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Ricardo Ribeiro at Songlines Encounters Festival

2 June 2017 | Laura Garmeson

A star in his native Portugal, Ricardo Ribeiro is one of the best known fado singers of his generation. His haunting and melodic vocals are typical of the genre, which layers guitars, voice and raw emotion to create the traditional sound of Portugal. Ricardo gives his debut UK solo performance at this year’s Songlines Encounters Festival at Kings Place, an annual three-day event showcasing outstanding musicians from all over the world.

Anyone who has ever visited Portugal will have heard some whisper of fado, the country’s most idiosyncratic musical genre, and one that is now utterly emblematic of Portuguese culture both at home and abroad. The music’s hallmarks are the gentle twang of the 12-string Portuguese guitar, lilting and mournful harmonies, the rhythmic anchor of the bass, and soaring, melancholy vocals. If this is the essential fado checklist, Ricardo Ribeiro’s performance at the Songlines Encounters Festival ticked all the right boxes, and more.
 
Fado – meaning 'fate' – is traditionally sung by both men and women, but it tends to have been the female stars (such as the inimitable Amália Rodrigues) who have dominated the genre on the international stage. This may change, however, since Ribeiro is considered without doubt to be the greatest male fadista of his generation, and at only thirty-five he is at the top of his game. Taking the stage at Kings Place this week he addressed the audience, expressing his hope that at some point during the performance ‘my heart touches yours.’


Image Credit: Mário Pires
 
In order to be sung well, fado demands enormous reserves of stamina, both emotional and physical. Expression is all, and the cracked melisma-like techniques it requires are extremely challenging to sing. It is instantly apparent that Ribeiro is a pro: his voice is remarkable not only for his technique, but for the variety of tones and colours he brings to the music. Swerving between registers and building to gloriously sustained crescendos, you can hear the years of training in his impeccable phrasing and vocal poise.
 
To shade each note and sung syllable with emotion is an art often lost in current music, but in fado, the music of darkened after-hours clubs and crumbling Lisbon cafes, the emotion powering the voice is all. Fado’s genesis stories vary; some claim it was brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors, others that it has its origins in the music of Brazilian slaves, but what is agreed upon is that fado is a cross-cultural product. Ribeiro summons deep wells of feeling and wistfulness – the famously untranslatable Portuguese concept of saudade (a nostalgia or yearning for something lost) is almost inextricable from fado – and in his brand of music the cultural roots of the genre show through.


 
Ribeiro’s voice was framed by an admirable trio of guitarists, comprising a Portuguese guitar, Spanish guitar, and bass guitar, who were virtually seamless in their accompaniment. They sensitively navigated the set, culminating in an incredible performance of Ribeiro’s ‘Fado do Alentejo’ (the Alentejo is a region in the north of Portugal) where the guitars died away to truly highlight the searing, vulnerable vocal. It is always a pleasure to hear live music performed by masters of the genre, and Ribeiro is certainly that.
 
Songlines Encounters Festival continues until Saturday 3 June, with acts including the international music collective Kefaya telling musical tales of migration and resistance, a duo from Senegal and Lithuania combining the sounds of the West African kora and the Baltic zither, and the group Vindauga / Wind Eye who draw on the musical traditions of England, Scotland and Norway. Now in its seventh year, the festival once again proves itself to be an incredible showcase for musical talent from around the world.
 
Songlines Encounters Festival runs until Saturday 3 June. See the festival website for more information.
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