By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)
Ramana Vieira is a conservatory-trained singer who adds a new twist to traditional Portuguese Fado music, with an accent on instrumentation. Her successful 2010 album, “Lágrimas de Rainha” reached #43 on the world music radio charts. The Boston Globe calls Vieira, “one of the pioneers of a unique hybrid of fados with a contemporary 21st century spin” while The San Francisco Chronicle says “no one in the United States is doing more to breathe new life into fado.”
Vieira has also been called a “rising star in World Music” by The San Francisco Examiner, and many of her songs were influenced by her muse, the Queen of Fado, Amália Rodrigues. Vieira explains her style as “the feel and groove of Shakira” combined with “the melodic textures of Dulce Pontes.”
Born in San Leandro, California, to Portuguese immigrants from Madeira Island, Vieira was raised around music. Her grandfather was a musician and composer and during her childhood Vieira explains she “sang with [her] mother to Amália Rodrigues and other fabulous fadistas that were part of a special record collection.”
By the age of ten, Vieira had started to play piano. Her love of music continued and, as a young adult, Vieira attended The American Conservatory Theatre, where she studied with Faith Winthrop, San Francisco’s Grande Dame of song and one of the most respected vocal coaches on the scene today.
Initially, Vieira had aspirations to be on Broadway, but her career evolved when a music producer suggested she return to her first love, embracing her Portuguese roots. This musical exploration took her to Portugal where Vieira performed and studied with fado singers, and she “discovered there was nothing in the world more gratifying than singing fado.”
Recent performances include opening for Grammy-nominated fadista Mariza; performing her original song “Unidos para Amar” for the 2006 Winter Olympics video montage; and singing at the Grammy’s 50th Awards special Music Cares benefit to honor Aretha Franklin.
This spring, Ramana Vieira kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her life and her music for the Portuguese American Journal.
You have a special connection to the Portuguese-American community, how did your interest in fado get started?
My career was started as a child being exposed to fado by my mother singing constantly all day every day. It was really there that it all began. Later, while visiting relatives in Portugal, I was asked to sing on a dare in Lisboa. I shall never forget the fado of Amália Rodrigues “Estranha Forma de Vida” and I got such a positive response from the patrons that I think a “Fadista” was born that night.
I also believe that when you are on the right path the Universe brings you positive validation and upon my return from Portugal a record company executive gave me my first recording contract to sing in Portuguese and embrace my Portuguese heritage.
How would you define fado?
Fado is a 15th century style of music from Portugal. It translates to fate or destiny. It is similar to that of the blues and I call it the cathartic music of the Portuguese.
With its strong guitar, your CD reminds me of a cross between The Gypsy Kings, Andres Segovia and traditional fado. How would you describe it?
I would describe it as a nice blend of modern musical textures mixed into the traditional fado sounds and original compositions. It’s a fusion of jazz, Latin rhythms and Brazilian grooves with a hint of rock and blues and classical music.
What would you say to people who say your fado is not traditional?
I would say they are right. It is not. I am carving out a new bold path of fado. A New York Times article in 2011 featured a handful of fadistas, including Mariza and Ana Moura, Misia, Cristina Branco, and it was my group that was quoted as bringing a new age sensibility to the music. I felt it was a nice way of saying it.
My devotion for fado lies in our approach with one foot in tradition and one foot in the modern world. I like to call it “innovation meets heritage.” What good is an artist if there is no uniqueness as to bring a new flavor to the dish? I feel it is our duty as creative artists to bring out the beauty and passion of the music and I strive for this and we are not satisfied until we do. With each fado we go to lengths to understand the purist form at its simplicity and core before we attempt to perform it. In other words, we do our homework and I say this with all due respect to fado its ancestors and its origins.
Do you have a favorite fado experience?
I have many fado memories. One is when we opened for Mariza and she came out after us and her rendition of “Barco Negro” made my mouth fall to the floor. And another time was Dulce Pontes at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. She sat down at her piano and ripped out one of her haunting compositions. She just is super mega creative. She is my favorite artist as well as Amália Rodrigues and I wish I could have experienced her live as well. I also will never forget our performance at the Gallo Theater, in Modesto, where we had the entire theater mostly Portuguese on their feet singing and clapping “Uma Casa Portuguesa” as well as we did this over mother’s day weekend, in Fresno, where Congressman Jim Costa and his entire table, including the president of Fresno State University and his wife, all Portuguese singing with us.
How do you feel about male fado singers?
I love them. And Carlos do Carmo is my mother’s all-time favorite male fado singer. I think they are appealing and sexy and a good counter to the female fadista. There is nothing like a velvety fado voice that can melt a heart.
Besides being Portuguese-American, what other influences do you have with your music?
I love Nelly Furtado, Enya, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Ana Moura, U2, Brian Ferry, Shakira, Mariza, Marisa Monte, Sara Brightman, Mozart, Bach and Florence and the Machines. I love Carlos Avalon. I’m a huge fan of his as well.
