Lula Pena, born and raised in Lisbon, is a cosmopolitan Portuguese: a woman of the wide world! Singer-poet, mysterious woman that hides behind the guitar to best surprise us. A unique, deep voice, inspired by multiple references, playing with borders and with the finest poets.
Her first album, Phados, released in 1998, won her immediate acclaim. The deep, commanding yet sensitive voice; the natural blend of fado roots with colours of Portuguese folk music, French chanson, Cape Verdean morna, Brazilian bossa nova; the stripped-down delivery of voice and guitar; all heralded the arrival of a major new talent. And then she disappeared again, only reappearing some 12 years later with the release of her second album, Troubadour, a collection of stories of passion and pain, mirroring her personal journey as existentialist musician and serendipitous poet. In the past few years she has remained reassuringly present, performing in Cape Verde, Brazil, Chile and around Europe, occasionally appearing in duo with Guinea-Bissau multi-instrumentalist, Mu Mbana, or the New Zealand saxophonist, Hayden Chisholm, but usually, on her own and in her own time.
Lula Pena is still available on tour or one-off show, after the succes of her first tour in Taiwan and China in October 2017.
“The real surprise came with the long-awaited follow-up to singer-guitarist Lula Pena’s classic 1998 album [phados]” Richard Elliott, PopMatters Picks
There used to be a recurring thought whenever one spoke – and thankfully, one spoke quite a lot – about Lula Pena. Where was she and why were we suddenly deprived of hearing new recordings of her music, of her unique way of singing, a way that causes wonder in all that come across it? The reasons are manifold, like tales, and as pure and honest as the music they envelop. Born and raised in Lisbon, she grew away from the television set, her father’s radio a constant presence. She got used, she says, to “sound without the social imagery”. She remembers being 10 and having a teacher that would take her students to the far end of the playground, ask them to close their eyes and identify every sound they could hear. At home, her brother played the guitar and they both discovered the humble miracle of polyphony,
while tearing through the discography of Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, north-American folk, Beatles or jazz. That may well have been a significant part of her education even if, to this day, she insists she does not “look for anything” and instead “finds [it] along her path”. She didn’t idolise or despise anyone or anything; and if, as a child, she ever picked up the guitar to play a song she barely remembered, the possibility was always there to make it hers. She took the lyrics and rearranged them; offered up new words, new metrics, a new melody. She says “Tradition must be kept alive so it can become tradition”.
Lula Pena plays fado removing its “f”, assuming, without orthographic drama but with a lot of faith, her role as “phadista” (the title of her first and only album, from 1998, was, precisely, “Phados”, a sort of Arabic wordplay). Immersed in her own, singular, relationship with sound, with history, with memory, we can think about Lula not only as one of great craftswomen of fado, but also as someone who lives it. She sails it to every Mediterranean port, towards the French language so she might add words to speak of love, but also across the Atlantic to Brazil and Central America when the wind carries her that way, uttering the English word when she must.
She took drawing classes then stopped. But there is still some calligraphic precision in every musical note she sketches. On the day she celebrated getting a show in a Barcelona gallery, her house was broken into, all her work robbed. Someone reminded her she still owned a guitar. She played on the streets, left for Brussels where she performed in bars and jazz clubs. She played in Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands and to King Mohammed V of Morocco right after the Royal Orchestra, with the oud giant Rabih Abhou-Khalil nearby. She performed many miles away from here, her voice the gift of a romantic husband to his wife on her sixtieth birthday.
Many have fallen in love with her music through the years. But she considered giving up her art and the business, to withdraw, refusing public appearances. She says “velocity is inhuman” and hers is a “work that builds inside out – trying to figure out human technology”. We must be thankful to those who only work like this – because they are infinite, serious and lighthearted at the same time. Yes, maybe Lula has been away too long, away from those who understand she is beautiful just the way she is, from those who are more than happy to give her the room she needs to share everything coming out of her in a flow, both serene and everlasting. Those who are free follow their
own rules. Those whose hearts are gentle have rules we might do well to trust.