Soul Singer

Ask anyone about this new style of fado, about their favorite 20th-Century fadistas, and one name will come up again and again: Amália Rodrigues. Cristina Branco discovered fado by “by listening to an LP of Amália Rodrigues that my grandfather gave me on my 18th birthday.” She recommends “any album” by Rodrigues as an essential intro to the genre. Indeed, Amália Rodrigues has become so closely identified with the form that she is often simply referred to as Amália — no last name necessary. Her career stretched from the mid-1930’s until the mid-1980’s, a period in which she sold tens of millions of records. Her voice is unforgettable. “She goes from a mezzo-soprano to a contralto when she's singing; a profound voice that's a little bit smokey,” as Colvin put it. He also closely connects her own professional development with the aesthetic changes in fado: “We start to see an orchestration of fado where it's no longer percussive, it's no longer just the Spanish guitar or the Portuguese guitar. It actually starts to include orchestra strings. We see a move into a really operatic fado.” 

Amália was also, some argue, closely identified with the Salazar regime and part of its effort to use fado as a cultural prop for its power. She was, in fact, called out publicly on a talk show for being a tool of Salazar’s. Yet the story of her political commitments is more complicated than it might appear. She is best known for working closely with songwriter Alain Oulman. His composition “Abandono” is a song, Colvin says, quite clearly about Salazar’s prison camps — one of the lines runs, in English, “for your first thought, they took you far away in the middle of the night, so far that I could never find you” — and the longing for a lover lost to them. For this Oulmain was, unsurprisingly, put in prison himself. 

Afterwards, Colvin noted, Amália went on a talk show defending her right to sing Portugal’s national poet Luis Vaz de Camões “in a nation where the intellectuals are saying, in effect, how dare a woman from the streets sing the words of our poet laureate? They then ask her a question about Oulman, whom they call a ‘French’ composer, and she says very beautifully, ‘The last time I checked, the place he was born was right down the street from me, not in France.’ She's really challenging this notion that to be Portuguese, you have to fall in line with the aesthetics and the racial/ethnic and national qualities of the regime.”  

Amália’s artistic reputation has, deservedly, survived these political entanglements: after her death in 1999, the Portuguese government moved her remains to lie in the National Pantheon alongside those of Camões and Vasco da Gama. And fado itself was declared a part of Portugal’s cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2000. As noted, there is a resurgence in the genre as well, seemingly ensuring its posterity — Branco is 46, Ana Moura 39; both have years left in their career and a fan base big enough, it is to be hoped, to inspire still younger people to take up fado. In an age of increasing cultural homogeneity in music, movies, and everything else, old forms receiving new life is a powerful and positive sign. 


Curious about fado? Here few key recordings where you can start listening.

Alfredo Marceneiro — Cabelo branco é saudade
Lucília do Carmo — Trindade Popular
Fernando Farinha — Fado Corrido ao Vivo
Hermínia Silva — Fado do Retiro (Aldeia da Roupa Branca)
Amalia Rodrigues — Solidao