When the Spanish singer Concha Buika was a girl, she would watch in horror as her mother wept listening to the heart-ripping rancheras of the legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. For Buika, music was for dancing and having fun, not for sadness.
“I didn’t understand her,” she says. “I’d think ‘Again? What a mess! Is this woman crazy? Why does she want to keep suffering?’ ”
But as Buika, now 38, grew up and endured her own romantic struggles, she understood why her mother needed repeated doses of musical catharsis. Buika’s father walked out on the family when she was 9, leaving her mother to raise six children on the Spanish island of Mallorca, where they were the only black family.
“My mother hid her pain behind the songs of Chavela Vargas,” Buika says, “because she needed to present a really strong, solid structure for her children. So she never allowed herself to cry in front of us. But she would put on Chavela’s songs and cry, saying that they were such beautiful songs. Now that I’m older I know she was crying for my father.”
The gorgeous agony of Chavela Vargas’ musical legacy has been rewarding for Buika, albeit in a different way than it was for her mother. She appears Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts as part of her first full U.S. tour in support of her Vargas tribute album, El Ultimo Trago (The Last Drink), which earned a Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Album this month. Recorded in just two days in Havana with a band headed by famed Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, Trago is an exquisitely wrenching, musically nuanced work bringing new attention to its singer.
The Grammy is the latest honor for Buika, whose extraordinary emotional power and unique style — encompassing flamenco, jazz, blues, soul and more — is propelling her from cult figure and star in her native Spain to a more universal artist. Music critics have raved, comparing her to Nina Simone. Her fans include the Spanish pop star Alejandro Sanz and Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, a longtime supporter who had her sing in his latest film, La Piel Que Habito.
Vargas has dubbed Buika “my black daughter.” Their relationship did not start so affectionately. Four years ago, Vargas refused to allow Buika onstage to sing with her, a crushing disappointment for someone who idolizes the 91-year-old legend. Vargas’ no-holds-barred singing (exceptional even for emotionally extravagant Mexican music), defiant attitude and androgynous style made her famous in the 1940s and ’50s, and she has had a comeback in the last two decades.
Felix Contreras, a reporter and producer for National Public Radio who produced segments on Buika and Vargas for NPR’s 50 Great Voices series, says Vargas has since come to admire the younger woman who calls her “Mama Chavela.”
“Chavela had really wonderful things to say about Buika,” says Contreras, who thinks that Buika’s unconventional life and struggle to prove herself as an artist enable her to tackle Vargas’ searing musical legacy. “It is gutsy for someone to take that on,” he says. “The instrument is already there, and the life experience adds to that. That’s why Buika’s albums work so well. There’s an affinity to that kind of struggle, that kind of melodrama.”
The drama in Buika’s life stems in part from her race, as she has wrestled with the dilemma of being African and Spanish. She did not find a boyfriend until she was 21, because her skin color was so strangely unique in Mallorca. When she gave a concert for more than 2,000 people in Mozambique, she was the only black person in the theater. She also has had an unconventional personal life: she is a single mother; she and a former husband once married another woman, and she has staged a ceremony in which she “married” herself. Her music is a singular, self-created blend of styles that depends on total emotional vulnerability and spontaneity.
Buika remains dedicated to songs that delve into the most painful emotions.
“What is powerful for me is to sing songs written from rage, from necessity, from love, from desire, from passion, whatever part of the world they’re from. Songs written out of truth – not victimization, but the madness that is truth.”
Songs such as Soledad, the opening track on Trago, a wailing paean to loneliness that Buika transforms into a kind of transcendent hymn. She says that Vargas and her music have taught her not to fear the pain she and her mother have endured.
“A woman doesn’t have to be afraid of loneliness,’’ Buika says. “A woman should make a monument out of loneliness. She has to believe in loneliness because it is 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.”