Buika: 'I just open my mouth and sing'

Last updated 05:00 09/02/2014
ACROBATIC VOICE: Buika can accelerate from sensual whisper to throaty roar within a few short bars.

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I'm ready to talk about her music, her career, her upcoming performance at Womad, but before we get to all that, Spanish singer Maria Concepcion Balboa Buika would like to discuss how she came to be conceived within her mother's womb 41 years ago.

"People try to make you responsible for everything!" she says, her voice husky, careering, a little breathless. "The culture tells us everything is a free choice. If that were true, we would be the ones who chose to come in this life in the first place! We would be swimming in that river inside our mother, and two hundred million little snakes would wash up around us, and we would reach out and grab the one that would become our father, you know?"

She pauses for effect, and I picture her in her Miami home, eyebrows raised in mock amazement. "We would choose the winner! We would choose him ourselves! But I didn't choose him, so life remains a mystery in many ways, including how I came to make these songs. I just listen to the world, and these songs, they come out."

Yes, and in a gushing stream, as it happens, just like her conversation. On the phone as on record, this singer is equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. Mind and voice both take unexpected twists and turns, ending up in places you never imagined they might go. Restraint is in short supply, and passion so palpable, you almost want to avert your eyes. Emotions are right up front, in your face, as red-raw as a freshly grazed knee.

Born in Spain to Guinean parents, Buika is generally described as a "flamenco fusion" singer, having forged her own distinctive hybrid from African and Andalusian folk styles, modern Spanish "nuevo flamenco", Afro-Cuban jazz and R'n'B. With a low register that recalls a Latina Nina Simone, her acrobatic voice can accelerate from sensual whisper to throaty roar within a few short bars, and many of her songs somehow manage to sound hectic and mournful at the same time.

Today, the woman who performs simply as "Buika" is in her Miami home studio, preparing to record a new song. "You are part of my recording, my friend! If you are not careful, you may end up on my next record!"

She says she has no idea what she will sing during today's session. Like her musical heroes - Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane - it's her intention to improvise and see what happens, because music should be all about "instinct and mystery".

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She claims to have no idea why she's recorded many past songs, either. Amid several self-penned tracks, her most recent album features radical reinterpretations of Ne Me Quitte Pas and Don't Explain, ballads best known for the versions sung by Jacques Brel, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. What made her choose those particular covers? "Who knows? Why do anything? Perhaps I choose them because I'm lazy! Perhaps I went with the first idea that came in my head! Or perhaps someone else suggested them to me. I don't remember. I try not to think too much about these things, or to take too much responsibility. I just open my mouth and I sing."

Raised on the Spanish island of Mallorca, her early musical apprenticeship included voicing electronic dance tracks and a spell as a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas. A deepening interest in jazz led to a host of collaborations, most notably with American jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, French balladeer Charles Aznavour, legendary Afro-Cuban pianist Chucho Valdez and Indian sitar player Anoushka Shankar; she also hedged her bets with a few crossover duets with mainstream pop yawn-meisters Seal and Nelly Furtado.

After two of her songs appeared in Pedro Almodovar's 2011 film, La Piel Que Habito, Buika's profile rose sharply. The global media came knocking, and why wouldn't they? Beautiful, exotic, gifted, eccentric, bisexual, a tiny tattooed musical firecracker - she had everything needed to snare jaded journalists and garner column inches. Some of the gushing was a tad unseemly, admittedly, as when she was declared "one of the best 50 vocalists of all time" on America's National Public Radio network.

But even without the hyperbole, that voice really is something. With a sinuous tropical funk to the rhythm section and no shortage of jazz swing, Buika's most recent album - her sixth - left reviewers smitten. La Noche Mas Larga was, some concluded, her masterpiece. "I'm amazed they say that, because this is the record of a rebel. I didn't want a producer. I wanted to do it myself, with my friends. I was a rebel, and I didn't expect my life would go this way. And besides, who can tell how anyone will receive what you do? That's the magic. I always know the place I'm singing from, but I never know from what place you are listening. I never know what people get from hearing me. I am still amazed when I go on stage and see all these people sitting in front of me. I have no idea why they are there."

Really? Does she imagine they were merely walking past the venue and the doors were open, so they strolled in and took a seat to rest their legs? It seems more probable that they've heard her music and liked it, then coughed up for a ticket.

"Ha ha, yes, you're right, but this is somehow unbelievable to me! How do I come across to these people? I have no idea. I never saw myself on a video, or listened to myself on a CD. I cannot watch myself on stage. To relive the past is impossible. I never saw a bird fly past twice. I never saw a wave break twice upon the same stone on the beach.

''So I never sit down to listen again to the things that I have done in the past. I agree with who I am and I am not scared of anything I have done, and when I have done it, I am moving on to do the next thing."

And the next thing right now is Womad, which brings Buika and her band to a beautiful tree-ringed park in Taranaki in just a few weeks. It's her first visit to our neck of the woods.

"New Zealand seems so, so far to me! Perhaps you wonder what my expectations will be of your country, but I cannot help you, because I never expect anything about anything.

''I have joy and respect for what I discover, but I try not to have expectations, in case I am disappointed. In my music and in my life, I go into every new situation bravely with my eyes open, like an explorer."

WOMAD 2014 is at the TSB Bowl/ Brooklands Park in New Plymouth, March 14-16. Details at womad.co.nz

- Sunday Star Times

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