Archive | May, 2010

Festas 2010

14 May

The programme for this year’s Festas de Lisboa has been announced. As normal, fado plays a prominent role. Fadistas appearing include Camané,Rodrigo, Cristina Branco, Celeste Rodrigues, Pedro Moutinho and Katia Guerreiro. Rocker-turned-fadista Paulo de Carvalho will also take part in the fado programme, as will flautist Rao Kyao and fado-influenced rock band A Naifa. the Lisbon-based venues include the Castelo de São Jorge, the Museu do Fado and Fábrica Braço de Prata, a converted factory which now hosts cultural events.

The festas provide one of the more explicit ways in which fado repeatedly takes place and produces space.

Ana Moura: Leva-me aos Fados

10 May

(This is the review I wrote for the recent international release of Ana Moura’s album Leva-me aos Fados [released in Portugal in 2009], with some additional media files added.)

Ana Moura

Ana Moura is a Portuguese fado artist who, like her contemporary Raquel Tavares, has collaborated extensively with songwriter and producer Jorge Fernando, producing work shaped equally by pop and fado traditions. (Fernando has released pop records under his own name, but was also a guitarist for fado’s greatest star, Amália Rodrigues.) “Sou do Fado”, a song by Fernando which appears on Moura’s first album, was structurally quite far from fado, yet also insistently laid claim to the genre: “Sou do fado / Sou do fado / Sou fadista” (“I am of / from fado … I’m a fadista”). Aconteceu (2004), her second album and a double CD, placed songs derived from pop songwriters such as Tozé Brito and writers of fado canção (the more modern refrain-based form of fado) on the first disc and a series of castiço (traditional) fado melodies on the second.

By the time of her third album, Para Além da Saudade (2007), constructed via a similar mixture of traditional and contemporary elements, Moura had perfected a style of singing as clear and direct as another contemporary, Katia Guerreiro, while also developing the look and outlook of a successful pop artist. This combination would earn her acclaim at home (Para Além was a critical and commercial success) and the notice of major international rock and pop stars. Following a concert by Moura at La Cigalle in Paris, it was reported that Prince had flown across the Atlantic in order to see her perform and that the two singers had made plans to record together. It’s unclear whether these plans will come to anything, but an earlier Rolling Stones-related project was released in 2008 (Moura also joined the group onstage in Lisbon to sing “No Expectations”).

Moura has now incorporated “No Expectations” into her own set:

Ana Moura, "Leva-me aos Fados"Moura’s fourth album, first released in Portugal in late 2009, arrives on the back of a steadily growing fanbase and an increasing international visibility. It shouldn’t disappoint either her existing fans or those open to the twists and turns enacted on tradition by the so-called “new fadistas” of the last decade or so. Fernando is once more at the helm, providing production, guitar, and songwriting skills (more than half of the songs are written or co-written by him). In addition to Fernando, Moura is accompanied by the brilliant Custódio Castelo on guitarra portuguesa and Filipe Larsen on acoustic bass. The high production values evident on previous releases are extended to the production of the CD booklet, which includes (for once, excellent) English and French translations of the Portuguese lyrics.

It’s immediately obvious from the opening title track (translated in the CD booklet as “Take Me to a Fado House”) that the vocal attack and phrasing that Moura showcased so well on Para Além da Saudade has been retained. Backed by Castelo’s subtle interventions on the guitarra, Moura manages to evoke a number of fado’s most important elements: its sense of melancholy, of fatalism, and of itself (in a typically self-referential twist, going to the fado house is offered as the cure to the sense of melancholy being simultaneously hymned by this very fado).

It is tempting to describe the next track, Tozé Brito’s “Como uma Nuvem no Céu” (“Like a Cloud in the Sky”), as a much brighter piece. Certainly it is taken at a faster pace, the guitarra providing the necessary rhythmic constancy for Moura’s voice to skip through. But brightness suggests clarity and there was absolutely nothing unclear about the title track; rather, there is almost breathless optimism here where there was acceptance before. This is a song of love and fidelity; despite what the naysayers claim, these lovers will have the constancy of rivers flowing to the sea: “I, too, run to you / And that will never change”. The verses, in true fado fashion, list the challenges to love like a litany of the doomed, while the chorus offers a joyful renunciation. Personally, this is not what I go to fado for, and I have been rather underwhelmed by the increase in upbeat, clapalong numbers in recent recordings and performances by Mariza, for example. But here, Moura’s voice rescues the song, its grit rising to suggest defiance rather than naïve joy. It works, just.

