28 March 2012

Nathalie Pires

I spoke recently with the Luso-American fadista Nathalie Pires. I invited her to discuss her life within the fado for this blog and she responded with this great essay. I hope you enjoy it!  -DM

by Nathalie Pires

When interviewed, I have yet to meet a reporter who doesn’t ask me, “What is Fado”? I always give what I feel is a generic answer: Fado translates to fate or destiny, and it is also a genre of music that many explain as an “urban folk music” that is unique to Portugal. But what Fado is to me personally is an energy inside of me that longs to be released. There is a different Fado for every emotion I have ever felt, and countless Fados I could almost swear were written specifically about my life experiences. There is no other genre of music I can identify myself with.

But I didn’t always feel this passionate about the “Portuguese blues”. In fact, I remember being a child and my parents dragging me to Fado nights at the local Portuguese clubs. We’d be there for hours listening to what seemed like old women dressed in all black, crying and complaining in song all night in candle light with a constant steady cloud of cigarette smoke hanging over the whole room. My intuitive recognition of this ambience wasn’t a positive one, and I thought of Fado as “old people music”. That is, until years later: April of 1999, when I was invited to sing at a Fado night in my hometown of Perth Amboy in New Jersey.

In preparation for my performance, my father gave me a 2-disc album of Amália Rodrigues’ greatest hits and my mother bought me my first black shawl. I learned 3 fados with lyrics that we felt weren’t too heavy for a 13 year old girl. I sang for the first time accompanied by a classical and Portuguese guitar in a dark room, in front of a quiet and very intense crowd. The whole time I felt extremely intimidated by the attentive audience, hypnotized by the sound of the guitars, overwhelmed by the emotion these Fados demanded of me, yet in complete control of my performance. That night I discovered the power of Fado: the audience’s support and reaction was my driving force to pursuit being a “Fadista.”
Nathalie at 14
Paulo Jorge (L) and Carlos Fonseca (R)

That September, I mourned the death of Amália Rodrigues along with all of Portugal. My greatest idol had passed away and Fado entered a dark period. Many in Portugal were convinced that Fado was going to die out along with the passing of the Portuguese icon. I, however, was born and raised in the United States where every Portuguese immigrant or luso-descendant I knew were super proud of their roots and extremely dedicated to keeping our traditions alive--including Fado. So, I continued to learn more Fados and was little by little becoming more popular within the Portuguese community. Word was spreading that there was a young girl singing Fado and crowds would curiously gather to listen because it was so unusual for someone so young to sing such deep topics. But I did, and although I couldn’t relate to every lyric I sang, I was extremely dedicated to my new pastime.

As I got older, I sang Fado with growing confidence. I grew closer to my guitarists, who helped me select my repertoire and choose the right keys for my maturing voice. I became more familiar with my audience, and with the Fados that we connected to the most. Before I knew it, my schedule was getting busier and busier with frequent performances along the east coast and even Canada. This was one of the most rewarding times of my career because I got these opportunities simply by “word of mouth”.

In 2007, I recorded my first album Corre-me o Fado Nas Veias ("Fado runs in my veins"), thinking it would be a nice keepsake. To my surprise, the album was released with huge success and even had a hit original single in California called “Festa Brava a Portuguesa” which was written by my father, Telmo Pires. It was awarded “Album of the year” by United Artists of America. Before I knew it, I was busy touring Portuguese clubs, restaurants and associations around the country. Some of my other performances included one at the United Nations, where I represented Portugal for ambassadors from all around the world. I also sang for the Vice President of the Portuguese Republic at the Boston State House, at Portugal Day in Central Park in New York City, at SOUNDshift International Music Festival in New Foundland (Canada), and at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival’s “Tudo Isto é Fado”.

Brooklyn Academy of Music (2011)
I have also performed in some of the most prestigious Fado houses in Lisbon:  Sr. Vinho, Bacalhau de Molho, O Faia, Mesa de Frades, Taverna d’el Rei, and Clube de Fado. I was honored to be invited to sing at the VI Gala Amália award ceremony. I also took part in the celebration of UNESCO's  announcement at the “Museu do Fado”, with António Parreira (guitarra portuguesa), Guilherme Carvalhais (viola) and Armando Figueiredo (baixo). Fundação Amália also recognized my accomplishments as a Portuguese-American fadista with a medal, and claimed me as an ambassador of the fado in the United States.

