In the past year, the Spanish-African singer Concha Buika has hopscotched around Europe, the United States and Latin America, singing in Paris, London and Bucharest, Colombia and Brazil, Chicago and New York. After her concert this weekend at the Adrienne Arsht Center, she’ll travel to Europe, Canada, Turkey, Australia and Jakarta.
“"I’m a nomad,”" she says. “I like to circle the world.”"
But this powerful and elusive artist, known simply as Buika, has found a home in Miami. In 2011, she moved from Madrid to South Beach, where she lives in a 23rd-floor apartment that’s flooded with light from wide windows facing Biscayne Bay.
“Miami is a place that takes care of you, a magical place to cure yourself — of pain in your heart, your head, of nerves, of stress,” the 41-year old singer says on a recent rainy day. An elfish wraith swathed in black skirts and wraps, her long hair bundled into a black turban, she sits chain-smoking on a terrace of her building, sipping espresso and ignoring pastries.
“"This is an exquisite day for me,” she says, exhaling smoke into the gray afternoon. “From here I can see the storms coming.”
Storms fill Buika’s music, an idiosyncratic mix of flamenco, jazz, blues, bolero and other genres, which she sings in a rich, gritty, wrenchingly expressive voice that has earned her comparisons to Nina Simone and Chavela Vargas. In her music and her life, she has always been a kind of poetic outsider following her own instinctive path.
Buika grew up on Majorca, the daughter of African political refugees and a member of the only African family on this Spanish island. Her playmates were fascinated by her dark skin and kinky hair.
“"I was born in one place and my parents were from another,” she says. “So my roots were in a place I’d never been, and everything I learned was from places I supposedly didn’t belong. So where do I belong? What is my identity? Am I African? Spanish? I don’t know. I don’t care.”
She began singing in a hotel as a teenager, and even did a stint as a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas. But by the 2000s her raw, powerful renditions of flamenco — and her unusual background and vivid, unconventional personality — made her something of a star in Spain.
She made her U.S. debut in Miami in 2008, and soon earned a following in the States, features on NPR (including a spot on its list of 50 Great Voices) and in The New York Times and several Latin Grammys.
Her music has expanded far beyond flamenco. In Madrid, she worked with a circle of stellar, expatriate Cuban jazz musicians — including piano great Chucho Valdes on 2009’s El Ultimo Trago (The Last Drink) — who remain her frequent collaborators.
Her latest album, La Noche Mas Larga (The Longest Night), includes songs by Billie Holiday and Jacques Brel, the Cuban classic Siboney and the Argentine song La Nave del Olvido (The Ship of Oblivion), made famous by Mexican crooner Jose Jose, which was nominated for a Latin Grammy.
Whatever Buika sings, she follows her instincts to make it her own. “I don’t know what flamenco [music] or Cuban [music] is,” she says. “I know people who live in Cuba. I know people who sing flamenco.”
Although she says her move to Miami was sparked mostly by a desire for change, the way she talks about the sense of empowerment she feels in her new home hints at other motivations.
“This place belongs to the people who love this place,” she says. “If nothing is happening, do something. Because here you can. If you find you need more culture here, you can work for it, you can build it. That’s made me fall in love with this place.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re the son of someone important, or if you’re born in Spain or Africa or Asia. There are other places in the world where there’s nothing you can do, that will never allow you to buy power no matter how much money you have.”
Her passion for the city notwithstanding, Buika spends most of her non-touring time in her apartment, holed up with recording equipment. (And cooking: “I love it — it’s like composing. Making food to keep yourself alive.”)
“I am a little bit workaholic,” she says, smiling. “I don’t have time to waste. I have a mission – to leave all my thoughts and all my experience and everything I achieve recorded, written, filmed in music, poems, books, films. That’s a big one. Because I’m playing at eternity.”
In Spain, she was once married to a man and a woman at the same time; later, she proclaimed that she planned to marry herself. Here her primary companions are her 14-year-old son and her sister Appolonia Balboa, who designs her stage costumes.
“I’m not a very sociable person,” she says. “I love people. That’s why I don’t get very close. When you get really close and really into something you love, you discover things that you don’t like, and it gets hard to love that thing with the same magic.”
But she insists she is not cut off from the life experiences that fuel her songs of desolation and heartbreak.
“I’m always talking to people who live in other places,” she says. “When a girl cries in China it’s the same fear and sadness as when someone cries in New York. … Lonesomeness is lonesomeness.”
In her latest workaholic binge, she finished writing a collection of poems, stories and reflections titled To Those Who Would Love Difficult Women and Would End Up Letting Them Go that she calls "a little box of disasters." And she is in the midst of recording a new album which, in contrast to the rich acoustic playing on her previous works, is filled with electronic sounds.
“My voice has to have the freedom to fly with the same ease as the birds on the wind,” she says. “It has to be able to attach to all kinds of sounds.”
Symbols of that freedom — fluttering butterflies — are tattooed on her slender forearm.
“Some people, like me, we are like butterflies. You see them, you go, ‘They’re crazy, flying up and down and backwards.’ You think they don’t know where they’re going. But they know. You just have to let them go.”