Now this is gorgeous music.
Over the past few years, North Americans have had a chance to hear more Portuguese music than ever before. From Susana Baca to Cesaria Evora, we’ve had a chance to luxuriate in the melancholic joy of fado and saudade — those extremely complicated and contradictory mappings of the geography of inner feelings that express the heights and depths of love and loss at the very same time. As with the export of Cuban son, some of this music has merely been the repackaging of foreign oldies in a new form — as if classical rock ‘n’ roll was suddenly re-discovered by musicologists from Africa, who then mounted a stadium tour of ’50s rockers across the continent to great acclaim. But in other cases, we’ve had the opportunity to listen to genuinely contemporary expressions of Portuguese music. The release of Antologia, a greatest hits package by the brilliant ensemble Madredeus, provides just such an opportunity to experience a vibrant present that maintains deep roots in the traditions of Portuguese music. It’s an opportunity that you shouldn’t pass up on.
Madredeus was formed in 1987 with the express purpose of creating a distinctively modern Portugese sound. At the heart of the group’s serene, reflective music is Teresa Salgueiro’s ethereal voice, which combines earthly desire and cosmic awe, material longing and transcendental hope, and which settles over you like a state of grace. Through hints and evasions as much as through the clean, airy melodies laid out by acoustic guitars, cello, accordian and keyboards, the group produces music that is elegant and simple, rich and soulful, even while being presented with an icy precision and cold purposiveness that strikes through to the core of one’s being. Madredeus’ music is exotically flavored; it’s spicy, but like wasabi — less a burn on the tongue than an electric blue flash through your nervous system which reminds you of how little you actually feel from day to day. It shares the same sentiment of doomed joy as Cesara Evoria’s songs, but musically the group does more with less. Instead of crashing over you with big, fat vibrant rhythms, Madredeus drifts in like the tide, pulling you slowly towards the ocean through immeasurable tugs and silent retreats.
The philosophy of fado is distilled perfectly in the 17 songs crammed onto the disc. The English summaries of the song lyrics read as koans for a religion of tragic feeling and soulful embodiment. Track 1, “O Pastor the Shepherd”: “To awake is to kill a dream”; track 10, “The Distant Sea”: “A lost future is sweeter than memory”; track 15, “The Sea”: “To describe the sea — and fail — is the only way to understand it”; track 16, “Still”: “Not knowing what comes next is our only source of comfort.” This is close to the perverse joy that can come from extreme, disillusioned cynicism, as exemplied by the aphorisms of the great depressive E.M. Cioran. An acceptance of the essential tragedy of the human condition can be a way of transcending it; the abandonment of false hopes gives all the more weight and meaning to what we can expect. As Madredeus say, “lovers belong to each other as the sun belongs to the sea — not much, but enough to be going on with.” A disc filled with such sentiments is almost too much too bear, too much to make sense of and to comprehend. But it’s infinitely preferable to the mainstream syrup of love and loss that makes up much of what passes for popular music.
The Portuguese word “saudade” doesn’t translate easily into English. Maybe this says something about the limits of our own emotional geography. If we don’t have a word for “saudade,” we need one. But maybe its best to leave saudade as a mystery, a feeling that commands us even if we can’t name for it. This is, I think, what Madredeus would want: a way of understanding saudade by trying, yet failing to name it. After all, this just happens to the only possible way to grasp it.