A Tribute to Amalia Rodrigues - The Queen of Fado

A Tribute to Amalia Rodrigues - The Queen of Fado

This tribute is written by Dai Woosnam, daigress@hotmail.com, 6/05

I had just had my "aerials removed"…..or leastwise the Millennium equivalent. By that I mean that I‘d had the analogue satellite dish well-and-truly DITCHED in favour of a digital one. The engineer tried to tell me that the old one was now only good for use as an emergency dustbin lid…..and the box of tricks that once sat upon my telly was no longer eligible for The Magic Circle.

But, no I said. Just point the old dish somewhere else in the sky. Surely another Satellite Bus will be along in a minute. So he did. And lo, a Satellite didst appear at 13 degrees East. And I sayeth to him that did not believeth: this is better than any Sky Sport! And the engineer felt aggrieved that he hadst inadvertently misled me, and thus left a Wiser Man.

For now, I had Free of Charge, the three main Italian TV stations, the main Spanish ones, two of the chief French channels, Portuguese, Turkish also, and esoteric ones like Dubai TV. All of these use the Eutelsat satellite.So why do I tell you all this? Perhaps to save you a bob or two. Not a bad reason. And after all, I currently have a column in The Living Tradition magazine called "Daigressing"….. which means it can have nowt to do with Traditional Music, if it feels like it. (Come to think of it, a lot of "Traditional Music" has nowt to do with "Traditional Music" either. No, strike that: I am just being provocative.) But no, trust me, there's a reason for me telling you all this. A reason at the very Heart of the Folk Tradition. So let me now set the scene.

I had just surfed these new channels for the first time and had lingered for a while transfixed by the beauty of RTP (Radio Television Portugal). The SOUNDS I mean. All those "ZZZHHH" sounds that make Portuguese for me the most mellifluous of all languages. And then the programme went off-air abruptly for a newsflash.

I have little Portuguese beyond "obrigado", but I did not reach for the zapper. I figured if President Clinton had resigned then I'd get the message, even if it was in Double Dutch! Alas the news was much more serious than any political scenario: it was positively earth-shattering for the Portuguese nation. The woman synonymous with that uniquely Portuguese expression of wistful longing - the fado - the great Amàlia Rodrigues had died, relatively unexpectedly. I determined to watch RTP attentively for the next few days.

For a couple of days I also looked out for a mention of her demise on both the BBC1 and BBC2 News. I should have guessed: the usual diet of domestic trivia. They could not bring themselves to report the death of probably the most famous Traditional Singer in the world.And it perhaps goes without saying that they did not even show 30 seconds of her funeral. And WHAT a funeral! Churchill, Martin Luther King, Diana all rolled into one. I video recorded all six hours of it. And it contained the most heart-rending emotional scene I can ever recall in a funeral service - and gosh, can't we all come up with a strong field of candidates! - and this scene made me take stock of a set of opinions I had long held regarding the Folk Tradition, and made me realise that all along I had been barking up the wrong tree.

I had NEVER been a fan of World Music. (No, don't think of me as a "Little Englander": for one thing I was born and raised in WALES, and was iving there until as recently as the last month of the last Millennium. It was only then I moved to Grimsby - yes, I know that is in England, but it IS nearer to the Continent - for the flat roads to help run off the sensational haddock and chips they serve in these parts.) Correction. For "world MUSIC", please read "foreign language SONGS". Why do I have this aversion? Is it that I think English a superior language? No. Not at all. It is just that it is the only one I have. And when someone writes a song, they want the words to MEAN something. (Were that not the case, this would be the Age of the Apotheosis of the Scat Singer. No need to learn the lyrics: just give it the "do-be-do-be-do" welly.)

And knowing that the words are designed to speak to the listener, it frustrates the hell out of me that I canna ken what they are saying. So I close my ears to it…..even if I can admit that the singer has a wonderful voice and has a virtuoso command of his/her musical instrument. But it was the funeral of Amàlia Rodrigues that did it for me. Made me suddenly realise I had been on the wrong road. In death "The Queen of the Fado" re-directed me toward Damascus.

She was such a major figure in her country that many people stopped work for the funeral. I won't bother you with the minutiae of it: you can imagine the cortege, the crowds and their grief. Let's cut to that unforgettable moment. The coffin, covered in her nation's flag, is at the altar. A large picture of a beautiful Amàlia in her prime stands beside it. The packed congregation which contains all the Portuguese Establishment and Government has overflowed several times and the service is being relayed to the multitude outside. The priest has just finished his words and the service is over.

At this stage us Brits would expect the Guardsmen to shoulder the coffin and slowly, ceremoniously take it outside to the waiting hearse. But no, not this time. Not before the magic. Suddenly there came, out of the ancient stone walls, Rodrigues's extraordinary and passionate voice. Singing a particularly poignant song of her love for her native country. In the unlikely event that there'd been one before, there assuredly wasn't a dry eye now.

And when she finished with a flourish, guess what? Ecstatic applause and shouts of "encore!". She could have been back in New York's Carnegie Hall. A sure sign that while Mankind has ears to hear and hearts to feel, Amàlia Rodrigues will never be dead. And the applause continued all the way as her body was borne along the nave, out of the main doors and down the steps to the hearse. Truly her finest performance.

And I suddenly thought of all those friends of mine who had begged me not to dismiss a singer and song because I did not understand the language. Surely, they'd say, you can FEEL the message that the song contains. But I would shake my head.

But now, this sublime moment had shown to me that they could indeed be right. Almost as right as Amàlia was when, after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, she found herself personally vilified for her alleged links with the Salazar dictatorship. Because fado had been promoted by the Regime, it now fell into disfavour. She strenuously denied any political affiliations. She memorably remarked: "When you offer a gala dinner, you bring out the best table linen. I WAS THE BEST LINEN".

She sure was.

Dai Woosnam
Grimsby, England

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