don’t know about differences between music styles. For her, all music was the same and that’s how she taught me. Thanks to her, to me, there’s no difference between styles. Because all the styles talk about the same sh**: love, desperation, hate, surviving, hopes. There’s no difference between a girl crying in China because her boyfriend broke up with her, or a girl crying in the United States because her boyfriend broke up with her. It’s the same tears. It’s not the same language. It’s not the same color. But it’s the same tears; the same feeling. We are different, but we are equal.
“When I was a kid, I was the worst,” she admits. “Everything I do in this world I want to be the best, so if I’m going in the wrong way, I want to be the best going in the wrong way. You know what I’m saying? I was a bug. I didn’t want to go to school. I was always hanging on the streets. So people around me used to tell me constantly: ‘You ain’t got no future. You gonna be a useless person. You’re not gonna find nobody to love you. You gonna find nothing to do in this world. You’re gonna be homeless if you keep on like that. You’re not a smart person. You’re an idiot.’ And I was growing up thinking that I was going to be a useless person.
“But then the first time I heard applause, that changed my life, because I thought all those people who talked to me in the past were liars. Either that or these people in front of me are crazy. But obviously, an audience is not crazy. They know what they hear. And the applause is something you do without nobody telling you what you got to do. You applaud because you feel so. So those people were being sincere. I was amazed. How can they applaud an idiot person? Nobody applauds an idiot person… except sometimes in the circus, I guess,” she laughs.
Eventually, she started performing in cafés and clubs with her own version of the blues.
“I was singing deep blues,” she says, “but innocent blues, because I was inventing the lyrics. It wasn’t even English, but people around me couldn’t tell. This was in a little village in Majorca and nobody speaks English there at that time. So I was inventing it.” She laughs, “You know, lying like a bitch.”
Buika began to gain local fame and was dubbed the “Tina Turner of Spain,” whom she looked up to as a role model, which led her to a stint in Las Vegas as a Tina Turner impersonator, working a grueling schedule but also learning a lot about performance and her voice. But growing weary and homesick, she moved back to Spain.
Then, one night in Madrid, something, or rather someone, changed her life. That someone was Puerto Rican-American musician Jerry Gonzalez, who had recently relocated to Madrid. Gonzalez is considered to be one of the fathers of Latin jazz, and has played with Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente and McCoy Tyner, in addition to fronting his own bands.
“I will never forget that night, you know,” she recalls. “There were only three people in the club. I was so sad. I was singing ‘My One and Only Love.’ It was one of my first weeks in Madrid. I didn’t know nobody. I was so lonesome, but I needed to fight for my music. So I went on stage and there was the bartender and one crazy someone I didn’t know who it was. I was really sad because there was nobody at the bar, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to be lucky in this place, but I need to sing because these two people need to listen to good music. So it’s my responsibility. I need to sing and do it as best as I can.’ You know, because maybe there’s two people, but these two people deserve the best show. So I started to sing and I started to cry at the same time. I didn’t want to cry, but my tears were coming out of my eyes, and I didn’t know why. And all of a sudden I start to hear a melody and there was nobody there! And I was like, ‘What’s that?’ I don’t use drugs, because maybe if I used drugs, maybe I would think I was high, you know? So I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ It was far away, but I could hear it. I turned to the pianist: ‘Do you hear that?’ But I have to keep on singing, and the melody don’t stop.
“Then all of a sudden, I turn around and see a circle, a golden circle in the air. And I was so scared. And I was like: ‘What the f*** is this? What is going on here?’ It was coming towards me. And it was Jerry. But, you know, the lights in the bar were dark and I couldn’t see him until he got on stage. He was playing from downstairs. That was so beautiful and so romantic. That’s why nobody could see him until he came up. And he said later, that he was walking down the street and once he passed in front of this bar, he hears what he thought was an angel singing, and he couldn’t help himself and needed to play. So he started to play, came up the stairs, and that’s how I met him. It was a circle in the air, like gold, coming towards me. ”
They became quick friends and Gonzalez gave her much advice and support she needed then to keep pursuing her career. He eventually helped her find her first record contract.
“Because I was a jazz singer,” she says, “and at that time jazz singers were not very successful in Spain. It was difficult for me and I didn’t have so much hope, but I couldn’t quit. My mission was to be honest with music and I knew I could make a lot of money singing pop, or I don’t know, but I couldn’t. Jerry pushed me up a lot. He was like, ‘Don’t worry. Your way is there. You don’t worry. Don’t listen to the others. Just listen to your free note and that will be the one who will take you far.’ And he was right. I was just listening to my free note and I came here.
