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AMÁLIA RODRIGUES

(Singer: 1920 -  1999)

by Leonor Lains

Translated by John D. Godinho

 

Amália Rodrigues, portrait, 1954

"The fado is not meant to be sung; it simply happens."

WHEN IT ALL HAPPENED... 

1920: Amália is born in Lisbon, in the city district of Alcântara, on July 1 (this date was Amália’s choice;  her birth certificate says July 23).  1929:  She begins grade school at Escola Oficial da Tapada da Ajuda, from which she graduates.  1934:  She begins to work as an embroiderer and clothes presser on a piecework basis. – 1935:  She participates in the group representing Alcântara in the citywide annual march contest;  she sings in public for the first time, with Portuguese guitar accompaniment, at a charity event. – 1938:  She represents Alcântara in the Spring Singing Contest. – 1939:  She debuts as a fado singer at the Retiro da Severa. – 1944:  She travels to Brazil for a six-week tour, but ends up staying for three months.  She sings at the Copacabana Casino. – 1945:  She makes her first recordings (in 78 r.p.m.) in Brazil, the first of the 170 records she makes thoughout her career. – 1947:  She stars in the filme Capas Negras (Black Capes), which sets box office records, playing for 22 weeks at the Condes Cinema. – 1948:  Amália receives the National Information Office (SNI) Prize as best actress for her performance in Fado, directed by Perdigão Queiroga. – 1949:  She sings in Paris and London for the first time. – 1951: Her first tour of Africa:  Mozambique, Angola and Congo. – 1952: She makes her first appearance in New York singing at the La Vie en Rose nightclub.  Her contract is extended for a 4 month stay.  She signs a contract with Valentim de Carvalho, a record company, where she will make all her recordings. – 1953:  She becomes the first Portuguese singer to appear on American television, on the Eddie Fisher Show. – 1954:  Her first recording album is released in the United States.  She sings at the Mocambo, in Hollywood. – 1955: She records Canção do Mar (Song of the Sea) and Barco Negro (Black Ship) for Henri Verneuil’s film Os Amantes do Tejo (Tagus Lovers).  In Mexico, she participates in the film Música de Sempre (Music of Always), with Edith Piaf. – 1957:  She opens at the Olympia, in Paris, and begins to sing in French.  Charles Aznavour composes Ai, Mourir por Toi, for her. – 1961:  In Rio de Janeiro, she marries César Seabra, an engineer, with whom she will live until his death in 1997. – 1962:  The release of an album based on the works of the poet Pedro Homem de Mello:  Asas Fechadas (Closed Wings) and Povo que Lavas no Rio (You, People, Who Wash in the River). – 1966:  She performs at Lincoln Center, in New York, accompanied by a symphony orchestra conducted by André Kostelanetz. – 1967:  In Cannes, she receives the MIDEM Gold Disc award from the hands of Anthony Quinn, given to the recording artist who sold the most records in his or her country.  This fact is repeated in the two years that followed and was equaled only by the Beatles. – 1970:  She sings in Tokyo, New York and Rome and receives a high decoration from the French government. – 1975: Once again she performs at the Olympia, in Paris. – 1976:  Along with Maria Callas and John Lennon, she participates in the recording of Le Cadeau de la Vie (The Gift of Life), released by UNESCO. – 1977:  Amália sings at Carnegie Hall, in New York. – 1985: She returns for another performance at the Olympia, in Paris.  For the first time, she gives a solo performance at the Coliseu dos Recreios, in Lisbon.- 1989:  Amália celebrates her 50th anniversary as a singer with a retrospective exhibit at the Museu do Teatro (The Theater Museum), in Lisbon. – 1990:  Two great shows:  one at the Coliseu dos Recreios and the other at the S. Carlos Theater where the fado is heard for the first time in 200 years. – 1994: Lisbon is declared by the European Union as the Capital of Culture; during this event, Amália sings in public for the last time. – 1995: She undergoes an operation for a lung tumor.  Her last recording, For the First Time, is released. – 1998:  The recording The Best of Amália is released and highly  praised by international critics.  She is honored at the International Exposition of 1998, in Lisbon. – 1999: Amália dies on October 6, in Lisbon, at home, in Rua de S. Bento. 

 

PORTUGAL:  RURAL, POOR AND UNDERDEVELOPED

 

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Portugal has a population of 5 million people.  It’s an essentially rural country, poor and underdeveloped.   Emigration is of about 40 thousand people per year.  The illiteracy rate is around 70%.  On October 5, 1910, Portugal becomes one of the first republics in Europe.  The new regime mobilizes the country and public opinion is passionately in favor of the new government.  Schools and education are the priorities.  The legislature enacts laws protecting the rights of liberty and citizenship. However, the actual exercise of such rights involves great contradictions.  The Republican Party, now in power, acts in a restrictive and repressive manner.

