[4 May 2010]
Ana Moura is a Portuguese fado artist who, like her contemporary Raquel Tavares, has collaborated extensively with songwriter and producer Jorge Fernando, producing work shaped equally by pop and fado traditions. (Fernando has released pop records under his own name, but was also a guitarist for fado’s greatest star, Amália Rodrigues.) “Sou do Fado”, a song by Fernando which appears on Moura’s first album, was structurally quite far from fado, yet also insistently laid claim to the genre: “Sou do fado / Sou do fado / Sou fadista” (“I am of / from fado ... I’m a fadista”). Aconteceu (2004), her second album and a double CD, placed songs derived from pop songwriters such as Tozé Brito and writers of fado canção (the more modern refrain-based form of fado) on the first disc and a series of castiço (traditional) fado melodies on the second.
By the time of her third album, Para Além da Saudade (2007), constructed via a similar mixture of traditional and contemporary elements, Moura had perfected a style of singing as clear and direct as another contemporary, Katia Guerreiro, while also developing the look and outlook of a successful pop artist. This combination would earn her acclaim at home (Para Além was a critical and commercial success) and the notice of major international rock and pop stars. Following a concert by Moura at La Cigalle in Paris, it was reported that Prince had flown across the Atlantic in order to see her perform and that the two singers had made plans to record together. It’s unclear whether these plans will come to anything, but an earlier Rolling Stones-related project was released in 2008 (Moura also joined the group onstage in Lisbon to sing “No Expectations”).
Moura’s fourth album, first released in Portugal in late 2009, arrives on the back of a steadily growing fanbase and an increasing international visibility. It shouldn’t disappoint either her existing fans or those open to the twists and turns enacted on tradition by the so-called “new fadistas” of the last decade or so. Fernando is once more at the helm, providing production, guitar, and songwriting skills (more than half of the songs are written or co-written by him). In addition to Fernando, Moura is accompanied by the brilliant Custódio Castelo on guitarra portuguesa and Filipe Larsen on acoustic bass. The high production values evident on previous releases are extended to the production of the CD booklet, which includes (for once, excellent) English and French translations of the Portuguese lyrics.
It’s immediately obvious from the opening title track (translated in the CD booklet as “Take Me to a Fado House”) that the vocal attack and phrasing that Moura showcased so well on Para Além da Saudade has been retained. Backed by Castelo’s subtle interventions on the guitarra, Moura manages to evoke a number of fado’s most important elements: its sense of melancholy, of fatalism, and of itself (in a typically self-referential twist, going to the fado house is offered as the cure to the sense of melancholy being simultaneously hymned by this very fado).
It is tempting to describe the next track, Tozé Brito’s “Como uma Nuvem no Céu” (“Like a Cloud in the Sky”), as a much brighter piece. Certainly it is taken at a faster pace, the guitarra providing the necessary rhythmic constancy for Moura’s voice to skip through. But brightness suggests clarity and there was absolutely nothing unclear about the title track; rather, there is almost breathless optimism here where there was acceptance before. This is a song of love and fidelity; despite what the naysayers claim, these lovers will have the constancy of rivers flowing to the sea: “I, too, run to you / And that will never change”. The verses, in true fado fashion, list the challenges to love like a litany of the doomed, while the chorus offers a joyful renunciation. Personally, this is not what I go to fado for, and I have been rather underwhelmed by the increase in upbeat, clapalong numbers in recent recordings and performances by Mariza, for example. But here, Moura’s voice rescues the song, its grit rising to suggest defiance rather than naïve joy. It works, just.
“Por Minha Conta” (“On My Own”) deploys a strategy Fernando and Moura have used before, opening on a musical setting that suggests affinities with the big pop-influenced ballads of contemporary soul or country music. But the track is almost immediately reterritorialized by the entry of Moura’s voice, verging on dissonance and the minor language of classic fado. The background remains simple, allowing the singer to do the bulk of the work; there is no need for instrumental welling-up or other obvious emotional nudges. What marks a good Moura performance, as evidenced here and on the following track, “A Penumbra”, is the rising of the voice out of what Roland Barthes might call the song’s “studium” (its setting and narrative: what it is about) to emphasize a “punctum” (the point that pierces the listener’s consciousness).
