Various performers

Queens of Fado - the next generation

ARC Music EUCD2760

1. Yolanda Soares: Lianor;  2. Gisela João: Meu Amigo Está Longe;  3. Claudia Aurora: Havemos de Ir a Viana;  4. Carminho: As Pedras da Minha Rua;  5. Gisela João: Bailarico Saloio;  6. Carla Pires: Noites Perdidas;  7. Cuca Roseta: Amor Ladrão;  8. Claudia Aurora: Lua;  9. Carminho: Saia Rodada;  1. Raquel Tavares: Deste-me um Beijo e Vivi;  11. Joana Rios: Se tu Fosses Lisboa;  12. Raquel Tavares: Meu Amor De Long;  13. Joana Rios: Não era um Tempo de Fado;  14. Carla Pires: Há Samba nas Colinas de Lisboa;  15. Cuca Roseta: Quem És Tu Afinal;  16. Yolanda Soares: O Nosso Povo.
I've just received the latest in a long line of 'folk' releases from a company called ARC Music, an English company currently celebrating 40 years as 'The Name for Top Quality World and Folk Music.'  Most of these have never been reviewed in these pages since they have little or nothing to do with traditional song or music - usually they are those 'Best of ...' compilations.  This one will also fall, of course, under that umbrella, but since I love Fado, I thought it ought to get a review - either negative or positive.

Listening to some of the tracks on this CD brings me to consider the subject of 'accompanied song', since Fado is always accompanied, usually by the Portuguese and Spanish guitars ... and/or several other instruments in recent years.  This, of course, precludes me from advancing my profoundly held belief that, in communicating a song, nothing is more effective than the unaccompanied human voice.

But when you add an accompaniment of any sort, there is a decision to be made - does it enhance or hinder the communication?  This should be the same decision no matter whether it's provided by the singer herself, or by another musician.  But in this latter case, the concerns of the accompanist also need to be considered.  Because this person has spent time - perhaps a lifetime - learning the instrument, and has, like the singer, an ego.  In traditional music - and should Fado not be considered as such? - accompanists have sometimes chosen to suppress their egos, and to keep their contributions to the minimum ... others have not.

And just as, for example, bluegrass musicians relate to the mandolin, over time Portuguese musicians have come to see the Portuguese guitar as an instrument on which one ought to play lots of notes very quickly, and this has developed as the usual style for accompanying Fado songs.  The problem, of course, is how to accompany in this style without hindering the communication of the song ... in a genre in which the emotions of the singer are paramount.

Now, it appears that, when fado as we now know it originated in Lisbon the early decades of the 19th century it was always sung to the accompaniment of a Portuguese guitar, in the beginning often played by the singer her/himself and probably with simple strummed chords.  At some time towards the end of the 19th century, it would appear, the use of a wire-strung or gut-string guitar of Spanish build as an additional accompanying instrument was introduced.

If one listens to vocal fado recordings from the beginning of the last century one hears that virtuosic guitarra accompaniment is not the norm.  The guitarra virtuosi who recorded early on recorded a kind of music which is rather to be understood as a form of middle class virtuoso 'hausmusik'.  Some of them were incredible virtuosi, but their recordings are sparse, hardly ever reissued, and virtually unknown to today's fado audience.

I can quote here from my friend Tony Klein, a rebetica aficionado, who is also very well-versed in the subject of fado:

And, since he knows far more than I do about fado, I'll hand over the rest of this review to Tony.

How to review this CD?  How much familiarity with the genre known as fado can, or should, the reviewer assume among the readers of this attempt?  To give a sufficiently comprehensive background demands a long essay or a small book.  I will herewith attempt an introduction to fado in brief format, keeping to what is known.

Since the birth of the recording industry and the advent of the mass media, the concept of genres has become an essential element in the process of commodification - the marketing of both music and most other areas of artistic endeavour as product.  In most cases genres have thus been created after the event as shelves onto which things can be organised and classified for the purpose of advertising and selling.

Fado is something of an exception to this general rule, as the word fado has been applied since as early on as the 1830s to a kind of Portuguese song accompanied by the Portuguese guitar (and possibly other instruments such as Spanish guitar and acoustic bass guitar).  It is a kind of song which was originally to be heard among the poor in the harbour milieus of Lisbon, in brothels and taverns, and on the streets.  Although fado has since passed through a number of more or less distinct phases, it can still be found in a form which is not terribly removed from its original state, albeit that its association with prostitution, low-life and criminal elements is nowadays a thing of the past.  Paul Vernon, in his 1998 book A History of the Portuguese Fado, offers this succinct introduction:

Of course we have no idea how fado sounded in 1840.  Neither do we really know how 'low-life' fado actually sounded during the first decades of the era of recorded music, because although 78 rpm records of 'fado' were made as early at the first decade of the 1900s, the performers who were initially chosen to record sang in a style adapted to a middle- and upper-class market, for the simple reason that poorer people could not afford to buy gramophones and records.  But the fact is that fado was written about relatively extensively in various Portuguese publications during the second half of the nineteenth century, and a history of fado by Pinto de Carvalho, 'Tinop', was published as early as in 1903; his book offers detailed accounts of both singers and musicians and various social contexts, and although the gramophone is mentioned in passing twice, the existence of music in recorded form is an insignificant element in his story.

