Singer and lyricist Aldina Duarte may have come late to fado, but she is one of its most important voices, a hardcore fadista whose repertoire consists of more than 180 songs. Indeed, her commitment to the music and its poetry is total.
Duarte was born in the housing projects of the Chelas neighborhood of Lisbon. Her father was killed in the Colonial War when she was just three months old. Her early years were spent under Portugal's fascist dictatorship, which ended in 1974. She was raised solely by her mother, who instilled in her a love for reading early, and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Later, she claimed it saved her life, created a way for her imagination to escape Chelas, and primed her for the poetry of fado.
Her early musical influences were Portuguese artists including José Mário Branco, Fausto, Sérgio Godinho, and Jorge Palma. Later interests included jazz and blues -- especially unaffected singers like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, and later Jacques Brel -- singers who refused artifice and emphasized the lyric as a means to storytelling. After leaving college at 20, Duarte worked at a newspaper, and then in radio. She sang in a band while at school and at parties, but she wasn't serious about pursuing music. At that time the only fado she knew was what was played on the radio. She became a member of Comuna Teatro de Pesquisa (Theater of Research) in 1992 and got a role in the Manuel Mozos film Xavier. She played a singer and sang the only fado she had ever known, Amália Rodrigues' standard "Rua do Capelão." The audience -- who were not actors -- demanded an encore. More than intrigued, Duarte started to listen to fado almost exclusively, learning its history, its poetics, and its traditions. A year later, she sang "Judite, Nome de Guerra," by Almada Negreiros, on-stage at the São Luiz Teatro Municipal.
At age 25, and still with the Comuna, she worked in collaboration with director João Mota to found and produce the now famous Fado Nights. They invited personas such as Beatriz da Conceição (who became one of Duarte's closest musical confidantes, advisers, and friends), Manuel De Almeida, Maria da Nazaré, Carlos Paulo, Manuela De Freitas, and Camané. With the latter she began a decade-long romance that would blossom into marriage and end in divorce -- though they remain close friends. In those years she became responsible for choosing the repertoire for his recordings, and in many cases writing his lyrics. She also became close with actress/lyricist de Freitas. Duarte was hired by EMI/Valentim de Carvalho to help with the digitization of the catalogs of Raul Ferrão and Alfredo Marceneiro. In her spare time she did nothing but soak up fado, listening to every recording she could find, doing endless research, and allowing it to become the centerpiece of her life. She also sang whenever possible, developing her craft. In 1995 Duarte joined the company of the Clube de Fado at the invitation of the iconic guitarist Mário Pacheco. Over the next two years, her transition to a fadista was completed. She sang not only in Lisbon, but as part of a troupe that traveled to Milan, where she sang in Antonio Tabbuchi's play The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa. During this period, Duarte joined the regular cast of fadistas at Senhor Vinho, the legendary restaurant owned by singer Maria da Fé and lyricist José Luís Gordo; it is Lisbon's most revered fado house.
In 1997, Duarte had spent five years singing, researching, and writing lyrics; she had gained acceptance among her peers and a devoted Lisbon audience. Then she did the unimaginable: she quit music due to a sudden and devastating lack of confidence; she was convinced beyond all reason that she had no talent. Her period of solitude lasted six months. In a later interview, she said she had tried over and again to feel the music, to let it back inside her, but could not. On her birthday, husband Camané was signing at Senhor Vinho when Maria da Fé took to the stage and dedicated a fado to her, speaking to her lack of confidence, which she called "only a pause." This occasion shattered Duarte's crisis, and she returned to singing. With support from da Fé, Camané, and Beatriz da Conceição, she began performing again at Senhor Vinho and elsewhere. It was another seven years, however, before she would record.
Her association with EMI/Valentim de Carvalho finally bore fruit. They signed her and released her debut album, Apenas o Amor, in 2004; she was 37. It consisted entirely of her own lyrics, and was recorded half in Senhor Vinho with the remainder in the studio room of the National Theatre D. Maria II. The album was a hit with critics, who celebrated its rawness and immediacy as well as its poetry. In an interview, she claimed to have sung its songs for a year and a half before recording as a way of having them live inside her and reveal themselves little by little.
A year later, after a concert, the great lyricist João Monge (co-founder of the band Rio Grande) entered her dressing room and thanked her for Apenas o Amor. She told him that if he really liked it, he would write an album for her. He thought she was joking, but was so intrigued he did exactly that. She loved his words and researched melodies from the fado canon. The collaboration resulted in her sophomore effort, Crua (Raw), in 2006, her final album for EMI. Though the album was acclaimed critically and sold well, the Portuguese branch was folded into the company's Madrid office. They dropped a number of artists, including Duarte. In 2007, while plotting her next move, she took part in the Fado Divas show, performing in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the Atlantic Waves Festival alongside friends Maria da Fé and Beatriz da Conceição, as well as Raquel Tavares, Mafalda Arnauth, and Joana Amendoeira.
