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Obituaries

Amalia Rodrigues; Portuguese Singer Helped Bring 'Fado' Music to the World

October 07, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amalia Rodrigues, the singer who gained worldwide fame for popularizing Portugal's brooding "fado" music, has died. She was 79.

Rodrigues, who had suffered two heart attacks and had been in poor health, was found dead in bed Wednesday in her Lisbon home.

The dark-haired diva, who had become reclusive in recent years, was known as the Queen of Fado, the Ambassador of Fado and even the Judy Garland of Fado.

"She was the voice of Portugal," said Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, declaring three days of mourning in his country.

Known simply as "Amalia" to her legions of fans at home and around the world, Rodrigues made her last world tour in 1990. She did not sing, but appeared in 1995 at a sold-out Lisbon concert honoring her 75th birthday.

The Portuguese word "fado" literally translates to "fate," but the music is not that easy to define. Fado has been described as Portuguese blues, folk music, and a cross between blues and opera.

"It's deceptively simple, like quicksand," Paul Vernon wrote for the 1994 anthology "World Music: The Rough Guide." "It sounds like a bowlful of echoes from everywhere."

The musical form developed in the early 19th century to express the longing of wives and sweethearts in Portugal for their fishermen at sea. It embodies yearning, mourning, even regret and guilt. It sounds somewhat sad and always soulful, and found no more passionate voice than that of Rodrigues.

Blending folk poems and Arab, African, Jewish and Portuguese sounds of the ages, fado is sung to the accompaniment of strings--Portuguese guitar or mandolins.

"True fado," Rodrigues once said, "the fado I prefer, is fatalistic. In a fado song I wrote, I tell how when I was young I washed linen in the fields near a river, and there was not very much to eat. But I was never sad. For me, fado is destiny, it's life."

Amalia Rebordao da Piedade Rodrigues was born in Lisbon, in the impoverished but culturally rich Alfama district where fado flourished. She learned songs from listening to blind beggars, and sang them herself as she and her mother sold oranges and figs at the docks.

In 1939, Rodrigues' career began auspiciously when she sang at Retiro da Severa, then one of Lisbon's top nightclubs. Within a year she was a star, and by 1944 she was performing in Brazil, where she made her first record.

Promoted throughout Europe by American war-recovery radio broadcasts, Rodrigues recorded her first international hit in 1955. The song was called "Coimbra" in Portugal, the name of a town, but became known in English as "April in Portugal."

Rodrigues recorded scores of songs, starred in a dozen Portuguese films and performed in countries from Japan to the former Soviet Union.

Customarily clad in black, the tormented beauty wore a vividly colored evening gown when she sang at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966. But, recalled to the stage for an encore ("April in Portugal"), she shrouded the bright gown in a black shawl.

The image of Rodrigues singing with her head thrown back and her eyes closed was as indelibly etched as her voice in the hearts of her countrymen. Despite the genuine affection of her fans, however, the diva never overcame stage fright.

Rodrigues was accused of supporting Portugal's old fascist dictatorship by revolutionaries who overthrew the regime in 1974. But she denied any interest in politics and quickly recorded "Grandola Vila Morena," the song of the revolution.

The singer married twice, but had no children. She was divorced from Portuguese guitarist Francisco Cruz and widowed by Brazilian engineer Cesar Seabra.

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