Clube do Fado, Lisbon
Mário Pacheco (L) and Ricardo Cruz (R) [Miguel Ramos (viola) not pictured]

But my most rewarding performances are by far my weekly gigs in New York City. I enjoy singing without amplification in the intimate environment of 30-50 people of diverse ethnicities. I love it when the audience interacts and asks me about the poems and emotions that I’m interpreting and questions the roots of the Portuguese guitar. Sometimes it’s even overwhelming for the audience as I recall one time an Italian man who was in the City on vacation cried uncontrollably even though he claimed he didn’t understand the language but he explained that he imagined what he felt I was singing through my expressions. For an artist, nothing can top that.

Singing in Manhattan has also given me opportunities outside of Fado. I met Tim Ries, one of the best saxophone players in the world, who has also toured and recorded with the Rolling Stones. After listening to my album, he invited me to perform at Highline Ballroom in New York City, and then in Austria. I sang two songs that he had recorded with Ana Moura for his album “Tim Ries and The Rolling Stones Project”, where he adapted the Rolling Stones hits “No Expectations” and “Brown Sugar” with Fado influences. That experience was surreal.

At Red Bulls Stadium
I also had the opportunity to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the New York Red Bulls Major League Soccer season opener in their stadium with over 20,000 enthusiastic fans. That was the most exciting/nerve-wrecking performance of my life! Singing in Manhattan also gave me the opportunity to meet Pedro Henriques da Silva, co-founder of the “Manhattan Camerata” where I am occasionally featured during many of their concerts and even their debut album. I am also actively involved in their Tango-Fado Project, which also features Grammy nominee Daniel Binelli, one of the world’s best bandoneon players. Being accompanied by an orchestra has definitely been one of the highlights of my career.

Anita Guerreiro
I’m also proud to share that living Fado legend, Anita Guerreiro is my godmother (madrinha) of Fado. She gave me this honor in front of an audience in 2008. She has just celebrated 55 years in her career yet gives me the upmost support and respect.

But some of my most fulfilling experiences in Fado weren’t during my performances at all. One time I was listening to Fado while driving on the NJ Turnpike and as I was reaching out to pay the toll, the man in the tollbooth stuck his head in my car when he realized what I was listening to and exclaimed that he was a huge Fado fan without even knowing who I was! Meanwhile, the drivers behind me started to honk their horns and interrupted our unusual encounter. Another time, I was set to perform in a festival in New Bedford, NJ and without ever meeting me before then, an American man gave me a Fernanda Maria LP that he had found at a thrift shop simply because he wanted to give it to someone “who would appreciate it”. I appreciated it even more because of his kind gesture. Even at my own wedding, as my husband and I celebrated with our guests, almost everyone requested that sing. So I did. Overall, the continued support I get makes it all worthwhile. It is both inspiring and motivating. It’s extremely draining juggling my professional career as a fulltime accountant while being so dedicated to Fado. I justify it by accepting that accounting is my reality and Fado is my therapy.

Through all of my experiences, Fado transformed from being a pastime to a responsibility, but always my passion. Besides from the satisfaction it gives me as a performer, the poems that I sing have taught me so much about Portugal and I’m proud to share our music with an audience that I can connect to. I’m often asked why I think Fado is so successful in the United States. My answer is because I’m singing about life, Portugal and of course “saudade”. What Portuguese immigrant or descendant doesn’t relate to that? And for those that listen to Fado and don’t speak Portuguese, I believe enjoy it for the emotional thrill they get from the musicians. For that simple reason, I am proud to be a “luso-american fadista”. I never dreamed of accomplishing all that I have with Fado. I truly believe Fado is my destiny and the more life throws at me, the more natural it is to me. It is my mission to continue to spread Fado to whoever is willing to listen!

with Carlos Macedo
Future performances that I’m looking forward to include:

  • 4/7: Clube Acores, Newark, NJ w/ Carlos Macedo 
  • 4/19: North Virginia Community College (Performance & Workshop)
  • 5/14: Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
  • I also perform every Wednesday night at Alfama Restaurant in NYC. www.alfamanyc.com
  • For more performance dates and info visit www.nathaliepires.com. 

