By Anton Garcia-Fernandez.
During the first half of the twentieth century, fado underwent many decisive changes: from its origins in the brothels and dingy taverns of Lisbon, it moved to theaters, records, radio, movies, and the typical restaurants known as fado houses. Embraced by all different social classes, from the lower social strata to the aristocracy, it shed its bad reputation and ceased to be associated with rogues and criminals. Fadistas that once were amateur singers turned professional, striving to create an image and a recognizable sound that would secure them popularity and success. Fado began to be marketed and mass produced—it became an industry, an economic as well as an artistic pursuit. Berta Cardoso not only witnessed all these modifications, but she was one of the most important figures that helped usher them in. Throughout her long and successful career, she was always one of the most prominent artists in the fado scene, making extremely popular records, receiving standing ovations wherever she performed, making memorable appearances on radio and television, and even starring in movies. Today she is duly remembered as one of the foremost names in the history of the genre.
Born Bertha dos Santos Cardoso in the Lisbon parish of Sacramento in 1911, her father died when she was only nine, and a state institution took care of her. This upbringing apart from her mother would have a decisive influence on Cardoso, who would always value the idea of family as one of the bases of her life. Although she never married, she did have two sons, and as soon as she began to earn her own money, she made sure that her mother stayed close to her. In years to come, she would turn down many an interesting contract on account of her family life, proving that she was well aware of her priorities.
Cardoso did not start performing in front of live audiences until she was sixteen: her first appearance took place at the Salão Artístico de Fados, owned by Portuguese guitar whiz Armandinho, and it marked the beginning of an extremely successful career that in time would take her to Brazil, Africa, Spain, and the Portuguese colonies. Her singing was soon celebrated by specialized publications such as Guitarra de Portugal and Canção do Sul: “Berta Cardoso,” wrote the latter in 1941, “is not merely a singer. She has great diction and stage presence. In short, she knows how to act . . . Her singing style remains rich and powerful. At times she overshadows the orchestra, and her voice fills the stage, the theater, and our soul” (1). Indeed, Cardoso’s beautiful voice and very personal singing style dazed audiences and critics alike, earning her access to the theater stage, where she cemented her popularity starring in countless revues. She was not only an amazing singer, but also a very accomplished actress, and therefore, a natural for this kind of musical theater.
Her prolific recording career started in 1931, when she traveled to Madrid to cut her first sides for Odeon, accompanied by legendary musicians such as Armandinho and Georgino de Sousa. These early records met with wide acclaim, which led to many more sessions; by the late 1930s, Cardoso had signed a much more advantageous recording contract with Valentim de Carvalho. Even in the late 1950s and 1960s, when she was making records for the lesser-known Estoril label, her music sold in respectable quantities. Her very lyrical approach to fado singing is well represented in her records, all of them magnificent examples of the high quality standards that fado had reached in those golden years that span the period from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Berta Cardoso was a regular fixture on radio throughout the 1930s and 1940s, a period of constant touring and appearances on highly successful revues. In 1940, she also performed in Feitiço do Império (The Spell of the Empire), a movie directed by António Lopes Ribeiro and meant as a propagandistic exaltation of the dictatorial government of António de Oliveira Salazar. One of the biggest productions in the history of Portuguese cinema up until that point, the film featured a whole array of great stars such as Luís de Campos, Isabela Tovar, and Francisco Ribeiro. Performances by Alfredo Duarte Marceneiro also graced the movie, which was an instant success and remained in theaters for many years.
The 1950s saw Berta Cardoso enduring difficult times: not only did her mother pass away in 1951, but her son Humberto died tragically in Mozambique in 1959. As she mourned these two important personal losses, she gradually abandoned the theater stage and concentrated on her appearances at fado houses. Television arrived in Portugal around 1957, soon becoming a powerful medium for the divulgation of fado, and of course, Cardoso was prominently featured on television shows until her definitive retirement in 1982.
From left to right: Berta Cardoso, Lina Maria Alves, Alfredo Marceneiro, and Portuguese guitarist Acácio Gomes.
Cardoso had a very acute poetic sensibility, as demonstrated by her constant concern with the quality of the lyrics of her songs. Mostly written by acclaimed fado poets such as João Linhares Barbosa, Armando Neves, Joaquim Frederico de Brito, and Luís da Silva Gouveia, her songs underwent periodic lyrical modifications: “Any artist always feels a constant need to update his or her repertoire,” she once reflected. “Of course, people still request my old hits, and so do the record companies. But that is not enough. I would not like to be accused of tiring off my audience, and so I strive to update my repertoire as much as possible” (2). These are words of wisdom spoken by a cultivated woman who understood the importance of the relationship between an artist and the audience, one of the secrets of her prolonged success.
Berta Cardoso was a witty woman, both on and offstage: she enjoyed impersonating other artists and was a hard-working professional who always knew how to please the people that flocked to see her shows. Her death in July of 1997 left us without one of the true first ladies of fado, an all-around entertainer that has become an icon of Portuguese music at large. Her voice, preserved in her numerous records for posterity, sounds as thrilling now as it did when she cut them: it still transmits a whole palette of complex feelings that range from the sadness and saudade of loss to the joy of everyday life. Berta Cardoso, that “fadista with tears in her voice” (3) undoubtedly remains one of the all-time heroines of fado.
Acknowledgments: This article would never have been possible without the kindness and cooperation of my good friend Ofélia Pereira, who knew Berta Cardoso in life and owns an impressive collection of memorabilia related to the great fadista. She graciously sent me the catalog of the exhibition Berta Cardoso, 1911-1997, held at Lisbon’s Museu do Fado in 2006, and I am indebted to her for that.
Links: For more information on Berta Cardoso, please visit Ofélia’s website BertaCardoso.Com, which contains sound clips, pictures, and biographical data both in Portuguese and English. To watch Berta Cardoso videos, please click on the following links:
Cinta Vermelha / Red Ribbon
Noite de São João / Night of St. John
Lés a Lés - one of her earliest recordings
Fado do Marinheiro / Fado of the Sailor - with Márcia Condessa and Maria Clara
Olhai a Noite / Look at the Night
(1) Canção do Sul. 19th Year, Issue 287. December 1, 1941.
(2) ”Vida artística: Berta Cardoso, uma voz que continua a ouvir-se na noite de Lisboa.” Diário de Notícias. June 23, 1973.
(3) This nickname was coined in Portugal and followed Cardoso to Brazil. See Berta Cardoso, 1911-1997. EGEAC / Museu do Fado, 2006: 30.