Sounds of Portugal

Fado singer Ana Moura to perform at Carolina Theatre
Mar. 27, 2013 @ 11:44 AM

During her concerts, Ana Moura said she always stops to explain something about the qualities of fado, the traditional music of her native Portugal. Fado, she said, “is a very emotional music, and it has the power, even if people do not understand the lyric, to make people feel things.”

Listeners who are familiar with or new to fado can get an idea of what Moura means during her concert Friday at The Carolina Theatre, or, if that is not possible, by picking up a copy of her new recording “Desfado” (her fifth album, but her first for the Decca label).

The new album, Moura said during a recent phone interview, is a mix of traditional fado combined with her love of jazz. Most songs Moura sings in Portuguese, with the exception of her arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” her original piece “Dream of Fire” and David Poe’s “Thank You,” all sung in English.

Music historians date fado to the 19th century, with many of its elements migrating from Brazil. It is traditionally played on guitar, Portuguese guitar (a 12-string instrument with a body resembling a lute), bass, drums and violin or other string instruments. In Portugal, it is sung in clubs, called fado houses, where the musicians are close to the audience, which is expected to be attentive to the music.

Moura was born in Santarem, north of Lisbon, where she heard music on recordings, and from her parents, who sang very well, she said. “I grew up in their musical environment. We were always listening to music. You were always singing and jamming with your friends,” Moura said. Santarem did not have the traditional fado houses of Lisbon, but traditional Portuguese music was always sung in homes and other gathering places around her neighborhood, reflecting fado’s social roots.

The lyrics of traditional fado have a quality called saudade, which, though it does not translate exactly into English, sometimes is explained as meaning melancholy, or longing. “It is a word with no translation, because it has many feelings altogether for me,” Moura said. While fado expresses longing, “it’s not only sad. … It’s about feelings. It shows a bit of our personality as a country … because at our back we have Europe and we have before us the Atlantic sea,” she said. Given that geography, Portugal has a history of seafaring, of sailors longing for home. “We are a very emotional country,” which is reflected in fado, Moura said.

But traditional fado also “is very rhythmical, and even our body asks us to dance,” Moura said.

The album “Desfado” opens with a bright, danceable arrangement of the title song (by Pedro da Silva Martins). Other songs like Pedro Abruhnhosa’s “Fado Aldo” and “Despiu a Saudade” express the fado quality of longing. Moura is equally adept at this full range of moods with her beautiful contralto voice.

Larry Klein, who produced the recording, also has produced Joni Mitchell, whom Moura called one of her favorite singers. She decided to record Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which Moura said “could be a fado song.”

She wrote the melody to “Dream of Fire” (a friend wrote the lyrics) on which Herbie Hancock plays electric keyboards. Hancock’s playing on the song was “a happy coincidence,” she said. While in the recording studio, she told Klein she was a big fan of Hancock’s music. Klein and Hancock happened to be working together on another project, and Klein called him, Moura said. Hancock said he happened to be listening to some of Moura’s previous recordings, and asked to play on the record.  

She did not intend to record songs in English, but being in a different musical environment (the album was recorded in California), “this musical universe was beautiful for us to explore,” Moura said. “It was a beautiful process of discovering new things and wanting to explore more and more.”