Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Torch songs & slinky beats from World Music darling Buika

Latin jazz is alive and well on Canadian stages

Latin jazz is hot. I don’t just mean steamy-sexy hot; I mean a commercial success story that continues to draw crowds long after the salsa and lambada fads have faded.

Maybe it’s the slinky, sinuous beat that speaks to our sensual selves. Perhaps it’s the efforts of Latin Canadian stars like Amanda Martinez or Hilario Durán, who sell out shows at the Lula Lounge and Plaza Flamingo (hey, remember when it was the Pink Flamingo gay club?). Whatever the reason, Latin jazz is alive and well on Canadian stages.

Now, even the Royal Conservatory is getting in on the action, bringing in Spanish siren Buika for her first Canadian concert. If you read our last issue (and of course you did!), you’ll remember that Mervon Mehta, the company’s new executive director, is keen on expanding the Conservatory’s brand beyond its classical image. Premiering international artists to Canadian audiences is a big part of his plan.

“It’s thrilling to introduce Buika to people,” says Mehta. “This could be a big coming-out party for her. She could easily be the next big world music star.”

She certainly has the makings of one. In the last few years, Buika has recorded a duet with Seal, played the Rex in Paris and hit gold status in Spain with her first album, Mi Niña Lola (My Girl Lola). Her latest effort, Niña de Fuego (Little Girl of Fire) is well on its way to repeating the debut’s success, with its irresistible blend of soul, jazz, Afro-Cuban rhythms and blistering flamenco.

Buika’s voice is all smoke and fire, one moment whispery and intimate, the next strong and confident. I can’t claim to understand what she’s singing, but I’m completely caught up in her musical journey, nonetheless. The emotional honesty and intensity in her traditional coplas (female-centric Spanish torch songs) comes naturally to the Guinea-born singer. Her father was a politician who was forced into hiding after falling out of favour with an African government. The family fled to a Gypsy community in Majorca, leaving the young Buika feeling very out of place as she grew up.

“It was very difficult to grow up with no Africans,” says Buika. “No black people around, so I don’t have any references, no mirrors for myself. I was hating my hair because it was different from all the girls I saw on the TV. I played in front of the mirror, dreaming I was another person.”

Life at home was also challenging, with strained relations between the girl and her father.

“My father believed in democracy outside the home, but inside the home he was a big dictator,” she laughs. “But we are victims from victims. As soon as you have peace in your mind with your past, you have a reconciliation with everything done. The fear from last night helps me to write my poems today.”

Hearing her speak now, it’s difficult to imagine this woman as anything other than joyful, strong and full of life. Touring has opened up exciting new worlds for Buika and built confidence in her mesmerizing performance style. It’s also opened her eyes to the vagaries of human behaviour.

“I’ve been travelling a lot with this career, and there are so many different truths to believe,” she says. “I’ve been in places where one person from one country and another are trying to kill each other, and they don’t even speak the same language.

“But then you can take a plane for three hours and you find the same nationalities, and they’re making love with each other. In which truth do you want to believe?”