A significant aspect of fado is that despite its low-life origins, it early attracted certain members of the nobility both as aficionados and exponents; a latter-day example is the famous fadista Vicente da Cãmara (1928-2016).  From its first documented appearance, until at least the 1930s, fado was often the subject of heated debate.  On the one hand there were proponents who regarded it as a true folk expression, while others decried it for being a dirty and debased phenomenon, emanating from socially undesirable people and contexts.

There is, furthermore, an area of 19th century fado-related praxis which is relatively unknown today, except in the context of so-called Coimbra fado.  This was a context in which the middle classes, and academics, developed the playing of the Portuguese guitar and other plucked string instruments such as mandolins and Spanish guitars as a parlour activity, playing composed music from print, in ensembles of varying size.  This movement was, in part at least, inspired by the appearance in 1877 of the Spanish Estudiantina, and its diffusion.

From its lowly origins, fado has thus diffused both into middle-class and aristocratic environments.  I imagine that it was not really a 'performed' art form in its original state, but rather a direct form of musical and lyrical expression where exponent and audience were not really separated.  Then it branched out into both an instrumental and vocal 'hausmusik', and a kind of song suitable for performance in theatrical revues.  For a few decades, from the late 19th century, various periodicals devoted to fado appeared, in which particular singers or musicians would be profiled on the front page, with a photo and biographical details.  Not until the later 1920s, in fact after the introduction of censorship by the military regime in 1926, did fado in any way resembling its original form, reach the recording studios.

At this stage several things happened.  The censorship of lyrics excluded themes considered in any way subversive, with the exception of prostitution, which continued to figure in some fados still part of the canon today, such as Alfredo Marceneiro's A Casa de Mariquinas.  Not only were lyrics censored, but singers and musicians were obliged to apply for a licence in order to be allowed to perform.  Around this time the first fado contests began to take place, and the process of professionalisation was initiated which is starkly reflected in the CD under review.  Soon, (we are thus referring to a period at least fifteen years before Amalia Rodrigues made her first records in Rio de Janeiro in 1945,) the first fado 'stars' were established, both singers and musicians.  Names such as Ercilia Costa, Herminia Silva, Alfredo Duarte 'Marceneiro', and Armando Augusto Freire 'Armandinho' hit the lights, and Portuguese artists toured both in Portugal, Brazil, Angola and Mozambique, and also in non-Lusophone countries.

Now for the first time the institution of 'Houses of Fado' appeared, which over the following decades would develop into a tourist attraction complex.  The concept of 'typicality' would lead to stereotype formats.  Instructions were published mandating suitable dé:cor elements for a Casa do Fado, and these environments in truth became quite artificially 'traditional'.  A standard performance schedule evolved in which just three of four songs would be performed by one singer under an imposed venerating silence, followed by a pause during which the guests could continue to be served, eat, drink, talk and make a noise, until the next musical sequence.  Female singers would wear a black shawl (originally a multi-coloured one, but black after the establishment of Amalia Rodrigues as the ultimate goddess or queen of fado).  The instrumentalists would play usually one, or perhaps two Portuguese guitars, accompanied by a steel-string guitar of Spanish form played fingerstyle, usually with a thumb-pick and sometimes finger-picks, and from the late 1940s perhaps a four-stringed acoustic bass guitar.  No microphones are ever used in such performance situations, which is, to this writer one of the most endearing aspects of the fado tradition.  Parallel with these venues there has, since at least the 1950s if not earlier, existed another kind, small locales, bar- or tavern-like, in the various older barrios of Lisbon, usually virtually invisible to the uninitiated, where local people will gather one or two nights a week to engage in the ritual of fado.  On a given evening, there will be between perhaps two and four or five instrumentalists who will accompany a succession of singers who will sing two or at most three songs each, often coming forward in an order written down at the beginning of the session by a semi-informal master of ceremonies.  Most, or all, of the performers, both singers and instrumentalists, are amateurs, and the 'public' may in fact largely consist of the 'artists'.  They may come from all imaginable walks of life, both manual professions and academically qualified professions.  In fact in the earlier days of the century many of the most prominent male fado figures never abandoned their original profession; Alfredo Duarte for example was a carpenter, for which reason he called himself Alfredo Marceneiro.

