Living and Breathing Fado*
With regard to the life and music of Cristina Branco (b. 1972, Almeirim, Portugal), one could say – as in the lyric by Amália Rodrigues – that she lives and breathes fado.
It was a serendipitous set of circumstances that first brought fado music into Cristina’s life. Though, in a certain way, it was Cristina – with her aesthetic daring and unique interpretive style – who happened upon fado, and in its most deeply traditional musical and social form. “It started as a kind of game, as an evening of songs among friends,” she likes to recall.
Nothing about Cristina, up to this time – her adolescence – indicated she might be a fado singer. Before entering the world of menores, mourarias or maiores ** with her friends and later with adults, she was not in the habit of going to fado clubs or listening to recordings by the well-known singers. She knew some songs that her maternal grandfather used to sing to himself, lyrics and melodies that she would improvise on without realizing how they were entering her – and how they would decide her destiny. But at that time, she felt herself more drawn to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell, than Amália Rodrigues. So when, for her 18th birthday, her grandfather gave her Rara e Inédita (Rare and Unreleased Recordings), a major work – though not well-known – by fado music’s greatest diva, she had no idea of how it would end up changing her life.
As it happens, several months before she stepped on stage for the first time – in Amsterdam, at Zaal100 – Cristina had never even regarded herself as an amateur singer or part-time enthusiast, as is common among many singers who turn to fado as a way of filling up their spare time or releasing their emotions. If fado had a place in her life as an adolescent, it was only the most basic etymological sense of the word (as fatum, destiny), since she was “fated” to have – and graced with – a sensitivity to words. Until 1996, when she was 24, two or three fortuitous singing experiences – made despite her timidity – constituted her only public performances as a “singer.”
Her intention at the time was to practice the “art” of journalism. Perhaps because of that, words have always been given careful attention on her records, as well as in all her ongoing projects – and indeed, in everything she does. A singer of poets, including the best that Portugal has to offer (Camões, Pessoa, David Mourão-Ferreira, José Afonso…) and others from many different countries (Paul Éluard, Léo Ferré, Alfonsina Storni, Slauherhoff), Cristina – in her own way – turns fado into a kind of representative for the poetic and literary heritage of Portugal. For that, her peers have come to recognize her powerful and heartfelt emphasis on poetry as emblematic of her humanity and artistry. Such an emphasis is a very important characteristic of her work, and one that is aligned to a still greater concern for clarity of expression and the necessities of diction, so that, when she sings a poem (with her crystalline sensuousness), her voice seems to give form to its very soul.
From fado, we tend to expect an emphasis on the tragic aspects of life: on suffering, longing and the helplessness we experience when confronted by destiny. This long-held tradition has created “formulas” to express such feelings, but their repetition has had the effect of diminishing the power of this valuable musical form, of emptying it of emotion, of distancing it from the lyrics. Cristina Branco has taken another road, however, one of individuality and singularity, and often one of ecstatic joy (as in the most emblematic song of her career, “Sete Pedaços de Vento” (“Seven Fragments of the Wind”), from Ulisses (Ulysses). In so doing, she has sometimes caused the pillars of so-called traditional fado to tremble. At the very least, Cristina’s musical journey is infused with a sensuousness evidencing her weariness with what has come before.
Without seeking any sort of naive break with tradition, she instead searches for what is best in this tradition (listen to some of the classic songs that she has recorded). Cristina Branco gives new life to this tradition with her originality. And in all her records, she has sought to create a fruitful relationship between the lyrics and the innate musicality of fado.
Cristina Branco creates all the emotion that this musical style – with its intimate relationship between voice, poetry and music – has to offer. Along with other young musicians who, since the mid-1990s, have found in fado their own way of expressing themselves (thereby contributing to an astonishing reinvigoration of the traditional song form of Lisbon), Cristina Branco has begun to define her own journey, in which respect for tradition walks hand in hand with a desire for innovation. Even if nothing in her early life indicated that Cristina’s destiny was in fado, it is clear today that she has created a style that is unprecedented and very possibly unique.
* translator’s note: fado signifies both the traditional Portuguese song of lament and fate or destiny.
** translator’s note: different types of fado, literally minor, Moorish and major.
The singer releases “Cristina Branco, Live in Holland” (a record she herself puts out), with songs recorded at two concerts given on April 25, 1996. A thousand copies are produced, and they immediately sell out. Nine subsequent editions of the record are pressed, with total sales of 5,000 copies.
“Murmúrios” (“Whispers”) is released by the Dutch recording company Music & Words. Its 14 songs range from traditional fados such as “Abandono” (“Abandonment”), which was immortalized by Amália Rodrigues and has lyrics by David Mourão-Ferreira, to an interpretation of a contemporary work by Sérgio Godinho – “As certezas do meu mais brilhante amor” (“Certainties of my Shining Love”) – to a setting of a poem of Luís Vaz de Camões by José Afonso, “Pombas brancas” (“White Doves”).
She is awarded the 1999 Prix Choc for Best Album from the French magazine Le Monde de la Musique in the category World Music.
