I know very little about Portuguese music, and not speaking the language doesn’t help, since I can’t even follow the lyrics. Nevertheless when I was living in the Minho the music started getting under my skin, and before long I was hearing it properly: first folklore, then fado, then the rest fell into place. As a result, although the following list of favourites is short, for the time being at least, I’m confident about every item.
Portuguese music falls into four broad categories, and the connections between them become more apparent as your familiarity grows. The categories are Folklore, Fado, Intervention Song and Pimba. I adopt the latter two labels from the Rough Guide to Portugal and the Rough Guide to World Music, although both are problematic. ‘Intervention Song’ seems appropriate when applied to the protest music that sprung up around the revolution of 1974, but the general idiom, a deeply Lusophone, rock-based singer-songwriter tradition, existed both before and afterwards. ‘Pimba’ is even more problematic, since the label, popularised by Emanuel’s song ‘Nós pimba’ (meaning, with sexual innuendo, ‘we give it to them’), has become a derogatory term for vulgar or tacky, which is why many prefer the more anodyne ‘Portuguese popular music’. At least ‘Folklore’ and ‘Fado’ are uncontroversial labels. Folklore is the vibrant, living tradition of folk music you hear played out on the streets daily throughout much of the country, especially the north. And Fado, the type of Portuguese music everyone has heard of, is the sophisticated urban music, appropriately dubbed the ‘European blues’, which evolved in two distinct traditions in the cities of Lisbon and Coimbra, and which is standardly performed by a vocalist accompanied by a Spanish guitar (viola) and a Portuguese guitar (guitarra).
You can buy many of the following albums online, with the best selection to be found on iTunes, but some are only available in Portugual, either from one of the big FNAC stores (best for Fado and Intervention Song), or from one of the many stalls that set up at markets and festivals under titles such as ‘Top Disco’ (best for Folklore and Pimba); you need to exude a sense of purpose at the latter, since the stall-holders can be quite impatient with casual flickers!
Cantigas ao desafio
My interest in Portuguese music began at a Canário gig, sometime in the early hours on the town square of Ponte de Lima. They were playing a standard folklore number of the kind you regularly hear in those parts: the familiar vocal contour, the basic but insistent drum and bass pattern, and the accordions weaving continuous patterns. It soon became a call-and-response between Canário and his young backing singer, Natividade (Naty) Vieira, whose look and bearing was reminiscent of bored teenagers across the developed world, but who sang in the timeless voice of a poor agricultural field-worker of the region, the standard female voice for the idiom which is at once thin, harsh and plaintive; Canário’s voice, by contrast, was rich, vibrant and comparatively modern sounding, which is the standard for male singers in the idiom. They were complaining about each other, or about men and women in general, and the crowd reacted with more and more delight with each passing chorus. I became aware that this song was going on for an extraordinary amount of time, and becoming progressively more intense. Then another of the backing singers took over from Vieira, walking into the crowd where he clung to a lamp-post to continue the exchange with Canário at a distance. Soon the song had been going on for over an hour, with the word ‘Portugal’ becoming ever more prominent in the lyrics, and by the end the crowd was pretty much ecstatic. This album contains the same music played by the same people, but without the spectacle or atmosphere; whether it is possible to hear it properly without that kind of initiation I don’t know, but rest assured that this is seriously heady stuff.
Irene Passos, Natividade Vieira and Augusto Moreira
Os três da Velhota
This 2005 recording is a classic, but you’ll need to visit a ‘Top Disco’ stall to get hold of it. The line-up is accordions and percussion backing three voices, two women and a man, the ‘cock and two hens’ in the title of the first track. Moreira is a folklore veteran with a striking, constricted voice rooted in an earlier age; it is the kind of voice that would sound at home on a crackly field recording from the 1920s. Newcomer Naty, whose presence never fails to sets the hearts of the middle- and old-aged male folklorists around her racing, fits in perfectly as usual, with her similarly idiomatic wail. The real fireworks, however, come from the other veteran, Passos, who belts out her often bawdy lines with little refinement but maximum character and power; she has amazing presence live as she strides around the stage, and you can hear the personality on this recording. As is generally the case with folklore, there are no real highlights to speak of, just a continual, trance-like swirl of familiar accordion patterns with an absolute minimum of harmonic and rhythmic variety, but occasional subtle melodic variations as the voices come and go. Lyrics apart, all six tracks are pretty much the same track, but once you’re used to it, you wouldn’t want it any other way.
