The Portuguese fado singer who charmed Madonna

The younger sister of famed performer Amalia Rodrigues continues to perform at age 94

Madonna and Celeste Rodrigues in the Luso Cafe in Lisbon.
Madonna and Celeste Rodrigues in the Luso Cafe in Lisbon.Instagram

Standing tall, with sequins around her neck and rings on her fingers, Celeste Rodrigues performs fados – a melancholic style of Portuguese music – to about a dozen tourists who have no idea who she is. Celeste, who will soon turn 95 years old, is the oldest fado singer in the world.

“I’ve been singing fado music for 73 years; since 1945. In this café, I’ve been singing for 14 years. I was at a cafe in the Alfama neighborhood for 35 years but that one closed down with the Carnation Revolution [a military coup also known as the 25th of April, which took place in 1974].” Celeste hasn’t forgotten the name of the café – the journalist has forgotten to write it down. Celeste remembers dates and places with extraordinary precision. “You’re Spanish? Ah! The Pasapoga Music Hall, on Gran Vía in Madrid, how I loved that place. It’s not there anymore, though.”

You either feel fado or you don’t Celeste Rodrigues

Celeste sings at midnight at a fado music hall in the Luso Cafe of Bairro Alto, or at La Mesa de Frades in Alfama. “I sing every day, music enriches people’s lives. It’s the only thing I do because it’s the only profession I have. If I didn’t sing, I would be dead by now.”

It is no coincidence her surname is Rogrigues. Celeste is the little sister of the great Amalia Rodrigues (1920-1999), the fifth of nine children in a humble family. “With the exception of two tours in Brazil, I never sang with her. I never took advantage of her fame. I also don’t sing her songs. What for? She sang them so beautifully herself.”

A month ago, while Celeste performed in Alfama, a blonde woman appeared with a noisy entourage behind her. “They told me that she was Madonna, but I kept singing. It would have been rude to my audience to stop.”

In private, the two woman sung Elvis songs and later Madonna invited the fado singer to spend New Year’s Eve at her apartment in New York. The Portuguese singer spoke wonders of Madonna, but she solemnly warns: “Delete everything about Madonna. It’s wrong to take advantage of people’s fame.”

Celeste is the little sister of the great Amalia Rodrigues

Celeste follows the new fado singers in the industry, but she laughs as if to say: “You think just because I’m old I’m clueless,” when asked who her favorites are. “All of them. Those who are authentic. There are different ways to sing, different tastes but fado is fado and it is always changing. A fado is sung based on how the singer is feeling that day. There is no modern fado or pure fado or vadío fado [a style typically sung by amateurs with no commercial motive]. You either feel it or you don’t.”

While her older sister Amalia became the face of modern fado, Celeste preferred traditional fado, perhaps because she fancied the smaller Alfama music hall to the world’s great stages. "We all have class, to sing fado is to sing about life’s tribulations. It’s not a love story. I no longer have the voice of a young woman but I’ve gained emotion. I’ve gone through many things that you have no idea about when you are young.”

For Estrela Carvas, a lifelong friend to Amalia who now takes care of a museum in her honor, there is no doubt that Celeste is the best fado singer. “There are great voices out there today, but they lack heart, they lack experience. They sing to buy their next car. Fado is experience, it is life.”

I sing every day, music enriches people’s lives. If I didn’t sing, I’d be dead by now

Sometimes Celeste swaps fado for folkloric music, “Portuguese, of course. I love bulerías [a 12-beat flamenco rhythm], seguidillas [a Spanish folksong and courtship dance] and peteneras [a flamenco palo], but I wouldn’t dare sing those for an audience. Fado singers are like flamenco artists, pure feeling, and if there is one thing they can’t allow it is a foreign accent. There are Japanese and Dutch people who sing fado, but it’s not the same.”

After a lifetime of filling seats in New York’s Carnegie Hall and theaters around the world, it is now time to sing to a group of tourists as they eat calco verde [a Portuguese green soup] and codfish. Celeste adjusts her shawl, fixes her hair, and starts to leave with her guitar players. But right before she reaches the stage, she comes back to the table: “Don’t forget what I said. Delete everything about  Madonna.”

English version by Laura Rodríguez.

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