Archive | May, 2011

The Road to Novo Fado (I)

9 May

A number of artists who were identified with the Portuguese rock boom  of the 1980s made a connection with fado, no doubt as a strategy to localize the otherwise ‘placeless place’ of Anglo-American pop and rock. Mler Ife Dada, a group formed in 1984 in Cascais, provide a good example of this strategy. In 1986, the group were joined by singer Anabela Duarte, who participated on two seminal albums, Coisas Que Fascinam (1987) and Espírito Invisível (1989). The latter contained a song called ‘Dance Music’ which set up the complexities of the Portuguese popular musical field simply but effectively: over a funk arrangement of bass, horns and guitar, an angry male voice asks in a semi-rap (in English), ‘Why do you have to hear dance music on your radio / if you’re not dancing, you’re listening to the radio?’ and then ‘Why do you have to hear this song in English language / If you’re not English and this ain’t no English song?’  The first album contained a number of varied elements, from experimental pop-rock with dada-ist overtones to music informed by an explicit internationalism. ‘À Sombra Desta Pirâmide’ includes Arabic sonorities; ‘Siô Djuzé’, a brief duet between Duarte and Rui Reininho uses the style of Cape Verdean coladeira; ‘Passarella’ mixes English lyrics with Portuguese; and ‘Desastre De Automóvel Em Varão De Escadas’ uses random lines of German alongside wordless singing and a musical accompaniment that evokes the honking of car horns. ‘Alfama’ is clearly a gesture towards fado, performed not by a particular instrumental style but via the sense of place evoked in the lyrics and by Duarte’s voicing of the words. Against a minimal electric guitar, an associative style is used in which a number of features are hymned: the Alfama of painted shards, of paint, of winds on the river, knife tips, alpaca, famous people, the flea market, and ‘knife-like winds  / that slice Alfama  / into doors painted / with the fame of fado’.  The lyrics involve a series of plays on words and heavy use of alliteration so that the ultimate number of associations is multiplied, the portrait becoming more than the sum of its parts, an intricate word labyrinth that echoes the tumbling streets of its subject.

Duarte went on to release a series of solo albums, including Lishbunah (1988), which included traditional fado instrumentation (Martinho de Assunção on viola and Manuel Mendes on guitarra portuguesa), opening it with José Régio’s poem of fadontology, ‘Fado Português’. Over a decade later, Duarte produced a more ghostly and futuristic fado on the album Delito (1999), which reprised her Mler Ife Dada song ‘Alfama’ and introduced a new piece called ‘Planeta Phado’. The album did not utilize fado instrumentation but relied on a variety of sounds and recording and post-production techniques to lend the music a fractured, fragile quality. ‘Planeta Phado’ presents itself as a sort of palimpsest, a new song sung (or recorded) over the distant trace of a traditional lament. Speaking about her ideas for the album, Duarte said:

We need to take the fado further. Cut its corsets, let it breathe. There have been some bold attempts, but a cyber-fado would be something completely new. In Planeta Phado, I tried to mix Blade Runner with fado. The cloning and the mechanisms of fiction and the multiple directions, or simultaneous directions, the matrix, cyberpunk, is something that has not been attempted yet in fado. Phado Planet is there.

Duarte did not specify who had been responsible for the previous ‘bold attempts’ to ally fado with other sonic possibilities but she might have been thinking of António Variações. Variações (a pseudonym taken from the Portuguese word for ‘variations’) was responsible for ‘queering’ both fado and Portuguese pop by fusing elements of folk, fado, new wave and other contemporary pop forms in his music and by applying an openly homosexual appropriation of Portuguese musical tradition. Prior to his premature death in 1984, Variações released two revolutionary albums Anjo de Guarda (1983) and Dar & Receber (1984), the former containing a version of ‘Povo Que Lavas no Rio’ which removed the song from traditional fado accompaniment by adding synthesizer, drums and electric bass. Vocally, the song is not so far removed from Amália’s  version, with Variações’s vocals often operating on a high, ‘feminine’ register, and this was something the singer seemed to recognise in another song on the album, ‘Voz-Amália-de-Nós’, where he sings ‘We all have Amália in our voice’. At the same time, this register alternates with a deeper ‘blank croon’ (more noticeable on the album’s third track ‘Visões-Ficções (Nostradamus)’), suggesting a hitherto unexplored connection between Rodrigues, Nico and Brian Ferry, another of the singer’s influences.  Variações’s albums were popular in Portugal, suggesting the ways that the 1980s might sound and playing a dominant role in interpellating young people into the pop world, including those musicians (the fadista Camané among them) who came together in 2004 as the group Humanos to record a highly successful album of songs written by Variações.

