Spanish flamenco singer Concha Buika says the key to her music is singing with a "beautiful idea" and "really big desire." Born on the Spanish island of Majorca to parents who fled their home in Equatorial Guinea, Buika performs music that transcends boundaries of language and race.
Flamenco may be the root of everything she does, but she blends it with African rhythms, jazz, blues and soul. She's been compared to Nina Simone, Chavela Vargas and Cesaria Evora. Her latest and most diverse album, La Noche Más Larga (The Longest Night), features her own compositions, as well as covers of songs by jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln.
Buika recently spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about her heritage, strength and latest album.
On her roots
"My friend used to tell me, 'No you're not from here.' And my aunties and uncles and my cousins, when they used to come around from Africa, they used to tell me, 'No, you're not African.' So at the end, I never knew, you know, where I was from."
On being criticized for her voice
"My teacher in the church, we were singing one afternoon, and she was like, 'Someone is singing like a dog.' And everybody was looking at me. So I realized it was myself. And she was like, 'Come, little girl, come, little girl. Sit down next to me.' And she gives me a Coca-Cola and she says, 'Don't worry, you're not going to sing today.' And the day after, she calls my mother and she was like, 'Tell your little girl don't come by here again.'
On women being strong and not vulnerable
"I'm African. I'm a black girl. To me it means a lot. ... I feel a strong animal. Even my friends, I feel all my friends are strong animals. ... I don't believe that when a woman says that she cannot go on, that everything is over; that she wants to kill herself because that man left, or whatever. I don't believe those things."
On impersonating Tina Turner in Las Vegas
"Tina helped me a lot. Every time I think [about] her, I feel strong. Because sometimes to be on stage, you know, your body hurts. Because some notes are really difficult. Because they go through a room that you don't want to open."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
People often say that music transcends all the boundaries of language, race and place, but some voices and people really do. Concha Buika was born to African parents who immigrated to the Spanish island Mallorca. She grew up as the only black family in a mainly Roma neighborhood. Somehow all of those influences combined to create a sound that is universal, yet completely her own.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUENO CON ELLA")
MARTIN: That's "Sueno Con Ella" from her new album "La Noche Mas Larga," or the longest night. And Buika is with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.
CONCHA BUIKA: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: We want to talk about the album. We want to talk a little bit about you first. How did your family end up in Mallorca?
BUIKA: 'Cause my father was a politician exhiliate and he hides in Mallorca. So I was from there and all my brothers and sisters, too.
MARTIN: Were they sad about being there? Did they miss home?
BUIKA: I think that at the very first beginning, but later on, I think that everybody forgets. When we grow, my mother tell us, because at the end my father left and I didn't see him no more, when I was nine years old, so I couldn't ask him for many things
MARTIN: Your parents split up?
BUIKA: He just disappeared.
BUIKA: No, it's all right.
MARTIN: Oh, it's hard, though. Do you remember growing up there being the only one - I'm thinking sometimes it's not a lot of fun being the only one?
BUIKA: I didn't feel anything nice about it. My friend, she used to tell me, no, you're not from here. And my aunties and uncles and my cousins, when they used to come around from Africa, they just tell me, no, you're not African. So I at the end - I never knew, you know, where I was from.
MARTIN: How did you realize that you could sing?
BUIKA: It's something that I discovered not long ago, because the first things that they tell me about my voice it was that it was very ugly, when I was a little girl. Well, you can hear. But the thing is that I discover, later on, that you don't sing with a beautiful voice, that you sing with a beautiful idea and with a really big desire.
MARTIN: Who told you your voice was ugly?
BUIKA: My teacher, in the church. We were singing one afternoon and she was like, someone is singing like a dog and everybody was looking at me. So I realized it was myself. And she was like, come little girl, come little girl, sit down next to me. And she gave me a Coca-Cola and she says, like, don't worry, you don't going to sing today. And the day after, she calls my mother and she was like, tell your little girl don't come by again.
MARTIN: You're laughing.
MARTIN: I want to go find her and beat her up, I'm sorry.
BUIKA: No, well...
MARTIN: I just think that's terrible. That's a terrible thing to say to a child.
BUIKA: Well, I realized the information, you know, very quick because she was, like, baby, to listen to me, you cannot sing. I remember that day, that I went in my house, and we used to have a little dog, and I was trying to listening to him to realize if his voice was ugly. And I couldn't get it because I thought that the voice of my dog was beautiful. So I didn't trust that teacher. I really do feel that my voice is very animal.
MARTIN: But you pushed through it, though. How do you think you were able to push through it? 'Cause some people would have heard that and would never have opened their mouth again.
BUIKA: Well, when I was an adolescent, my auntie cames to my mother and tell her, do you have any of your daughters that can sing? And she was like, well, Concha sings a lot. And I was like, whoa, I sing a lot, but I sing too bad. And she was like, they pay, like, 60 bucks. And I was like, "whuup" (ph), that's another story. So the first time I went on the stage and I heard the applause and I realized that people was listening to me, I think that I got such a kind of addicted to that.
MARTIN: Well, one person who loves your voice is the filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. He's been quoted as saying, Buika only knows how to sing with her heart ripped apart. And he loves your voice so much that he's put it in his films and has, in fact, is working on a number of vehicles for you and to work with you. I'll just play a short clip from a song you did for one of his films "The Skin I Live In," and people can decide for themselves whether your voice sounds like a dog.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POR EL AMOR DE AMAR")
MARTIN: A lot of people have drawn the analogy of great singers like Edith Piaf, who are almost bigger than the voice. When you hear that, what do you think?
