Growing up in San Leandro as part of a Portuguese-American family, “(Music) was always buzzing around in the background,” Ramana Vieira said.
“When we gathered for family functions, people would bring out a harmonica and a ukulele and a couple guitars and we’d sing the Portuguese folk songs,” the Bay Area singer recalled. “It was so second nature.”
Vieira will tap into her musical heritage Friday with a concert dedicated to fado, the sorrowful, sensual music of Portugal. The name means “fate” in Portuguese.
A passionate genre with roots in sailors’ shanties and African slave songs, fado is the soulful soundtrack of a nation. “It’s kind of the blues roots music of Portugal,” Vieira explained, so moving that it’s almost filmic.
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“Fado is so deeply, soulfully sung that it would be the perfect canvas for a drama or a love story,” she said. “The music is so hauntingly beautiful There’s a lot of ambience.”
As the child of Portuguese immigrants, Vieira encountered music on a regular basis.
Her grandfather, a musician and composer in his native island of Madeira, introduced her to piano and organ at a young age. Other family members played instruments too.
“My mother would pick up a harmonica and play like nobody’s business and nobody taught her,” Vieira said.
A passionate fado fan, she introduced her daughter to such greats as Carlos do Carmo and Amália Rodrigues, the well-known “Rainha do Fado” (“Queen of Fado”). “My mom to this day will say, ‘I didn’t play much of her music,’ and yet I grew up listening to my mom’s treasured record collection,” Vieira said.
Despite her foundation in Portuguese music, the singer initially had no interest in being a fadista.
“I absolutely stayed as far away as I absolutely could,” Vieira said. Instead, she preferred musical theater and female singer-songwriters such as Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Sarah McLachlan.
That changed when Vieira traveled to Portugal at age 16.
At a café, “I was asked to go up and sing a fado as a dare,” Vieira said. “I got a standing ovation. I was encouraged on the spot to pursue fado and I’ve never looked back.”
Vieira received further encouragement from a record producer. “He said, ‘Honey, this rock music world is not your path. It’s singing this ethnic music,’” she recalled.
Vieira released her first album, “Sem Ti” (“Without You”) in 2000, followed by “Daspi a Alma” (“Undressed My Soul”) four years later.
Her latest album, 2009’s “Lágrimas De Rainha” (“Tears of a Queen”), blends traditional, time-honored ballads with more contemporary sounds such as bossa nova, jazz and Latin music.
“It’s important for me to walk that balance of bridging the two together, the old and the new,” the singer said. “It is my purpose to take what is inherently a beautiful traditional art form and express it in the way I am spiritually guided to do.”
Over the course of her career, she has opened for Grammy Award-nominated fadista Mariza, performed her original song “Unido Para Amar” for the 2006 Winter Olympics, and participated in the Grammys’ 2008 MusiCares benefit concert. She sees movie soundtracks as the next natural step.
“That’s where I feel my strength is as a musician,” she said. “I play piano. I’m classically trained. It would make sense that I would want to explore what we could do with the best of both worlds.”
In the meantime, Vieira wants to bring fado to a wider audience.
She’s currently touring Southern California backed by Laura Boytz on cello, Jeffrey Luiz on classical guitar, Stephen La Porta on percussion and Alberto Ramirez on electric bass. Vieira said she eventually hopes to add a “guitarra portuguesa,” a round-bodied, 12-stringed guitar commonly associated with fado ensembles, to the mix.
With each concert, Vieira said, she encourages audiences to “join in on the collective energy that we’re building.”
“It’s important for me as a singer to tune into the audience and transport them somewhere,” she said. “That’s the fundamental root for me -- to heal and lift people’s spirits – and if I’m part of that, I’m doing my job.”