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Amália and the Poets

An accomplice to life


When Amália began to sing, the themes dealt with in fado were essentially the daily life, love, the hardships of life, the difficulties of work. It is without a doubt that Amália raised the level of fado beyond what was required and what was even expected. In the year 1965, when Amália releases a 45-speed album entitled Amália Canta Camões. In it, there were recordings of “Erros Meus”, “Lianor”, “Dura Memória”. At the same time, an edition of the Jornal Popular (of October 23rd, 1965) appeared, where several personalities from the literary and artistic medium gave their opinion on this innovation, at first, atypical in fado. Among these celebrities, there are names like Hernâni Cidade, David Mourão-Ferreira, Alain Oulman (composer that we will mention below), Alexandre O’Neill, José Gomes Ferreira, Urbano Rodrigues, Maria Teresa de Noronha and Júlio de Sousa. Some of the voices spoke in favour, others strongly against. After all, Camões was the prince of poets (in Portugal), and singing Camões in fado would somehow demean him.

Amália raised the level of fado beyond what was required and what was even expected.

And there are more reflections of this controversy, when, in 1966, Amália was present at an interview in which the defendant was herself and the accusers belonged to the public opinion, judging her for the crime of singing Camões and for leaving the said to be “authentic” fado behind. In an astonishing way, Amália says that she does not understand the difference between the authentic fado of before and the fado that she sings. She also assumes that a defect she sees in herself is that of authenticity.

Previously, Amália had already flown higher. In 1962, she released an album with music by Alain Oulman, entitled Busto, although we know that Amália started working with him in 1961. This album is a true surprise. Firstly, because in the opening number, “Asas Fechadas”, Amália’s voice is only accompanied by a piano, without the usual and traditional guitar and fado guitar sounds. Secondly, because the melodic and harmonic lines change and the responsible for this innovation is, indeed, Oulman. In this sense, Amália already interprets compositions of famous poets, among them Luís Macedo (author to “Asas Fechadas”, “Cais de Outrora”, “Vagamundo”), David Mourão-Ferreira (author to “Maria Lisboa”, “Madrugada de Alfama”, “Abandono”, “Aves Agoirentas”), Pedro Homem de Mello (author to “Povo que Lavas no Rio”, “Fria Claridade”, “Rapaz da Camisola Verde”) and, also, herself, with the poem “Estranha Forma de Vida”.

Amália com Alain Oulman

It was officially open a new era of fado, and, without a doubt, a new era in Amália’s career.

In this album, we can already witness the initiative that will last for the decades to come, which consisted in Amália interpreting poets that belong to her circle of friends and acquaintances, and who frequented her house.

It was remarkable how Amália was such a genius for the words, which is revealed not only on the poem that she wrote and recorded, “Estranha Forma de Vida”, but also in the way that she intoned every single word. We highlight “Povo Que Lavas No Rio”, just as we could highlight many others, in which the way Amália sings “Povo” (“People”), holding the music note in the right measure, reveals to the listener that the Portuguese people, that poor people who washes in the river, can be all in that one voice. The people, or the meaning of being the people. Pedro Homem de Mello, of whom Amália first interprets the poem “Fria Claridade”, revealed in the national channel that her poetry, by the voice of Amália, had risen to the people. With this simple sentence, Pedro Homem de Mello revealed in the national TV that, by Amália’s voice, the people could hear Camões, poets of Cancioneiro Geral, D. Dinis, and could learn and enjoy all this poetry through Amália’s voice.

But the artist went even further. She interpreted in a fascinating way the popular songs. In that sense, they tell stories of the discontent of the poets and musicians who accompanied her, when Amália decided to play “Cochico da Menina” or even “Casa da Mariquinhas”. We must not forget the way Amália also raised Portuguese folklore to its greatest exponent, taking it to the great theatres of the world, Hollywood Bowl, and Lincoln Center, in 1966, accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and directed by the maestro Andre Kostelanetz.

Alberto Janes

It is also important to remember another famous name in this context, Alberto Janes. He appeared in Amália’s house with a fado in his pocket, “Foi Deus”. He sat on the piano, played it, and sang. It appears he sang very badly and played even worse. What saved that fado, today one of the most beautiful by Amália, was her own imagination, in which she saw herself singing it, with her charming voice. Alberto Janes was also the author to “Caldeirada”, a reflexion on pollution, and still “É Ou Não É”, and “Oiça Lá Ó Senhor Vinho”.

