A Male Singer Shines In A Woman's World

Feb 8, 2014
Originally published on February 8, 2014 11:05 am

Portuguese-born António Zambujo sings fado, the style of music often called Portugal's blues. For decades, the genre's mournful songs have been associated with female singers — from the late Amália Rodrigues, whose role in popularizing the genre worldwide earned her the nickname "Queen of Fado," to current superstar Mariza. But Zambujo is starting to carve his own territory with a different approach to the music, one closer in tone to Brazil's João Gilberto, or perhaps America's Chet Baker. Hear his story at the audio link.

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Antonio Zambujo is a guy in a world dominated by women. He sings Fado, the style of music often called Portugal's blues. And for decades, its mournful songs have been popularized by female singers. But Antonio Zambujo is starting to carve his own territory with a different approach to Fado. He performs tonight in New York, and Betto Arcos has his story.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Antonio Zambujo is not your typical Fado singer.


ARCOS: His style is closer to Brazil's Joao Gilberto and American Chet Baker, than Amalia Rodrigues.


ANTONIO ZAMBUJO: (Singing in foreign language)

You associate a Fado singer to a guy that sings with a very strong feeling, sometimes screaming a lot, yelling.


ARCOS: That's the traditional way of singing Fados. Zambujo deliberately chose a different path.

ZAMBUJO: I don't know how to explain it. It's the way I feel it. It's the way I like to sing the poems, the way I like to say the lyrics.

ARCOS: Zambujo grew-up far from the Lisbon neighborhoods where Fado was born, in Southern Portugal, listening to polyphonic male choirs.


CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: Zambujo says the exposure to this ancient musical tradition at local taverns and social events was a huge influence. But his music director, Ricardo Cruz, says the singer has a firm grasp of Fado.

RICARDO CRUZ: The Fado is always there. The way that the song is seen and the words are sang, it's the way of Fado; to respect the words, to respect the story.


ZAMBUJO: (Singing)

ARCOS: From its early days in the Lisbon and Coimbra neighborhoods, Fado is rooted in the musical dialogue between the singer and the player of the Portuguese guitar, an instrument with 12 strings and a body similar to a mandolin's.


ARCOS: Bernardo Couto is Zambujo's accompanist. He says the Portuguese guitar plays a very specific role.

BERNARDO COUTO: Having a counter-melody to the melody that the Fado singer is making, the guitar player gives a boost to the Fado singer and the Fado singer gives a boost to the guitar player. So we try to pull the thing up together.


ZAMBUJO: (Singing)

ARCOS: Couto says he doesn't play a traditional style with Zambujo.

COUTO: If we were talking about another kind of singer or another kind of musical project, maybe, like other singers that are in Portugal that are more connected with the way you usually do Fado. But here, things are a little bit more different. The musical approach and the musical influences are a little bit more wider, and so things aren't so simple.

ARCOS: Fado musicians and singers can be criticized for not respecting the tradition. But music director Ricardo Cruz likens Fado to jazz or skiing.

CRUZ: Fado is an improvised music or should be an improvised music. It's that the musicians are improvising always, like, you're skiing and you have some banners that you have to respect, but you have always to create each concert.


ZAMBUJO: (Singing)

ARCOS: When Antonio Zambujo released his first album 12 years ago, he says it was difficult getting gigs. But now he's performing in the same places as the female singers. Surrounded by his fellow musicians, Zambujo says there might be a reason he's been able to get away with it.

ZAMBUJO: Maybe be it's because I'm a little too bit feminine.


ARCOS: That is the reason.

ZAMBUJO: That is the only reason. That's the only reason.

ARCOS: Whatever the reason, Antonio Zambujo is out to change the way Fado is perceived at home and abroad.

For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.


ZAMBUJO: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.