Maria da Fé
De Fado em Fado
Maria da Fé is the most powerful and intense of the fado singers; she reminds me a little of Bessie Smith. This 1980 album of Lisbon fado features the usual line-up, but with the addition of a bass guitar, and finds da Fé really belting out the passion over the ethereal jingling of Fontes Rocha on guitarra. She never lets up for a moment, even on the slower numbers, with her unaccompanied moments on ‘Chorava por ti’ among the most memorable on this short (25 minutes) but relentlessly emotional album.
O melhor de
Lisbon fado arose from the poor and dispossessed of 19th century Portugal, just as the blues arose from the poor and dispossessed of 19th century America; fado’s legendary first singer, Maria Severa, was a prostitute. It was soon taken up, however, by the privileged elite of university students in Coimbra, who forged their own distinct tradition characterised by more intellectual lyrics, more varied and complex harmonies, a remodelled guitarra which they tuned a tone lower, the innovation of purely instrumental fados, and an embargo on women; it is traditionally performed in black academic robes seated on the steps of Coimbra university, or else on any other steps that present themselves. The 1920s was the acknowledged golden age of Coimbra fado, when the extraordinarily dramatic voice of Edmundo de Bettencourt cut through the primitive recording techniques of the time, but later generations continued to move the genre forwards, and from the 1950s onwards one of its most pre-eminent and progressive voices was the incredibly rich and mournful baritone of Luiz Goes. This compilation of recordings from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s on the iPLAY label is my favourite fado CD. The drama of Goes’ majestic, saudade-drenched laments on these complex and varied songs, underpinned by virtuoso guitarra that rhythmically ebbs and flows, is one of the best reasons I know to discover Portuguese music. The highlights among these twenty classic songs are the beautiful melody of ‘Poema para um menino’, and above all, the dramatic and overwhelmingly emotional ‘É preciso acreditar’ (‘You have to believe’).
Coimbra de ontem e de hoje
Some of this 1967 session was reproduced on the ‘best of’ CD recommended above, but you really want to hear it all because every track finds Goes’s voice at its resonant, soaring best, as it merges organically with the dignified viola and guitarra accompaniments; this group puts across so much melancholy passion that it very quickly becomes overwhelming to listen to them. The highlight is ‘O Meu Fado’, which contains my all-time favourite lyric: ‘There are only four letters in this sad word ‘love’ (amor); one less than ‘death’ (morte) but one more than ‘pain’ (dor)’.
The Fabulous Marceneiro
The acknowledged king of Lisbon fado (albeit far outranked by the queen, namely Amália), Marceneiro took some persuading to come into the studio to record this 1960 album, since he found modern technology, such as the microphones and recording equipment, disgusting; his solution was to tie his neckerchief around his eyes and perform blindfolded. He was getting on for 70 at the time, but his smoky, slightly high-pitched voice is in perfect shape; it was never the greatest voice, but what was important about Marceneiro was his sincerity and conviction, which are in evidence in abundance on these thoroughly traditional recordings. Those who want to know what saudade is can hear it expressed in its purest form here.
O melhor de
Carlos Paredes is the unchallenged master of the guitarra , the most Portuguese of instruments, which looks rather like a lute and has an unmistakable jingly and ethereal sound. This ‘best of’ on the Som Livre label finds Paredes accompanied by Fernando Alvim on viola , and using his dazzling virtuosity to create unique sonic environments with an enormous palette of harmonies and scales; this album is endlessly listenable, and yields new secrets every time.