 

Portugal enters World War I (1914-1918).  Political tensions give rise to the dictatorship of Sidónio Pais.  In 1917, Portuguese forces suffer a terrible defeat in the Battle of La Lys, in France.  Tensions worsen between an urban society, in the process of becoming industrialized, and the rural areas with their traditional and archaic ways. In Fatima, three small children say that they have seen Our Lady on top of an olive tree.  In Lisbon, Sidónio Pais is assassinated on December 14, 1918, in the Rossio Train Terminal.  Bento Gonçalves, the anarchist-unionist leader, takes a trip to Russia during the Bolshevik revolution. He will be the founder of the Communist Party, in 1921.

 

In 1920, the Catholic Church rejects the statue of Our Lady of Fatima, sculptered by Teixeira Lopes, because of its sensuality.  At the foot of Gardunha Mountain, there’s a trumpet player  who is disputed by the two marching bands of Fundão: the “new style” vs.  the “old style” of music.  The life of a musician is insecure;  he has to provide support for his three children and his wife, who is pregnant once again.  He is a cobbler, but his trumpet playing has taken up most of his time so he hasn’t done very much shoe work.  He decides to leave the boondocks of Beira Province, and try his luck in the capital. It’s cherry blossom time in Lisbon (May and June); while they’re living on Martim Vaz Street, his wife gives birth to a baby girl:  Amália da Piedade Rodrigues.  Living conditions are bad for the family and the musician/cobbler can’t to get a job.  They finally return to Fundão, poorer than ever.  Amália, now 14 months old, stays in Lisbon with her grandparents.

 

“SING THAT ONE AGAIN – SIX PEOPLE HAVE ALREADY STOPPED TO LISTEN...”

Amália Rodrigues with her brother Vicente and her sister-in-law, Filipina, 1986.

 

 

 

Amália is the fifth child in a family death is rampant among children – José and António, still of nine children.  Vicente and Filipe are the oldest.  Pneumonia is spreading rapidly and quite small, are now dead.  Four girls are born after Amália:  Celeste, two years younger;  Aninhas, who dies at the age of 16;  Maria da Glória, who dies shortly after birth, and finally, Maria Odete.

 

It is now December 3, 1923.  In Manhattan, in the city of New York, a baby girl is born to Greek immigrants:  her name, Maria Callas.  Amália has no toys but she already knows two or three songs.  Her neighbors ask her to sing and fill her pocket with candy drops and small coins.  These two little girls will challenge much that has been established for a long time. Two unique voices,  two “landmarks” between the “before” and the “after”.  One, in the interpretation of operatic music;  the other, in the interpretation of the Fado. In short, they have come to renovate and innovate.

 

There’s a military coup d’état.  The parliamentary republic is overthrown.  The new regime begins to limit the freedoms of speech and of assembly – it’s the coming of censorship! Gradually, political parties and labor unions are declared illegal. Salazar begins his rise to the top – first, he becomes Finance Minister, and finally, Prime Minister.  Amália is a shy little girl.  The only person who can convince her to sing is her grandfather.  While she’s inside the house, with no one watching, she sings tangos popularized by Carlos Gardel and a number of other songs.  Her grandfather, while sitting by the window, counts the people who are attracted by her voice.   He says to her:  “Sing that one again – six people have already stopped to listen...”

 

Amália is now almost nine years old and her grandmoter, who can’t read and write, sends her to Escola da Câmara, a grade school on Tapada da Ajuda.  On the way, she picks and eats agave figs and steals some flowers for her teacher.  She likes to go to school and nothing will keep her away, not even her asthmatic condition.  She will not stay at home!  At school, her time is hers alone and she has a chance to daydream.  There’s no one to tell her to dust, or wash dishes or wash the floor.

 

She’s a good listener and learns quickly.  Her classmates call her  “know-it-all.” But there’s one thing she can’t manage to learn:  Geography!  Her teacher insists that she buy the textbook – her very first book.  When, sometime later, she is required to buy another book, her grandmother asks her:  “The other one is still new, what do you want another book for?”

 

At school, she is required to wear a white smock over her dress. One day Amália is on her way to school, walking though the woods.  The sound of bird songs fills the air.  She sees a little girl dressed in rags, obviously much poorer than she.  Amália takes off the dress she’s wearing under the smock and gives it to the girl.  When she returns home, her grandmother asks her to take off the smock so she can wash it.   Amália is embarassed and, feigning surprise, simply says: “Gosh!  I’ve lost my dress!”  Her grandmother’s reaction is to give her a spanking as she bellows:  “Aren’t you the rich young lady, giving away your dresses!”

