24 February 2013

Fado at Tabacaria Açoreana, Fall River, MA

Sonya da Silva
The Portuguese fadista Sonya da Silva is in the US for a series of performances in the New England area, beginning yesterday (24-Feb-13) at the Tabacaria Açoreana in Fall River, MA. The evening showed the re-emerging nucleus of the fado in this area, and particularly how a number of local fado stalwarts--including the Luso-American fadistas Ana Vinagre and Rosa Maria--are maintaining the fado tradition despite the long distance to Portugal. The three singers (plus a surprise fourth, Ana Vinagre's husband, José Vinagre) were joined by the musicians José Silva (guitarra portuguesa) and Viriato Ferreira (viola) of the group Guitarras do Atlântico.

Sonya da Silva is a a member of the Lisbon fado scene, performing at many of the typical fado houses in Alfama and Bairro Alto, as well at other locations in Portugal. As she discussed during an interview before the show, her current repertory draws on classics of the modern fado, and is now expanding to include lyrics written specifically for her and set to the music of traditional fado. It's likely to be a winning recipe: the influx of new lyrics (and, occasionally, musics) keeps the fado vibrant but also true to its tradition. Sonya da Silva has firsthand knowledge of the fado's inner workings: her father was a dancer with the great fadista Maximiliano da Sousa (Max) of Madeira; he was also a cousin of the fadista/guitarist Carlos Ramos. It was Sonya's father, in fact, who impressed upon her that her voice was made for the fado.

José and Ana Vinagre
The program brought together not only two distinct generations of the fado, but very different approaches to performing it. After an opening guitarrada, Rosa Maria opened the evening. She is a singer with an uncompromising, even iconoclastic approach to her repertory. Ana Vinagre--a full-voiced singer with lots of crowd appeal--opened with a lively Fado Pedro Rodrigues ("Amor não é pecado"), before hitting both newer and older mainline fado. On taking the stage, Sonya da Silva confessed to a bit of opening night jitters, but no worry: she demonstrated throughout the evening an ability to work closely with her material and to reach her audience, despite not having performed previously with these musicians. This is is the kind of exchange between Portuguese communities that, judging by this evening, could and should happen much more often.

Some of the livelier points during the night (and there were plenty) happened during duets: Sonya and Ana on "Tudo Isto É Fado, Ana and José Vinagre on "Só nós dois", followed by the same couple again on an upbeat and humorous desgarrada--a series of back-and-forth challenges between two singers. The strength of the voices of all the singers, as well as the relative quiet in the crowd, made me question again the use of amplifiers for this music, particularly when the performance space is not large. Perhaps some future shows will drop the electronics and go fully acoustic--which is how it happens in the most typical fado houses of Portugal. My own feeling is that, when the fado is unamplified, the evening has the best chance to turn into a real conversation between audience and performers.
José Silva, Rosa Maria, Sonya da Silva, Ana Vinagre, Viriato Ferreira (l-r)

The evening's common denominator was the musical duo of José Silva and Viriato Ferreira. As fado guitarists, they have to be ready for the singer to "call" any one of a large number of fado musics in any number of keys (e.g., "fado meia-noite em ré"). In a given night, the same fado music (here, the Fado Pedro Rodrigues) can be called numerous times. The challenge, then, is to present the music in a way that is true to its form, but that says something different from what has been said earlier. This is an improviatory side of the fado that, much like the ongoing invention of fado lyrics, keeps the fado experience moving forward. Silva and Ferreira kept the music fresh, and more. In fact, at one point in the second set, the singer Ana Vinagre turned around to face the musicians and said to them and thus, "I let them play what they want, and I then sing."

According to the singer José Vinagre, the Tabacaria Açoreana (or "TA") once held regular fado nights, and it is easy to see why. The community of singers is strong and tightly-knit, the performance space (downstairs in the restaurant) is intimate but not small, and the food (typical Portuguese) is excellent. Tonight the room was full with a distinctly Portuguese crowd, and the service timely.

