It's just past midnight in a smoky bar on the Lisbon docks. At a corner table, in the shadows, men talk in low whispers. Money changes hands; a dark deal is made. The bartender uncorks another bottle of strong red port. Lovers exchange hot glances and disappear furtively around a corner.
The band — 12-string guitarra, mandolin, an acoustic bass — begins to play a quiet ballad in ¾ time. A singer appears in the spotlight, her hair pulled back tight, a shawl draped over her shoulders. Her large brown eyes are pleading, her dusky, tremulous voice is crying: I hope one day to see you by my side, when the sun comes out again ...
This is fado, the national music of Portugal, and through the talents of singers like Ana Moura, a gift to the world.
(The song is "Quando O Sol Espreitar De Novo," from Moura's album Desfado.)
"I think to be a fado singer, you have to be a very emotional person," Moura tells Connect. "Fado music expresses the Portuguese people as a personality, because we are very emotional people. We can be very happy one minute, and then something happens and we are not. And I think one of the tricks to being a fado singer is to be very emotional."
At 34, Moura is one of the youngest — and arguably most popular — fadista, or fado singer, in Portugal. Her records sell there in the millions, and she has been hailed worldwide for breathing exciting new life into what is, essentially, a very old form of European folk music.
Fado ("fate") is best described as music with melancholy and yearning as its root. Its deep, dark sentimentality is strongly identified with Portuguese seaports; much as the melancholy ballads of Edith Piaf bring to mind pre-war Paris, fado singers evoke a time and a place clutched deep to the Portuguese national heart.
It's a sense of pride, Moura explains, that now extends to the young people in her homeland. There is hip hop and rock in Portugal, to be sure, but "younger people than me, more and more, are interested in fado. It's an incredible thing that's happening in Portugal.
"This is not only happening with our traditional music, it's happening with our culture in general," she says. "Younger people more and more are interested in our roots, our traditions.
"And the only reason I find for that is because we had for many years the dictator Salazar and all the traditional things, the beautiful art and fado, were very related with the regime. We needed some years to clean that up, because fado is from the people.
"Some years ago, the young people tried to discover their roots. And what's happened in the musical environment at this moment in Portugal is that the new bands are inspiring themselves with fado and Portuguese traditional music."
One reason Moura has risen to the top is that her particular take on fado also includes uptempo songs, celebratory songs, songs with abject hope in the lyrics. The response has been quick: She was invited to share the stage with the Rolling Stones when Mick and the boys played Lisbon in 2010. Prince is a dedicated Moura fan, too: He invited her onstage with him, and even knew many of her songs (in their original Portuguese).
Desfado, her fifth album, was produced by the American jazz musician Larry Klein, who happens to be Joni Mitchell's ex-husband and ex-producer.
Klein convinced Moura to record Mitchell's blue classic "A Case of You," and to sing — for the first time — in English. Moura says she learned English from watching movies, in school, and from spending time with British and American friends in Lisbon.
And she was familiar with "A Case of You."
"It was a surprise for me, but then, this album was so different from my previous ones that I just wanted to fly," she says of Klein's request. "I love that song. And also, the lyrics translate to Portuguese. It could be a perfect traditional fado."
Moura's three Savannah Music Festival performances come at the tail end of a two-month American tour. She'll be back on the road in Europe — and elsewhere — later in the spring.
"Obviously, I share music with people," she says. "And the more I share, the more I feel happy with. Otherwise I wouldn't record, I would just stay at home singing!
"But I love touring around the world. And I miss my home, but I really love it. I like what I do, and I like to travel. And it's amazing to feel the other cultures, so different from mine, that they feel close to my music. It's beautiful to discover, and that's my main goal."