Not speaking a word of Portuguese (and having only the haziest idea of what fado is, other than Portuguese and traditional) is perhaps not the most auspicious approach to seeing Madredeus, performing for only the third time in the UK. I still don’t know much about fado, but I do know that Madredeus produce some mesmerically beautiful sounds and next time I’m in need of deep relaxation I’ll reach for their new album, Movimento.
Madredeus comprises three acoustic guitarists (one of whom, Pedro Ayres Magalhes, founded and still leads the group), a keyboard player who’s the spitting image of Ry Cooder, and Teresa Salgueiro. Only 19 when she was overhead singing in a bar in 1986, Teresa is an elegant, ageless figure in severe evening dress, with immaculate raven hair drawn back from a beautiful, serene face. Her voice is simply astonishing, sounding both utterly natural and totally controlled, with vibrato that can be turned on and off at will. She therefore has the power to invest great emotion in a single word or phrase, without having to resort to any of the less subtle antics many singers employ.
In fact, most of the time on stage she is completely still, occasionally just moving gently in time with the music while she waits for a cue, and in one slightly more uptempo song encouraging the audience – by the slightest of gestures – to click their fingers in time to the beat: the only percussion employed during the whole evening. (It may have helped that possibly the entire Portuguese community in London seemed to be in the audience, and probably read her body language better than the staid Brits). Crystalline clear for some songs, husky in others, her voice is strongest in the middle register and lacks a little power at the top of the range. But the overall effect is stunning.
The songs themselves are haunting, drawing deeply on the Portuguese concept of saudade, an untranslatable word that expresses a sense of loss, of longing but also of beauty and lies at the heart of fado. In the first half of the concert we have songs about the life of musicians constantly on the road, about the sound of the sea, about stolen illicit meetings all in Portuguese, of course, so the few words of explanation Teresa gives us are welcome. The classical guitar playing is exquisite and the keyboards used to great (low-key) effect to add other gentle sounds (I thought there must be a violinist hidden somewhere on stage, but no).
For me, the concert should have ended at the interval: by then I was thoroughly sated and the songs in the second half seemed to be just more of the same, with little to distinguish them. But that’s probably my fault for not speaking Portuguese, as the rest of the audience remained spellbound and demanded encores. Madredeus (the name is taken from the convent in Lisbon where they first played in 1987) have now released nine albums, all of which have sold more than half a million copies worldwide, and it’s not difficult to understand why. This is easy listening in the non-pejorative sense, a sort of Portuguese Clannad, if you will. It left me contented but wondering if ‘real’ fado would ultimately be more satisfying