SONG: Foi Deus
ARTIST: Amalia Rodrigues
Listen to it here:
Well, I could find practically no information on this piece in English. Pretty much everything I found was in Portuguese, but I assume that like me, many of our readers are not very well in the loop with the genre of Fado music, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about the genre, since that can give us a little bit of focus as well.
The word Fado is Portuguese for destiny or fate, and this genre is one that can be traced at least to the 1820s in Lisbon. Historians of the genre state that most information on the history of Fado was orally transmitted, but often those types of histories are modified or changed throughout the generations.
Today, Fado is regarded as a form of song that can be about any topic, but must follow a specific traditional structure. Often these sounds are mournful and talk about the sea or the life of the poor, with a sentiment of resignation, fate, or melancholia. Fado has become such a distinct part of Portuguese musical culture that it is one of two Portuguese musical genres that are listed in UNESCO’s cultural guides.
The genre came mostly from the urban working-class in the 19th century, being sung by sailors, bohemians, and courtesans who would sing, dance, and beat the fado rhythms. The rhythmic aspect faded away throughout the 19th Century, but the rest of the fado tradition remained strong.
In the 19th Century, the most renowned fadista was Maria Severa, but for 20th Century audiences, no one can beat Amalia Rodrigues, known as the “Rainha do Fado” (the Queen of Fado) and is to this day the most influential person in popularizing fado worldwide.
As for the style of the fado, the singers use a lot of rubato, especially at the ends of phrases, and for holding a note for dramatic effect. The music is usually in major, or in the dorian mode, and though historically, there was not much accompaniment to the singer, these days fado can be performed with entire orchestras.
For the song we’re listening to today, Amalia Rodgrigues was already a big star in Portugal when one day, the relatively unknown songwriter Alberto Janes knocked on her door and gave her “Foi Deus” (It was God). The song’s lyrics seemed to have been tailored to Rodrigues, and she recorded what would become the most famous version of the song at the age of 22 in London.
Amalia da Piedade Rebordao Rodrigues was born in 1920 near Lisbon. She had parents who worked hard, but the family was very poor. She herself worked at a fruit stand from the age of 6 to help earn money for the family.
Rodrigues’ singing career started when she was just 15 years old. She began singing professionally in fado venues at 19, where she met a classically trained composer who recognized her potential and wrote many fado melodies for her that would go on to become some of her more well known hits.
By her early 20s, Rodrigues was a famous singer in Portugal. Her fame allowed her to start acting in movies as well, and with that she also started to gain popularity in Spain and Brazil.
She began to travel, tour and record internationally in the 1950s, where she also became famous in France. She performed extensively in France throughout the 1950s while living in Paris, and even had well known French composers write fados just for her. She became tired of her driving schedule and chose to slow down for most of the 1960s, before starting a resurgence of tours and hectic schedules in 1968.
Her career was eclipsed in the 1970s by the political drama that she became a part of. I won’t get into it here, as there’s a lot going on and I don’t know much about Portuguese politics, but it boils down to her being a member of the Communist Party, but rumours that she was secretly involved with another party, and a bunch of stuff that looks like conjecture. I don’t want to do an injustice to Rodrigues by publishing anything that could be false, so we’ll leave it at that.
In the late 1970s, Rodrigues continued to gain fame outside of Portugal, especially in Italy after she began making versions of her own songs in Italian. At this point, Rodrigues also began to suffer some health concerns. Though she continued touring extensively through the rest of her life, these issues plagued her. Her illnesses involved her voice, and over the later years of her life, it took on a new intensity, and became lower in pitch. Her final album was launched in 1990, when she was 70 years old. Rodrigues died in her home in Lisbon in 1999, and 3 days of national mourning was declared throughout Portugal. Her house was turned into a museum, and she is now interred at the National Pantheon alongside other Portuguese notables.
- Amalia Rodrigues was the first Portuguese woman to appear on American television (in 1953).
- She was the first woman to be interred in the National Pantheon.
I’m a tiny bit familiar with Fado, thanks to a university History of Guitar class that I took about 87 years ago, but I honestly didn’t know what to expect going into this. I have to say, I’m pleasantly surprised! Amalia has a really really beautiful voice very well suited to the genre. To me she almost sounds like (don’t come after me) a better sounding Edith Piaf. Her voice is clear and pretty and although I’m not sure what she’s trying to evoke in this song, I can imagine myself tucked into a dark seaside Portuguese tavern, sipping on the local liquor and nibbling a pasteis de nata and watching Amalia and her guitarist enrapture the audience with her tales of a loved one lost at sea, or her misfortune of being working class. I like the guitar playing too – not quite flamenco, but still has enough of that latin flavour, enhanced by what I’m guessing is a 12 string with plenty of reverb. I’m glad we got to listen to some Fado and I think this is a really beautiful example of it.
This is my first encounter with Fado, and I have to say, there’s a lot to like. The combination of the Spanish guitar and the 12 string guitar sounds really beautiful, with a warm tone, and they follow the phrasing and rubato of Amalia Rodrigues so well that it really feels like they’re one tight little unit. Amalia has a lovely voice. She fits the style perfectly, there’s a darkness to her tone that I really like, and she seems effortless. I don’t think this specific song is life changing, but I do love the intensity that ebbs and flows throughout. The one problem I have is the weird echo. I hate it a lot. So other than one sound engineering issue, I found this a lovely song to listen to!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Mariza does an orchestrated version:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: