BUIKA: From Suffering to Beauty

The African-Spanish artist provided WOMADelaide with one of its highlights for 2014.

The African-Spanish artist provided WOMADelaide with one of its highlights for 2014. The 2014 edition of WOMADelaide had barely begun when the crowd was treated to its first extraordinary experience. A few thousand people were seated on the grass by Stage 2 under a soft late summer sky – the perfect ingredients for one of those magical, unexpected WOMADelaide moments. Concha Buika, known by her performing name as Buika, was on stage for her very first Australian performance. Born of Guinean parents, raised on the Balearic island of Mallorca and now resident in Miami, the diminutive Buika came with a very simple, yet quintessentially flamenco, set-up: herself on vocals, accompanied by Armenian Vahagn Turgutyan on guitar and Ramón Porrina on cajón. Porrina comes from a prestigious flamenco background: son of singer Ramón el Portugués and grandson of Porrina de Badajoz, he formed part of the recording of the ground-breaking Potro de Rabia y Miel from the late lamented Camarón de la Isla. The stage, with Porrina, the genius of Turgutyan and the wonderfully unclassifiable Buika, was packed with raw talent. The sound filled both stage and crowd, a warm set bursting with the angst, joy and energy of Buika’s hugely diverse music, ranging from deepest flamenco to jazz, Mediterranean ballad, bolero and other styles that might not belong to any genre, but simply to the soul of Buika. Her second performance, on a smaller stage on the Saturday night, was even more dynamic, crowded and appreciated. When Buika sings, it is with that element of soulful and worldly truth that marks out the finest flamenco voices. She’s an artist who knows where she stands, and when taking on classics of any genre, she makes them entirely her own. When singing one of her most famous songs, Mi Niña Lola she begins by improvising a conversation between her child Lola, then moves on to sing and calm the young girl with tenderness. The voice is that of the mother, even though in reality it is the father who sings to the child. “I believe in spontaneity and improvisation,” Buika says when we catch up the day after her second WOMAD performance. “This is an homage to the very act of survival. This is a tactic we use even in the most everyday situations, in order to make ends meet, keep our heads above water, keep the bread on the table, to keep our children strong and healthy. The struggle through life is a constant series of improvisations, and I take that to the stage. It’s what keeps us alive. And in a concert performance, it’s a chance to let out the poetry that needs – always – to come out.” Concha Buika feels what she sings, and what she says comes straight from the heart. This is why to see her is to know how tightly she holds to the land that raised her. She dances while singing, though not wildly or exaggeratedly; when she marks out a zapateado (footwork) in bare feet, she does so with all the gypsy art she took in as a child during her Mallorcan upbringing. She sings, among others, her own versions of Jacques Brel’s Ne me quitte pas, Siboney, Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain and Miguel Rios’ Santa Lucia. She sings bulerías, rumba and jazz, calling out to us with a voice that emerges directly from the depths of her African heritage. Buika had not expected anything upon her arrival in Australia, she tells me. “To be honest, I just feel that if you don’t expect anything of a situation, or of a person, reality tends to be always more surprising. I don’t expect anything of myself, either,” she adds suddenly, “because in that way I am always able to enjoy the creativity of what I do. I grew up thinking of myself as awkward, useless, ignorant and quite stupid,” she adds candidly. “There was never any expectation that I’d achieve anything. Nor was anything asked of me – and therefore the things I did achieve were an enormous joy to me. In this way, little by little and without any pretensions, you make progress and arrive at your bigger achievements. But it’s best not to expect too much from the beginning,” she says, providing a fascinating contrast with the prevailing contemporary trend to inculcate children with a kind of enforced and obligatory positivity. “Innocence,” Buika concludes, “is the greatest of teachers, every day.” Among the various languages Buika sings – Spanish, English, Hebrew, Arabic and others – she occasionally sings in the relatively unknown yet powerfully lyrical language of Catalan, part of her inheritance of a Mallorcan childhood. “I’m in love with this language,” she says, “with its phonetic, its depth, accent… and for so many reasons. It’s a language with which you can dignify pain, it helps you to sing in such a way as to turn suffering into beauty. Catalan is a marvellous thing.” Despite the severe economic crisis in Spain, Buika is nevertheless optimistic about the future, and in particular for Spanish artists: “It’s a brave, strong country, blessed with artists of outstanding pedigree; there’s no tsunami that can knock over that level of talent and conviction. I see the impact our [Spanish] music has around the world; I’m very aware of the value and courage of our artists and our art in general, which is huge. They are on a world stage with and against the very best, yet have no reason to be envious; the quality of our art is beyond question.”   Visiting Adelaide for the Festival and WOMADelaide, Encarna Sancho is a flamenco dancer and producer based in Spain. @encarnasalerosa saleroflamenco@hotmail.com womadelaide.com.au   Photo credit: Tony Lewis

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