“Por Minha Conta” (“On My Own”) deploys a strategy Fernando and Moura have used before, opening on a musical setting that suggests affinities with the big pop-influenced ballads of contemporary soul or country music. But the track is almost immediately reterritorialized by the entry of Moura’s voice, verging on dissonance and the minor language of classic fado. The background remains simple, allowing the singer to do the bulk of the work; there is no need for instrumental welling-up or other obvious emotional nudges. What marks a good Moura performance, as evidenced here and on the following track, “A Penumbra”, is the rising of the voice out of what Roland Barthes might call the song’s “studium” (its setting and narrative: what it is about) to emphasize a “punctum” (the point that pierces the listener’s consciousness).

And so it continues, a series of seemingly simple songs made markedly more complex by these outbursts of vocal emotion which, like Barthes’s arrow-like puncta, shoot from the text to pin the listener down with a demand that they hear this singer and the pain that haunts her. Many of these songs are expressions of haunting, listing memories, forgettings, regrets, and the fetishized objects to which memory and regret are fastened, even if these objects are only words. “What I kept are the phrases we exchanged”, sings Moura on “Talvez Depois” (“Perhaps Later”), “My clothes, books: these I left behind / Let them gather dust”.

The ventures into pop-balled territory are not always successful. “Rumo ao Sol” possesses considerable melodic beauty, but it seems an obvious beauty, lacking that extra grit which fado demands. Its sadness seems as gaudy as the joy of the Brizo track, but Moura’s voice does not rescue it this time. There is no depth or deconstruction to her reading of the lyric. Listening, you feel sadder but you don’t feel challenged.

“Fado das Águas” uses the melody by Alfredo Marceneiro made famous by Amália Rodrigues’s “Estranha Forma de Vida”. Because of the centrality of Amália’s song to both her career and twentieth century fado, “Fado das Águas” is already engaging in a considerable amount of cultural work before we even take account of the lyrics used by Moura, which are by Mário Raínho (who has also written for Mariza, among many others). It’s a beautiful piece, the timeless melody meshing wonderfully with lyrics in which the poetics of fado are writ large from the outset: “In the river that flows / Over the riverbed of my voice / There’s a longing that dies”. A fado album would not be complete without at least one mention of the famous Portuguese longing known as saudade. Here, singing is rather marvelously put forward as the magic key that will dispel saudade, a recognition of the sublimatory or cathartic powers of the voice.

Moura sensibly follows this history-referencing number with a melody from the traditonal “fado tree”, with the title “Fado Vestido de Fado” (“Fado Dressed as Fado”). Indeed it is, and this was the right time for Moura to remind us of her ability to play it straight. Another traditional setting is used for the brilliantly titled “Crítica da Razão Pura” (yes, “Critique of Pure Reason”), with a lyric by Nuno Miguel Guedes that asks, “Is it worth knowing / what makes up a passion?” “De Quando em Vez”, featuring another of Raínho’s lyrics, this time set to music by João Maria dos Anjos, provides one of the album’s finest examples of Moura’s timbral control and sense of phrasing, and also some of Castelo’s loveliest guitarra work.

The final track of Leva-me aos Fados signals a departure, as suggested by its title, “Não é um Fado Normal” (there is a version of the album with an additional two tracks on it, which was originally produced for exclusive sale in Fnac stores). Indeed it isn’t a normal fado, having been written by Amélia Muge and featuring the Portuguese folk group Gaiteiros de Lisboa, known for their use of pipes and choral singing. Muge is a Portuguese musician who has been releasing solo records since the start of the 1990s and whose own work is based on an experimental mixture of rural folk, jazz, world music and classical styles.  Her “Fado da Procura” was a standout of Moura’s last album. The collaboration is not unlike those found on recent albums by “new fadistas” Mariza, Cristina Branco, Mísia, and Mafalda Arnauth (who has recorded a number of songs written by Muge). Like those projects, the results are likely to be divisive. If the desire is to break down barriers between fado, folk music, and pop (and, in the case of Mísia’s recent work, rock), then it does the trick. For me, the use of polyphonic singing here is more intrusive than in the subtler work of António Zambujo, and I’m not sure the pipe really fits in with the other instrumentation.

