2020 marked the centenary of the birth of the ‘Queen of Fado,’ Amália Rodrigues. Simon Broughton speaks to Mariza, the heir to Amália’s crown, and fado historian Rui Vieira Nery about her legacy
Mariza performing at Songlines Music Awards 2019, EartH, London (photo by Miguel Santos)
“When I started singing fado, I sang in a fado house called Senhor Vinho, run by Maria da Fé. When the night was over and Maria was closing the door, I’d say ‘I’ll wake up early and go to Dona Amália’s house and I will knock at her door and ask her if it would be possible for her to teach me something about how to sing and about fado.’ They used to laugh a lot and say ‘You’re crazy!’ And you know, I never did it. I never even saw her live. I would love to have had the capacity of doing that. But I never did.”
Mariza may never have summoned up the courage to meet Amália Rodrigues in person, but for most Portuguese and certainly the fado scene, they breathe in Amália’s music with the salty Lisbon air. It’s part of the lived experience. And maybe has its own fate, which is what ‘fado’ literally means.
In Amália’s centenary year, 2020, Mariza recorded a whole album of her songs in tribute to Portugal’s most celebrated fado singer – the first of the younger generation singers to do so. Most of the others, including Mísia, Ana Moura, Katia Guerreiro and Carminho, have recorded her songs, but none have dared to do a whole album, particularly with a lot of the ‘war-horses’ included here. Maybe Mariza is making up for lacking the courage to knock on that door all those years ago.
“It’s like an anthology of Amália’s greatest hits, which is a big challenge,” says Rui Vieira Nery, Portugal’s best fado historian and director of the Gulbenkian Culture programme. His father, guitarist Raul Nery, accompanied Amália for many years on tour around the world and in 1952 recordings at London’s Abbey Road. “She has picked practically every major hit of Amália’s career from ‘Foi Deus’, which was recorded in 1952, to some of the titles that were part of the so-called Busto album in 1962 to ‘Fado Português’ and ‘Com que Voz’ in 1970 and ‘Lágrima’ from 1983. So it includes the highlights of Amália’s repertoire.”
“Whenever in the past, [Mariza] has sung Amália’s repertoire, she has re-invented it.” Nery continues, “I think it’s the only way you can approach this heritage. You build your own version and use your own personality, not to replicate what Amália was doing, because that would be an absolute contradiction of the creative spirit that Amália put into everything she did.”
Mariza’s reason for taking this on is personal and professional. “It’s my 20th anniversary of recording, concerts and tours and it’s Amália’s 100th birthday. I thought let’s combine everything because Amália is one of the icons in the history of music in Portugal. So it’s my tribute to say thank you for her legacy.”
Mariza (photo: Miguel Angelo)
Aside from her singing, it’s also her rags to riches story that makes Amália such an icon. She was born in 1920 in Lisbon into a poor family of migrants from the Beira Baixa region of eastern Portugal close to Spain. Child mortality was high and she had siblings who died. She went to school for only three years and then had to go out to work selling fruit on Lisbon’s Alcantara quays. “Then suddenly at the age of 19 she’s discovered and very quickly shines in a genre that she wasn’t even particularly familiar with,” Nery explains. “The kind of songs she heard at home were the songs of Beira Baixa that sounded a lot like flamenco. And when she began to sing fado, and apply the same type of melodic ornamentation to her singing, some of the purists would say that this was espanholismo, ‘Spanification’. Yet, in little more than a year, she was the best paid singer in Portugal.”
The earliest of the songs, ‘Foi Deus’ seems almost autobiographical. It’s about how she was doomed to become a fado singer because God gave her this unhappy destiny. “This was written by a pharmacist [Alberto Janes] from Beja, who in the late 40s, knocked at the door and said, ‘I have some songs for you’,” explains Nery. “It became a hallmark of her repertoire because it was the only explanation she could give about where her talent came from. ‘God wanted it!’” Fado fate again.
It’s a soft lyrical song, resigned rather than tragic. Mariza’s version has a lush string orchestration with piano and only a touch of Portuguese guitar. The album was recorded in Rio with arrangements by Brazilian cellist Jaques Morelenbaum (with whom she worked on Transparente in 2005). It’s perhaps also an acknowledgement that Amália’s first recordings were made in Brazil in 1945. Mariza suggested around 40 songs she might do, but the final choice of ten were the ones that Morelenbaum found most musically interesting.
Mariza has probably been described as ‘the new Amália’ more than any of the new generation of singers, but she finds the description nonsensical: “We have completely different styles of singing and different lives. We live in a different time. Everything is now so fast. For example my son listened to a song and two weeks later, he said, ‘This song is old!’ Everything is so fast that sometimes I feel we need music to make us feel that we belong to something.”
