Arts & Events

Ana Moura at SF Jazz

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday April 14, 2018 - 10:01:00 AM

Where Fado is concerned, I’m very much a traditionalist. I first heard Fado in 1963 in Lorenço Marques (now Maputo), capital of the then-Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Inquiring of a Portuguese shopkeeper where I could hear good Portuguese music, he directed me to a Fado club called A Toca. My wife and I arrived early and were seated in a small, darkly lit room. Soon a middle-aged woman dressed in black with a long black shawl appeared, accompanied by a middle-aged man with a 12-string Portuguese guitar. Together, these two musicians poured out their hearts and souls for an hour and-a-half in songs steeped in saudade, the Portuguese word for longing and melancholy for what might have been. They used no microphone and were unamplified; yet in this small room their music rang out with a clarity of passionate intensity. I was instantly hooked on Fado.  

Later, I bought up records by Portugal’s greatest 20th century Fadista, Amália Rodrigues. She, too, sang the purest traditional Fado. Granted, the songs of Amália Rodrigues were not all steeped in melancholy. Perhaps twenty percent of her songs were upbeat and celebratory of the joy of living. But this, after all, is just the flip side of saudade. Life may bring pain and disillusionment at times, but it may also bring occasional joy. Amália Rodrigues, who died in 1999, presented both sides of the Fado experience.  

In recent years, Fado has enjoyed something of a fashionable renaissance. Singers such as Ana Moura, Mariza, Misia, and Cristina Branco, to name only a few, have revived interest in Fado, not only in Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking countries but worldwide. With her early albums, Aconteceu (2004), Para Além da Saudade (2007), and, Leva-me aos Fados (2009), Ana Moura gained worldwide attention as a true Fadista, perhaps the youngest and brightest star of a Fado renaissance. Indeed, so widespread was her fame that Ana Moura caught the attention of The Rolling Stones and Prince, who invited her onstage in several of their respective international gigs. Perhaps all this attention went to her head. Or perhaps like Mariza, Ana Moura saw that she could reach a much wider audience by branching out from Fado and singing pop songs and rock songs accompanied not only by Portuguese guitar and acoustic guitar but also by electric keyboard and a trap drum set.  

What a pity! I’d even go further and say, what a disaster! Two years ago, Ana Moura’s concert at Nourse Theatre was, in my opinion, nothing but a disaster! She was over-amped to the point of distorting her lower range, and her use of electric keyboard and a trap drum set seemed to me to be pandering to the lowest common denominator. Well, this week Ana Moura is back in San Francisco with what seems to be the same group of musicians, and her opening concert on Thursday evening, April 12, at the San Francisco Jazz Center was only marginally better than her disastrous concert at Nourse Theatre. Here too she was over-amped, rendering her dark, somewhat husky lower range quite distorted. (I couldn’t even understand more than a few words she spoke to the audience in English much less any of the Portuguese.) She and her group performed for an hour-and-a-half without intermission, and there were only three traditional Fado songs out of fifteen. A low point was reached when midway through the show Ana Moura left the stage to do a costume-change, leaving her band to play a tedious rock morsel complete with screeching electric keyboard and an interminable drum solo. When this musical monstrosity was over, the man who happened to be sitting next to me leaned my way and said, “At moments like this drum solo, Indian audiences wisely get up and go out for chai.” I felt like retorting that I’d seek something stronger than chai to wash the taste of this drum solo from my mouth and ears. The only real highpoint of this show came, predictably, when the keyboard player and drummer left the stage, and Ana Moura launched into a mournful Fado lament backed only by Portuguese guitar, acoustic guitar, and bass guitar.  

Nearly the entire second half of the concert, except for her rendition of the Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar,” was devoted to Ana Moura, clad now in a floor-length sheath dress of shimmering silver full of sequins, as she shimmied and shook her booty while strutting to a series of upbeat dance tunes. Oh, by the way, there was a new wrinkle in this concert: video images were sporadically projected on a huge screen above the stage during her songs. These images, some still some moving, some abstract and animated, some more or less representational, bore almost no relation to the songs except when they showed people’s legs and feet dancing while we listened to Ana Moura sing upbeat dance tunes. Please, we don’t need or want visual stimulation of this sort. We want to see and hear only the act of musical creation, and the intensity we seek is in the music of traditional Fado. To Ana Moura I say, “Please, don’t come back to San Francisco until and unless you’re ready to stop pandering to the lowest common denominator. You are a great Fado singer, and that’s what we want and expect from you, not crossover slop.