Sunday, November 04, 2007

Concha Buika @ BAM 10/26/2007

A long and rambling post, so many ideas competing for space...oh well, it happens sometimes.

I missed Harriet Tubman at NuBlu and the Charles Burnham Group at The Stone last weekend, but this weekend made it up from my slab of black mold to go see Spanish flamenco/jazz singer Concha Buika at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House.

I have no idea if it was a sold out house, but it was packed from where I was up in the mezzanine, and below on the floor where a large Spanish speaking contingent was cheering, and to whom she addressed most of her comments once she realized a considerable amount of the crowd was bilingual. My Spanish is better understood on the page than propelled through the breath, so I was struggling which might have been just as well. If I could have understood everything I might have just been sitting there with tears rolling down my face. That's not awful, but sometimes you miss a key moment wiping away tears. And really the last time I cried at a concert was at a full performance of composer Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión Segun San Marcos which was commissioned for the Bach year 2000(with Orchestra, vocal soloists including the amazing Luciana Souza, capoiera dancers, the Schola Cantorum de Caracás, etc, etc.)

But Concha Buika singing a cappella practically knocked me flat. She did so as the final offering of a two song encore. Afterwards people were still applauding for her return, she did so with a huge smile, but gave us a bashful wave, and was gone again. It felt as though she had only been performing for 30 minutes but in reality 90 minutes had gone by. I was so besotted, that when I went upstairs to the BAMcafé to find her album, it had already sold out--they had only been able to get 20 from and those were probably sold out before the concert began--I bought a bunch of other music like someone who wants their favorite dish, but finding it sold out at the restaurant greedily devours a substitute hoping it will quell the hunger. We all know how that goes, well thank goodness for buyers at used record stores. Although her label is listed as a subsidiary of Time/Warner, her three records don't yet have distribution in the U.S. outside of I put on a vocalist who shall remain nameless from my flailing purchases who was a sad substitute; probably all those discs except for Bob Moses' Visit with the Great Spirit featuring vocals from the late Jeanne Lee (pictured right with her son in Germany in the early 1970s, just because I wanted to)(except that I actually wanted When Elephants Dream of Music) among others, are going away-away.

I ordered her latest, La Niña Loca (2007, Dro Atlantic), after that realization. I could have further lost my mind and ordered her prior two albums, but writer/poet kalamu ya salaam in writing about Buika on breath of life persuasively argued for this latest album as the best realization of her artistry of the three.

Listening to Concha Buika live confirms that you cannot wait for folks to recognize your gifts, and you have to walk your own path. Buika started out as a house diva, penning a few major hits, and then after an invite from Pat Metheny to a jazz concert and time in London studying drama and in Las Vegas performing, including work as a Tina Turner impersonator. Seeing Buika being herself up there grateful to be there surrounded by great musicians "black" and "white" whatever those designations mean in Spain. Doing her incarnation of flamenco and unapologetically being who she is.

Buika is also unapologetically and completely committed to the music so her voice, her body, are in complete service to that work. As I mentioned above, she is a vocalist whose voice is more profound, more devastating, the less accompaniment she has.

While working with other instruments she can willfully go off-key, and I have to say that put me in mind of a recent article by scholar & music writer Mark Anthony Neal on his New Black Man blog and CriticalNoir@Vibe, "For Your Consideration: Keyshia Cole."In the piece Neal takes on the subject of the current crop of hip-hop/soul divas who seem find staying on key a serious challenge as a result of their lack of vocal training, no Barry Gordy finishing schools for these vocalists, or Tommy Boy conceptual art tours post-label signing, and apparently not a lot disciplined church choir training either. Instead Cole and others, Neal argues, seem to suffer from "a case of the runs" or melisma--popularlized by singers such as Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross gone very bad, the employ of semitones and microtones inherent in melisma often exacerbates the off-key singing of many contemporary singers. Neal initiated this conversation in a 20 June 2007 article on singer Linda Jones, "Bodies in Pain," in which he also engages the work of Cole as he draws parallels to the way each singer, the late and unfortunately under-considered Jones, and Oaktown relative newcomer Cole give voice to pain through their vocal delivery. But to Neal's credit he's been talking about a subject close to my heart throughout the past few months in 15 August 2007's "What's an R&B Girl to Do?" in which he considers the lack of commercial viability in the present market for grown women singers such as Deborah Cox (left) and Amel Larrieux (below right), who both recently released albums featuring covers of jazz standards (Cox an homage to Dinah Washington)--which has typically been the refuge of pop singers who have aged out of the pop (aka youth demographic-driven) market (cf. Rod Stewart, who got two albums out of this career move); his 9 August 2007 reconsideration of Nina Simone, "Finding Forever, Finding Nina;" and his checking MeShell Ndegeocello's remake of Eugene McDaniels' "Compared to What?"(previously most famously covered by Roberta Flack and Les McCann) for the Talk to Me soundtrack. Neal also reprinted anthropologist Maureen Mahon's article on funk pioneer Betty Davis' album reissues on, and finally, his contemplation of the already grown-woman sound present in songwriter/vocalist Chrisette Michele's instrument and on her recent debut I Am.

