In past years, FolkWorld has written about the traditional music of Portugal from different perspectives. The main one is clearly the fado, the lyrical music genre that can be traced to the 1820s in Lisbon, the country’s capital city. But when looking into the surrounding rural regions, we find musical instrument traditions using for instance: gaitas de fole (bagpipes), adufes (squared frame drums), or bombos (bass drums). This time we have in our hands three albums from the artists: Telmo PIRES, Custódio CASTELO and Vasco RIBEIRO CASAIS. They provide a 2020 view on the folk music from the country which faces the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast side of the Iberian Peninsula.
Fadistas from the 20th Century : Amalia Rodrigues and Her Legacy
Fado female and male singers from the latest generations are known in FolkWorld with names such as: Dulce Pontes, Mariza, Katia Guerreiro, Francisco Fialho, María do Ceo, Joana Amadoeira, Claudia Aurora, Maria Ana Bobone, Carlos Do Carmo, Misia,… and many others.
But of course, if there was a key artist that since the mid-1930s and until the 90s, elevated the fado to its highest level of popularity and prestige in Portugal and abroad, it was the singer and actress Amalia Rodrigues. For many years she was known as 'Raina do Fado' ("Queen of Fado"). Born in 1920 in Lisbon, around 1935 Amalia Rodrigues started her singing career, having her first professional engagement in a fado venue that took place in 1939. Around that time she met Frederico Valério, a classically trained composer who recognised Amália's potential and wrote numerous melodies especially designed for her- adding orchestral accompaniments. By the early 1940s, Amália had become a famous singer in Portugal, but she also gained popularity in Spain, Brazil and France. In the early 1950s, the involvement of the Portuguese poet David Mourão-Ferreira marked a new phase in her career where leading poets were writing specifically for her.
In France during the 1950s–1960s she performed on television and became a well-known artist. Charles Aznavour wrote a fado in French especially for her 'Aie Mourir Pour Toi' and she created French versions of her own songs. She performed at Olympia for 10 seasons between 1956 and 1992. From the 1970s Rodrigues enjoyed particularly marked success in Italy and Japan. She recorded an album of Italian traditional songs, A Una Terra Che Amo (1973), and made versions of her own songs in Italian. She recorded live performances in an album called Amália in Italia (1978). Her return to the recording studio with Portuguese material came in 1977 with Cantigas numa Língua Antiga.
Soon after that release, Rodrigues suffered her first really serious health troubles, which caused her to be away from the stage for a short period again. The 1980s and 1990s brought her enthronement as a living legend. Her last all-new studio recording, Lágrima, was released in 1983. Rodrigues returned to the Olympia in Paris in 1985 for a series of concerts. From 1985 to 1994, she enjoyed great international success, holding concerts in France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Israel, and the USA. Rodrigues launched a final album of originals in 1990, Obsessão. In December 1994 she gave her last concert, aged 74, during the Lisbon European Capital of Culture concerts. She underwent a lung operation soon after, in 1995. She released a new album with original recordings from the 1960s and 1970s, Segredo (1997), and a book of her poems, including the ones she had sung: Amália: Versos (1997).
On 6 October 1999, Rodrigues died at age 79, in her Lisbon home. The Portuguese government, at the time led by Prime Minister António Guterres, promptly declared three days of national mourning. Her house, in Rua de São Bento, is now a museum. She is interred at the National Pantheon alongside other Portuguese notables.