In February of 2000, she releases “Post-Scriptum,” a title taken from a poem by Maria Teresa Horta. In France, she again wins the Prix Choc, this time for the best album released during the month of March.
In Holland, she releases“Cristina Branco Canta Slauerhoff” (“Cristina Branco Sings Slauerhoff”). With lyrics by the Dutch poet J.J. Slauerhoff (1925-1976), it is her second album released that year. The songs are composed by Custódio Castelo, with translations into Portuguese by Mila Vidal Paletti. The record is intended as her thank you to Holland, the first country where she achieved commercial success (though she has never lived there).
In 2000, performsmore than 130 concerts, all over the world. In 2001, her first album for the French record company Universal Music Classics is released. It is entitled “Corpo Iluminado” (“Illuminated Body”).
In 2002, her album with lyrics by J.J. Slauerhoff is re-released under a new title, “O Descobridor” (“The Explorer”).
Cristina Branco’s sixth album “Sensus” is released by Universal Music France, on March 23, 2003, with music by Custódio Castelo and lyrics by many renowned poets, including David Mourão-Ferreira, Vinícius de Moraes, Chico Buarque, Eugénio de Andrade, Camões and Shakespeare.
“Ulisses” (“Ulysses”), her next CD, is released in 2005.
In 2006, a live album – “Live” – is released as an homage to Amália Rodrigues.
In 2007, she ventures beyond the borders of fado in order to explore the works of singer-songwriter José Afonso.
In 2009, Cristina returns to fado a record with the unifying theme of time - “Kronos” that includes originals composed by a dozen of very different musicians.
In 2010, painter Júlio Pomar was inspired by Cristina Branco’s face to create a stamp and a silkscreen to celebrate the centenary of the Portuguese Republic.
In June, Cristina Branco, along with Carlos Bica and João Paulo Esteves da Silva, faced an unusual challenge when they were invited to create a concert to be presented at the Schumannfest, in Düsseldorf, Germany. The concert was a success and was later presented also in Portugal, at the CCB, in Lisbon and at the Goethe Institut, in Porto.
In January 2011, Cristina Branco joins the Amsterdam Sinfonietta annual New Year’s concert tour. After artists such as Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea and Roby Lakatos, and after the January 2006 unforgettable tour with the Portuguese singer, Amsterdam Sinfonietta invited Cristina Branco again, for a series of six concerts.
In April 2011, Cristina Branco will open a new musical Pandora’s box with her new record “Fado Tango”, from where the verses of poets like Manuela de Freitas, António Lobo Antunes, Vasco Graça Moura, Carlos Tê or Miguel Farias will come out. The music will be composed by Mário Laginha, João Paulo Esteves da Silva and Pedro Moreira. The album will also feature songs by Jacques Brel, Carlos Gardel and Isolina Carrillo… all blended by the soft and profound voice of the singer. Some new sounds will appear, but Fado will always be present…
In 2011 and 2012, Cristina Branco tours profusely with Fado Tango, with more than 100 concerts around the world, from South América to the Middle East, and a wide tour through Europe.
In February 2013 the singer releases her 12th CD – Alegria”, a raw, ironic, heartfelt portrait of everyday’s man and women, people you can see around the corner or across the ocean. On this CD, chance to meet genuine characters, stories unfolding as you read them, accounts of life, of real life, depicted by some of the most talented Portuguese contemporary authors: Manuela de Freitas, Gonçalo M. Tavares, Miguel Farias, Jorge Palma, João Paulo Esteves da Silva, Pedro Silva Martins, Mário Laginha, Ricardo J. Dias and also songs “borrowed” from Sérgio Godinho, Chico Buarque and Joni Mitchell.
And after seventeen years and hundreds of songs recorded and sung all around the world, Cristina Branco thought it was time to take stock - a dynamic overview facing the future, without any kind of useless nostalgia. This led to the not easy choice from her rich repertory, a kind of “ideal list”; pointing to the future, there are three brand new tracks included on the triple CD: a traditional fado and two original songs with lyrics by Mário Cláudio. The new tracks join this “ideal list” of songs collected from the deep chest of thirteen recorded albums which along with her aesthetic vision, interpretation and values result in the triple CD “Idealist”.
1 - Cristina Branco in Holland (CD, Author Ed., 1997)
2 - Murmúrios (CD, Music & Words, 1998)
3 - Post-Scriptum (CD, L'Empreintdigitale/Harmonia Mundi, 1999) - reedited in 2000 with a new theme
4 - Cristina Branco sings Slauerhoff (CD, 2000)
5 - Corpo Iluminado (CD, Universal, 2001)
O Descobridor (CD, Universal, 2002) – Slauerhoff’s reedition
6 - Sensus (CD, Universal, 2003)
7 - Ulisses (CD, Universal, 2005)
8 - Live (CD, Universal, 2006)
9 - Abril (CD, Universal, 2007)
10 - Kronos (CD, Universal, 2009)
11 - Fado/Tango (CD, Universal, 2011)
12 - Alegria (CD, Universal, 2012)
13 - Idealist (CD, Universal. 2014)