Sonya da Silva continues to perform in the area with upcoming appearances at Restaurante Dinis Paiva in East Providence, RI (with Rosa Maria) (25 February), and two more dates in New Bedford: Tilia's Café (3 March) and Inner Bay Café (4 March).

Many thanks to Feligénio Medeiros of FadoNight.com for permission to use his photographs. Be sure to check out his site as well as the Facebook group Fado in the US for more information on fado events in this country.

08 February 2013

Fado at Alfama restaurant, New York City

There's a warm and winning group of singers and musicians evoking the fado in Manhattan, at the Alfama restaurant on E 52nd St. While Newark, NJ is the place to hear big, bustling fado--in larger venues, with lots of singers--Alfama gives you a chance to hear and feel this music up close.

The upstairs restaurant at Alfama is known for high quality food and a classy atmosphere. Downstairs, where the fado happens, the space is more intimate: when I was there on 6 February with five other friends and family, about 25 people were enough to fill it. As in a classic Portuguese fado house, the musicians and singers perform from the corner, without microphones. The effect--so important for the fado--is that you are keenly aware of the fact that you're all in the same space, part of the same conversation. Amazingly, there was not a peep from anyone as the music played--something that, even in Lisbon, is a rarity.

Nathalie Pires
The singers, particularly the luminous Nathalie Pires, provided background on many of the fados they played, describing the lyrics, sometimes the people behind the music, and what the fado means to them and to Portuguese culture. However, this is NOT tourist fado: what you'll hear at Alfama is actually closer to the "real" fado than some of the fado you might hear in Lisbon (particularly if your tour bus is parked outside).

Nathalie Pires is tireless in her devotion to the fado, singing both in the US and abroad (including gigs at Mario Pacheco's Clube do Fado in Lisbon). Her impact in the US has been enormous, so it was a pleasure to hear her in this more intimate space. It appears that, as her career evolves, she is branching out--exploring new lyrics and new sensibilities. I particularly appreciated her more upbeat performances, such as "Nunca há silêncio vão" ("Silence is never in vain"). I look forward to hearing how far she is willing to push this new direction: she certainly has the personality and technical skills to pull it off.
Tarcísio Costa

Tarcísio Costa, a co-owner of Alfama and also one of the singers, brought a romantic sensibility to the fado, notably on the lovely Vielas d'Alfama. His singing was as confessional and as unpretentious as one might find in the actual Alfama quarter of Lisbon. He is the kind of singer who obviously has many stories to tell, not the least of which is trying to make a "real" Portuguese restaurant happen in NYC. In a strange twist that shows just how tight the fado's grip can be, he began singing after his mother--who, Tarcísio says, instilled in him a affection for the fado--died in 2009. But his mother wasn't of Portuguese descent, but Italian. And Tarcísio isn't from Portugal, but from Brazil.

Francisco Chuva
A night of fado would not be complete without a few surprises. The first was the unannounced appearance of the young fadista Pedro Botas, a fixture of the Newark fado scene. Pedro has a rich vibrato to his voice. He worked his way confidently through "Acordem as Guitarras" and "Lisboa Menina e Moça", both valentines to the city of Lisbon. The second surprise was the musicians, both of whom brought a bright, vibrant playing to the evening. The guitarist, Pedro Henriques da Silva, built a rich dialogue with each singer. He led the way through the music (including a notable Fado Pedro Rodrigues) and, in the final set, a guitarrada centered on the traditional fado. The viola player, Francisco Chuva, laid an immense foundation for all of the fados performed tonight. His is the kind of playing that leads singers (and guitarists) to take risks, knowing that the beat will be there to provide a soft landing.

FADO at Alfama restaurant happens every other Wednesday during most of the year. Best to call ahead and confirm. Given the size of the space, a reservation is essential. They are located at 214 E 52nd St  New York, NY 10022; Phone (212) 759-5552.