Pushing boundaries: Buika

Boston Globe, August 18, 2009

Maria Concepcion Balboa Buika belongs to a wave of Spanish singers breathing fresh life into classic styles – flamenco, of course, but also the ballad form called copla, and regional folk songs. But Buika, 37, brings a background that sets her apart. Born to political refugees from the former Spanish colony Equatorial Guinea, she was raised with jazz and African music, and growing up on the island of Majorca, she forged her affinities with Gypsy and working-class kids. All this imbues Buika’s sound – most recently on the Latin Grammy-nominated “Nina de Fuego” – with an immigrant’s immersive commitment, but also a restless curiosity that pushes her to broaden her range. She answered questions by e-mail from Spain in advance of her appearance tomorrow at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Q. With your voice, you could have gone into many different genres. What was the attraction of classical Spanish forms like copla and flamenco?

A. People just know what the record company has published from my work. But I also sing jazz, blues, I like electronic music. It is true that copla and flamenco belong to my childhood, it was the music people listened to in my neighborhood.

Q. Growing up, did you find people tried to objectify you and reduce you to something exotic?

A. I was born in Majorca, and we were the only black family on the island at that time. Of course I felt different. I always had the impression of being observed. But it was really a minor problem for me. It was truly hard for my parents. They had many difficulties adapting, finding work… .

Q. What is your ideal setting to perform, with which musicians or instruments?

A. The ideal setting is the one that is going to come in my next show, every show. I mean, every time I go in stage, I feel like a special and different sensation. I am now living a dream: I just recorded a CD of rancheras with Chucho Valdes, with Chavela Vargas’s songs… .

Q. Some of the experiences that inspire your songs are very contemporary – like your love relationships with both men and women. Is there anything in the way we live now that classic ballads cannot express?

A. Not at all. Old songs can express the same things and feelings that we live in our time. It is exactly the reason why these songs are classics. You can listen to them now, and in 90 years you will continue listening.

Q. You spent some time in Las Vegas and were even a Tina Turner impersonator. What are your memories of that experience?

A. Las Vegas was a strange and difficult time. I felt as though the noise of the slot machines never stopped. I worked seven days a week, for more than a year. I was alone with my little child. I went without any information, just looking for music and I did not find music. Can you imagine such a long trip, looking for something and not finding it? It drove me crazy … but it was an experience of life.