Sean Barlow and Banning Eyre spoke with Concha Buika, known commonly as Buika, about her collaboration with Carlos Santana on his latest project Africa Speaks. Originally Buika thought that she would be asked to sing on one song on the album, but Carlos liked her work so much she sings on all 11 tracks and wrote the lyrics for 10 of those songs. We have previously interviewed Buika about her life and work. This conversation that took place the day she performed at SummerStage at Central Park focused on Africa Speaks.
Sean Barlow: Buika, welcome to Afropop Worldwide! Why don’t you start out by introducing yourself?
Concha Buika: I’m Concha Buika. I’m a singer who was born in Majorca, Spain, a beautiful, magic island. I’ve been singing for life. I’ve been running around the world looking for music and I’m a singer for life.
And your parents were from Equatorial Guinea in Africa?
Yes, from a little, little, little tiny tribe called Bubis.
And on Africa Speaks you wrote and sang a couple of songs in your ethnic group’s language, Bubi.
I wanted to sing in that language because we don’t give a voice to the tribes. Because we don’t think in terms of tribes anymore but we all belong to tribes. Even if we are fighting in big cities where it seems that tribes disappear. But they don’t. We’re still being in a big tribe. The tribe of New York is beautiful. You guys are awesome! That’s why I wanted to sing in Bubi because we still belong to tribes. And tribes don’t have to disappear.
Can you sing some so we hear Bubi a cappella?
Yeah! Sure. [Sings]
Beautiful! What does that mean?
It’s a mama talking to her little girl. And she’s saying “you know you can’t marry that man. He ain’t got nothing and can’t give you nothing.” And the daughter answers, “It doesn’t matter. Love is everything.”
[Chuckles] I’ve heard that theme many, many times.
Don’t worry if he can’t give you this and that. He can give you love. And love is the most important thing.
Let’s talk about your collaboration with Carlos Santana on the Africa Speaks project. Tell us, big picture, how that came to be.
It was like, I don’t know. I was at home and all of a sudden my sister called me and said, “You’re not going to believe what just happened.” I was like “Whaaat?” She said, “They called from the Carlos Santana office and they said they want you there for their next project.” And I was like “ME? ME? WHY? Wow! Carlos Santana! No, no, no!” I was very nervous because it’s a big responsibility. But it was good. It was beautiful. We got together and I was very nervous but he calmed me down. He gave me a lot of love. He and Cindy [Cindy Blackman Santana, Carlos’ wife and his band’s drummer.] Cindy is awesome! And the band is amazing. You know he’s been for many years someone who has been studying the sounds. He’s a master of the sounds. You know when you’re working with someone like that, you can’t be nervous. You’re secure. You’re in good hands.
And Cindy is Carlos’ wife and the drummer with his band, yes?
Yeah, she’s amazing. I listened to her when I was a little girl. Because I was studying drums and we didn’t have so many female drummers in Spain at that time. Actually we had no one. But to me, Cindy was like wow! She’s real. She’s got the sound.
So what were your memories of hearing Carlos as a youngster?
My mama used to play music to cure us because we were a family of immigrants in Majorca, because at that time there was no one like us. So it was really strange to be the unique black girl in the movie theater, at the school, at the supermarket. You know you’re the unique. And that is weird.
Was it hard?
Yes it was hard. Sometimes it was beautiful because the people were amazingly beautiful. But normally people get scared about things they don’t know. When you see something that you don’t know what it is, you don’t want to get close. For a little girl, that was hard.
Back to Africa Speaks. So Carlos invites you. You were very nervous but he was very loving and supportive.
I notice you wrote almost all the lyrics for the project. Carlos and his collaborators wrote all the music. So did he deliver you songs and you were inspired to write the lyrics? Or tell us how the process worked.