 

She graduates from grade school.  On graduation day, she wears a brand new dress which looks very good on her.  It is a pleated turquoise blue dress made of a light, soft, thin fabric called crepe.  It was the first dress made by a seamstress especially for her.  She’ll never wear it again – since she is keeping it for another important occasion and...in the meantime, she’s growing.  She’s now twelve and school is over for her!

 

As is the custom among the poor classes, everyone, children and adults, contributes to the support of the household.  One must learn a trade or occupation.  Amália choses that of embroiderer.  She earns two Portuguese escudos a day, which doesn’t even cover transportation expenses.  So she must leave the house early in the morning and climb the streets and alleyways from Ajuda to the Steps of Duque Street, near Chiado Square.  She spends days and months ironing clothes...What about the embroidering?  Not a chance...the subject isn’t even brought up. Since she is not learning anything, her grandmother wants her to quit.  She does.  One of her aunts is in charge of a bakery business where they make cakes and candy drops, located in Pampulha.  Candy drops have to be wrapped up and quince and other fruit have to be peeled.  They need people.  Amália is now earning six escudos a day and the more she wraps and peels, the more money she makes. 

 

“WE NEVER COMPLAINED ABOUT LIFE.”

Amália, a hard-working little girl, from a working-class district...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amália Rodrigues with her sister Celeste, Madrid, 1943.

 

She is now 14 and decides to go live with her parents and her brothers, who have recently returned to Lisbon.  At her grandmother’s everything was well organized.  Now everything is total confusion.  The house is too small for a couple with five children.  There must be discipline.  As is the custom among the people of Beira Baixa Province, there’s a certain hierarchy that must be observed. The oldest brother is the boss among the children – he also metes out punishment.  Amália gets slapped in face many times for singing as she walks along the street.  She loves to do that.  The girls are not allowed to do anything without his permission.  Amália, as the oldest daughter, has to help her mother do the household chores.  She irons her brothers’ pants and shirts and takes care of their Sunday clothes.  Every day she has to take her brothers’ lunch to the 77, a tavern in Alcântara, where they order some wine so they can sit at the tables to eat. 

 

Her grandmother, a tough woman who has given birth to 16 children, has a good number of grandchildren by now.  Every Sunday she gathers the family. Each one brings something and they all have lunch and dinner together.  They all have a good time – the older folk sing songs from their hometown, songs of Beira Baixa.  The young people sing the fado.

 

The fado has been around for a little longer than a century.  It’s a type of urban music born and nurtured in Lisbon’s working districts. With the advent of radio and recording techonology, the voices of fado singers such as Ercília Costa, Ermelinda Vitória, and others, find their way to a growing public. 

 

Amália’s mother sets up a small fruit stall at Cais da Rocha (Rocha Docks).  Amália quits her job at the factory in Pampulha so she can help her mother.  Now, in this noisy atmosphere, among the colorful stands of fruits and vegetables, one hears the vendors’ sales pitches – actually short ancestral melodies, remembrances of the country people of Beira Baixa, Trás-os-Montes, Minho.

 

These people are so poor that their poverty, to them, is something quite natural.  No one complains. This is their fate. If the weather is cold, they stay close to a metal pan with burning coals;  if it rains, they bring out pots and pans and spread them out so as to catch the rain. If it starts raining while they are asleep, they just shift out of the way ...“and, to boot, there’s a flea under the blanket,” as Amália  will write later in her memoirs. “But we never complained about life.  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.  It’s the privileged classes who discuss that type of thing, not the poor.  And, after all is said and done, there’s also  classe discrimination among the poor.  We were like social outcasts.”

 

On Saturdays, Amália discovers the movie reruns at the Alcântara Movie Theater, where they show films long after their first run at Lisbon’s principal movie houses.  She sees Camile, of 1937, with Greta Garbo.  She drinks vinegar and exposes herself to cold drafts so she can catch tuberculosis like her heroine.  Her greatest wish is to be a performing artist.  She’s now 16 years old and Celeste, her inseparable sister, is 14.  They decide to run away on a boat, as stowaways, dressed as men so as not to be bothered by anybody. They wear their brothers’ suits. It’s six in the morning...a  half-hour later they’re back home again.

 

In 1938, she represents the Alcântara district, where she lives, in the Spring Contest where the winner is declared to be the “Queen of the Fado.” She sings here and there, choosing traditional songs and country melodies, as well as the popular songs so common in Lisbon at festivals organized by cultural associations in honor of  Saints Anthony, John and Peter.  She will always identify herself with the spirit of  these activities.  She meets and falls in love with Francisco Cruz, a guitar player and lathe worker.  Her unrequited love drives her to try to commit suicide. 

