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Live: Concha Buika Plays With Pronouns . . . and You

by Carol Cooper

Concha Buika
Highline Ballroom
Sunday, June 24

Better than: Dreaming of her.

A 2009 performance by Concha Buika is on YouTube showing the Spanish singer in Lincoln Center's Damroch Park backed by solo piano and performing a smoldering version of "Tu Volverás." Even then, with minimal accompaniment, star quality oozes from every pore and note. It's not just her flawless diction and phrasing; Buika's intellectual command of her material makes each song she tackles hard to forget. You see the same showmanship when Aretha Franklin performs "Respect" in the original Blues Brothers movie: Acting out the words as she sings, ReRe's personal authority makes you believe she wrote the tune on the spot.

Similarly combining passion with dignity, Buika sidesteps the kinds of cheese-bombs set off by early attempts to merge her organic tone with the digital frequencies of EDM and transforms wistful ballads and kinetic flamenco coplas from atavistic torch songs into Lady Liberty's beacon. Only when sung with this sort of fierce, wholehearted abandon can unrequited love heal, liberate, and vindicate its own pain. When you consider how easily television reduces contemporary romance to tacky dating-game parodies like The Choice or to grim post-mortems of like Divorce Court, we clearly need somebody sane enough to put capital-L love back on a pedestal. Buika has the guts, the sanity, and the talent to do just that.

Sunday night's two sold-out shows at the Highline Ballroom serendipitously capped the end of Gay Pride weekend, during which revelers both in and outside the West Village venue celebrated love in all its configurations. Buika won these dates after two triumphant guest appearances earlier this year -- she played with Chick Corea at the Blue Note, then with Chucho Valdes at Carnegie Hall. Such unequivocal approval from two famous jazz pianists didn't hurt Buika's buzz at all, but her pre-existing Hispanic and underground audiences still hungered to see her do her own thing. After two Latin Grammy wins, five studio albums, and a cameo in Pedro Almodovar's latest film, it was time for Buika to deliver her first "proper" American tour since 2010.

Flanked by one guitarist and percussionist Ramón Porrina on the boxlike flamenco "cajón," Buika, draped from neck to floor in red, gave the sold-out Ballroom the atmosphere of a Gypsy cava. But while no contemporary singer sounds better wielding the Andalusian coplas and defiant bulerias of traditional flamenco, Buika would prefer to be called a jazz artist because it is a more inclusive category. As she recently told Spanish journalist Cristina Martínez: "Jazz is everybody's house. Nobody can feel uncomfortable there. My sound is so free, that's it's able to fit into any kind of music festival without seeming odd or out of place." As if to prove her point last night her guitarist threw more than a few country and Memphis-blues riffs into his solos as if Steve Cropper were pickin' and grinnin' between all those nimble flamenco licks. The wide range of vocal punctuation Buika uses -- reedy bleats, squeaks, short tremolos, throaty chuckles and sharp, clean, melismatic chirps -- gave her many ways to finesse a lyric. But it's always the simplest adjustments, like that subvocalized sigh when she sings the word "paraíso" in "Tu Volverás," that make me cry.

Last night Buika worked to keep her vow of never performing any song the same way twice; she scatted a patron's ringtone into a long, slow burn which became "Volver, Volver" and encouraged her guitarist's Stax-tinged solos during "Mienteme bien" and "Tu Volverás." (Buika herself can play piano, guitar, bass and has started to learn cello, but for now chooses not to play in concert.) Subscribers to her Twitter feed already knew that while her concerts are normally two hours long, these smaller club gigs need two mini-shows of an hour and change to cover their overhead.

She opened with "Sueno Con Ella" (I Dream of Her)," and as usual didn't bother to switch the gender of the song's subject just because the tune was written about loving a girl. On "Mi Nina Lola" she simply assumes the dramatic role of the girl's father, who, as a single parent, begs his forlorn daughter to tell him if a faithless boy abused her. Between songs she alternates moments of almost meditative silence and rapid-fire banter with fans who were never shy about shouting suggestions or compliments from the audience. After delivering a spine-melting version of of "No Habrá Nadie en el Mundo" [think: Billie Holliday meets La Lupe], she directly addresses her audience about her art.

"My freedom is one note, one sound," she began. "I don't really think singing is hard, it's an exercise in sincerity. If you can just tell the truth about what happened to you, the real way it happened . . . then you can sing." What she failed to add, which she's previously confided in interviews, is that she believes serious singers should also study theory and play instruments. While on tour she is writing new songs and preparing to record tracks with two different symphony orchestras for her next album -- even though Buika has yet to make any money from her albums. But having recently switched managers and relocated to Miami, this could be about to change.

As you might imagine there was plenty of wry subtext swirling under the salsa swing of "Jodida Pero Contenta," which Buika cheerfully translated as "I'm fucked, but happy." (The text of the lyric more clearly reads: "This ain't working, I'm outta here.") In the closing buleria breakdown she even adds the sardonic aside: "Silly . . . everything in life ends one day."

Most of Sunday night's songs could be found on her best-of En Mi Piel (Warner Music Latina). But she made time during the first set to improvise a medley of new or lesser known material during a surreptitiously sexy ritual enacted between voice and cajón which allowed her to sing and dance soleá-style against Porrina's unaccompanied percussion. Every bold desplante drove hands upward into a tender floreo; every twist of her hip, every flick of a finger or wrist, was motivated by heartfelt intention. Diners, their tables piled with food and drink, silently followed her every move, and vocal declaration. Her freedom is indeed evident in this sound, the sound and look of powerful passions proudly displayed under the strength of her will. She was the snake charmer and we her cobras, with nothing staged or phony about the sultry magic she invoked. Anyone can learn to dance flamenco. But can they dance it like this? As she once confessed to JazzFestivalList.com: "Art is like fucking. When I sing to you, I want to be inside you."

Critical bias: Manuel de Falla and Heitor Villa-Lobos are two of my all-time favorite ethnomusicologists.

Overheard: "She doesn't just have 'duende,' she IS 'duende.'"

Random notebook dump: Legend has it that Buika almost never uses set lists, and if she has them she deviates from them as her moods or fans dictate. Her trio's heavy schedule over the last month made her scribble down the outline of possibilities for a double set, which I glimpsed after the show. Among the listed but unheard tracks: "Out of My Life," "Ne Me Quitte Pas," and "Un Beso y Una Flor." Among the tunes I didn't recognize (which might have comprised the mesmerizing "deep flamenco" portion of the evening): "Ke Ribocho la ete," "Pa Medellice," and "Doude."

Set list:

  1. Sueno con ella
  2. Mi nina lola
  3. No habrá nadie en el mundo
  4. Volver, Volver
  5. Jodida Pero Contenta
  6. Mienteme bien
  7. [Improvised flamenco section (w/ soleá ?) ]
  8. Tu Volverás
  9. Mentirosa

Published in: Village Voice, June 25, 2012