The gatherings at Amália’s house are also featured in a 1970 album, by the name Amália / Vinicius. This LP allows us to imagine, see, contemplate in which way Amália Rodrigues interacted with her circle of poets and friends during her famous gatherings in the street of São Bento (Amália’s house). This fascinating relic, recorded at the end of the decade of 60 and edited in 1970, reveals to us the evenings full of poetry, fado, and conversation that happened at this house. In it, Natália Correia reads “Defesa do Poeta”, José Carlos Ary dos Santos reads “Retrato de Amália”, and Vinicius de Moraes sings “Saudades do Brasil em Portugal”, his own song. This album also features David Mourão-Ferreira, the guitarist Fontes Rocha and the fado guitarist Pedro Leal, besides Amália, Natália Correia, Ary dos Santos and Vinicius de Moraes. This last name almost begs us to enter the Brazilian poetry, and, in this context, Amália also interprets Cecília Meireles, being a supreme example of that the famous fado “As Mãos que Trago”.

Amália, who only had attended primary school, reveals herself a poet of simple words, but of complex senses and feelings.

But the poems she interpreted the most were the ones written by herself. In the 80s, Amália recorded two albums only with poems of her authorship, with music by Fontes Rocha and Carlos Gonçalves. The album Gostava de Ser Quem Era is recorded in 1980 and Lágrima in 1983. In this sense, Amália, who only had attended primary school, reveals herself as a poet of simple words, but of complex senses and feelings. Although she cannot be included in the poetry canons of that century, Amália is a separate case in this field, with her own characteristics. Deep down, there is an opposition between the past and the inherent present of what was her life and career. The title Gostava de Ser Quem Era offers us that same interpretation too. This feeling is also present in the paradigmatic fado “Lavava no Rio Lavava”. Here, there is a clear opposition between the pain of the past, physical, and the bitterness of the present, which materialize in the very longing of suffering. From these feelings, we can extract two paradigmatic verses: “já não temos fome mãe/mas também já não temos vontade de a não ter” (“we are no longer hungry mother/but we no longer have the desire of not having it”).

In another hand, if there is a place for pain, and if this one fills a space in the poetic work of Amália, then the joy and funny spirit are also there. This last aspect is especially evident in her poetry work, Versos (Verses), published in 1997, with poems such as “A Onda” (“The Wave”) and tongue twisters as “335 Gafanhotos” (“335 Locusts”).

With this, Amália travels through all Portuguese poetry, at different levels, allowing herself to raise famous poets to the people, but also to promote in front of the said to be literary elites the Portuguese folklore and the popular songs. And she also ends up becoming the poet of a lifetime.

Let us still mention some notes about the maestro Frederico Valério and about the innovation he represented to fado, with his own composing style, to what some call “Fado Canção Moderna” (Fado New Song). This maestro composes for Amália some of the most beautiful fados of the 40s. It is to especially praise the commitment of this composer to the cinema, environment where Amália met him. He composes the soundtrack to Capas Negras and Sangue Toureiro.

Also innovative, and whose reference is indispensable, is the songwriter and composer Carlos Paião. His presence in Amália’s career was not so effective as the others, but he wrote and composed to Amália an unusual song entitled “O Senhor Extraterrestre” (“Sir Alien”). This song is about an alien that visits the yard of a lady who is afraid that her neighbour sees her with a strange man. At first, they do not get each other, because Sir Alien was badly tuned. In the meantime, the lady offers coffee to the alien asking him if he knows of someone to get her codfish. The lyrics of this song are especially humoristic and versatile and link the strangeness of a grotesque episode to what may be more Portuguese: the coffee, the wine, the codfish, the flannel shirt, the good welcoming, and mostly the moment of leaving, the deep, profound thank you. Sir Alien pulls the little button just to say “Deus lhe pague” (“May God pay you”).

Carlos Paião

And, although we do not have that little button, we are left with a thank you to Amália for the itinerary she makes through the Portuguese poetry, passing by Cantigas de Amigos, by the Cancioneiro Geral, singing Camões, and interpreting contemporary poets.

Her voice helps, therefore, to immortalize them.