20 March 2012

FADOS by Saura: A high-class cultural hijacking

Now that FADOS--a 2007 film by the Spanish director Carlos Saura--is available in the US via Netflix streaming, this seems a good time to call the film what it is: a high-class cultural hijacking. Over the years since its release, Saura has cast it as a film "about" the fado, one that, according to the liner notes, draws on its "history" and its "contemporary expressions."

By the same logic, I can probably make a good argument for "Austin Powers" as a handbook for international espionage. But this would be unjust: unlike FADOS, the Austin Powers films present themselves a nothing other than elaborate confections.

With FADOS, Saura has rebranded the fado as a distinctly non-Portuguese drums-n-dance affair. Here,  the brightest signs of life (and biggest glimmers in the director's eye) are musical expressions that are as at home in the fado as Austin Powers would be behind real enemy lines.

The central conceit of the film is the Afro-brasilian hypothesis for fado's origin, which provides Saura with just enough fuel to open his film with a booty-shaking, drum beating affair. Next is a very respectable guitar duet which, not unsurprisingly, sounds nothing like what you just heard. Mariza, one of fado's current cultural emissaries, follows with the song "Transparente", arranged with electric guitars and drums. Toni Garrido next sings a pop song accompanied by piano and percussion, with a few cloying dancing girls in the background to butter up the visuals.

It is worth noting at this point that the typical musical setup for the fado consists of one singer, one player of the Portuguese guitar (12-strings) and one player of the viola (6-strings), as shown in the next performance: a fado menor do Porto, sung by Camané in fine form. While the music is great, Saura removes all other traces of life and vitality from the scene. This is the blueprint all but a few minutes of "real" fado in this film: actual fado singers and musicians are injected into bleak, cold, monochrome boxes, stripping them of the life force that has sustained the form thrive through wars, fads and, now, wrongheaded directors.

"I'll take it from here."
The next major movement in the film is centered on Maria Severa, a fadista of the early 20th century, in which the "Fado da Severa" is reimagined as a schoolroom lesson on her mythology. But perhaps this scene is better read as a war room briefing, with Saura collecting intelligence on the enemy in order to plot his next move.

The next fadista into the antiseptic box is Cuca Rosetta, here singing "Rua de Capelão" with Mário Pacheco on guitar. As with Camané, the visuals of the scene convey a clear message: if you want to see the life in the fado, look beyond this archaic arrangement.

The first man on Saura's hit list is the great Alfredo Marceneiro, a deeply influential figure in early 20th century fado. The film shows a snippet of video of Marceneiro singing, which is just enough to merit putting Marceneiro's name on the credits, then offers a new take on his heritage: the Marceneiro rap. Turntable, rhymes--it's all there. I think the fist-pumping that follows the rap is of approximately the same duration as that of Marceneiro's singing. I can say with complete confidence that this is not a scene that you will ever see in any place where the fado "happens".

Carlos do Carmo appears to sing "Um homem na cidade", a classy song that is, curiously, filmed with a respect for the music: there is no dancing, no rapping, and the visuals are lush scenes of Lisbon projected all around the singer. The contrast between this presentation and the one made of Marceneiro's work (and indeed of nearly all the other fadistas in this film) is striking for the mockery it makes of fado history.

The veteran Argentina Santos is the next to enter the operating room, here to sing "Vida vivida." Despite the frankly brutal staging of this scene, Santos triumphs. I don't think there is anything that Saura (or any one else) could do to topple this woman's FADO.

The remainder of the film hunts down all the remaining suspects. To help you forget Argentina Santos, Saura invokes the so-called fado batido (i.e., the beaten fado). And beat it he does, with accordeon and piano, and dancers tumbling through a fire.

