Perfect Sound Forever

Amália Rodrigues

By Jose Luis Pinto
(May 2007)

"Fado" (from the Latin "fatum," destiny, what cannot be changed – "maktoub" in Arabic) is normally defined as the national music of Portugal. That is not correct: - although a very small country, Portuguese music varies dramatically from region to region. The origins of Fado are still not established, and, probably, will never be. Various theorists state that it came from North Africa, from Brazil and from Argentina, originally sung by slaves or immigrants as a way of expressing their loneliness, their longing for their loved ones, the impossibility of returning to their very own "Itaca." But let us leave that discussion for the historians of Fado. Amália Rodrigues put it in a very poetic way: "Fado came from the sea, the vast sea in front of us. Fado came from the lament for our sailors who departed and never returned."

Fado has always been an "inferior" type of music. Actually, there are probably not more than a dozen "root" Fados: all the rest is left to improvisation and to the interaction of the singer and the guitarists, and, very importantly, the response of the audience. Its composers and singers originated from the lower social classes, the ones excluded from the bourgeoisie, living on the fringes of society, such as thieves and prostitutes. Actually, nothing could be less respectable than being a Fado singer. Severa, the most famous "fadista" (fado singer) of her time (late seventeenth Century) was a prostitute. All this would change with the advent of the Amália Rodrigues phenomenon.


Amália, herself from very poor origins, transformed Fado into a respected art form and took it from the poorer districts of Lisbon not only to the finest clubs of the city but to the most prestigious theatres in the world. The reasons for this incredible achievement lay in the combination of an astounding voice, a bewitching beauty and a regal presence. The magnitude of her talent was such, that during her almost sixty year career, like a tornado, she has, involuntarily, reduced all other performers to mere examples of excruciatingly domestic mediocrity. The truth is, after her death, little has changed – all the "new" Amálias, although enjoying an exotic status in the World Music market, just do not come anywhere near the artistry of their confessed source of inspiration.

Amália was born in a poor house of an old neighborhood of Lisbon in 1920, but the actual day is unknown. "It was the time of the cherries" she was told. So, it was in July. As the date has never been agreed by her parents and grand parents, she decided to celebrate it – when money was finally available for such celebrations – twice in July, on the 1st and 22nd.

As a little girl, and to help to increase the family income, Amália used to sell fruit on the docks of Lisbon. Not a very exciting job. She liked to sing in her stall and was quickly noticed by the other vendors who started asking her to sing this or that popular song. With a good musical ear, she added to her "repertoire" some Carlos Gardel tangos that she had learned from the radio. And life went on, until she was allowed by her family to sing in the Lisbon Summer festivities, when each of the neighborhoods went in for a competition with a song to be sung in a parade, with a few hundred people from that neighborhood. That used to be one of the main events in the city in those days. There, she was noticed by an owner of a "Fado" Club who invited her to perform there, as an amateur. Big discussions and rows followed within the family – that was not what they wanted to for little Amália. She deserved to marry at least a postman and become a housewife. Much to the horror of her mother, her father decided to take her himself and remain in the Club during her performance. There she become an immediate sensation and started to earn some money – a ridiculously small amount, but more than the fruit stall used to bring home. This was until she was noticed by a gentleman who told her that, for that money, she should stay at home and he would cover that income for her. This was obviously someone who understood that she was being exploited – she was something never seen before in the "fado" milieu. She was actually bringing in an audience that normally did not visit "Fado" clubs, but had become aware that a phenomenon was being born. With the help of this gentleman, Amália moved to another, more prestigious club that, only because of her, became packed every night. Soon, tickets started being sold on the black market. Soon, her "cachet" for one night was double of what she used to earn in a month. From this moment on, Amália was a sensation in Lisbon.


