Tag Archives: Amalia

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.

Tudo Isto É Fado

15 Apr

Another oft-quoted introduction to fado’s ontology is a song made famous by Amália Rodrigues entitled ‘Tudo Isto É Fado’ [All of This Is Fado], in which the narrator initially claims not to know what fado is before going on to list a number of its features: ‘defeated souls, lost nights, bizarre shadows in the Mouraria’. The list continues as it leads to the famous refrain: ‘Amor, ciúme / Cinzas e lume / Dor e pecado / Tudo isto existe / Tudo isto é triste / Tudo isto é fado’ [Love, jealousy / Ashes and fire / Sorrow and sin / All of this exists / All of this is sad / All of this is fado.].

The song can be heard here. The full lyrics can be found here.

Sonically, the song provides as good an introduction as any to fado, opening with the distinctive tinkle of the guitarra, leading into the interplay between guitarra and viola (the Portuguese name for the Spanish guitar which is the other main accompanying instrument in fado) and providing an excellent example of Amália’s art as, within the space of the first short verse, she displays her famous melisma (‘perguntaste-me’) and hovers majestically on the word ‘fado’. The song, originally recorded by Rodrigues at Abbey Road in 1952, became one of those on which her reputation as the ‘queen of fado’ would rest.

Cover of José Régio's Fado

Another example of fado’s desire to explain itself can be found in a book of poems entitled Fado, produced by José Régio in 1941. Its most famous poem ‘Fado Português’ recounts the maritime myth of fado’s origins, identifying the strong connection to the sea found in Portugal’s history and the loneliness of the mariner in the midst of the watery expanse. ‘Fado’, we are told, ‘was born … In the breast of a sailor / Who, feeling sad, sang’. Régio’s poem was, perhaps inevitably, set to music and became part of Amália’s repertoire. Amália’s version, with music by Alain Oulman, shortened and slightly reworded Régio’s original poem.

Amália’s version can be heard here. Régio’s poem can be found here.

Cover of Fado, Alma de um Povo

The maritime myth is taken to arguably its greatest extreme in Maria Luísa Guerra’s Fado, Alma de um Povo [Fado, Soul of a People], in which the music is presented as an ‘existential cry’ born of the loneliness of the high seas. One of the reasons for the popularity of the maritime origin of fado is the connection to Portugal’s proud seafaring past and its significant colonial endeavours. While one searches in vain in narratives such as Guerra’s for any proof that what we know now as fado really owes its existence to these sailors, the connection to the sea cannot be dismissed. Lisbon has been an important port for centuries and has been witness to the comings and goings of myriad cultures; most commentators agree that it is this mixing of cultural practices along the banks of the Tejo River that most likely gave birth to fado and that, contrary to the nationalist insistence on Portuguese purity, Brazilians and Africans most likely had some involvement in the process.

Whatever the shortcomings of descriptions which lean towards mythology, many are excellent at delineating the world of fado texts, the basis of fado poetics. One could do worse than consult the chapter titles of Mascarenhas Barreto’s Fado: Lyrical Origins and Poetic Motivation to gain an insight into what fado is: Saudade, Bullfighting, Places, Street Cries, Windows/Eyes/Kisses, Sailors, Jealousy, Guitarras, and Destiny are among his principle topics. Guerra, meanwhile, provides her own ‘thematic profile’ of fado: love, hate, shame, separation, hurt, sadness, despair, betrayal, destiny, disgrace, solitude, luck, travel, memory, anxiety, bitterness, fatalism, forgetting, politics, tears, hope, passion, happiness, the human condition, time, life, death, saudade and fado itself. (These words should, of course, be witnessed in their original language: amor, ódio, ciúme, separação, dor, tristeza, despedida, traição, destino, desgraça, solidão, sorte, viagem, lembrança, ansiedade, amargura, fatalismo, esquecimento, política, lágrimas, esperança, paixão, felicidade, condição humana, tempo, vida, morte, saudade, fado.

This seems an extensive list and one which might well be applied to other song genres. Certainly, as one works through it and through the ensuing pages that Guerra devotes to each of these themes, one wonders if there is anything that fado is not about; Guerra herself suggests that it represents a phenomenology of life. Yet the list is also specific enough to give a fairly good demarcation of the world of fado songs. I would wish to add at least the following to it: an obsession with the city of Lisbon; a sense of witnessing, carrying and unburdening, connected to a number of the emotions listed above; and the act of being a fadista. This latter is summed up in Artur Ribeiro’s ‘O Fado de Ser Fadista’ [The Fado/Fate of Being a Fadista ], in which fado is described as ‘everything that happens / When we laugh or cry / When we recall or forget / When we hate or love’.  The question of whether fado was happy or sad was also addressed – poetically, if indecisively – by the great modernist poet Fernando Pessoa:

All poetry – and song is an assisted poetry – reflects what the soul lacks. For this reason, the song of sad people is happy and the song of happy people is sad. Fado is neither happy nor sad. It is an episode of the interval … Fado is the weariness of the strong soul, the gaze of contempt that Portugal directs to the God in whom it believed and who abandoned it.

(This statement, much cited but rarely referenced, appeared in a piece Pessoa wrote for Notícias Ilustrado, published on 14 April 1929.)

Cover of Pinto de Carvalho's Historia do Fado

While it is possible to find accounts of fado dating back to the eighteenth century, and while writers such as Guerra have been keen to highlight an archaeology of fado discourse stretching even further, the debates described here are generally sourced from a number of works that have appeared in the twentieth century. In many ways, the fadology alluded to here can be said to have been born with the twentieth century for two important reasons. Firstly, the appearance of José Pinto de Carvalho’s history of fado in 1903 serves as a major source for subsequent histories and thus casts a giant shadow across the historiography of the genre. Secondly, and more controversially, in considering fado as a durable musical genre from the perspective of the twenty-first century, I suggest that fado, like so many musical genres we are now accustomed to, is an invention of the phonographic era. It is this era, and in particular its twentieth century formulation, that has ‘fixed’ musical styles and genres like no other before it, even as it has allowed for seemingly endless new experimentation, cross-genre fusion and deconstruction.

Label from a fado 78

The phonographic era has also led to the possibility to disseminate the music to a much wider audience than ever before. While English language descriptions of fado practice from the nineteenth century are invariably sourced from travel literature, and while twentieth century folklorists and ethnomusicologists have continued to provide accounts from the field, it has nevertheless been possible for many to indulge in the virtual tourism of experiencing fado via its mediation in films and recordings. This has created a desire for information about the music in languages other than Portuguese. A comprehensive fado history in English has yet to be completed, although Paul Vernon’s A History of the Portuguese Fado goes part of the way towards achieving this goal. Vernon’s work leans heavily on Rodney Gallop’s analysis of fado from the 1930s and is somewhat lacking in translations of subsequent Portuguese scholarship. To find other work on fado in English, it has been necessary to seek out scholarly articles in music encyclopaedias and general accounts in world music guidebooks, magazines and websites, although happily this situation is starting to change.