The European music media has tagged them the new queens of flamenco and fado, the soulful Iberian counterparts of blues. They’re both extraordinary singers, blessed with voices that ooze passion and pathos, duende and saudade. They both speak English pretty well, share singular stage names and first attracted attention in feature films made by revered Spanish directors.
That’s where similarities between the Afro-Spanish and Portuguese divas known as Buika and Carminho pretty well end. As communicators, they’re as different as Calcium Carbonate and Camembert.
María Concepción Balboa Buika expresses herself in an ethereal and enigmatic way, often answering questions with only a handful of words, sometimes quizzically. Carmo Carvalho Rebelo de Andrade, by contrast, could hardly be more communicative, responding to probing from a pesky journalist with a fullness bordering on verbosity.
Buika sprang to prominence with a part in the 2011 Pedro Almodóvar film La Piel Que Habito [The Skin I Live In], which featured two of her songs in the soundtrack. Carminho actually made her recording debut in Carlos Saura’s 2007 feature Fados. While Buika tacitly acknowledges the part the Almodóvar movie played in her ascension, she seems more interested in talking about the “the love and friendship” she shares with the legendary auteur. Carminho recognizes the significance of her film debut, describing it as “a very enriching and beautiful experience … I was side by side with some magnificent artists”.
At the time of her appearance in Fados, Carminho was finishing university and uninterested in pursuing a recording career, although she had received offers to make albums. After returning from a gap year travelling the world, she changed her mind. Now, after two major label releases, 2009’s Fado and 2012’s Alma, she’s regarded as the hottest young singer of fado, Portugal’s national idiom, and is about to follow her fellow fadistas Mariza and Ana Moura into the international spotlight with an appearance at WOMADelaide.
Buika has already established a strong international following. Two of her seven albums have won Latin Grammy awards — 2008’s Niña De Fuego and 2009’s El Último Trago — and her self-produced 2013 release, La Noche Más Larga, which contains a suitably sultry version of Billie Holiday’s ‘Don’t Explain’ sung flamenco-style, was being tipped to follow suit at the time of going to press. She has also collaborated with piano maestros Chucho Valdés and Chick Corea and several other jazz greats.
While she has performed a plethora of musical styles, from house music to Tina Turner covers (in a Las Vegas tribute show), Buika became famous in Spain for her idiosyncratic interpretation of flamenco. Not that she has ever pretended to be a cantaora per se. She absorbed a feel for the Andalusian art-form from the local gypsy community in the Balearic Islands capital, Palma de Mallorca, where she was born into a West African immigrant family.
“I was exposed to all kinds of music as I grew up,” she says: “The truth is that I heard a lot of jazz, blues, pop and rock, as well as flamenco.” She suggests that there wouldn’t be sufficient space on these pages to list the number of singers that have influenced her. As for her heritage, she says simply but poetically: “Africa is in my blood, the colour of my voice, in my cells, in my skin, in my hair, in my traditional education and much more. It is also visible in the sounds when I sing.”
Fado is well and truly in Carminho’s veins, although she too has been exposed to an eclectic array of artists and music, including the flamenco maestros Camarón de la Isla, Paco de Lucía and Vicente Amigo. She also cites jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, opera singer Maria Callas, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Brazilian stars Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento among her favorite musicians. In 2011, she unexpectedly topped the charts in both Portugal and Spain with a pop duet she recorded with the Spanish singer Pablo Alborán.
However, it’s the expressive music genre spawned by her country’s seafaring history, with attendant melancholic themes of longing and loss, that is Carminho’s and Portugal’s all-consuming passion. “We’re a small country but fado is enormous here … the music has been with me since I was born,” she says. “My mother and my brothers sing fado also. My mother taught me. My parents opened a fado house, where I heard many musicians.” Listening and learning the stories is part of a fadista’s upbringing.
As Carminho indicates, fado is more a way of life than a musical genre. “Beatriz da Conceição was one of those artists and is one of my main references. She taught me how to value the lyrics, the poetry and that each word has to be sung with a different intensity.” Other artists Carminho cites as influences include, inevitably, the great Amália Rodrigues and her sister, Celeste Rodrigues Camané, Carlos do Carmo, Fernando Maurício, Lucília do Carmo and Maria José da Guia.
While she acknowledges that there are different interpretations of fado around, Carminho likes to sing the traditional way. “It’s the real fado … I don’t have any pretension to change it because fado is bigger than me,” she states. “Other musical genres have been mixed with fado during its history, but it has its own identity and a language that I respect a lot. Fado liberates me.” She’s quite adamant that fado cannot be sung in English: “It’s not sacrilege; it just that it doesn’t exist in any other language but Portuguese.”
While emphasizing that the poetry of the lyrics is very important in interpreting fado, Carminho thinks it’s possible to understand the songs without knowing the lingo. “If the singer sings that poetry with sincerity and with all their heart, magic happens and even the people who don’t understand what we are singing can feel it.”
Buika freely admits that she hasn’t studied cante jondo, the deepest and purest form of flamenco, or any of the great cantaors. “The truth is I’ve not studied much at all; searches have always seemed a bit tedious to me. I’ve been devoted to seeking more … I follow my own instincts, believing that they will know where to guide me. They always seem to be aware of where to go. I must let myself go, be fearless and accept the trance vibe.” To a question about how flamenco aficionados generally regard her music, she responds: “Well, next time I bump into them I will ask them. I’ve never thought about it.”
As for duende, the so-called spirit of flamenco, Buika’s not sure if she’s got it or not: “I don’t know. Does a rose know it’s a rose? I don’t know what I am nor what I have, but I do know how to use me, so I guess that must be it.”
The uncompromising but decidedly charismatic Spanish siren seems to have a similar ambivalence in regards to her relationship with fado, a style she has utilized in a handful of songs on her albums. Carminho agrees that fado and flamenco have much in common. As she conveys: “They were both born in the cities, they are urban song forms and are the expression of peoples that gathered in communities to express their feelings and their emotions.”
Carminho makes no secret of her admiration for Buika. “She’s an extraordinary singer with unique features.” Buika, in turn, describes Carminho as “exciting and wonderful”.
Buika is most forthcoming when talking about jazz: “It’s something that will always be part of everything I do, in and out of the music. It’s part of my thoughts and actions, part of my colour and taste. I would not be myself if jazz wasn’t alive within me.” A published poet, Buika says she rarely turns her poems into songs — “my poems would be difficult to sing” — although she says she invests her songs with “poetic musical language”. She’s not sure if a recent move to Miami will edge her closer to mainstream pop. “The truth is that whatever direction I take will be great fun as that’s why I do most things.”
In recent performances at WOMADelaide in Australia, Buika was backed by a guitarist whom she says “places me in a trance while I’m performing” and a “master flamenco cajón player”. Carminho was accompanied by Portuguese guitar, standard guitar and acoustic bass, the first-named an instrument pivotal to fado. “Even if it’s my voice that commands all the instruments on stage, the Portuguese guitar follows and dialogues with me and gives the necessary cohesion to this music.”
• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms — Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine, for which the author is World/Folk correspondent.