Portuguese fado has been enjoying something of a boom over the past decade. The popularity of so-called “new fadistas” has brought the music to a high level of international visibility, with performers finding themselves at the forefront of a star system promoted by the contemporary world music network. This presentation of fado as world music has led to notable developments in live and recorded performance, where a balance is sought between the presentation of fado’s specificity as a music associated with Portugal and the felt necessity for a technologically enhanced “universal” acoustic world.
Cristina Branco has been one of the more consistently adventurous explorers of the possibilities of fado over the period of the boom. While she has attended to tradition by following the lead of the 20th century fado legend Amália Rodrigues and setting work by Portuguese poets to music, she has also featured songs from outside fado orthodoxy, including traditional dialect songs from northern Portugal, work by the Dutch poet Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, and a collection of songs based on erotic poetry from Shakespeare to Maria Teresa Horta, one of the so-called “Three Marias” who achieved notoriety in 1972 after being arrested for obscenity. Branco is fond of basing albums around particular concepts; in addition to an album of Slauerhoff’s work, she has devoted albums to the work of Portuguese songwriter José Afonso (Abril, 2007) and to major themes such as love (Sensus, 2003) and space (Ulisses, 2005).
Now comes Kronos, an album devoted to time. The concept began when Branco invited a number of well-known songwriters from the worlds of Portuguese pop, rock, jazz, and fado to compose songs based on this theme. Many, not surprisingly, returned songs that were not remotely fado-like, and the result is a mixture of fado and other popular styles, dominated by the arrangements of Ricardo Dias, whose piano has been a constant presence in Branco’s group in recent years. Indeed, piano is the first sound we hear on Kronos, introducing the song “Trago um Fado” and also closing it in place of the usual guitar signoff. During the course of the song, however, the Portuguese guitar plays a prominent role and provides a connection, as it does throughout the album, to the world of fado, which Branco still sees as her base. The connection is also maintained by a lyric about carrying fado in the palm of one’s hand.
“Bomba Relógio” (“Time Bomb”), written by Portuguese singer-songwriter Sérgio Godinho, is propelled by an insistently “ticking” rhythmic melody that fully does justice to the lyric and the flexibility of Branco’s voice. Again, piano dominates, but the quickly plucked guitarra adds necessary dramatic momentum. In another abdication of fado practice, Branco opts for vocal overdubbing, laying the slower vocal line of the refrain over the hectic wordplay of the verse. Other writers featured on the album include blues rock legend Rui Veloso (who has also written for fadistas Mariza and Katia Guerreiro, and who seems intent on proving the viability of the oft-evoked comparison between fado and the American blues), jazz musicians Carlos Bica and Mário Laginha, and folk-based singer-songwriters such as José Mário Branco and Amélia Muge.
One track, an adaptation of a Fernando Pessoa poem by Laginha, finds Branco duetting with another big name in Portuguese popular music, Jorge Palma. Many of the new fadistas have adapted Pessoa’s work, but the choice here is slightly more unusual in that it is a poem by one of Pessoa’s “heteronyms”, Álvaro de Campos (the poet created a range of other poets and wrote quite distinct poetry under their names). Like Pessoa, it seems, Cristina Branco thrills to the possibility of being several different artists. At one point she will be a faithful fadista, sticking to tradition; at another, a folk-jazz singer. Mostly, she opts for what we can only call 21st century Portuguese popular music. In embracing this most ambiguous of musical terrains, Branco has produced a worthy successor to her landmark Ulisses album. Like that disc, Kronos may not appeal to those who look to fadistas to provide a more obvious traditional sound, but Branco clearly has a different agenda here. Over a decade into her career, she continues to prove that there is space (and time) for fado to incorporate experimental tendencies.