BUIKA: I don't know.
MARTIN: It's almost more than you can...
MARTIN: ...Think about.
BUIKA: Because I don't wait, because I wait for, you know, for the compliments. I just do it because I feel that is my mission. If you know that you got something that helps, you have to do it.
MARTIN: What do you think people are responding to in your voice?
BUIKA: Well, I know from where I'm singing, but I never know from where you're listening to me. So I cannot make myself responsible of the feelings that the others feel when they hear me singing. 'Cause I think that the only thing that happens is that they let my voice get into them dark and bright rooms, with no problem. And I feel that this is a blessing for me.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Buika. We're talking about her new album "La Noche Mas Larga" or the longest night. We're also talking about whatever else is on her mind. I want to play another song from the album. This is one of your own compositions, "No Lo Se."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO LO SE")
MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about what this song is about. Can you translate?
BUIKA: At the end it's talking about that we cannot be angry with each other because we are mistaken people, we are humans.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO LO SE")
BUIKA: So I'm the one who's saying that, I don't know what is the pain inside me. I don't know what it is, and I don't know why, when he left, I was nearly turning crazy. Why I need someone that scared me? Why do I have to run to someone that hurts me? Why do I sometimes go against myself?
MARTIN: Has it been difficult to try to find your place in the English language, entertainment world?
BUIKA: I just have to close my eyes and follow my freedom and everything will happen behind.
MARTIN: What about racially? Because you were talking about how your voice is not conventionally pretty. I mean, I think you're very pretty. In fact, it's so funny because you look so much younger in person than you do on stage. On the stage you seem like such an old soul.
BUIKA: Oh, yeah?
MARTIN: Yeah. Do you feel that way?
BUIKA: No. I'm 31 years old. I'm a young promise.
MARTIN: You are, you are. But you seem very much younger, and I don't know, maybe, I don't know, more vulnerable in person? Does that sound right?
BUIKA: I feel a strong animal. I don't believe in vulnerability in women.
MARTIN: You don't?
BUIKA: No, I don't. I'm African. I'm a black girl. I don't believe...
BUIKA: To me means a lot. I mean, no. I'm a black girl. And...
MARTIN: You don't think you can be vulnerable?
BUIKA: No. I feel a strong animal, even all my friends, I feel all my friends are strong animals. I think the women is a strong animal and I don't believe when a woman say that she cannot go on, that everything is over, that she wants to kill herself because that man left, or whatever, I don't believe those things. I think that she is doing that herself, you know.
MARTIN: But a lot of music is about vulnerability. I don't know that vulnerability and weakness is the same thing, but a lot of music is about being vulnerable.
BUIKA: We like to talk about it. We like to feel that way.
MARTIN: But, you think it's bull?
BUIKA: Well, I think it's a need, you know, to feel awake sometimes, you know. But it's not necessary. I really do believe that we are animals.
MARTIN: Let me play this song that you cover, "Don't Explain" by Billie Holiday. And let's just play a clip of your version of "Don't Explain" and then we can maybe explain it.
(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "DON'T EXPLAIN")
BUIKA: That song accompany me in my childhood because my mother used to play that song a lot. Yeah, because she used to - she used to cry behind the songs because she didn't want to cry in front of her child. You know how mamas are? So she used to play music to have an excuse to cry, you know, to justify that she was crying. And she used to play this song a lot, and I love that song because it talks about a love that is danger but it's pure.
(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "DON'T EXPLAIN")
MARTIN: I think a lot of people might be surprised to know that just over a decade ago you were a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas. When you think about that now, is it funny? Is it horrible, or...
BUIKA: It's funny.
MARTIN: I can't even - I can't even process this. Did you do, "Big Wheels Keep on Turning"? Did you have the dress that goes like this?
BUIKA: (Laughing) Yeah.
MARTIN: Did you have one of those dresses that goes flying all over the place?
BUIKA: Yeah, I did it myself.
MARTIN: Did you really? Can you do one of those, "Big wheels keep on...? Can you do one of those? Do you remember any of them or have you, like, blocked it out?
BUIKA: I just blocked it out.
MARTIN: You blocked it out.
BUIKA: But she helped me a lot. Tina helped me a lot. Every time I think on her, I feel strong because sometimes, to be honest, this age is a little bit, you know, yourself - your body hurts 'cause some notes are really difficult to, you know - because they go through a rooms that you don't want to open. So when I think in Tina, I feel strong again on the stage. She helps me a lot, yeah.
MARTIN: That's great.
MARTIN: What song should we go out on?
BUIKA: I would like to listen - "La Nave Del Olvido." I love that song.
MARTIN: Okay. And tell us what it's about.
BUIKA: It talks about someone who's telling some other one, don't leave. It's a simple word.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA NAVE DEL OLVIDO")
MARTIN: Buika's latest album "La Noche Mas Larga," or the longest night is out now. And she was kind enough to stop by our studios here in Washington, D.C. on a visit to the city. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
BUIKA: Thank you...
MARTIN: Continued success to you.
BUIKA: ...for having me here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA NAVE DEL OLVIDO")
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Remember to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter, the handle is @TellMeMoreNPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.