The music business is full of unlikely and fantastical tales of artists who rise from humble origins to international success, but there’s nothing quite like Concha Buika’s sojourn from Central African exile to Latin Grammy Award-winning flamenco-steeped torch singer, poet, composer, and budding filmmaker.
Since her first foray to America more than a decade ago as a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas, she’s become one of the most distinctive vocalists on the international scene, a revered diva sought out by stars ranging from Chick to Seal and Nelly Furtado. Pedro Almodovar was so struck by her voice that the Spanish filmmaker featured her singing on screen in his disturbing 2011 thriller “The Skin I Live In.”
For her nearly sold-out four-night stand at the SFJazz Center, which runs through Sunday, she’s performing with the great Spanish flamenco percussionist Ramón Porrina on cajón, and Cuban piano master Ivan “Melon” Lewis, who played an essential role in defining the driving pulse of timba as a member of the Issac Delgado Group in the mid-1990s. Considering that she recorded with Chucho Valdés on her star-making 2009 tribute to Chavela Vargas, “El Ultimo Trago” (Wea International), and with his father, Bebo Valdes, on 2011’s “En Mi Piel” (Warner Music Latina), Buika seems to gravitate toward powerhouse Cuban pianists.
"I’ve got an affinity for good pianists, it doesn’t matter where they’re from," says Buika, 41, who performs and records under a single name. "Ivan is an amazing and talented musician, and we can really be free together on stage."
Born to political refugees from Equatorial Guinea in Palma de Mallorca in Spain’s Balearic Islands, Buika grew up in a Gypsy neighborhood, where she absorbed the improvisational spirit, rhythmic patterns, and soul-baring vocal cadences of flamenco directly from the source. Her father, writer and politician Juan Balboa Boneke, eventually returned to his homeland to work for the regime from which he’d fled, while her mother stayed behind.
Growing up, her house was filled with recordings by legendary jazz singers, and Buika often includes arresting renditions of American Songbook standards in performances. Conspicuous as the only child of African descent in the neighborhood, she grew up with a streak of independence and an innate sense of her own musicality.
"It was so weird sometimes, you always have the feeling that someone is watching you, 24 hours a day," Buika says from her home in Miami.
She started performing in her late teens, belting out jazz and soul in nightclubs around the Balearics, and eventually connected with rave producers who hired her as a guest artist at all-night dance parties. Then she landed in the United States to work in Las Vegas.
"Everything was very strange," she recalls. "I was flying from a little village, and it was a really big change. I was in a show as a Tina Turner impersonator, and I was also singing salsa, trying to survive, singing 11 hours a day. I was looking for real music, but I couldn’t find it, so I went back to Spain."
After attracting the attention of flamenco producer Javier Limón with her eponymous 2005 album, she turned her attention to flamenco and heart-rending Spanish ballads known as coplas. Her next two albums, 2007’s “Mi Niña Lola” and 2008’s “Niña de Fuego,” were nominated for Latin Grammys, and established her as the most emotionally potent new artist in flamenco.
On her sixth album, 2013’s “La noche mas larga” (Warner Music Latina), she interprets tunes by Ernesto Lecuona, Jacques Brel, Abbey Lincoln and Billie Holiday — all set to Ivan “Melon” Lewis’ gorgeous arrangements. Several of the most striking tracks are from her own pen. Buika discovered at an early age that songwriting provided an essential outlet for self-expression.
"It saved my life," she says. "I was a big liar when I was a little girl. My moma was mad at me all the time. Then I started to realize that being a liar is not the same as being an inventor. Inventing is building a future."
She recently published her second volume of poetry, “To those who loved hard-core women and left them,” and she’s collaborating with her brother on a movie based on a tale from her book, “From Solitude to Hell.” Buika literally wears her inspiration on her skin. Her arms are covered with tattoos, totems of fortitude that she invokes when the demands of her life as an artist and single mother take their toll.
"I feel like a lion, strong and powerful, big and growing," Buika says. "All those things scare men. Sometimes I feel a little bit lonesome, but I feel strong in my loneliness. Sometimes I forget I’m strong, and all my tattoos, the names of son, mother and sister, are things that remind me of my strength.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday,
7 p.m. Sunday
Where: SFJazz Center,
201 Franklin St.,