Michael Macaroon speaks to the Portuguese singer and guitarist who will make a welcome return to London in April for La Linea
The title of António Zambujo’s latest album, Até Pensei que Fosse Minha (Until I Thought it was Mine), could stand as the tag line for his whole musical career. His extraordinary popularity as a singer and guitarist, both in his native Portugal and abroad is founded on a seemingly effortless absorption of musical influences ranging from fado to bossa nova, taking in Chet Baker, Serge Gainsbourg and Bulgarian folk choirs on the way.
This latest outing is a tribute disc to Chico Buarque, the Brazilian singer whose 50-year career has encompassed dozens of albums, as well as plays, poems and novels, not to mention political protest. Buarque’s samba and tropicália roots may not seem obvious material for a fado singer, though the points of cultural connection are there, and in any case, Zambujo is not exactly a fadista from central casting.
Zambujo’s own roots are in the Alentejo region in the south of Portugal, and he’s steeped in the social and musical traditions of cante alentejano – choirs of men and women who sing of the land they work, local saints and lost love. Cante has an austere harmony built up in parallel thirds, pregnant with Arab influence from centuries back. By his teens, however, Zambujo had discovered the fado of Amália Rodrigues and before long made the move to Lisbon. Mentored by guitarist and composer Mário Pacheco, it was four successful years in the role of Amália’s husband in the eponymous musical that gave him his big commercial break. The recording and touring career that’s followed has charted an individual’s cultural coming of age – a transition from local to international fame, yielding in the process some wonderful tunes, poetry and albums.
His early discs are noted for bridging cante and fado – notably 2004’s Por Meu Cante – though wider interests soon emerge, and a passion for Brazilian music in particular receives the full Zambujo treatment in albums such as Outro Sentido (2007) and Guia (2010).
Now on his eighth disc, Zambujo is established enough to follow his personal enthusiasms without compromise. This is a fan’s tribute: “Chico Buarque is one of the biggest poets of the Portuguese language and I love him,” says Zambujo. Unlike an ordinary fan, though, he has drawn on his idol’s help in whittling down a long list of a hundred songs to create this personal playlist of 16.
What’s more, Buarque, together with the likes of Carminho and Roberta Sá, perform alongside Zambujo on some of the tracks. This dynamic of collaboration is no doubt important morally as well as musically. If you are reinterpreting a classic protest song such as ‘Cálice’ – written in the face of government censorship following the Brazilian military coup of 1964 (cálice or ‘goblet’ is a near homophone for cale-se or ‘shut up’) – then direct engagement with its author helps reconcile a 21st-century perspective with the authenticity of the original (not to mention avoiding the pitfalls of cultural appropriation).
For future projects, Zambujo claims not to have any plans: “I just want to sing and play my guitar… I know that we will tour this year with this album, then we’ll have a live album being released around September, and after that we’ll see…” It doesn’t take much probing, however, to get him to admit there are other enthusiasms he’d like to explore further: “Tom Waits, Caetano Veloso, Agustín Lara, Chavela Vargas, so many…”