Pedro Almodóvar is one of her biggest fans and she loves David Cameron. Etan Smallman meets Concha Buika, the outspoken queen of flamenco fusion, to talk politics, music – and her babysitting years in Slough
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Strangely, for a woman with such a unique singing style, Concha Buika’s voice is not her most difficult feature to convey in print. It’s her laugh. Deep and dirty, sonorous and soulful, it ebbs and flows, constantly interrupting the conversation. And it comes when you least expect it.
The queen of flamenco fusion is talking about her father, a pro-democracy exile from Equatorial Guinea in West Africa. In the 1970s he fled to Majorca, where Buika was born, the fourth of six children in a poor, all-white neighbourhood.
He ran off when Buika was nine and she did not see him for 26 years. Then he turned up out of the blue at her mother’s door in the city of Palma, declaring that he was hungry. He proceeded to ask about his children and got Buika’s name wrong.
She cannot tell the story without breaking down – into pulsating giggles. “He had so many kids that he couldn’t remember all of them,” she roars, sipping from a teacup and reclining on a sofa in her Notting Hill hotel, dressed in snakeskin trousers, socks and a grey blanket.
How many children did he have? “I don’t know, we don’t know, around 15, 16, 20? He was a lion, man!” Buika insists that her family can also smile at the experience. “We are Africans, papi. We did not have this education of, you know, like, Catholic sadness.”
In addition to the infectious laughter, there are plenty of tears. The 42-year-old single mother says that she cries when she sees the despair of unemployed youngsters, in the UK and around the world. And she frequently sobs on stage, mid-performance. Not that she is upset. “I don’t believe in sadness,” she says. “When I cry, I have fun.”I ask about her father’s experience as a politician. “He was a crazy man!” is all she will say. Of the political class as a whole, she adds: “Those people are just playing games, man. We are the real warriors, we are the real politicians.”
Who, musicians? “No, no, no, no, all of us. What are you doing here, man ? You are sustaining this country … We are sustaining those motherfuckers! ” However, there is one politician for whom Buika has a particular soft spot ” David Cameron.
“I love him!” she gushes. “He’s so cool, man! So cute, I like his face, I like how he talks. You know why? Because he talks about feelings. When you were discussing the independence of Scotland, he said, ‘If Scotland separates from England, it’s going to hurt my heart.’ Oh my God, I was almost crying with him! I never heard a politician talking like that! Then the rest of the bullshit, but the first phrase was, ‘It’s going to break my heart’.”
Buika’s music is a fusion of flamenco, Spanish copla, jazz and soul, infused with the rhythms of the Gypsy neighbours she grew up with in Majorca, where locals would reach out to touch her afro for luck.
Still, she does not seem to mind when critics pigeonhole her. “No!” she says. “They are all right! I understand all the musics of the world. I believe I can sing in any language, any rhythm.”
Indeed, Buika’s career began with her working at a blues club. Later, she performed house music at raves and sang for up to 11 hours a day as a Tina Turner and Diana Ross impersonator in Las Vegas.
But things have moved on since those early days. Her seventh album, La Noche Más Larga, was nominated for a Grammy last year, Pedro Almodóvar is a fan (he included her in his 2011 film The Skin I Live In), and she has duetted with everyone from Pat Metheny and Anoushka Shankar to Nelly Furtado and Seal.
Her “velvet gravel” vocal cords have seen her dubbed of “the voice of freedom”, and she is frequently compared to stars such as Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse.
Buika is disarmingly comfortable expounding on anything from racism to feminism (“Do I feel vulnerable? I’m a fucking woman!”). If anything, she only gets restless when steered back to the subject of music.
She has even been open about her three-way marriage, happily explaining the origins of this ménage à trois when I interviewed her two years ago: while married to the father of her son Joel, now 15, she met a woman in a bar at which she was singing; Buika and her husband later “married” her at a family party, then all three parted ways. Today, though, this subject bores her. “You know what, papi, that’s an old story. Let’s talk about tomorrow, man.”
But do not take that to mean that she has lost any of her characteristic candour. Ask other singers what their next big ambition is and the chances are that you will get some earnest response about breaking musical boundaries. Not Buika.
“My next fear that I have to face is that I want to have another baby. Yeah, I will have another baby as a creation,” she says. One hopes she has already told her boyfriend, Abraham Moughrabi, a Brighton-based musician and member of the dub-reggae band Resonators.
Buika, who lives in Miami when she is not touring the world, is resolute. “I’m not unusual. We don’t have any secrets. I never question myself – even when my ideas drive me to do things that I am supposed not to do,” she adds, before erupting into fresh guffaws.
As well as her “big love in Brighton” – “he is my sweetie coochie, coochie,” she says – and her affection for our prime minister, Buika has another British connection: fond memories of her days spent in Slough and Harpenden, where she pitched up as a pseudo exchange student. “That place is cool, man. It was like a black market of students flying over to do babysitting,” she explains.
Buika is soon to release another book of poetry and short stories and is producing a film based on one of the works, From Loneliness to Hell. Her eighth album, due for release later this year, is “almost done”, with help from her son who has assisted as both a producer and singer.
When we meet she is en route from the US where, she says, she was seeking out “the New York punch”. In London, she is looking for the British sound, “the best in electronic music”, and to record “some Gypsy flamenco rhythms and Cuban metals”.
So what can her audience expect next? “I don’t know,” she says. “I’m lost in sound and that’s what I like. And now I’m in a time when I’m kind of nasty. I’m in a nasty mood. That’s exactly what I’m recording – what I feel.”
- Concha Buika will play the Barbican on 27 April as part of La Linea, the London Latin music festival.