One of Portugal’s most beloved music stars, Amalia Rodrigues held the heart of a nation for more than 50 years, singing in the style of one of her country’s most enduring folk music traditions, fado. From the Portuguese word for “fate,” fado expresses the Portuguese concept of “saudade.” Not directly translatable into English, the term describes a deep yearning for the dead past, failed loves, and happier days. Known to legions of her fans as the Queen of Fado, Rodrigues herself was, by her own estimation, ideally qualified to bring fado to mournful life. “I have so much sadness in me,” she was quoted in the Financial Times of London. “I am a pessimist, a nihilist. Everything that fado demands in a singer I have in me.” Also known to her fans simply as Amália, Rodrigues died on October 6, 1999. The BBC News reported at the time that Portugal’s prime minister, Antonio Guterres, said that his country had lost “the voice of the Portuguese soul.”
The music of fado was born in the taverns and brothels lining Lisbon’s waterfront. Traditionally, songs of lost love, mourning, and fatalism were accompanied by Portuguese 12-string guitars and woodwinds. Like the blues of the United States, the tango of Argentina, and the flamenco of Spain, fado was born in poverty, out of desperation, and gradually came to be accepted by the
Born Amália da Piedade Rebordao Rodrigues on July 23, 1920, in Lisbon, Portugal; died on October 6, 1999, in Lisbon, Portugal; married Francisco Cruz (a guitarist), 1940; divorced Cruz; married Cesar Seabra (an engineer; died 1997), c. 1961.
Began singing professionally in Lisbon nightclubs, 1939; toured in Brazil, 1944; made first records, 1940s; began to tour around the world, including to the United States, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and Europe, 1940s; recorded international hit song, “Coimbra,” 1955; toured and recorded, 1950s-1980s; went on last world tour, 1990; made last public appearance, 1998.
Awards: Grand Cruz da Ordem de Santiago da Espada (Grand Cross of the Order of Santiago), 1980s.
mainstream of society. Influenced by music from Arabia and Africa, fado eventually achieved international acclaim through Rodrigues.
Rodrigues described her chosen musical form this way, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times: “True fado, the fado I prefer, is fatalistic. In a fado song I wrote, I tell how when I was young I washed linen in the fields near a river, and there was not very much to eat. But I was never sad. For me, fado is destiny, it’s life.” “I don’t sing fado” she was quoted as saying by the Internet magazine RootsWorld, “It sings in me.” In keeping with the fado tradition, Rodrigues performed in black mourning clothes. She typically sang with her head thrown back, her expression a picture of anguish. She is credited not only with making the fado form tremendously popular in Brazil, but also reshaping it as a fusion of the city and country styles popular in Lisbon and the Portuguese town of Coimbra, respectively.
Rodrigues was born Amália da Piedade Rebordao Rodrigues in the Alfama district of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon. The exact date of her birth was not recorded and her passport eventually bore the date July 23, 1920, because her grandfather remembered that she had been born during the cherry season. She had nine brothers and sisters. When she was one year old, her mother abandoned her to be brought up by her grand-mother. As a child, she had to sell produce on the street and work as a seamstress to help her family pay its bills. Her childhood was an unhappy one, and naturally drew her to the mournful music of fado. “The Portuguese know life is absurd because death follows,” she was quoted by the Times of London as saying. “I myself have always been full of sad thoughts.”
Rodrigues got her start as a professional singer when she was 19, singing with her sister Celeste at the upscale Lisbon nightclub Retiro da Severa. Only a year later, she was singing to sold-out crowds in nightclubs all over Lisbon. Starting in 1944, she was introduced to audiences in Brazil when she performed at the Copa-cabana Casino and made her first recordings in Rio de Janeiro.
In order to boost her live performing career, Rod-rigues’s manager, José de Melo, advised her not to make any more recordings. She stayed out of the recording studio until 1951, when she began to record for the Melodia label. In 1952, she moved to the Val-entium de Carvalho label. After World War II, Rodrigues began to tour around the world, performing in Spain, France, and the United Kingdom, in addition to Brazil. She later added the United States, Japan, Mexico, and the Soviet Union to her tours.
In 1955, Rodrigues became internationally popular with a recording of the song “Coimbra,” recorded during a concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris. The song was known to English speakers as “April in Portugal.” Ro-drigues’s popularity outlasted even that of her preferred form itself. Even as fado began to wane in popularity in the 1960s, Rodrigues continued to perform on stage and in feature films, and recorded nearly 170 albums. Nevertheless, Rodrigues suffered from stage fright throughout her career. “Before a concert my pulse is 48,” she was quoted by the Guardian of London as saying, “it rises to 120 when I go on stage.”
