With her understated grace and elegance, Portuguese Fado singer Ana Moura captivated her audience from the moment she walked onto stage, transforming the Esch Hurvis Studio into the intimate space of a Fado house during her March 27 “Fado of the World” performance. Her distinctively low and ever-so-slightly husky voice gives her renditions of the melancholy and beguiling traditional songs a special seductive allure.
UNESCO acknowledged Fado as part of the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011. Fado, which means destiny, is the signature music of Portugal. It combines music and poetry, drawing on the influence of Afro-Brazilian dance music and the folk music of Portugal.
Although Fado is a distinct genre of its own, one can easily compare it with the musical heritage of neighboring Spain, Flamenco. In both traditions, older performers pass down the songs, which have themes of heartbreak and sorrow, in small, customary performing spaces—the Fado house and the Flamenco cave—as well as increasingly in other, modern contexts. Their rhythms have African roots and they use specific instruments for accompaniment.
The typical instruments of Fado include acoustic guitar and the Portuguese acoustic guitar, a pear-shaped instrument with twelve strings. Moura’s accompanists played these instruments as well as acoustic bass, keyboard and drum set. More than simply accompanists, the instrumentalists had their own solos in which their musicality and technical skills shone, as well as a fun and impressive extended instrumental piece near the end of the concert that resulted in a standing ovation.
Moura’s decision to include these nontraditional instruments demonstrates her willingness to fuse pop and other musical styles with Fado. She has collaborated with Prince, Gilberto Gil, Tim Ries of The Rolling Stones and Spanish musicians such as Patxi Muge. In her latest album, “Desfado,” Moura experiments with jazz. For example, she sings “Dream of Fire,” a song composed for her by the great jazz pianist and composer Herbie Hancock. She also covers Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and sings songs written for her by non-Fado Portuguese composers.
The freshness of Moura’s Fado joined with her dedication to the traditional spirit of Fado can account for her enormous popularity and success. But personally, my favorite songs from her concert repertoire were the more traditional songs, with their gentle, swaying rhythms that Moura’s soulful voice wrapped around and inhabited effortlessly, such as “Até Ao Verão,” “Havemos de Acordar,” “Amor Afaito,” “A Minha Estrella” and “Qando O Sol Espreitar De Novo.”
After every song, Moura would graciously and softly acknowledge the audience’s enthusiastic applause. “Thank you, thank you very much.” She seemed as unwilling as the audience to break the magic spell of the performance, which created a world of delicate loveliness set apart from everyday life. Perhaps this is why poetic folk music traditions such as Fado have such longevity and contemporary appeal. Besides bringing people together and providing a sense of belonging, they also elevate common human emotions to a realm of deep truth and beauty, both embodying and transcending daily life.