Fado star António Zambujo goes for the bold
Portuguese singer António Zambujo made it clear from the start that he was an audacious artist. His 2002 debut album, O Mesma Fado (“The Same Fado”), began with the title track, and a couple of false starts. First, the guitarist fluffs the opening and apologizes, then there’s a fresh take that stutters to a halt with embarrassed apologies and laughter. When the song finally gets going, it’s a bright fado without a hint of irony.
Zambujo is more than a fadista, or fado singer. He comes from Beja, a town in the Alentejo province of Portugal between Lisbon and the Algarve coast, which has strong musical roots. “There is a huge tradition of polyphonic choirs and folk music in Alentejo,” he says, reached on his cellphone in Tours, France, where he’s appropriately on tour. “And that’s where I began to sing—with those choirs. All my life I was very connected with music. I was playing all the instruments my grandmother had in the house, and listening to albums, most of them fado and folk.”
There are two main traditions of the fado—instrumental and vocal—and the soulful genre is chiefly associated with great female singers. However there are also many male fadistas in Portugal. At 16, Zambujo won a local fado competition, and he continued to sing while at music school studying clarinet. After graduating, he moved to Lisbon, and was invited to perform at the Clube do Fado in the Alfama, the city’s oldest neighbourhood and one of the birthplaces of fado. His big break came with a role in the musical Amália, about the life of the late, iconic fadista Amália Rodrigues, in which he played her first husband. The show ran for four years in the Portuguese capital, then toured the provinces, and Zambujo gained a national reputation for his agile and beautiful alto voice.
The influences on him as a singer don’t come primarily from fado or even from Portuguese singers, “but people like Chet Baker, João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Tom Waits,” he says. However, fado is the main musical style on Zambujo’s fourth and most recent album, Guia, which can be heard in its entirety on his website along with all of his releases—another audacious choice.
The traditional fado “Não me dou longe de ti” is sung to a lilting rhythm, accompanied by a very nontraditional trio of kit drum, guitar, and, in the background, percolating tuba. Elsewhere on the album, there’s a flügelhorn, a trumpet, the night noise of cicadas, and what seems to be a coffee machine—all tastefully and intelligently arranged by Zambujo and standup bassist Ricardo Cruz, Guia’s producer.
The track with the most intriguing title is “Reader’s Digest”, a bright and bouncy song that mixes elements of fado, pop, and jazz. “It’s written just a year ago by one of my best friends, Miguel Araújo, who’s one of the greatest new composers we have in Portugal right now. He’s writing about what he doesn’t want in his life, but ‘normal’ guys do—no responsibilities, an easy way of living, a wife, a honeymoon in France, to leave the job, arrive home, and sit on the couch and read the Reader’s Digest.
“So it’s like criticizing—it’s satirical, too, because he talks about the present [economic] crisis, and how such guys always blame others but don’t do anything about it,” Zambujo adds. “It’s hard to take care of things, and take care of your country, and make it grow—that’s what he means in that lyric. I don’t like to sing about politics, about the economy. I prefer love songs. But it was so well written—and it’s very funny too.”
António Zambujo and his quartet perform at Capilano University’s North Shore Credit Union Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (October 8).