When Buika dives into her first major North American tour, including a stop in Toronto on Saturday, audiences will finally get to experience first-hand the Spanish singer's confounding stylistic range - from flamenco to pop to Mexican ranchera - and a voice that is steadily accumulating fans in high places. There's pop singer Seal, who invited her to do a duet on his new recording; fashion photographer Bruce Weber and Portuguese fado singer Mariza; and, most notably, Academy Award-winning director Pedro Almodovar.
Buika, born Maria da Concepcion Balboa Buika, can't recall how she first met Almodovar, the man she describes as "a big book of music."
"He just stepped into my life," she says by telephone from Madrid. "And then he didn't want to leave," she adds, with a throaty chuckle.
Almodovar "takes care of her," by which she means championing her musical cause, including penning the liner notes for her latest recording, El Ultimo Trago, a tribute to ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, and touting her in impassioned blog posts, in which he puts her in the category of singers such as Edith Piaf, Judy Garland and Vargas herself.
She will also appear in Almodovar's upcoming movie, La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In), singing two songs. "He knew exactly what he wanted," she says, "the colours, the kind of passion, everything."
Buika didn't have the sort of childhood that included hobnobbing with artists and celebrities. She was born in Majorca to parents in political exile from Equatorial Guinea; they were the lone black family in the neighbourhood. "It was uncomfortable, weird. I was always the only black girl, in the supermarket, in the church, everywhere."
Her refuge was singing ("I found it easier to sing than to talk," she says) and the music of flamenco. "My father hid us in a gypsy neighbourhood. My first friends in the streets were gypsies, playing with them and learning gypsy music."
Some of her early professional music experiences were a continent away from flamenco, though, including a stint as a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas. "I didn't have any idols as a child," she explains. "My friends' idols were so blond and white. I was looking for some kind of model. And Tina Turner was an amazing singer."
Although Buika claims that she was "really bad" at impersonating Turner, people liked it. She says this was because "Tina's spirit came to help me."
Buika tends toward such mystical (and impish) statements in conversation. Speaking about Almodovar, for example, she will repeatedly describe him as "a very talented musician," but when asked which instrument he plays, she will say only that "he plays the heart." A beat later, a teasing laugh.
The path from being Tina Turner in Las Vegas to Pedro Almodovar becoming her No. 1 fan took her through several musical iterations, including R&B and the stunning flamenco singing she is best known for. Now, her new album, a collaboration with Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes, covers songs associated with the legendary Vargas.
Her connection to Vargas's music lies, as do many of her touchstones, in her childhood. "One day, my father went into a store to buy something," she says. "And then he just left. He never said goodbye. My mother was in the living room, waiting for him. But she almost never cried, except when she was listening to music, to Chavela Vargas."
For all the emotional connection Buika feels to Vargas, it was not immediately reciprocated. "She didn't like me so much the first time we met in Madrid. I was so much enthralled, I began to sing, my voice was all trembly, and she just told me to go home. She was so aggressive! But she came when I performed in Mexico, and told me that I am her 'black daughter.' So now she is my white mother."
The name of her real mother, along with the names of her grandmother, "aunties," sisters and niece, are tattooed on Buika's arm. No men? "They don't need any help," she says.
During her tour, Buika plans to perform music from the Vargas tribute CD but also from other repertoire. At least, as much as she "plans" anything. "We don't rehearse, we just get together and do what we want," she says. "But we're not scared. The audience becomes our orchestral director."
Buika performs at Toronto's Koerner Hall on Saturday.
Special to The Globe and Mail