To my knowledge at least, there were only two recorded meetings between the greats of fado and the greats of jazz. One was a 1968 recording of Amália Rodrigues with Don Byas called ‘Encontro’, on which Byas sounds very self-conscious and Amália sounds frankly indifferent to his presence; it’s her band, her music, and he is very much just sitting in. If you ignore Byas, it’s an excellent Amália album, as always, and if you listen to him, you just wish he was in a more appropriate setting. This meeting between Carlos Paredes and bassist Charlie Haden is considerably more successful, however. Again the interaction is rather one-sided, with Haden trying to fit in with Paredes rather than vice versa , but it works because Paredes was accustomed to being accompanied by a viola anyway, and Haden’s free-wheeling improvisation doesn’t require him to depart too much from his usual routine. The nearest Paredes comes to meeting Haden in the middle is on Haden’s ‘Song for Che’, which is interesting, although Paredes only appears for a minute or so in the middle of the track, and despite the fact that he seems to be improvising, he doesn’t really connect with the composition; most of the track is just unaccompanied bass. The rest of the album, however, finds Haden really digging into the complex fado material, somehow making it sound reminiscent of the Ornette Coleman band, and occasionally nudging Paredes this way and that, rhythmically at least; fascinating to hear if you happen to like both jazz and Portuguese music! The highlight is ‘Dança dos Camponeses’, on which Haden really makes a difference: the result is a classic.
At the Paris Olympia
Amália was an icon, a glamorous jet-setting superstar who became the face of twentieth century Portugal. She was also the greatest fadista of all time, a fact never seriously questioned within Portuguese music; the Amália section is always the biggest by far in a Portuguese record shop. This live performance from 1957, with Domingos Camarinha on guitarra and Santos Moreira on viola, was an important event in her tumultuous life, since the concert and resulting album took France by storm, thereby launching her international career. And it is indeed the perfect album on which to encounter the consummate artistry and authority of her highly distinctive, always passionate, and sometimes haunting voice. Highlights include the uplifting and catchy ‘Uma Casa Portuguesa’, by the end of which she has already won the audience over and sounds absolutely triumphant, the arresting ‘Barco Negro’, on which she starts to quite literally wail, and the poignant ‘Amália’, her melancholic reflection on meeting an admirer who had named her new-born child after the singer.
Fado de Coimbra (1926-1930)
Volume II of the Arquivos do Fado series on the Tradisom Produções Culturais label, this compilation contains all the legendary names from Coimbra fado’s golden age, most notably Edmundo de Bettencourt, Lucas Rodrigues Junot, José Paradela de Oliveira, and Artur Parades (father of Carlos). The most acclaimed and hence thoroughly represented is De Bettencourt, whose harsh voice cuts through dramatic songs like ‘Senhora do Almortão e Senhora da Póvoa’ and ‘Fado Crucificado’ with frightening intensity, while the soaring romance in his voice becomes more apparent on others like ‘Fado de Santa Cruz’. Junot has a curious, nasal, and very feminine voice, which is at its most effective on the tentative ‘Fado de Santa Clara’, and which develops into a quite extraordinary wail on ‘Fado Sepúlveda’, while De Oliveira sounds even more like a woman, and a very mournful one at that. Guitarist Paredes’ instrumental makes it clear where his son’s virtuosic style came from, with his ‘Bailados do Minho’ particularly fascinating when the unmistakable drumbeat of folklore enters. The same thing happens on Jose Joaquim Cavalheiro’s ‘Ramaldeira’: all of a sudden it becomes surprisingly hard to discern where folklore ceases and fado begins.
Cantigas do maio
Along with Amália, José Afonso is the most important figure in Portuguese music; these two alone are ‘presupposed’, as I’ve sometimes heard it said. This 1971 classic was his most important album, not least because one of the tracks, the rather atypical ‘Grândola Vila Morena’, was played on the radio to signal the beginning of the 1974 revolution; the sinister sound of marching underpinning a patriotic-sounding anthem could hardly sound more appropriate. The following track, however, presents a perfect contrast, with Afonso singing a wistful, joyous melody in a warbling falsetto, with interesting interludes from the Don Cherry-ish trumpet of Tony Branis. Every track is different, but the album as a whole is contemporary-sounding and experimental, as Afronso’s albums generally were, with his interest in spontaneity and sincerity rather than perfection underlined by his decision, often repeated in later years, to begin the album with studio chatter and a false start. This somehow makes the entrance of Afonso’s voice even more devastating than it might otherwise have been: dignified, authoritative, sincere, thoroughly infused with folklore and fado, and with a massive, unmistakable vibrato.
José Mário Branco
This album reminds me at turns of Mingus, Anthony Braxton, and Return to Forever; intervention song was usually quite adventurous, but this album stands out for the chances it takes. The opening track ‘Cá vai caneças’, sounds somewhere between circus music and a military parade, which is immediately disorientating, although as the track continues and the bombast and absurdity increases, it somehow gains a strange majesty. The second track, ‘Tiro-no-liro’, takes you right back into classic intervention song territory; the contrast with the previous track is breath-taking when the fusion-style guitar enters followed by Branco’s soft but focused voice. This beautiful and uplifting song is the clear highlight of the album. Next up is the fascinating ‘Arrocachula’, which after a folklore-ish introduction, goes deep into jazz-rock territory. However in the middle of the track the folklore returns for a moment, and then the music melts into an uncouth rock ‘n’ roll groove, complete with ‘shoo-wop’ backing vocals. This continues for some time until you hear the unmistakable strains of folklore breaking through again, but this time right over the top of the rock’n’roll; it never goes away again, with the symbolism clear enough, and the cacophony ends only when the jazz-rock returns. The next track, ‘Elogio da Corporação’, features clarinet interludes by Artur Moreira which take the album momentarily into Anthony Braxton-territory, then this is followed by the rousing anthem of ‘Camões e a tença’. Unfortunately, the title track, which ends the album and lasts nearly half an hour, is rather overblown and often dull. But even this has its moments, and you can hardly complain by this point.
Salão de festas
Godinho is one of the greats of Intervention Song and Portuguese popular music generally; his soft, percussive and thoroughly Portuguese singing style, combined with his superior, highly creative song-writing abilities, ensure that his diverse output is invariably interesting. Godinho's work often steers towards Kinks-like rock territory, but Brazilian, jazz- fusion (especially on 'Duelo ao sol') and folklore (especially on 'Coro das Velhas') influences are to the fore here. The highlights are the beautiful, yearning 'Trás-os-Montes', the melancholy 'Chave de Vidro', the restless 'Mil pedaços', and best of all, the unforgettable, sighing 'Quimera do Ouro'.
Um beco com saída
This is my favourite album of Portuguese music and there is not much in jazz I would place above it. Fausto is a unique figure in Portuguese music, who grew up in the then-colony of Angola, albeit in a town that was an enclave of Portuguese life incongruously transported to the centre of Africa. When he returned to Portugal at age 20, he soon became a vital player in the intervention song movement, bringing a clear African influence to the music, both rhythmically and melodically, although he had moulded this influence into a quintessentially Portuguese sound. This highly political 1975 album begins with a whistful, reflective anthem, wordlessly sung by a vocal chorus, which by the end of the track is backed only by a metronome; it returns at the end of the album to round things off. The second track, ‘Alerta Pescador’, about a ‘watchful fisherman’, who used to be a soldier and has calluses on his strong hands, is the highlight on an album that is brilliant throughout: the endlessly rising and then resolving melody, accompanied by African-sounding drums and jingling guitarra, is thoroughly uplifting, inspirational, and impossible to listen to dispassionately. What makes the track so irresistible, of course, is Fausto’s resolute voice: coloured with slurs and inflections, it is absolutely full of character and passion, and some of the lines are rhythmically stunning as he forces the words in line with the beat using his inimitably soft but punchy articulation. There is no improving on ‘Alerta Pescador’, but many other inspirational songs follow, each with their own unforgettable flavour, such as the suspense followed by harmonically rich release of ‘Nem longe nem perto’, ‘Ao Princípio era o verbo’ featuring Fausto’s memorable asides, the melancholy, fado-like ‘História da casa vazia’, and the joyous but bittersweet ‘O Tocador’.
Para alem das Cordilheira
This 1987 album on the Columbia label opens with Fausto’s melancholic reflection on the essence of being Portuguese, ‘Lusitana’; the saudade is mixed up with questioning and very turbulent passages which resolve into almost breathless climaxes of affirmation. The rest of the album features the same contrast between saudade and celebration, albeit with the emphasis on the former, with Fausto’s voice almost overloaded with introspective and wistful emotion on perfectly sculpted songs like ‘Toda a Europa à proa’, ‘Foi por ela’ and ‘Porque me olhas assim’, while others like the catchy ‘Prego a fundo’, replete with rhythmic hand-clapping, serve to lighten the proceedings a little.
