By Ernest Barteldes
On her first major tour of the United States, Concha Buika is doing something quite unusual: her current disc, “El Ultimo Trago (The Last Drink)” pays homage to the canon of legendary 90-year-old Mexican singer Chavela Vargas—who incidentally refused to allow Buika on stage when they were first introduced in Madrid in 2006. “She kicked me out,” recalls Buika with a chuckle over a phone interview. “She wanted me to sing, but I was really overwhelmed—I was singing in front of Chavela and I was thinking, ‘No, no, no, I am just a little girl from a little village.’ I don’t know why I was so scared, but I don’t know what happened then, so I began to sing and she said ‘Stop, stop, you are really not ready for this,’ so I began to cry and there was this big drama.”
She did, however, successfully recover from that mishap. “A couple of months later we were performing in Mexico, she came to the show and was really impressed,” says Buika. “So she came to my dressing room and held me and said, ‘You are my black daughter,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’ “
Buika is an unlikely voice in flamenco, her chosen genre. Born on the island of Mallorca from African parents, she went through a pop phase that led her to become a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas. The experience, however, gave her great improvisation skills, which she keeps to this day. During her shows, there are no set lists whatsoever, and the performance takes shape as it goes along.
“What I do is just get on stage and let myself go—that is what I do,” she explains. “On the show, I often respect the space for improvisation, because to improvise the music is the truth of that moment. It’s not just about the music, but about the feeling, and everyone knows what everyone needs.”
“I always know from where I’m singing, but I don’t know from where you’re listening, so you know your needs, even if you don’t talk, and this is the magic thing of live music. The audience knows what they want to hear—you just need to be a good soldier and deliver it to them.”
Buika comes to the U.S. after an extensive tour that included a recent stop at the International Music Festival in Warsaw, Poland, where she shared the bill with Brazilian pianist Ivan Lins. Though she appears in front of diverse crowds around the globe, she doesn’t see much difference in the reception she gets. “The audience is like a music director, and I am a good soldier and I follow the direction,” she says. “Some directors are a bit stronger, and others are sweeter, but that doesn’t depend on the country at all.”
On “El Ultimo Trago,” Buika was accompanied by legendary Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes (who will not be playing with the Spanish singer due to his own obligations). “I heard that there was a meeting between Chucho Valdés, his father Bebo Valdés and Pedro Almodóvar,” Buika explains about the Chavela Vargas project. “I think that they were having a few drinks, and they began to build this amazing idea for me.”
For her stop in Chicago, Buika will be accompanied by a trio formed by Ivan “Melon” Lewis (piano), Dany Noel (double bass) and Fernando Favier (percussion). She will also be sharing the bill with Mexican-American chanteuse Lila Downs, and the performance should include music from her previous works, “El Ultimo Trago” and quite a few surprises. As she says, “I don’t have any expectations, because when you don’t expect anything, you respect the ordinary order of things.”
October 15 at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, (312)294-3000, 8pm. $20-$45.