|Carving Out a Bold Destiny for Fado|
During a 60-year career brought to an end only with her death in 1999, her name became virtually synonymous with the genre, leaving precious little room for others to flourish.
But during the past decade or so there has been an explosion of new voices, most of them female, as well as the renovation of a genre that had come to seem hidebound and resistant to change. A so-called novo fado, or new fado, movement has catapulted the genre into the 21st century, opening a space for bold experiments with repertory, instrumentation and ways of singing.
Outside Portugal the fadista (as a practitioner of the genre is called) most evident of late is the 31-year-old Ana Moura, whose smoky contralto has drawn the attention of the Rolling Stones and Prince and who has just released a live CD called “Coliseu.” At home, though, she is just one of a bumper crop that includes Mísia, Mariza, Mafalda Arnauth, Dulce Pontes, Cristina Branco, Joana Amendoeira, Raquel Tavares, Yolanda Soares and Kátia Guerreiro.
“We all have one thing in common, and that is the desire to renew the fado,” Ms. Moura, who will tour California and Canada this summer, said during an interview in New York. “This curiosity of young people for the fado is all very recent, and I think it can best be explained by this new approach to an old music that all of us have adopted.”
Fado, which means fate or destiny in Portuguese, dates to the 1820s and began, as Mariza said in a telephone interview, “as the music of a port, a place where mixtures take place, with sailors bringing influences from Brazil, Africa, the Arab world and even China” to the bars, taverns and bordellos they frequented. From the beginning the essence of the music was contained in the word saudade, which Portuguese speakers claim is untranslatable but which can be rendered as longing, yearning, nostalgia or melancholy
“As in country music there can sometimes be a wallowing in sentimentality in fado,” said Richard Elliott, a British musicologist and the author of “Fado and the Place of Longing.” “But fado also has something in common with the blues: a sense of fatalism and despair, the feeling that everything is going wrong and also a sense that the very act of singing about that will somehow improve the situation.”
Initially considered a disreputable style, fado over the next century gradually gained acceptance, most often played by small ensembles that featured both a standard guitar and the Portuguese guitar, a round 12-string instrument with a sound that is distinctly bright, delicate and chiming. But that cultural orthodoxy, combined with political developments, fostered a kind of ossification that led to fado losing some of its credibility and authenticity.
A fascist dictatorship ruled Portugal from 1926 to 1974, when a revolution toppled the old order and began reapproaching democratic Europe. The generation just coming of age at that time saw fado as a symbol of the country’s backwardness and the repression under which it had grown up, and rejected the music outright.
“For decades the fado was used to emit a message of Portugal that was small, clean, poor, silent and happy, without ambition and resigned to its condition,” said Mísia, who, at 55, can claim to be a pioneer of the fado revival. “It was a symbol of that unhappy time, not its cause, but it served as a paradigm of the idea of dictatorship, conformity and misery.”
In contrast many of the singers seen as being part of the “novo fado” phenomenon were brought up in a post-1974 atmosphere far more cosmopolitan than older generations, which has allowed nontraditional influences to seep into their work. Mariza, born in Mozambique in 1973, sings of an African grandmother and boasts in one of her songs of bringing “the Zambezi to the Tagus,” referring to those countries’ principal rivers. Mísia has a Spanish mother and lived for many years in Barcelona, and Ms. Moura’s parents lived in Angola, then a Portuguese colony, until the turmoil there after the 1974 revolution led them to return to Portugal.
“My father played and sang Angolan music, and we always listened to it at home,” Ms. Moura recalled. “Even today I love African music from Angola, Cape Verde — Cesária Évora, Tito Paris.”
The end of Portugal’s cultural isolation, symbolized by the country’s entry into thein 1986, also made it possible for these singers to encounter what Mafalda Arnauth, 36, calls “accidental fadistas.” By that she means foreign musicians and songs that also partake of the melancholy essential to fado.
Ms. Moura’s repertory, for instance, includes the’ “No Expectations,” which she was invited to perform with them after they saw her sing in a traditional tavern while in Lisbon on tour in 2007. Ms. Arnauth has recorded songs by the tango composer and the bossa-nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Mísia included ’ “Hurt” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on her 2009 double CD, “Ruas,” and has incorporated both songs into her live show.