 

“BECAUSE THE FADO IS NOT MEANT TO BE SUNG; IT SIMPLY HAPPENS.”

Amália Rodrigues singing at the Café Luso, in 1942.

 

 

 

Guernica is bombed by German airplanes.  Dictatorship is everywhere in the Iberian Pensinsula.  In Portugal, Salazar continues in power; in Spain, Franco begins his tenure.  Hitler invades Poland.  The Portuguese regime, the “New State,” requires a professional identity card for fado singers;  without it, they can’t sing in public.  The fado is no longer restricted to the streets and alleyways of Lisbon, or to out of the way retreats or taverns.  Now, it can be found in the “fado houses”such as Solar da Alegria, Retiro da Severa, Luso, which cater to more sophisticated and bourgeois audiences, with greater purchasing power.

 

It is at one of these “fado houses,” the Retiro da Severa, that Amália makes her professional debut, in 1939.  The following year she sings at the Solar da Alegria, under an exclusive contract and with her own repertoire.  She makes her stage debut at the Maria Vitória Theater, in a revue entitled Ora vai tu, playing the role of a fado singer wearing the traditional black shawl.  She marries Francisco Cruz, the lathe worker and amateur guitar player.

 

Young Amália impresses everyone who hears her.  She sings with great dramatic intensity because “the only thing that matters is to feel the fado.  The fado is not meant to be sung; it simply happens. You feel it, you don’t understand it and you don’t explain it.”

 

During the war years, a segment of Lisbon’s bourgeoisie is living la dolce vita.  The intellectuals are upset.  The democrats side with those Europeans who fight the nazi beast. Salazar wavers. There are spies everywhere, from both sides, the allies and the nazis, disputing the best spots of Lisbon’s nightlife, in the nighclubs and fado houses.

 

Amália asks for, and gets, a divorce.  She’s now 23.  She’s independent, she’s young and enjoys a good time.  She is making good money and feels very comfortable in Lisbon.  Life is a party.  There’s a criss-crossing between restaurants and nightclubs; there are war refugees and Spanish girls. She sings  every type of song that happens to be popular at the time and her public is always highly pleased.  She dances everything in vogue:  passodobles, tangos, sambas, waltzes.  She’s courted by everybody and is followed by fado lovers wherever she goes, from the Negresco to the Tokai to the Nina.

 

In 1943, she is a big hit when she makes her foreign debut, in Madrid, at the invitation of the Portuguese ambassador.  This is the beginning of a very successful international career.  In 1944, she goes to Brazil. Delirium!  Her stay was scheduled to last six weeks, but it’s extended to three months.  Here she makes her first recordings, in 78 r.p.m.

 

The nazis are defeated in 1945.  Salazar’s opposition goes overboard.  There are meetings, manifestoes, petitions. The Movimento de Unidade Democrática (Movement for Democratic Unity) is organized. Lopes-Graça and poets like Carlos de Oliveira, José Gomes Ferreira and João José Cochofel (among others) write the “Heróicas” to be sung in the streets of Lisbon.  It’s all pure delusion...

 

It’s now 1949.  António Ferro is acting as a kind of minister of culture for Salazar’s government. He’s supported by the modernist nationalist wing of the artistic world.  Almada Negreiros, the painter, is one of the outstanding figures of that sector.  Amália has already been a big hit in Brazil and Madrid.  Her records are now sold in 16 countries.  She goes to London and Paris for the first time, at the invitation of António Ferro, who  considers her a great singer and an intelligent woman.  Whenever there’s a need to brighten up an official reception, he invites her to sing and charm those present. “He showed me off as the best thing they had to offer, but he never helped me become Amália Rodrigues.”  Never was she praised by anyone in the government. António Ferro was really the only person who always treated her with respect.  Salazar, himself, would only refer to her as the little creature.

 

The Opposition cries out:  “This is a repressive, petty and narrow-minded society.”  The discussion groups in Lisbon’s cafés are the strongholds of disobedience.  The best way of expressing an opinion about the state of things in Portugal is through irreverence and jokes.  The Neo-realists and the Surrealists are having their ideological battles.  In 1953, the Portuguese Surrealists, led by the poet Mário Cesariny, publish their manifesto Posting Bills Is Forbidden.  And the then Neo-realists Manuel da Fonseca and Carlos de Oliveira publish, respectively, The Fire and the Ashes and A Bee in the Rain.

 

I COULD HAVE BEEN MANY THINGS, IF I WEREN’T WHAT I AM.”

