Portugal has two healthy cultural obsessions: soccer and the music called fado, the latter of which has attracted fans and practitioners from Lisbon to Brisbane and beyond. Its latest star, fadista Ana Moura, has a new CD out this week; it confirms the enduring appeal of this poetic idiom.
Moura, 30, has taken the baton from her artistic forebears and restored faith in the future of fado, Portugal's lilting answer to the blues. The mournful song form has been around for nearly two centuries, but has always depended on a fresh infusion of contemporary attitude and expression. The title of Moura's new CD, Leva-me aos Fados, means "Take me to a fado house," an invitation you can take her up on this spring as she tours North America.
Moura's physical beauty is undeniable, but her mesmeric appeal radiates from within, even if you don't know a syllable of Portuguese. Her ability to alternately whisper, growl and ring like a silver bell are the hallmarks of a fine singer, not just another pretty face.
Fado — which means "fate" — certainly played a part in Moura's artistic odyssey. She was busy cutting a pop album when some musician friends at a local bar urged her to sing a fado. The owner of one of Lisbon's most famous fado houses heard her, and the deal was instantly sealed: She would soon become the genre's latest star, appearing nightly and fast accepted by the older musicians who keep close guard over the music's traditions.
Fado is intimate music, depending for accompaniment on the guitarra Portuguesa, that country's version of a 12-string guitar. Unlike overproduced pop singers, Moura is on her own when it comes to delivering the musical goods. In the song "Aguas Passadas," her voice is sparsely supported, and you can hear her very lungs and lips producing the tones, adding yet another level of palpable humanity and emotion to her art.
But don't mistake emotionality for mawkishness or woe-is-me self-pity. Fado in the 21st century doesn't mean acquiescence to the darkness that surrounds us; not to Moura. The minor-key sadness of the songs is offset by her light but sure sense of swing and innate high spirits. In fact, in the song "Fado vestido de fado," she sounds downright chipper, proof positive that having the blues needn't mean going down without a fight — or, for that matter, a smile.