By LARRY ROHTER
Buika was carrying a Spanish passport when she arrived to begin her first extended singing tour of North America. But her music draws on such a range of influences that she seems to be at once from everywhere and nowhere.
“I am the consequence of a particular type of demographic movement, one that has always involved paying a high price,” Buika said. “But I don’t know much about styles or genres. I only know notes and chords. I have no preferences, really.” The singer, whose full name is Concha Buika, acknowledges hers has been an uphill struggle.
A decade ago she was stuck working in Las Vegas casinos as a Tina Turner imitator. But her latest CD, “El Ultimo Trago” (“The Last Drink”), won the Latin Grammy for Best Tropical Album, she will soon appear in a Pedro Almodovar film, and she has collaborated on recordings with Canadian-Portuguese vocalist Nelly Furtado and the Anglo- Nigerian-Brazilian pop singer Seal.
Buika, 38, was born on the Spanish Mediterranean resort island of Majorca, where her parents settled after fleeing Equatorial Guinea, and she grew up hearing her mother singing Guinean folk songs. Buika spent time with the local Gypsies and absorbed their passion for flamenco and the tradition of “cante jondo,” or “deep singing.” “I identified with their solitude,” she explained, speaking Spanish in an accent close to Castillian, “because we were the only black family on the island, and I was the only black kid .”
But American music also fascinated her, both jazz and pop. She cites Bonnie Raitt, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone as influences.
“What Buika does is to drink from many sources,” said the Spanish record producer and songwriter Javier Limon, who has worked with Buika on three successful CDs . “But even though she sang jazz and has African roots, she’s clearly Spanish in the way she feels music and life.” Among Buika’s most fervent admirers back home is Mr. Almodovar, the director of films like “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “All About My Mother.” He not only created a pair of interludes in his next film, “La Piel Que Habito” (“The Skin I’m In”), for her to sing, but also has written about her on his blog.
“Buika belongs to a lineage of artists that is found very rarely,” he wrote , before putting her in the same category as Edith Piaf and Judy Garland. “Her voice has an unusual color and a very wide tessitura, gifted for the most intimate caress and for the deafening shriek.
Buika only knows how to sing with her heart ripped apart.” The idea for “El Ultimo Trago” also came from Mr. Almodovar, she said. She had performed a version of “Se Me Hizo Facil” (“It Was Easy for Me”) a song associated with the legendary Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, for a scene in his film, and he urged Buika to record an entire CD of songs from the Vargas repertory. Buika responded enthusiastically to Mr. Almodovar’s request, even though her initial contact with Ms. Vargas, who is 91 now, had been bruising to her ego. On tour in Mexico a few years ago, Buika met Ms. Vargas, who, as Buika recalls it, said, “Sing something for me, child” and then bluntly commanded “Stop, stop, you’re not prepared.”
Buika recorded “El Ultimo Trago” in Havana last year with a small jazz ensemble that included the Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes. Ms. Vargas said she heartily approved of the result .
“She’s still young, and has a lot to learn, but I think she has a future, both in music and film,” Ms. Vargas said . On her North American tour, which began October 15 and ends November 20, Buika is aiming for a crossover audience. But the future in cinema Ms. Vargas foresees seems to hold little interest . “It has cost me a great deal to become myself,” Buika said. “I don’t want to be another person.”