Paulo Bragança is an interesting figure to mention in this context. Like Variações, he had a sacrilegious approach to fado that was nonetheless rooted in a serious consideration of fado’s possibilities. Declaring himself an enemy of the genteel tradition of the puristas, Bragança took upon himself the role of a ‘true fadista’ by drawing comparisons between the original fadistas and the punks. He would perform on the fado circuit barefoot, dressed in jeans, T-shirts and leather jackets and making declarations such as ‘Fado for Portugal is like a sacred altar covered in dust. And if someone dares to clear the dust, he’ll be shot.’  Bragança’s first album Notas Sobre a Alma (1992), which featured the guitarra of Mário Pacheco and the viola and production of Jorge Fernando (a major figure in what was to become novo fado), was restricted to mostly traditional fado, apparently at the request of his record company. His second, Amai (1994), was a different affair, featuring a wide range of instruments (synthesizers, samplers, organ, guitarra, accordion, and strings) and styles (fado, flamenco, rock, pop and Brazilian music) and containing a number of self-written songs and cover versions of non-fado material, such as Nick Cave’s ‘Sorrow’s Child’ (in English) and Heróis do Mar’s ‘Adeus’. The bringing together of Cave’s lyric and Pacheco’s guitarra, as mentioned in a previous post, was designed as a way of showing how saudade and a fadista worldview could reside in musics outside the Portuguese world. In 1996 Luaka Bop, the label created by David Byrne and Yale Evelev to promote progressive world music, reissued Amai for an international market; Bragança and Carlos Maria Trindade of Madredeus also contributed a track to Red Hot & Lisbon (1999), a compilation released by Luaka Bop as a snapshot of Lusophone music at the time of Expo 98 in Lisbon. Bragança released a third solo album in 1996 containing traditional fados and a fourth (Lua Semi-Nua) in 2001 which reprised the large instrumental palette of Amai and contained a number of songs written by pop legend José Cid, who also produced the album.

Advertisements

Gaivota

2 May

References to the city occur even in highly metaphorical fados; here, the intention seems not so much to describe or represent the city as to ground otherwise ‘universal’ material. An example can be found in a lyric written by Amália Rodrigues, in which she speaks of an ‘icy sea’ that enters her when her lover is absent and of being ‘um barco naufragado / Mesmo sem sair do Tejo’ [a boat shipwrecked / without even leaving the Tejo]. In another fado associated with Amália, Alexandre O’Neill’s ‘Gaivota’ [Seagull], we hear of a seagull that might come ‘trazer-me o céu de Lisboa’ [to bring me the Lisbon sky]. The success of this song, which has been recorded by a number of performers, has arguably strengthened the possibility of a metonymy utilized in many fados whereby the image of the ‘gaivota’ comes to stand in for Lisbon itself. The same can be said for the ‘Varinas’ mentioned in many older fados; these are female fish sellers famed for carrying their baskets of fish on their heads as they walked through the streets. Now more prevalent in songs than in reality, they are also hymned by mythologists such as Ángel Crespo.

Alfama Rooftops

‘Gaivota’ also highlights the desire to move to a space where one can look down on the city. As Michel de Certeau and numerous cultural geographers have pointed out, the ‘God’s eye’ view of the city beloved of urban planners and readers of the city-as-text often mixes uneasily, and even antagonistically, with the lived text of the street level view. But that does not alter the fact that such a perspective remains a dseirable one, even in everyday life. It is, after all, what allows us to read the city and try to get a sense of what the city might mean. While it is true that the view from above is one which has power and authority attached to it, it is also a view that the city itself – in the form of the polis, the citizens – requests. There is a pleasure to viewpoints that allow a looking-back on the city text, which is why they are frequently included on tourist itineraries and prominently signposted from the ‘depths’ of the city itself.

