With regard to the life and music of Cristina Branco (b. 1972, Almeirim, Portugal), one could say – as in the lyric by Amália Rodrigues – that she lives and breathes fado.
It was a serendipitous set of circumstances that first brought fado music into Cristina’s life. Though, in a certain way, it was Cristina – with her aesthetically daring and unique interpretive style – who happened to come upon fado, in its most deeply traditional musical and social form. “It started as a kind of game, as an evening of songs among friends,” she likes to recall.
Nothing about Cristina, up to this point– her adolescence – indicated she might be a fado singer. Before entering the world of menores, mourarias or maiores ** with her friends and later with adults, she was not in the habit of going to fado clubs or listening to recordings by the well-known singers. She knew some songs that her maternal grandfather used to sing to himself, lyrics and melodies that she would improvise on without realizing how they were entering her – and how they would decide her destiny. But at that time, she felt herself more drawn to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell, than Amália Rodrigues. So when, for her 18th birthday, her grandfather gave her Rara e Inédita (Rare and Unreleased Recordings), a major work – though not well-known – by fado music’s greatest diva, she had no idea of how it would end up changing her life.
As it happens, several months before she stepped on stage for the first time – in Amsterdam, at Zaal100 – Cristina had never even regarded herself as an amateur singer or part-time enthusiast, as is common among many singers who turn to fado as a way of filling up their spare time or releasing their emotions. If fado had a place in her life as an adolescent, it was only the most basic etymological sense of the word (as fatum, destiny), since she was “fated” to have – and be graced with – a sensitivity to words. Until 1996, when she was 24, two or three fortuitous singing experiences – realized despite her timidity – constituted her only public performances as a “singer.”
Her intention at the time was to practice the “art” of journalism. Perhaps because of that, words (charged vocables***, as she has referred to them) have always been given careful attention on her records, as well as in all her ongoing projects – and indeed, in everything she does. A singer of poets, including the best that Portugal has to offer (Camőes, Pessoa, David Mourăo-Ferreira, José Afonso…) and others from many different countries (Paul Éluard, Léo Ferré, Alfonsina Storni, Slauherhoff), Cristina – in her own way – turns fado into a kind of representative for the poetic and literary heritage of Portugal. A decade has past since she debuted at the Portuguese Cultural Center in Amsterdam – a place where José Afonso, Carlos Paredes, Sérgio Godinho and others had previously performed – and her peers have come to recognize her powerful and heartfelt emphasis on poetry as emblematic of her humanity and artistry. Such an emphasis is a very important characteristic of her work, and one that is aligned to a still greater concern for clarity of expression and the necessities of diction, so that, when she sings a poem (with her crystalline sensuousness), her voice seems to give form to its very soul.
From fado we tend to expect an emphasis on the tragic aspects of life: on suffering, longing and the helplessness we experience when confronted by destiny. This long-held tradition has created “formulas” to express such feelings, but their repetition has had the effect of diminishing the power of this valuable musical form, of emptying it of emotion, of distancing it from the lyrics. Cristina Branco has taken another road, however, one of individuality and singularity, and often one of ecstatic joy (just like in the most emblematic song of her career, “Sete Pedaços de Vento” (“Seven Fragments of the Wind”), from Ulisses (Ulysses). In so doing, she has sometimes caused the pillars of so-called traditional fado to tremble. At the very least, Cristina’s musical journey is infused with a sensuousness evidencing her weariness with what has come before.
Without seeking any sort of naive break with tradition, she instead searches for what is best in this tradition (listen to some of the classic songs that she has recorded). Cristina Branco gives new life to this tradition with her originality. And in all her records, she has sought to create a fruitful relationship between the lyrics and the innate musicality of fado.
Cristina Branco creates all the emotion that this musical style – with its intimate relationship between voice, poetry and music – has to offer. Along with other young musicians who, since the mid-1990s, have found in fado their own way of expressing themselves (thereby contributing to an astonishing reinvigoration of the traditional song form of Lisbon), Cristina Branco has begun to define her own journey, in which respect for tradition walks hand in hand with a desire for innovation. Even if nothing in her early life indicated that Cristina’s destiny was in fado, it is clear today that she has created a style that is unprecedented and very possibly unique.