Most of the songs on Mariza Canta Amália come from the 1960s and her collaboration with composer Alain Oulman that’s held as the high-point in her career. They first appeared on an album that came out in 1962 that had no title, but has become known as Busto for the bust of Amália on the cover. It included ‘Maria Lisboa’, which Mariza recorded on her first album, as well as ‘Estranha Forma de Vida’ (Strange Form of Life) and ‘Povo Qui Lavas No Rio’ (You People Who Wash in the River), both of which are reinterpreted here.
“I’m a big fan of Alain Oulman and I think his compositions are great. He composed only for her,” explains Mariza. “He used to compose at the piano and everybody was a little bit sceptical. And because he was French, not Portuguese, the fado people were saying he doesn’t know nothing about fado, yet he did the most beautiful compositions with a big legacy and we are still singing them today.”
Alain Oulman (1928-1990) was born in Lisbon to a well-to-do French Jewish family. His partnership with Amália, the upper-class intellectual with the self-taught singer from the streets transformed her career. Traditional fado has very strict poetic forms – stanzas with four, five or six lines with seven, ten or 12 syllables in each line. But Amália was keen to sing other poetry, by contemporary poets or old Portuguese classics, like Luís de Camões (1525-1580), the Portuguese Shakespeare. It was Oulman that showed the way.
“When she recorded her first album with Camões’ lyrics in 1965, it was a national scandal,” explains Nery. “The debate was in the newspapers and on television. The people in academia thought it was demeaning for great poetry to be adapted to a simple popular song, whereas fado lovers thought these melodies were too complex and said Amália now sings ‘Picasso-like’ lyrics. Oulman was writing specifically for her and knew how she would pick up the lyrics. So it was a collaborative process with a perfect understanding between them.”
Mariza Canta Amália opens with one of the most famous of the Camões’ poems, ‘Com Que Voz’. The arrangement begins with Morelenbaum’s cello and the song is like a duet between Mariza and the cello and later Portuguese guitar. The poem begins ‘Com que voz, chorarei meu triste fado?’ (With what voice, shall I cry my sad fate?). When Camões wrote this in the 16th century he was simply writing about fate, but Amália could play on the double meaning of fado also being the song form. Fado is a very self-referential form.
Two of the songs have lyrics by Amália herself. ‘Lágrima’ is a song of hopeless love in which she will die happy if her death brings a single tear, ‘uma lágrima,’ to the eye of her beloved. I remember Mísia singing it in London as a tribute on the very day that Amália died. The other song with Amália lyrics is ‘Estranha Forma de Vida’, from the Busto album, with music by Alfredo Marceneiro (1891-1982), one of the best and most idiosyncratic fadistas of the pre-Amália generation. It’s another of those seemingly autobiographical songs saying that this strange form of life with all its longing (saudade) is God’s will.
‘Povo Que Lavas No Rio’, the other song Mariza sings from the Busto album is always seen as Amália’s identification with the common people and her humble beginnings. Which brings us to the vexed question of Amália’s political views, which are also being reassessed around her centenary.
Of course, Amália was promoted by the fascist Estado Novo regime, and it was during these years that she had her greatest success at home and abroad. Yet she gave money to the families of political prisoners and had friends who were deeply involved with the democratic opposition – not least Alain Oulman. On the Busto album she recorded the song ‘Abandono’ about political prisoners in the fort of Peniche, the lyrics of which had been banned: ‘Por teu livre pensamento, foram-te longe encerrar’ (Because of your free thoughts, they locked you up far away).
“Amália had a well-rehearsed trick whenever she needed it,” recounts Nery. “She’d always say ‘Well, I’m almost illiterate, I only have basic schooling, I just feel an emotional connection with words, but I don’t always understand the full meaning’ and that’s what she would say. And of course it was totally artificial, because she was an extremely intelligent woman. But at that time, in 1962, she could get away with murder, so deeply loved by Portuguese that she managed to force the hands of the political police.”
Nery describes Amália’s relationship with Oulman as like a little brother. “She was always pursued by men who were in love with her and Alain was gay. So she felt comfortable with him in that respect.” He was eventually expelled from Portugal for his left-wing politics and he was only exiled rather than imprisoned because of Amália’s intervention. He settled in Paris, but after the Carnation Revolution in 1974, he visited a few times and recorded a few songs, but the glory days were over.
So 100 years after her birth, what does Amália mean for Mariza? “She represents, for me, the diva of the 20th century but at the same time a teacher. Because when I need to know a little bit more about music or poetry or about the way of singing, I listen to her. As you know, fado is an oral tradition, so we still need those teachers and I think Amália was the biggest teacher of all.” Even though fate never took Mariza to knock on her door.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!