MADRID — Buika wends her way toward a dimly lit corner of the funky bar in the Hotel de las Letras off the boisterous Gran Via, her pretty face lighting up when people stop to compliment her on her recent concerts. On tour now for more than half the year, she cherishes her time at home here, most of which she spends in her recording studio and with her 10-year-old son, Joel, the two cornerstones of her life.
The stage also serves as her home, the place where she lets go all inhibitions. She sings plaintively of love, loss and joy, her repertoire a combination of her own compositions, Spanish ballads and jazz standards. "I feel safe when I perform," she says. "I can say whatever I want to say. The music makes me feel beautiful."
She talks to audiences as if they are old acquaintances. "How are you doing?" she'll ask them in her husky voice, and she actually listens to the answers. "People come to the theater to be loved," she says. "I want to fulfill their need."
Famous in Europe, Buika sets out to conquer the United States on her upcoming 15-city tour, which runs from Oct. 15 to Nov. 20, kicking off in Chicago, then hitting Cleveland, Denver, Houston, New York, Los Angeles and Miami, among other cities. Though she has performed in New York, most of the country has never seen her before. Now Americans can discover why she wins comparison to icons Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
In 2007 Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, "Sad love, crazy love, bad love, joyful love, life-or-death love: those were what Concha Buika sang about in her magnificent New York City debut on Friday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. While the lyrics were in Spanish, the emotion was luminous and unmistakable."
Her last two albums earned Latin Grammy nominations, the latest, El Ultimo Trago, a tribute to Mexican singer Chavela Vargas with Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. Famed filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar cast her in his upcoming film, La Piel que Habito, starring Antonio Banderas and Marisa Paredes. And last month saw the release of her duet with Seal, "You Get Me," on his CD Commitment.
"Concha's a special being," says Vargas. "Since my first encounter with her more than five years ago, I felt she had a special aura. I have seen her grow amazingly as a person and as an artist."
Buika slides into a chair and orders coffee. A small woman, she changes hairstyles according to her mood, today drawing it back from her face with a scarf. She proudly opens galleys of her new book, a rich collection of photographs, poems, songs and reflections, which she compiled over the past two years.
She says she has more to say than she can work into her songs, and she likes to take pictures to catch moments that would be impossible to translate into words. She often brings her camera onstage and shoots into the audience, as if she were in her own living room.
"I wasn't always so comfortable with myself," she says. "When I started out, I felt I had to wear makeup and dress a certain way. But slowly that's all gone. Now I just think of all the information I want to give everyone. We all have so much inside us. We help each other when we're open. We learn from each other's stories — if we can only be honest."
Her search for openness led to her decision to move to Miami this winter. "I love the United States," she says. "It's much freer than Europe. I also am tired of being stopped for my papers in Spain. Blacks are still outsiders here. I don't want to be an outsider anymore."
After her father left the family for a post in his country's new government, her mother cleaned hotels and offices to support Buika and her five brothers and sisters. Without a steady income, they had to move from hotel to hotel. It was always a struggle.
But through all the difficulties, music reigned in her home — African songs, American R&B and her mother's beloved jazz. By her teens, she had enough gumption to find work in the tourist hotels as a vocalist, soon earning the title "the Spanish Tina Turner" for her talent in R&B and soul.
Hoping to gain a wider audience, Buika moved first to London and then to Las Vegas, where she performed her Tina Turner act in the big hotels for two years and learned English from singing American songs. Her move to another country would have taken guts in any case, but it took even more courage for Buika because by then, she had a 2-year-old son. "I learned by simply living," she says, "by my mistakes and by taking care of my little boy."
On her return to Madrid, Buika began singing in clubs, feeling more confident from her Las Vegas experience but not really sure how to attract a recording company. She's never been one to enjoy hanging out at night or socializing with people in the music industry. She prefers her home, family and friends.
Finally, one evening, the renowned jazz trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez overheard her performing "My One and Only Love" in the club below the one where he was playing and, tremendously moved, began to accompany her. "You can't believe how I felt," she says. "It was as if a hand had reached out for me." Inspired by his belief in her, she started writing songs, coming up with more than 100 in two years. He found her a record company. And in 2006, her song "Mi Niña Lola" soared to the top of every chart in Spain. She was on her way.
Now Buika is on her way to a new life in Miami. "I can't wait," she says. "I'll be near the sea. Immigrants' children never feel like they belong anywhere. I feel rooted through people, not places. I have good friends there to welcome me, and of course Joel. I don't want him to feel like an outsider like I did. That's the least I can give him."
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.