The penultimate section of the film is organized around perhaps fado's greatest exponent, Amália Rodrigues. Amália, more than any other singer, brought traditional and new fado to the world, traveling incessantly throughout her career. Despite her forays into other musics (Portuguese and other folklore, even pop), the fado remained central to her repertoire. Here, she is shown in recital, with Alain Oulman on piano. As with Marceneiro, Saura here presents a film of a film: why so distant, Amália? Even more tellingly, the two are shown working through one of Oulman's compositions: Amália did not read music, so here she is not actually singing words--just sounds. And this is the best that Saura could do? For a "documentary" on the fado?
One singer, Two guitarists

One of Amália's better-known fados, "Estranha forma da vida", is given to the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, here playing solo guitar. Chico Buarque, also Brazilian, follows with "Fado Tropical", as images of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal play out behind him. This is a legitimate point: "Fado Tropical" was written by Buarque in direct response to the Carnation Revlution, and in part to make a parallel between the political situation in Portugal and that in Brazil. This is an oblique method of referring to the role of Portuguese music--including the fado--in the revolution.

Next is the fado flemenco (not listed on liner notes). Fado flamenco is flamenco, not fado. If you have any doubts about Saura's intentions, they are addressed during the next song, Meu Fado ("My fado"), by Mariza. As a lonely man dances in the background, Mariza sings the words "meu fado", to which the flamenco singer replies "Mi fado!"

The next nine minutes of the film are the closest Saura gets to the fado: nine minutes, during which he crams in many singers and musicians who deserve much better treatment than they have gotten here, among them the fadistas Carminho, Ricardo Ribeiro, Vicente da Câmara and Ana Sófia Varela. The scene is a stylized fado house, populated by singers, musicians and actors who were obviously not told to do anything other than to look pretty and clap at the end. Each singer gets the rough equivalent of one or two stanzas then sits down. Mariza then sings "Ó gente da minha terra", and the film is done.

With all but a handful of exceptions, together with the last nine minutes of the film, the music you hear in this film is not going to make it into the fado, the singers are not going to be found in fado houses, and the dancing and instrumentation are never going to become part of any fadista's "act". The whole notion is patently absurd: those practices are part of other traditions.

None of this is to say that there is no room for innovation in the fado: there is plenty, as shown by Amália's experiments with Alain Oulman, Fernando Maurício's modernization of singing style, and--perhaps most crucially--the continually expanding set of poetry and music that occurs within the tradition. All of this creativity happens, indeed must happen, within the confines of the fado. That's the nature of the game: trundling miscellaneous stuff into the fado does not count as innovation.

Finally, I feel it's incumbent upon me to offer a few pointers to films that treat the fado and the people within it with the respect they deserve. I wrote an article recently on some of these films for the Luso-Americano newspaper. The short (5min) film "Fado das Horas" by Diogo Varela Silva is pure visual poetry. Watch it here.

There are some longer documentaries that are easy to obtain in the US through Amazon: I would recommend anything in the series "Fado Today", along with "The Art of Amália". Additionally, you can try to find "Heaven's Mirror",  a film about the journey of a non-Portuguese--the film's director, Joshua Dylan Myers--to the fado. It does not yet have a distributor, but is being shown at certain film festivals.

Harder to find--but worth seeking out--are the following actual documentaries. Some are shown at various times on Portuguese television, though the transmission is not always available outside of Portugal.
  • "O Rei Sem Coroa" is a long overdue film about Fernando Maurício, made by Diogo Varela Silva.
  • "Vida vivida" is a film about Argentina Santos, made by Gonçalo Megre. 
  • "Não sei se canto se rezo" is a second film about Argentina Santos, director unknown (to me).
Here are some words from the great fado poet Carlos Conde:
"The fado is a music of the street that doesn't owe anything to anybody. There are many who owe everything they are to the fado, and even everything they judge themselves to be."

"O Fado é uma cantiga de rua que não deve nada a ninguém. Muitos é que devem ao Fado tudo o que são e até o que julgam ser." --Carlos Conde.

Note: I am actually a fan of just about all the non-fado singers in this film. I've been listening to Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso for about 15 years and own many of their records, along with many other recordings by other Brazilian artists. I've been listening to rap for twice as long. I bought my first flamenco record in 1992, and have been enamored of the music ever since. 

09 March 2012

Now for some music

I am working on a short article about lyricists within the fado, focusing on people who are writing now. In that spirit, I offer a few fado lyrics that I think are particularly well written (with an mp3 of each one). I am going to do this in two batches. The one contains lyrics written by male authors.

