Saturday, 6 October 2012

In Memory of Amália Rodrigues: The Queen of Fado

by Gregory Walton-Green

'The fado is not meant to be sung; it simply happens.'

A rich, mournful voice echoes round my house: an old record, ‘The Art of Amália’ is playing. The voice imbues each note with an emotional intensity unlike any other artist. My mother has several of Amália’s albums, as well as other fado music: she gained her love of the uniquely Portuguese style from her own mother, who was born in Cidadelhe in the North of Portugal and was born with the same surname as Amália: ‘Rodrigues’.

I rarely delve deeply into my Portuguese heritage, but on the anniversary of Amália’s death, I look into the life of a woman regarded as “Portugal’s greatest ambassador to the world”.

Amalia Rodrigues
(source: Wikimedia)
9th October 1999: In Lisbon, Portugal, thousands weep and hold up white handkerchiefs in respect as a coffin, draped in the red and green of the Portuguese flag, is paraded through the streets. It is the state funeral at the end of three days of public mourning for Amália da Piedade Rodrigues, aged 79, who died in her sleep at her home in São Bento, Lisbon. She had not sung in recent years due to illness and a lung operation in 1995. She married twice, but with no children, first to a Portuguese guitarist, Francisco Cruz, whom she divorced, then to a Brazilian engineer, César Sabra. Many regard her as Portugal’s greatest success of the 20th Century. A world-renowned singer of ‘fado’, literally translating as ‘fate’, a style of singing, accompanied by the Portuguese guitar (‘guitarra’), that originated in 19th Century Portugal, focusing mainly on the theme of women yearning for their fishermen lovers who had gone to sea. Amália reinvented fado during her lifetime, broadening its range of topics and blending in features from other art forms as diverse as opera and surrealist poetry, and her work still provides the inspiration and the rulebook for all subsequent singers of the style. As well as singing fado, she tried styles of singing from all over the world, and had a successful film and stage career to boot.

Nobody would have guessed that the fifth child of a destitute cobbler from the impoverished Alcântara district of Lisbon would become such a great success. Amália developed a passion for singing early on in life: the people of Alcântara grew accustomed to hearing the little five-year old girl singing as she went through the streets of Lisbon. Amália was born in 1920, when Portugal was still largely undeveloped. She saw the new republic of Portugal, reformed in 1910, usurped by Salazar’s draconian dictatorship in 1933, and that corrupt system itself overthrown by left-wing activists in the 1970s, to be replaced by Portugal’s modern government. Officially, her date of birth is the 23rd of July; however, she always claimed it was the 1st of July. This is quite plausible, as births generally took place at home, and often it was several weeks before the parents took the baby to the registry office.

Despite Amália’s love of singing, her family’s poverty meant she needed to find a job at an early age, so she left school before her 14th birthday. She moved from job to job for several years, in order to help support her family as best as she could. Finally, in 1939, she started to sing and act professionally, at tavernas, ‘fado houses’, and theatres. She fell in with the other professional musicians in Lisbon, going from restaurant to nightclub, dancing and singing any style that was popular, and became very successful. With every show, her fame increased and led her on to ever-greater heights. All who heard her voice were captivated by its soulful quality. She was whisked off to Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Rome, using song to escape the ever more restrictive political environment in her home country.

Amália was now seen at most major Portuguese events: she was the entertainment for the bourgeoisie upper classes, providing enthralling music while greedy politicians had their corrupt dealings. On the other hand, she started to sing left-wing poetry, and sent money to support the communist cause.

Amalia Rodrigues
She is a confusing mix of contradictions: impossible ever to analyse fully, fiercely proud of her heritage, choosing to wear the traditional Portuguese black shawl instead of the Spanish flamenco dresses Hollywood wanted her to perform in. She was devoted to the ‘fado’, the fatalistic music of Portugal, but she transformed it into a new distinct style, elevating it above the traditional song of lost love, by using complex rhythms and foreign tongues, yet she still preserved its essential essence. She was awarded with honours and praise for her performances from France to Japan, yet in Portugal, Salazar regarded her as ‘the little woman’. She sang for crowds, recorded her songs, acted in Portuguese, American and French films, and performed in a host of different languages, including traditional opera and pieces by contemporary French poets, but she never overcame her stage fright. Her music brought joy and hope to millions, yet her personal life was haunted by tragedy: she tried to commit suicide in her youth, she was left widowed by her second husband, and she was plagued by vocal problems in later life.

 After the Democratic party took over Portugal, they decorated Amália with the Official Degree of the Order of Prince Henry, the Navigator; the new government realised that Amália had put Portugal on the map. Amália was also presented with the highest honours of the French government.

Amalia Rodrigues' funeral procession
(source: BBC)
In her later years, Amália recorded fewer songs, but created many more compilations and published her own poetry. She gave generous support to the poor, trying to help others who grew up in circumstances like her own, and was a mentor to other 'fadistas' such as Dulce Pontes, who eventually took over most of Amália’s repertoire.

Upon her death, from Amália’s house to the Basilica, people decorated their windowsills with white tablecloths, and the government placed her body in the Pantheon, among the other great Portuguese heroes.

Since Amália, no other Portuguese has gained the same global recognition and adoration as her, and very possibly, they never will.

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