Amália Hoje brings new life to fado’s strongest voice

Boston Globe, December 2, 2011

From the start, it doesn’t feel like fado. Nor does the players’ entrance fit the norm for Lisbon’s hallowed style of melancholy song. It is not the genteel Portuguese guitar but a sharp synthesizer beat that ushers the artists on stage. There are not one but three singers – a woman and two men, sporting tattoos in lieu of the customary black shawl. Behind them, a full rock band, and behind that, a string orchestra.

But the song that launches this show, held in 2009 at the Coliseu in Lisbon and captured on a live DVD, is one the crowd recognizes. It is “Com Que Voz,” the title piece from a great 1969 album by fado’s empress, Amalia Rodrigues. And this band, Amalia Hoje (meaning “Amalia Today”) is a special project commissioned to honor Rodrigues, who died in 1999.

Now, behind the runaway success in Portugal of their studio album, live recording, and concerts, the Hoje team (minus strings, but plus a video art component) are bringing their pop approach to the Rodrigues songbook for two concerts in the United States. They visit the Berklee Performance Center on Sunday.

Fado lovers will know many of the songs, whether from Amalia’s renderings of yesteryear or from versions by the new crop of fado singers such as Misia, Mariza and Cristina Branco. The Hoje interpretations are different: They operate in a realm of alternative rock, tastefully rendered, lavish without becoming baroque.

This is the domain of the Gift, a long-running Portuguese pop band whose leader, Nuno Goncalves, was invited by Rodrigues’s label to produce Hoje. He called in a trio of singers: Sonia Tavares from the Gift, a Portuguese goth-metal singer named Fernando Ribeiro, and Paulo Praca, a singer-songwriter from the country’s north.

If this unorthodox team had a trait in common, says Goncalves on the phone from Lisbon, it’s that none of them ever particularly cared for fado.

“I preferred listening to the Cure and Joy Division,” Goncalves says, citing a rather different reservoir of melancholy music. “Fado was for my father.”

He confesses that even his knowledge of Rodrigues, despite her exalted status in Portuguese culture, was slender. “I knew four or five songs,” he says.

All this was reason enough for Goncalves, at first, to turn down the opportunity. But a deeper listening caused him to relent.

“I asked the label for her discography,” Goncalves says, and he took the songs with him on a long overseas flight. “And the first one I heard was `Gaivota.’ And somehow I realized this song would change my mind.”

Indeed, “Gaivota,” as sung by Tavares, became the first single off the Hoje album, with a stylish video that has exceeded 2 million views online. It’s another indication that the project has touched a broad constituency – evidenced, Goncalves says, by what he sees at their concerts.

“You see a typical heavy metal fan and a 67-year-old lady, and they are singing the songs together,” Goncalves says. “It was a very social meeting that we generated with this.”

That speaks, of course, to the unparalleled role that Rodrigues and her repertoire play in Portuguese art and society. Her impact endures not just in fado but far beyond, says musicologist Richard Elliott of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, whose book “Fado and the Place of Longing” came out last year.

“The shadow of Amalia is absolutely massive over contemporary Portuguese music, whether popular music or the `novo fado’ of the last decade,” says Elliott. “It seems you can’t be a fado singer now without some kind of gesture toward Amalia. But what’s interesting about the Hoje project is they seem very keen to downplay the fado aspect.”

That, says Goncalves, is because even though Rodrigues is indelibly associated with the form, her own work took her far outside its conventions.

“Amalia was more than fado,” Goncalves says. “She was more colorful than the black dress, black shawl, and black hair. She was a pop star.”

Because Rodrigues herself expanded fado’s domain, Goncalves felt free to make his own pop arrangements, eschewing the Portuguese guitar altogether, weaving in samplers and drum machines. He says he took some criticism from the fado orthodoxy, but he is proud of presenting music that honors a national icon – and by extension, the country itself – in a fresh light.

“Portugal is much more illuminated, has more color than just fado,” he says. And in Boston, where the show will likely attract many Portuguese-Americans, he hopes Hoje will help present the country not just as a nostalgic idea, but as the modern state it is today.

“Emigrants are tired of that image of Portugal, as a small country with no highways, only two TV channels,” Goncalves says. “They want to give the world an idea that Portugal is much more than that. It’s good for them to hear a band that gives new expression to the Portuguese idea.”

SIDEBAR: A defining and redefining voice

Last week, UNESCO added fado to its inventory of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage.” To friends of Portugal, this consecration only stated the obvious. Born in the steep streets and harborfront taverns of Lisbon in the 19th century, the mournful and romantic song form expresses the melancholy state called “saudade” that is entwined in Portugal’s cultural identity.

No less obvious to many is the dominating role in fado of Amalia Rodrigues, who began singing in the 1930s and gave her last concert in 1994, five years before her death. Her career spanned Portugal’s periods of dictatorship and democracy, and its transition from a poor, rural land to a modern economy. Her music became the country’s main cultural export, just as her successors – Misia, Mariza, Cristina Branco, Dulce Pontes, Ana Moura – have carved a space for fado on the current global music scene.

But Amalia – known simply by her first name – was no guardian of fado’s sanctity. Quite the contrary, says musicologist Richard Elliott, author of “Fado and the Place of Longing” (2010). Though she has become a synonym for the music today, she broke as many rules as she followed.

“Amalia was the original rebel in the world of fado,” Elliott says. “She was an international artist. She sang French songs, Broadway show tunes, Neapolitan songs, Mexican rancheras. It’s interesting that you get a cult of Amalia with blindness to her experimentalism.”

Traveling the world and frequently performing in New York and Paris, Amalia brought a bold voice and operatic ornamentation to what had been a spare, sober form. To match her, composers added violins and even full orchestras to the traditional accompaniment of a single Portuguese guitar. Famous poets wrote for her. Her main composer in the 1960s, Alain Oulman, was a Frenchman. She even recorded an album with jazz saxophonist Don Byas.

“That album was kept hidden for years!” says Nuno Goncalves, leader of the Amalia Hoje project. Growing up in Portugal, he says, the fado he heard barely hinted at the innovations Amalia was performing on the world stage. “The style of fado was a prison for the country,” Goncalves says.

No longer. In her later years, Amalia gave triumphant concerts that encapsulated her career and confirmed her as a Portuguese national treasure. And just as today’s fadistas experiment more boldly with rock, electronica, and folk music of other countries, Goncalves believes it is more than appropriate for a pop band to address fado, with Amalia once again the shared reference point. “We are not trying to erase Amalia from our hearts,” Goncalves says. “Just the opposite.”