Music has the power to take us to faraway places. Most of those places are only in our heads. But for me, the music of one singer had the power to take me all the way to the capital of Portugal.
It was one of those random events. A friend gives you a CD, you pop it in the player, and your life changes. That's what happened to me the first time I heard the voice of the late, great Amalia Rodrigues.
I had never heard of Rodrigues, and didn't know much about the music she sang, either. But once I heard it, I knew I needed more. The music is called "fado." You can think of it as the Portuguese blues.
I was so addicted to Rodrigues and fado back then that I packed my bags for Portugal to spend my 40th birthday at a fado club in Lisbon. One of the singers I heard there was Ana Moura, now one of today's top fado artists. For her, Rodrigues had it all — the technique, the artistry and especially the heart.
"She had all the characteristics to be the perfect singer," Moura says. "She had a beautiful color to the voice. She had a huge range, and for me, most important, it was the soul."
Rodrigues' soul came from the gritty streets and docks of her native Lisbon. More about her classic rags-to-riches story in a moment, but Bruno de Almeida, who made a five-hour documentary about Rodrigues, says the striking thing about her voice is the intense emotion.
"It's like she could feel the sadness of the world," de Almeida says. "I mean, that's what fado music is all about; it's being able to go to places where one is afraid to go to."
Rodrigues wasn't afraid of going all the way. She didn't wear her heart on her sleeve; she put her entire soul out there. And she didn't mind wailing about it, either.
That song, about the pride of the poor, hits close to Rodrigues' heart. She was born into an impoverished family, and was selling lemons on the street as a teenager when she was chosen to sing with the local marching band. But she soon moved on to fado clubs, and by 1941, at age 21, she was the biggest fado singer in Portugal.
Then came the recordings, the movies, the international career. And, eventually, Amalia Rodrigues the icon. De Almeida says that, along with her tremendous instinct for expression, part of Rodrigues' success internationally was that she absorbed music from outside Portugal.
"She incorporated traditions other than the traditional fado, de Almeida says. "There's some influence from Moroccan music. She also has a very strong Spanish influence, which she says she got from the Carlos Gardel movies when she was as a kid."
One of those nontraditional songs, de Almeida says, turned out to be one of Rodrigues' signature tunes. It's called "Black Boat." The roots of the song lie in Africa. The guitarists pluck and pound out the beat.
"The note where she says 'Sao loucas,' which means, 'They are crazy' — she extends the loooouuucaaas. The end of that word is incredible," de Almeida says. "It's an extension that is often studied, and no one knows how she gets those notes."
Portugal's best poets wrote for Rodrigues, which freed her up to push fado in new directions. Another one of her highly expressive innovations was a sort of melismatic ornamentation, usually on a single word or syllable, with a strong, almost Tarzan-like tremolo. It turns out they even have a name for that, according to Moura.
"We call it 'rodriguinos,' " Moura says, "because she introduced this to fado. It comes from her name, Amalia Rodrigues."
'Lost Among People'
Another thing Rodrigues introduced into fado was her own poems. In one of them, she sings, "What a strange way of life my heart has, living lost among people, stubbornly bleeding."
Moura says that Rodrigues' own songs are among the most mournful, because that's the way she lived her life.
"She felt so many things that sometimes she was tired of feelings," Moura says, "and she mentioned death like the 'resting' of everything."
Rodrigues did think about suicide once, when she was faced with a throat operation that might have altered her voice. But De Almeida says things didn't go quite as planned.
"Always with Amalia, things can turn funny at any moment," he says. "It's sort of a mixture of drama with comedy, really."
Rodrigues came to New York, armed with sleeping pills, but instead the Fred Astaire movies she watched in her hotel room cheered her up. After a successful operation, she returned to Lisbon's Coliseum to give what turned out to be one of her most legendary concerts.
I never got to see Amalia Rodrigues live. She died in 1999, and all of Portugal mourned. But somehow, it doesn't matter that I never got to see her; she left us with hundreds of recordings. But it only took one little CD to get me to Lisbon, and to set me on a musical journey that still rolls on.