Ricardo Ribeiro sings fado enriched by his flamenco and Arabic leanings. Gonçalo Frota speaks to the singer prior to his UK solo concert debut
There is something about Ricardo Ribeiro that makes you feel convinced he’s channelling several lives through the words he sings. You don’t have to dig deep into his biography to get the sense that his fado is much older than he actually is (he’s 35). Ribeiro’s fado seems to feed off the voracious curiosity he has for the world. But even before he turned professional, Ribeiro made several different life choices and pushed away various different fates. “Singing was not a choice,” he says. “It was almost a compulsion. Every day I believe more in destiny.”
Born in Lisbon, Ribeiro was a young boy when he was sent to a church school in Torres Novas where Father Manuel Alves became his first master. For a time he considered entering the seminary and becoming a priest. Now, looking back on that period, he realises he wasn’t really drawn to the priesthood but rather to the theological set of rules that helped him make some sense of the world. Financial reasons prevented him from continuing along this path. The fundamental seed, however, had already been planted by Father Manuel Alves: a profound love for poetry and for everything that breathed life.
After leaving school, Ribeiro relocated to Pinhal Novo, a town on the outskirts of Lisbon. Aged 16, he spent his nights learning his trade singing with his elders, while his days were spent on the south bank of the Tejo river. At night he devoured every bit of wisdom these older singers shared with him. Then he would take the last train or the first boat out of Lisbon to work as a builder, a butcher or a herdsman. “During summertime,” he acknowledges, “it was easier because I’d be up all night and after taking out the cattle, the heat would make them go back inside and I could get some rest.”
Ribeiro realises it sounds as if he is romanticising his past life. But he confesses he adored this period, having animals as company that made him cherish silence and enabled him to spend his days at a slower pace. “It’s a life I really enjoy, a life of wisdom that people often don’t appreciate.” During the less busy hours he read, listened to music and prepared his own fados. It also gave him space to develop one of his core characteristics: curiosity. “I am a very curious individual,” he confesses. “If someone tells me about a subject I know nothing about, I sit quietly, listen, then go home and do my research.” Curiosity, he believes, helps him deal with anxiety, makes him feel he has control and gives him a sense of clarity when he feels isolated “inside a bubble of disbelief.” This is usually when Ribeiro finds solace and inspiration in discovering something new from his newfound knowledge.
There are two men who have had a remarkable influence on Ribeiro’s career path and to who he is profoundly grateful. Firstly, the late fadista Fernando Maurício, albeit not well known outside of Portugal, but extremely influential. Maurício cared little for public recognition and was a faithful guardian of the purest form of traditional fado. He sang in fado houses and at local clubs instead of on bigger stages. He was a prodigy of intuition with little or no musical education. As a teenager Ribeiro held him in such high regard he even followed him around and started imitating his hero’s walk. But the most important lesson, Ribeiro stresses, was teaching the young boy to master his fear of making the wrong fado choices.
“It was strange,” Ribeiro recalls, “Maurício taught me how to overcome fear, but at the same time he also used to instigate some fear. He told me I couldn’t do this and that, that I had to sing a certain fado in a whispered manner or how do divide the verses, but he wouldn’t let me repeat myself.” He gave Ribeiro an indispensable set of rules to flourish as a fadista, while also challenging him to bend those same rules.
The other fundamental encounter in his life came some years later. In 2004 Ribeiro recorded his eponymous album, the one he considers officially launched his career. Following this, in 2006 theatre director Ricardo Pais introduced him to Lebanese oud virtuoso Rabih Abou-Khalil. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” says the fadista. “Rabih showed me things I did not know about myself. He saw them in me when I never suspected to have them, and I am forever grateful for that. Whenever I’m going through hard times in my life now, it’s Rabih that I talk to. He always has a wise and helpful word. And you can also hear that insight in his music.”
Em Português (2008), the astonishing record Ribeiro made with Abou-Khalil and his musicians, was a game changer. Forcing the singer into the technically demanding world of jazz and Arabic music, it freed him up to explore the different musical languages he always felt close to but did not know how to make compatible with his primary fado source. After Rabih Abou-Khalil, it made complete sense whenever Ribeiro quoted a triangle of references comprising Amália Rodrigues, Alfredo Marceneiro and Fernando Maurício (fado), Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucia (flamenco), Abou-Khalil and Oum Kalthoum (Arabic music). Suddenly, the Gypsy traces in Ribeiro’s voice became evident; the Arabic heritage in Alentejo music didn’t sound intrusive and the typical fado neighbourhoods in Lisbon no longer shied away from their Moorish and Jewish-steeped history.
The albums Largo da Memória and Hoje é Assim, Amanhã Não Sei – both nominated for Songlines Music Awards in 2015 and 2017 respectively – benefitted from this new-found broad musicality. They’re unquestionably rooted in fado, but yet they transcend it. And they come from a similar place: Ribeiro’s intense reaction to poetry. “Every once in a while,” he explains, “there is a poem that gets a sigh out of me and, even though I didn’t write it, I claim it as mine. I am a thief. I steal all the time, but I only do it because it sweeps me off my feet. I steal from poetry, from cinema, from photography, obviously from music. It’s like picking up a beautiful flower from the garden. I didn’t create it, but it’s so beautiful I must make it mine.”
Toada de Portalegre (Song of Portalegre) and Orfeu Rebelde (Rebel Orpheo), two poems by José Régio and Miguel Torga respectively, are the key elements to each of these albums. Ribeiro confesses to liking records built around a central idea. When such a poem takes hold of his thoughts, he starts to spot little bits of it in everything he reads, so he ends up making a personal map of words to tell the story he wants to sing, collecting poems that serve as branches, sprouting out of that fundamental text. Hoje é Assim, Amanhã Não Sei translates as ‘Today’s Like This, Tomorrow I Don’t Know,’ a title he uses to assert his right to change and to challenge expectations. As a constantly curious man he believes in moving on, explaining that “a snake changes its skin in order to live,” and “poor are the spirits that do not change, for they can’t be reborn.”
“Living is being open to everything that happens and I try to purge myself every once in a while. It is a hard exercise. But I’m 35 and still have a lot ahead of me, I should not be imprisoned by prejudice and preconceived ideas. I’m always changing my opinion. I don’t care for being discredited, for it’s a matter of sensibility. The moment I find something new, I’m prepared to confront it with my opinion and change if I have to.”
Having been brought up in fado among older and often more conservative singers, Ribeiro was for quite a while a radical opponent to any form of fado that welcomed modernity and did not invest all its energy interpreting the traditional songbook. But little by little he started to concede that in order to stay relevant, as with any other musical form, it should not resist innovation. “Fado does not exist outside of society,” he says. “It never did, it has always adapted to each particular time.” As long as it’s honest, Ribeiro has nothing against it. That is also what he is pursuing for himself. Rather than being understood, he’d like people to believe in him. Believing, as an act of faith, as something spiritual and beyond reason.
Ricardo Ribeiro will perform at Songlines Encounters Festival at Kings Place on June 1