Earlier this week I was at the launch of a friend’s excellent book about music piracy. The book goes into the nitty-gritty of how the MP3 file was first developed, through a painstaking process of figuring out how to compress recorded sound without the smaller file sounding any different. (This, of course, permanently changed the music industry.) Sounds made by instruments like violins, guitars and drums were straightforward to shrink down, but the human voice proved extremely difficult, because its sound is very complex and because our ears expect to hear that complexity.

This was many years ago, and they figured out how to compress the human voice by working on a few bars sung by the backing singers on Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant.” It’s a good thing they didn’t have to work on a track by Maria Concepción Balboa “Concha” Buika, because the scientists would probably have given up and nobody would have gotten all of that great pirated music.

Buika’s voice comes to us laden with centuries of feeling: pain, joy, loss and hope. Everyone should hear her music.

She’s the most famous Equatoguinean performer in the world, though she is Spanish-born and is invariably listed as Spanish. Her late father, Juan Balboa Boneke, was an intellectual and a minister in the government of Teodoro Obiang before his dissent eventually pushed the family into exile, for a second time, in Spain. He published numerous books of prose and poetry, reflecting on the situation in Equatorial Guinea as well as his experience of exile.

Performing at The Town Hall in mid-town Manhattan on Thursday night, in the Blue Note Jazz Festival, Buika had more presence than anyone I’ve ever seen on stage. I often wonder what it must have been like to go see Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald sing live. Maybe it was a bit like this. She inspired undiluted adoration from a packed house, with several heckled offers of marriage (she was wary of these, though gratified, wagging her finger playfully) and a bearded man in the middle of the front row who spent the whole night blowing kisses at her with both hands.

She wore sweeping waist-length braids and a dramatic pink dress. She spoke all the way through the show between songs, mainly about her experience of “living in her contradictions.”

“New York City belongs to the people who love it,” she said. “Like me.”

And later, in a more ribald moment: “I have to tell you, I’m not perfect. I’m not. For example, just now I smoked a lot of marijuana in my dressing room. And it’s strictly forbidden. It is. I know that. It’s not allowed.”

Many people first heard Buika sing in Pedro Almodovar’s film, The Skin I Live In (she was the best thing about the film, her voice saturating and at times overwhelming Almodovar’s shots):

Here’s a performance she did for NPR:

Further Reading