Photo: Nonesuch Records

Carminho Brings the Soul of Portugal to the World

Carminho’s second album Portuguesa sees the Portuguese singer nominated for a Latin Grammy, making her film debut, and performing for the Pope.

18 August 2023

Whether she sings loudly or whispers, Carminho grabs listeners by the soul. As a singer of Portuguese fado, her cultural imperative is to stop listeners in their tracks so they experience the emotions embedded in each song. One of the leading ambassadors of the traditional genre, Carminho has been surrounded by fado since before she was born. Her mother, Teresa Siquero, was a successful fado singer, and the family owned a small fado house where the music was shared nightly over food and wine by the folks in the neighborhood.

For Portuguesa, her second album with the prestigious US label Nonesuch, Carminho said she is taking a more intellectual approach to the genre as opposed to the instinctual, emotional perspective of her 2018 album Maria. “Maria was more intuitive and remembering the memories of my childhood,” the 39-year-old singer said, “and what I felt in my father’s arms when I used to listen to my mother live when I was three or four years old.”

In her new album, she continued, “I reflected a bit more. I wanted to explore more. Not so intuitive but more reflective.” She likened working within the tradition of fado to the work of an artisan, like a potter. “He does it with the same technique over and over, repeating the same, yes, but the pot is different every time, never the same. But the technique and the tradition are there. There’s something in the air, the generation, the technology, something in your influences that changes a bit. Fado is like that.”

At first listen, Carminho’s version of fado seems to be well within the tradition, centered as it is on her arresting voice and surrounded by a few acoustic instruments, including the distinctive twinkle of the Portuguese guitar. But she also includes an electric guitar, which weaves in subtle textures of distortion as opposed to melodic runs or rhythmic strumming. On the new record, she also has let go of the traditional canon, trying her hand at songwriting and including songs by contemporary women singer-songwriters from Portugal, such as Rita Vian and Joana Espadinha.

Carminho booked a studio for ten days as a prelude to recording the record. She said, “But in the end, it was so alive, so heartbeat, such an emotion that I was completely sure that I had the album.” Released in August, Portuguesa has been nominated for a Latin Grammy this month.

While Carminho loved fado from her earliest years, she was surprised that her teenage peers thought the music was irrelevant and old-fashioned. In the 1970s and 1980s, fado had become associated with Portugal’s military dictatorship, which promoted it in an attempt to foster nationalism. With the junta’s fall in 1974, many set fado aside as a remnant of a time they wanted to put behind them. As time passed, a younger generation of Portuguese listeners without those associations began to reacquaint themselves with their country’s music, and new singers started to introduce it to audiences worldwide.

“People wanted to understand a bit about what is pure of this place or what is pure of that place,” Carminho said of the international audiences. “And fado preserves this pureness of creating the atmosphere of a place. It’s nice to share and to make bridges between other cultures, but it’s also interesting to see some cultures preserved.”

Carminho apprenticed under old guard fadistas, including her mother. “I learned about the words, the energy put into the words, I learned the melodies,” she said. “It’s learning music, but at the same time, it’s learning a culture, about the stories of the elders.”

Carminho set out in her 20s to pursue a modern marketing career but left it quickly to sing fado professionally. Her debut in 2009, simply titled Fado, was a platinum seller in Portugal, the first of four such designations for her albums. In 2011, her duet with the chart-topping Pablo Alboran of Spain introduced her to Spanish listeners, broadening her renown with the hit single “Perdoname”.

In 2016, after three successful fado records, Carminho demonstrated her versatility with a successful album that brought her intensity to breezier covers of classic bossa nova songs by Brazil’s Antonio Carlos Jobim.  

In addition to Portuguesa being nominated for a 2023 Latin Grammy, Carminho had two notable special appearances this year. In March, she joined Coldplay and Portuguese pop singer Barbara Bandeira and an audience of tens of thousands in her hometown of Coimbra for a lovely tribute to the city. During her 2023 US tour, she also went into the studio to record with indie musician and producer Steve Albani. This year, she will also make her big-screen debut singing in Yorgos Lanthimos’ sci-fi movie Poor Things with Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo.

This past August, she sang for Pope Francis in Lisbon during a World Youth Day celebration. Along with a chorus and orchestra, Carminho sang her song, “Estrela (Star)”. “It was an incredible experience, completely out of my capacity to understand,” she said. “I was not a performer—I was just a pilgrim singing and giving what I have. It was great and very intense and very moving. It was beautiful. I will never forget it.”

At first listen, fado seems deeply melancholic and, in fact, often is about lost loves and seems a natural outgrowth of its origins in Portuguese port bars in the early 1800s, where sailors set off to sea for long, lonesome journeys.

Over the years, the music was adopted and adapted by Portuguese poets, who used the genre to articulate a variety of tangled emotions, which were then expressed by the heartfelt singing of generations of fadistas. The undisputed queen of fado was Amalia Rodriguez, whose tempestuous singing and black-clad stage presence defined and dominated the field for decades. Principal to the genre is the feeling of saudade, a Portuguese word without a direct English translation. It is a bittersweet mix of emotions, somewhat similar to nostalgia. Rather than strictly being sad, many songs limning saudade embody joy and gratitude at having experienced the deep emotions, even if the person, place, or time is no longer present.

“It’s our blues,” Carminho said, adding that saudade “the word is very beautiful because it’s the Portuguese way to talk about something that’s good and bad at the same time. … It’s a mixed-feeling word. It’s very special.”

Carminho also clarified the stereotype that her fellow citizens were melancholic. “Portuguese people have the courage to talk about sadness and difficult moments, and they are not afraid to explore their feelings,” she said. “That is important because it’s the way you can know yourself better.”

Carminho says the music plays a vital role for Portuguese people, noting the popularity of the everyday scene inside local fado houses. “If you go one month every day,” she said. “You’re going to find the same fadista every day singing with the same musicians, the same repertoire for the same audience. And what it means is it’s much more than entertainment. It’s something that we need to survive, to fulfill the heart and the soul.”