Amália sings at the Argentina Opera House, in Rome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amália Rodrigues at the Lincoln Center, in New York, with Maestro Andre Kostelanetz, 1966. 

 

 

In 1950, a number of shows are put together in support of the economic reconstruction of a Europe lying in ruin. It’s the famous Marshall Plan. The first shows were in the tormented city of Berlin.  There are people from all the countries that have joined the American Plan.  The selection centers on operatic singers, but Portugal has no famous singers in that category.  Amália is the only well-known artist.  “They had heard some of my records, so they decided to chose me.” She sings the Portuguese poets Pedro Homem de Mello and David Mourão Ferreira. Ireland, a country where popular music has very strong roots, is also represented by singers of popular songs.

 

Amália manages to break a taboo in Rome by singing at the Argentina Opera House.  Also on the bill were the opera singer Maria Caniglia, the violinist Jacques Thibault and the tenor Fiorenzo Tasso, accompanied by a symphony orchestra. The contrast couldn’t be greater.  Amália is the only singer of popular music.  She shakes like a leaf, having by her side only the Portuguese guitar of Raul Nery and the base guitar of Santos Moreira:  “Three nobodies who knew nothing about music playing right next to a an enormous symphony orchestra.”  When she walks on stage, she looks so frightened that the people in the front rows look at her with kindness in their eyes:  “I think the audience was on my side, even before I started.” She is a huge success.  When she leaves the stage, she laughs and cries at the same time.  “I had the only conniption fit I’ve ever had in my life.  Everyone off-stage had gathered around me, trying to cool me with their fans and saying: Perchè piangere?  Un sucesso! Un trionfo! Perchè piangere? (Why cry?  You were a success!  A triumph!  Why cry?)  And I kept crying and laughing, laughing.  It was so scary...because fado singers in the old days had greater inferiority complexes than we do today.  I did away with those complexes in the fado.  That night, I did quite a lot, without realizing it.  It was an extraordinary show for me and the reviews were fabulous. When I left the theater, everybody was waiting for me and they were shouting: Brava! Brava! Brava!”

 

During one of her stays in New York, Danny Kaye invites her to be in a Broadway show with him.  “Who knows, maybe if I had accepted and things had gone O.K., as they always have for me, maybe I could have gone on to something really big.  I could have been a lot of things, if I weren’t what I am.  But at that stage, I wasn’t able to sing with Danny Kaye, even though we did become great friends.”

 

In 1954, she goes on a tour of Mexico.  Hedda Hopper, a famous Hollywood columnist at the time, suggests that she wear a white dress with a low neckline and give up the black shawl.  She also suggests that Amália wear a read rose in her hair.  Amália has to explain to her that the red rose worn that way is typically Spanish and that she is from Portugal, from Lisbon.

 

She is taken by her agent, Blackstone, to the Hollywood studios where she watches the shooting of Someone at Last, starring Judy Garland and James Mason. She finds everything very strange since one of the scenes is repeated seventeen times, while in Portugal an actor is not allowed to make any mistakes because there’s not enough film to repeat the scene even once.  This is how she describes meeting James Mason to her biographer, Victor Pavão dos Santos:  “There was a Portuguese lady with me and she was all a twitter because she saw James Mason.  I had to apologize to him and tell him that not all the women in Portugal were like that.”

 

She doesn’t stay in the United States at this time because she simply doesn’t feel like it.  She sings on television for the first time in New York, on NBC’s “Eddie Fisher Show,” sponsored by Coca-Cola “...which I had to drink, but I really didn’t like it at all.”  She makes a recording of fado and flamenco.  They open a bank account for her to stay a while longer and is invited to record two long-playing albums with songs written by Cole Porter, Gershwin, and Jerome Kern.  She is very pleased with the invitation, but she refuses because she’s had her fill of America:  “I’ve never had to work in my life and now, if I were to make an album with American songs, I’d have to keep rehearsing and working.  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.”

 

Some people grumble:  “She’s too temperamental; after all, she’s from Southern Europe.”  Others say:  “She’s the great interpreter of the Iberian soul!”   When she returns to Lisbon she is once again invited to sing at the Portuguese embassy in Madrid where, as she says, “I became a ‘flamenco buff’.  I met the best flamenco singers!” She sings and feels that the fado and the flamenco have the same originality:  “In one way or another, each of them has its own truth.” Years later, when she records an album entitled Fado from Portugal and Flamenco from Spain, she manages to express all of her Iberian feelings.

 

THE BALLAD OF THE PASSING WIND

Amália Rodrigues with Manuel Alegre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amália, joins Manuel Alegre, Pedro Homem de Melo, David Mourão Ferreira and Alain Oulmain...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amália Rodrigues with David Mourão-Ferreira and Alain Oulmain, 1964.

