Swathed in a lacy black gown, her raven tresses cascading over her bare shoulders, Ana Moura looks like central casting’s idea of a fadista—a singer devoted to the tradition-bound Portuguese musical style that marries poetry about love, loss, and the vicissitudes of fate to sumptuously plaintive melodies. Moura hews to many of the genre’s conventions, performing accompanied by teardrop-shaped 12-string Portuguese guitars, yet she embodies a contemporary spirit of fado. Thanks to a remarkable generation of young singers, fado is in the midst of a renaissance, and has risen over the past decade as a force on the world music scene.
Fado, which means “fate” or “destiny,” was an unintended harvest from Portugal’s far-flung empire, blending Portuguese folk poetry, Arabic cadences, and African and Brazilian rhythms. By the time fado started taking shape on Lisbon’s waterfront in the mid-1800s, the nation’s status as a world power had been in steep decline for centuries and the music’s themes often reflected the forlorn but defiant outlook of a people whose poverty forced many young men to emigrate in search of work.
With its unabashed emotional intensity and preoccupation with heartbreak, betrayal, and separation, fado became a ritualized form of emotional release. The music has thrived for generations in Lisbon’s fado houses, taverns where people gather to hear vocalists perform the haunting songs. For much of the 20th century, diva Amália Rodrigues singularly personified fado and came to be the face of Portugal’s starkly political use of the artform. When she died in 1999, at the age of 79, fado looked to be an inheritance rejected by young Portuguese.
Then a new generation embraced the style, as charismatic young artists like Mariza and Mísia, Cristina Branco and Ana Moura started to revitalize the art form. It may look like a movement, but Moura feels that “everyone is doing their own thing.” Her own latest studio album, 2009’s Leva-me aos Fados, continues her collaboration with poet and songwriter Jorge Fernando, a guitarist who spent years accompanying Amália Rodrigues. “After Amália there was a little break, but Mísia came, and she started to grab some attention outside of Portugal, then Mariza and Cristina. It’s amazing how people are more and more interested in other sonorities, in new sounds.”
Moura’s sonic collaborations have included work with Prince and joining the Rolling Stones on stage, where she’s made the Beggars Banquet classic “No Expectations” her own. For Moura, 32, these opportunities didn’t feel like a stretch. “Before I sang fado professionally, I had a pop rock band,” she says with a laugh, talking by phone from her home in Lisbon. “I always sang many styles, but fado was my special thing. When I was invited to participate with the Rolling Stones, it was important to grab the attention of people who never heard of fado, who only like rock ‘n’ roll. It’s happening more and more, from the Internet and Facebook and Myspace.” And soon to include a stop in Berkeley on Saturday, Feb. 18, for a Cal Performances concert at Zellerbach Hall.