By word of mouth (there were no records at the time), Amalia of Lisbon became famous in the whole of continental Portugal and in the islands. Her legend started to build up. The African colonies at the time started hearing about her. A Portuguese Ambassador in Spain invited her to sing at the Portuguese Embassy in Madrid. A trip to Brazil allowed her to make her first recordings.

Back in Portugal, she was already a national icon. Professional composers started writing especially for "her voice" and "her style." She brought with her not only a fantastic voice. Her "legati" and "rubati," pauses and arrebatamentos, gave an entirely new shape to "Fado" and other types of songs that she was now singing as well, as she started performing in "revistas" (a musical variety with sketches and songs), an extremely popular form of entertainment in those days, the equivalent of today's TV. This is when Frederico Valério composed for her some of the hits that were exclusively linked to Amália's name and image. Her "fados" and other songs become instant national anthems. This collaboration proved to be very prolific and lasted for more than ten years.

From that period on, Amália embarked on an unstoppable world career – normally dressed in black, all this Portuguese sacerdotess needed was no more than her two guitarists (four, in later years) and a curtain behind her to captivate vast audiences from Brazil to Japan, from Africa to Canada. Invited to sing a Brazilian song in a French film ("Les amants du Taje") in the mid fifties, she caused a furor when the film was released in France. As a result, she was engaged by "L'Olympia" in Paris to be "la vedette américaine" (the one to perform before the real star - on this occasion, the infamous Josephine Baker). Amália's impact was of such magnitude that Bruno Coquatrix, L'Olympia manager, signed a new contract where she was to be the sole "vedette." During her career, she returned innumerous times to this theatre to the point that it became her "fetiche" stage. L'Olympia was the real beginning of her prestigious international career.

The gates opened by L'Olympia meant more money, luxurious hotels and the cream of the crop of reputable theatres around the world. Inevitably, Amália started to move in a more refined social strata. As an intelligent woman, she quickly absorbed new manners, acquired new tastes and she learned other languages – and other types of music (while in Spain, Orson Welles once asked who was the greatest flamenco singer of that time- he was told that such singer lived in Portugal and was called Amália).

Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl, Théatre des Champs Eliseés, Tokyo Sankey, Canecão do Rio, Terme di Caracalla, Sistina, Heroticu Atticus, Il Lirico di Milano, Tel Aviv, The Beirute Cathedral, and so on, and so on. Like a vagabond queen, she rarely stayed in Lisbon, where she would only attend galas and would make appearances for charity shows – her prices could no longer be afforded by Portuguese managers.

In 1962, she met the second person to have an enormous impact on her career. Alain Oulmain, from a French Jewish family of publishers in Paris, but born in Lisbon, who was a rich intellectual, composer of great culture and sensitivity. He understood that Amália was just entering the apogee of her creativity and vocal capabilities, let alone her physical appeal, at 42. This partnership would change "Fado" forever. Oulmain introduced her to a much more sophisticated form of music and adapted it to the highest caliber of Portuguese poetry, both modern and ancient. It was just what she needed at that stage. Her voice was in a manner of speaking, "trapped" within the limits of the traditional "Fado" and its lyrics. Now, she could navigate greater seas and let all her energy and creativity flow unrestrained. This was the start of the most important decade of Amália's work. It reached its pinnacle in 1970 - 1972 and the last reluctant factiont – the pretentious intellectuals of the middle/upper class - finally accepted that they need not be ashamed for admiring a "Fado" singer. Never before had the sound of the Portuguese language sound as universal as when sang by Amália. Her voice brought to the streets and to the peasants all the poetry that, so far, had been the exclusive property of the cultivated elites.