 

She’s accepted by some and booed by others, but she’s ignored by no one.  She decides to sing the so-called fado/song and develops a new, more insolent way of singing it. She enthusiastically sings fados composed by Frederico Valério, Raul Ferrão and Frederico de Freitas, with a “more complex musical structure, with refrains and quatrains, when compared with the simplicity of the stanzas in the old fados of pure lineage.” (Raul V. Nery)

 

Amália lends a new brilliance to the fado. According to musicologist Nery, she sings the traditional repertoire with a different touch “...subordinating the regular rhythm of the melody to the whims of poetic diction, with surprising pauses and new embellishments which she had found in the songs of Beira Baixa.”  She crosses all barriers and cultural prejudices. Amália has the gift of reconciling the urban with the rural, the cultured with the popular,  through her unique quality of voice, full of sensual and musical emotion.

 

Guided by her great intuition, she begins to sing the great poets of the Portuguese language, from the troubadours to Camões, from Bocage to contemporary poets, such as Pedro Homem de Mello and David Mourão who now write works for her.  She meets the Franco-Portuguese composer Alain Oulmain:  “One day I was in a camping site and I was introduced to Alain Oulmain, who had composed a song thinking of me, Vagamundo (The Wanderer).  I heard it and I liked it. He showed us a few others and I went against the opinion of many of those present who felt that this type of music was too complicated.  It’s true, the guitar players did have to learn those new harmonies Alain was bringing us which were foreign to the fado, since the fado is poor in harmony.  Alain was born in Dafundo, in Portugal, but he is French.  He has great artistic sensibility;  he was raised in a special environment.  Then he heard me sing and felt that my sensibility was very close to his. He makes it possible for me to fly.”

 

Amália’s sense of humor is characteristic of Lisbon, typical of Alcântara, a working classe district where they cultivate a corrosive type of humor almost as a way of life.  She jokes about herself and her talent.  She tells a story to her biographer about her first appearance on Portuguese TV, in 1958.  “There was a fly buzzing around me.  The fly sang better than I did.  Whenever there were flies there, and I think they were always there, people would pretend they didn’t see them.  But I did, so I shooed it away.  After that they would talk about nothing else but the fly.”   Whenever she finds herself in complicated situations, she manages to get her courage by having a quick and ready answer.  Once, someone asked her about the decorations and other honors she received during the Salazar dictatorship and she promptly answered:  “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t even get up from my big chair. I didn’t pass through life;  it was life that passed through me.”

 

During the sixties, for economic and political reasons, many Portuguese emigrate, en masse, to richer countries in Europe.  Colonial war breaks out in Angola; student movements demonstrate against Salazar’s repression.  Many Portuguese who oppose the regime are forced to go into exile.  In Algeria, the exiled poet Manuel Alegre receives a letter from his friend Alain Oulmain asking for permission for Amália to sing Trova do vento que passa (The Ballad of the Passing Wind), a poem that was already a point of reference for the Portuguese anti-fascist resistence when sung by Adriano Correia de Oliveira.  The new version is included in Amália’s album Com que Voz (With What Voice) (1970).

 

In 1962, the first record with songs by Alain Oulmain is released and is well-received by the cultured elite.  For some, it’s not fado.  The guitar players themselves recognize that they have a rough time when they play Oulmain’s music.  José Nunes would always say: “We’re going to the opera.”

 

Her great sensibility and intuition lend a certain political dimension to the fado entitled Povo que lavas no rio (You, People, Who Wash in the River), one of Pedro Homem de Mello’s poems, which she selects without knowing quite why.  The same thing happens with one of Armandinho’s old fados – it becomes a hymn to those dissenters imprisoned in the city of Peniche.  Soon it becomes known as the Peniche Fado and its sale is forbidden by the government.  Amália says:  “When I sang it, it was just the sadness of love, which is a much more beautiful feeling, and much more painful, than any idea about revolutions.  Nothing could be further from my mind than the idea of prisons.”

 

In 1966, she travels to the United States once again.  She performs in places which are usually off-limits to popular singers, such as the Lincoln Center and the Hollywood Bowl.  She is informed, by telephone, that Alain Oulmain has been arrested by the Portuguese Secret Police.  She does everything she can to help set him free and taken to the Portuguese-Spanish border.

 

Pope Paul VI visits the Sanctuary of Fátima and Sister Lúcia,  the only survivor of the three children who saw Our Lady. He also decorates the director of the Secret Police.  Photographs, facts, fados...

