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More Than Words: Going Polyglot With Concha Buika and Les Nubians

© Carol Cooper, 2011

In the '60s and '70s danceable jazz-pop in foreign languages made American radio more exciting: Jorge Ben's "Mas Que Nada" charted when recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66; it was followed by Miriam Makeba's remake of "Pata Pata" in 1967, Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" when covered by Santana in 1970, and Manu Dibango's irresistible "Soul Makossa" in 1972. Something about each single's arrangements, rhythms, and vocals allowed these crossover miracles to seduce stateside listeners who only understand English.

Don't be too surprised if it happens again with Spanish singer Concha Buika and French high-concept hip-hoppers Les Nubians; they seem uniquely positioned to win America's love, even though Buika normally sings in Spanish while Hélène and Célia Faussart record mostly in French.

Les Nubians were already famous for cerebral themes and ambitious collaborations, and on Nü Revolution they raise their "Afropean" flag to salute what I like to call the Third African Diaspora, which is being established as we speak by the free, inspired migrations of Afro-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Afro-Europeans born in the last three decades who are linked by family and economic sophistication to more than one continent -- and which follows the traumatic dispersion forced by chattel slavery, and the one created after World War II by the need for imported labor to rebuild Europe.

The Faussart sisters -- from France, with Jewish and Cameroonian backgrounds -- have won awards and attention for offering a new perspective on black femininity. They've written songs aspiring to the dignity and leadership role of the Queen of Sheba; they've covered Sade; they've collaborated with rappers, new-age fusion lords and African poets. They've survived childbirth, major-label snafus, Grammy nods, and the French race riots of 2005. Now they've compiled an album full of ideas and energy built around an imaginative play on the French language that can simultaneously mean "a turnaround," "new dream movement," even "stripped-down revolution."

With uptempo melodies full of shifting time signatures, fragile harmonies, and oddly textured instrumentation, each song on Nü Revolution makes the most of hip-hop intertextuality and modern remix techniques. Into this Chic-meets-Weather Report fever dream, the Faussart sisters strive to drop a little science.

Weaving between languages and tempos, the first few songs push Hélène's reedy vocals above and around Célia's supportive embellishments, sometimes sweetened by acoustic riffs or keyboard pads. On "Liberté" they rally their troops with gentle cries of "I'm ready!" "I've been waiting for you!" "We're together/ Now we can fly to higher places!" You can easily mistake these proclamations for simple declarations of romantic love until a verse equates the election of America's first black President to the fulfillment of Dr. King's most famous dream.

Nevertheless the album doesn't really catch fire until fellow Cameroonian Manu Dibango assists on an unexpected update of Dibango's classic "Soul Makossa." Shifting to a tempo closer to afrobeat than vintage makossa, you hear Dibango himself cheerfully passing his torch to a new generation; they, in turn, supply his song with a subtle critique of racist immigration policies between cheerful rhymes about freedom, equality, brotherhood, diversity,and security.

But it wouldn't be a Faussart production if the two sisters didn't reinvent their feminism along with rethinking the future of immigration law and the modern global citizen. "Femme Polyandre" is seductively oblique in its description of the kind of freedom these Amazons truly desire. It begins like a spoken word piece: "I want a man to pray with/ and a man to blaspheme with/ A man as a souvenir/ and another to forget/ A man I can give myself to/ And a man who will take me . . ." -- but to forestall the presumption that either sister thinks she should get all of this in a single lover they continue in unison for the chorus: "I am the Polyandrous Woman/ I am the Independent woman." And in case you still think they need you to put a ring on it, they continue: "Rebel Woman/ Once captive, Once lucky escaped/ The woman who falls for you/ And gets up again."

Sung with supreme calm and compassion, "Femme Polyandre" is an unapologetic rejection of patrarchy, purdah, exclusivity, and domestic abuse that ends in a promise: "I appear and disappear/ In your bedsheets as I wish."

Concha Buika -- otherwise a similarly free-thinking Afropean woman and working mother -- might initially appear to differ with Les Nubians on a few of these points. First, she has nothing against marriage; she once got hitched to a man and a woman on the same day. Second, thanks to the traditions of Spain's gypsy population, she grew up learning the interpretive parameters of the buleria, copla and solea themes. Irresistible emotion and epic, star-crossed destiny is the stuff these song forms are made of. So what freedom or successful escape can exist within such deep, narrow reservoirs of feeling? (Think: the tragic opera Carmen.) Yet being able to sing this paradox into cathartic resolution is the reason Buika is perhaps only one album away from giving Adele a run for her money.