BY AMÁLIA’S OWN WORDS:

One day, I was at a camping site and someone brought me Alain Oulman, who had made a song thinking of me, o “Vagamundo”. I went listen to it and I liked it. Others followed and I went against the tide of people around her who thought that was too complicated. In fact, the guitarists had to learn Alain’s harmonies, which had nothing to do with fado, because fado is poor in harmony.

In Amália Uma Biografia, by Vítor Pavão dos Santos, p.149-150

Besides the music, Alain, with his vast culture, made me acquaint with great poets. Not only did he make music, but he also went to poetry books in search of music lyrics. He dedicated a lot of time to me. It did not influence me, but, for a long time, I was very happy with the discovery he brought me. We worked a lot together.

The first album with music by Alain (1962) was important for an elite of people, but it had nothing to do with the phenomenon that happens to me. He brought other audiences to my side. But there were a lot of people that did not like it, that preferred what I sang before. Some said I did not sing fado anymore, that Alain’s fado was not fado. But this was a constant: the first fados I sang were not fados; then, Valério’s fados were not fados; then, they actually were and Alain’s were not.

In Amália Uma Biografia, by Vítor Pavão dos Santos, p. 150

At this time, a lot of poets wrote nice things for me to sing. Luís de Macedo, whose name is Chaves de Oliveira and who was a cultural attaché at the Embassy of Portugal in Paris, was introduced to me there until he married and told me he was no longer writing.

In Amália Uma Biografia (1st Ed.), by Vítor Pavão dos Santos, p. 153

I have always scribbled a lot of things I threw away. I did a kind of humoristic verses to send to my sister Odete or to my niece Idalina. Everything was all over the place. It was not until long ago that Estrela began to rummage through the drawers, finding funny things I decided to end, and with the end of those, others were born, because of the songs that Carlos Gonçalves and Fontes Rocha made. At that time, I was sick, in bed, and I was inventing the verses. And then came the records.

My tendency to always write sad things: (…)

But I also make funny things, sometimes (…)

In Amália Uma Biografia, by Vítor Pavão dos Santos, p.156-157

José Carlos Ary dos Santos

Ary dos Santos spent a lot of evenings here at my house. A lot of verses were made here, made for me. I would even suggest a word instead of the other and he was always in agreement with me – he was not even a bit vain about it. He wrote a lot of nice things for me. Of all he has written for me, what I like the most is probably “Alfama” (…).

In Amália Uma Biografia, by Vítor Pavão dos Santos, p.153

Alexandre O'Neill

Alexandre O’Neill, who was a great poet, once said that fado was very frizzy and that Alain broke it. “Gaivota”, which he made for me, is one of the things I always sing.

In Amália Uma Biografia, by Vítor Pavão dos Santos, p. 154

Luís Vaz de Camões

I sang poets, and I sang Camões. For me, Camões was a great fado singer. Is there anyone more Portuguese, and anyone with more fado than Camões: “Com que voz chorarei meu triste fado?” (“With what voice will I cry my sad fado?”). There is no one that makes better than this, for fado, nowadays. There was a big fuss about me singing Camões. I thought it was just dumb. No one can destroy a great poet by singing his verses, even if he is a bad artist.

In Amália Uma Biografia, by Vitor Pavão dos Santos, p. 154

Pedro Homem de Mello

In a book by Pedro Homem de Mello, I saw “Fria Claridade”. I liked the verses, I sang them, and they were a hit. (…)

“Olhos Fechados” and “Cuidei que tinha morrido” were made for me. They are both beautiful, but neither had great success. People did not understand them. “Povo que lavas no rio” was taken from a book. As the poem is too big, I chose only the most dramatic parts of it and arranged it, but it has other very beautiful 6-line stanzas. I fixed that music for those verses and I thought it worked well. That melody, “Fado Vitória” from Joaquim Campos, is very beautiful. It is the great chant, the dramatic one. It is a Spanish scale melody, music that gives me freedom, that allows me to change, in which I can walk inside. I always sing “Povo que lavas no rio” and I am never tired of it because I am always trying to sail through different water.

In Amália Uma Biografia, by Vítor Pavão dos Santos, p. 96

The existence of Valério, when I was beginning to sing, was formidable. He had a melody type that was made for my voice. He knew my voice very well and he wrote for me, for the entire range of my voice, up and down.

In Amália Uma Biografia, by Vítor Pavão dos Santos, p. 69
Note: All the translated transcriptions follow those of the 1st edition (in Portuguese) of Amália’s biography (Editora Contexto)