Amália (I)

16 Apr

The connection between Amália and the themes outlined in these posts is hopefully clear. On the one hand, there is her life and career, which can be quite easily presented in terms of melancholy and loss. This is not quite the path want to take, but that is not because I have a particular problem with such an approach. On the contrary, while the conflation of life and art is often a problem in the discussion of popular music, I do not see how it is possible to avoid such a process when dealing with performers who have explicitly connected the two. Some of this approach will certainly seep through my account of Amália, but I mainly want to use her career as a way to describe the fado world with which I deal in Fado and the Place of Longing, a world constructed from the tangled relations between authenticity, innovation and the culture industry.

Amália Rodrigues remains the single most paradigmatic performer in modern Portuguese musical culture for a number of reasons. Her career spanned a crucial period of change in Portugal and in the recording industry worldwide. Filipe La Féria summarizes these connections as follows: ‘Amália Rodrigues was born in the First Republic, lived with and for the Estado Novo and lived to see the 25 April Revolution. This can be seen as a very rich period and one that had a strong emotional effect on people.’ La Féria, the creator of an enormously popular musical based on her life and times, attributes the success of the show to the combination of a celebrity with whom the audience are able to identify and her negotiation of a history they too have either lived through or recently inherited. This identification is furthered in Amália’s own work, which manages, from early on in her career, to define a star persona based on a number of fado mythemes.

Amalia Rodrigues & MotherHer biographical details resound with references to poverty, to the Mouraria, to singing on the streets while selling fruit, to being discovered in the fado houses and wooed into the world of professional performance and recording, and, ultimately, to living her life in a fog of saudade and permanent unhappiness which no amount of success or fame could shift. The extent to which the development of this persona was deliberate or accidental seems to matter less than the place she came to occupy in the Portuguese imagination.

Poster for A SeveraBy the time Amália took on the role of Maria Severa in a 1955 Lisbon production of Júlio Dantas’s play, she had already surpassed that early fadista in terms of myth and prominence, due mainly to the success she had achieved internationally. While fado had hardly been unknown outside Portugal previously, it had never reached the level of exposure given it by Amália. Now an international star, she found herself being offered ever increasing opportunities, from performances worldwide to cinema roles nationally and in France. She had also demonstrated a strong desire to explore beyond the limits of traditional fado. It had become increasingly popular for fado singers in the 1940s to move away from the rigidly structured verses of the earlier period towards a freer style based on the work of contemporary poets such as Frederico de Brito. In addition to these newer styles of fado canção, Amália recorded other non-fado and folk songs, as well as Spanish flamenco, Mexican rancheras, and French, English and Italian versions of Portuguese songs (most famously ‘Coimbra’, released in an Italian version under the same title and refashioned as ‘Avril au Portugal’ and ‘April in Portugal’ elsewhere). This explorative aspect of Amália’s approach to her music encouraged musicians and songwriters to approach her with new ideas and led to collaborations that were to have an enormous impact on the direction fado would take.

Amalia & Alain OulmanOn the musical side it is generally agreed, and was frequently admitted by Amália herself, that it was the collaboration with the pianist and composer Alain Oulman which brought about the most far-reaching revolution in her fado style. What Oulman brought to Amália’s work was an ability to break free of established fado styles though a sophisticated musical language, while maintaining a strong link with the essential elements that kept the music recognizable as fado. Amália would rehearse with Oulman at the piano and he would occasionally accompany her on her recordings alongside the time-honoured guitarra and viola. Oulman’s arrangements allowed a greater variety of poetic styles to be utilized for fado lyrics, a development first brought to the public’s attention on the 1962 album Asas Fechadas, popularly known as Busto after the bust of Amália which adorned the cover.

Cover of Busto / Asas FechadasOf the nine tracks on the album seven have music written by Oulman. The lyrics are provided by Rodrigues herself (the famous ‘Estranha Forma de Vida’) and by the poets Luís de Macedo, Pedro Homem de Melo and, mostly, David Mourão-Ferreira, whose 1960 collection À Guitarra e à Viola had been dedicated to Amália and contained the verses for ‘Aves Agoirentas’ ‘Madrugada de Alfama’, ‘Maria Lisboa’ and the political fado ‘Abandono’, all included on Busto.  Rodrigues and Oulman also collaborated on the work of less contemporary poets; 1965 saw the release of the EP ‘Amália Canta Camões’ and the album Fado Português, the former containing three adaptations of Portugal’s national poet, the latter harbouring one of the Camões pieces, as well as a cantiga de amigo credited to the medieval troubadour Mendinho, and the title song based on José Régio’s poem, alongside work by Mourão-Ferreira, Homem de Melo and Macedo.

The third track on Busto, ‘Estranha Forma de Vida’ [Strange Way of Life], was notable for having a lyric by Amália herself:

Coração independente
Coração que não comando
Vive perdido entre a gente
Teimosamente sangrando
Coração independente

[Independent heart
Heart that I don’t command
Living lost among the people
Stubbornly bleeding
Independent heart]

The fatalism of fado is easily located in this song about an uncontrollable heart, along with a sense of estrangement or disquiet, most notable perhaps in the line about living lost among the people. The lyric was coupled with music by Alfredo Marceneiro, the leading fadista of the pre-Amália period and, as with most Marceneiro compositions, the melody is relatively simple. The significance of the track lies predominantly in the bringing together of these two major figures of twentieth century fado, an event whose importance is underlined by the song’s appearance on Busto alongside the work of Mourão-Ferreira and Oulman, and in the way that the song, alongside Alberto Janes’s ‘Foi Deus’, became an autobiographical marker – what Roland Barthes might call a ‘biographeme’ – of Amália herself.

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