Searching the Internet for information about the Portuguese folk music known as fado yields few conclusive answers as to its origins. Although most sources seem to agree that it first gained widespread popularity in the 1800s, they are universally vague as to where, how, and when it first developed. Like North American blues music originally offered African Americans the means to help relieve the pain of their day to day existence, fado, played on the street corners and in the brothels of working class districts in Lisbon and other metropolitan centres, provided the poor and working class of Portugal with similar relief.
Whether or not, as some claim, it came as a dance from Africa that the poor adapted or from homesick sailors at sea as others insist, by the twentieth century it was the most popular form of music in Portugal. One need look no further than the three days of official mourning declared by the country's prime minister in 1999 upon the death of Amalia Rodrigues, who had been the genre's biggest star since the 1940s, to understand the depth of its popularity.
Traditionally fado is performed by a trio comprised of a singer and two instrumentalists playing Portuguese guitar, a type of 12-string, and a classical guitar. There are two distinct types of fado: that of the poor in Lisbon and that which had its beginnings in the university town of Coimbra among the students and professors. The latter is less concerned with the pain of everyday life and more poetical in nature as its themes focus on love and friendship. However no matter where it originated or what type is being played, the essential element of saudade is shared. Roughly translated into English as a longing, or nostalgia, for unrealized dreams, saudade is expressed by lyrics that speak of a yearning that can't be satisfied or fulfilled. It's this highly fatalistic world view that gives the music its shape and the sense of longing audiences look to hear and see in performers.
At one time the performances by women were highly stylized affairs.They would stand slightly in front of the two guitar players with their head covered by a shawl and barely move for the length of their show. It was only through facial expressions and hand gestures that they were able to communicate any additional information their vocals and the song's lyrics were unable to express. While times have changed and there has been some slackening of expectations among audiences with regards to how fado is presented, the demand that the performer still be able deliver on the promise of saudade hasn't relaxed in the least. Just as we still expect a blues performer to "feel" what he or she is singing, a knowledgeable fado audience won't accept anything less than the genuine article.
Now in spite of my one quarter Portuguese heritage I can't make any claims to being a fado aficionado. However, I am quite capable of listening to a voice and recognizing genuine passion when I hear it, no matter what language it is singing in. From the opening bars of Ana Moura's Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To A Fado House), released in April on the World Village Music label, I knew at once she was the genuine article. Maybe hers isn't the type of voice to sing blues as we know it, but there can be no mistaking feeling and passion when they are so obviously present. The 17 songs on the disc are in a variety of musical styles and show quite a number of different influences that she brings to the music, but no matter the tempo or the style her voice is without fail believable at all times.
Moura exhibits not only wonderful range as a singer, but control as well. There is no strain to be heard when she holds a note or as she goes up and down the scale. Unlike so many popular singers who attempt to make what they are doing sound difficult in order to impress us, there is a glorious ease in the way she moves through a song. Even better, as far as I'm concerned, she's not one of the school who think the louder and more piercingly I sing the more emotional I'm being. While it may result in you receiving a million dollars a gig in Las Vegas, try it in a fado house and you'd be booed off stage. (During the reign of the dictator Salazar in Portugal fado performers were forced off the streets and brothels and confined to "fado houses" and in these "houses" tradition still holds sway.)
Aside from the variety of musical styles on the disc distinguishing her from more traditional fado performers, Moura also changes things up somewhat by increasing the number of her accompanying musicians and utilizing a wider assortment of instruments than is usual. While the sound is still guitar-dominated, the inclusion of bass and acoustic bass on some of the tracks not only gives the music added texture, but gives some of them a jazz feel. While there's an obvious appeal to the starkness of the original sound as she performs it, by adding the bass to the mix, Moura and her arranger/producer/composer Jorge Fernando have found a way to complement it without changing the overall intent of the music.
In fact, everything Moura and Fernando have done on the disc that might be considered a modernization, or change from tradition, has been implemented in such a way that when compared to the more traditional songs they sound like natural progressions. Instead of forcing a sound in order to make it more appealing to a new generation, they have been very careful to build on the existing base so it's still respectful of the original.
Of course that task is made easier by Moura herself. Listening to her you never doubt her sincerity, even if you've no idea what she's singing about, and you can't help but feel the passion she is expressing. You don't have to understand Portuguese to feel the longing that underlies each song or appreciate the haunting beauty of the material. No matter what or how she is singing it sounds like she is keeping the spirit of fado alive in the song. What's most impressive as far as I'm concerned is how closely the feelings she generates while singing match up to the meanings of the translated lyrics for each song. I can't count how many times I've listened to a song in a language I don't understand and completely misconstrued its meaning based on the singer's presentation. With Moura you can count on the fact that what you're feeling when she sings is exactly the feelings generated reading the lyrics.
You may not speak any Portuguese or know the first thing about fado music, but that shouldn't stop you from appreciating Ana Moura's recording Leva-Me Aos Fados. This is a wonderful recording of beautiful and haunting music that won't fail to touch your heart. If you've forgotten what true passion feels like, this will serve as a timely reminder.