In 1974, Portugal’s government, a right-wing dictatorship, fell in a bloodless coup, and the new government accused Rodrigues of collaboration with the deposed dictatorship and of opposing the new government. She denied the accusations, saying, as quoted by the New York Times, “I always sang fado without thinking of politics. I never had the support any government.” The accusations took their toll on the singer, and she entered a hospital to be treated for depression. She vindicated herself, however, by recording a version of “Grandola Vila Morena,” a patriotic song celebrating the revolution of 1974. She was subsequently awarded the Portuguese government’s highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Santiago.
Rodrigues’s touring career lasted well into her seventies, and she stopped touring only when heart surgery forced her to slow down. She put on her last public appearance at the opening of the Lisbon Expo in 1998. Her last world tour had been in 1990, during which she had played at Town Hall in New York City.
Rodrigues died in bed at her home in Lisbon. She was 79 years old and had previously been the victim of two heart attacks. On hearing of her death, the prime minister of Portugal, Antonio Guterres, declared three days of national mourning before her funeral. The funeral was attended by Guterres and Portugal’s president, Jorge Sampaio.
The period of mourning and subsequent funeral came just before Portugal’s general elections, and the candidates had to curtail their campaigning. The funeral service was held at the Estrela cathedral in Lisbon and was accompanied by musicians playing 12-string guitars. Spectators numbering in the tens of thousands lined the streets as Rodrigues’s coffin, draped in the Portuguese flag, was carried to its final resting place, the Prazeres cemetery.
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Portuguese vocalist Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999), performing and recording in the Lisbon-based fado style, became a legendary figure in the national mu sical life of her country and a much-loved ambassa dor of Portuguese culture abroad.
Rodrigues had an unusually long career, making her debut in 1939 and singing until the last few years of her life. She achieved considerable exposure in the United States in the 1950s but declined opportunities for wider success. Her smoky, passionate singing epitomized fado in its combination of intense emotion, sadness, and nostalgia, merging to create the uniquely Portuguese sentiment known by the untranslatable word saudade. When Rodrigues died in 1999 she was mourned as an icon of Portuguese life.
Born During Cherry Blossom Season
Amália da Piedade Rodrigues was born in Lisbon and raised in the industrial Alcântara neighborhood. Her family did not know the exact date of her birth. Rodrigues herself said that she was born on July 1; her birth certificate reads July 23, but a poor family in a still largely underdeveloped Portugal might have taken several weeks to receive that document, and her grandfather's recollection that she was born during cherry blossom season suggests the earlier date. Rodrigues's father was a cobbler and part-time musician who found little success in either field, and Amália was turned over to her grandparents to be raised in Lisbon while most of her family returned to their village of Fundão.
A shy, asthmatic child, Rodrigues liked to stay in her room and sing tangos by Argentine vocalist Carlos Gardel, but her grandfather noticed that people passing on the street would often stop to listen. One of ten children, several of whom did not reach adulthood, Rodrigues grew up in poverty. She enrolled in elementary school at age nine, and once, when she had to buy a second schoolbook for a class, her grandmother asked her why she needed another book, as the first one she had was still in good condition. Leaving school at 12, Rodrigues worked as a seamstress and clothes cleaner to help support her family. When she was 14 her parents and siblings returned to Lisbon, and she went to live with them. She worked in a factory and in her mother's fruit stand. “We never complained about life,” she recalled, according to the Portuguese biography site Vidas Lusofonas. “Sure, we knew there were people who were different from us; otherwise there would be no revolutions. But I never heard anybody talk about that.”
Rodrigues and her younger sister Celeste occupied what little spare time they had by going to the movies; Rodrigues was fascinated by the 1937 Greta Garbo film Camille, and even went so far as to drink vinegar and stand in cold drafts so that she would contract tuberculosis like the Garbo character in the film. As a teenager Rodrigues dreamed of a career as a performer. The reigning style of the day was fado, a gloomy, fatalistic vocal genre that, like Spanish flamenco music, carried influences from Arabic and gypsy music. In 1938 Rodrigues, representing the Alcantãra neighborhood, entered and won a “Queen of the Fado” contest. Making inroads into Lisbon's fado scene, she fell in love with guitarist Francisco Cruz and attempted suicide after he at first rejected her. In 1939 she made her debut at a Lisbon fado club, the Retiro da Severa.