Three Portuguese Albums in 2020
Telmo PIRES : ‘Através do Fado’
Although Telmo Pires was born in 1972 in Portugal’s northern city Bragança, at a young age he moved with his family to Berlin, where he has lived most of the time. In the 1990s he had an interest in Anglo-American pop music, thus becoming a guitarist in a rock band and getting influenced by the music of David Bowie or Prince, but also Jacques Brel and the Portuguese folk in general. “Através do Fado” is Telmo’s sixth CD, where he develops a repertoire of ten tunes some of them standards performed in the past by fadistas such as: Amália Rodrigues, Carlos Do Carmo or Ana Lains. This album is jointly produced by Davide Zaccaria, who was also the producer of his 2016 prior CD “Ser Fado”. In the first song ‘Só o meu canto’ (‘Only my chant’), the author of the lyrics is Telmo Pires, and the composers of the music are Maria Baptist and Telmo. He is also the writer of the lyrics & music in ‘Era uma vez’ (‘Once upon a time’). There is also ‘Uma flor de verde pinho’ (‘A flower of green pine tree’), the melancholic tune performed by Carlos Do Carmo in 1976’s Eurovision Song Contest. Back then, this beautiful fado (lyrics Manuel Alegre, music José Niza), only achieved the 12th position within a total of 18 Eurovision contestants. A clear sign about the kind of circus this yearly plastic pop gathering was going to turn into in following years (although being fair, the audiences of this festival had the good sense to recognize another Portuguese gem in 2017; Salvador Sobral’s ‘Amar pelo dois’).
It is right to say that the fado melodies most times transmit that feeling of melancholy or even sadness, that in Portuguese is often called ‘saudade’, and can be also translated as ‘longing’ or ‘nostalgia’. This is clearly reflected in ‘Através do Fado’ in songs such as: ‘Medo’ (‘Fear’,with music composed by Alain Oulman, and lyrics by Reinaldo Ferreira), ‘Minha mae, eu canto a noite’ (Mother, I sing the night’, lyrics Vasco de Lima Couto, music José Joaquim Cavalheiro), ‘Sem peso ou medida’ (‘Without weight or measure’, lyrics Tiago Torres da Silva, music Alfredo Marceneiro). But obviously, on the other hand there are also happy tunes such as ‘Era Uma vez’ (‘Once upon a time’), or the classic ‘Oiça lá ó Senhor Vinho’ (‘Listen Mr. Wine’, lyrics & music Alberto Janes). So far we have only mentioned the leading lyrical exercise of Telmo, but in the fado tradition the other half of the effort resides on the instrumental part, mostly carried by the guitarra portuguesa (Portuguese guitar). This is a plucked string instrument with twelve steel strings, strung in six courses of two strings. The two guitarristas portugueses in ‘Através do fado’ are Joao Vaz and Luis Coelho, who play together with Carlos Cajé Garcia (acoustic guitar) and Pedro Sousa (bass).
Custódio CASTELO : ‘Amália Classics on Portuguese Guitar’
The guitarra portuguesa is a descendant of the Medieval citole, based on evidence of its use in Portugal since the thirteenth century (then known as 'cítole' in Portuguese). There are two distinct Portuguese guitar models: the Lisboa and the Coimbra. The differences between the two models are the scale length (445 mm of free string length in Lisboa guitars and 470 mm in Coimbra guitars), body measurements, and other finer construction details. Overall, the Coimbra model is of simpler construction than the Lisboa model. Visually and most distinctively, the Lisboa model can easily be differentiated from the Coimbra model by its larger soundboard. Both have a very distinct timbre, the Lisboa model having a brighter and resonant sound, and the choice between the both of them falls upon each player's preferences.
Custódio Castelo is one of the world’s leading players of the Portuguese fado guitar, the instrument that helped made fado music Portugal’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (by UNESCO) in 2011. Like a predecessor such as Carlos Paredes (1925—2004), Custódio creates groundbreaking new sounds that have promoted this instrument to a concert level and that can be played solo or as accompaniment. His unique Portuguese guitar, handmade from oak root by master guitarreiro Oscar Cardoso, is capable of fine nuances of emotion, and he uses them wisely, especially for melancholy, but also to transmit a sense of jubilation.
