Ana Moura and Mariza recycle a classic Fado tune

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This tune goes back over 100 years, deep into the history of Fado. It keeps reappearing with different words, as a new song with a new name, coming back to life on the breath of each singer. This is one of the keys to Fado's survival - it's a tradition that keeps reinventing itself for new generations of listeners.

Ana Moura "Ninharia"

Ana Moura "Ninharia" (A trifling matter)

Portuguese guitar: Ângelo Freire
Music: Carlos Da Maia
Words: Maria do Rosário Pedreira
From the 2016 album "Moura". This live performance is from the Coliseu in Porto.

What it's about: Ana has argued with someone about a matter of no importance ("ninharia" - a trifling matter or trifle in English) and now regrets it. Worse, it was her lover. She saw something in their eyes that caused her to throw them out. And, as fate would have it, into the arms of another woman.

Now Ana is alone. But there is nothing she can do about it. Whenever she sees her former lover she realises that the break-up was her own fault, is overcome with emotion and simply can't face approaching them to try and make up. Instead she just howls about her plight.

This is Fado!

Here's an extract from the lyrics in Portuguese, with my English free translation below.

Precipitada, incontida
Expulsei-te da minha vida
Por uma coisa de nada!

Rashly, without restraint
I threw you out of my life
For a thing - for nothing!

Quando ela vinha a passar
Cismei ver no teu olhar
Um brilho que me ofendia.

When she came along
I thought I saw in your eyes
A twinkle that offended me.

E logo rompi os laços
Atirei-te p'rós seus braços
Só por essa ninharia!

And then I ripped up our bonds
I threw you into her arms
Just for this trifle!

E logo rompi os laços,
Atirei-te p'rós seus braços
Só por essa ninharia!

And then I ripped up our bonds,
I threw you into her arms
Just for this trifle!

The line "E logo rompi os laços", with the very heavily trilled R on rompi (I ripped) is really the climax of the song. It's said twice, and it summarises what's wrong, and why she reproaches herself.

Ana Moura, pioneer of a modern Fado

Ana Moura was born 40 miles up the Tagus river from Lisbon and is unquestionably one of today's top Fado singers. In Portugal she vies with Mariza as the top-selling Fado singer. Ana is possibly ahead, as one of her albums (Desfado, 2012) is still the top-selling Portuguese album ever in any category.

As well as having complete mastery over the traditional Lisbon Fado form, Ana is an innovator. This song is an example of a subtle updating of the style.

As in traditional Fado, the high-pitched Portuguese guitar (played by the incomparable Angelo Freire) starts proceedings and interacts with Ana throughout, almost as a second voice. But the tempo of the music is almost constant, rather than stopping and starting depending on the singer's emotional state, as in traditional Fado.

There also is a percussionist and a keyboard player in the lineup, softly at work. This would not be the case in the traditional style, where only acoustic stringed instruments are used.

The result is something that is clearly recognisable as Fado, but more suitable for performance in a large concert hall as here, or as emotional background music on radio, film or phone. By contrast traditional Fado evolved in the intimate live atmosphere of Lisbon's small Fado clubs, restaurants and brothels. It is more demanding of the attention of the listener, and can be more akin to psychotherapy than any easy-listening musical genre.

How traditional Fado tunes are recycled

The song Ninharia is interesting for something else it can tell us about Fado. Despite being performed here in an innovative way, the tune is a Fado standard going right back in the history of the genre. The tune has been around at least since the early 1920s, maybe earlier. But even more interesting, it keeps coming back with new words attached to it, as effectively a new song.

Ana is singing the modern words of Ninharia (Trifle), written by Maria do Rosário Pedreira. But several others sets of lyrics also exist. Older and arguably more famous there's Boa Noite Solidão (Good night loneliness), with lyrics by Jorge Fernando. You can hear two versions of that below.

Going further back, also to the same tune, there's A mulher que já foi tua (The woman who once was yours). And even further back Cantadeira castiça, about a pure singer who ends up following another profession involving hanging around under dim street lights.

And, very recently, there's a new version - because lyrics are still being written for this Fado classic, called Sonhos Meus (My dreams).

The tune itself is known by the name of its composer, Carlos da Maia, and the meter of lyrics it will fit. So it's called Fado Carlos da Maia, de Sextilhas. Carlos (full name José Carlos Augusto da Maia) was a guitarist who lived between 1878 and 1921, and it's a tune associated with his repertoire.

The matching of words to tunes also works the other way round, with a different tune sometimes being fitted to a familiar set of words. So instead of singing the words A mulher que já foi tua (The woman who once was yours) to Fado Carlos da Maia, Amália Rodrigues opted for a completely different tune.

This separation of words and tunes has a long history, and not just in Portugal. It is also found in English church music, where the text and tunes of hymns are often given their own names and can be swapped around in various combinations.

There are practical benefits to such a system, so that even before censorship came in in Portugal Fado tunes would be recycled. Guitarists could learn a set of standard tunes independently, and singers could choose words to reflect the style of their performance. It made collaboration between musicians easier.

The professionalisation of Fado that occured during the dictatorship period probably encouraged this trend. With words, tunes, performers and venues all subject to regulation, the repertoire became more standardised. It was simplest when putting together a programme to stick to things you knew had already been approved. But to keep things fresh you might change a few elements around, with new lyrics being one thing you could swap in fairly easily once they had been approved.

Mariza "Boa Noite Solidão"

Mariza "Boa Noite Solidão" (Good night loneliness)

Portuguese guitar: Ângelo Freire
Music: Carlos Da Maia
Words: Jorge Fernando
From Mariza's 2010 album *"Fado Tradicional"

Here Mariza is singing the same tune as Ana Moura above, Fado Carlos da Maia, but with the older words "Boa Noite Solidão". As well as the same tune, they both use the same guitarist.

What it's about: Mariza is alone, and remembering someone she used to be with. At first she welcomes the loneliness and the memories it brings. But eventually she just wants to sleep - knowing she will dream of her lover.

This song has a more subdued feel than Ninharia, where Ana is raging about her own stupidity. Good night loneliness is more miserable, indeed it's not clear how darkly the last lines should be be interpreted.

Com o coração na mão
Vou pedir-te, sem fingir
Que não me fales mais dela

Boa noite solidão
Agora quero dormir
Porque vou sonhar com ela

With heart in hand
I ask you without pretense
Don't talk to me of her any more

Good night loneliness
Now I want to sleep
Because I go to dream with her

This song is possibly best known historically in a version sung by a man, Fernando Maurício (1933 to 2003). He grew up in the Mouraria district of Lisbon (as did Mariza a generation or two later). Maurício came up through the traditional routes of local competitions, Fado clubs and radio, before having a successful recording career.

Fernando Maurício "Boa Noite Solidão"

Fernando Maurício "Boa Noite Solidão" (Good night loneliness)

Portuguese guitar:
Music: Carlos Da Maia
Words: Jorge Fernando

The lyrics "Boa Noite Solidão" are not particularly old given the antiquity of the tune. They were written for a 1989 album by Maurício, by then already a veteran Fado star.

The writer Jorge Fernando (born 1957) comes from a younger generation. A guitarist (viola) and singer as well as a composer and lyricist he has amazing CV, having worked with both Amália Rodrigues and Ana Moura in various capacities. He wrote the classic tear-jerker Chuva (Rain), both words and music, sung most memorably live by Mariza in full fadista mode.

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