At the beginning, that was not the idea because it was a collaboration so I thought, well, he wants me to do just one song. So I went there and they started playing me songs and more songs for me. Just the music. So I listened and each one was beautiful. I said “this one.” And they played more and I said “this one too.” And they were looking at me like, no she’s lying. She can’t do that much. And at the end, we did like 18 songs but he didn’t expect it. He expected me to do one song. I think he thought he was going to do other songs with other artists. But at the end he kept all of them. It was beautiful. He gave so much confidence.
So let’s talk about some of the individual songs. The first track, the title track is “Africa Speaks” with Carlos giving a spoken word tribute to the continent to start with and then you're singing in Spanish. What are you singing about?
We’re writing a long, long book, about all the things we’ve been doing. All the things we’ve been through—wars, peace period, and always a new war. It’s like we don’t learn. We keep going into it again. It’s about poison, fire and water. We get the fire and water that give us life and then we get poison and we destroy it again. It’s like we’re always in this stupid circle. And we never get out of it.
And then we meet each other face to face. We are all beautiful and wonderful. I cannot understand how we wind up in a war. I do tours. I tour all over the world. And the only thing I see is people working, working hard every day to have a life. I don’t see people hating each other. I don’t see people against each other. The only thing I see is people working and working no matter which country.
Sometimes it seems like Carlos is singing with his guitar to your singing.
It’s like a dialogue between the voice and guitar. To make us understand that we speak the same language. Notes and words are the same. It’s just that when you hear the guitar, and hear my voice, you can understand what he’s playing. He’s trying to catch my voice. It’s beautiful! Music is a miracle.
Banning Eyre: We’ve listened to Santana since we were kids. And it’s always been so powerful how he took this rock'n'roll attitude and combined it with Latin music. And he’s done so many things over the years. You have such diverse experiences musically but there’s always been this core of flamenco in your style. What strikes me is the intensity of the emotion in your flamenco singing and the intensity in the rock way Carlos plays rock'n'roll. Do you have a sense of the intensity of the emotion when you come together that makes this album special?
You know Carlos, everything he plays it’s like the last day of his life. With me and my singing it’s absolutely the same thing. Every time I go on stage I feel like the bulls that go to the bull ring. In Spain we have this horrible tradition, horrible, horrible. And it’s a bull going to a bull ring. And people have fun seeing how this animal is dying. They punch him. They kick him. They do a lot of horrible things. And he’s bleeding to death. And people cheer. They’re having fun. And I always say that I’m like the bull that goes to the bull ring. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I put my life in it. And every time I go on stage that’s exactly how I feel. I’m coming to survive. I’m singing for life. And that’s why I’m going to put all my passion and all my life in it. I don’t want to hide anything. I want the people to see me as I am. I want people to know absolutely everything about me. No secrets.
Tell us about the song “Yo Me Lo Merezco.”
This is a song that talks about the love we deserve. We all deserve love. It’s just that sometimes we don’t think about it. Sometimes we focus on the guilt. The guilt is not even real.
Let’s talk about responsibility then I will understand. I make myself responsible that I fucked it up. But I’m here to build it again. But if you go under the guilt then you don’t want be anywhere. You want to stay at home. You don’t want to answer the phone. You don’t want to see people. You feel guilty. You feel nasty. That’s not good! It’s not even real. It’s a lie. Guilt is for kids. As an adult, you can say yes, I did. I lied. I did horrible things. Let’s work it out.
So it sounds, Buika, that it’s important to you to give wisdom to people.
Yes, of course. This song “Yo Me Lo Merezco” says, I’m going to sing for love because I deserve it. O.K. I did wrong sometimes. I did some things I didn’t have to do. I was a little bit angry, a little bit confused. But I’m still deserving love. Because if you deserve love and give it to yourself, you’re going to give to everyone.
You could have been a therapist!
Banning: She is!
No, Papi, it’s just that when I look at you I want to see me.
You know Buika, you remind me of Angelique Kidjo.
