Cristina Branco: Beyond Fado


By Ernest Barteldes

Portuguese-born Cristina Branco is not your ordinary fado singer. The 33-year-old vocalist doesn’t go on stage in the long, black dress that has become a trademark for divas of the genre, and neither does she stick to the traditional catalogue established by the “queen of fado,” Amalia Rodrigues, when choosing her setlist. Instead, she pushes the style’s boundaries by introducing subtle overtones of jazz and blues.

For instance, on her latest album, “Ulisses” (Universal Music), she takes us on an international musical journey, giving her own take on tunes by Mercedes Soza, Moraes Moreira and others, even reaching into familiar territory with a heartfelt rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” accompanied solely by Ricardo Dias’ piano.

“My intention with this album,” she said in a phone interview from Paris, “is to travel geographically, searching for songs in other languages. There were many things to sing about. There was no intention of making a strict fado album.”

The musical tradition of fado comes from Lisbon’s diverse, mixed-race population, mostly of African or Brazilian descent. Like the blues in America, fado generally has melancholy lyrics that recount lost or unrequited love, and a nostalgic longing for times gone by.

Branco stays true to the genre’s roots even as she strays into eclectic territory, from the tragic narrative of “Alfonsina Y El Mar” (Alfonsina and The Sea), which tells us of the final moments of a desperate poet who took her own life, to the lyrical sincerity of “Liberté,” a French-language poem by Paul Eduard set to original music by guitarist/producer (and former husband) Custódio Castelo.

Part of a new generation of fado singers who have rediscovered fado and carried on its legacy, Branco was not initially influence by the genre. Like many younger people of her generation, she considered fado old-fashioned and associated the style with Portugal’s Franco-like military dictatorship that endorsed it during their rule, which lasted for almost 50 years until the country was restored to democracy in 1972.

Branco was turned on to the genre when she received a collection of songs by the late, undisputed “queen of fado,” Amalia Rodrigues, as a birthday gift in college. Before that, she only listened to jazz and blues, especially to vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.

The influence of jazz is evident in her music. In several songs, Branco’s voice seems to come from deep within, and her willingness to go beyond the confines of tradition brings welcome results, such as in “E Por Vezes” (Sometimes) and “Fundos,” a wordless tune where she improvises freely with the backing of Portuguese guitar, bass, piano and — as a surprise — a discreet electronic backbeat.

Describing Saturday’s show at The Skirball Center, Branco said she thinks of her performances in terms of a story she has to tell. Knowing Branco, hers will span many continents, and transcend all language barriers.

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