Fado is arguably the most romantic genre in the world. Born in tiny working-class clubs in Portugal where it’s so dark you’d have a hard time finding your drink on the table, it’s anchored by diva singers who wear elaborate gowns and sing sad tales (Fado roughly translates as fate or destiny) of love, lost love and love that is doomed. While tales of lovers dying or lost at sea are common in the music, the legendary Maria Severa’s (1820-46) own tragedy has left implacable imprint on the music: she was a tavern owner’s daughter and singer who took the music out of the bars and into polite society. Unfortunately, she fell in love with a aristocratic bullfighter and eventually killed herself because the class system prevented them from being together.
With roots of the genre going back even further, the music’s origins are cloudy but it’s generally understood that it blends the songs of Portuguese sailors, African slaves and ancient Moors. A lot of the lyrics come from Portuguese love poems with traditional backing on the lute-like 12-string Portuguese guitar, conventional acoustic guitar and bass guitar. While the work of the dominant AmÃ¡lia Rodrigues and the many present day divas who followed are readily available, their male counterparts and artists from earlier eras are mostly available domestically in a variety of compilations like Casa do Fado, Fado & Fadistas and Fado de Lisboa.
It all starts with Amlia Rodrigues. Though the music was first recorded in 1910, actor/singer Amlia Rodrigues (1920-99) is its most influential figure and remains Portugal's biggest star, and she can be heard on countless albums and compilations. Amlia Sings Traditional Fado is a good place to start. Armed with a transcendent alto and movie star looks, it was Rodrigues who brought the music back to relevance with fresh repertoire and stellar performances around the world after the music had been co-opted by a dictatorship of Antnio de Oliveira Salazar. Just as Fela's death opened the way for Afro-beat to flourish anew, a new generation of singers has filled the vacuum left by Rodrigues's departure.
The platinum-blonde Mariza plays the world's great music halls when she tours. The most popular singer carrying the tradition today, her DVD Live in Lisbon was recorded in front of 20,000 fans. It's a far cry from the tiny Fado houses of Alfama, but the singer's strong voice and dynamic stage presence makes her a natural for the big stages. While her arrangements are excellent but conventional, the singer does bring in blues and jazz to help her plumb the emotional depths this music demands. 2005's Transparente is the singer at her best with elements of Brazilian music and a string orchestra adding rich colors.
Cristina Branco's elegant voice is slightly higher and more nasal than Rodriques and Mariza, making her delivery one of the lightest of the fadistas. Wildly popular in Northern Europe, Branco takes more chances than most with her music. This is due to musical support by the great Custdio Castelo, who is one of the best Fado guitarists around and the two seem intent to explore genres ranging from jazz to tango to French caf music to modern acoustic pop, often with acoustic piano in the mix. Post-Scriptum finds Branco and Castelo at their best.
Born in 1979, Ana Moura is one of the newer singers to emerge on the scene. Some post- Amlia singers make only tentative inroads into other styles of music through collaborations, but this slender diva has jammed onstage with both Prince and the Rolling Stones. The latter isn't surprising she spearheads a project that recasts Stones songs as Fado. Her voice is deep but crystal clear, with a timbre as dark as the inside of an Alfama club. She's made a handful of albums in the traditional vein, the best being Aconteceu, but the future remains incandescently bright for this star.
Born in 1955, you can't really lump Msia in with the new fadistas. While many of the newly emerging singers embody the conventional sense of beauty and modern naturalistic stage presence, Msia's highly stylized outfits and dramatically severe haircuts project a more formal approach. Each of her lines is seemingly delivered with a hint of holding back, yet there no doubt that a powerful voice is always there. This unique blend of style and substance is supported by music almost wholly within the tradition, though she does tackle a variety of languages. Her recent Senhora da Noite is a great place to start.
Born in 1969, Pontes may not have the reputation in the U.S. of others, but a few of her albums have been released here, the best being O Primiero Canto. Pontes first became an actor and then a pop singer before coming into Fado in her 20s this has given her an incredibly strong stage persona that is at turns earthy, avant-garde, contemporary and traditional. Although it doesn't have the overt sense of training that many singers bring to the table, her voice works on several levels. She's also not afraid to stretch musically either.
Discovered by the great Joo Braga in 1997, Mafalda Arnauth looks like a model but she sings like an angel her voice can be either magnificently bold or light and subtle. One traditional model of Fado is to use Portuguese love poems already written (or getting a poet/lyricist to write you new ones), but Arnauth often opts to write (and produce) her own material while staying firmly within the tradition. She's released a handful of albums since her 1999 debut, with 2011's Fadas being her first in five years.
Ana Sofia Varela
Though her international reputation has been a little slower to develop than some of her fellow young singers, Ana Sofia Varela made her debut in 2005 with critically acclaimed Fados de Amor e Pecado. By this point, she had already spent several years developing a style of her own in the Fado houses and it paid off. She's now getting the support of talented lyricists, songwriters and players that will ensure a long and fruitful career.
Active from the mid '80s to the mid '00s, Lisbon's Madredeus was a wildly popular crossover act from the beginning. Teresa Salgueiro rechanneled some of Fado's passionate delivery in a more ethereal direction that made inroads with fans of Dead Can Dance, Enya and others. The band nevertheless retained the bones of Fado, featuring both Portuguese guitar and using the same kinds of dramatic arrangements (if on a larger scale). This band was a gateway that helped Fado reach a broader audience. A great overview is 2000's Anthologia, a greatest hits collection.
The Coimbra Tradition
The streets and bars of Lisbon's Alfama and Mouraria neighborhood are where Fado was born, but the university town and cultural center of Portugal is Coimbra, which is where some believe the style was refined into what it is today. The more academic Coimbra tradition is noteworthy because men sing the songs and singer and band dress in dark robes. While quite popular in Portugal, the male singers haven't made the same impact internationally. Look for the legendary Joo Braga, Fernando Machado Soares, Fernando Farinha and Rodrigo Costa Flix on various collections.
Carlos Do Carmo
Instrumental in the campaign to get Fado recognized by UNESCO, the iconic Carlos do Carmo's family owns a Fado house in Lisbon called the Faia. Born in 1930, he wrote several classic songs in '70s and was instrumental in introducing jazz and Brazilian music into the form. His work ranges from big band arrangements that aren't all that different in tone than Sinatra or Jobim to traditional Fados. He never sounds better than on A Spirit of Fado, Vol. 1.
Founded in 1996, this sextet has helped revitalize the Coimbra tradition. The group from Coimbra features three singers who each take a turn. As with other groups of recent vintage, this one mixes new original songs that are steadfastly tradition in with the classics. Their aptly named Coimbra Fado offers up a hefty 19 tracks that sizzle with musicianship that is skillfully recorded. It's also nice to hear the different voices from song to song, giving the new listener a fine overview of what this style has to offer.