News Column

Nathalie Pires to bring Portuguese fado to Richmond Folk Festival

October 6, 2013


Oct. 06--Nathalie Pires strays far from the image she once had of fado singers, the soul singers of Portugal.

Pires is a 27-year-old accountant happily married to an engineer in Middletown, N.J.

"I used to think the women that would sing fado were complainers, always crying about something," she said. "I couldn't relate. I was a little girl."

But she always loved to sing. Growing up in the Portuguese community of Perth Amboy, N.J. -- where "from 7 to 3 was my American life and then after school I had all these Portuguese activities" -- she would go with her father, a musician, to Portuguese parties. He would put a box behind the speakers, where it wasn't too noisy, and let her sleep there.

"When I was older, he would give me an unplugged mic to entertain me," she said. "I was never afraid of the stage."

When she was 13, her father suggested that she accept a local promoter's invitation to perform fado with two guitarists. She learned three classic songs from a greatest-hits CD of Amalia Rodrigues.

"When I actually sang it to an audience and felt that connection, I was hooked," Pires said. "Now I have more than 60 songs in my repertoire.

"What I really love about fado, there really is a song to every single emotion. There are songs that I remember my parents listening to when I was younger, and I go through a life event and it seems that song was written for me."

Pires sings fado regularly now at weekend festivals and at clubs in New York, thanks to a flexible boss who'll let her come in late the day after a performance.

She's also the rare American who's been accepted into the intimate fado clubs of Portugal. In 2011, she was thrilled to win the Amalia Rodrigues Medal of Merit for being an "ambassador of fado" and representing the artist with dignity outside Portugal. She's met Celeste Rodrigues, Amalia's younger sister, who still performs at age 90.

"She said she's still learning. She's still finding fados that touch her and make her view life in different ways," Pires said. "The more experience you have, the more power and hurt you have in your voice.

"Fado really is soul music. The lyrics really touch your soul. It's this emotional roller coaster."

In Portugal, she said, fado is performed in intimate, candlelit rooms that hold fewer than 100 people.

"No one is allowed to talk. They kick you out if you do. It's very intense," she said.

A festival in a tent can't convey that mood, but it's still a way to introduce people to the music.

"Singing at these festivals is very informal. It's entertaining. It's not really how you experience fado, but if I can influence someone to Google fado, if I have people who've never heard of it and they're moved to come up to me later, that keeps me going.

"My challenge with doing the festival is having the audience relate to that without speaking the language. You have to explain the lyrics and really deliver, not just sing it beautifully but convey the emotion."

Musicians sometimes try to persuade her to give up the day job and make music her career, but she's resisted.

"I love accounting," she said. "I like having the best of both worlds. I like the stability. I like to have that guarantee of a paycheck. I love the thrill that music gives me, that fado gives me.

"I like to say that accounting is my reality, and fado is my therapy."


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