Tag Archives: Jorge Fernando

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.

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Lágrima (II)

24 Apr

In my previous post, I presented an interpretation of Amália’s ‘Lágrima’ based on a move from what I called the studium of the song text to the punctum of the anguished performance. In a more recent version of ‘Lágrima’ by Jorge Fernando and Argentina Santos there is an even clearer example of such a move. Following a verse sung movingly but not dramatically by Fernando, a studium is set up of melancholic meditation on hurt and loss (fado’s bedrock, we might say). The entry of Argentina Santos’s vocal into this studium shatters (cuts) the ‘stillness’ of the preceding moments. Through her vocalizing, from the anguished cry of ‘se considero’ to the almost whispered final ‘uma lágrima’, Santos creates these puncta via stark contrasts with the surrounding song text. Fernando’s verse and the oboe/cello part create a ‘safe’ space of sadness. Santos’s voice, in its urgency and extremity, destroys this place and reminds us of the ‘real’ pain at the heart of the lyric. This echoes the contrast implicit in the verse structure where a fragmented line is offset against a developed line, the former containing the fetishized object (the immediate thought, the attempt, however doomed, at freedom from language), the latter the interpreted (Symbolic) meaning of the thought.

The fact that Fernando and Santos take ownership of ‘Lágrima’ in the way they do is important in terms of thinking about the fado ‘family tree’, a term which can be understood to relate both to the varieties of fado derived from the basic core of fado corrido, fado mouraria and fado menor, and to the symbolic lineage of fado performers through the years. In this case there is the association of Argentina Santos with a school of singers contemporaneous with Amália Rodrigues – though it should be noted that Santos, like many of her contemporaries, did not tend to be as adventurous as Rodrigues with the material she chose to sing, sticking to a far more ‘traditional’ repertoire. Jorge Fernando was a guitarist for Amália Rodrigues during the final part of her career before going on to release albums made up of his own material alongside work by other fadistas and to produce and play on Mariza’s first album, also contributing three songs to it (‘Chuva’, ‘Terra d’Água’ and ‘Oxalá’). Fernando, who also had a career as a pop singer-songwriter, played a major role in Ana Moura’s career as arranger, producer and songwriter. Like Paulo de Carvalho, Fernando acts as a bridge both between the old generation and the new and between pop and fado.

Prior to the Fernando/Santos recording of ‘Lágrima’, the song had appeared on other fado albums of the 1990s. Dulce Pontes recorded a version on Lágrimas (1993), an album that highlighted the sense of fusion that would come to determine much of novo fado. Emphasizing the notion of a ‘family tree’, Pontes prominently placed a genealogy on the album cover that stated: ‘Father – Zeca [José] Afonso; Mother – Amália Rodrigues; Grandparent – Portuguese folklore; Cousins – Bulgarian folklore, Arabic music’. The instrumentation on the album consisted of the classic fado accompaniment (viola, guitarra) but, with the addition of vocoder, Fairlight synthesizer, electric guitar, piano and orchestra, this was a clear departure from fado norms. The song selection was evidence that, with the passing of time, the strands of  folk and fado that had seemed so antithetical to each other in the post-revolutionary era could now be brought together in a useful synthesis: half of the album’s songs were ones associated with Amália Rodrigues, the other half with José Afonso. The mixture proved successful and the album has remained a constant seller nationally and internationally since its release in late 1993, judging by its perennial availability in European  record shops such as Fnac, Valentim de Carvalho, and HMV.

The appeal of Pontes’s voice seems to lie in its clarity and consistency and she has adopted a register that sits easily within a range of western popular musical styles, as is noticeable on her 2003 collaboration with Ennio Morricone, Focus, where she provides vocals in Portuguese, English, Spanish and Italian to the familiar tunes of various Morricone soundtracks. As a consequence her music is arguably less subcultural than that of, say, Argentina Santos, a difference that can be read into Pontes’s rendition of ‘Lágrima’ on the 1993 album. This track, along with a version of Amália’s ‘Estranha Forma de Vida’, were recorded live in the studio, presumably to catch the feel of an ‘authentic’ fado performance. Yet, without the ‘grain’ and anguish that Amália and Santos bring to their renditions, the song emerges as ‘merely’ beautiful, somehow missing the cathartic elements of the older fadistas’ versions. In Lacanian terms, there is less a fencing-off of the Thing than an unwillingness to go anywhere close to it; in Barthesian terms, there is an excess of pheno-song and a lack of geno-song, a studium with no punctum. The traumatic potential of ‘Lágrima’ is here elided in a move that maintains the performance firmly within the Symbolic Order, a kind of sanitized mourning that is also to be found ten years later in the song ‘Amália por Amor’ on Focus.

Cover of Misia's RitualMísia, for her part, chose to revisit the song on her 2001 album Ritual, having already recorded a version for her second album in 1993. Where the earlier version, like Pontes’s from the same year, was fairly understated, the second presentation of the song utilized a style not dissimilar to that of Argentina Santos, stressing extremities of vocalization and putting particular emphasis on the key lyrical points discussed earlier. Mário Jorge Torres, in his liner notes to the CD, suggested this ‘new intensity and intentionality’ was due to the song’s inclusion in what was clearly a project inspired by the recent death of Amália. The musical arrangements and guitarra accompaniment are provided by Carlos Gonçalves, who had been Amália’s composer and accompanist during the last stage of her career and had composed the music to ‘Lágrima’. Like Jorge Fernando, Gonçalves here becomes a bridge between the old and new worlds of fado, providing new compositions for Mísia, such as that for ‘Xaile de Silêncio’, a poem sent to Mísia on the occasion of Amália’s death.

In addition to these tracks, Amália is referenced by the inclusion of two songs that seek to extend the late singer’s legacy through the addition of new elements. ‘Mistério Lunar’ is a modern poem put to music written by the famous  guitarrista Armandinho that Amália had sung with different words as ‘Fado Mayer’ in the 1950s. ‘Vivendo sem Mim’ is a poem written by Rodrigues, published in Versos but not recorded by her; here, it is put to music by Mário Pacheco and performed by Mísia and the pianist Christian Boissel in a move designed to evoke the way Amália rehearsed with Alain Oulman at the piano. By thus adding words to an ‘Amália’ tune and music to Amália’s words, Mísia suggests the ways in which this dialogic ‘ritual’ might proceed. The ritual extended beyond the song texts to the recording process too, with the use of valve microphones and single takes to emulate recording practices of the 1940s and 1950s.

(This montage of three versions of the song reaffirms my feelings about the power of the original, although I guess the poster feels differently about this than I do.)