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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Music has the power to take us to faraway places. Most of those places, of course, are only in our heads. But for NPR's Tom Huizenga, the music of one singer, another in our series of 50 Great Voices, took him to the capital of Portugal.

TOM HUIZENGA: It was one of those totally 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AMALIA RODRIGUES (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

HUIZENGA: I had never heard of Amalia Rodrigues, and I 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RODRIGUES: (Singing in foreign language)

HUIZENGA: I was so addicted to Amalia Rodrigues and fado back then that I packed our bags for Portugal to spend my 40th birthday in 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.

Ms. ANA MOURA (Musician): She had all the characteristics to be the perfect singer. She had a beautiful color of the voice. She had a huge range, and for me the most important, it was the soul.

HUIZENGA: Amalia Rodrigues's 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.

Mr. BRUNO DE ALMEIDA (Filmmaker): It's like she could feel the sadness of the world. I mean, that's what fado music is all about is being able to go to places where one is afraid to go to.

HUIZENGA: And Amalia 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RODRIGUES: (Singing in foreign language)

HUIZENGA: That song, about the pride of the poor, hits close to Rodrigues's heart. She was born into a poor family, and was selling lemons on the street as a teenager when she was chosen to sing with the local marching band. But soon she 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 finally Amalia Rodrigues the icon. De Almeida says along with her tremendous instinct for expression, part of Rodrigues' success internationally was that she absorbed music from outside Portugal.

Mr. DE ALMEIDA: She incorporated traditions, you know, other than the traditional fado. 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.

HUIZENGA: One of those nontraditional songs, de Almeida says, turned out to be one of Rodrigues's signature tunes. It's called "The Black Boat." The roots of the song lie in Africa. The guitarists pluck and pound out the beat.

(Soundbite of song, "The Black Boat")

Ms. RODRIGUES: (Singing in foreign language)

MR. DE ALMEIDA: The note where she says (foreign language spoken), which means they are crazy, she extends the (foreign language spoken), you know, the end of that word is incredible. It's an extension that is often studied, and no one knows how she gets those notes.

(Soundbite of song, "The Black Boat")

Ms. RODRIGUES: (Singing in foreign language)

HUIZENGA: 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 this sort of melismatic ornamentation, usually just on a single word or syllable, with a strong, almost Tarzan-like tremolo.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RODRIGUES: (Singing in foreign language)

HUIZENGA: It turns out they even have a name for that, according to Ana Moura.

Ms. MOURA: We call it rodriguinos because, yes, she introduced this to fado. Because rodriguinos, it comes from her name, Amalia Rodrigues.

HUIZENGA: Another thing Rodrigues introduced into fado was her own poems.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RODRIGUES: (Singing in foreign language).

HUIZENGA: There she sings: What a strange way of life my heart has, living lost among people, stubbornly bleeding.

Ana Moura says that Rodrigues's own songs are among the most mournful because that's the way she lived her life.

Ms. MOURA: She felt so many things that sometimes she was, like, tired of feelings, and she mentioned death like the resting of everything.

HUIZENGA: Rodrigues did think about suicide once, when she was faced with a throat operation that might have altered her voice. But Bruno De Almeida says things didn't go quite as planned.

Mr. DE ALMEIDA: Always with Amalia, things can turn funny at any moment. It's sort of a mixture of drama with comedy, really.

HUIZENGA: Rodrigues came to New York, armed with sleeping pills, but instead the Fred Astaire movie she watched in her hotel room cheered her up. And after a successful operation, she returned to Lisbon's Coliseum to give what turned out to be one of her most legendary concerts.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RODRIGUES: (Singing in foreign language)

HUIZENGA: I never got to see Amalia Rodrigues live. She died in 1999, and all of Portugal mourned. But somehow, it doesn't matter: 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.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RODRIGUES: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: You can hear more of Amalia Rodrigues and all the other singers we've profiled this year at nprmusic.org. And while you're there, you can try your hand at guessing your next voice in our 50 Great Voices series.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RODRIGUES: (Singing in foreign language)

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