Bittersweetly Soulful, Eclectic Portuguese Ballads at This Year’s Fado Festival

by delarue

Saturday night just north of Battery Park City, the Manhattan portion of this year’s annual fado festival closed with a performance by two very different singers, who in many ways represent both the music’s romantic past and newly reinvigorated future. For those who haven’t been drawn into it yet, fado is to Portugal what tango is to Argentina, or what reggae is to Jamaica. Like swing jazz in this country in recent decades, new generations have reclaimed fado’s emotionally fraught balladry for their own, partly as a source of Portuguese national pride, partly in response to English-language corporate musical imperialism.

The Spanish have duende; the Portuguese have suadade. They’re essentially the same thing: the soulful maturity that comes with having your heart ripped out at the roots. Although as singer Maria Emilia took care to explain, even though heartbreak is still the most common thene in fado, it’s hardly all sad songs. She and her fantastic all-acoustic band put that issue to rest with a lilting, bouncy singalong that energized the Portuguese speakers in the house.

Which relates to experiencing this music on only a surface level. The Portuguese take their lyrics very seriously, and fado often utilizes texts by famous poets. Throughout the show, the band were fantastic and the vocals were individualistic and often transcended linguistic limitatations.

André Dias played sharp cadenzas, triumphantly spiky flourishes and elegant broken chords on a small, ringing Portuguese guitar, which looks like a small mandola but sounds like an American Rickenbacker twelve-string acoustic model. Classical guitarist André Ramos showed off chops that drew equally on Romany swing, flamenco and straight-up four-on-the-floor rock: being a coastal nation, Portugal has always had sounds from all over the world coming in from across the waves. And Rodrigo Serrão, on acoustic bass guitar, was subtle but brilliant. Somehow he found space in between his steady, rhythmic accents to spice the music with all sorts of glissandos, some slow and dramatic, others coy and puckish, indulging in as many deft downward spirals as climbs to the far reaches of his axe’s G string.

Now in her mid-twenties, the Brazilian-born Maria Emília represents the new generation of fadistas, with a nuanced, subtly emotive delivery that looks back to iconic mid-20th century singer Amalia Rodrigues without being derivative. Sticking mostly in the lower midrange of her clear, expressive mezzo-soprano, she channeled lovestruck awe, righteous anger and wounded vulnerability along with a sense of humor that had the guys in the band cracking up from time to time.

While fado is traditionally sung by women, guys sing it too. Hélder Moutinho, the younger brother of famous fado crooner Camané, represented for the men. His vocals were more heavily ornamented, to the point where his melismas and throaty blue notes took on an Andalucian tinge, almost like a muezzin. He also took care to explain several of the numbers. Fado can be very self-referential, and several of his songs followed those themes: what makes a person sing fado, what the fado makes you do, even famous places where fado is or was made – even Lisbon has been infested with gentrifcation – figured in the narrative.

Impresario Isabel Soffer of Live Sounds gets credit for staging the festival, and has also done an impressively eclectic job booking CUNY’s Elebash Hall at 365 Fifth Ave. just north of 34th St., where the transcendent Kurdish kamancheh fiddle virtuoso and composer Kayhan Kalhor is playing a sold-out show tomorrow night.