I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Since the death of Amália Rodriguez last October, Mísia has come to be regarded as fado’s newest leading lady, or fadista. The mantle of fado, Portugal’s rich and melancholic song, has been carried forth through centuries, and in its cultural existence it’s been celebrated, scorned, appropriated, resurrected, and renovated; regardless, it has endured as a precious national tradition. Its provocateurs have each created their own mystique and legend, beginning in the 19th century with Maria Severa, a brothel gypsy with whom a marquis fell madly in love, and continuing with Amália Rodriguez, whose striking delivery reflected a gritty sophistication that could only have sprung from the extreme poverty she was born into, a childhood of selling oranges on the Lisbon waterfront. Mísia, the daughter of a Spanish dancer and granddaughter of a vaudeville performer, has her own particular evocation of the tradition. She took her name from Mísia Sert, muse to Mallarmé, Proust and Cocteau, and mortal enemy of Coco Chanel. Her treatment of fado is unorthodox, in that she sings the lyrics of some of Portugal’s most famous poets and writers—a departure from the street language and bordello songs that Portuguese sailors went to hear in the taverns of Lisbon in the early 20th century. But despite this divergence, Mísia’s fado shares an emotional depth and timeless appeal with her predecessors’. In her elegant treatment of tragedy, heartbreak and solitude, Mísia captures that rare moment, when a black mood puts on a red scarf and tells its story to rapt listeners.
Mísia was in New York this summer, on an international tour coinciding with the release of her latest album, Diagonal Passions (Detour Records). She spoke with fellow musician Eugene Hütz, the lead singer of Gogol Bordello, a New York-based Ukrainian cabaret act. Hütz described her as incredibly likeable—strong and intense, but with a rare and appealing vulnerability—which makes perfect sense: if fado is the sanctification of emotional fragility, in order to do such a thing with honesty, one must be very strong, and brave, and also tender.
Eugene Hütz As a musician, I am quite interested in ethnomusicology, and in my course of study was proceeding from my own ethnic origins, in the Ukraine, on to the West through Yugoslavia, Italy and France. I was getting very close to Portuguese fado, and I became quite curious about its origins and links to other cultures. And then a friend of mine asked me to do this interview. So I’d like to start by hearing your views on the origins of fado.
Mísia Fado, as we know it today, began at the end of the last century. It was a country music, similar in certain ways to tango. After that, the aristocracy appropriated fado, and it became a forum for literary arguments.
EH But originally, fado was an after-midnight, bordello music, a music of the streets, if you will?
M Yes, it was sung in the taverns and the houses of prostitution where a lot of sailors and rough people, people who had a hard life, went to hear the music. Fado songs have come and gone, circulated and changed, much like flamenco, which has gone to Brazil, and then come back to Spain, or Spanish folk songs, which have gone to South America, received local influences and then come back. Fado traveled to Brazil when the Portuguese king went there in exile. The meanings of fado are multiple, and to know what kind of fado you are hearing, you must pay attention to the words—they are very important. In fado, with the same music put to two different poems, you will have two completely different fados. And we are always renovating—although I don’t actively do a renovation of fado; fado renovates itself as it moves along. But the structures of the music itself have not changed much. We have almost 100 kinds of traditional fado, each with a special form. That formal song comes from Central Europe in the Middle Ages. And the particular way of singing in fado, the melody of the voice, is without a doubt an Arabic influence. The Portuguese guitar is a 12 string guitar with a special way of tuning, and some musicologists say this guitar came down from the North with the English. And some others say it’s from the North of Africa. But I am a singer, not a musicologist, and although I think any of this could possibly be true, for me fado is most importantly a tradition that embodies the way that we, as Portuguese, adapted and absorbed things as a culture.
EH It crystallizes and expresses the Portuguese spirit.
M Exactly. There is no pure art that hasn’t been poisoned by other influences, from all sorts of things, no?
EH I believe that. There’s no such thing as purity in any particular style. Every form is basically a combination of something borrowed and something ready-made. But things come together at a certain point, and then that form of music expresses a particular era or particular time.
M Yes, singing fado is my way of touching life and expressing what, for me, it means to be alive now. Now—not in any other past era. The part of my work that gives me the most pleasure is the interpretation—singing fado is like a ritual, a ceremony.
EH So many musical styles have been conceived with the help of Gypsies, such as Russian romans which is a kind of Russian blues, Hungarian folk music is practically owed to Gypsies, flamenco … . As a musician, I am taken by Gypsy music, and thus I can’t resist asking you what, if any, Gypsy influences you recognize in fado.
M In the melody of the voice there is a lot of Arab and Gypsy influence, in both flamenco and fado. But in fado, such an influence depends upon how the music is interpreted. I am the only person who puts violin on a fado recording, for instance. You know why? Because the first time I heard fado songs was not in a fado house—I was too young to go there. It was in the street, by a street musician who played the same thing that they played in the taverns. He played with violin and accordion, street music, Gypsy style, and because of this, my music has that urban feeling. The spontaneity of fado is something it shares with Gypsy music. And like Gypsy music it’s very difficult to say if we should record it or not. Because it comes from the heart at a given moment. You can never recreate it that same way again.