By now, the legend of Amália was in full swing. Like any serious legend, the most incredible stories made the headlines of the press and entertained the cafe society of the nation: there was a tunnel which linked her palatial home to the Head Quarters of the dictator Salazar so that she could sing exclusively for him; on the other hand, she was a communist collaborator; two of the most important bankers of the Country were her lovers; some believed she was a lesbian; she had inherited all the jewelry of the exiled King Humberto of Italy and given them to poor widows of Nazaré. All those stories, plus the news of her successes around the world, kept her in the headlines almost daily. Her two week tour of Russia, at the peak of the cold war, sounded like a John Le Carré script, involving secret negotiations (in Paris) in order to obtains the necessary entry visas in to Russia for her and her entourage. At the height of her divahood, she simply would not comment on anything.

Her private life remained, cleverly, in the shadows. She was married twice. First, it was a guitarist, Francisco, who told her that she should chose him or her career. Her second husband, César Seabra, she met and married in Rio de Janeiro. Probably because Seabra accepted to be Mr Amália Rodrigues and was rarely seen on the show business scene, their union lasted until his death in the mid nineties. She was never a mother and this was a delicate subject and she dealt with it in a in a concise way – "it just never happened." She had a huge gay and lesbian following and that added to unfounded rumors about her sexuality. She enjoyed the adoration of notorious (as well as anonymous) lesbians from the artistic circles of Lisbon. The gay male community, from intellectuals to drag queens, all constituted a permanent devoted crowd of admirers. All of that absolutely delighted her.

And Amália went on singing, singing, and singing. In April 1974, a revolution finally overthrew the fascist regime led by Salazar for more than 40 years. Amália, herself politically very conservative, was a target of the leftists who took over. She suddenly became the embodiment of all the horrors of fascism, the horrific system that needed to be erased form the surface of Portugal. For a period of time, during the first year of new liberties, she became "persona non grata." Her house, until then the number one place where people of power, intellect and artistry of Lisbon met, became a deserted place. Worst of all, and very symbolic to her, her vocal capabilities were on the decline, her singing starting to vacillate. This led her into a period of depression. The only thing that kept her going was the continued travel and recognition of international audiences. In fact, her prestige had never been greater. Homages, decorations, prizes continued uninterrupted. But she remained depressed until, around 1976, after the revolutionary dust had settled, the government paid her a tribute, in her comeback at the Lisbon "Coliseum." Regal as a queen and with her incredible charisma, she received the longest ovation in the history of the "Coliseum." The long, pitch black night had ended and Amália was restored to her full glory.


Amália kept singing until 1995, around the world and, at this time, more often in Portugal. Only an artist with such charisma could go on performing to full capacity theatres for another twenty years with a voice so visibly deteriorating. Nevertheless, what remained of her sumptuous voice, now with regions of intense and mysterious shadow, lost nothing of its sincerity and bewitching capabilities. During this period, in her live performances, sometimes the audience had hints of what had been the great Amália with a fully resplendent voice. New generations that had never seen her live but had her recordings went to her concerts to pay tribute.

In 1991, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her career, the President of the Portuguese Republic held a huge celebration for her. From a monumental exhibition of her memorabilia, of stage outfits, photos, videos, awards, to a special night at the "Coliseum" where she received the highest award/decoration available in the country, before an audience of politicians, artists and ordinary people. She cried and the audience cried with her.

The following years saw her receive endless awards, tributes, and homages around the world, "La Légion d'Honneur", received from the French President, being one of the most important ones. Her prestige had never been greater.

And so Amália become a sort of "Mother of the Nation." Every year, on the 22nd of July, the people of Lisbon came in hundreds to her street, in front of her three story house to sing her songs and as well as "Happy Birthday." She would come onto the balcony, "surprised," arms wide open, thanking and thanking again, until late in the evening. On her 70th birthday, the Town Hall of Lisbon invited the population to gather in the beautiful square fully illuminated in the centre of the city, for a surprise party in her honor. Not quite sure of what was going on, she arrived in an open limo, greeted by thousands showering her with flowers. The Mayor of Lisbon took her to the balcony of the beautiful Town Hall, so she could salute the adoring crowd (like in the days of fascism, she did not realize that she was being used again, this time by the democrats). From that day on, she received a huge "corbeille" of flowers at her home, sent by the Town Hall of Lisbon.

