Thursday, January 26, 2012

Spanish Flamenco singer Buika wows Carnegie Hall in concert with Chucho Valdés

Executive Producer Sean Barlow recently attended the Chucho Valdés with Buika concert at Carnegie Hall. Here is his report.

I had the pleasure of meeting the Spanish diva Buika and seeing her perform with the dean of Cuban jazz, Chucho Valdés and his Afro-Cuban Messengers last Saturday at Carnegie Hall. Chucho moved effortlessly between Ellington, Gershwin, Afro-Cuban traditions, Joe Zawinul, and his own compositions. What a class act!

Halfway through the set, the petite flamenco singer Buika dressed in black comes on stage, beaming. She starts out saying, “I’m a shy person. I go to a lot of countries where things are difficult, but what I love when I come to New York is, you are free! You can say anything. I can speak!” From that moment Buika had the audience in her hands. She added the unusual element of sultry flamenco and flamenco jazz and soul vocal to Chucho’s sound. This is a spectacular and totally unique voice. She got standing ovations. It almost felt like she was stealing the show from Chucho.

I interviewed Buika earlier in the day and she told me her story of growing up with the Spanish Romani people (Gitanos, commonly known as gypsies) on the island of Mallorca off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. She was drawn into the local flamenco scene, the only artist of African descent to be accepted.

Buika’s parents were political exiles from the harsh dictatorial regime of the tiny African country of Equatorial Guinea, colonized by, you guessed it, the Spanish. This 40-year-old artist has never been to the country of her ancestors. When I asked her if she had considered going “home” to research traditional music there and combine it with the flamenco she grew up with, she laughed and said, “You mean music for hippies?” So in one fell swoop, she seemed to discount much of the “world music” impulse! But hey, with her chops, no problem. Buika is intensely grounded in what she considers her own roots, the flamenco tradition.

Buika has definitely gone her own way in other ways. She tried out amongst 20 others in Las Vegas to be a Tina Turner impersonator, and got the gig—for five years, seven nights a week. And this as a single mom. I asked her to sing me something from her Tina repertoire to record. She smiled and shook her head forcefully. Not a chance.

Buika’s recording career took off about seven years ago. Check out the album she recorded with Chucho in 2009 El Ultimo Trago. Her 2008 album Niňa de Fuego was nominated for Latin Grammy Award album of the Year. Another personal favorite is Mi Niňa Lola (2006) . And a good place to start is her 2011 compilation En Mi Piel.

Buika’s music and my interview with her will be featured on an upcoming Afropop Worldwide program. Meanwhile Chucho is touring the U.S. now. Catch him if you can. And you can follow Buika’s whereabouts via her fansite.

(Photographs by Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos, copyright 2012)
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