Fado began as a howl out of the dives and houses of ill repute along the Lisbon waterfront. The lyrics dwell on themes of longing, sadness and fatalism, to a wistful accompaniment made up of guitars and woodwinds. Melodically, Fado draws on Arabic, African and Iberian influences. The Cape Verdean Morna style made famous by Cesaria Evora is a close cousin.
"I don't sing fado. It sings in me,'' Amalia has said. Known to her fans by her first name, Amalia had a creamy mezzo-soprano that expressed every possible reaction to bad luck and disappointment, from outrage to world-weary resignation.
She was born in Lisbon on July 1, 1920 and got her start on the docks of Lisbon's Alcantara port quarter , singing while she sold fruit with her mother and sister. She was famous before she left her teens. When she began to perform in clubs along the waterfront in 1939, her career took off, paving the way for appearences in theatre productions, movies and world-wide concert tours.
In 1974, a coup brought down a half-century of rightist dictatorship, and Amalia was accused of collaborating with the deposed fascist regime. Rumors that she opposed the new government wore her down until she was hospitalized with depression. Ultimately, Amalia triumphed. She recorded a version of "Grandola Vila Morena", a song symbolizing the revolution, and was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Santiago, Portugal's highest honor. She continued to perform around the world until the 1980's, when increasing health problems caused her to retreat from public life.
Today, Fado is often watered down with pop or fossilized in conservatories. New vocalists are singing Amalia's songs, and some of them have beautiful voices, but none of them is as wise, brave and foolhardy as she was. In Amalia's hands, Fado was a black rose with a sultry perfume and long, sharp thorns. She smelled the one, bled from the other, and kept coming back for more. - Christina Roden