Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records

On Her U.S. Debut ‘Maria’, Fado Singer Carminho Finds Beauty in Melancholy

Maria finds Carminho at her most intimate and personal, a collection of original tunes that honor the past while still defining her own voice as a trailblazing vocalist.

27 September 2019

With fado music, it’s all about the voice. Not just how beautiful a singer’s voice can be, but how much conviction and truth stands behind their words. It’s a musical style built on sorrow and longing that emanates melancholy as much as it does beauty. While fado is inherently dramatic, it necessitates sincerity, a style that backs up its theatricality with experience, suffering, and transcendence. When Carminho opens her latest album with a startling and heart-wrenching a capella track, the unflinching “A Tecedeira”, it’s almost too stunning and beautiful to bear.

Her fifth album to date but her first released on U.S. shores, Maria could well be Carminho’s most personal recording. The daughter of renown fado singer Teresa Siqueira, Carminho explores themes both personal and cultural through the lens of Portugal’s deep musical roots. Taking a far more intimate approach to the record–writing most of the songs and lyrics and producing the album herself–she succeeds by making Maria a testament to the power of fado as well as a stunning examination of her musical prowess.

More than anything, Carminho reflects the inescapable beauty of fado’s melodies and stories. When she sings over the one-two rhythm of “O Começo”, she takes the command of a dramatic narrator, giving life to the song as much with her phrasing and cadence as with her tone color. Despite effusing deeply emotive lines throughout “O Menino E A Cidade” the track never gets bogged down, nor does it neglect the inherent dance of its 3/4 lilt.

What’s most impressive about Maria is the way Carminho honors tradition without sacrificing personal sound. Working primarily with a standard fado rhythm section of six-string and Portuguese guitars (a unique instrument similar in tone to a mandolin), she respects traditional song structures and time-honored fado aesthetics while still sounding modern. When the delicate electric guitar arpeggios open “Estrela”, it doesn’t seem radical or bombastic, a testament to Carmino’s skilled songwriting and sensibilities. The reverb-laced picking on “Pop Fado” would sound overly-commercial and far-reaching if it wasn’t mixed with such a trained ear for the minor/major key structure of traditional fado.

“Poeta” is a buoyant and exuberant waltz, a bright dancing number that contrasts with the slow two-step hiccups of “Se Vieres”. On a completely different emotive spectrum, “Quero um Cavalo de Várias Cores” finds beauty in longing, minor chords, and passionate pleas about fate and love. All three tracks would give listeners new to fado a valuable primer to the nuances and shades of the music. Closing track “As Rosas” is a stark piano-accompanied ballad, seemingly conservative yet led by a no-less restrained Carminho.

It would not be a stretch to say fado isn’t the most popular strand of global music. Its unbridled emoting may be too heavy for some audiences, but Carminho may be the ideal voice to spread its sound across the continent. Maria may be her most personal work, but her story and sound will undoubtedly resonate with discerning audiences worldwide.

RATING 9 / 10