Born of immigrants from Equatorial Guinea and growing up among Romani gypsies in Mallorca, Concha Buika has emerged to become Spain’s most unlikely Flamenco star. Yet her haunting, velvety voice, her sentimiento and chiselled beauty have made her an unstoppable force. Rather than finding the tortured soul that one might expect, Jose Luis Seijas discovers a joyful spirit who is embracing life and her success.
Jose Luis Seijas

When you hear the voice of Concha Buika, it is easy to get filled with emotion; you can feel her pain, the depth of her emotion. It has that Billy Holiday effect of gentle stomach wrenching - a confusing wonder. And when you hear the story of Concha Buika you immediately feel inspired and curious. A story of breaking through both the financial hardship and the stigmas of belonging to two marginalized communities, Gypsy and African, in a country not known for embracing either.

So, as I sit waiting in the restaurant of a Regent Street hotel, I am half expecting a tough cookie with something to prove, as indeed she has, with her huge critical acclaim and Grammy nomination. I am not expecting the queen of warmth and happiness that breezes in, lighting up the room with her big smile. All the heads in the restaurant are turning, as she introduces herself to me.

Latinolife: How you doing, how is England treating you, I know you sold out your last concert here?

Buika: It was divine, really marvelous. England is treating me rather well.

LL: It seems like England is adopting you, recently you were a major feature on a very important newspaper.

B: Ha, ha. I think England adopts whoever comes with good intentions, a great country you know, a very welcoming country, very curious about artists that come here. It is a teacher that is always learning

LL: Your parents are from Equatorial Guinea, how was it to grow up as the kid of immigrant parents in Spain?

B: It was hard and beautiful at the same time…but it was a time when everyone felt very strange, both Spaniards and immigrants. I think for a few years after Franco’s death everyone felt a bit alien. The ghost of Franco took many years to vanish. When a dictator of that magnitude goes, it’s a benchmark, the hard work began when he died…the hangover of Franco’s regime took a long time to go. They were hard and difficult times for everyone in Spain… it was not harder for me than for the rest because I was an immigrant. I was a kid and kids don’t understand those things. I was a happy child.

LL: You grew up in a neighbourhood that was predominantly gypsy, with music that was not yours that ended up shaping you as an artist and as a person, tell us more about that experience…

B: All music genres were foreign to me, even African music, as I was not in Africa. For me all music was a new world that I embraced. My mum used to listen to all kinds, because for her all music was new. For a tribal person from Africa, like my mum, there was no difference between a Chinese person, an Arab person, a Gypsy, a Jewish one…for my mum everyone was equal, all music sounded good and was danceable! It did not matter to her if you played funeral music, she would dance to it. She used to buy LPs in the market by the bulk, 10 LPs for 10 Pesetas, it did not matter to her what she got sold, so I grew up with total freedom of enjoyment when it came to music.

LL: I think that shows in the kind of music you produce, which is very open…
B: I never grew up with someone telling me that Rock was better than Hip hop or Classical, I listened to everything in the same measure. Having said that, there were of course some artists that were more influential than others. For example John Coltrane we listened to every morning to wake up, the Beatles, Madonna, Witney Houston, Heavy Metal…Judas Priest, Lucho Gatica! (laughs)

LL: Well I suppose we all kind of go through different genres as we grow up, but the music industry tend to pigeon hole artists, and then it’s easy for people to say ‘I don’t like THAT type’

B: For me the concept of pigeon holing or defining yourself against something else has to do with wanting to be protected but I don’t feel the need to be protected. I don’t need to be protected against bad music, or against cool music or chic music…for me everything has the same origins do re mi fa so la ti. After that it is the unique tools and the mystery you put into what you do that makes it special. But I don’t feel there is a genre of music that sounds better than others, music is music.

LL: In England, they love to put people within music genres and you happen to be put under the Flamenco tag, any thoughts on that?

B: I don’t really mind! They can call me whatever they feel like, as long as it is Buika. I have heard that I am a flamenco singer, a Jazz singer, this or that….i don’t have an identity, I never had, not a musical identity nor a social identity. When you are younger this can be upsetting. You need an identity and to belong …yeah that sucked (laughs)!! I would say I was Spanish and people would say no, you are African, then I would say I was African and the Africans would say no you are not because you never been to our continent, you are Spanish, so I was in a limbo!

LL: It seems that you are pretty much in control of what you put out as an artist, tell us more about that process

B: I wanted to face the challenge of everything I did not know how to do! You go from the world of music to the world of the industrialization! I don’t industrialize my feelings. I don’t think: right I want to record an album, so I’m going to get a producer to make me a good album. For me that means you are scared of not succeeding. I think you can only sort your problems by facing them. You look at the problem and maybe you see that you need some help with a song or some aspect of a song and you go and get an arranger. There is a difference between solving a problem, not getting someone else to solve it for you, then you have no control over the outcome.

LL: So your musical career has nothing to do with selling music?

B: For me, music is simply what I do. I don’t say to myself: I want to be a successful artist, that is not my issue, my success does not depend on me, it will depend on the public, it is up to them not up me. I am more scared of not sounding as I think I should sound than I am of not succeeding.

LL: You were never ‘discovered’, you worked your way up from the bottom and now you are in an ideal position as you keep creative control of what you do but also have success - what most recording artists would love! What advice would you give to someone who is starting his or her musical career and do you have any regrets?

B: I would keep it to two very important ones. First, whatever happens, never forget to breath! Secondly, never dream of freedom, you must only think of a way to get the key to the cage (laughs). As long as you dream of freedom, you will believe in saviours, someone to open the door. And it is the saviour who will end up imprisoning you again! In the music world, things go completely upside down, I think it’s the time so get things more balanced. I always thought that capitalism is the best system as long it belongs to the people, until there is more democracy things will be wrong.

LL: And now you mention Capitalism, how do you see the Spanish crisis?

B: It’s difficult for me because I cannot see Spain without taking into consideration my personal history. We lived in financial crisis. Tell an African immigrant that Spain is in crisis and he probably die of laughter! He would think that you have no idea about what real crisis is. But again I don’t have detailed knowledge on what is happening, so I am not the best person to give opinions on that.

LL: So what is the future of Buika?
B: You know what, I am not a believer in the future, because it is always far away and you concentrate too much on it, you miss out the present, I think more in the present revolutions, the ones that possible now.

Buika will be performing at Tha Barbican on Monday 14th October http://www.comono.co.uk/live/buika-2/