Portuguese music and the fado are nearly synonymous in my mind. That country’s version of the blues, the music is filled with a great longing: the saudade. Traditionally, a vocalist is accompanied by a 12-string Portuguese guitar, whose bright sound is almost that of a mandolin, but with a bit more of the resonance of a typical acoustic guitar. So linked are the spirit of Portugal and this melancholic music that, for nearly half a century, the dictatorship then in power wielded the sentimental tug of the fado to bolster national pride in its oppressed citizens. After the government was overthrown in 1974, the music left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, and this lovely art form was brushed aside as outdated and even somewhat inflammatory. Fortunately, two decades later, a new generation rediscovered its musical heritage, and the fado was reborn.
Enter our subject, the lovely Cristina Branco. In the early 1990s, she was a young journalism student interested more in Tom Waits, jazz, and Brazilian pop than in Amalia Rodrigues, the undisputed queen of fado from the 1940s until her death in 1999. But that all changed when Branco’s grandfather gave her a set of Rodrigues’ recordings for her birthday. She was instantly drawn to the beautiful and plaintive sound, as is every sensitive listener who’s known a blue day or two. She soon found herself performing live and garnering a following.
Her first album, 1998’s Cristina Branco in Holland, was pressed by a very small label, but that has blossomed into a major recording career. Of the modern fadistas, few are now as widely renowned as Cristina Branco. Since that initial recording, she has continued to stretch the boundaries of the traditional fado, both in sound and in theme. For years now, her writing partner has been her husband, Portuguese guitarist Custodio Castelo (now there’s a sturdy name). In 2002, Branco brought to Castelo a series of poems whose subject matter was far more erotic than is typical of the form. The resulting album, 2003’s Sensus, startled many fans and fellow performers alike.
Branco is immune to reactionary notions of how her music should sound, stating, “I never intend to break rules. I just do it in my own way.” On Ulisses, her latest album, doing it her own way means straying further from tradition than she ever has before. In fact, very few of the tracks on this new record could truly be called fados. Many of the pieces are borrowed from other countries, with her stylistic world tour meant to reflect the mythical journeys of the character, Ulysses, who inspired the album’s title. Okay, that’s a bit cheesy, but it is fairly impressive to hear how well Branco and Castelo weave together songs from Argentina (“Alfonsina y el Mar”), Canada (Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”), and France (an adaptation of Paul Eluard’s poem “Liberte”) with their own Portuguese material, creating a cohesive listen.
Instrumentally, they stray from the usual, as well. Believe it or not, the presence of Ricardo Dias on piano throughout the album is also considered a departure from the fado‘s norm. While I would never side with rigid tradition, Dias’ contributions are one of the main reasons Ulisses is Branco’s smoothest album to date. His performances are so clean and so free of melodic risk that the album acquires a watered-down, new age-y undertone. Branco has always had a quirk-free and crystalline voice, and Castelo’s arrangements have never been exactly radical, either. But Branco’s music has always kept a safe distance from what one would expect to hear piped into an upscale health spa. Not so here. In my own personal environmental comparison study, the album sounded much better in the bookstore where I work than it did on my iPod.
When contributing to the ambience of a (generally) relaxed environment, Ulisses makes sense. Sit down, sip some tea, and think to yourself, “Well, isn’t this nice.” As a concentrated listen via ear buds, however, it falls short of expectations. Ulysses may have been Cristina Branco’s inspiration, but, as it turns out, there’s a big difference between casting off toward unknown horizons and merely drifting off course. Although it has a pretty sound and is well performed, Ulisses simply lacks the artistic guts that one expects to hear from a top fadista, traditional or otherwise.