“This Ain’t No Fado,” guest-edited by Philip Graham

My roommate my first year of college had spent the preceding summer traveling across Europe and buying albums by artists who never had a hope of getting distribution in the U.S. Was this invisible blockade yet another example of American cultural imperialism? Of the closed-mindedness of Western audiences? Yes, he insisted, rubbing away the remains of an unfiltered beer from his wispy new moustache.

He and I had gone to high school together. We grew up in the same suburb. And here, three months after graduation, he’d discovered his inner bohemian, broken the chains of consumerism, and read books in their original German.

You’re just a dollar sign, a pawn of the U.S. industrial complex. I’m going to the movies, I said, and then he stood up to reveal another souvenir from his summer abroad: nudism. I suppose you’ve got a problem with the human body, too?

Recently Philip Graham has been sending me CDs of some of the music he’s discovered while living in Portugal—music you’ll never hear in the U.S., he told me. Given my previous experience, my plan, naturally, was to move out of the city and never respond to his emails. But here he’d burned these CDs, sent them all this way, and even printed up cover art and track listings. Well, he either did that or Portuguese record labels have a long way to go in packaging. And so I listened, and I liked what I heard, and I approved a “world culture” day here at the Mp3 Digest. There’s salsa in the break room.

And now I’m going to turn the floor over to Philip, who’d be wise to keep his calças on while he’s visiting.

* * *

Hey, I love fado, from the queen of this mournful music, Amália Rodrigues, to newcomer Mariza; and Madredeus, a band that offers a transcendent chamber music version of the style, gives me goosebumps. But living in Lisbon this year, I’ve discovered there’s more to this country’s music than fado. Rock, jazz, folk, and every sort of mixture flourish here with a distinctively Portuguese twist, and it’s all worthy of a ton of ears outside of the country’s borders.

There’s a grand tradition of rock ‘n’ roll in Portugal going back decades, with bands like Heróis do Mar, Xutos e Pontapés, and Grupo Novo Rock. But my favorite of the bunch is Rádio Macau, who kicked out a series of anthemic New Wave hits in the late ‘80s, took a break in the ‘90s, and then returned with a roar. Their latest, Acordar, sounds like a folk rock album that could have been produced by Brian Eno, with eerie, ambient strings, and their masterpiece, Onde o Tempo Faz a Curva, crackles with electronic zizz. Lead singer Xana gets under your skin—her voice is like Brian Ferry’s after his sex change.

» Listen to “Era Uma Vez (E Não Sei Mais)” by Rádio Macau

* * *

Change of pace. Jazz saxophonist Carlos Martins, in Do Outro Lado, offers a symphonic jazz suite, incorporating musical influences from the former Portuguese colonies of Brazil and Cape Verde. The jazz quartet swings, Martins’s orchestral arrangements are subtle and assured, and the Cape Verdean guest singer for “Destino Maior: Amar,” Mayra Andrade, has a perfectly sad and slinky voice; when she improvises wordlessly around Martins’s sax solo near the end of the song, you just might melt into a grateful puddle.

» Listen to “Destino Maior: Amar” by Carlos Martins

* * *

What can you say about a folk music CD whose cover sleeve is made out of cork? A left-field approach to deep, deep Portuguese country roots, and ferociously so, because Dazkarieh rocks. And they do it with a lead instrument from Sweden, of all places—the Nyckelharpa, a multi-stringed instrument that’s a demented cross between a violin and a sitar. Played by Vasco Ribeiro Casais, at times he sneaks into Jimi Hendrix territory.

» Listen to “Senhora da Azenha” by Dazkarieh

* * *

Dead Combo is a doleful duo: twangy guitar and stand-up bass, drenched in the implied menace of spaghetti western stylings that’s run through a cheesecloth of saudade—Portugal’s untranslatable word for the varieties of mournful nostalgia. Plus a twist of humor: They perform in public with their heads down or averted, as if afraid to face the living. Though they’ll add an accordion, organ, or a kazoo to the mix, the song “Aquele Beijo Eterno” is bare-bones, and its delicate, halting melody can break your heart.

» Listen to “Aquele Beijo Eterno” by Dead Combo

* * *

Almost none of my friends in Lisbon know of Frei Fado d’el Rei, probably because the band is from the rival city of Porto. That’s Lisbon’s loss, because the group is one of the country’s best—they specialize in adding their own music to medieval poems, and come up with a blend that’s very old and very contemporary. With guitars, harp, keyboards, two female singers, and excellent songwriting, they cast a gentle spell.

» Listen to “A Dita Senhora” by Frei Fado d’el Rei

* * *

Of course Portuguese teenagers listen to music too: gobs of American and British stuff, while local bands like the pop-rockish 4Taste and hip-hopish Da Weasel are also popular. So is Danae, a recent immigrant who is typical of Portugal’s new multicultural face—she’s the daughter of Cuban and Cape Verdean parents. “Tudo o Que Você Quiser” has a beast of a guitar hook, a bit of Brazilian lilt, and how can you dislike a song that begins “I ordered Coca-Cola and pizza for both of us?”

» Listen to “Tudo o Que Você Quiser” by Danae

* * *

Classically trained João Paulo is a champion of improvisatory piano solos in concert, and he’s worked with the fadista Maria Ana Bobone, and the master of the Portuguese guitar Ricardo Rocha. “Mi Alma” is an aching, hushed piano reworking of a theme from the Portuguese-Jewish musical tradition.

» Listen to “Mi Alma” by João Paulo

* * *

José Peixoto, one of the two guitarists of the majestic band Madredeus, seems to spin off solo and collaborative projects every other week. This one with the vocalist Filipa Pais is a beauty. Much-in-demand lyricist João Monge supplies the words to Peixoto’s music, and the sultry-voiced Pais runs with it. The wiry Ebow guitar work almost becomes a second singer on “Já Não Creio em Nada.”

» Listen to “Já Não Creio em Nada” by Filipa Pais & José Peixoto

* * *

These ‘50s-style small combo jazz arrangements of songs that were popular around the time of Portugal’s 1974 revolution (which bloodlessly deposed the 50-year-long fascist dictatorship) practically beg for cigarette smoke, a glass of Scotch (or better yet, Port wine), and the lights down low, way low. Paula Oliveira’s voice was born for this music, and Bernardo Moreira’s arrangements have the good sense to shape the cool atmosphere and then get the hell out of the way.

» Listen to “No Teu Poema” by Paula Oliveira & Bernardo Moreira

* * *

OK, let’s get back to some rough stuff. While Rádio Macau was taking a nap through a chunk of the ‘90s, lead singer Xana released a couple of solo albums, and her most recent, Manual de Sobrevivência, blows the lid off the house. Stark, personal lyrics and chalkboard scratching guitars do the trick in “Lembro-Me Agora.” A defiantly melancholy spirit of saudade reigns over the entire CD, as it does, now that I think of it, through much of Portugal’s music, whatever the surface style.

» Listen to “Lembro-Me Agora” by Xana


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack

blog comments powered by Disqus