Latin grooves we should love

Portuguese fado band Madredeus, famous across western Europe, is about to arrive in the UK. Garth Cartwright met the Lisbon five
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The Independent Culture

Portugal, as everyone knows, possesses some of the finest beaches and footballers in Europe. But a musical force to be reckoned with? Toss that into your local pub quiz and listen to the raging silence. Yet Lisbon group Madredeus remain not only huge at home but increasingly popular across western Europe, the US and South America. Pretty much everywhere really, except for the UK.

Portugal, as everyone knows, possesses some of the finest beaches and footballers in Europe. But a musical force to be reckoned with? Toss that into your local pub quiz and listen to the raging silence. Yet Lisbon group Madredeus remain not only huge at home but increasingly popular across western Europe, the US and South America. Pretty much everywhere really, except for the UK.

"It's funny that the English don't know us," muses Madredeus's classical guitarist and founder Pedro Ayres, "because the first countries we took off in after Portugal were Belgium, France and Holland: the northern countries. In 1993 EMI decided we were going to be a priority group, and we were in every country except for England. [EMI UK] should find us interesting but they think we are strange."

Stranger still considering Madredeus manage to shift around 350,000 copies of each new album in Portugal. Ditto Spain and Italy. Add their northern European and growing US following to their huge status in Brazil and Mexico, and you have a group who effortlessly out-sell the likes of home-grown EMI stars Blur and Radiohead.

But Madredeus are not a pop or rock act, which may be what makes them "strange" to the current residents of EMI House. Instead, they create a beautifully atmospheric hybrid of classical, ambient and fado. Sounds ... strange? One listen and it all makes perfect sense.

Formed in the east Lisbon district of Madre de Deus [Mother of God] in the late 1980s around the striking voice of teenage fado vocalist Teresa Salgueiro, the five-piece outfit combined classical guitar, cello, accordion and keyboard. They recorded their debut album across two nights in the old convent where they rehearsed. An immediate local success, Madredeus have helped rekindle singing in Portuguese. Ironically, Ayres cut his musical teeth playing in punk bands.

"I had a punk band at 18 and we were influenced by the freedom of those years", recalls Ayres, drawing on his cigarette and smiling at the memory of noisy days. "I went back to classical guitar as I was having trouble writing music in Portuguese for my electric band. I made this group out of my desire to do an electro-acoustic project with poetry. In my youth the idea was that it wasn't good to sing in Portuguese and I had to prove that it is a beautiful language."

Indeed, Portuguese is one of the most soulful of tongues to sing in and Salgueiro's calm, resonant voice caresses syllables and seduces vowels with the ease of a master fadista. And while fado's appeal rarely travels beyond Portugal and its former colonies, Ayres is adamant that the emotional power of this music is what makes Madredeus special.

"I grew up fascinated by fado singers, these beautiful women dressed in black and singing with such conviction. Fado guitar is a closed milieu so I don't bring that in, but Teresa is such a strong singer that the feeling of Amalia (Rodrigues - fado queen and legend) is deep in the group. Singing with soul is very important for Madredeus and Teresa has the gift of singing with an extraordinary passion. Not just beauty but a deepness. Coming from Lisbon you grow up with the deep fado sound infusing you."

If fado provides Madredeus's soul, then it is Ayres's knowledge of pop and classical that makes the group's music so accessible. "Ambience" is a word he favours when describing Madredeus and while he rejects my suggestion that they flirt with classical convention in a manner similar to Michael Nyman ("I much prefer Brian Eno's work," he states firmly), like Nyman it was a film soundtrack that helped launch Madredeus internationally.

"Wim Wenders came to Lisbon in 1994 to make his film Lisbon Story and he approached me to use music from our first two albums. I told him, 'We have been playing 120 concerts a year so we are now much better than those records - let me write new material.' He came to a rehearsal and was surprised by the age and presence of the band, so he invited us not only to score the movie but to be in it."

The success of Lisbon Story heightened Madredeus's appeal in much the same way as Wenders' Paris, Texas introduced Ry Cooder to a mass audience. Literally living on the road, the band constantly toured Europe and north and south America - only the UK resisted the urge to embrace Madredeus and was rewarded with one show at the South Bank in 1994 - and nothing since. EMI didn't even bother to issue their last few albums locally. Yet things appear to be changing: the just-released Antologia provides an attractive introduction to this most gifted of Latin groups.

"Some people do have trouble finding where to slot us," says Ayres, "because maybe they want to call us world music, but Madredeus is more of a son of Brian Eno and the culture of popular song - Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, that is who we look to. Yet we love south Atlantic music: Brazilian, Cape Verde, Spain, Portugal - that has a spirit we recognise."

Considering most of their future British audience don't speak Portuguese, I ask Pedro what exactly Teresa is singing about. "Mainly on the feelings, love, emotions. Each one is a work of art. I'm not very modest when it comes to my songs! They're not academic songs, they're related to traditional Portuguese songs: love, nature, the sea, soledad [loneliness], life and death and travelling which this group has spent a lot of time doing. Not so much now though. We have families and are more successful so we do not have to play every place in Spain but only seven concerts."

And only one for England? "We like the English," says Ayres with a chuckle, "if you decide to like us, we will visit you more often."

Madredeus: Barbican Centre, EC2 (020 7638 8891), 30 July; 'Lisbon Story': Cinema 1 at 4.15pm. 'Antologia' is on EMI

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