Overall, though, this is another excellent showcase for Moura’s art, with at least half of the album’s tracks standing out as classics. It will be exciting to experience what the singer does with these new additions to her repertoire when she takes them on tour. As for the potential Prince collaboration, we will have to see whether fate wishes it to be or not.

“New” Releases

10 May

Four CDs picked up on my last trip to Lisbon in December 2009. All were fairly recent releases at the time. It’s interesting to note the similar design aesthetic; black and white and red remain the dominant colours in the projection of fado in the twenty-first century.

Cover of Katia Guerreiro, "Os Fados do Fado"

Cover of "Goncalo Salgueiro"

Cover of Ana Sofia Varela, "Fados de Amor e Pecado"

Cover of Ana MOura, "Leva-me aos Fados"

The Ana Moura CD has just been given an international release and the next post will consist of a review of the album which I wrote for PopMatters.

Recording (i)

7 May

When Badiou speaks of the theatre-idea as a possibility that only emerges from the theatrical event, he puts in mind the absolute precedence of this event. If anything can come after it to recall it and keep it within knowledge, it can only be a transcription. As Certeau and Lefebvre point out, this scriptural process can only be a reduction of lived experience. And yet we cannot deny the desirability of such transcriptions, a desirability born from a need to revisit these evental sites. We need, therefore, to distinguish between the event and the knowledge of the event which can only come after. This realm of knowledge is where recording resides, a thing we can go back to, a sonic space we can tame and revisit and a fantasy we can enter.

Recording may reduce the complexity of the sonic space just as knowledge is always a reduction of what just is. The danger for Lefebvre is that this knowledge can become the basis for a dominant ideology. The solution is not to get rid of the representation of space (Lefebvre knows this is not possible) but to recognize how it works in conjunction with spatial practice and spaces of representation. As Victor Burgin suggests, ‘The city in our actual experience is at the same time an actually existing physical environment, and a city in a novel, a film, a photograph, a city seen on television, a city in a comic strip, a city in a pie chart, and so on.’ (Victor Burgin, In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1996), p. 28). This ‘and so on’ must include music, for the city is also a city in a song. Our knowledge is gained both from lived experience and from the representations of our and others’ experience. Sylviane Agacinski recognizes this in her account of Walter Benjamin, the archetypal flâneur, pointing out that he is never innocent of the city through which he strolls:

What Francis Bacon called ‘lettered experience’ (experience transmitted through books) interferes here with a reading of the city that comes about through walking. Thus the walker’s lived experience is traversed by a ‘second existence,’ the result of books, in such a way that the different types of experience merge and fade into one another.

(Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia, tr. Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003 [2000]), p. 56.)

Music has an important role to play in these processes, as George Lipsitz notes:

Through music we learn about place and about displacement. Laments for lost places and narratives of exile and return often inform, inspire, and incite the production of popular music. Songs build engagement among audiences at least in part through references that tap memories and hopes about particular places. Intentionally and unintentionally, musicians use lyrics, musical forms, and specific styles of performance that evoke attachment to or alienation from particular places.

(George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (London and New York: Verso, 1994), p. 4.)

Memory is both the unexpected and the desired revisiting of the past. It is both voluntary and involuntary: we can choose to (re)visit places via deliberate musical choices, or we can be taken unaware by musical madeleines.

The Taming of Space

7 May

In ‘The Right to the City’, Lefebvre provides us with an excellent way to move from Certeau’s ‘written’ city to a sonic one when he observes that ‘The city is heard as much as music as it is read as a discursive writing.’ For Ángel Crespo, too, it is necessary to encounter the city via its flavours, smells and music. And while it is not at all surprising to us to think of the city as a site of noise, we need to consider the differences between seeing from a distance and hearing from a distance. Sonic knowledge can only be a local knowledge in that, moving away from the site of the sound we lose earshot. We cannot have the extensive zooming-out of the visual realm, though on the other hand we can hear around corners and through walls. We can also distinguish between background noise and differentiated noise, and it is possible to imagine a sound that would zoom in and out between the dull roar, the resonance and the zoned, and we can still think of music as organizing the chaotic space of sound. As Diane Ackerman writes in A Natural History of the Senses: ‘Sounds have to be located in space, identified by type, intensity, and other features. There is a geographical quality to listening.’ This is true for both our perception of the world ‘outside’ and for the more intimate place of private listening where music can act as a taming of space.

