- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

When it comes to fado, one of the oldest traditional forms of urban music, Portuguese singer Cristina Branco is in a bit of a quandary. She is partly responsible for, and has benefited from, a resurgence in the music’s popularity over the past several years, to the point that she is considered by some a successor to fado legend Amalia Rodrigues.

Yet, like Miss Rodrigues, whose death in 1999 at age 79 prompted three days of national mourning in Portugal, Miss Branco has made her mark by pushing the fado envelope. She will wrap up a six-city U.S. tour Sunday at the Birchmere in Alexandria.

Miss Branco says fado compares best with the blues, although to the American ear it sounds more akin to folk ballads with Iberian spices. In Lisbon, where fado took root in the 19th century, vocalists are typically female, accompanied by classical or Spanish guitar in combination with a Portuguese guitarra, a 12-string instrument shaped like a teardrop mandolin.

Fado themes generally involve destiny — the word itself translates as “fate.” Like blues, themes often involve betrayal in love, death and despair, as well as the Portuguese concept of saudade, a bittersweet longing for things as they once were or might become, a term for which there is no easy English equivalent. Call it nostalgic melancholy.

A distinctly different form of fado flourished in the university city of Coimbra, but that’s another story.

“I am not a fado singer,” insists Miss Branco, 33. “I’m just a singer. I’m a chameleon, if you will.” Critics have written that Miss Branco possesses a voice that can make a listener weep.

She admits to “diverging a little bit” from tradition in her recent music. “It is part of the natural process,” she says.

Yes, fado captured her ear and changed her career path when she was studying journalism in college, and it has brought her fame among European audiences. But her latest recordings have challenged fado traditionalists.

“I like it,” she says of fado. “I like to pass through it. It’s not my cup of tea, not in its traditional form. I like to open my wings and just fly.”

“Ulisses,” her latest recording and the basis of her current tour, is a voyage through world music worthy of its mythical namesake. Miss Branco sings songs from four continents in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese.

Listeners “don’t have to know the language,” she says. “I will always tell part of the story, but not all of it. It makes for part of the mystery.”

• • •

Larry Sparks is still working on a follow-up to his 2005 CD, “40,” the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) album of the year, with guest appearances from Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Tom T. Hall and Alison Krauss along with contributions from alumni of his Lonesome Ramblers band, Stuart Duncan, Barry Crabtree and David Harvey.

The 2004 and 2005 IBMA male vocalist of the year says he’s looking forward to performing Saturday at Lucketts Community Center in northwestern Loudoun County, where there is “always a good audience.”

He is planning songs and preparing to record a new disc for release in the middle of summer festival season, possibly as soon as July, with new songs, but not entirely bluegrass gospel, the music for which Mr. Sparks, 58, is well-known.

“I’m partial to the old way of closing out with a gospel song,” he says, agreeing that he is “overdue” for a gospel project. Following up “40” has been “tough,” he says, but not insurmountable for a guitarist who got his start playing with the Stanley Brothers at age 16 in the 1960s. When Carter Stanley died, his brother, banjo playing tenor Ralph Stanley, re-formed his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, with Mr. Sparks singing lead. The rest is bluegrass history.

“It was quite an experience for me, looking back,” says Mr. Sparks, who is splitting time between the studio in Nashville and his home in Greensburg, Ind. “I don’t know what direction I would have taken if I hadn’t been introduced to them. I’m kind of glad it went the way it did.”

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