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Duke Performances continues its practice of partnering with other arts organizations and venues in Durham in a joint presentation with the Carolina Theatre of Ana Moura, internationally acclaimed Portuguese fado singer. If the term “fado” is unfamiliar to the reader, this was also the case with me prior to this concert. The best description is that it is basically the blues of Portugal. Dating back to the 1820s, its main characteristics both in its text and music, is longing, resignation and melancholy. Like the American blues, it follows a predictable structure, and although it mostly comes across as a “downer,” there can be versions that are a bit more sunny and up-tempo.
Ana Moura has been recognized as the “Queen of fado” for several decades now, is revered in her native Portugal, and has quite an extensive discography. It is only with her most recent release, Desfado that she sings a few songs in English and ventures out to include some jazz-infused selections and even covers of 1960s classics. She has attracted the attention of countless luminaries of all music genres, including performances with the Rolling Stones and Herbie Hancock.
She walked out resplendent in a black gown and sang the first of many mournful songs in her native Portuguese. Backing her up was a five-man band: Mario Costa, drums, Joao Gomes, keyboards, Andre Moreira, acoustic six-string bass, Pedro Marreiros, acoustic guitar and Angelo Freire, Portuguese guitar. This was a competent and tight group whose purpose was to accompany the starring singer with very little soloing or individual exploits — except for one significant exception: the magnificent Portuguese guitarist Freire. His Portuguese guitar is a smallish pear shaped instrument with six double-course steel strings. There are two different versions, each with its own tuning and technique. For those who recall zither music in the film “The Third Man,” the sound of this guitar sounds to me like a combination of that and a mandolin. Freire was mesmerizing in both his extraordinary solos and his backing of Moura. He was absolutely indispensable to this group and, for me, was the highlight of the concert.
It is a human trait that unfamiliarity breeds stereotyping, especially in music. How often have you heard parents — of all generations — say about their children’s music that “it all sounds the same”? I imagine that someone who never heard a string quartet would say they all sound the same also. Obviously, that is not true and the same goes for the rich heritage of fado. However, I’d be lying if I did not say that I found much of this performance to have a sameness that grew a bit tiresome in my initial hearing of the fado style. Moura has a breathy, husky alto voice that tended to remain at a steady volume and emotional impact. The sound system could have been calibrated better since her high notes often shattered the speakers a bit. There was a contingent of Portuguese speaking persons in the audience and they responded with great zeal to Moura. Although it’s true that it’s not absolutely necessary that you understand the lyrics to get the feel of the song, it would have greatly helped if Moura had explained more than she did the idea of each song.
Moura left the stage so the band could engage in a fado jam session by themselves. When she returned she surprised many by launching into her first song sung in English: an excellent arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Another unidentified song in English followed.
I don’t quite understand why non-Classical concerts very rarely, if ever, have any program notes. These tours and concerts are often booked years in advance and while it’s possible that their set may change come concert time, that should not preclude the use of notes, texts or even short descriptions of what is being played. For those of us making the effort to broaden our musical horizons, that would greatly help our appreciation and follow-up interest.