On her 75th birthday, the ritual was repeated in front of her house. This time, the socialist President Mário Soares himself joined the cheering crowds. From the balcony, she invited him in. A horde of politicians followed as well as several TV crews. The celebration lasted until the early hours.

After her final stage appearance in 1995, when Lisbon was the European Capital of Culture, Amália realized she could no longer deliver a performance. Her voice was too weak, her energy depleted. She had to ask for a chair in order to continue with the recital. She most certainly guessed that her public felt her pain. The final ovation was greater than ever before as everybody knew, at that moment, that it was her final curtain call.

Her last trip was to Paris, to attend a tribute paid by the "Cinematèque Française." After that, she went into reclusion at her home. When the weather was warmer, she would spend a week or so in her big estate on a cliff, three hours away from Lisbon, facing the immense sea that had once been a source of inspiration.

But the torture of not being able to sing would soon put an end to her life. On October 6, 1999, she was found dead by her secretary in her house in Lisbon. The electoral campaign at its peak had to be interrupted and three days of mourning were declared by the Government. Her funeral drew a crowd not seen since the 1st day of the April 1974 revolution and she was awarded honors that before had only been given to Heads of State. She lay in state for two days in one of the most important churches of Lisbon, so people could pay her their last respects. Her remains are currently interred at the National Pantheon (a special law had to be passed in order to allow her to be there which until then had only been open to male figures of Portuguese history).

Her house in Lisbon is today a museum. In this "inner sanctum," endless awards, tributes, medals, letters as well as her jewelry and some of her most legendary outfits are on display. Her voice resounds continuously in the whole house to remind visitors why she is truly immortal and is part of the DNA of any music lover.


Although her immense catalogue of albums constitute an invaluable heritage of her art, only those who have been at one of her concerts know the magic of this exceptional artist. Only those who saw her live know the magic of Amália. When the lights went down, a deep silence would descend on to the theatre. As the curtain rose her guitarists would play for about ten minutes some variations on classic Portuguese guitar, only to create the right atmosphere and anticipation for her appearance, as she slowly came from the back of the stage to the forefront to thank the audience for the storm of applause. Then, she would be free to improvise with her guitarists, singing differently the same song every night, depending on her moods, and depending on the response of the audience she would change and adapt her repertoire. The guitarist would naturally follow her, such was the chemistry between them. Sometimes, she would switch lyrics from one song to another and vice versa. Quite often she would divert from the original structure of a song to navigate or fly freely, inventing a new song, only to return in fantastic harmony to the original melody. In these moments, the public would go absolutely wild. This is not the Amália of the studio recordings.

For an artist whose career spanned over 50 years of continuous activity, inevitably, her voice changed through various stages and tones. Her younger voice was incredibly rich but probably a bit too strident. It was like she did not have full control of its range and volume.

Amálias's very first recording happened in Rio de Janeiro in 1945, for the Continental label. At the time, she already had a series of "hits" in Portugal, but she was prevented from recording by her manager, for fear that if records became available, people would not go and see her perform. From this period, there is an absolute classic – "Ai Mouraria" (she would revisit this song several times, both in studio and live). For the next 10 years, still with a very young voice, she recorded enormous hits especially created for her by Frederico Valério who was her most important composer for the first part of her career. Valério was the first composer to understand her voice and her sensitivity.

In the mid fifties, Amália's voice started maturing and she herself started feeling that she needed to expand into other musical territories. Under the Columbia label, she recorded some Brazilian (samba-canção), Spanish (flamenco) and Mexican (rancheras) classics in addition to new Portuguese "hits" like "Coimbra," "Casa Portuguesa" and "Lisboa não sejas Francesa."

