Fado is not just from a time long ago, but it is a genre that, at its best, stops time. While this Portuguese music is steeped in melancholy like the blues and features big, dramatic singing like opera, it is about powerfully and poetically expressing deep feelings in a way that creates a timeless moment of connection between a singer and listener akin to the “duende” in flamenco.
Carminho, 35, has been one of the most successful of a new generation of fado singers in Portugal and now arrives in the United States with her debut on the iconoclastic Nonesuch label. Though new listeners will be catching Carminho after her career has already gotten underway, her new album Maria, (her actual name is Maria do Carmo Carvalho Rebelo de Andrade), is a return to roots – her own and of the genre.
Her path was not entirely expected. Carminho was the daughter of a successful fado singer, Teresa Siqueira, but she grew up away from Lisbon, the traditional red-hot center of the genre. Additionally, when she was a young girl, fado had become both old-fashioned and politically incorrect. The traditional music had been pushed for decades by the military dictatorship to stoke nationalism, so after the regime fell in 1974, fado was abandoned by many. As memories of the regime receded into the past, young Portuguese rediscovered it and a small number of fadistas began to find success both in Portugal and around the world.
When Carminho sang fado as a teenager, her friends thought she was weird and she never thought of it as a career path. She eventually went into the modern world of corporate marketing. Unhappy in the business world, she began to sing and stirred serious interest, but instead took a sort of gap year and travelled the world.
She eventually found success as a fado singer, with her debut album going to number two on the charts in Portugal. After a few successful fado albums, she even began to go beyond the traditional, such as her last album where she recorded the songs of Brazilian songwriter Tom Jobim and partnered with stars from that country.
But with Maria, Carminho returns to fado wholeheartedly, even if she adds some unconventional elements to the soulful music. Setting the tone for the album, she opens with the a cappella “A Tecedeira,” singing the bittersweet “But in sight there is no death/I will spin all the beauty.”
On “Estrella,” she sings in the deep, arresting style of fado, but she accompanies herself with a spare, reverb-y electric guitar, one that had a sound that she fell in love with. The “Estrella” or “star” she sings lovingly about is a close friend. “You are the star/That guides my heart….You are the star/And I am the pilgrim.”
Though her music is artfully arranged, the centerpiece is her voice, or really, her delivery. She is a singer who grabs each word and sings the hell out of it, embracing each note seemingly with her entire body. While some singers make you worry about hurting their throat, she wrings out notes that make you worry about her kidneys. It’s singing that isn’t just jaw-clenching, but provokes an involuntary sympathetic physical response of tensing one’s entire body.
While the album is generally in shades of dark blue, it is not monochromatic. When Carminho and her band tackle a more playful number, like the 1966 tongue-in-cheek “Pop Fado” about the modernization of fado, her fierce vocals soar over the joyful rhythms, exuberantly pulling listeners along for a lusty celebration of life.
On the lively “Poeta (Poet),” she celebrates poets and their work: “Turning emotions into seeds/Seeds with such power/They inspire the birds/To build their nests/On the brink of the gale.”
For the coming-of-age song “O Menino e a Cidade (The Boy and the City),” she introduces an unlikely element to the usual fado lineup – a pedal steel guitar that her accompanist plays with a bow. The result is that it becomes a drone instrument. “One by one the city lights are saying goodbye/And the boy, daydreaming, awaits his destiny/How many hours does the day take from you?/Whose hands will you slowly kiss one day?”
She ends with “As Rosas (The Roses),”a sad unrequited love lament, not unusual for fado, though she sings with a piano instead of the traditional guitars. “I die in pieces/When I hug you/And I know you won't be back anymore….That roses are made to die/When they scatter on the floor, nobody wants them.”
Unlike so much of popular culture, fado is un-ironic and emphasizes a soulful contemplation of life, love and sadness. In a time when reality TV shows highlight vocal pyrotechnics, perhaps listeners may have an ear for the deep singing of fado and Carminho. Her Nonesuch debut shows her to be a mature artist in search of a mature audience that embraces the heartfelt emotions that pop often skims over. - Marty Lipp