Custódio was born in 1966 in Almeirim (100 Km N-East from Lisbon). He built and played his first string instrument at the age of seven. When he was thirteen Custódio was given an acoustic guitar, which enabled him to start playing rock as well as Portuguese popular music. He then discovered the sound of the Portuguese guitar while listening to the albums of Amália Rodrígues. He soon became a prodigy due to his audacious style of playing and the talent he showed, acknowledged by famous names of the traditional fado, such as D.Vicente da Càmara, Manuel de Almeida and Fernando Farinha, among others. At the age of eighteen he began to write his own music, and two years later Jorge Fernando invited him to record an album, thus starting a lasting musical partnership. Custódio also accompanied Jorge on his fado albums. They both recorded and produced records for artists such as Argentina Santos, Mariza, Ana Moura, María da Fé, Gonçalo Salgueiro, Fernando Maurizio and Raquel Tavares, among others.
An important career highlight was his participation in Misia’s “Garras dos Sentidos” through which he became her main accompanist for two years; in Camané’s “Na Linha da Vida” after which he toured with Camané and Carlos do Carmo; Mariza’s first Album “Fado em Min” and the accompaniment of Mafalda Arnauth at “The Royal Hope Charity Gala”, with Sarah Brightman, the Royal Ballet, Placido Domingo and Joaquín Cortés. In 2010 he was honored with the Amália Rodrigues Award for Best Fado Instrumentalist. It was through the music of Amália Rodrigues that a young Custódio Castelo fell in love with fado. The experience was to prove prescient, as decades later, Custódio’s accompanied Amália on her final tour in the USA in the 1990’s.
Custódio Castelo’s album ‘Amália Classics in Portuguese Guitar’ (ARC Music, 2020) is exactly what the title describes, a compilation of eleven of the most popular tunes from Amália Rodrigues repertoire. All of them are arranged by Custódio for the Portuguese guitar, and played together with Carlos Garcia and Máximo Ciúro (acoustic guitars). This collection starts with the renowned ‘Estranha forma de vida’ (‘Strange way of life’, by Amália Rodrigues & Frederico Valério), followed by the trot in ‘Ai Maria’ (A.Rodrigues & Carlos Gonçalves), and the calmed enveloping of the plucking in the guitars in ‘Gaivota’ (‘Seagull’, Alexandre O’Neil & Alain Oulman), and in ‘Ai Mouraria’ (Amadeu do Vale & F.Valério). The CD also includes beautiful tunes such as the sweet and melancholic ‘Lágrima’, the merry ‘Nâo sei porque te foste embora’, or the longing in ‘Morrinha’ (A.Rodrigues & C.Gonçalves) and in ‘Tudo isto é fado’ (‘All this is fado’, Aníbal Nazaré & F.Carvalho). The happy dancing melody returns with ‘Fui aou mar a buscar sardinhas’ (‘I went to the sea to get sardines’, A.Rodrigues & C.Gonçalves). The album ends with ‘Fado Amália’ (José Galhardo & Frederico Valério), and ‘Gostava de ser quem era’ (‘I would like to be who I was’, A.Rodrigues & C.Gonçalves).
Vasco Ribeiro Casais : ‘OMIRI, Alentejo, Vol.1: Évora’
The Portuguese folk bands Dazkarieh, and Uxu Kalhus, are known in FolkWorld since at least 2009, but now in 2020, once the band no longer plays together since 2014, we get news from its former member Vasco Ribeiro Casais and his electro-folk project OMIRI, through their book+CD titled ‘Alentejo, Volume 1: Évora’. The Alentejo is a geographical, historical and cultural region of south central and southern Portugal. In Portuguese, its name means "beyond” (além) “the Tagus river" (Tejo). This first volume is a really interesting document, this time dedicated to the city of Évora, but seemingly part of a series covering different cities in the Alentejo region. What is the key message that Vasco Ribeiro intends to convey in his chronicles? By listening to the music you realize that he persists in his bold effort to put southern Portuguese folklore in an electro-pop music context. All of it utilizing synthesized hard beating percussion, to establish a frame for the reprocessing of this set of thirteen tunes from the regional tradition, and to resettle them as close as possible to the modern popular music genres. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, mainly for those of us more focused on keeping “the purity” (whatever that means) of the folk music heritage, as we know it….
