Record Review: Carminho “Fado” | Soul Music from Lisbon’s Alfama

Posted on by Mike Quinn

Soul music is found not ONLY in Memphis, Motown, Muscle Shoals.

Soul music, perhaps with a slight twist, comes other cultures also.

No, it may not be funky, it may not have fatback drums, but there is plenty of other music around the world that comes from the soul. Think of Spanish Flamenco and its gut-wrenching passion. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was certainly a soul singer if there ever was one, wailing his Pakistani Qawwali, singing directly from his heart and his soul. Brazilian sambista Nelson Cavaquinho also qualifies with his plaintive sambas of lost love and other dark corners of his sad life.

Alfama neighborhood, Lisbon, Portugal

Look into the mysterious alleys of Lisbon’s mythical Alfama and you will, on any night of the week, find the wistful, mournful, painful soul music of Portugal, the fado, sung until the wee hours of the morning.

Fado was most likely born of Moorish roots in Lisbon centuries ago, full of the Arabic melancholy still known today in music of those cultures…including the also-Moorish inspired Flamenco. But it wasn’t until the middle of the 1800s that the forms we know today as fado began to take shape. By the early Twentieth Century, the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic complexities now common to this under-appreciated (outside Portugal) music established themselves, and then, a few decades later, radio, film and theater established fado as a legitimate commercial genre, popularizing the music across Portugal, and eventually other parts of the world.

Amália Rodrigues

Amália Rodrigues, who emerged initially in the 1940s, but spectacularly and internationally in the 1950s, became the Queen of Fado—A Rainha do Fado—for all time, holding this title even today, many years after her passing. Her powerful, yes, soulful, voice captured the imaginations of generations of Portuguese and non-Portuguese all over the world, including winning the hearts of New Yorkers in the ‘50s. Her talent, strength and legend helped propagate her musical heritage across borders and as well as establishing the definition of modern fado.

Many singers have emulated Amália, and there are dozens of wonderful fadistas in Lisbon singing night after night in the city’s casas de fado. But none have, in my opinion, even come close to approaching the depth of emotion achieved by Amália.

Until Carminho!

Spanish film maker Carlos Saura released a document of fado, imaginatively entitled Fados, which attempted to transmit the heart and soul of fado. Unfortunately, the film does not succeed in doing this, in fact, except for one nine minute segment which emulates a Lisbon casa de fado, the film is absolutely awful. Silly in parts. But that nine minute segment introduced the world to the 23-year-old singer named Carminho who, then still wearing braces on her teeth, totally stole the show and singlehandedly saved this sad waste of celluloid.

It wasn’t until 2009 that Carminho, then about 25, released her first commercial recording entitled, honestly enough, Fado. It took me six months to track down a mail order source in Porto, Portugal who was savvy enough to ship music internationally, but I was finally able, in January of 2010, to experience this wonderful debut recording from start to finish. Amazon, where are you????

Carminho Fado EMI

In Fado, Carminho manages to offer a delightful survey of many fado types, from the nearly painful “Escrevi Teu Nome No Vento (I Wrote Your Name In The Wind)” with its punctuating, evocative 10-string Portuguese guitar lines to the sprightly, lively tribute to the Tejo (Tagus) River which flows through Lisbon on its way to the Atlantic.

Carminho possesses a natural, husky, passion-laden voice which, in my opinion, others in the newest crop of female fadistas such as Mariza, Cristina Branca and Misia, among others, lack. In fact, most of these other, much more well-known (at least on the international scene)  singers seem almost posed, shaped by some sort of artificial production framework, sadly divorced from the sweaty, earthy Alfama from which Carminho, at least in spirit, clearly sprang. Her delivery, tone and conviction are totally convincing, totally compelling, totally captivating.

And in every selection, there is ample display of young Carminho’s surprising vocal maturity. She wears centuries of emotion on her sleeve, even at 25. After my first audition of this CD, I imagined what sort of voice she would project when she was a mature 35, or 45! The thought was spine tingling! And, I immediately thought she could easily be the true heir to the mantle of A Rainha—of Amália herself! Pretty strong words, and I’m sure many fans of the aforementioned singers may dispute. But I’ll hold my ground on this. Aside from another honest, from-the-gut fadista, Ana Moura, Carminho is the only one of fado’s newest stars to not give me the impression she was groomed by a marketing committee.

I wish Fado were available as an LP, the effect of its magic would be even greater, but even as a commercial Redbook CD, the sound is quite impressive. Her voice is a palpable presence centered in the soundstage, and the various guitars and other stringed instruments were recorded in a fashion to make them equally believable, even truly musical, complete with multi-dimensional imaging—lots of acoustic space surrounds each individually defined instrument.

Guitarra Portuguesa, One of fado's principal instruments

Over all, the sound is very natural and pleasing, no real flaws, other than it is not analog which would have further enhanced the feeling, fleshiness and musicality of the recording. On a good system you can close your eyes—surely with a glass of vinho verde, some noble port, or a cold Sagres beer—and imagine yourself deep in the bowels of the Alfama at three or four in the morning.  Carminho and EMI, please release this on vinyl!

In any case, this is not an easy disc to find, but is well worth the effort to do so. Follow this link to in Porto—they have an English version of the page—and order this CD. You will be amply rewarded a couple of weeks later by a revelatory voice you will crave from then on.

Carminho and her Fado will haunt you…that is, if you have any hint of feeling and sensitivity in your own soul!

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