Duarte didn't wait for inspiration to know what to do next. She set up her own publishing company and record label, Roda-La Music. In 2008 she issued her independent debut, Mulheres ao Espelho (Women in the Mirror). The album was a response to a repressive law governing a woman's right to choose. As evidenced by its first single, "Princesa Prometida," the album was an act of defiant feminism. All but two of its lyrics were written by poet/novelist/editor Maria do Rosário Pedreira who, though somewhat inexperienced as a lyricist at the time, was a perfect choice, a symbiotic collaborator for Duarte. From that recording she not only collaborated with the fadista, but with a host of others as well. It garnered attention and sold well across Europe. She and Mariza were the twin subjects of the documentary film Fado Today, which also featured Cristina Branco.
Duarte spent the next several years singing at Senhor Vinho, and became the subject of the musical theater work Aldina Duarte by Olga Roriz. The work was important in that the author played the role of music director, placing Duarte's voice in 11 situations where she had to sing with only one instrument, some of them not native to fado. She also participated in several other music projects, including the debut solo album by rapper Algodão (aka Pacman, ex-Da Weasel), Uma Falaciosa Noção de Intimidade, and contributed lyrics to albums by Mísia, Ana Moura, Camané, and Joaquim Catita. She also networked with noted jazz and improv vanguardists Carlos Zingaro, Vitor Rua, and Carlos Barretto in the Eterno Laco live project, which fused fado and freely improvised music. Their video for "In Memory a Sad Voice" can be seen on YouTube.
In 2011 she released Contos De Fados on Roda-La Music. This was another radical project. Duarte invited a host of musicians/lyricists to choose texts from the world literature no matter the language or form, be it essays, novels, stories, poems, fragments, etc. The album's presentation was as a hardbound book with a bilingual text. Excepts from Dostoyevsky's The Eternal Husband, Hermann Hesse's The Sleeping Beauty, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice were just some of the texts chosen and sung by Duarte. The recording was celebrated among critics and became a cherished object of art by fans, internationally establishing Duarte's reputation as an artist of rare power and innovation, and cementing her role as one of Portugal's most important fadistas.
In the album's aftermath, a financial crisis enveloped Portugal, and indeed much of Western Europe. Duarte felt her recording career was over. It didn't seem to bother her. As culture changed around her in response to the economy and technological innovation, she wondered if the album form had anything more to offer. She continued to sing nightly at Senhor Vinho and took other gigs internationally as they presented themselves. Her only goal was to continue to evolve as a singer, to dig deeper into the mysteries of fado and further her development as an artist. She had resigned herself to a quiet life.
All of that changed when Maria do Rosário Pedreira invited her to dinner. The writer said she was writing a novel in poetic verse for fado about a love triangle for two voices. It proved irresistible for Duarte. She dove into various sources for research, novels from separate points of view, poems, and recordings, and the pair developed the entire concept into something workable. Duarte approached Sony, envisioning the project as an album. They approved the idea and signed Duarte, but there was a twist: savvy A&R boss Paula Homem "suggested" the Dead Combo's Pedro Gonçalves as producer -- a man who readily admitted he knew less than nothing about fado. He spent weeks listening to records and having conversations with Duarte, Rosário Pedreira, and others, and still could not fathom its depths and didn't know a way to proceed. Just about to give up, Gonçalves received wise counsel from his wife, who suggested that the story be told in two different ways. The songs would first be rendered in traditional intimate fado manner as they would be at Senhor Vinho, with Duarte singing in front of her two guitarists. A second disc would offer the same Maria do Rosário Pedreira poems with a more experimental, expressionistic strategy, using the inspiration of sonic touchstones such as Ry Cooder, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Björk, etc. It would be Gonçalves' hearing of fado through his own contemporary filter. Duarte and her producer also enlisted vocal assistance from Ana Moura, Filipa Cardoso, and Camané.
Given Duarte's experience holding her own with improvisational musicians, it worked. Entitled Romance(s), it was released initially in a trifold package at the end of 2015 (which quickly sold out) and in dual-disc form early the following year. When interviewed, Duarte said that she didn't even attempt to innovate for the second disc, but simply approached the songs with the restraint and intimacy that fado dictated though the song lyrics. Gonçalves was allowed a completely free hand and the album became an international touchstone, a guidepost for young people to find their way into fado, yet one that would not alienate its fiercely dedicated followers. Romance(s) also offered a more contemporary way into Duarte's catalog, making her a beloved icon of fado all over the globe. So much so, in fact, that she also lectures internationally about the music and its history, culture, and poetry. ~ Thom Jurek