That year she married Cruz, but the marriage ended in divorce in the early 1940s. By that time Rodrigues had become a common sight in Lisbon nightspots, singing other popular styles such as tango, Brazilian samba, and waltzes in addition to fado. She was a talented onstage dancer as well. She appeared in a revue called Ora vai tu, playing the role of a traditional fado singer who wore a black funeral shawl, and she adopted that clothing as her trademark. Later, when Rodrigues visited America, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper suggested that she give up the black shawl for a white dress with plunging neckline and a flower in her hair, but Rodrigues patiently explained the traditional roots of her dark look.
Made Recordings in Brazil
Rodrigues's exposure to international audiences began when she appeared in Madrid, Spain, in 1943. A six-week tour of Brazil in 1944 was extended to three months by popular demand, and the following year she made her first recordings in that country. Recordings from the early part of Rodrigues's career were sparse, however, for her manager, José de Melo, kept her out of the studio in order to boost demand for her live performances. After the end of World War II, Rodrigues's popularity continued to grow both at home and abroad. She appeared in the 1947 film Capas Negras (Black Capes), which set box office records in Portugal, and she gave concerts in both London and Paris in 1949. Rodrigues appeared at the Argentina Opera House in Rome, Italy, in 1950, on a bill with musicians who otherwise came exclusively from the operatic field; despite intense stage fright (from which she suffered for her entire career), her appearance was a triumph.
Rodrigues's status as an international star was confirmed when she arrived in New York in 1952 and appeared at the nightclub La Vie en Rose. In 1953 she appeared on the Eddie Fisher Show, becoming the first Portuguese singer to perform on American television. She had a major international hit in 1955 with “Colimbra,” recorded live at the Olympia Theater in Paris and known in English as “April in Portugal.” Rodrigues was offered the chance to record two LPs in the United States, but declined. “If I were to make an album with American songs, I'd have to keep rehearsing and working,” she was quoted as saying on the Vidas Lusofonas site. “I like to sing without having to think that I am singing. That's the only way I know how to sing. And if I had to worry about the English lyrics, I'd lose my spontaneity.”
Indeed, Rodrigues on stage was a compelling performer, with her head thrown back, seemingly overcome with emotion. Rodrigues broadened the reach of fado, singing songs with texts composed by leading Portuguese poets, but she never lost the despairing essence of fado (which means “fate” in Portuguese). “I have so much sadness in me, I am a pessimist, a nihilist, everything fado demands in a singer, I have in me,” she was quoted as saying by Jon Pareles in the New York Times. “When I am on my own, alone, tragedy comes, and solitude.” Rodrigues married engineer César Seabra in Rio de Janeiro in 1961, and they remained married until Seabra's death in 1997. In 1966 she returned to New York for a concert at Lincoln Center, accompanied by a large orchestra conducted by Andre Kostelanetz.
The sole break in Rodrigues's run of popularity came after the so-called Carnation Revolution of 1974, when Portugal threw off decades of authoritarian rule. For younger Portuguese who helped to bring down the right-wing Estado Novo (New State) government, Rodrigues represented the old order in which women were repressed. Rodrigues herself proclaimed that she was apolitical, however, and she had often performed texts by left-wing Portuguese poets and given tacit support to reform forces. By the late 1970s her popularity was as strong as ever.
Later in her life, Rodrigues achieved legendary status. For the first time, she began to write and perform songs of her own. She performed at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1977. In the mid-1980s Rodrigues, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer; while in New York in 1984 she contemplated suicide, but renounced the idea and continued performing. All of her concerts in her later years were sellouts. Rodrigues appeared in 1990 at the San Carlos Theatre in Lisbon, giving the first fado concert ever held there; her final world tour that year included a stop at Town Hall in New York. Her last vocal performance came in 1994 when the city of Lisbon was designated a capital of culture by the European Union. She released the last of her roughly 170 albums, For the First Time, in 1995.
Amália Rodrigues died at her Lisbon home on October 6, 1999. Three days of national mourning followed her death, with large crowds waving white handkerchiefs filling Lisbon's Estrela Square. She was buried at the Prazeres Cemetery in a coffin draped in a Portuguese flag. Rodrigues had lived long enough to see fado decline in popularity and then be revived by younger singers such as Misia, Dulce Pontes, and Madredeus, all of whom acknowledged their debt to Rodrigues. Numerous CD reissues and online downloads of the music of Rodrigues remained available.
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