Obituary: Amlia Rodrigues

Philip Sweeney
Monday 08 November 1999 01:02

DESPITE COUNTLESS inflated claims, only a very select band of singing stars around the world has achieved genuinely mythic proportions in their homelands; the equally common epithet "ambassador of the country's culture" is just as rarely accurate. Hardly ever has a singer so totally encapsulated the world public image of a country as Amlia Rodrigues of Portugal, however - only the Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum comes readily to mind. The Portuguese know that their famous countrymen of the 20th century are limited to three: Rodrigues, the footballer Eusebio, with the late dictator Antonio Salazar way behind in third place.

Rodrigues was the greatest interpretress of the fado, a popular song form which achieved the status of national music in Portugal, as did flamenco in Spain, though the two genres are musically and historically quite different.

Coalescing in the early 19th century out of a variety of folk styles, with probable input from Portugal's Jewish, Arab, African and Brazilian connections, fado was, like Argentinean tango, originally a lower class tavern entertainment found in the bars and bistros of Lisbon and in retiros - rustic open-air equivalents - on the outskirts of the city. Like tango, fado was associated with prostitutes, knife fights and Bohemian life, and it attracted an aristocratic clientele. The archetypal fadista, or fado singer, was Severa, a prostitute and singer from the Mouraria Jewish ghetto whose affair with her patron, the Count of Vimioso in the 1870s and violent death has become a sort of founding myth of fado.

Amlia Rodrigues was one of the nine children of a couple of itinerant workers from the Beira Baixa region of northern Portugal. She was born in Pena, a poor quarter of central Lisbon in 1920 during a visit by her parents to the capital to find work. Brought up on the Alcantara harbour front, she terminated rudimentary schooling at age 12, and earned her living selling fruit with her mother and sister by the docks in the mornings, and washing clothes in the afternoons. In her teens, she encountered the fado, which was still a widespread amateur activity, and found its mournful, plaintive drama much to her taste. The essence of fado is the quality of saudade, a yearning sense of the inescapable nature of destiny - fado means fate - and Rodrigues always confessed to an affinity for sadness, loss, even death.

By 1938, she had acquired enough singing experience to enter a talent competition to find the Queen of Fado, though the other entrants are said to have refused to compete against a mere fruit-seller. None the less, her beautiful mellow voice was noticed, and within a year she was first performing, and then starring, at the Retiro da Severa, one of the professional fado houses which were by now catering to a wider and better-off fado clientele. It was at this time that she met her first husband, Francisco da Cruz, a guitarist - traditional fado accompaniment consisted of a Spanish guitar and a pear-shaped Portuguese guitar. The marriage lasted two years: during it Amlia attempted suicide with rat poison on learning that her husband had cheated on her.

In 1941, she began performing at the Cafe Luso, the smartest of the new fado houses. This period saw the completion of fado's great expansion into a national phenomenon, accomplished by the new media of records and radio, and Amlia Rodrigues became its dominant figure. Throughout the 1940s, fado, and Rodrigues, penetrated the revistas, stage musicals which had taken over from vaudeville as a highly popular entertainment. She was a shy performer and liked the distance a theatre stage offered, as opposed to the intimate cabaret setting of a fado house.

In 1942, starring in the revista Essa E Que E Essa, Rodrigues met its creator, Frederico Valerio, who became one of a series of leading contemporary writers and composers to produce material for her. A high-quality literary input from noted poets such as David Mourao-Ferreira, Lus de Macedo and Ary dos Santos was one of the characteristics which soon elevated her art high above the simple levels previously associated with fado; others were the sophistication of musical form and arrangement brought by her involvement in the musical theatre and the dramatic intensity of her voice and diction.

In 1943, Rodrigues performed in Madrid, and the following year her recording career began during a successful season at the Copacabana Casino in Brazil, where she recorded her first great hit, the 78rpm "Ai Mouraria". She continued to record up to the mid-Eighties with collaborators as diverse as the American jazz musician Don Byas, the Brazilian Vinicius de Maraes and the British Norrie Paramour Orchestra. For many fans, her finest work occurred in the Sixties, in co-operation with the French arranger Alain Oulman: 1962's classic album Amlia Rodrigues, known as "the bust" because of its cover shot of a sculpture of Amlia by the artist Joaquim Valente, and the austerely perfect Com Que Voz in 1970.

In 1947, Rodrigues starred in the first of her dozen films, Capas Negras, which broke box-office records: her handsome dark features, touched with tragedy, became the most famous in Portuguese cinema and television. In the 1950s, her international touring career intensified. Particular successes occurred in France, where she starred at the Paris Olympia hall on several occasions, and the United States, where she performed at the Lincoln Center and Hollywood, and despite being frequently mistaken as Spanish, received invitations, which she never took up, to work with Danny Kaye and Anthony Quinn.

Because fado was promoted by the Salazar dictatorship, it fell into disfavour after the 1974 revolution, and Rodrigues was personally vilified for her alleged links with the regime. She always denied any political affiliations, however. "When you offer a gala dinner, you bring out the best table linen; I was the best linen," she remarked on accusations of having performed for Salazarist society.

Although driven to severe depression by the attacks, a decade later Amlia Rodrigues's status and personality had shrugged them off and she was universally regarded as a national treasure, decorated with Portugal's highest honours, the central Portuguese performer at Lisbon's 1994 European Capital of Culture celebrations, the subject of a national homage at the city's Expo 98. Interestingly, the newspaper Publico, analysing why Rodrigues had become a "gay icon of the Nineties", found that her resolute refusal to bow to transient public opinion was admired as much as her emotional performance and extravagant style.

In the 1990s, poor health confined her more and more to her beautiful 17th- century home near Lisbon's parliament building, where she had lived since 1955. There she entertained like a grande dame, usually late at night. In 1993 I was taken to the rua Sao Bento by one of her guitarists. Amlia entered the drawing room, immaculately coiffed and made up, ordered trays of whisky, wine, grilled sausage and coffee, and regaled the company with stories - how she'd still never answered Anthony Quinn's letter out of shyness, how she missed the old days of pride in one's country - till 4am. Asked to define the complex phenomenon of fado at one point, she replied, "I sometimes think I am fado."

For any other artiste, this would have been intolerable conceit. For Amlia Rodrigues, it wasn't far wrong.

Philip Sweeney

Amlia Rodrigues, singer: born Lisbon 23 July 1920; married 1940 Francisco da Cruz (marriage dissolved), 1961 Cesar Seabra (died 1997); died Lisbon 6 October 1999.

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