Now, here’s Philip Graham’s This Ain’t No Fado, Part II.
Sure, the fadista Amália Rodrigues has become a national icon, and newcomer Mariza has inherited her mantle and conquered much of Europe and beyond, yet fado, as emblematic and glorious as it may be, is not the only music being created in Portugal. One of the great pleasures of living in Lisbon this year has been discovering just how varied the Portuguese musical genius can be. With an empire that once ranged from Brazil to Africa, and from India to China [and until 1999, who knew?ed], the Portuguese have for centuries retained an international outlook, and you can hear it in every sad and joyful note.
Remember: You heard O queStrada here first. Combining fado with the rhythms of Cape Verdean funáná, a touch of ska, and gypsy jazz, they’re a wild bust-up of a Portuguese band, and their song If This Street Were Mine, from their recently released first EP, is an instant classic. Singer Miranda fronts the acoustic fireworks with style, and Lima’s ringing Portuguese guitar simmers with Django Reinhardt’s spirit.
A founding member of Madredeus, Rodrigo Leão has gone on to make his own quirky and original music. Drawing on far-ranging musical traditions, he can write music that sounds like a strange church music framed by echoing guitars, while at other times he serves up the Platonic ideal of Cabaret. He works with musicians from around the world, including Beth Gibbons of Portishead, and his song Rosa, written with Ryuichi Sakamoto and sung by Brazilian Rossa Passos, glides like butter through your mind.
There are a lot of Portuguese Novo Rock bands out there that sing only in English, and while some of them are terrific (like Wraygun), without the contribution of their own language the result seems to me too much like musical ventriloquism. Jorge Cruz, looking a bit like a Sweet Baby James from another time and place, combines the rhythms and poetry of Portuguese with his appreciation of American folk and blues. Novo rockers take note: The blend works beautifully.
Though she’s third-generation Portuguese, Sara Tavares hasn’t forgotten her family’s roots in Cape Verde (the Africa island nation that had been a Portuguese colony since the middle of the 15th century). She’s an excellent songwriter with a voice of startling purity, and her delicate song That Love, from her latest album, Balancê, has the shivery, tip-toe feeling of first love’s fragility.
Right on the heels of winning the 2007 Carlos Paredes Prize for his Canções e Fugas, pianist Mário Laginha, one of the best-known jazz artists in Portugal, cooks here with a mind-reading trio. The Walls That Surround Us, like all the songs in his latest album, Espaço (a project commissioned by the Lisbon Architecture Triennial currently on display throughout the city), takes a concept about structure and design and gives it music’s emotional timing.
Clã is the pride of the city of Porto, but even Lisboetas love this band. Besides the usual guitar/bass/drums lineup, Clã sports two keyboardists (anyone remember Procol Harum?). This is a rock band that isn’t afraid of an ambitious sound coupled with big subjects, especially in their latest studio work, Rosa Carne, and Manuela Azevedo fronts it all with a voice that seems to brim with untold stories.
My 12-year-old daughter assures me that every kid in Portugal can sing the chorus to Da Weasel’s Dialects of Tenderness. But I know a lot of adults who can toothis song from Portugal’s premier hip-hop group is as pervasive as the clear blue skies of Lisbon’s summer. In their latest album, Amor, Escárnio e Maldizer, the band branches out a bit, performing songs with the likes of the Czech National Symphonic Orchestra and Gato Fedorento (Stinking Cat), Portugal’s over-the-top comedy troupe.
Discovering the music of a band that’s already broken up contains the bittersweet weight of mortalityeach song, like a chocolate from a sampler, holds a little extra flavor, because you know that after you’re done there won’t be any more. Três Tristes Tigres flared and faded in the ‘90s, and their 2001 retrospective, Visita de Estudo, offers choice nuggets from those years. Every song’s smart lyric and sly melody is deepened by carefully constructed, ever shifting soundscapes. As for the voice of Ana Deus, is that speaking that sings, or singing that speaks? I’ll just have to listen again.
There’s a recent trend of Portuguese singers putting out albums of Brazilian songs (or music inspired by Brazil), including Maria de Madeiros, J.P. Simões, and Teresa Salgueiro (of Madredeus). Pride of the pack, though, goes to Maria João, whose personality makes this music her own. A career as a jazz singer (often performing with Mário Laginha) serves her well in the song The Silence of the Stars, where the pleasures and passions of samba, jazz, and fado effortlessly exchange genetic material.
OK, how many times am I going to name-check Madredeus without featuring one of their songs? I Adore Lisbon is from their latest album, and I couldn’t agree more with the song’s sentiments. It is, I have to admit, a minor song in the band’s canon, which means it’s merely incredibly beautifulinstead of incredibly, incredibly beautiful. Still, it’s one of the songs that will, long after I’ve returned home from this year in Lisbon, remind me why I’m so sad.