Format for each entry is as follows: Title, Fadista. (Lyricist/Composer, then name of the fado if appropriate). I've also tried a translation--but don't expect anything particularly poetic.

For each track, click on Title for the lyrics and on mp3 for the mp3. All attribution information is taken from José  Fernandes Castro's excellent site, Fados do fado.

Ronda dos bairros (mp3). Tony de Matos. (Francisco dos Santos / Fernando Freitas *fado noquinhas*). Bonus: Lucília do Carmo mp3, recorded under the title of Senhora da Saúde, with lyrics just slightly modified. (tr. "Tour of Lisbon's neighborhoods")

Boa noite solidão (mp3). Fernando Maurício. (Jorge Fernando / António dos Santos *balada do antónio*) Bonus: Jorge Fernando singing his own composition, with Ana Moura on viola and José Manuel Neto on Portuguese guitar (video). (tr. "Good evening loneliness")

Fiz leilão de mim (mp3). Max. (Artur Ribeiro / Maximiano de Sousa). Bonus: Ricardo Ribeiro video. (tr. "I auctioned myself" or maybe "I put myself on sale.")

Meu irmão fora da lei (mp3). Artur Batalha. (Paco Gonzalez). Bonus: video of Batalha. (tr. "My brother who lived outside the law")

Recado de João Dias (mp3). Rodrigo. Bonus video of Rodrigo. ("João Dias' recollection")

Estrela que se apaga (mp3). Fernando Maurício (Jorge Fernando / Jaime Santos *fado alvito*). Bonus: Artur Batalha video. (tr. "The star that goes out").

Hoje morreu um poeta (mp3). Jaime Dias (Rui Manuel / Vital d'Assunção). Bonus: Jaime Dias singing "Guitarra toca baixinho" (Evangelisti / Nicola di Bari / Versão: Francisco José)--lyrics. (tr. "A poet died today.")

É tão bom ser pequenino (mp3). Rodrigo (João Linhares Barbosa / Popular *fado corrido*). (tr. "It is great to be so young.") This particular mote has a long, complicated history. The idea is to use the mote in a novel way. Too hard to explain, so just compare the version by Linhares Barbosa with that of Carlos Conde, here sung by the incomparable Alfredo Marceneiro. Bonus: Augusto Soares singing Linhares Barbosa's version (video). You'll see that the n-th line of the first stanza is used as the last line of the (n+1)-th stanza. So...

{first stanza}
É tão bom ser pequenino
Ter pai, ter mãe, ter avós
Ter esperança no destino
E ter quem goste de nós

{second stanza}
Vem cá José Manuel / Dás-me a graciosa ideia
De Jesus na Galileia / A traquinar num vergel
És morenito de pele / Como foi o Deus menino
Tens o mesmo olhar divinov / Ai que saudades eu tenho
Em não ser do teu tamanho
É tão bom ser pequenino


05 March 2012

Two upcoming fado shows in the US

Carlos Macedo was born in 1946 in Lousado, Vila Nova da Famalicão, on 9 December 1946. 
He is a singer, musician, author, composer, as well as a craftsman of the Portuguese guitar. In 1982, he began a long tenure at Sr. Vinho, a highly regarded Lisbon fado house under the direction of Maria da Fé, where he remained until 2008. 

By 1991, Carlos Macedo had recorded eight records and accompanied other fadistas on innumerable other records. He traveled widely, playing in Brazil, Spain, The Netherlands, Canada, Belgium and France. 

In 2000 he released "Este Meu Fado," on the Strauss label. He was honored in 2006 by Lousado, his home city, by the festival commission of the "Romaria Nova", and remains strongly connected to the city. On 22 April 2010 he presented "Entre Nós o Fado" at the Fado Museum in Lisbon, and again on 26 May 2010 at the Casa das Artes in Vila Nova da Familiação. His work is now distributed by the Metro-Som label.

Nathalie Pires is a young Portuguese-American fado singer. I've heard her sing live a few times and it has always been worthwhile. Here she is the headliner of a show featuring lots of local talent, both singers and musicians.