Festas

7 May

It is well worth paying attention to the role of music and festivals in the city as forms of both divergence from and reassertion of social norms. In Lisbon, this is particularly notable during the period known as the Festas de Lisboa, a series of festivals held in celebration of the ‘popular saints’ and in which there is an interesting mixture of official and semi-official events. The former comprise concerts, marches, exhibitions, screenings and so on. The semi-official include the taking over of public spaces by stalls serving drinks and stages where music is played. The fact that the predominant music at this point is pimba and that the food served is grilled sardines reflects the sense of tradition and of the country in the city (pimba is generally more associated with the countryside). Pimba is explicitly rude, does not attempt any of the erudite airs and graces of fado (although there is a rude undercurrent to fado too), and, as a music that cannot be cleaned up or made cool, lurks as the obscene underbelly of popular culture in Portugal.

Such events allow power to continue, as Slavoj Žižek explores in much of his work. Using the example of the mutiny against Captain Bligh on The Bounty, Žižek focuses on the uses of unofficial power and the relationship between power and enjoyment. The enjoyment, or jouissance, associated with unofficial power – the power that operates ‘below decks’ – must be recognized and allowed to operate by the forces of official power ‘above’. Should the official power attempt to curtail the unofficial, the latter will most likely rise up against the former: ‘The mutiny – violence – broke out when Bligh interfered with this murky world of obscene rituals that served as the phantasmatic background of power.’ (  Slavoj Žižek, ‘“I Hear You With My Eyes”; or, The Invisible Master’, in Renata Salecl & Slavoj Žižek (eds.), Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 100.)

The connection between official and underground power tends to be more prevalent in the case of authoritarian regimes. It is interesting to note the use of music and festivities in films from the era of the Estado Novo to see how this connection is played out. In Canção de Lisboa (1933), there are various moments when impromptu moments of transgression break out, such as an improvised fado in the street and a drunken rant by the main protagonist against fado and fadistas, during which he proposes an ‘anti-fado’ week to cure the nation’s social ills. As commentators on the film have noted, however, these are moments of mild transgression which allow for the presence on screen of police officers or other patriarchal figures associated with the state to reassert the law. In this film, as in others such as O Costa do Castelo (1943), Fado, História D’uma Cantadeira (1948) and O Grande Elias (1950), fado is cast as both hero and villain. A common theme is commitment to the social group, often epitomized by the family, with a typical plot involving deception or abandonment of certain family members, resolved by a conversion in which the transgressor sees the error of their ways. In Fado, História D’uma Cantadeira, the fado singer (played by Amália Rodrigues) abandons her family to become a famous performer. She transgresses to such an extent that she even abandons fado. At the point where she enacts the ultimate betrayal – not reading a note that has been sent to her regarding a family illness – she is seen singing flamenco.

This dialectic between transgression and the law is visible also in the mass fencing-off that is the result of what Lefebvre calls ‘vacationland festival’, those areas marked off for rest and relaxation that promise utopia but rely on careful staging and investment by capitalists.  It is visible too in the spaces allotted to fado, from the taberna to the large scale shows put on for the Festas. In these events, fado fills the streets and lays claim to the city, to the people and to an escape from its boundaries. What we can determine from the festival and other negotiations of power in the social space is a reliance on a script which may be exceeded but cannot be done away with.

The Sounded City (i)

7 May

Michel de Certeau was keen to present the negotiation of the city as both writing and reading, an in-between process where one is constantly aware of shifting perspectives and of alternations between activity and passivity. However, it is necessary to consider the potential problems of this association between street and page. In his book Species of Spaces – a work that has influenced my own thinking about the possibilities of building relationships between different spatial categories – Georges Perec begins with the space of the page upon which the letters he writes are displayed, before zooming out to the book in which he is writing, the desk upon which the book sits and so on until we have left the room, the house, the street, the city and even the world far behind. The ‘problem’, however, is that we reach the end of his adventure without having really left the space of the page.

