Top 10 Essential Starter Portuguese Fado CDs

The Sound of Saudade

In order to even begin to understand fado -- the urban folk music that has become one of Portugal's best-known exports, you must attempt to grasp the Portuguese word "Saudade," which does not have an exact translation in English. "Saudade" implies wistfulness or longing or nostalgic yearning; the sadness of remembering beautiful past times that will likely never happen again. The feeling of Saudade is the essence of fado, and there's no way to truly understand the concept quite like listening to some of the genre's greats. These ten CDs represent some of the very best that the genre has to offer

Amalia Rodrigues (1920-1999) is to fado what Bob Marley is to reggae or what Cesaria Evora is to Morna -- an iconic figure in both the development and international popularization of the genre. She set the standards, she wrote the rules, and she will likely always remain the most popular singer the genre ever produced. Start your journey into fado with this excellent collection of some of her greatest recordings, and you cannot go wrong.

Mariza is possibly the most popular of the fadistas working today, and her popularity was well-confirmed when she performed a public concert in Lisbon ("Lisboa" in Portuguese) in 2005, and it drew 25,000 appreciative fans. The recording of that concert became this album, which really captures the vivaciousness of live Fado. Mariza's studio recordings are also excellent and quite recommended.

Cristina Branco is a contemporary fadista (singer of fado) who is both a powerful singer in her own right, but who has a secret weapon in her virtuoso guitarist and composer Custodio Castelo -- between the two of them (and the other excellent musicians that usually make up her small group), they consistently manage to capture something special, and this CD is no exception.

Though Lisboa Fado is traditionally performed by female vocalists with male bands and Coimbra Fado is traditionally performed by male vocalists, these are not hard and fast rules, and Carlos does Carmo has long been one of the greatest exceptions. The son of a fadista with the music in his blood, do Carmo has been one of the most popular fado performers in Lisbon since the 1960s, and he continues to perform and record today. Do Carmo is also not strictly wedded to traditional instrumentation and includes orchestral arrangements in several tracks on this album and in his other recordings.

An "Aos Fados" is a "fado house," a place where fadistas perform and the Vinho flows freely. The narrator of the title track on this album begs you to take her to one, so she can lose herself and forget all of her amorous misadventures. Ana Moura has one of the most beautiful and expressive voices in fado -- which is saying a lot -- and Leva-Me Aos Fados beautifully captures the sensuality and mournfulness that are so wrapped together with the feeling of Saudade.

Better-known in Portugal than on the international scene, Ana Sofia Varela is absolutely a name worth learning. This album, whose title means "Fados of Love and Sin" is sexy, sad, and more than a little bit addictive. It can be a bit tricky to track it down, as is often the case with imported CDs, so if you find it, definitely pick it up.

Antonio Zambujo is an important and wildly popular contemporary male voice in the fado field. As both a composer and a singer, he strives for a deeply-rooted sound where tradition is paramount, but with enough flexibility to allow tasteful modern elements, as well as some of the sounds of traditional rural music from his ancestral homeland of Alentejano. As fado itself is a blended genre, rising from the intermingling groups of people who found themselves congregating in and around the port of Lisbon, it seems reasonable enough that blending it a bit further is as much "in the tradition" as keeping things the same would be.

Joana Amendoeira is one of the youngest members among the well-known names of fado, having been born in 1982. However, her singing somewhat betrays her youth and reveals an old soul within, one who is entirely too familiar with Saudade. A Flor da Pele ("Under the Skin") features the extraordinary Custodio Castelo as composer and arranger, along with an ace small band that features some of the fado's very best players.

Amalia Rodrigues was certainly not the only well-admired fadista of her era; she had dozens of magnificent contemporaries who left their own marks on the genre. Herminia Silva is one of these. Beginning her career as a stage actress, Silva was known for her powerful and engaging live fado shows and enjoyed a career that spanned several decades. Her recorded work is also elegant and timeless, and this collection is a nice showcase of her lovely voice.

Mafalda Arnauth is a contemporary fadista who writes many of her own song lyrics (a bit of a break from tradition -- fado lyrics usually come from a small classic group of poems) but who otherwise performs quite traditionally, with the standard three-piece band. She's a commanding singer with a rich, throaty voice who brings something new to the table while carrying on important elements of tradition.