Decca/Universal Classics, 2002
440 014 151-2
label website, artist website
Born during the "Carnation Revolution" that ended Portugal's dictatorship in 1974, Cristina Branco followed the musical lockstep of the times by avoiding the native Fado and listening to the Blues, Jazz and Bossa Nova instead. At 18, proverbial lightning struck when her grandfather presented her with an album of unreleased songs by legendary fadista diva Amalia Rodrigues.

Eventually forsaking her psychology career for song, her debut live date took place in a Dutch club. Word quickly spread into France, and her first album Murmurios was released in 1999 and awarded the "Choc de l'année du Monde la Musique", followed up by 2000's Post-Scriptum that once again captured the same trophy.

She's performed throughout Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy and made her US debut in the Big Apple early last year. Cognoscenti already hail her as successor to Rodrigues, the highest possible compliment and responsibility any Portuguese Fado lover could possibly bestow upon a rising vocalist.

On her latest release, Lit Body/corpo illuminado, she's once again accompanied by husband Custodio Castelo on Portuguese guitar and backed up by Spanish and bass guitar, the traditional Fado trio. On one track, she's accompanied by Amalia's original troupe. Part of the art's sophistication is borne on the wings of poetry, either by grandmasters of Portugal's seafaring past, or by younger contemporary writers. For a traditional sample, taste these lines from "Meu Amor e Marinheiro".

"...My beloved is a sailor, he dwells on the open sea. His arms are like the wind that nobody can tie down. As soon as he comes near me, my whole blood becomes the river, where my love lays anchor and my heart becomes his vessel. And he sings like this - I live far far away where the ships cross by, but I will return one day to the waters of our rivers. I will go through the cities, like the wind through the sand, I will open all the windows, unlock all the prisons... My beloved is a sailor, he dwells on the open sea, a heart that was born free can never ever be bound..."

These lyrics encompass the passionate yet fatalistic, stirring yet somber crucible of saudade, that peculiar emotion celebrated in Fado for which there is no ready English translation. Being an outgrowth of Maritime loneliness and longing, it contains elements of suffering, sweetness and pain that are cherished as holding hot coal. It warms the soul while it burns one's hands. Heartbreak and resignation intersect with intensity, surrender and hope.

Needless to say, non-Portuguese miss out on the verbal poetry dimension, but Cristina's poised delivery, crystalline emotiveness and impeccable intonation riding on the cries of the guitars more than make up for it. And for those so inclined, the trilingual liner notes in Portuguese, French and English allow one to follow the words while listening.

And what listening it is: A stately flow over dangerous currents below the surface, laden with portamentos and rubatos, elastic fluctuations in the temporal fabric of the beat that induce a waltz-like sense of weightless flotation even on four-based rhythms; Cristina's tight and fast vibrato, her dramatic control suggestive of the cold fire jewelers admire in the depths of sapphires; the three guitars that veritably pluck one's heart strings with fireside romance ...

Corpo presents that delicious oxymoron of hovering between tension and abandonment, where intellect and emotion collide and are held in precarious balance. This paradox extends to the unique sound of the Portuguese guitar that, though a clearly metallic and plucked string instrument, is played with the bel canto flexibility of a woodwind or vocalist. Entering the world of contemporary Fado still feels like a turnabout - from harsh reality and the uptempo bustle of the day. It's like temporarily bathing in sunset lighting. It emphasizes rich gold and auburn tones, intensifies everything for a few short minutes before darkness' shadows creep in. Like stealing time, it exists under the constant premonition of said intruders lingering just at the edge of perception.

If that sounds a mite poetic, it's fitting. Corpo Illuminado is poetry in sound, unapologetically gorgeous. In itself, this does perhaps make it a throwback into gentler and slower times. Walk through its gates to be transported. If you love female vocals, the intimacy of chamber music, the lyricism of feelings and the depth of still ponds, Cristina Branco will surely enchant you as she has so many others already. Just don't commit to this date with important following commitments - you likely will be out of commission, unfit to speed, add numbers or stomach the cacophonous noise of the world.

Don't worry. You'll be back for that shortly enough. For now, relish the vulnerability of a heart cracked open.