EH In my own experience, playing Ukrainian music, the old Ukrainians are all very narrow minded, and I spent a lot of time convincing them that what I do is actually of Ukrainian origin. I struggle to get any sort of approval from them, and I wonder if, with fado, it’s a similar scenario. Do you get attacked for not following the tradition?
M The thing is that fado’s roots have such a winding course; it was born in taverns, it was the shouting of the people with no power, and then, when the aristocracy took fado away, it was played in the private salons, but with piano, for instance—and it was no longer a people’s music. That was when people began to sing love songs, expressions of feeling more than social protest. So fado became more universal, no longer just the music for those who were destitute, or prostitutes. And in that sense, there is not such a strict code of older musicians to criticize what younger singers are doing. The person that taught me the most about fado is a very old man, and he came to me once and said, “I must apologize, I spoke so badly about you, and I want to do everything I can to erase what I said. That was before I had heard you, and it was based on hearsay.” And now he is going to be my artistic advisor on my next CD.
EH Another unorthodox thing you do is instead of singing street-style poems essential to traditional fado, you have worked with some serious masters of verbal art, famous Portuguese authors such as Fernando Pessoa and Lídia Jorge, and have sung their words.
M Before me—the great fado singer Amália Rodriguez sang the poets in her time, and what I admire her most for is not her voice—although she has a wonderful, incredible voice—it’s how she inspired the poets. That’s the path I want to follow. But when singing the important poets, there is a tyranny to the words, and sometimes they aren’t singable. They don’t know the techniques—they don’t usually write words to be sung. So it can be really difficult. But when they write a love song, for instance, a love theme for a fado—I think that an intellectual can feel what everybody else feels. That’s the fado that can travel from the ghetto, the tavern and the prostitution house. When I said I wanted to sing fado, it was ten years after the revolution, and fado was seen as something from the right.
EH And it was used almost as propaganda?
M Yes, to promote things like, “We are poor, but we are happy.”
EH Just like how Soviet authors were asked to write songs for the new Soviet Gypsies, all about how happy everyone is to be working at the “fucktory.”
M The same sort of propaganda. And then, after the revolution in Portugal, when I said I wanted to sing fado, people thought it was crazy. Because fado wasn’t culturally important or commercial. And it irritated me so much that the intelligentsia of my country could not understand how rich we are for having fado.
EH As far as performing fado goes, the origins of fado are in a late-night atmosphere where alcohol runs wild. Has that changed much, in terms of where and how the music is performed?
M Nowadays it’s very different—it’s not taverns. A lot of the fado houses are very touristy—the tourists arrive at nine and they eat, they listen. It’s a different thing. But if you go at the end of the night …
EH When the real thing begins.
M Yes, when the real thing begins. I go often because I really admire the fado singers in the older fado houses. For me, they are the greatest. Even if their voices are rough and untrained, that’s the truth in that voice. I mean, Celine Dion, I don’t have anything against her personally, but it’s not the declarative voice.
EH I’m curious about your take on the trend of so-called world music. Sometimes I wonder what that term “global” is supposed to mean. Some sort of stew? It’s as if all these regional styles that powerfully express their particular local spirit are absorbed into this bland, nonspecific category. I find the term global disturbing because it seems to become an excuse for the inability to navigate in a culturally diverse world. At the same time, it may be a lead-in for people to discover primal sources.
M There are two faces: it’s not good because certain types of music become a fashion, and then they are squeezed like lemons. For instance, when I began to record fado in 1990 nobody wanted to record it. I had to pay for my CDs, to ask for money.
EH Self-release stuff.
M Yes, everything. And I walked with my CDs. It was really tough, but it was okay for me, I wouldn’t change that for anything. But the other face of global music is this: nowadays, the Portuguese recording houses say to folksingers, all kinds of singers, “Why don’t you record fado because it travels very well now. It’s a good umbrella.” So in Portugal we now have lots of fado singers; some of them will fail and some of them will disappear, I think. The good thing is that we get the attention of the media and of the record companies. But in the middle of that, I try to fight against the temple of fashion, you know. In terms of different interpretations and music being made there is the freedom to do everything, but you must feel it, not do it because it’s fashionable.
EH You have to be connected—either spiritually or genetically.
M You must risk your body to do it. There are fado houses where people perform who are not professional; they get up and they sing, very badly sometimes—but who cares—it’s authentic! We must be interpreting the times we are feeling—whatever label you put on the music, that’s the main requirement. In Europe now, because of the European Union, there is a new affirmation of each kind of traditional music. If fado is strong, then flamenco and Celtic music are strong … it’s okay. What is horrible are those people who don’t understand anything and just buy what’s marketed.
EH They don’t understand the origin of what they’re buying. I’m all for the world’s music leaking onto each other and free treatment of tradition, but first there must be an awareness of origins.