And so it continues, a series of seemingly simple songs made markedly more complex by these outbursts of vocal emotion which, like Barthes’s arrow-like puncta, shoot from the text to pin the listener down with a demand that they hear this singer and the pain that haunts her. Many of these songs are expressions of haunting, listing memories, forgettings, regrets, and the fetishized objects to which memory and regret are fastened, even if these objects are only words. “What I kept are the phrases we exchanged”, sings Moura on “Talvez Depois” (“Perhaps Later”), “My clothes, books: these I left behind / Let them gather dust”.
The ventures into pop-balled territory are not always successful. “Rumo ao Sol” possesses considerable melodic beauty, but it seems an obvious beauty, lacking that extra grit which fado demands. Its sadness seems as gaudy as the joy of the Brizo track, but Moura’s voice does not rescue it this time. There is no depth or deconstruction to her reading of the lyric. Listening, you feel sadder but you don’t feel challenged.
“Fado das Águas” uses the melody by Alfredo Marceneiro made famous by Amália Rodrigues’s “Estranha Forma de Vida”. Because of the centrality of Amália’s song to both her career and twentieth century fado, “Fado das Águas” is already engaging in a considerable amount of cultural work before we even take account of the lyrics used by Moura, which are by Mário Raínho (who has also written for Mariza, among many others). It’s a beautiful piece, the timeless melody meshing wonderfully with lyrics in which the poetics of fado are writ large from the outset: “In the river that flows / Over the riverbed of my voice / There’s a longing that dies”. A fado album would not be complete without at least one mention of the famous Portuguese longing known as saudade. Here, singing is rather marvelously put forward as the magic key that will dispel saudade, a recognition of the sublimatory or cathartic powers of the voice.
Moura sensibly follows this history-referencing number with a melody from the traditonal “fado tree”, with the title “Fado Vestido de Fado” (“Fado Dressed as Fado”). Indeed it is, and this was the right time for Moura to remind us of her ability to play it straight. Another traditional setting is used for the brilliantly titled “Crítica da Razão Pura” (yes, “Critique of Pure Reason”), with a lyric by Nuno Miguel Guedes that asks, “Is it worth knowing / what makes up a passion?” “De Quando em Vez”, featuring another of Raínho’s lyrics, this time set to music by João Maria dos Anjos, provides one of the album’s finest examples of Moura’s timbral control and sense of phrasing, and also some of Castelo’s loveliest guitarra work.
The final track of Leva-me aos Fados signals a departure, as suggested by its title, “Não é um Fado Normal” (there is a version of the album with an additional two tracks on it, which was originally produced for exclusive sale in Fnac stores). Indeed it isn’t a normal fado, having been written by Amélia Muge and featuring the Portuguese folk group Gaiteiros de Lisboa, known for their use of pipes and choral singing. Muge is a Portuguese musician who has been releasing solo records since the start of the 1990s and whose own work is based on an experimental mixture of rural folk, jazz, world music and classical styles. Her “Fado da Procura” was a standout of Moura’s last album. The collaboration is not unlike those found on recent albums by “new fadistas” Mariza, Cristina Branco, Mísia, and Mafalda Arnauth (who has recorded a number of songs written by Muge). Like those projects, the results are likely to be divisive. If the desire is to break down barriers between fado, folk music, and pop (and, in the case of Mísia’s recent work, rock), then it does the trick. For me, the use of polyphonic singing here is more intrusive than in the subtler work of António Zambujo, and I’m not sure the pipe really fits in with the other instrumentation.
Overall, though, this is another excellent showcase for Moura’s art, with at least half of the album’s tracks standing out as classics. It will be exciting to experience what the singer does with these new additions to her repertoire when she takes them on tour. As for the potential Prince collaboration, we will have to see whether fate wishes it to be or not.