Born Amália da Piedade Rebordao Rodrigues on July 23, 1920, in Lisbon, Portugal; died on October 6, 1999, in Lisbon, Portugal; married Francisco Cruz (a guitarist), 1940; divorced Cruz; married Cesar Seabra (an engineer; died 1997), c. 1961.

One of Portugal's most beloved music stars, Amália Rodrigues held the heart of a nation for more than 50 years, singing in the style of one of her country's most enduring folk music traditions, fado. From the Portuguese word for "fate," fado expresses the Portuguese concept of "saudade." Not directly translatable into English, the term describes a deep yearning for the dead past, failed loves, and happier days. Known to legions of her fans as the Queen of Fado, Rodrigues herself was, by her own estimation, ideally qualified to bring fado to mournful life. "I have so much sadness in me," she was quoted in the Financial Times of London. "I am a pessimist, a nihilist. Everything that fado demands in a singer I have in me." Also known to her fans simply as Amália, Rodrigues died on October 6, 1999. The BBC News reported at the time that Portugal's prime minister, Antonio Guterres, said that his country had lost "the voice of the Portuguese soul."

The music of fado was born in the taverns and brothels lining Lisbon's waterfront. Traditionally, songs of lost love, mourning, and fatalism were accompanied by Portuguese 12-string guitars and woodwinds. Like the blues of the United States, the tango of Argentina, and the flamenco of Spain, fado was born in poverty, out of desperation, and gradually came to be accepted by the mainstream of society. Influenced by music from Arabia and Africa, fado eventually achieved international acclaim through Rodrigues.

Rodrigues described her chosen musical form this way, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times: "True fado, the fado I prefer, is fatalistic. In a fado song I wrote, I tell how when I was young I washed linen in the fields near a river, and there was not very much to eat. But I was never sad. For me, fado is destiny, it's life." "I don't sing fado," she was quoted as saying by the Internet magazine RootsWorld, "It sings in me." In keeping with the fado tradition, Rodrigues performed in black mourning clothes. She typically sang with her head thrown back, her expression a picture of anguish. She is credited not only with making the fado form tremendously popular in Brazil, but also reshaping it as a fusion of the city and country styles popular in Lisbon and the Portuguese town of Coimbra, respectively.

Rodrigues was born Amália da Piedade Rebordao Rodrigues in the Alfama district of Portugal's capital, Lisbon. The exact date of her birth was not recorded and her passport eventually bore the date July 23, 1920, because her grandfather remembered that she had been born during the cherry season. She had nine brothers and sisters. When she was one year old, her mother abandoned her to be brought up by her grandmother. As a child, she had to sell produce on the street and work as a seamstress to help her family pay its bills. Her childhood was an unhappy one, and naturally drew her to the mournful music of fado. "The Portuguese know life is absurd because death follows," she was quoted by the Times of London as saying. "I myself have always been full of sad thoughts."

Rodrigues got her start as a professional singer when she was 19, singing with her sister Celeste at the upscale Lisbon nightclub Retiro da Severa. Only a year later, she was singing to sold-out crowds in nightclubs all over Lisbon. Starting in 1944, she was introduced to audiences in Brazil when she performed at the Copacabana Casino and made her first recordings in Rio de Janeiro.

In order to boost her live performing career, Rodrigues's manager, José de Melo, advised her not to make any more recordings. She stayed out of the recording studio until 1951, when she began to record for the Melodia label. In 1952, she moved to the Valentium de Carvalho label. After World War II, Rodrigues began to tour around the world, performing in Spain, France, and the United Kingdom, in addition to Brazil. She later added the United States, Japan, Mexico, and the Soviet Union to her tours.

In 1955, Rodrigues became internationally popular with a recording of the song "Coimbra," recorded during a concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris. The song was known to English speakers as "April in Portugal." Rodrigues's popularity outlasted even that of her preferred form itself. Even as fado began to wane in popularity in the 1960s, Rodrigues continued to perform on stage and in feature films, and recorded nearly 170 albums. Nevertheless, Rodrigues suffered from stage fright throughout her career. "Before a concert my pulse is 48," she was quoted by the Guardian of London as saying, "it rises to 120 when I go on stage."

In 1974, Portugal's government, a right-wing dictatorship, fell in a bloodless coup, and the new government accused Rodrigues of collaboration with the deposed dictatorship and of opposing the new government. She denied the accusations, saying, as quoted by the New York Times, "I always sang fado without thinking of politics. I never had the support any government." The accusations took their toll on the singer, and she entered a hospital to be treated for depression. She vindicated herself, however, by recording a version of "Grandola Vila Morena," a patriotic song celebrating the revolution of 1974. She was subsequently awarded the Portuguese government's highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Santiago.

Rodrigues's touring career lasted well into her seventies, and she stopped touring only when heart surgery forced her to slow down. She put on her last public appearance at the opening of the Lisbon Expo in 1998. Her last world tour had been in 1990, during which she had played at Town Hall in New York City.

Rodrigues died in bed at her home in Lisbon. She was 79 years old and had previously been the victim of two heart attacks. On hearing of her death, the prime minister of Portugal, Antonio Guterres, declared three days of national mourning before her funeral. The funeral was attended by Guterres and Portugal's president, Jorge Sampaio.

The period of mourning and subsequent funeral came just before Portugal's general elections, and the candidates had to curtail their campaigning. The funeral service was held at the Estrela cathedral in Lisbon and was accompanied by musicians playing 12-string guitars. Spectators numbering in the tens of thousands lined the streets as Rodrigues's coffin, draped in the Portuguese flag, was carried to its final resting place, the Prazeres cemetery.

by Michael Belfiore

Amália Rodrigues's Career

Began singing professionally in Lisbon nightclubs, 1939; toured in Brazil, 1944; made first records, 1940s; began to tour around the world, including to the United States, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and Europe, 1940s; recorded international hit song, "Coimbra," 1955; toured and recorded, 1950s-1980s; went on last world tour, 1990; made last public appearance, 1998.

Amália Rodrigues's Awards

Grand Cruz da Ordem de Santiago da Espada (Grand Cross of the Order of Santiago), 1980s.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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