M And the evolution of each artist. For instance Astor Piazzolla—what he did with tango—it was not globalization, it was something that was authentic and genuine in itself. And he risked his own survival to do what he felt was necessary. But he didn’t mix two completely different traditions, like having a Ukrainian instrument play with fado. That’s the sort of thing I don’t understand. Why do people feel the need to do this? Because it’s different? Because nobody did it before? I went with Caetano Veloso to a fado house recently, to sing for him, and I sang three traditional fados that in Portugal we say “make stones cry.”
EH I can see fado doing that.
M Yes. And there was a singer there who said, “Why don’t you sing here the things you sing on your record?” Why would I want to do that? This fado house has its rituals, its traditions, it’s a place I go to learn. Caetano said to me afterward, that if he went to a place with bossanova, real bossanova, he wouldn’t do his innovations there. It’s about respecting the place. But we must give people time to learn. And we must keep on doing what we’re doing, playing our music. You must be very determined and remember why you are doing it.
EH It’s up to us to be radical about it. The more radical we are, the less watered-down our music will come out, after the industry screws with it.
M Definitely. In my recording house I choose everything. I choose the photographs for the covers, every decision is mine. So the day I make a mistake will be terrible! But up to now, it works. When I say, “No no, I don’t want it like this,” it’s, “Okay, Mísia.”
EH You’ve earned a great deal of respect from them.
M Yes, but before they found me and I found them, it was a nightmare.
EH It seems that they sense that, authenticity-wise, you do not need their help, and they give you that control.
M You know, when I arrived there, I was like a runner waiting for the gun to go off. For so many years I did everything myself—manager, producer, everything. I put my CD on the Japanese market, on the Korean market. I worked very hard. And then when I signed with Atlantic, I went to Paris, and when I got there I cried and cried because I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. And now I have the artistic freedom to do what I want. On my next CD, I’m going to work with a composer, and people who have been forgotten in the fado houses in Lisbon, who nobody is recording. And each fado is going to be dedicated to an anonymous fado singer of the fado houses.
EH I like that idea. You take it from them, it travels and it comes back. The cycle, it should work like that.
M I come back to the United States in November to do a big tour, and you can come with your friends, musicians, and we can do something … we can talk and get together after the show.
EH You’re going to be playing at Joe’s Pub in New York. My band has played there several times, it’s one of the best venues. Because it’s the closest to the cabaret feeling that you will find in New York. Do you find it problematic, to transfer the ambiance of a tavern, or fado, to a big stage?
M Fado is, for me, a ritual. You can do it anywhere. You can do a mass here, if there’s a priest.
EH And that’s the key—when it’s self-sufficient, it can be played anywhere. Like flamenco, it can be done anywhere, out of nowhere, out of nothing.
M Performing for me is something very theatrical, and at the same time, very far away from the way I would sing in a fado house, where I sing behind my guitar players. But because I sing in such important venues now, sometimes I miss doing a street thing. Two of my musicians, the violin, and the accordion/piano player, belong to a traditional music group, and they know all kinds of music from the North, and to the South of Portugal, and they play in festivals and for weddings, and we were thinking of going with the whole band, choosing a name, disguising ourselves, and going to play at weddings and things like that.
EH Oh, that would be great! There is a flamenco singer, Negrita, who I saw performing recently—I walked into a bar in the South of France, and there was like a bathtub of beer on the tables, and people were going wild, it was completely amazing. She went on for six hours, she was radiating amazing energy. And she wasn’t selling any CDs; it was incognito. It was just great.
M What do you think when you see artists like that? Especially after having seen the big star acts, who are not giving much, you know, to see someone who is not famous, who is giving his lungs, his voice, his life, like this?
EH Many musical heroes never acquire fame. Especially in America, where it’s a big cult of young beauty. But I really do think things will change.
M Do you know the meaning of the word fado?
EH Destiny, fate.
M For fado, you must not be very young, you must have the scars of life. If you don’t, you won’t have anything to share. What are you going to sing, feelings you never lived and don’t understand? When I was twenty, my mother said to me, “Oh my god, you sing so well, such a clean voice, a crystal voice, but mia hija, you must suffer before you can transmit what you want to, you have not received enough yet.”
EH From what I gather, you find the road and traveling to be inspiring rather than exhausting.
M Yes, live concerts, that’s where I go to get my energy. If I did not perform live, I could not record, I could not do this life. When I was little, I only saw my mother twice a year because she was a Spanish dancer and always traveling all over Europe with six suitcases and two dogs, and things like that. And thus for me, it’s easy.
EH I find being on the road very inspiring. It’s the best way to live if you are an artist, and particularly one with melancholic tendencies. Because the happiest moments of life don’t surface in simple ways.
M As if what’s really inside is experienced as a particular moment.
EH Yes, and the thing is you can’t remain in these moments long, only while you are going through them. Which is why performing is so incredibly cathartic and addictive.
M Exactly. Why do you sing? I sing in order to know what sort of happiness is inside of me. In fact, there have been times when the only way to save myself was to go on stage and sing.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee