When I hear Portuguese fadista Cristina Branco sing, words like pristine vocals come to mind. She is known for her superb diction and phrasing and her current release Corpo Illuminado shows that this is an accurate description of her singing. Although has had vocal training, she manages to sound highly polished yet traditional. Her crystal clear voice conveys a great deal of emotion without the histrionics that is often heard by lesser vocalists. While I don’t find that her voice has the same warmth that Mariza’s has, Cristina Branco is nonetheless a convincing and compelling fado singer.
Branco did not grow up within the fado tradition and until she was about 18, her main musical interests were blues, jazz, and bossa nova. She, like many young people in Portugal, considered fado as music for “old people”. For her 18th birthday, her grandfather gave her a copy of the recording by Amália Rodrigues, Rare et Inédit. This recording opened her eyes to the beauty and depth of the music and poetry of fado; and it is this aspect that Branco emphasizes. More than the emotion that so many fado singers succumb to, she finds the lyrics themselves to be the most important aspect of the tradition.
The word fado is translated as “fate”, but like its companion descriptive word of this music, saudade, the word is really untranslatable. Better than trying to find an apt translation for these words, (or even for the Portuguese lyrics) one needs to just sit back, relax and listen to this music and experience along with the musicians the feelings that they express. Even when one does not speak the language, with a great singer like Branco, one finds it unnecessary to worry about the exact words of the song; but instead, one can still appreciate her sensitive yet passionate performance.
Corpo Illuminado begins with the plaintive sounds of the Portuguese guitar played by Custódio Castelo, who is also the artistic director, arranger, and co-composer on most of Cristina’s songs on this and her other releases. He also performs one instrumental piece “Portos” with Carlos Manuel Proença, guitar and Matino de Freitas, bass guitar. Castelo’s masterly playing is a fine match for Branco’s singing and shows the rapport the two have for each other. He lovingly follows her voice giving her a foundation on which to base her emotional lyricism. Their interplay of Portuguese guitar and voice adds the necessary quality to the overall sound of this recording. Not that Branco absolutely has to have instruments to back her perfect voice; she doesn’t, as she aptly proves on “Molinera”, the final song of the CD. She sings this in a dialect from northern Portugal called Mirandès. It is considered a transition language between Portuguese and Castellian and was only recognized officially within the past three years.
Although she regrets that she never saw the late “queen of fado” Amália Rodrigues perform live, Branco was able to realize a dream of hers onCorpo Illuminado. She sings “Tu Tens De Me Acontecer” with Amália’s former musicians—José Fontes Rocha, Portuguese guitar; Jorge Fernando, guitar; and Joel Fina, bass guitar. For her, this was a very special moment and we, of course, are privileged to share with her in this realization of her dream.
There are many outstanding pieces on this album, which is proof that she puts a great deal of thought into her choice of material. She utilizes such fine Portuguese poets as Maria Duarte and Jorge Fernando. It is somewhat evident in her singing that she has been influenced by her love of jazz and Brazilian music. Yet Branco and Castelo do not clutter their arrangements with superfluous overproduction. On Corpo Illuminado, they use only the traditional Portuguese trio of Portuguese guitar, acoustic guitar and double bass. This sparse arrangement serves to emphasize the clarity of her voice and the beauty of the melodies themselves.
With Corpo Illuminado, Cristina Branco has not only shown a growing maturity in her development as one of the new voices of fado; but also as a singer worthy of notice by anyone who loves great music no matter in what language it is sung.