Portuguese singer carries a torch for fado melodies

The label "torch singer" is decades old, referring to a singer specializing in songs about unrequited love, a form that can flirt with banality if the performer exudes mere sentimentality. But Cristina Branco, a young Portuguese vocalist who recently had her concert debut in the United States, and whose new CD "Post-Scriptum" (Harmonia Mundi) has just been released, rekindles the best qualities of torch singing with a radiantly bright talent.

Branco was inspired to start a singing career in her teens when she heard a recording by Amalia Rodrigues, the most popular Portuguese recording artist of all time and a master of the musical style known as fado.

Fado is roughly equivalent to the American blues. Usually a single voice bewails the vagaries of fate - particularly the fickleness of lovers - accompanied by one or two acoustic guitars. Like the blues, the expression of sorrow in fado offers the performer and audience a sense of cathartic release. Fado melodies often merge Arabic influences (that traveled from North Africa into Portugal during the Middle Ages) with characteristics found in indigenous Portuguese and Spanish folk music.

Rodrigues dropped out of recording two decades ago, and no one had assumed her mantle in the world of fado until now. Branco has clearly learned her lessons well from Rodrigues. She sings with a blazing passion and forthrightness marked by a stunning tonal purity and sensitivity to lyrics that show her a master of well-tempered sentiment.

But Rodrigues also fearlessly departs from fado tradition when she sings original material that reveals Latin American and even jazz influences, both rhythmically and harmonically. And she has expanded upon the notion that fado songs must always focus on unrequited romance. One of the most haunting songs on "Post-Scriptum" is "Aspiracao," an anthem to the joys of spiritual liberation, with lyrics by the modern Dutch poet Joseph Slauerhoff.

"Lisboa de Paixoes," a song composed by Branco and her talented guitarist, Custodio Castelo, celebrates the capital city of her homeland as a wellspring of artistic inspiration. The album has its share of moments saturated with the deep melancholy associated with traditional fado, but the overall mood is one of passionate gratefulness for being alive, however affairs of the heart may turn out.

Fado was performed in coffeehouses in the early decades of the 20th century. The form seems to cry out for intimate surroundings: candlelit rooms filled with young but wary lovers. But Branco has the theatrical charm that may transform fado into a style welcomed in large-scale venues. Like torch singers before her - Edith Piaf comes to mind - Branco's delivery exudes dignity and composure, emotional dynamism shaped by childlike sincerity. Hers is a distinguished art that yet seems wholly uncontrived, spontaneous.

"Ai Vida," the first song on "Post-Scriptum," offers a glimpse into her music, filled with longing yet hope: "Intense is my thirst, that's why/ I seek after the desired source/ a voice without tone, without time/ that hides within me, in silence."

Her new disc possesses a timeless vitality that hints she has indeed discovered a voice deeply hidden within her soul.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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