Buika's voice and prowess have been likened to Sarah Vaughn, but hearing her at BAM put me in mind of some vocalists of African descent throughout the diaspora who are better known as "chest" singers, if you will, than Vaughn. Those known for such located singing, for example, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, and Miriam Makeba, as well as those know to ably mine/transgress the space between the head and chest voice such as Carmen McCrae and the British singer Cleo Laine (now Dame Cleo Lane DBE, apparently the female equivalent of knighthood for her services to music).

Interestingly, there is very little press on Buika thusfar in the United States and what there is does not compare her to existing singers. Instead journalists have compared her voice to rich foods (chocolate) and colors (ochre). Meanwhile Buika has mentioned Mexican-Costa Rican singer Chavela Vargas (known for singing ranchera and other traditional forms) whose cigar-ravaged alto Buika's cigarette burnished instrument can resemble, and blues/r&b/jazz singer Dinah Washington in her discussion of genres,

'''I don't know what is flamenco or what is blues or jazz or rock. I only know what is singing and playing,' says the 35-year-old-singer. `For me the flamenco of [Mexican singer] Chavela Vargas is the same as Dinah Washington. It's music that comes from the depths, from the place where everything pure comes from. For me [musical] styles seem like little dictators.'''

Washington had blues, gospel, jazz, pop, and a lot of sass (although it was Vaughn who acquired the nickname of "Sassy Sarah") in her delivery and was another artist whose vocal talents weren't well served by arbitrary musical boundaries.

But let me take a step back because I wanted to consider Mark Anthony Neal's argument that the vocal aspect of soul music sung by today's singers seems "out of tune--musically, morally, and politically" with their forebears from the 1960s and 1970s. Neal's writing is so on point here, it's just better to quote him, from "Waiting for Keyshia"

The lack of experience by producers and vocalists often adds to the dissonance that resonates in the vocal quality of figures like Mary J. Blige or Faith Evans, who have become easy targets for a generation that is regularly thought to be out of tune—musically, morally, and politically—with the Soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s. But I’d like to suggest that such dissonance is not simply the product of a generation of singers who are out of pitch—and lacking the training to know so—but a response to the ways that post-Civil Rights generations hear the world. The nostalgic harmonies of the Civil Rights Generation (and their parents, many of whom are in the 80s) strikes discord in the lives of post-Civil Rights generations, notably Generation Hip-Hop, which have never had a tangible relationship to concepts such as “freedom” and “liberation” that some in the old guard presumed was transferable. Issues like the crack cocaine epidemic, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, voter disenfranchisement (largely based on race and class), depressed wages, lack of access to quality and affordable healthcare, misogyny, the failing infrastructure of public schooling, homophobia, as well as a populism of common sense (which by definition is stridently conservative and anti-intellectual), have often left post-Civil Rights generations grasping for straws, much the way Keyshia Cole—who I offer for your consideration—seems to frantically grasp for notes in virtually every song that she sings. [Cole pictured above right]

Now, let's just pause a moment to appreciate the eloquence and spiritual resonance of
Neal's analysis.

OK, I want to explore one aspect of Neal's argument by suggesting that singers such as Simone, Flack, and even Makeba to an extent played with or skirted the edges of staying on-key, for the sake of pointing to the uncertainty of "freedom" and "liberation" in their own times. The seeming greater engagement with the possibility or potentiality of "freedom" and "liberation" by artists in the 1960s and 1970s spoke both to a tangible experience of struggle within methods that were being canonized as they were being created--boycotts, large assemblies and marches, sit-ins--as what was becoming termed the Civil Rights Movement. There is no centralized organizing party these days, neither the NAACP or specifically politicized aspects of the hip hop community can claim the pull that either SNCC and the past NAACP leadership could expect in the heyday of either organization. At the same time, performers such as Flack, Simone and Makeba were arguably operating outside of those organizations' more traditionally recognized circles of performers. Despite Simone's many musical contributions to the Civil Rights Movement her personality and aesthetic eclipsed the notion of protest singer or protest song respectively. Simone, while maintaining a relatively successful recording career from the 1958 release of "I Loves You Porgy" (from the musical Porgy and Bess) into the mid-1970s, became disgusted with the US's racial politics and radio airplay system, among other things, and left the country in 1970 eventually settling in France. After developing a successful recording and performing career in the US comprised of traditional South African songs, pop melodies, and some jazz, Makeba's US record contract and tours were canceled when she married Stokely Carmichael in 1968. Subsequently, she and Carmichael moved to Guinea, and she continued performing in Europe, on the African continent, and in Latin America (right, still my favorite Makeba album,Pata Pata). On her first two albums, her 1969 debut First Take and 1970's Chapter Two Flack included songs such as "Angelitos Negro" which she sings in Spanish, asking why painters never create black angels, and additional political works from Eugene McDaniels and Donny Hathaway such as "Tryin' Times" and "Ballad of the Sad Young Men." For her second album she recorded McDaniels' "Reverend Lee," which at the time was rumored to about the conflicted soul of the extracurricularly active Reverend Jessie Jackson and gave an understated cover of the Weillian-song "Business Goes On As Usual." Because Flack writes almost none of own material during her career she has been entirely at the mercy of songwriters, and it shows. While she had a solid collaboration with McDaniels, he never produced a whole album worth of work for her, nor did any other songwriter, although he wrote for her at least through 1974's Feel Like Makin' Love (where he penned the title track). Flack was considered to have a soulful voice, and a decidedly non-sexual soul sister image in relation to male artists such as Les McCann and Hathaway, and presumably McDaniels. Additionally, her large afro, and full features were a prominent aspect of her image, and her cover art, until 1974's Feel Like Makin' Love (which featured a detailed pen and ink illustration of an abstracted nature setting with a centrally placed tell-tale plush bed); that plus her southern church background and rearing(Virgina), and Howard University education all firmly located her black authenticity, even while she was singing Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Buffy St. Marie covers. So she had soul, even if she wasn't technically singing it with the genre-crossing big hits "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (a delayed hit due to actor/director Clint Eastwood using it in a key scene in Play Misty for Me), and "Killing Me Softly" which Lauryn Hill and the Fugees definitively reclaimed as a soul song with their remake. The richness of Hill's vocal became even more apparent to me when I heard John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae doing a remake of Flack and Hathaway's "Where Is the Love." Legend did a solid enough job, although he also can suffer from a tendency towards vocal ornamentation for no specific end. However, Bailey Rae's thinner voice immediately suffered by comparison to Flack's rich unaffected alto.