In 1957, her first live album, recorded at L'Olympia appeared on the market. It was a testimony of her conquering of the Parisians. What did not happen as yet, was the nerve-wrecking test of being accepted by the Left Bank artistic and demanding audiences of the "Bobino." Her success was enormous and a year later another live recording came out, Amália no Bobino. At this show, there were two memorable performances: "Lua, Luar" and "Calunga." These two songs were a hint of what was about to come in terms of her voice.

The sixties were undoubtedly the most important years of the whole of Amália's career. In these years, she cemented her reputation as one of the most fascinating singers in the world (in those days, the concept of "world music" was far from being born). Three factors contributed to that. Her voice reached an immaculate maturity and her creativity was just waiting to be released completely. Also, she met Alain Oulmain who, understanding that she was at her pinnacle, would allow her to embark in a completely new era and style of fado. Amália was at the apogee of her beauty.

In 1962, for a few nights in Lisbon, Amália would get together with her guitarists, some cakes and tea and started rehearsing the new Fados composed by Oulmain, with lyrics from the greatest Portuguese poets. With this LP, with no name, but generally known as O busto (‘Bust'), with only a statue of her face on the cover, Fado underwent its biggest revolution. Among its ten tracks, all of them of exceptional quality, are at least two unforgettable songs in Fado history – "Abandono" and "Povo que lavas no rio." It is literally impossible to listen to any of these two Fados without feeling a shiver going through one's body.

In 1963, Amália had a huge volume of songs coming from all types of composers and lyrics sent to her by greater and minor poets. She traveled to London and (yes, in Abbey Road), she recorded in one single day another historic LP, Amália For Your Delight On this LP, her greatness is all shown in the track "Eu queria cantar-te um fado."

In 1965, another collaboration with Alain Oulmain resulted in the LP Fado Português, yet another classical. Although she included some Spanish songs and revisited an earlier classic ("Ai Mouraria"), the two masterpieces here are: "Fado Português" and "Gaivota."

In that same year, maestro Norrie Paramor, fascinated by her voice, invited her to record a series of American standards. The album, to be named American Songs (unfortunately re-titled Amália on Broadway for its European distribution) delivered superb versions of "Summertime," "Who Will Buy" and "The Nearness of You."

Still, Amália could enter other worlds of Portuguese music. She loved the folk songs from the rural areas, the type of music she was used to hearing her family members sing. From the very rich folk repertoire of the poor provinces, she recorded, with orchestra, what was to become another classic – Amália canta Portugal which includes two songs of thrilling beauty: "Don Solidon" and "Lá vai Serpa, lá vai Moura." These songs were added to her fado repertoire, for her historic seasons in the America, at the Hollywood Bowl and at the Carnegie Hall, accompanied by the orchestra of Andre Kostlanetz.

For the remainder of the Sixties, she recorded several albums, some in French, where she recreates famous songs of Gilbert Bécaud, Charles Aznavour and Adamo. Some of the French songs were composed especially for her.

In 1968, American sax tenor virtuoso Don Byas visited Lisbon and invited her to revisit some of her classics in a duet with him on the sax, on top of the traditional Portuguese guitar. This resulted in a fabulous album (appropriately titled Amália Rodrigues with Don Byas), as her voice was at the absolute pinnacle of range, power and colour.

The Seventies marked the irrevocable decline of the vocal capabilities of Amália. Nevertheless, in 1970 she recorded Com que voz, her last substantial collaboration with Alain Oulmain, a high caliber work of art, winning awards in several countries, with a top prize in Italy where she received the honours of "La critica discografica italiana." Her voice was still magical, but showing its 50 year-old age. Three or four tracks are recreations of early recordings. It is interesting to see how she used her aging voice to deliver even deeper performances. To adapt the guitars to this voice, the guitarists created, a completely new sound- this was another achievement that opened new roads to the new generations of guitarists.