Do you have a goal with your music?
Yes. To continue to make beautiful music, to expand my creative talents and skills and to just grow as an artist. It’s not the end result; it is the journey that is the most fulfilling and most spiritual aspect of my musical adventures. I also love my ensemble and I am a pack person. I love my team for without my ensemble I would be so devastatingly lonely. I also wish to continue to be able to travel, make more music and meet people internationally.
What future activities would you like to see in the Portuguese community?
I would like to see more musical unification amongst the musicians here in the Bay Area and more collaborations and sharing of concert co bills (more than one artist on the playbill) etc. I also would like to see younger generations be inspired to be involved. I know they are working on youth groups within the Portuguese community and so that is great to see. I also would like to see more Madeira-based people featured and celebrated. In general, I would like for more inclusivity amongst the Portuguese community in the Bay Area where we are a mighty bunch with our Portuguese pride and passion.
Do you find it a challenge to sing in Portuguese?
Yes and no. I love singing in Portuguese, it is a challenge because when singing in Portuguese I work with coaches that are very particular about the pronunciation and getting it right so I have to work extra hard to make sure I nail those points. I can easily spend two to three months working on a fado before I ever perform it live. Portuguese was not taught to us after the age of five we were forbidden to speak it in my household as we were told to assimilate. Unfortunately, over the years my own family has moved slowly away from celebrating their Luso roots more fully. How can we forget this? But we do and we become content and perhaps complacent with our lives and my mission thru my music is to remember. So, yes, it’s an on-going process to remember to speak the language with my mother and family.
How did you learn Portuguese?
It’s an on-going process and I thank profusely all of the people along the way that have helped me and you all know who you are and I love you for it. The work never ends.
Can you describe one of your concerts?
I have had concerts all over and in different settings from festivals to venues to private parties to theaters and with a variety of audiences from all walks of life. It makes it more interesting when we don’t have it all figured it out I love the mystery of it all.
What has been most rewarding?
I would say our tours to different parts of the world and meeting new and interesting people, Portuguese and non-Portuguese, old and young. We just love sharing the beauty of our songs and the passion with people. So that is what is rewarding. When someone in the audience is singing to our music, it is deeply rewarding taking them back into time or transporting them to Portugal or to the islands or somewhere beautiful and exotic. That’s what our job is as artists to have people forget their troubles.
At a recent concert you gave one of my friends said, “Her live performance was great, even better than the CD – in my humble opinion. I felt tears well up as she described the songs to a mostly American audience.”
Yes. Thank you. How kind. I am all about the live concert experience as that is where the magic happens in raw potentiality.
Bringing fado to American audiences is a great thing and I was wondering if you have performed in Portugal?
Oh yes. I have and they love American music ironically enough so I give it to them by performing rock, blues, jazz standards etc. A funny thing – isn’t it? Once when going to Madeira to visit family, I was ushered onto a major music festival stage on Madeira and pulled off singing five or six songs. It happens and I love spontaneous moments like this. The crowd loved it.
How has the image of Portuguese-Americans changed in recent years?
Well, I think it’s good to embrace your ethnicity and to be proud of where your foundation and roots or are. Tom Hanks, Katie Perry, Meredith Vieira – to name a few – are part Portuguese American. Look at them now celebrating their Portuguese ethnicity. It’s cool to be Portuguese in my humble opinion. And I teach this to my son. To embrace his ethnicity. How can you know where you are going, if you don’t know where you came from?
What are you proud of accomplishing with your music?
I am proud that I could bring a group of people together that have never have heard of fado and educate them and expose them to this style of music. Albeit I have a modern approach to the music, I still strip it down at its core during a concert and do an unplugged fado and keeping it real from the coração, the heart, and from the soul.
What would you like to do next?
I would like to complete and release my newest Luso-Mundo CD and continue to travel and sing and meet people. Love and dance as that is what it is all about, living, loving, dancing, singing and enjoying your life. I also would like to write a book and travel to Australia, Goa, India and South Africa and perform and continue to meet more Portuguese folks, all generations, and to be able to make a small difference on planet earth of celebrating our passionate nature. By doing so, it helps to model that it is okay for people to celebrate their passions for what is life but to not have a passion for something.
Where will you be performing in the future?
We had a very busy first quarter with local Bay Area performances. We’re heading back to the Pacific Northwest during the fall of 2014 and next year, and I hope we will return to Hawaii and perhaps the Southwest after that. We never quite know where we are going to end up–which is why it’s important to check on Facebook (Ramana Vieira and Ensemble or Ramana Vieira musician) and the website for the most current schedules.
(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), and Only More So. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming Foundation “Money for Woman.” She also organizes the literary series Kale Soup for the Soul: Portuguese-American writers reading work about family, food and culture. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie
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