Tag Archives: punctum

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.)

Lágrima (I)

20 Apr

The song ‘Lágrima’, by Amália Rodrigues, appeared on the 1983 album of the same name, which featured lyrics exclusively written by Amália and set to music by the guitarrista Carlos Gonçalves. ‘Lágrima’ was the closing song on the album; its lyrics also appeared, alongside Amália’s other poems, in her book Versos (1997). They are as follows:

Cheia de penas
Cheia de penas me deito
E com mais penas
Com mais penas me levanto
No meu peito
Já me ficou no meu peito
Este jeito
O jeito de te querer tanto

Desespero
Tenho por meu desespero
Dentro de mim
Dentro de mim um castigo
Não te quero
Eu digo que te não quero
E de noite
De noite sonho contigo

Se considero
Que um dia hei-de morrer
No desespero
Que tenho de te não ver
Estendo o meu xaile
Estendo o meu xaile no chão
Estendo o meu xaile
E deixo-me adormecer

Se eu soubesse
Se eu soubesse que morrendo
Tu me havias
Tu me havias de chorar
Uma lágrima
Por uma lágrima tua
Que alegria
Me deixaria matar

[Full of suffering
Full of suffering, I sleep
And with more suffering
With more suffering I awake
In my breast
Already lodged in my breast
Is this habit
The habit of wanting you so
 
Despair
I have my despair
Inside me
A punishment inside me
I don’t want you
I say that I don’t want you
And at night
At night I dream about you

If I consider
That one day I will die
In the desperation
That I have at not seeing you
I lay out my shawl
I lay out my shawl on the floor
I lay out my shawl
And let myself fall asleep

If I thought
If I thought that when I died
You would have to
You would have to cry
One tear
For one of your tears
How happy
I would be to die]

In considering the song I am drawing upon ideas articulated by Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. I do so partly because these thinkers provide a useful vocabulary to attach to the expression of grief and partly because I wish to situate this exemplary instance of fado practice within the wider theories explored in Fado and the Place of Longing. Lacan, in his commitment to Freud, provides a useful connection to theories of mourning, remembering and working-through. Barthes, meanwhile, offers a vocabulary which is explicitly derived from the analysis of texts, whether written, visual or aural. Here, I find his theories of the visual field – as set out in his late work on photography, Camera Lucida – as relevant as his comments on music.

Lacan and Barthes are quite different thinkers with divergent agendas, but their theories do overlap at important places. For Lacan, the ‘Symbolic Order’ is that represented by society’s attempts to impose logic, structure and consistency upon the inconstant qualities of nature, a process carried out first and foremost through language. Against this is posited the ‘Imaginary’, those aspects of the subject’s quest for a wholeness that is always unattainable but always desired, as in the ‘Mirror Stage’ of Lacanian theory. The third Order, the ‘Real’, is that which cannot be symbolised and which exists beyond our attempts to explain inconstant nature. It is inconstant nature itself, which yet, paradoxically, always ‘comes back to the same place’. The Real is that which irrupts into the Symbolic as trauma. Its connections with trauma, jouissance and death distinguish it from the more comforting Imaginary. The writings of Barthes that I invoke here are those in which we find a breaking through of one (often ecstatic) mode of signifying into another, a rupture in the Symbolic Order that calls to mind the momentary glimpse of the Lacanian Real. The major examples of this type of Barthesian thinking are the concepts of plaisir and jouissance, of the geno- and pheno-song, and of the studium and punctum of the photographic image.

What is notable about the lyric of ‘Lágrima’ is what it has to say about absence, how, for the vocal subject, the object of desire does not exist because of a refusal to recognize her. The subject posits a possibility for the object of desire to exist by hypothesizing a recognition – the recognition that the object of desire will mourn her after her passing – that will in turn betray a desire, the object’s hitherto hidden desire for her. The price to be paid for this bringing-into-being of the object and the object’s desire is, here, the subject’s ceasing-to-be, her death.

What are the ‘pleasures’ suggested in the song? Or, rather, what are the signs of what Lacan calls ‘the pleasure of desiring, or, more precisely, the pleasure of experiencing unpleasure’?  In short: despair, unrequited love, the dream-world and death. What is moving and pleasurable for the listener are the lengths to which this subject will go to achieve that jouissance which, Lacan reminds us, is in actuality suffering and pain. What is the significance, in Lacanian terms, of the subject’s inability to perceive herself as fully constituted, or rather to see herself as constituted around a lack which she can only resolve by propelling herself from the Imaginary of fantasy to the Real of death? Or should one read the song less literally, as a song about the giving-up of oneself to the Other, an ‘inevitable’ love sacrifice or coming-into-symbolic-being?

