Ana Moura knows how to suffer.
It is an underrated, deceptively difficult element of vocal artistry: to tap into that deep well of melancholy and anguish each of us possesses to varying degrees, and bring it forth in a manner that is too dignified to be maudlin, yet visceral enough to strike a kindred emotional chord.
"In my opinion, our life only has meaning if we live everything with intensity," the Portuguese singer said by phone from Tel Aviv, a stop on a world tour that will land her at the Dakota Jazz Club next Sunday. "It is important to suffer in our lives, and to be happy. We can only feel the real happiness if we can also feel the sadness. And the feeling is what makes fado."
Fado has been a traditional music of Portugal since the early 19th century, although the beats and rhythms have changed some over the decades. After nearly a half-century in decline, fado is enjoying a resurgence in its strongholds of Portugal and South America and becoming steadily better known throughout the world because of Moura, 32, an international star who counts Prince and the Rolling Stones among her admirers.
With her smoky alto, striking beauty and poised self-assurance, Moura is an ideal "fadista" for the 21st century. Part of her childhood was spent in Angola, where she heard the "morna" style of Cesaria Evora and other singers from nearby Cape Verde. And while she grew up listening to classic Western singer/songwriters such as Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell, there was also a lot of traditional music in the house.
"In some way, I always felt the thing I would do in my life is singing," said Moura, who speaks English with near-perfect fluency. "I sang my first fado when I was 6 years old, in a club close to my parents' house where they used to go. My father and mother both were singers and my father played guitar and drums, although they weren't professionals, just music lovers."
At 20, Moura was set to record a rock album when she wandered into Senhor Vinho, a fado club in Lisbon. She was encouraged to get onstage, and then to return.
"I was just enjoying the moment, not too serious at the beginning. But the more I came back, meeting the real people of fado every night and feeling the things fado has, I fell in love."
The feeling was mutual. In matter-of-fact fashion, Moura described how a singer who heard her in the club invited her on his TV show, where a prominent journalist saw her and wrote a fawning article. Her producer scrapped the idea of a rock record in favor of fado. Enter Jorge Fernando, former guitarist for Amalia Rodrigues, generally hailed as the greatest fadista ever. He, too, frequented Senhor Vinho and offered to be her producer, guitarist and musical manager.
"It is very curious all these things happened so I can follow my intuition into fado," Moura summed up.
Beast of burden
That intuition has been crucial in expanding her popularity. Conceptually, fado is similar to the blues, in that it is a form where authenticity and emotional expression are paramount. Or, as Moura puts it, "both fado and blues are about soul and lament."
The inevitable dilemma is how to evolve your individual artistry without besmirching the tradition.
"It is a very difficult question," Moura agreed. "I just follow my heart. Even Amalia brought some changes to the traditional fado. On the other hand, there are some characteristics that belong to fado -- otherwise it would be some other form of music.
"I try to honor tradition, but also it is important for me as a fado singer to play with great musicians such as the Stones and Prince, who make it more popular when they enjoy fado."
Moura joined the Stones onstage in 2008, singing their aching ballad "No Expectations," which is actually a perfect fado song. Asked if there were others in the pop canon that could be translated to fado, she cited "At Last," by the late soul-blues singer Etta James. As for Prince, with whom she worked on an unreleased project after he contacted her in 2009, she said she hopes to see him during her American tour dates.
At the Dakota, Moura will perform material from all five of the records she has made since 2004, accompanied by the traditional fado lineup of classical guitar, acoustic bass and Portuguese guitarra.
The root word for fado in English is "fate," and Moura believes it is her destiny to grow deeper and better with this music she cherishes.
"The soul gets older with age. You experience more, you feel more, and you can transmit that to your audience."