I think I must have heard her sing before 1999, but I have no clear memory of that. I have been interested in fado music ever since 1974 or thereabouts, but then didn't listen to it much for a long time. But then, in September 1999, on my way to Portugal for a few weeks' stay (my second visit ever), I heard Cristina Branco sing Fado das Sedes on Belgian radio. That reminded me of the special appeal of this kind of music. This song, like many other similar songs, has this special unexpected transition *) such as which, for me, all good music must have, and which is so sadly lacking in much of what can be heard on the radio, also in my home country, the Netherlands, and in Portugal. Belgium often proves a pleasant exception to this rule: they often play music noticeably picked by people who have a taste for music.
I tried to memorise her name, so that when arrived in Portugal, I could look for a CD.
A week later, while staying near Coimbra with a friend, I visited Porto, where there
was a big shopping mall with the inevitable CD shop. There was a huge number of CDs
displayed there, all of them contemporary music you can find in any shop anywhere in
the world. Near the entrance was a conspicuous but very small stand dedicated to
fado music, almost exclusively by Amália Rodrigues (in hindsight, this was three and a
half weeks before her death). Hardly any other fado artists. I was already starting
to feel disappointed, building theories about prophets
not being honoured in their own country.
Tango music and dancing is also more popular in Europe than in Buenos Aires these days.
I did want to find a Cristina Branco CD, so I ventured to ask about it in my best Portuguese. This was met with enthusiasm, they knew who I meant immediately, and saw me to another CD stand I had overlooked before.
So I listened, didn't have a moment of doubt, bought it and played hardly anything else for several weeks after that. That was Murmúrios. I remember driving south, from the bridge to Gaia, in a warm autumn shower, playing that CD loudly despite open car windows, and feeling so strangely ecstatically happy and melancholic at the same time. Pombas Brancas. Lembranças Várias.
I know that traditionally, Coimbra and Lisboa are the true fado cities, but to me, it's hard to explain why, Porto is much more fado-like than the other two. If the Portuguese language had a word like "fadesca" or something for this, I’d have used it. But as far as I can find, no fado-related adjective exists.
Some of the songs on this CD can create this wonderful feeling, that all
failures, neglect of duty, delinquency, good intentions never turned into deeds,
unachieved goals, unwanted and unintended but inevitable hurt, shame and humiliation,
all of this suddenly no longer matters, because despite that such beauty can exist,
and I can listen to it. That single world of sonic beauty that I concentrate on
makes up for everything else, and turns it irrelevant. Losing is meaningless, I
have won anyhow.
Some songs on Cristina Branco's CDs have that ability, but I recently discoveredsome on Dulce Pontes' Primeiro Canto as well, such as O que for, há-de ser, Garça perdida and especially Porto de mágoas. And there's another one on "Caminho", track 1 entitled "O infante", music written by Dulce Pontes herself, poem by Fernando Pessoa. There are some such pieces in my Personal Playlist too.
The essence of beauty is often in small details. For example, in this fragment taken from Porto de mágoas, in the word pranto the length of pran- and the shortness of -to is exactly what it should be to make it what it is. Any other timing, however minutely different, would spoil it.
Back to more practical matters: A strange coincidence: Although I bought Murmúrios in Portugal, the record company that markets it has an office in the Dutch city where I live. I recognised their phone number as similar to my own. I had to go all the way to Portugal to buy what had come from home.
Back in my own country, I bought
Cristina Branco in Holland.
(Yet another link with the Netherlands; she was known, famous almost, before she ever even did a concert in Portugal. I may be exaggerating now, but that's about how things were).
I didn't like it as much as Murmúrios, but my appreciation for this record grew over time. I bought that record in Arnhem, a rather memory-laden city to me, both pleasant and sad. It was one of the cities I used to call Querida Cidade to myself (the other one is Rotterdam), and there is a square there (not any of the famous ones) that is known to me, but nobody else, as Praça Solidão. Portuguese has been sort of a sacred language to me, perhaps because I associated it with so much emotional things. I somehow love the language more than I love Portugal as a country, because it feels like it has become my language too, even though I don't even properly speak or understand it. Perhaps it is a bit like how Jews feel about Hebrew, even those who don't speak it.
In February 2000 we (me, my wife and our children) spent a very nice long weekend in Paris.
On a Sunday evening, at the Champs Elysées where all the shops are always open, I checked
routinely for fado records, and found
I bought it unheard, and never regretted it to this day. It's one of their best.
I think it is being released only now (December 2000) in other countries including
the Netherlands, so as not to interfere with the
Anyway, this new CD was part of what inspired me to decide to write down everything I knew about Portuguese pronunciation (I thought I knew enough by then, but it turned out I still had quite some things to discover while writing it), and publish it on the Internet.
In April 2000, I saw Cristina Branco, Custódio Castelo and the rest of the band
(Alexandre Silva and Fernando Maia)
perform live in an Amsterdam bookshop. I bought the CD
Cristina Branco canta Slauerhoff, and had it autographed by Cristina.
Soon after that my wife and I were at a concert in Zeist, at the Figi Theater.
I specifically remember one song, about a Gaivota (seagull), which
she told the audience had a very special meaning for her. This was a very
emotional moment for me, because seagulls have a rather special meaning to me
too, as a symbol of nature and how life will be worth while regardless,
despite feeling depressed. And that special meaning and memory of mine
wasn't just about that bird, but it included its name, in Portuguese, already then
in 1975: gaivota.
(Also connected to other, happier memories dating back to around 1965, then still without the name).
(Again, small details matter: In Spanish the i and v are reversed: gaviota.)
After all this admiration and enthusiasm, I have also some critical words about the Slauerhoff CD (which is do also like very much, especially O descobridor). Because these points of criticism have to do with the Portuguese and with the Dutch language (Slauerhoff was a Dutch writer and poet), this part is written in Dutch. There is also a English summary though.
I heard about political aspects of the appreciation for Amália, or lack thereof, only
on the night of her death, 6 October 1999.
One politician after the other appeared on Portuguese television that night, explaining
their personal feelings about her death. (Most of which I didn't understand anyway,
because the language is often too fast for me).
All that time, no music was played at all! Late at night they broadcast one
of her concerts on Portuguese radio, one with ugly football stadium-like echoes,
which completely spoiled the music.
Some CDs have that too, deliberately added, because in some cases I have the exact same recording on an old record, without these echoes.
Myself, I care about music, not much about politics, and especially not where music is concerned.
Addendum, May 2001: There's a new CD: Corpo iluminado. (Motto: preseverança, coragem, paz).
Sixteen new tracks, and believe it or not, this new CD again rivals or even exceeds the quality
of the ones before. Especially recommended:
1. Corpo iluminado
2. Meu amor, meu amor (Meu Limão de Amargura)
and very specially recommended:
written by Miguel Carvalhinho, who also plays the (non-Portuguese) guitar. This is the same Miguel Carvalhinho who also wrote Abalara.
This piece Locais (half sung, half instrumental) is really a gem.