Buika's vocal abilities couldn't differ more from those of Les Nubians. Not only did she absorb Guinean music from her parents and the cante from her Romany neighbors, but in a town where "world music" includes jazz, rock, and disco music from the U.S., she steeped herself in English-language party music as well as the classic boleros, tangos, and Afro-Cuban styles popular throughout the Hispanic world. In the 1990s, Buika was singing Coplas and recording house club tracks, often blending the two in compositions of her own.

Buika herself is such a complex, nuanced instrument that she and her accompanists can use intonation and timbre to offer glimmers of hope to even the most doomed flamenco protagonists. Abandoned women wake at dawn remembering passionate kisses and expecting their vanished lovers to return. Men discover the women they love are unfaithful, but are too conflicted to give them up. In each case the sense of loss is catastrophic and the yearning to conquer despair no less than heroic. Only artful embellishment can render such suffering beautiful.

At their best the Faussart sisters replicate the fragile sweetness of The Emotions, but never the churchy pyrotechnics of Beyoncé, or a group like Labelle. Buika, on the other hand, is a vocal chameleon. Since childhood she only had to hear something she liked to want to try her own version of it. She can scat. She can vocalize drum patterns like Indian tabla players. She can sound as husky as Nina Simone and as trumpet clear as Celia Cruz. By 2000 she could channel enough Tina Turner to get hired as a Tina impersonator in Vegas, where she met an artistic soulmate in jazz diva Rachelle Ferrell, who invited Buika to turn in a talent-reaffirming performance at that year's Blue Note Jazz Festival.

Maria Concepción Balboa Buika's first solo album actually pre-dates the deal cut with Warner Music that produced 2005's Buika. Entitled Mestizüo, and recorded with piano and minimal percussion over two days in August of 2000, it contained very jazzy yet utterly idyosyncratic covers of two of Ferrell's most memorable recordings: "Bye Bye, Blackbird" and "Autumn Leaves." Other covers (most notably the salsa hit "Teatro" made famous by La Lupe) also benefit from being filtered through Buika's maverick sensibility. She wants people to compare her to her role models, the better to show exactly what she has to offer.

Even in 2000, Buika's playful improvisations and exuberant infusion of exotic elements into otherwise predictable arrangements were hard to forget. But in 2005, her label smelled crossover; she wore an Erykah Badu turban and displayed a neck tattoo and an eyebrow stud on her album cover. She wrote the political anthem "New Afro-Spanish Generation," and statements of psycho-sexual liberation like "Little Freaky Girl," and "Soleá de Libertad." The label encouraged her band to indulge all their best bilingual club-friendly tendencies, as if they were making a female, Spanish version of Songs in the Key of Life. The result was a fun, polished hybrid of all the things Buika does best, but in trying to fit into pre-existing radio playlists, her virtues got a bit lost.

It wasn't until Buika went back to basics and knocked out two albums in a row of traditional coplas, tanguillos and bulerías that she started getting the mainstream attention she deserved. The 2008 album Niña de Fuego (Child of Fire) scored her a Latin Grammy nod; she is still touring behind her fifth album, El Último Trago (The Last Drink). It's a tribute to Mexico's Chavela Vargas, which features Chucho Valdés. She flew to Havana to collaborate with the Cuban pianist, and together they managed to preserve and transform the repertoire of Vargas (who sang the haunting "Llorona" in the film Frida) into something further enhanced by riffs from flamenco and Afro-Cuban instrumentation.

Filmmaker Pedro Almovodar, a fan of both Buika and Vargas, wrote worshipful liner notes for El Último Trago* He proclaims: "Much like Chavela, Concha is able to make her audience feel completely exposed. Her songs transport us to a place where we are left face-to-face with our own love history, one in which our failures stand out the most. And what's more, after listening to her sing, one is determined to keep making the same mistakes,because there are no rules, common sense, caution, or regret in passion."

I would agree with Almodovar with one important exception. Buika, like Les Nubians, always makes room for common sense. (Clearly Vargas did too, otherwise she might not have survived into her unrepentant, pistol-packin' nineties.) Buika's own lyrics make clear that she is ready and willing to suffer for love, but will not allow passion to trap or destroy her. As we hear her breath propel each note, we become convinced this woman will walk away, survive, and later thrive -- even if the pain of separation almost kills her. This is an important distinction for 21st Century post-feminist torch singers to make, and the words they choose to drive home this point sound triumphant and persuasive whether sung in French, Spanish or English.

Published in: Village Voice Blogs, June 20, 2011