Portugal is a small country.  Just as in Greece the record business was managed by small cliques.  One sound engineer, Hugo Ribeiro (1925-2016), had a long career at the dominating firm of Valentim de Carvalho, a career which spanned the whole vinyl era and the CD era into the 1990s.  He was responsible for countless recordings of major Portuguese artists, according to the Museu do Fado including the following, which is a fairly complete list of the icons of fado from the 1940s to the 1990s: Amália and Celeste Rodrigues, Alfredo Marceneiro, Lucília do Carmo, Maria Teresa de Noronha, Carlos Ramos, Tristão da Silva, Hermínia Silva, Beatriz da Conceição, Fernanda Maria, Max, Fernando Farinha, Vicente da Cãmara, Carlos do Carmo, Maria da Fé, and Carlos Paredes.  A notable characteristic of Ribeiro's recordings, which I have found particularly noticeable on Marceneiro's and Amália Rodrigues' LP recordings during work on this review, is the use of studio reverb.  This effect gives the impression that the singer is addressing a larger audience in a larger space, which inevitably reduces the feeling of interpersonal communication.  In other words it is an effect which reduces, or obliterates, the feeling of intimacy which will naturally characterise the acoustic in a small well-filled locale.  The result is an impression that the singer is mentally projecting to a large audience rather than to a small group of people.  This phenomenon, which I consider can be noted in countless recordings of popular music, especially from the 1960s onwards, is in contrast to the emotional impression one can experience from recordings made during the 78 rpm era, in which there is more of a feeling that the singer is addressing the listener at a personal, individual level.  The point I want to make with this apparently lengthy digression is that as the 20th century has progressed, the sound ideals employed in recording studios have tended to create a narcissistic world in which the 'artist' is so elevated above the 'audience' that there is no need to create, or support, the illusion that the music is a form of direct interpersonal communication.  In the case of fado, this phenomenon is, to my mind, in complete disagreement with the core nature of this music.

If one listens to fado recordings from the 78 rpm era and compares with those of the post WWII era, the major difference seems to me to be a combination of this perverting acoustic ideal and the effect of Amalia Rodrigues' personal style.  Amalia's 1945 Rio de Janeiro recordings on 78 rpm discs, offer the delicate, lissom, moving voice of an extremely gifted 25-year-old young woman.  The sleeve of Amalia's 1962 LP recording (33SX1440) is occupied by a b/w photo of a portrait sculpture of the singer, a manifestly mythopoietic image.  She is accompanied by a single guitarra and a single viola.  I am struck by the irresistible intensity of her pathos, quite unlike any other fado singers I have heard on record, and yet the artificial reverberation seems to seek to transform her communication from drama to melodrama.  It is this melodrama which seems then to have become paradigmatic for subsequent generations of 'Queens of Fado' who thus risk simply becoming wannabe Amalia clones, and who are hyped in their blurbs in terms of their intense (but unspecified) emotionality.

The ARC label has previously issued several fado CDs, of which their previous release in 2012 claimed to present the 'new' generation.  The title of this latest CD implies that it presents the next (newest?) generation of female fado singers. 

Eight singers are represented: Cuca Roseta (1981-), Carminho (1984-), Gisela João (1983-), Claudia Aurora (198?-) Carla Pires (19??-), Joana Rios (1976-), Raquel Tavares (1985-), Yolanda Soares (1971-).

The singers apparently considered by the label to belong to the previous generation, and included on New Queens of Fado in 2012 are as follows: Mafalda Arnauth (1974-), Cristina Branco (1972-), Katia Guerreiro (1976-), Mariza (1973-), Ana Moura (1979-), Joana Amendoeira (1982-) Maria Ana Bobone (1974-) Cristina Navarro (19??) Misia (1955-). There is manifestly a considerable age overlap, the oldest singer on the newest CD being older than any of the singers on the previous CD, with the exception of Misia, now over 60 and old enough to be mum to all of 'em, at least biologically.  Interestingly, not one of this so-called 'newest generation' was born in the 1990s.  There are, however, several noted young female fado singers who were born between 1993 and 2001, several of whom have recorded (I'm grateful to the Swedish fado cognoscento Ulf Bergquist for this information).  The only justification of the CD's title would thus be that the singers represented here distinguish themselves from those on the previous CD by having taken fado a step further on the road to modernity.

In today's world of commercially viable music, the tiny country of Portugal is only known outside its boundaries for one kind of music - fado.  The fact is, that just as in very many countries today, there are surviving local traditions of rural folk music, an art music tradition, a pop and rock tradition in a broad sense, and, not least in Portugal's case, a tradition of playing music on the guitarra Portuguesa quite distinct from the fado tradition.  These facts, more or less self-evident to a Portuguese, are non-starters for an international public.  So for a Portuguese musician who would like to establish a career which takes her or him outside the home country, calling one's music fado is basically the only viable alternative.  That is my tentative explanation for why some of the music on this CD really has almost nothing to do with fado as a recognisable stream of musical development from 1830 to now, that stream which has been defined by UNESCO as an 'Intangible Cultural Heritage'.  But fado today has instead become what Naomi Klein would term a brand.  To perhaps overstate the case, while I would insist that there is much truth in my exaggeration, what this CD is doing is trying to sell a conglomeration of what is basically a kind of pop music under the brand name of fado.

The following seven Portuguese guitarists are credited: Custodio Castelo, Ricardo Parreira, Pedro Viana, Luis Guerreiro, Angelo Freire, Eurico Machado, Mario Pacheco.

Some track by track commentaries:

A thought emerges: Why should anyone really want to listen to most of this rather than to the older fado singers?

Tony Klein and Rod Stradling - 17.11.17

Tony Klein has agreed to write us an Article on the Portuguese Fado, which should be appearing in these pages soon.

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