But, who are we to decide what is right or wrong for the present and the future of these songs? Many rural areas across Europe keep relentlessly evolving towards aging populations, with diminishing younger generations that in many cases end up migrating to larger cities, looking for higher level education and urban jobs, far away from the old farming ways of life. Projects like this one from OMRI are an attempt to rescue the old repertoires and to reconstruct them for the new taste of a younger audience. But at the same time, showing respect and recognition for the legacy of the locals from the Évora and its surroundings, who participate in this project contributing with their trad music skills, and in a very creative way. The book contains many photographs from local school children and workers, who developed an interest on music playing, while also keeping alive traditional rural activities such as cow bell construction, carpentry, shoemaking, weaving, printing, or even old style washing clothes on the fountain stone.
For the first song, ‘Fui à Lenha’ (‘I went to get firewood’), Vasco takes the field recording with a very young Afonso Branco singing the traditional way, Joana Rebola beating the wood and skin drum, and Francisco Cardoso and Victor Santana playing cow bell and banjolin. Vasco Ribeiro joins them with his bouzouki, viola braguesa and cavaquinho. But the sampling and reprocessing of the percussions converts this song in a modern techno beat. It is highly probable that the one that best understands and even enjoys the end result is the young Afonso. And it is right to think that this can be an effective way to keep the youngest generation still aware and connected to the music from their parents and grandparents, while showing those sounds as not incompatible with modern urban trends that they will confront as they grow up. The same approach is applied in ‘Tacho’ (‘Pot’), and the process is in a sense more congruent, since Vasco takes the already brutal beating of the traditional Portuguese bass & snare drums (bombos e caixas) performed by the band Gigabombos, the vocals from Duarte Gato, plus the metal triangle from Luísa Santana, and the end result is a techno dance hit. Looking at the young age of several of the drummers in the picture, it seems they could enjoy a very good time in the local disco with this song.
These mechanics are repeated in most songs, processing the sounds of many other instruments, tools & inventions (not just musical) like: castanets (José Neto), a cowbellphone (Nuno Grosso), electric wood saw (António Mestre), clapping hands (Cantadeiras de Sao Miguel de Machede), traditional clothe washing (Carolina Almeida), stone carving (Pedro Fazenda), printing machinery (Armando Carrào), loom (Teresa Branquinho), shoemaking hammer (Domingos Raminhos), etc… But not everything is disco music in this CD, there is also a sweet lullaby sung by Ana Margarida Bravo as she learned it from her grandmother, with Vasco Ribeiro playing viola braguesa, ‘Aurora tem um menino’ (‘Aurora has a little boy’). In fact Vasco Ribeiro is a well known skilled multi-instrumentalist who adds the sounds of: gaita de foles (Portuguese bagpipes), Swedish nyckelharpa, cavaquinho,… in the different thirteen parts of the album.
There are other music artists participating in this record. Like Antonio (Tó-Zé) Bexiga, a professional musician playing piano, classical & jazz guitar, viola campaniça,…who used to play in rock and folk music bands, such as the before mentioned Uxú Kalhus, and No Mazurka Band, among others, but has also researched in trad music. There are local singing and instrument playing bands like Cantadeiras da Arpiss, Cantadeiras e Cantadores de S.Miguel de Machede, Cantores de Évora, and Vozes do Imaginário.
The final sections of the book further illustrate all the participants in the field recordings, and their different daily activities (musical, professional, recreational,…) that contribute to the sustainability of the local folklore, understanding by such everything which defines their characteristic way of life. The more you read the book and listen to the CD, and recognize the people and what they do and enjoy in their lives, the more sense it makes this project from Vasco Ribeiro Casais. Important is to leave aside any prejudices on the distortion of the traditional music that you may consider. The book is sponsored by the Cámara Municipal de Évora, Artes A/Rua, Évora 2027 (European capital of culture candidate city), and OMIRI: www.omiri.eu.
Photo Credits: (1),(9) Omiri, (4)-(5) Telmo Pires, (6)-(7) Custódio Castelo, (unknown/website); (2)-(3),(8) Postcards from Portugal (by Pío Fernández); (10) Dazkarieh (by Walkin' Tom).