Because Angelique is very interactive with her audience. She’s giving her wisdom too. She likes to talk about human relations, how we treat one another.
Let’s talk about the song “Blue Skies” on “Africa Speaks”.
“Blue Skies” is a song that encourages us not to forget where you come from. Because sometimes you change your life. You go into a new city. You become successful and you forget or you try to forget where you were coming from. We don’t have to forget who we’ve been.
That leads me to a question about identity. Do you identify yourself as an African? A Spaniard? Or just someone from the world?
I do not identify myself. I don’t like to psychoanalyze myself. I’m a bug. My story could be your story. Could be anyone’s story. I just think we are important when we love someone. When we don’t love someone our lives are not even useful.
What about the song “Paraisos Quemados.” It has a kind of Afrobeat guitar opening.
It means "burnt paradise," where new grass is growing. What I’m saying is that we die and we’re born again many times in this same life. Don’t you feel sometimes like you’re a young teenager? Sometimes we need to burn all thoughts, all mentalities. Sometimes we keep things not because they are useful. The same we do at home, sometimes we throw away things we’ve had for many years. We just keep them because we want to be close to them but it’s completely unnecessary. It’s a lot of weight in our bags. We need just to forget about it. Even people. I know what I’m going to say must sound strange but sometimes we need to delete cell phone numbers. They’ve been together with you for many years. Now he’s hurting you. It’s not that he wants to but your life doesn’t need that anymore. Just erase the number. Don’t worry. You’re not being a bad person. You want to live.
Let’s talk about the song “Breaking Down the Door”
Yes, that’s a beautiful song. That song talks about a big problem in Spain which is domestic violence. Violence against women and children. In Spain they’re killing someone every week. Men killing their wives or girlfriends. And this song “Breaking Down the Door” talks about a story of a woman married to a rich, famous and marvelous man who ended up killing her. It’s a real story. What is a problem is that people around them don’t say anything. I’ve been asking my friends, good people, good men, if you know that one of your best friends or your brother is beating his wife, will you call the police? And they are like “No, I will go and help. I will go and say something.” These [women-abusing] men do what they do because nobody stops them. I’m not saying this is a macho, ego problem. It’s a psychiatric problem. These people are not right in their minds. These people don’t have a soul. They’re sad and angry with everything. It’s because people around them don’t say anything. Sometimes you go to a girl and say you can’t be with this man. He’s going to kill you. So what are you going to do? It’s very sad. And this song tells this story, that she was buried in the same church where she was married. That is so sad. People say she wanted to get married to someone above her but all she wanted was someone to love her. And it’s really a sad story.
Tell us about the last song, “Condombe Cumbele”
Oh, this is very fun. It talks about a man who’s been gone two or three days partying. And then he has to go back home and has to explain to his wife his whereabouts those last few days. And he doesn’t even remember because he was completely messed up. And he’s trying to apologize to his wife. And he’s saying “I didn’t want to but I drank.” And the wife says “I don’t know how to drink if I don’t want to” [Laughs]. The man says “I didn’t want to go with that girl but I went with her. And the wife is saying “I don’t know to go with someone else if I didn’t want to.” The song is very fun. The man has a lot of explaining to do. He doesn’t want to lose his wife but I think that…uh-oh.
I notice you have an all-woman’s band. Talk about that.
Well, at the beginning it was a dream. Because I thought, every time you have to look after musicians, they never look after girls. I remember when I was growing up in Spain and playing drums, I used to go for auditions and they’d say, “No we’re not looking for a girl, we’re looking for a man.” And I was like, “No, you’re looking for a drummer. The instrument ain’t got no sex. A guitar is a guitar. Sound is a miracle and we have to celebrate sound. And that’s why I wanted to put a female band together. Because it annoys me that it still is a weird or strange thing. After all these years, it cannot be possible.
You’re right. It should not be such a strange thing. But I noticed it. And I’m talking about it. And now you’re talking about it. It’s a good model to put out there.