“Nobody can teach you how to sing,” she adds. “That’s my theory. It’s something I believe. It’s not that I’m right, it’s what I believe. Nobody can teach you how to sing. Nobody can teach you how to cry. Nobody can teach you how to make love. That’s you, Papi. You know what I’m saying?”
While some may read Buika’s life journey and see a victim of society and circumstance, and even hear that in the songs she chooses to sing, she refuses that role. When she first started to reach an international audience, there seemed to be a narrative created by the media which she decries as false.
“Here’s the thing,” she says, “just because I have this past, 90 percent of the journalists want me to say: ‘My life has been so hard. As a little black poor girl in a white neighborhood, and all that sh**’ But it’s not true! I was so happy! They need a movie history behind my life. No! Life is always better than movies! I don’t remember my childhood like something horrible. Of course there were a lot of people who couldn’t understand. Like there have been a lot of things I didn’t understand from life. I don’t know. It’s so stupid to believe in these old things like racism and things like that. I had problems, obviously. But no matter if you’re black, white, Chinese, or whatever, you don’t have an easy childhood when you grow up in a ‘hood.’ But sometimes some people get a little bit offended because they live from the compassion of others. I’m a black girl and I’ve been suffering a lot of things, like everybody, and I’ve had a lot of beautiful things, like everybody. I don’t think that is a point to talk about.
“What I always say, and it’s something really curious, is that I know from where am I singing. I don’t know–and I will never know–from where are you listening to it. You know what I’m saying? I’m singing from my happiness, from my hopes, and everything. But you’re listening from your side, so I can not make myself responsible for the feelings you have when you’re listening to me singing.
“I’m so much happy when I sing,” she admits. “I feel blessed when I sing. My songs are happy. But if you hear my songs and feel sad, you have to question yourself why. Sure, some of the songs I sing are sad, but it’s not because of me, it’s because of the composer,” She laughs. “But really, when you sing a composer’s song, you’re still singing your own story. When I sing Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas,’ I sing my own story.
It’s all our story, written in all the songs of the universe. That’s the reason why sometimes when we listen to songs, we think we’re listening to our own memories.
“In my case, sadness is a celebration. I’m a singer, musician. To sing is a celebration of life. To play is a celebration of life. Even if what you’re singing is sad, you celebrate that you’ve been through that. You survived that story and now you’re brave enough to talk about it. That’s where the component of sadness becomes a little bit different. I’ve been through a hard story, I wrote a song, I sing it for you, and every time I sing that song I remember these tough and suffering things I’ve been through. But I’m celebrating that it passed. I survived and I can talk to my audience about it. I’ve been there, I almost died, I survived, and now I talk to you about my experience, because I know there are a lot of similar experiences out there.”
The role in which Buika sees herself is that of a soldier on a mission to serve humanity with her music. And it’s something she’d like every one, especially creative people, to see themselves doing in their lives.
“We are missionaries. We are soldiers,” she says. “You are a journalist, I am a musician. We are both soldiers. We choose that. We choose to live for the humanity. That was a decision we made a long time ago. I don’t even know if we were even conscious of it. But when we decided to be what we are, we were doing something really important. We were putting our lives in the service of humanity, you know? And that is so beautiful. I feel blessed for that. You don’t belong to you, you belong to everything, to everybody. Because you decided so. Even if you’re tired, or if you don’t feel so, if your audience needs to listen to you, you’re not going to think: ‘Today I don’t feel like’ or ‘Today I don’t want to.’ No, no, no. You’re always going to put your audience out in front of you. Is that right?”
And for Buika, the connection between herself and her audience is everything. It’s her hope that when you see or listen to her sing, you realize that connection too and come to understand that there’s no distance, no difference between any of us. We are all the same.
“Through these years,” she says, “my tribe, my fans, tell me things I didn’t expect. Like, ‘Every time I hear you I feel that the world has hope.’ And when they tell you those things, you feel like, ‘Wow, man. What am I?’ It’s so amazing. But you see, it’s also very simple. If you know yourself, you know me. I really truly believe in the culture of ‘I and I.’ When I’m talking to you, I’m talking to myself. You eat, you drink, you sleep, you cry sometimes, you sometimes are angry, you sometimes hate. So, of course you know me. And I think that’s what draws people to me, because at the end, when you show yourself to the audience without filters…. What do you want me to tell you, Papi? I’ve never done something wrong? Of course, I’ve done. Have I ever told a lie? Of course, I have. Even today. Have I never been a bitch? Of course, I’ve been a bitch. Of course there’s been a lot of people who been f**kin’ [with] me a lot. We are humans. We do all these things, you know. I don’t need to hide from people. I recognize what I am. Maybe not who I am, because I have the rest of my life to discover that. But what I am? I know exactly what I am–I’m just a stupid human, like all of us.”