Carminho was quite literally born into fado. The deeply emotional music of Portugal was even the soundtrack to her nine months in the womb, since her mother, Teresa Siqueira, was a popular fado singer herself.
Today the 39-year-old singer — who will perform at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. (visit sopacnow.org) — is one of the genre’s rising international stars. But as a teenager, Maria do Carmo Carvalho Rebelo de Andrade leaned away from pursuing it professionally. The genre was thought old-fashioned, and worse, had became associated with the country’s former authoritarian regime, which promoted it to stoke nationalism. The regime collapsed in a bloodless coup in 1974 — and in the aftermath of the 1999 death of the genre’s longtime queen, Amália Rodrigues, in 1999, a new generation began to reevaluate fado, and bring it to international audiences.
Though Carminho’s parents operated a fado house, where local people gathered nightly to eat, drink and listen to music, she pursued a career in the very modern world of marketing, but quickly realized it was not for her and dove into becoming a fadista.
Fado was born in the low-rent bars of Lisbon in the early 1800s where sailors — and those who loved them — felt a kinship with fado’s sad tales of loss and absence and heartbreak. Through the decades, the gut-driven, bluesy music became more refined — many of the songs were musical adaptations of the words of the country’s poets.
With her second album on the prestigious Nonesuch label, Carminho is one of fado’s preeminent ambassadors. When Pope Francis visited Lisbon for the World Youth Day Prayer Vigil in August, Carminho was featured as the singer of “Estrela (Star)” with an orchestra.
Fado is often compared to American blues, but it is first and foremost about expressing deep emotions. Like the “duende” moment of flamenco, fado at its best unites singer and audience in a shared moment that suspends time. It’s less about wallowing in self-pity and more about embracing the immediacy and depth of all that comes with life, for good and bad. Carminho’s exquisitely controlled singing wrings the emotions out of the lyrics, whether she is shouting or whispering.
Her new album Portuguesa, a follow-up to 2018’s Maria, looks at fado from a different perspective, she said.
Maria “was more intuitive and remembering the memories of my childhood, and what I felt in my father’s arms when I used to listen to my mother live when I was 3 or 4 years old,” she said, while the new album is more of an intellectual exploration of the possibilities of fado.
She said that she and her band went into the studio with the intention of developing the songs as a prelude to recording. After 10 days, she said, “it was so alive, so heartbeat, such an emotion that I was completely sure that I had the album.”
At first listen, Carminho’s music may sound fully within the tradition, with her stop-you-in-your-tracks vocals front and center and accompanied by a small acoustic band including the jangly Portuguese guitar. But she adds subtle atypical touches, too. Throughout she uses an electric guitar, not like in a rock band with melodic solos, but adding texture with atmospheric washes, which Carminho said were meant to bring to mind the clatter of a live performance in a small taverna.
“Fado is a language, a living language,” she said, comparing a fado singer to an artisan like a potter who does “the same technique over and over, but the pot is every time different, never never the same. But the technique and the tradition is there.
“There’s something in the air, something in the generation, something in the technology, something in your influences that change (fado) a bit. The changes must be from the inside out.”
Another difference for the new album is Carminho’s venturing into songwriting. She said she was particuarly inspired by Alfredo Marceneiro.
“He sang his own compositions and that is not so normal in fado culture,” she said. “It’s not a singer-songwriter genre. Your repertoire normally is standards.”
On Portuguesa, she takes up a fado sub-tradition of rewriting classic songs, mixing and matching melodies and lyrics. For example, on the opening song, “O Quarto (The Room)” (listen below), she took a song of Marceneiro’s and used her own lyrics.
Elsewhere she pays tribute to one of her country’s most prominent female poets, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, putting “As Fontes” to her own melody: “I will drink the light and the dawn/I will drink the voice of that promise/That sometimes like a flight crosses me/And in it I will fulfill my entire being.”
Contrasting the stereotype of fado sadness, Carminho sings “Ficar (To Stay),” a bright declaration of love found: “So many things I have experienced, so many I can tell you/I ran through space and time, land and sea/And here so close to you I can finally rest/My wish, my greatest desire, is to be able to stay.”
On her own composition, the haunting “Praias Desertas (Deserted Beach),” Carminho delves into a profound and poetic expression of romantic commitment: “Oh my love/I never forget you/My love/It’s a line I measure/Without term or guide, image, or ground/The deserted beach is your hand.”
Carminho said that fado houses, like her parents’, are a necessity for the Portuguese people to gather at the end of the day and build a community.
“If you go one month, every day, you’re gonna find the same fadista, every day, singing with the same musicians, the same repertoire, for the same audience,” she said. “And what it means is it’s much more than entertainment. It’s something that we need to survive, to fulfill the heart and the soul.”
For more about Carminho, visit carminhomusic.com.
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