When Ramana Vieira talks about the late fado queen Amália Rodrigues, her brown eyes shine and her voice takes on a worshipful tone. But her star-struck affect doesn’t mean that Vieira feels constrained by Rodrigues’s sanctified status as the embodiment of the convention-bound Portuguese song form, with its anguished disquisitions on loss, heartache and the vicissitudes of fate
“It must seem like I think Amália Rodrigues is Lady Gaga,” says Vieira, who performs Friday at La Peña. “In my world, she’s this huge entity. It’s been interesting, knowing the legacy that she left us, and trying to live up to that in this time and place.”
An American counterpart to the dazzling parade of Portuguese fadistas who have reinvigorated a tradition that was already moribund years before Rodrigues’ death in 1999, Vieira has become a leading force in spreading awareness of fado in the United States, building on the international buzz generated by stars like Misia, Dulce Pontes, Cristina Branco, Ana Moura and Mariza.
Coming of age as a fadista in Northern California, necessity became the mother of musical invention for Vieira, who’s developed a body of startlingly beautiful original songs featuring arrangements with classical nylon string guitar instead of the Portuguese guitar, or guitarra, a fado mainstay. At La Peña, she’s got the best of both worlds with a quintet featuring Michael McMorrow on guitarra and seven-string guitar, cellist Laura Boytz, percussionist Steve La Porta, and Alberto Ramirez on electric bass (the rhythm section from her 2009 Pacific Coast Jazz album “Lagrimas de Rainha”).
“What’s driven the evolution is that we don’t have these traditional instrumentalists hanging around the Bay Area,” Vieira says. “Some purists feel that without the guitarra you can’t call it fado, so I had to face that and decide whether or not to forge ahead with what I had at my disposal.”
Born in San Leandro to parents from the island of Madeira, Vieira was weaned on the music of Amália Rodrigues. After studying voice at the American Conservatory Theatre with Faith Winthrop, a revered vocal coach and gifted jazz singer, she aspired to a career on Broadway, but while working on a demo a producer encouraged her to explore her cultural roots.
She started her creative journey in Lisbon, where she soaked up fado directly from the source. But it was in San Francisco that Vieira experienced a fado epiphany. In the midst of a performance by Dulce Pontes, the first post-Rodrigues fadista to gain international renown, Vieira realized that music unfettered emotional drama could be decanted in any number of vessels.
“She did a West African tribal dance on stage and she lost half the audience,” Vieira says. “She was ululating, emulating giving birth in the field, with bells strapped around her ankles. My mother and the whole row of Portuguese people were like, no, this isn’t fado. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but I embraced it.
Vieira hasn’t incorporated West African polyrhythms in her music, but her openness to new musical settings has brought fado to some unexpected places. When Emmy Award-wining composer Chris Hedge was commissioned to design an interactive musical installation for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, he and Vieira created a track of her singing fado that was projected on a huge outdoor screen and remixed live every night throughout the games.
“The reason she was there was her voice is beautiful, and she was speaking for an entire genre, which is so strong and soulful,” Hedge says. “But instead of any of the traditional instrumentation, she was singing over West African drumming, percussion from Brazil, electronica. Every night was new. It could be monks from Lhasa, or a full orchestra from Canada.”
Beyond instrumentation, Vieira has defined her musical identity through her work as a composer. While about half of her repertoire consists of fado standards associated with Rodrigues, Vieira is also a prolific songwriter who has set the poems of José Raposo to music. The title track of “Lagrimas de Rainha” (Tears of a Queen), which recounts the doomed 14th century love affair of Inês de Castro and Portugal’s Pedro I, features a lyric by the Canadian-Portuguese poet Euclides Cavaco.
She has also written her own lyrics in English, a move she found sanction for in a rare album by Rodrigues singing American Songbook standards like “Summertime” and “Blue Moon.” While Vieira feels most connected to fado when singing in Portuguese, English is also her birthright.
“I’m one of those odd birds, a first generation person here embracing the Old World culture,” Vieira says. “I feel like I’m right where I should be, singing the music from my parents’ homeland. And to have an audience that appreciates having one foot in the tradition and one foot in contemporary America is so fulfilling.”
For details of Vieira’s concert, visit La Peña Cultural Center.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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