The fadista Carminho sang almost by surprise last week at City Winery. The concert was announced perhaps a week before, but she stood before a full house, following an energetic set by the Portuguese creole artist Sara Tavares. It wasn’t the only way she surprised me.
I expected, from what I had seen of her persona, a traditional look, but she was modish, mannish even, in bleached white shirt and black, playfully suspendered pants. Her clothes fit loosely, and seemed to wilt on her. It gave her a quality of faint, but sensual, emaciation, which became, as she sang, as much emotional as physical, the gasp made musical, the caught breath turned into song. There is something of that in fado itself. It is, I think, a feature of Portuguese exploited in the music for emotional effect. For Carminho it is that and more, the place where memory resides; in its expense she finds the essence of her style; in frailty a special power.
There’s something brave about the way she lets her voice collapse – I hesitate to use the word – at moments of high emotion. It’s not the only way to sing those moments. They could have read (and did once or twice) as the voice not reaching the height it might have. But I can’t imagine, recollecting them, their being sung, by her, any differently, and her recordings, which I have turned to since, bear me out. Every fadista has her way, and Carminho’s is to find the moment when the voice exhausts itself, or just before (for she always recovers). It’s something like a sob, only deeper, and without tears.
She doesn’t fear subtraction. The most powerful songs were one, that she sang in the dark, silhouetted from behind, and another, that she dropped the mike for, spontaneously, it seemed, as though she’d spotted the time for it and followed her impulse. Fado more than most demands such concessions. Technology surpasses limits but sets its own in return. To sing unaided or in darkness returns what was taken, the still silhouette, the need to be heard. The house of fado is a small one, that quiets you, and makes you listen. It’s where Carminho is most at home.
Tavares, who preceded her, was something of a revelation. She’s Lisboan, with Cape Verdean roots, and her music has the liveliness of fusion and rediscovery. It merits a fuller, more knowledgeable account than I can give it. There are patterns I heard that, from the sound of them, could have found their way to Brazil, into its folk forms, and also Bossa Nova.
The double bill with Carminho was unusually balanced. They share a language, and intersecting cultures, overlapping and complementary. They have, both of them, winning personalities, glad to be there and have you with them. Once or twice they shared the stage and, while Tavares never sang fado, Carminho slipped easily into her compatriot’s musical world. They are immensely likeable, and energizing to be around, as artists, yes, but before that as people, which makes the music all the finer.