“To me Nine Inch Nails is fado,” she said. “Like the blues, flamenco or tango, fado is a feeling, a sentiment, more than a set of notes. Tears are tears in any language.”
Another characteristic of the new wave of fadistas is their willingness to write their own songs. One reason is their desire to address contemporary themes in a contemporary way, but another clearly is the long shadow that Amália Rodrigues continues to cast.
“Any time a new singer appears, there’s always a comparison with Amália, since she is the great goddess of the fado,” said Yolanda Soares, 39, who on her most recent CD, “Metamorphosis,” has edged away from pure fado into symphonic rock. “And if you sing one of her songs, people will always say, ‘Oh, well, Amália did it better.’ So you have to go in a different direction.”
To the dismay of purists, many singers involved in fado’s resurgence also are fiddling with the instrumental lineup typical of the genre. They supplement the traditional trio with piano, strings, electric guitar, sometimes going so far as to use horns and percussion, and make no apologies for that.
“Nobody is a fadista every day, and while I’m proud to be called one, I would say that I’m really a fadista now and then,” said Dulce Pontes, 41, whose recording career began almost 20 years ago. “I’ve made my declaration of independence: I like electric guitar and drums, and that’s that. It’s still Portuguese music, not rock or blues. Why should I just do what Amália did? It doesn’t make sense.”
Even the traditional fado uniform of severe black dress and shawl is being challenged. For centuries Portuguese women have worn such clothing, which is associated with the image of the faithful fisherman’s wife who goes to the beach to await, anxiously but passively, his return from the sea, a rosary in her hands and her fate in God’s.
“I simply refuse to dress in black or use a shawl,” said Ms. Arnauth, who said she prefers “happier colors.” “Not only does the shawl limit your movements and expressiveness, but that kind of attire conveys the image of a victim, of the poor little thing, and that’s something I’ve been trying to get away from. I want to impose a new and different image of women.”
All of this has contributed to fado’s embrace by the young and the erosion of its traditional image as a stodgy genre. In 2009 the most popular record in Portugal was a CD called “Amália Hoje” (“Amália Today”), in which standards associated with the “Queen of Fado” were given electronic, pop, chill-out or orchestral treatments by Nuno Gonçalves and Sónia Tavares, leaders of the rock group the Gift.
In the larger non-Portuguese-speaking world fado also has recently developed a bit of a foothold, with groups like Clannad in Ireland and especially the Durutti Column in Britain. Prince is not only reported to be a fan, but last year he also performed onstage with Ms. Moura in Europe and has also worked with her in the recording studio.
“I don’t have an awful lot to say about this,” Ms. Moura responded when asked about their collaboration. “We did some things together in his studio in Minneapolis as an experiment, where he played some of my songs, I sang some of his, and we sang some songs together by other soul singers. He has an immense liking for the fado, he’s bought my records, and he adores the sound of the Portuguese guitar. But I want to respect his space.”
In the United States, where there are significant Portuguese immigrant communities in New England and the Central Valley of California, experiments with fado are also occurring. The band Judith & Holofernes plays a style that has been dubbed fadocore, a mixture of fado (sung in English) with punk and indie-rock elements, while the conservatory-trained singer Ramana Vieira adds a New Age sensibility and instrumentation to the music with cello and drums.
“Amália Rodrigues is in my DNA, but so is Kate Bush, and I started out in a new-wave band,” Ms. Vieira said before a recent performance in New York. “My purpose is to open up the fado and keep exploring it. My group doesn’t have a traditional fado configuration, so we’ve had to evolve.”
One thing that remains constant amid all the changes, however, is fado’s image as a genre in which women dominate. António Zambujo and the brothers Camané and Helder Moutinho have also played a role in the fado’s resurgence, but they are an exception at a moment when fado is poised “between tradition and modernity,” as Joana Amendoeira put it.
“Fado is evolving, and I’m happy to be part of that, but for all the transformations we’re seeing, the feeling and the form continue the same,” she said. “And that’s good. Like a lot of people I’ve got one foot in the past and one in the future, because I think that’s the best place to be.”