Reporting from Madrid — — Concha Buika moves like a dancer, roaming the stage as if she were playing by the sea. Barefoot, sinuous in sparkling gowns, her hair pulled back from her pretty face in elaborate braids, she appears both childlike and womanly, engaging the audience with her emotions, giggling shyly when overcome by her feelings.
The vocalist, who uses her surname as her stage moniker, surprises with her range, her warm, husky voice as expressive in jazz standards as in plaintive Spanish songs and gutsy American blues. Though compared to Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, she sounds like no one but herself.
A star in her native Spain, Buika performs with her four-piece ensemble Wednesday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on a bill with Mexican American singer Lila Downs. It is part of Buika's 21-city U.S. tour, a tribute to the legendary ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, who inspired her latest album, "El Último Trago."
Recently cast in Pedro Almodóvar's new film, "The Skin I Live In," which will be released this spring, Buika can now add him to the growing list of her distinguished fans that includes Alejandro Sanz, Gloria Estefan, Nelly Furtado, Mariza, Chucho Valdés and Vargas. She duets with singer Seal on his new release, "Commitment," and will release a collection of jazz standards in March.
"In 'El Último Trago,' Buika celebrates all the incarnations of passion, from the most glowing to the darkest in the most thrilling and original way," says Almodóvar. "Seeing her draw from such different genres as coplas, tango, bulerias, bolero, Cuban music and jazz, mix them altogether with such grace and spontaneity, one cannot help but think that there is a brighter future as long as one can witness the boundless evolution of this infinite performer."
Having grown up on the Spanish island of Majorca, Buika loves being near the sea. A few weeks ago she sang in Frankfurt, Germany, in the cold rain in an outdoor theater, but it didn't faze her. "No matter how cold it is outside," she says, sipping coffee at a Madrid cafe, "I'm warm inside. The audience warms me. People go to the theater to be loved and give love."
Born to political refugees from the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea, she grew up without her father, who left the family to take a post in his country's new government. To support her and her five siblings, her mother cleaned hotel rooms and offices. They regularly moved from hotel to hotel. Though she made friends among the Gypsies in her neighborhood, she never felt as if she belonged. "I was always the only black almost everywhere," she says, "in school, in the library and in the clubs. I constantly felt observed and judged."
She found refuge in music, both the African songs her family sang at home and her mother's collection of jazz and R&B records. "My mom told me that music was the language of the soul," she says, "the connection between the past and the future." To help out financially, she began singing in the local tourist hotels, developing a repertory of American R&B songs that got her dubbed "the Spanish Tina Turner."
Hoping to win a bigger audience, she left for London and eventually Las Vegas, by then a mother of a 2-year-old son. "I did everything to make sure he would be fed," she says. "Having him got me through the very strange experience of being so far away from home, in such a strange place."
It wasn't until her return to Spain that her career began to take off, aided by Latin jazz trumpeter and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez, who heard her perform in a Madrid club. Amazed by her voice, he encouraged her to sing coplas, touching poems set to music that first gained popularity in Spain in the 1930s. She made her name in 2007 with a collection of coplas called "Mi Niña Lola."
"I remember when I started singing," she says, "I did a lot of those songs — you know, 'You left me,' 'You did me wrong,' 'I'm suffering,' victim songs. But they weren't me. You have to recognize your own story. I believe women artists are going to change the world, teach people how to live with art. I think we're ready for a change."
This winter, she will undertake her own change by moving to Miami, tired of feeling like an outsider in her own country. "Blacks are still the exception here," she says. "You rarely see them in movies or on television or in advertisements. They don't work in banks. I'm stopped by policemen at least once every few months and asked for my papers. Usually they get embarrassed when they see my name."