 

Amália continues to sing the left-wing poets:  Ary dos Santos, Manuel Alegre, O’Neill, David Mourão-Ferreira.  In 1968, dictator Salazar falls from a chaise-longue and becomes incapacitated;  he is substituted by Marcelo Caetano, a university professor.  The Secret Police temporarily closes the Instituto Superior Técnico.  The following year, there’s an election in which, for the first time, there are candidates from the two most important factions opposing the regime, the democratic movements MDP/CDE* and CEUD**.  There’s electoral fraud – the representatives  elected to the National Assembly are all from the so-called Liberal Wing.  There follows a wave of labor strikes throughout the country.  In 1969, Amália receives a decoration from Marcelo Caetano at the Brussels World’s Fair.  That same year, she goes on tour to the then Soviet Union.  Once again, audiences are fascinated by her peculiar voice. 

 

She never becomes overly impressed by all the positive events in her life – she remains true to herself, always acting casually regarding her successes and her talent.  Amália keeps nothing which is related to her career as an artist.  In her own words:  “I spent my life being surprised by what was happening to me, but I never struggled and I never suffered to get anything, to obtain what people call ‘success’.  Perhaps I didn’t fully enjoy the things that I have lived through.  Still, I realize that I’m the only Portuguese artist well-known abroad.”

 

1971:  Zeca Afonso records an album called Cantigas de Maio (Songs of May), which includes Grândola, Vila Morena.  Amália is in Paris.  She visits Alain oulmain and meets Manuel Alegre, a poet who is recovering from a serious ilnness and is hiding in Alain’s house.  It’s the beginning of a great friendship and of intense collaboration.  Manuel Alegre admits that he was a bit confused upon meeting her. He says that when he was in exile, in Algeria, he used to play her records and “...I could feel a bit of Portugal right there, with me, because, to be truthful, no one but Amália can express what I call our ‘Atlantic quality’, that melancholic and nostalgic feeling we call saudade.”

 

When she is stirred by emotion, her manner of singing becomes so intense that she ends up crying.  “Once I was on a boat, in Vila Franca.  That night I sang the Fado Cravo and people around me kneeled at my feet.  Why did they kneel? Because I felt a very strong emotion...I don’t even know what to call it.   Perhaps I am not creative, but when I sing  I create.  And to create, I need music.  When I started singing, the fado was very confined, like a house with only one room, and my way of singing gave it two more rooms.  Nothing in that room would give me a chance to be free.  My voice wanted to get away, but the door was always locked.  So I had to sing my own way.”  

 

OH, SANITY THAT BRINGS ME PAIN

Amália Rodrigues with President Mário Soares

 

The tourist trade was one of the most aggressive activities in Portugal, during the sixties. It projected an image of a peaceful country (even though it had been at war for several years) in songs such as April in Portugal, abounding with sun (even though the rainy season is in April), with lots of Fado, Football and Fatima.  These were the F’s that supported Salazar’s Fascism.

 

Thus, Amália is taken as one of the F’s to the point where she is attacked by some radical left-wing militants (some of whom will, later on, become members of right-wing parties).  Many are unaware of her generosity and contributions to the National Committee to Assist Political Prisoners (Comissão Nacional de Socorro aos Presos Políticos), during the fascist years.  Rubens de Carvalho, a communist Congressman, writes that “...she did so in the same passionate and perhaps naïve way as she used when she thanked her Salazarian benefactors who gave her, a simple plebeian, the chance to appear on stage, handling a microphone.”

 

Once again, Amália sings Mãe Negra, embalando o filho branco do senhor...(Black Nanny, Rocking Her Master’s White Child to Sleep...), which she had sung during the sixties in Angola and Mozambique.  This song was on the black list of Salazar’s censors, since it was part of the repertoire of the Resistance. And during the April Revolution, in 1974, she sings the Fado de Peniche.  At the same time she participates, together with Morais e Castro, actor, lawyer and a Communist, in general assemblies held at the Vasco Santana Theater, to explain the effect of the Revolution on the activities of performing artists.

 

The Portuguese Democracy finally renders her the greatest and most sincere homage.  In 1980, she is decorated with the Official Degree of the Order of Prince Henry, the Navigator, by the then President Mário Soares, who considers her “a conservative woman, believing in God and naturally apolitical, who knew how to get along well with the Revolution of the Carnations.  She tells him that “...the difference between you and those of the previous regime is that you invite me to sit at your table.  In the old days, they always received me very well, they liked me a lot and they loved to hear me sing, but it was different – I was only received at the end of the socializing and mingling...to sing.”