Adriano Correia de Oliveira
Gente de aqui e de agora
This 1971 classic has an unrelenting mood of sadness, even on the comedy number ‘O Senhor Morgado’, which would sound like one of those novelties you sometimes find on hippy rock albums if it weren’t for De Oliveira’s saudade-drenched voice. Composer and arranger José Niza gives the album a unified sound across many different instrumental combinations, often utilising a string orchestra, while De Oliveira demonstrates little of the jazz, rock or bossa influence to be heard in his contemporaries, employing instead the voice of a classic Coimbra fadista (he did study at Coimbra). Intervention song albums of this era often opened with a revolutionary anthem, but there was usually some twist or irony; not so in the case of ‘Emigração’, and the extremely dramatic ‘E alegre se fez triste’ which follows offers no light relief whatsoever. However the drama, unlike the sadness, does subside a little as these ten unique songs play out. Highlights include ‘Cantiga de Amigo’, despite its dated ‘lounge music’ arrangement, the sentimental jazz-waltz ‘Roseira Brava’, and above all, the almost unbearably sad ‘Cana Verde’. When reluctantly away from Portugal, and especially when travelling out of the country, this album should be handled with caution.
Mestre de Culinária
Quim is the true originator of pimba and part of the fabric of modern Portugal; these days he releases a new album every year, without fail, and you can always pick it up from a petrol station or near the till of just about any supermarket. His background is in folklore, he is an exceptional accordion player, but he is best known for his rich, smoky, characterful voice, and his prodigious output of bawdy songs, which more often than not link food with sex. Live he seems ageless and iconic, with his trademark huge moustache and swaggering bearing, as he performs at farmers’ markets and festivals throughout the country, where some listen, some dance, and some just get on with their business. By the time of this 1994 album, on which he is dressed as a chef on the cover, he had found his formula, repeated ever since. The formula is simple but catchy melodies and harmonies, performed mainly with electronic keyboards and accordion, but with miscellaneous other instruments occasionally making an appearance; this provides the backdrop for Quim to sing his scurrilous lyrics, alone at first, before being joined by a male chorus for the hook. Overall this is my favourite Quim album (of the small fraction of his vast output I’ve heard) simply because it features so many memorable and evocative songs: ‘Ser Bombeiro’ (about Portugal’s volunteer firemen, at one level at least), ‘Não, não perdoo’ (with its catchy riff), the wonderfully resigned-sounding ‘O voto’, ‘Se tens pezão’ (which I suspect may have even ruder lyrics than usual, but I’m not sure), ‘O Padeiro’ (about a baker who works hard and makes little money, but is consoled by the fact that everyone loves his ‘rolling pin’), and my favourite of all, ‘É só inveja’, which has a superb little minor melody which gets right under your skin. There are even a couple of folklore tracks to round the album off, on which Quim demonstrates beyond any doubt his mastery of the idiom.
A Garagem da Vizinha
A Garagem da Vizinha is Quim’s most famous album, but more than that, it is the definitive pimba album. The title track, about parking your car in your female neighbour’s garage, is a classic: you only need to hear it once to know for sure that you’ll never forget it. Other highlights include the absolutely typical pimba theme of ‘A Ditadura’, the emotional ‘Farinheiro’, and a good example of the kind of crazy novelty track Quim often includes, ‘Quadras do menino carlinhos’, which features various animal sounds and other silly noises.
This 2009 album is easily Quim’s best of recent years. The production has improved dramatically compared to earlier efforts, he uses better musicians, and his voice has become darker and even more layered with gruff character. Highlights include the title track, ‘O São João Tripeiro’, the latin number ‘Bye bye’, and the crazy quacking antics of ‘Os pêlos do coelhinho’ (the hair of the bunny), which is ostensively about small children playing. An intellectual Brazilian, while expressing her distain for my liking of this music, told me that this latter song features the most innocent naughtiness to be found on the album, but the bizarre cartoon video which comes with the CD makes me continue to suspect otherwise. The other video shows Quim performing the title track while middle-aged Portuguese men and women happily dance away to a song about his ‘fish’ preferences.
Que Grande Bronca
Emanuel (ee-man-wel) is the acknowledged king of pimba; he certainly does have a rather regal air, and usually performs in the big stadiums, rather than the festival tents and parties where most pimba goes on. His popularity is helped by his piercing blue eyes and heart-throb status among Portuguese women of a certain age, which is played for everything it is worth on album covers which invariably feature nothing more or less than the man himself, often in close-up, and sometimes, as on this album, with a portfolio of ludicrously-posed portrait shots in the booklet, allowing Emanuel to show off his latest swishy outfits. Although none of this may sound very promising, it must be said that Emanuel never fails to deliver pumping and slick pimba, even if his romantic songs are sometimes a little stomach-churning. The title track of this popular 2007 album is pretty much perfect, with Emanuel’s smooth, understated voice, replete with distinctive little croaks, gliding over the simple, pounding bass guitar, with the prerequisite accordion, synths, and female backing vocals completing the mix. The rest of the album keeps the emphasis on good-time party music, rather than the soppy stuff he is prone to, making this the best all-round Emanuel effort I’ve heard, although his 2010 ‘Esperança’ album was also great, especially for its inclusion of the plaintive ‘Eu sou taxista (com alma de fadista)’ (I’m a taxi driver (with the soul of a fadista)).
An underdog among the big names of pimba, whose albums, released on the independent Disco Douro label since 2000, are generally only available at ‘Top Disco’ stalls and online , Nel Monteiro is also arguably pimba’s greatest exponent. His vibrant, expressive, and perfectly controlled voice, his well above average song-writing abilities, and most significantly of all, his instinct for the kind of manic energy regularly found in free jazz, but not Portuguese music, all combine to elevate Nel above the rest. This 1993 effort is restrained and conservative compared to what was to come, but it contains some classic songs. Highlights include the title track, which is about how the Portuguese love to eat (it does seem to take about up a surprisingly large proportion of their time), the catchy themes of ‘Beijinhos na praia’, ‘Suite 403’, and ‘Coração doente’, the lilting melancholia of ‘Linda Sandra’, and best of all, the satire of ‘A secretária e o presidente’, which features Nel, characteristically enough, repeatedly singing ‘what a load of shit!’ over a stomping tuba bass-line.
Puta vida merda cagalhões
Two of the words in the title of this album are expletives, and the other two are ‘life’ and ‘turds’. Nel is one of the most politically conscious figures in Portuguese music, certainly in pimba, and this album, which effectively combines folklore and pimba tracks, is about the plight of the poor and lack of justice in the world. The title track is pure folklore, and despite the rather extreme lyrics, Nel’s voice exudes dignified outrage; when he turns his hand to this more traditional idiom, his powerful and expressive voice is unbeatable. After an up-beat pimba interlude, the title track is followed by ‘Vida puta, cagalhões merda’, an entirely different song despite the merely inverted title: not folklore protest this time, but rather a high-octane emotional power-ballad! After that surreal experience is over, Nel’s distinctive cry of ‘E Pa!’ signals the beginning of the party which takes up the rest of the album.
Comboio de Forró
This is an exceptionally crazy, high-energy album, as you can tell from the outset as Nel starts ‘wooing’ like a train (the ‘shindig train’ of the title) with absolutely no restraint whatsoever. The fast beat pumps insistently, the odd synthesised sound-effects come and go, and the super-charged accordion binds it all together while Nel really cuts loose; this is the only Portuguese album which ever put me in mind of Albert Ayler. The best track, one of my two favourite pimba tracks of all, is the absolutely unstoppable ‘Miúda da bilha’, which tells of the shocking sexual exploits of Father João.
This 2009 album was released to celebrate Nel’s ’25 years of service to Portuguese music’; he has previously celebrated other similar landmarks. The cover art, showing his penchant for flashy outfits, big medallions, and posing with a scantily-clad backing singer draped on each arm, is classier than on some previous efforts. This massive-sounding and slick extravaganza of an album features the other one of my two favourite pimba tracks of all time, ‘Logo à noite não há nada’. Everything about this storming track is pimba-perfection: the brash synthesised instrumental introduction ending with a little explosion-sound, the absolute commitment in Nel’s vibrant voice as he sings the first verse, the interlude where the music stops for one of the girls to warble ‘Oh my God!’ (in english) before Nel rushes out his spoken aside over thudding drums. And then the call-and-response between Nel and the backing singers on the irresistible and seriously catchy chorus; the song is about nude sunbathing (I think).