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Singer Ana Moura explores the possibilities of fado

Isabel Pinto

Fado, the elegant Portuguese song form that is enjoying a great renewal, was never quite as rigid as it appears. Its austere setup, with a singer backed only by acoustic guitars, and its constant reverence for fadistas of the past conceal its openness to new ideas. Amália Rodrigues herself — fado’s central figure in the 20th century — made fado out of music of other countries. Her successors today look to rock and other sources, even as they cultivate the classic songbook and esthetic.

Ana Moura, who visits the Berklee Performance Center on Saturday, is one of the latest singers to come out of the Lisbon taverns where fado’s essence resides and become one of its global ambassadors. She embodies, at a high level, modern fado’s duality: Her potent contralto and her traditional fado treatments have earned her Amália comparisons at home — the ultimate connoisseur’s praise. But she has also shared the stage with the Rolling Stones, and one of her big fans is Prince.

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Even so, “Desfado,” Moura’s fifth album, which has just come out, represents a remarkable set of departures bundled into one project. It was not made in Lisbon, but in Los Angeles, with the veteran producer Larry Klein. It features Moura’s guitarists, but also American session musicians on the most un-fado-like keyboards, saxophone, and drums. Three songs are in English.

“Everything was new for all of us,” Moura says, on the phone from a tour stop in California. “The musicians were discovering new things. And I was not used to hearing my voice next to a Fender Rhodes, for example.” It didn’t hurt that the Rhodes player who makes a cameo on one song was Herbie Hancock.

Klein is the close collaborator and ex-husband of Joni Mitchell, so it was no small honor when he encouraged Moura to record a Mitchell song, “A Case of You.” “I was very surprised but I accepted, because I love her music,” Moura says. “And in fact, if that song were translated into Portuguese, it could be a very traditional fado lyric.”

In fado, the singer usually interprets lyrics from the songbook or new ones by a poet or songwriter. Only one song on “Desfado,” the English-language “Dream of Fire,” is credited to Moura, but intrigue surrounds its real author.

“I must confess, it was offered to me by a friend who cannot sign [his name to] it,” she says. “I show a lot of music to this friend, and he fell in love with the melody.” She cannot say more, but a remix of the song appeared on a YouTube channel associated with Prince; Moura has played with Prince in Lisbon, and visited him at his home in Minneapolis. This proves nothing, of course, but it suggests a tantalizing possibility.

‘Fado is very profound and emotional, but it can be about all kinds of emotions.’

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All this star power plus the California production might mark “Desfado” as a crossover project, but that description is far too clunky for what is, in fact, a very graceful album. If anything, the Portuguese songs may be those that innovate the most. A few are fado standards, but most are new songs written not by poets who specialize in fado, but by young rock and pop artists, some of whom had not done fado before.

“We have a lot of new composers in Portugal who write for other styles,” Moura says. “I wanted to challenge them to write for me, and to write fado.” Singer-songwriter Márcia Santos wrote one of the album’s gems, “Até ao verão.” Nuno Figueiredo and Jorge Benvinda, who have a band called Virgem Suta, contributed the soaring “Amor afoito.”

Other writers whom Moura turned to, whose names will ring few bells outside Portugal but are part of the local scene, include Luisa Sobral, Miguel Araújo Jorge, and Pedro da Silva Martins, of the group Deolinda.

Their songs are wistful, playful, and some are more upbeat than one might expect — another way in which fado is broader than the stereotype holds. The title track is jaunty and bittersweet; its lyrics explore the way in which great joy can contain great sadness, and vice versa, to a point that feels at once poignant and absurd.

“It’s very common in fado, this interior conflict of being sad and happy,” Moura says. “Fado is very profound and emotional, but it can be about all kinds of emotions.”

With all these inputs, it’s an achievement that “Desfado” comes off as smoothly as it does. Moura’s exquisite voice and Klein’s production experience are largely to thank, of course. So are Moura’s core accompanists, Angelo Freire on the Portuguese guitarra and Pedro Soares on acoustic guitar, who hold the music’s foundation while the nontraditional instruments expand the sound.

But credit also goes to the fado itself, with its ability to absorb new material and imbue it with the emotional texture that is recognizably its own. Like the blues, it’s a state of mind even more than it is an art form. Its conventions are important up to a point, but its intangibles more so. A great fadista will take anything and turn it to fado.

“Nowadays people ask me if I still consider myself a fado singer,” Moura says. “But I always feel myself to be a fado singer because I have the characteristics of a fado singer. It’s in my soul.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at
siddharthamitter@gmail.com
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