Let us now praise awesome women. When it comes to music, this town makes it all too easy to celebrate Women’s History Month. In the coming days, a veritable tsunami of bodaciously talented women are sweeping over the city, and you can catch several without trying too hard.
Let’s start with Buika, the extravagantly gifted Spanish vocalist presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall 8 p.m. Saturday. She arrives in Berkeley at the start of a national tour with a new band and a startling new repertoire, particularly for fans smitten with her soul-baring flamenco and impassioned rancheras from her star-making 2009 collaboration with Cuban piano maestro Chucho Valdés, El Último Trago (Warner Music). Her latest album, Vivir Sin Miedo (DRO) is her first focusing on her original tunes. Drawing on an array of influences, from reggae, rock and Afrobeat to R&B, funk and jazz, the majority of her songs feature English lyrics.
Like a shot of good tequila, interviewing Buika is always a bracing experience. Even over the phone she exudes protean power, speaking with unguarded emotion. A poet, filmmaker, and music producer, she refuses to constrain her creative impulses, which is why she titled her new album To Live Without Fear. She’s joined by a disparate cast of collaborators, including Meshell Ndegeocello, flamenco singer Potito, British session keyboard star Glen Scott, and singer/songwriter Jason Mraz.
“From an artist, you just see what is released,” she says from her home in Miami, where she’s lived since 2011. “We do a lot of things. We have a lot of weapons of mass construction. ‘Till you dare, no-one is going to see what you do. Those fears don’t belong to us, they belong to our record labels and managers. At the end of the day, an artist is someone who can take a guitar or pen and tell the truth.”
Born on Palma de Mallorca in Spain’s Balearic Islands to political refugees from Equatorial Guinea, Concha Buika grew up in a Gypsy neighborhood where she absorbed the improvisational spirit, rhythmic patterns, and emotionally charged vocal cadences of flamenco directly from the source. Her father, the writer and politician Juan Balboa Boneke, eventually returned to his homeland to work for the regime from which he’d fled. Her mother stayed behind on Mallorca, and filled the house with recordings by legendary jazz singers (American Songbook standards that Buika often includes in her performances). Conspicuous as the only child of African descent in the neighborhood, she grew up with a defiant 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,” says Buika, 42. “My mother still lives in that Gypsy neighborhood, but I wouldn’t say the Gypsies taught me to be musical. I already had it. I didn’t need anyone to encourage me. I am the music.”
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. She first came to the United States to work in Las Vegas in 2000, an experience that she describes as “kind of a dream, like a trance. Everything was very strange. 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 left and went back to Spain.”
After attracting the attention of flamenco producer Javier Limon with her eponymous 2005 album, she turned her attention to flamenco and coplas, a closely related style of heart-rending Spanish ballads. Her next two albums, 2007’s Mi Niña Lola and 2008’s Niña de Fuego, were nominated for Latin Grammys, and established her as flamenco’s most emotionally potent new artist. But Buika has always cast a wide net when it comes to repertoire. 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. 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.
Last year she published her second volume of poetry, To those who loved hardcore 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. More than a riveting performer, 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.”
Recommended gigs: Jessica Jones, Pamela Z, Sarah Cahill
Speaking of strong women, Brooklyn tenor saxophonist and Berkeley High grad Jessica Jones returns to town for a series of workshops (including Berkeley High on March 22) and gigs in San Jose and Oakland (at Birdland Jazzista Social Club 8 p.m. March 25). She recently released a stellar album, Moxie, featuring tenor saxophonist Tony Jones, her husband and fellow Berkeley High alum, bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
Vocalist, composer and electronics wizard Pamela Z performs Wednesday March 23 as part of Full: Voice, BAMPFA’s program showcasing intrepid singers. Too little heard in the East Bay, Z creates lapidary sonic edifices via live electronic processing and sampled sound. The program also features the Cornelius Cardew Choir, a local collective led by Berkeley’s Tom Bickley that draws on Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening techniques, exploring the frontiers of vocal performance and practice. And bass vocalist Richard Mix reprises the unaccompanied works by composer Julian Eastman that he performed at BAMPFA’s L@TE series a four years ago.
Finally, the wondrous pianist Sarah Cahill, Berkeley’s fairy godmother of new music who always seems to materialize with some astonishing new work or program, gives a free Women’s History Month recital at 2 p.m Sunday at the downtown branch of the Berkeley Public Library. Last week she donated a landmark 14th-century Chinese landscape painting, one of only five known signed works by the Yuan dynasty master Sun Junze, to BAMPFA in memory of her father James Cahill, the late UC Berkeley professor emeritus and influential Asian art scholar. In conjunction with her gift, BAMPFA dedicated its new Asian art study center in his name.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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