How the queen of flamenco came to love herself

Buika, the queen of flamenco, is set to perform at Carnegie Hall. Her voice may be hailed for being raspy and even dirty but it has not always been well received. Born to political refugees parents in Spain she has found her voice from not belonging anywhere. Buika reveals why she hates labels and sadness, and why women should embrace loneliness.

Concha Buika, born María Concepción Balboa Buika, in Palma de Mallorca, Spain sang in the church choir when the priest asked who was “singing like a dog.” Eight year old Buika was singled out and kicked out of the church for not having a clear voice.

In 2010, National Public Radio listed thirty-three year old Buika among the best 50 vocalists of all time and referred to her as ‘The voice of freedom’. 

 “I tell you what freedom is to me… No fear,” says the forty three-year-old singer. “We are taught to live in fear, and we do it very well.”

Finding freedom has been a journey for the daughter to political refugees. Her parents fled from Equatorial Guinea when her father, a politician, opposed President Teodoro Obiang who continues to rule the country since 1979. Buika’s parents moved to Mallorca and settled in a Romani neighborhood where Buika was born years later.

Buika believes that her voice would have been entirely different if she had been born in Africa. "If I were born there, I think that my voice will sound as a prisoner's voice. Like in jail," she says. "Because when you grow in those types of countries, you don't recognize freedom." 

Without roots

Her family was the only black in the neighborhood. For what she knows, many of the residents had not seen a dark-skinned person before and people would touch her afro for luck. She says that it was difficult growing up in a non-black area but that she never encountered racism as her family was well integrated in the Romani community. Buika played with the other kids and shared their passion for flamenco and the tradition of or ‘deep singing.’ “I identified with their solitude because we were the only black family on the island, and I was the only black kid, which was very difficult for me.”

Buika currently lives in Miami when she is not touring but says that she does not know where she belongs. “I sometimes think that I was born without roots, can we share? Can I borrow yours for a second until you feel comfortable without them? Can loneliness be a great and wonderful state of mind? Can we be lonesome people and still together? Can I live without an identity and be your friend? Will you feel comfortable with me in a private room now that you know that I do not have all those things? Now that I think that you’re my friend I feel home is everywhere.”

And everywhere is maybe where her music is. Buika’s music has been described as a mix of Latin jazz, flamenco, pop, soul and African polyrhythm. She says that Africa in many ways has always been a part of her. “It lives in my blood, in my skin, in my head and in my soul, I pray for her every day, in every stage, with every song. As I pray for all of us.”


Finding a voice 

Buika claims that freedom has become the key to her voice. She began her career working at a blues club. Later, she performed house music at raves. As a struggling thirty-year old single mother in Las Vegas, she worked 11 hours a day as an impersonator of her idol Tina Turner. Buika says that she felt “a little bit lost"when auditioning for the part but was certain that the job was for her. “Sure, I know that I cannot speak in proper English. I know that I can't sing in proper English. I don't care. This job is for me. Because Tina is gonna help me tonight. But I don't need her voice anymore. I got  voice."

In 2000, Buika released her first album She received a Latin Grammy Award for [One for the road] and a Grammy Award nomination for her seventh album, [The Longest Night] in the Best Latin Jazz Album category. Her sixth and latest album, [To Live Without Fear] was released in 2015. 

She also appeared on-screen singing in Pedro Almodóvar’s movie The Skin I Live In. 

“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.’ She makes me tremble because she gives the impression that each performance is the definitive one, the last one,” the director blogged after attending one of Buika’s concerts.

Buika herself says that her style is a “consequence of a particular type of demographic movement, one that has always involved paying a high price.” 

Heart ache 

“I sing from my own life. I don’t need to contemplate somebody else’s misfortunes. I have my own, and I can sing based on them. My wounds were caused by some mistakes in my education: I haven’t been taught properly how to love, how to cope with loneliness, how to stand being dumped, all this hurts you. We shouldn’t point out a person and make them responsible for our happiness. I am not frightened of pain, but I fear ending up hurt. Love is an incredible wound. You cannot get angry at a snake because it has bitten you, even if it murders you. Loving is an animal feeling. It can hurt you, but it cannot offend you. I think that most people are wrong when they are annoyed with somebody they love. Because loving somebody else is the first step to loving oneself. It’s marvelous. And loneliness, at least for us, women, is fantastic because it’s the place from which we can build ourselves. Getting rid of others, without having to tolerate people, we can be just perfect. We cannot blame others for our own sadness. If I am not happy, I’ve only got myself to blame. It’s up to me. And if somebody chooses to leave you, there isn’t some secret evilness underneath their intention.”

She used to witness in horror how her mother cried to the songs of the legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. For Buika, music was for dancing and having fun, not for sadness. “I’d think ‘Again? What a mess! Is this woman crazy? Why does she want to keep suffering?’ It was not until later that Buika understood that her mother was mourning for her father who had abandoned the family when Buika was nine. 

He turned up 26 years later with the words ‘I’m hungry’. Then he asked after his six children, calling Buika by the wrong name. Buika is not sad by the memory. “As soon as everybody is able to follow his own idea of life, then I’m pleased with that.” She says that she does not believe in sadness. “When I cry, I have fun.” 

The peace of loneliness

She also found consolation in Vargas who is featured in her 2009 album, [The Last Drink]. Vargas, who called Buika “my black daughter”, was a source for celebration, for Buika.

“A woman should make a monument out of loneliness. She has to believe in loneliness because it’s the only weapon she has to create herself without others. Now I believe that for a woman to lose her fear of loneliness is a very healthy and sacred moment. This is what I learned from Chavela – that loneliness is the best and most liberating of companions.”

She says that she is not very sociable and prefers to be alone. “I’m a very embarrassed, shy person. I love to be in my studio, naked, smoking and drinking alone. I’m a strange animal. I don’t need a special friend. When you love people, the best thing you can do is stay away. I know I don’t have to lie when I write a song. My music and my poetry help me to be a good person.”

“The truth is in the skin”

Her mother was very religious and her father wrapped around in politics. It is maybe both convictions that have made her rebel against social codes and rules. She and her ex-husband formed a ménage à trois marriage with a woman Buika had met at the bar she was singing at. The song was inspired by her former female partner. But Buika refuses labels on her sexuality, and other things.   

“The truth is in the skin,” she says. “Don’t get caught in these learned concepts, don’t get caught in the idea that you’re heterosexual, that you’re this or that. We are not a category of being. We are what we are living each day.”

And Buika has chosen to tattoo in her truth. The names of her muses - her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, aunt, sisters and nieces - are all inked on her arm. And soon she will stage a ceremony to marry herself. “I want to put myself in front of my family and my friends, and swear that I’m going to love me and respect me in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, until love carries me away. All women on the planet should do this.”


Some of Buika’s quotes in this article are from thestar.com, miami.com and buenosairesherald.com

Buika will perform at Carnegie Hall, April 26

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm