There is an old saw in Portugal: “O fado não se vê nem se ouve; simplesmente acontece.” What is true of destiny is also true of the music which shares its name: it cannot be seen or heard; it just happens.
Fado is instantly recognizable. It is not declamatory like flamenco or ominous like a Gaelic air. It is restrained. It is delicate. It is the sound of Portugal, so intertwined the the Portuguese national identity that no Portuguese man or woman can imagine their world without it. The lyrics and music often refer to love and loss, but suffused with a profound emotion that the Portuguese call saudade, a difficult to translate word that means “yearning” but has layers of connotation beyond that.
Lyrically, fado imagery is inevitably pelagic. Given the Portuguese attachment to the ocean, it is small wonder that for the poets of fado the sea itself becomes a metaphor for life and loss with numerous poetic connotations as in this beautiful poem by Teixeira de Pascoaes.
And Marânus, looking at the bright mist,
Sweet dream of the sea, standing there,
Meditated: whither goes the human dream,
When smoothed away from us, already dreamed?
And we become sadder and more alone,
Every dream that finishes, in the world.
And, every ethereal cloud that is shaped,
It becomes saltier than the deep sea.
Like the Argentinean tango, fado came orginally from the working classes and was appropriated by the aristocracy and the bourgeois. This musical form imported by sailors and adopted by the lowest of the low society reached every level of society to become the voice of all.
Fado is the song of the Portuguese. It is to them the way air is to the rest of the world. And like most people do with air, the Portuguese take it for granted: it has always been, and always will be. But also like air, the fado is also fragile.
As the Portuguese re-examined their national identity after the Carnation Revolution, other musics from around the world became fashionable and fado fell slowly out of favor. By the late 1980s, the style was quite moribund, forgotten by the youth obsessed with rock, American country music and other “exotic” music. Amália Rodrigues and Carlos do Carmo kept the fado alive but other voices faded away.
With the death of Amália Rodrigues in 1999, fado closed an extraordinary chapter of its history. Out of that chapter, however, came inspiration for the future. While certainly there are those who long for the past and seek the new Queen of Fado in the old style, the newest generation of fado musicians and fadistas approach their music quite differently. Aware that it is impossible to out-Amália Amália, they pursue their own directions. Imbued with a deep respect for tradition, they seek to keep the tradition alive by adapting it to the new world.
Consequently the music has made a strong comeback in the past decade. Brilliant new fadistas both male and female have arrived. Building on their spiritual and aesthetic elders like Misia and Carlos do Carmo, the new fadistas draw freely from the entire world of music, from jazz and French chanson to rock and Cape Verdean morna. Antonio Zambujo, Telmo Pires and Ricardo Ribeiro represent the diversity of the new male fadista voices. The female fadistas are even more diverse and even more famous. Dulce Pontes, Maria Ana Bobone and Mariza represent a generation that have learned from the past. They continue to sing traditional fado songs along with new takes on the style and various fusions with other musical styles.
The current rising star in fado is the wonderful Ana Moura, who visits Meany Hall at the University of Washington this Saturday. Born in 1979, Ms. Moura grew up around music. Both parents sang, often in competitions with each other and other family members. Ms. Moura recalls that every family reunion always ended in a singing match.
Similar to other fadistas her age, she did not sing fado as a teenager. She became interested instead in pop music, rock and other genres very much in line with the youth of the day and their struggles to reassert their entrance into post-colonial Europe. At age 14 she enrolled in Lisbon’s Academia dos Amadores de Música, not to sing but to study.
Nevertheless, just as today, every teenager wound up in a rock band somehow and Ms. Moura was no exception. Her band, Sexto Sentido, received an offer to back up noted musician Luís Oliveira, but the album was never finished. As the maxim goes, “fate just happens” and some say fate was at play here, for out of nostalgia she went to a bar in Carcavelos where she let herself go and sang fado. In the audience was guitar player António Parreira who introduced her to a group of musicians at a Christmas party and so began her career as a fadista.
Her style is quite different from other contemporary fadistas. Unlike the lilting soprano voices Teresa Salgueiro or Cristina Branco, Ms. Moura’s voice is not angelic. On the contrary, it is dark and voluptuous: her fado is more earth than ether. The influences of her idol Amália Rodrigues as well as her mentor Maria da Fé lie subdued but ever present behind her own personal touch, and her choice of songs accentuates her approach.
Though she grew up singing in a rock band, Ms. Moura can sing traditional fado with the very best. Listen, for example, to her rendition of “Fado Loucura” and you will know.
But she is not interested in fado as a museum art. For her, it lives here and now, and adapts to whatever it has to express. She has worked with Gilberto Gil, Prince and the Rolling Stones, and on her new album, Desfado, she sings a tune from Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. Where her early albums show her comfortably plumbing the depths of traditional fado, Desfado finds her in a more eclectic mood. But there is a powerful unity in her eclecticism.
Asked why she decided to branch out in this new direction, she simply replied, “I’m just following my interests. It makes sense at this point in my career as an artist.”
Ms. Moura says that she titled her album Desfado to signify that this album is not in the tradition. She makes it clear, however, that she is not trying to expand the definition of fado. What matters for her is not the purity of tradition. Rather, what matters is the purity of emotion, the saudade that is the heart of the fado. This emotion is present even in her English-language songs on the album–the aforementioned version of “A Case of You,” the ironic “Thank You,” and the sensitive “Dream of Fire” with guest artist Herbie Hancock on piano. One need not be a Portuguese speaker to appreciate its beauty.
She may call her album Desfado, but this is music that has the soul of fado through and through.
Ms. Moura’s own website has a neatly arranged series of “webisodes” that introduce new listeners (and old ones, too) to her new album. Offered in English and Portuguese, they show an intimate look at the creative process of this marvelous fadista working on her latest album.
Having already made one successful tour of the United States in 2012, Ms. Moura has expanded her plans. As the ambassador of fado she has added many U.S. dates to this tour in cities where fado has not been heard in many years. Seattle is especially grateful to be on that list.