In something of a parallel Simone was given the designation, "High Priestess of Soul," notwithstanding her genre-crossing--with inclusions of gospel, r&b, pop, jazz, covers and originals, cabaret styled compositions, and classical music infused arrangements, and skillful use of counterpoint. Her viewpoint was simultaneously unmistakably that of a defiant and proud African American women, and at the time her rich textured voice was likely unimaginable as originating from any being other than an African American woman--a formidable one at that.

What did "soul" mean as a designation for Simone? Was it a musical recognition, or did it address the particulars of her physical bearing, both her striking features and mode of dress, her wearing a natural, braids, and head wraps when those were still considered marks of a radical or cultural nationalist. Is "To Be Young Gifted and Black" a soul song? What about "Mississippi Goddam," "Four Women," or "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)"? Why or why not? The question I imagine would center on the song structure: do these songs fit a "soul" or "r&b" melodic structure, or are they more folk songs, or cabaret, or ballad form? If these songs can't easily be categorized as "soul" then it would seem the attribution would address the stature that her politics and personal aesthetics.

In thinking about the issue of dissonance that Neal raises, linking it to a cultural and economic dissonance, literally out of tune, I began to think about how both Flack and Simone could sit hard on a note, almost flatting it. However, these musical gestures are conscious choices whereas the out of control melisma is, as Neal points out, the desperate and often failed chase of the "correct" note, so arguably less of a consciously articulated personal and/or meta-politic than an unmediated (although accompanied and studio-produced)/unintentional disclosure of loss and absent foundations of various kinds--musical, communal, social, familial, etc.

Similar to Flack and Simone, Buika's forays into almost off-key notes, those that skirt the micro-tonal edge are clearly conscious. One only had to witness the flamenco style melisma that Buika employed with startling skill on an a cappella offering to realize that while she has considerable emotional presence and willingness to imbue her performances with vulnerability and naked emotion she communicates that through great precision. However, this precision doesn't emphasize serve to emphasize her technique (though I did shake my head in wonder at it). Her technique is in service to her expressiveness, allowing her a richer and broader palate from which to communicate. Listening to her album Mi Niña Lola, I was aware that she and her producers haven't yet determined how to capture that immediacy in the studio. Still, it's a pretty great album in most places, and while I'm waiting to see her again or for that amazing live album, it will do.


More on Concha Buika from New York Daily News
More on Concha Buika from The Miami Herald
More on Concha Buika from breath of life
More on experimental jazz vocalist Jeanne Lee
Brief review of Mi Niña Loca from The New York Times
More on Dinah Washington from

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At 8:05 AM, Blogger Kalamu ya Salaam said...

thank you for adding great observations to the ongoing discussions about black music and especially about the often hard to discuss subject of 21st century female soul singers. we at BoL just completed a look at MJB and this week have newly released live Aretha and live (Afro-German) Joy Denalane.

i certainly would encourage your observations on either.

also, i strongly agree with you, mark anthony neal is obviously a very important and insightful critic on this matter.

moreover, it's not just female singers. have you heard chris brown? is excess this decade's normal?

anyhow, thanks much for your write up.

there was no byline on the post. who are you? whose name should i seek if i want to (and i do want to) read more of your writings?

kalamu ya salaam,
breath of life (

At 9:29 AM, Blogger audiologo said...

Thank you Kalamu, for your comments. At present I only write non-fiction publicly here at the audiologo blogspot. So that's where you can find my work. Thanks too, for what you and your son Mtume do at Breath of Life, I'm always learning/hearing something new, or hearing something familiar in a new way.


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