As a result of the true Amália mania in Italy, three albums came out. One live recording Amália in Teatro at the Sistina in Rome and A una terra che amo and Amália in Italia, which were studio recordings where she sang classics of the Neapolitan folclore. Amália in Teatro serves as a fantastic testimony of the incredible chemistry between Amália and her public, all singing together at the end.

From 1971, there is a live recording in Japan, at Sankey Hall- it's as thrilling as the Italian show, with the traditional restrained Japanese audience going wild. From this same period, there is also a live recording at the Canecão in Rio de Janeiro – Amália no Canecão, where she opted for a lighter repertoire, cleverly adapted to her voice at the time.

In the Eighties, still full of artistic sensibility but with her voice betraying her, Amália still managed to make two important albums: Cantigas numa língua antiga and Lágrima. It was high poetry still but Oulmain, lacking that source of inspiration that was a superb voice, was not working for her as regularly as before. Her main guitarist composed her last successes heard on these two albums.

In the nineties, what was to be the last album of original fados came out (Fado Português), supported, again, by lyrics of the best poets. It was excellent work for the very last remains of a great voice. Later on in the late Nineties, old recordings from 1960's were to be discovered in a storage room of her recording company. These were tracks eliminated from some earlier albums. Segredo still shows Amália at her very best.

Three years before her death in 1999, Amália entered the studio to check the state of her voice. She was hoping for an impossible miracle. She returned home and never attempted to sing again.


Inevitably, as a result of her huge popularity, Amália had several invitations to participate in films. As far as art cinema goes, these were of very dubious quality. But because she was there and she sang, they turned into great public successes.

Her first appearance on screen was in Capas Negras (‘Black capes') in 1947, a tearjerker immensely popular at the time. In the following 20 years, she would be present in a dozen films, most of the time acting, sometimes just singing. There were none of importance. Among those films, the one that would have a crucial impact on her career was Les amants du Tage, a mediocre French film by Henry Verneiul where she co-starred with Jean Gabin. In the film she sings "Barco Negro," an original Brazilian song that she transformed into a deep lament. This song propelled her name all over France and resulted in her first appearance at the Olympia in Paris. In 1966, she ended her cinematic career with a pretentious Franco-Portuguese production which met with little success, Les îles enchantées. Many years later, in the mid 1980's, she made a guest appearance in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire: she can be seen as an anonymous woman taking a tram in Lisbon.


Most of the live images available of Amália's concerts are of poor quality. In the early years, or at her apogee, filming those events was a very rare practice. Most of the professional DVD's available are of the times when her voice was in decline. Even on Youtube, what is available now is mostly just barely acceptable, to put it mildly. However, the DVD The Art of Amália provides a fairly good portrait of her as an artist. This DVD came out for the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of her career. In Portugal, the complete 5 hour version (shown over 5 nights on TV) was released. For the international market, it was reduced to 90 minutes for commercial reasons. As a result of the perseverance of Luso-American director Bruno de Almeida's work, the original material collected resulted in over 150 hours of documentary from several TV's from all over the world. It is still the best document available about Amália.

Amália in Japan was shot in the mid 1980's, when she was no longer at her prime, far from her live album recorded in Osaka some fifteen years earlier. But this is still an important document capturing her magic interaction with the audience.

Amália in New York was recorded in the early 1990's. Her voice had already deteriorated but, again, this is a great testimony of her charisma. Before a cosmopolitan audience (she addresses the public in various languages as she hears them asking for this or that song) she, now over 70, still delivers an emotionally charged two hour performance.


There are several sites dedicate to her on the Net.

YouTube has plenty of clips, some very good, mainly the ones from the Sixties.

It is interesting to know that the most precious documents of Amália's career and life are private documents which are the property of admirers. At least two people in Paris, another two in Rio, three in Italy, half a dozen in Lisbon are known to have the best archives of Amália Rodrigues memorabilia, from photographs, to pirate recordings, both in concerts and in studio, as well as old films of her private life and her tours. Maybe one day, this heritage will become available to the ordinary public.

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