 

She always liked to write verses:  “Things that I felt”, she says, recognizing that she is not a poet.   A record album is released with her poems entitled I Liked Being Who I Was.  In 1997, she publishes a book, Verses, confirming her poetic vein: “Oh, how unhappy was my childhood/ Oh, how my love was all in vain/ Oh, life was everything but good/ Oh, sanity that brings me pain.”  Her verses are rousing echoes of her unique voice;  they linger as popular reminders of a poetic expression tinged with lyricism and death wishes:  “Come, death, tarry no longer/ Oh, how painful is this loneliness/ So close to madness.”   City officials pay her homage at Lisbon’s City Hall.  She releases an album of poems simply called Segredo (Secret), but begins to have financial difficulties which force her to sell some of her real estate assets. 

 

In 1999, Amália is deeply shaken by the death of her dear friend the painter Maluda.  She had recently lost her husband, César Seabra, her composer Alain Oulmain and her poet David Mourão-Ferreira, who considered her as
“the voice of the Portuguese Diaspora, the voice of the earth, the voice of distance and of affairs of the heart, with the magnitude of billowing waves and the touching discretion of secluded sanctuaries.”

 

“WHEN I SING, I LISTEN TO MYSELF...”

Amália Rodrigues - one of her unforgettable portraits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amália Rodrigues, the final journey.  The crowds, made up of teary-eyed simple folk, with choked up voices, follow the funeral procession.

 

 

 

 

 

ão Bento is an old district of Lisbon where traditional aromas are intermingled with others coming from distant shores, from Cape Verde.  At the top of the wide steps, guarded by two marble lions, there is a large building in classic style – it’s the Portuguese Parliament.  To the left, just a short distance up the street, there’s an 18th century style house with friendly, flowered banisters – it’s Amália’s home.  When she passes, with that melancholic bearing so peculiar to her, her contagious smile lightens everyone around.

 

Amália likes to sing as she walks along the street:  “When I sing, I listen to myself, and when I listen to myself I end up crying.” The market, the bakery and the traditional shops are meeting points for the simple people of the neighborhood.  One of her neighbors speaks of Amália’s honest concerns with the needy:  “Her generosity forced her to go through financial difficulties.”

 

The yellow house in São Bento is now silent.  There is a white linen tablecloth spread over the railing of the veranda, a symbol of solidarity with the people of Timor.  Now, all the windows and verandas along the path of Amália’s bier, from São Bento to the Basilica of Estrela, are decorated with white tableclothes.

 

Lisbon weeps.  Flowers and white handkerchiefs wave goodbye and  Amália’s fados are heard everywhere – in the streets, in passing cars, in the shops.  Deep in the heart of the people of Lisbon, there’s grief and sorrow.  It’s six in the evening and a gentle veil of sadness covers the city.  A large crowd fills the wide stairs leading to the great Basilica dominating Estrela Square.  The tolling of bells announces the arrival of Amália’s bier;  emotions run free. Never has a crowd of this magnitude shown such greatness of character.  Men, women and children – they are all superimposed, round and voluminous images that fade into one great whole.  There are gleaming faces, shining heads, hair colors that are neither blond nor brunet, all of them cramming into the Basilica.  There are no distinctions between the young and the old, between the beautiful and the ugly. All differences vanish regarding  time, people, things.   Amália is lying in state in the central nave.  Everything goes out of focus;  everything is absorbed by us...

 

A woman, holding a bouquet of white daisies, stands and waits.  This is good-bye to “the best ambassador of Portugal to the whole the world.”  Another mournful lady whispers:  “There goes a part of our lives.  She is the point of reference of our youth.”  In spite of the night cold just before dawn, nobody leaves. They all wait patiently for their turn to reach and touch the coffin.  One hears the quiet whimpering of women.  Evanescing signs of the times, thousands of people, farewell to the “diva of the fado.” Someone makes a sudden gesture to escape the watchful eyes of the police: one last kiss, one last touch.  A young man admits he doesn’t like the fado, “but when I hear her sing I get goose bumps.”   Amália is now resting in the Lord’s peace: “Even if he doesn’t exist, I believe in Him,” she used to say.

 

Fall of the year 2000.  The warm brightness of a Lisbon afternoon.  The Príncipe Real Gardens.  The air is filled with the sweet aroma coming from the Great Cedar.  Retired old men play cards while old gossips doze off.  Children are busy playing while women, with half-closed eyes, keep a close watch.  A portable radio is perched on a tree branch as if it were a bird.  One hears Amália’s voice:  “A strange form of life ♫ ♫ ♫ .”

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*MDP/CDE  - Movimento Democrático Português/ Comissão Democrática
            
              Eleitoral (Portuguese Democratic Movement/Democratic
                          Electoral Committee).

**CEUD       Comissão Eleitoral de Unidade Democrática (Electoral
                         
Committee for Democratic Unity).

 

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