Although men have long sung the emotionally charged Portuguese music known as fado, ever since the ascent of the genre’s legendary diva Amalia Rodrigues half a century ago the form’s most famous practitioners have been women. Today singers such as Mariza, Ana Moura and Joana Amendoeira are the popular face of fado, cleaving to tradition and forever held up to Amalia, even while expanding the repertoire. Perhaps the lack of public scrutiny given to male fado singers explains why António Zambujo comes off as a comparative risk-taker. On his superb fifth album Quinto, he’s never sounded more comfortable and accomplished pushing against fado’s stylistic strictures.
Zambujo isn’t an iconoclast: At the heart of his music is fado’s indelible blend of acoustic guitar, Portuguese guitar and upright bass, and his singing is distinguished by the expected melancholia. But as much as he flies the flag for fado, he also enlarges its possibilities, complementing his arrangements with masterfully deployed clarinets, and, on a few songs, electric guitar, drums, and trombone. While his phrasing is marked by tear-triggering pathos, his tone is much more delicate than other fado singers.
He’s a huge fan of Chet Baker, and there’s no missing their shared tonal fragility, a quality that gives each performance a sonic vulnerability that perfectly matches the poetic sentiments. Baker was an influence on the development of bossa nova, so it makes sense that Zambujo also adds a bit of that Brazilian music’s pin-drop softness to his delivery. On certain songs, such as the gorgeous “Rua dos Meus Ciúmes,” there’s an unmistakable trace of Caetano Veloso in his singing, and on “Fortuna” and “Mará” he continues to reach outside of his homeland for material, singing non-fado songs by Brazilians Márcio Faraca and Rodrigo Maranhão, respectively. He also gives another nod to Cante Alentejano, the rustic male choral music from his native southern Portugal, on “O Que á Feito Dela?” The cumulative picture paints Zambujo as fado’s most exciting practitioner of any gender.