The Portuguese genre Fado—which translates to “fate” or “destiny”—is analogous to (in American terms) a combination of folk-blues and cabaret song. Performed in Lisbon’s underground/working-class taverns, it’s a folky, acoustic music, heavy on guitars, that is performed with urban(e) reserve. Like country-blues, it’s a sound of expressing great longing and heartsickness in a stark, unadorned fashion. Fado also bears a slight resemblance to Spanish flamenco but, though it shares some of the influence of Arabic and north African music, it’s not as rhythmic or dramatic.
Fado: Exquisite Passion is perhaps the modern equivalent to the classic reggae album The Harder They Come. And like that watershed release, which exposed reggae’s best performers to American audiences for the first time, Exquisite Passion is a collection of songs featuring many of Fado’s leading lights. Thus, it serves as an excellent introduction. Four performers get almost-equal time on the album: Amalia Rodriguez (1920-1999), the Grand Dame of Fado, and three younger upstarts who followed in her wake, putting their own stamp on the genre: Mariza, Cristina Branco and Mafalda Arnauth.
Rodriguez is the Nina Simone of Fado. Her voice is haunting, dusky, defiant, unbowed and worldly. Mariza, on the other hand, could be likened to kd lang: a singer of amazing range with more than just a touch of old-school show-biz theatrics. Branco is the relative youngster here (b. 1972) but, influenced by Rodriguez, she sounds wise beyond her years.
The highest of several high points on Exquisite Passion are the tracks by Arnauth, perhaps the Lucinda Williams of Fado. Her “Talvez Se Chame Saudade” has chord changes that echo pre-Nash Vegas country and her sublime singing resembles a cross between Joan Baez in her 1960s prime and the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, simultaneously earthbound and wraithlike.
The two constant aspects of these 13 performances are the spacious acoustic guitar playing and the performers’ elegant, dignified manner of conveying passion. Rich with languid Mediterranean motifs, they conjure the feeling of sitting under the moonlight outside a Portuguese café on a sultry evening, just within the scent of the ocean. With its magnificent sound quality and consistent quality, Exquisite Passion is surely one of the finest world music compilations of 2003.