Buika and Lila Downs: A Tribute to Chavela Vargas
October 15, 2010 – 8:00 PM Chicago Symphony Center

“Making of your life, art, is an art in and of itself,” Buika philosophizes. Speaking with Buika is a heady experience, both for the senses and the intellect. Her beautiful, smoky voice expresses complex, poetic thoughts with ease and rapidity, punctuated by explosive laughs and the occasional puff on a cigarette.

Buika’s family is from Equatorial Guinea (formerly Spanish Guinea, and Africa´s only Spanish-speaking country) but  she was born Maria Concepcion Balboa Buika in Majorca, Spain, where her father took the family after fleeing the homeland for political reasons.  Speaking from her home in Spain, she describes how music, a vital aspect of her existence, was always a part of her family´s life in the fundamentally African way – that is to say, music, dance and food were never lacking. But it was her mother, Buika observes, that was immersed in music in a particularly passionate way. She loved all the kinds of music she had discovered in Spain, and danced to it in an African manner, whether it was John Coltrane or Led Zeppelin or Tchaikovsky.

In addition, North American music from the eighties was a particular influence, and Buika remarks that she´s especially grateful to  Tina Turner, “Mi Tina”, because she provided a model of beauty and talent for a young woman that had no point of reference for Africans in her Spanish environment:…“all the intellectual and sexual icons where white and blond, all the TV commercials had white people, I would look at them and think, ‘I don´t see myself!’ No matter  how much I comb and brush. My hair will never look like that!”

In the course of her professional career, Buika had until recently been known as the only afroflamenca, whose delicate phrasing of flamenco standards straddled the border between jazz and Southern Spain. Her latest CD, “El Ultimo Trago” took another unusual turn, adding the virtuoso piano-playing of Chucho Valdés to Buika belting out Mexican rancheras, those  rural ballads of lust and love and life gone wrong.

When I ask how and why she decided to sing rancheras, she exclaims, “We women birthed everyone: Chinese, Black, African, Mexican, North American, Russian! We are the mothers of the world and there is nothing we cannot sing, touch, love…There is no language, no music I dare not sing, because I have been born a woman!

Her love for rancheras has resulted in a friendship with the great diva of the genre, Chavela Vargas,  as well concerts in Vargas´home in Tepoztlán, Mexico. “Mexico es mi amigo”, says Buika. Vargas, affirms Buika, taught her the value of solitude, which “is a wonderful refuge”, she adds, “as long as we have another woman to share with (cousin, sister, girlfriend)  we can choose to construct instead of self destruct.”

Also a photographer, poet and writer who once defined herself in an interview as bisexual, tri-phasic and tri-dimensional, Buika concludes she is one of the women she writes about in her second book titled “To those that loved difficult women and ended up cutting themselves loose”. It had been a fascinating whirlwind of a conversation, with easy and brilliant transitions not unlike Buika´s own from flamenco to rancheras, and we can all look forward to the next musical road she travels.

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