Derek Gregory highlights a similar issue in the work of geographer Alan Pred, who explicitly uses wordplay and textual strategies (like Perec, Pred utilizes white space, unconventional line breaks and vertical text) to introduce a spatial element into his writing and to let it perform what it is writing about. Pred describes this as an exploitation of ‘the landscape of the page’ and, while it is true that his reader is forced to be aware, like Derrida’s, that a point is being made about the performative power of writing, his account of the landscapes he describes remains a description and not the landscape itself. Gregory finds more success in Pred’s inventive visual mappings of the itinerary of workers’ everyday lives, where the routes traced by workers are superimposed in a temporal-spatial representation onto the terrain of the city. But, like Certeau and Perec, description is still anchored to the page no matter how much it drifts.

Certeau seems aware of these issues in his comparison between walking and speech acts. Just as a written text cannot represent for us what the speaking (or singing) voice can do in the process of enunciation, neither can the tracing of an itinerary on a map give us a clue as to the processes involved in traversing territory:

Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it “speaks.” All the modalities sing a part in this chorus, changing from step to step, stepping in through proportions, sequences, and intensities which vary according to the time, the path taken and the walker. These enunciatory operations are of an unlimited diversity. They therefore cannot be reduced to their graphic trail.

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 99.)

Certeau’s reliance on a musical vocabulary is particularly telling. Henri Lefebvre, meanwhile, is interested throughout his later work with a theory that begins with the body. Indeed, Lefebvre’s insistence on the centrality of the body and on others’ bodies, constantly encountered in the production of social space, is one of the areas in which representations of space and representational spaces are seen to come into close relationship with each other. Lefebvre finds the representation of space connected to the dominant order (what Jacques Lacan would call the Symbolic Order) to be one that relies on illusory symbols:

Perhaps it would be true to say that the place of social space as a whole has been usurped by a part of that space endowed with an illusory special status – namely, the part which is concerned with writing and imagery, underpinned by the written text (journalism, literature), and broadcast by the media; a part, in short, that amounts to abstraction wielding awesome reductionist force vis-à-vis ‘lived’ experience.

(Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 52.)

In contrast to this, Lefebvre suggests that music and other ‘non-verbal signifying sets’ (painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre) that rely to a greater extent on space than do ‘verbal sets’ are more likely to keep a sense of space alive, thus challenging the reductionist abstraction of the verbal.

For Alain Badiou, theatre is distinct from the other arts because of its reliance on being acted out in space; the fact that it cannot come together until the time and the space of performance gives it an ‘evental’ quality that makes each performance singular:

[T]heater is the assemblage of extremely disparate components, both material and ideal, whose only existence lies in the performance, in the act of theatrical representation. These components (a text, a place, some bodies, voices, costumes, lights, a public…) are gathered together in an event, the performance, whose repetition, night after night, does not in any sense hinder the fact that, each and every time, the performance is evental, that is, singular.

(Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, tr. Alberto Toscano (Stanford: Stanford Unbiversity Press, 2005 [1998]), p. 72.)

Musicologists reading such a passage will no doubt be struck not only by the fact that musical performance could be spoken of in much the same way, but also that it has already been done, most notably in the work of Christopher Small. I’ll stay with Badiou, however, in order to maintain the idea of the theatre event and what he calls ‘theatre-ideas’, the ideas created at the point of performance which could not have been created prior to it or in any other space. This has relevance for the importance we place on the text in a theatrical event (and I am thinking of a musical practice such as fado singing as precisely such an event), for ‘[i]n the text or the poem, the theatre-idea is incomplete’. Until the moment of performance the theatre-idea is in an ‘eternal form’ and ‘not yet itself’.

While this seems evident in terms of a play we might go to see in the theatre, it is equally true of the theatre of everyday life that Lefebvre recognizes in the street: ‘here everyday life and its functions are coextensive with, and utterly transformed by, a theatricality as sophisticated as it is unsought, a sort of involuntary mise-en-scène.’ Here, the ‘external’ text would be the symbolic law of the representation of space, the legal script that underwrites how we perform in social space. Lefebvre would later develop these ideas in his essays on ‘rhythmanalysis’, where patterns are discerned in everyday life. The practice of everyday life exceeds the dominant script of symbolic law but it does not get rid of the script. Lefebvre speaks of a ‘spatial economy’ whereby users of a city space have an unspoken ‘non-aggression pact’ that determines their rules of engagement with each other. It is this spatial economy that determines what Peter Stallybrass and Allon White call the ‘politics and poetics of transgression’, those moments when the rules of engagement are ignored but whose ignorance relies on the economy both for its beginning and its end (the return to normality).