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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

It can be an accident of genes to be born with a good singing voice. But what makes a good voice become a great one? For some singers, it takes years of training. For others, it's life in a church choir. Now, the story of a singer who says what you hear in her voice is freedom.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CONCHA BUIKA (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

NORRIS: The singer is Buika. That's B-U-I-K-A. She was born and raised on the Spanish island of Mallorca, the child of African immigrants. We chose Buika as part of our series 50 Great Voices.

NPR producer Alice Winkler has her story.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language)

ALICE WINKLER: It's a little surprising to meet Buika for the first time. She's beautiful, with high cheekbones, almond eyes and a Lauren Hutton gap between her teeth. But her body seems far too petite to contain such a gigantic voice, and not statuesque enough to have once been a Tina Turner impersonator in Vegas. She remembers the audition well.

Ms. BUIKA: Beautiful and amazing girls with long legs and, you know, high shoes, like this, at 11 o'clock in the morning. Makeup like, you know, and I was like wow. I found myself a little bit lost.

WINKLER: But Buika was a struggling single mom and really needed the job. So she simply conjured Tina Turner, her savior when she was growing up in Spain -the only black kid in town. There was no one else to show her how to do her hair, how to dress, how to be in the world, she says. At the audition in Las Vegas, Buika got the job.

Ms. BUIKA: I'm brave like her. That was what happened, that I was brave. I was like, eh, eh, this job is for me. Sure, I know that I cannot speak in proper English. I don't care because Tina is going to help me tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WINKLER: I could imagine Buika's raspy voice channeling "What's Love Got to Do With It," but I wanted to hear it, so I asked.

Ms. BUIKA: Uh-um. No, no, no, it was a promise for myself because that was a job that helped me to survived. And I don't need help right now. I don't need Tina's voice anymore. I got my voice.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

WINKLER: The story Buika tells of how she got that voice begins before her birth in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country on the west coast of Africa. Forty years ago, after the country won independence from Spain, Buika's father joined the elected government. But the president became one of the world's most murderous dictators, and Buika's parents fled, settling in Mallorca, in a Roma Gypsy neighborhood. A couple of years later, Concha Buika was born. Most of the Gypsy kids had never seen a black person before, but they accepted the little girl and taught her flamenco.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language)

WINKLER: If she had been born in Africa, Buika says, her voice would have been entirely different.

Ms. BUIKA: If I were born there, I think that my voice will sound as a prisoner's voice - like in jail.

WINKLER: A prisoner?

Ms. BUIKA: Yeah. Because when you grow in those types of countries, you don't recognize freedom.

WINKLER: And freedom, according to Buika, has become the key to her voice. The political freedom she inherited from her parents, certainly, but also emotional freedom, psychological freedom, even sexual freedom. She's openly bisexual.

But one of the first freedoms Buika won for herself, growing up in Mallorca, was from those who would try to hold her back. The Gypsy children may have embraced her, but others did not.

Ms. BUIKA: They kicked me out of the church when I was a little girl because they said that I'm singing like a dog.

WINKLER: Like a dog?

Ms. BUIKA: Yeah. They didn't want me to sing there anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BUIKA: Because you hear my voice, obviously, my voice is not very clean. But watch out what happened with me then later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language)

WINKLER: What happened was that she paid the priests no mind, and as a teenager, started singing in jazz clubs, eventually working with one of Spain's hottest producers. He once called her the most liberated woman on Earth, and the freedoms keep coming. Just last year, Buika worked with the 91-year-old legendary gun-toting singer Chavela Vargas. And Vargas, she says, unlocked the prison door of loneliness for her - by explaining that women need loneliness to create without interference.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language)

So, to me, it was like a boom. Like a big boom in my head, because I was so scared of loneliness. I was so scared of loneliness. I was like wow. When you are alone, you hear yourself. And I didn't want to hear myself.

WINKLER: So how exactly did freedom from that fear change her voice?

Ms. BUIKA: My voice is like growing with myself. We feel both of us. We feel so much strung right now.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language)

WINKLER: Buika's voice has an intensity and a power that's hard to define. And it's there whether she's singing flamenco or soul or electronica or the blues. She says she finally feels completely free to sing whatever she wants.

Ms. BUIKA: I knew it maybe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language)

Now, (unintelligible) when I'm singing blues.

(Singing) I'm a whiskey-drinking woman, and I drink whiskey all the time. But I do, I do, I do love myself (unintelligible) of mine, of mine, of mine, of mine, of mine.

We singing from the same places. We talking about the same needs. And we're talking about the same hopes. And what I feel for music when I'm singing is that we don't need the hope anymore. Hope is for the people who wait. And I don't want to wait no more. I'm not scared anymore. I'm not scared of myself. I'm not scared of my things. I'm not scared of my fear. I'm not scared of absolutely nothing. And that's music.

WINKLER: Buika, the most liberated woman on Earth is currently on her first major tour of the United States.

Alice Winkler, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BUIKA: (Singing in foreign language)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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