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Singer Brings Portuguese 'Fado' Music to American Audience

Fado music, which comes from Portugal, captures the mournful emotions of lost love and life at sea. A Portuguese-born singer is bringing the traditional folk music to an American audience.

Ilda Maria was born in the Azores, the Portuguese islands where her father worked as a whaler. She quickly became immersed in California culture when her family relocated here, when she was two.

As a teenager, she discovered she had a formidable singing voice, and tried her hand at nearly every type of English-language music.

She would sing in clubs, at weddings and parties, performing a range of music from country to rock and roll.

"One that people always enjoyed was this one: Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz, My friends all drive Porches, I must make amends, Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, So Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz."

She still likes country rock, including that song from Janice Joplin, and has recorded some of her own country compositions. Ilda Maria says country music conveys deep emotions, and allows her to express what she is feeling.

But a few years ago, she rediscovered fado, the Portuguese music she first heard as a child. She embraced the musical form and has become a professional "fadista," or fado singer.

"'Fado' means fate. It could be about a seaman that is out at sea and missing his family, or someone who is lost at sea. The song can reflect his last thoughts. There are songs about a woman who has been waiting for her husband to come back from the sea."

Fado emerged nearly 200 years ago in the working-class neighborhoods of Lisbon. By the early 20th century, it could often be heard in the city's streets and taverns. The queen of modern fado was Amalia Rodrigues, who was celebrated internationally as an icon of Portuguese culture. She died in 1999.

Ilda Maria hopes to follow in her footsteps. She sings in clubs and in restaurants, presenting fado to Americans.

One of her typical songs, "Sem Razao", means "without reason," and expresses the longing of a woman in love.

"Without reason, she's saying that I fell in love with you without any reason at all. The first time I looked at you, something happened. I was a prisoner of love."

Lost love, betrayal, loneliness: Ilda Maria says these are the themes of Portuguese fado, as they are of American blues, European opera, and musical forms the world over.

Like them, she says, fado must be experienced, and not just listened to. The music expresses deep nostalgia and longing, and some say unless the listener is brought to tears, fado is not being performed properly.