Simple twist of fado

Cristina Branco sings the Portuguese blues

Hearing her sing, there's no doubt Portuguese singer Cristina Branco has found her calling. She was born with a powerful voice that sounds deeply connected to her native fado music, even if her personal feelings about the style are somewhat more ambivalent. Backed by a guitar trio, Branco's singing is one emotional outpouring after another, only pausing to let her talented husband, Custódio Castelo, solo on the mournful-sounding Portuguese guitar. It's a majestic, soul-stirring combination that needs no translation.

Making the last stop of their first U.S. tour, Branco and her trio perform at the Rialto Center this weekend in support of Corpo Iluminado, released earlier this year on Decca-Universal Classics.

Branco is part of the new generation of fado singers that has reinvigorated an emotional Portuguese folk tradition that has similarities to the blues, tango and even opera. It's a centuries-old song form that typically sets Portuguese love poems to original music, often performed by an acoustic stringed trio. Fado, which loosely translates as "fate," usually includes songs about clandestine loves and broken hearts with a graceful resignation that mortal desires and hopes are beyond the individual's control.

Branco, who grew up in rural Almeirim, Portugal, has released four albums since she started singing professionally in the late '90s. She has quickly established herself as one of the country's foremost fadistas, though she's looking to move outside the tradition.

"I want the music to be more universal, so that everyone can understand it," says the singer. "My business is music, in general, and I'm not too attached to the original form of fado. I'm influenced by many different styles, and these influence my way of singing and my understanding of the audience."

This different approach to the music has made Branco stand out from her contemporaries. Rather than the arty formalism of Misia or the feisty glamour of Mariza, there is a naturalism to Branco that sets her apart. There is no posing on stage — instead, she sways, eyes closed and face often turned heavenward, while caught up in the music.

Providing support is her outstanding trio, which is the best in the business. Castelo's acclaimed guitar playing is as fluid as a jazzman's, but anchored in Mediterranean melodies. The compositions, which mix in non-Portuguese elements, stand up to the passion and nuance of Branco's voice.

Branco, now 29, had no interest in fado as a child, preferring to listen to jazz singers. She finally acknowledged its beauty when she received an album by fado legend Amalia Rodrigues from her grandfather on her 18th birthday. Still, it was several more years before she attended a party that would change her life. A friend invited her to a gathering where there would be fado musicians. Branco wanted to go and listen, but had no interest in singing with them.

"But when I heard the sound of the Portuguese guitar," she now recalls, "it struck something inside. I said, 'Of course I will sing.' Even though I didn't know any of the lyrics, I was supposed to sing; it felt so good."

Within a week of her epiphany, Branco had met Castelo and the two immediately set to work. "It was all very natural," Branco says. "Before I realized what was happening I had already recorded Murmúrios. I don't like the word innocent, but I really wasn't aware about what was going on with me. I wanted to sing, but I wasn't really thinking about my future. I didn't want to spoil anything, so I figured that we should just keep on doing it."

Though Branco is more professionally aware these days, it's still her fate to sing fado. And with electrifying performances throughout Europe and U.S., she and her trio are destined to be busier and busier in the coming years.