Fado is all about heartbreak. Like tango and the blues, it was dismissed for its ghetto origins long before it became more or less the national music of Portugal Over the years, it’s gone transnational: you may not hear it on big stages in Paris or Berlin, but you will hear it wafting from maids’ quarters late at night in ritzy parts of town.
Charismatic singer Gisela João is just about the biggest thing in fado these days, making a lot of waves in the wake of the release of her latest album Nua (Naked), streaming at Spotify. She’s making her US debut on Feb 25 at 7 PM at the Schimmel Auditorium at Pace University downtown at 3 Spruce St. Tix are $30, and getting them in advance is a highly advised: this show is a big deal for expats across the tri-state area.Take the J/6 to Brooklyn Bridge.
João hardly fits the demure, doomed fado singer stereotype. Reputedly, she puts on a high-voltage show, and some of that energy translates on the album. Her voice has more than a tinge of smoke, and she often goes for the jugular with a wide-angle vibrato to drive a crescendo home. While that device is most closely associated with iconic fadista Amalia Rodrigues, João frequently evokes the darkest, most noirish side of the style. She’s got a fantastic band: Ricardo Parreira plays with a spiky virtuosity on the ringing, overtone-rich 12-string Portuguese guitar, Nelson Aleixo holding down the rhythm elegantly on classical guitar, along with Francisco Gaspar on acoustic bass. The overall ambience is both stately and impassioned.
Most of the tracks are popular standards with spare but dynamically textured arrangements, both retro and radical in an age where indigenous styles in so many parts of the world mimic the most cliched, techy American musical imperialism. Beatriz da Conceição’s Um Fado Para Este Noite (A Fado for Tonight) sets the stage with its ringing, rippling textures and João’s almost stern, angst-fueled delivery.
Há Palavras Que Nos Beijam (The Words That We Kiss) switches out the brooding lushness of the Mariza version for an oldschool, sparse interpretation. A little later, the group flips the script the opposite way with As Rosas Não Falam (Roses Don’t Tell), by Brazilian crooner Cartola. The first of the Rodrigues numbers, O Senhor Extraterrestre is a coyly bouncy, Veracruz folk-tinged tale which does not concern space aliens.
The album’s most recent number, Sombras do Passado (Shadows of the Past), is also arguably its most mutedly plaintive. Likewise, the rustically low-key, hushed take of the metaphorically-charged Rodrigues classic Naufrágio (Shipwreck). Then the group picks up the pace with the rustic Romany waltz Lá Na Minha Aldeia (There in My Village)
Another Cartola tune, O Mundo é um Moinho (The World Is a Windmill) brings back the crepuscular ambience, João channeling a low-key, world-weary cynicism. The band pull out all the stops with Labirinto Ou Não Foi Nada: (Labyrinth, or It Was Nothing): the twin guitars building a hypnotic, harpsichord-like backdrop for this slowly crescendoing lament for what could have been.
João saves her tenderest vocal for the last of the Rodrigues’ songs, Quando Os Outros Te Batem, Beijo-Te Eu (When the Others Hit You, I Kiss You). I In keeping with the album’s up-and-down dynamic shifts, João picks up the pace once again with the scampering, Romany-flavored party anthem Noite de São João
The album winds up with a desolate take of Argentina Santos’ Naquela Noite em Janeiro (On That Night in January) and then a wounded, gracefully lilting fado-ized version of the Mexican folk standard La Llorona. Awash in longing and despair, João’s new collection works both as a trip back in time for fado fans as well as a solid introduction to the style for newcomers from a purist who knows the music inside out.