We must also ask in what ways we can map musical meaning onto such a reading. One way might be to suggest that the lyrical structure of the poem has encouraged a musical arrangement which, in its simplicity, provides a drive towards emphasis on key lyrical moments. As Barthes notes of classical French mélodie:

What is engaged in these works is, much more than a musical style, a practical reflection (if one may put it like that) on the language; there is a progressive movement from the language to the poem, from the poem to the song and from the song to its performance. Which means that the mélodie has little to do with the history of music and much with the theory of the text.

(Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’, in Image-Music-Text, tr. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 186.)

Applying Barthes’s notions of studium and punctum to ‘Lágrima’, we can attempt to sonorize these occularcentic figurations in an attempt to construct a theory of listening. For Barthes the studium is the cultural ‘participat[ion] in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions’, while the punctum is the ‘element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’. In a sonorized version the studium is the song text, the instrumental, vocal and lyrical setting which, within a few short bars, confirms this as a typical fado, albeit of the modernized fado canção style. Into this text are then studded a number of puncta, which can be identified as follows: the first syllable of ‘penas’ in the first line, echoed in the repetitions of the word in the subsequent three lines; the third syllable of ‘desespero’ in the first line of second verse, again echoed; the interplay between ‘considero’ and ‘desespero’ in the third verse. The fourth verse holds back from delivering its punctum, waiting, according to standard fado practice, for the repeat of the final phrase; when it comes (and we can detect in that word’s double meaning an echo of Barthes’s idea that the voice ‘caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes’), it does so as the entire phrase ‘que alegria me deixaria matar’.

I interpret these as puncta mainly due to the vocal articulation audible at these points and with the repetitive pathos to be found in these over-emphasized words and phrases. While it would be possible to describe this process merely as a succession of emphases without resorting to Barthesian terms, I am keen to anticipate a connection established in Fado and the Place of Longing between photography and fado texts, as I believe that one of the things these texts do is to participate in an ongoing ‘study’ of Lisbon(ness), in which the oft-hymned city is both studium and stadium of memory. While ‘Lágrima’ makes no explicit mention of place, I would maintain that it inherits a sense of place due to numerous connections between text and context; the ‘Lisbonness’ of fado, here, is a state of mind which may be cognitively inaccurate but is mythologically and psychologically vital.

Barthes has saved us the effort, to some extent, of converting his theory of seeing to a theory of listening by speaking elsewhere about the interplay of the pheno-song and geno-song in vocal music. However, what is less stressed in ‘The Grain of the Voice’ than in ‘The Pleasure of the Text’ and Camera Lucida is the sense of the cut that the ‘invasive’ element (punctum, jouissance, grain) inflicts on culture. Barthes writes of ‘the deep laceration the text of bliss inflicts upon language itself’  and, in a sentence that might equally be a definition of the Lacanian Real, of ‘the place where the death of language is glimpsed’. This cut is also a cutting-off, or fencing-off, the creation of ‘a site of bliss’ that is simultaneously a site of loss. As Catherine Belsey puts it:

The beautiful satisfies, Lacan argues, to the degree that it does, not by representing the real, nor by avoiding the drive, but instead by pointing to the lost real, while at the same time fencing-off any possibility that we might come too close to the Thing. Made objects offer a kind of satisfaction when the signifier encloses absence and at the same time offers pleasure.

(Catherine Belsey, Culture and the Real: Theorising Cultural Criticism (London and
New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 72)

Lacan himself provides us with another metaphor of enclosure when he claims that ‘it is obviously because truth is not pretty to look at that beauty is, if not its splendor, then at least its envelope’. Going further, he says that the beautiful ‘stops us, but it also points in the direction of the field of destruction’ and, later, that ‘the appearance of beauty intimidates and stops desire’. Bearing this in mind, is it possible to think of fado as representing a safe (and beautiful) way of (re)encountering trauma, of encircling the Thing? As Nick Cave observes, ‘the peculiar magic of the Love Song … is that it endures where the object of the song does not.’ Fado provides a place (street, alleyway, museum, theatre, text, envelope) to (re)visit the traumatic. It is one of those musics that subscribes to the Aristotelian principle of catharsis, purgation and abreaction to which Lacan also refers. The single tear that the singer of ‘Lágrima’ desires is both the tear that will cleanse or purge and the tear (cut) that will rend.