Fado’s association with Alfama has allowed its songwriters not only to negotiate the dark alleyways and labyrinths of the quarter, but also to look down on the city and the river below. Hermínia Silva can thus sing of the ‘Telhados de Lisboa’ [Rooftops of Lisbon] and Tristão da Silva of the view ‘Da Janela do Meu Quarto’ [From the Window of My Room], from where he sees Alfama, the seven hills of Lisbon, the varinas, the cathedral and the Tejo.

Let’s return to ‘Gaivota’, a fine example of fado canção. Written by Alexandre O’Neill, set to music by Alain Oulman and recorded by Amália Rodrigues, the song became a twentieth century fado classic. Central to its appeal are the dense metaphorical language, the references to Lisbon (nothing too obsessive, just the sky above the city that allows us a view of its streets and the possibility to be carried away on the wind and over the sea), a maritime flavour, an aching longing at the heart of the refrain and Amália’s deep saudade­-drenched voice. The song was both a culmination of all those seagulls that had provided part of the poetic language of fado and an inspiration to subsequent fados. In the 1970s, Carlos do Carmo lent his jazz-influenced phrasing to the song and it was reinvented, arguably becoming as much his as it was Amália’s.

In 1990, Carmo’s occasional collaborator Paulo de Carvalho included the song on his album Gostar de Ti, a pop-fado project that mixed state-of-the-art keyboard sounds with guitarra. In 1998 it became one of Lula Pena’s ‘phados’, a stark, almost-not-there exercise for husky voice and guitar haunted by the ghostly presence of Amália. In 2002, Gonçalo Salgueiro used the song to show his dedication to the Amálian event and to highlight his vocal ornamentation, while Carlos do Carmo sang a more unusual version than normal to the accompaniment of Joel Xavier’s inspired acoustic guitar improvisation. Margarida Bessa’s version from 1995, complete with tenor saxophone, turned up on Metro’s Café Portugal in 2004, one part of a jigsaw of songs making up that invisible city. Cristina Branco used ‘Gaivota’ as a homecoming at the close of her far-ranging album Ulisses. For the Quinteto Jazz de Lisboa and for Paula Oliveira and Bernardo Moreira it became once more an exercise in jazz singing, Oliveira providing an achingly fragile reading over Leo Tardin’s minimal piano that aimed for the song’s lonely heart. Then in 2009 ‘Gaivota’ was suddenly the focal point for a Number One album by Hoje, the project featuring members of pop band The Gift, whose Nuno Gonçalves wished to prove that ‘Amália is more than fado – Amália is pop’ (see the group’s MySpace page).

What to make of the nearly fifty year flight of this seagull? Does it tell us a story about fado or ‘only’ about Amália? Can the two be separated at this stage? Can ‘Gaivota’ tell us any more about what fado ‘is’? Does its arrangement determine its fado-ness? If so, does Carlos do Carmo stop being a fadista when accompanied by Joel Xavier? How does fado differ from other song genres? How does the commissioning of lyrics and arrangements affect authenticity in comparison to pop and rock? Was ‘Gaivota’ always a pop song, as Nuno Gonçalves claims? And what does it mean to claim, as Gonçalves does, that ‘pop’ is something bigger than ‘fado’? Hoje’s version soars and swoops, aiming for that place on high from where the lyric speaks and proving itself to be a song about singing, about fado and pop music: a self-aware object that escapes the drooping cadence. But which version can be said to be truer to the word and spirit of fado? The fact is that groups such as A Naifa, Donna Maria, OqueStrada and Hoje seem to climb to a place outside of fado. But this would suggest a music that ‘just is’ and a music that ‘gets outside’, which seems too neat. What are the elements within fado itself that make it seem ‘natural’, ‘transparent’?