Arts Desk

Saturday: Afro-Spanish Singer Buika

What a distinctive voice singer Buika, the Spanish-born daughter of African parents, possesses. Hailed by NPR as one of its “50 Great Voices,” the woman born María Concepción Balboa Buika will bring her raspy, mournful timbre to the George Mason Center for the Arts Saturday night. Over the course of five albums, Concha Buika, as she is also known, has used that husky croon for Spanish-lyric songs that incorporate flamenco, Spanish torch balladry, Nina Simone-like jazz, Gypsy melodies, Mexican ranchera dramatics, American R&B, and Cesaria Evora-style Afro-Portuguese morna.

Buika grew up in the only black family in a Gypsy neighborhood on the Spanish island of Majorca. Her politically active parents went there after escaping the brutal government in Equatorial Guinea in Africa. While she learned how to play the guitar, piano, bass, and drums as a child, she found more opportunities as a singer—though relying on tips for vocalizing on the street was difficult. Eager to make a better living as a singer, she spent 2001 in Las Vegas, as a wig-wearing Tina Turner impersonator performing in the casinos.  She returned to Majorca the following year, and within a few years began releasing albums under her own name.

Her most recent effort, the wonderful 2009 album, El Último Trago (The Last Drink), a tribute to  Costa Rican-born singer Chavela Vargas, was recorded in Havana with Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes and some occasional bass, percussion, trumpet, and flamenco guitar. Valdes, who has a new CD, Chucho’s Steps, is performing, unfortunately, at the same time Saturday night at the Warner TheatreTrago came together because one of Buika’s fans, film director Pedro Almodovar (who has her warbling in his next movie), saw her sing a tune by Vargas, and encouraged her to record a full album of Vargas' songs. (Buika grew up hearing her mother play Vargas tunes.) On the album, well-produced and arranged by Javier Limon, Buika passionately stretches out words, wails emotionally, and scats over Valdes' subtle, expert transformation of rural Central American songcraft into Cuban son and bolero, as well as finger snapping, swinging jazz. While she won't have  Valdes with her tomorrow, expect that voice of hers to be enough.

Buika performs Saturday night October 30 at 8 p.m. at the George Mason Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive Fairfax, VA. $ $42, $34, $21.  703-993-2787

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