By Joe Wiebe, January 2013
A diagnosis of MS may have slowed her down, but Sara Marreiros is back with fado nights, a new EP, and a new spirit.
Over tea at a quiet back table at Murchie’s, Sara Marreiros tells me, “Fado resonates deeply in my spirit. When I sing, it just takes me to my other home, which is Portugal. It’s like dropping into the earth there.”
Fado is a musical style that originated in the 1820s in Lisbon and has evolved into the quintessential Portuguese art form. Performed by a male or female singer who is traditionally accompanied by a musician playing Portuguese guitarra (a 12-string, pear-shaped instrument that resembles a mandolin), it demands extreme passion of its performers. Indeed, fado means “fate” in Portuguese, and many of the traditional songs are infused with a sense of melancholy and fatefulness. It is notoriously draining on the singer, both emotionally and physically.
Back in 2006, at age 30, Sara Marreiros’ star was on the rise. Her second CD of fado, bossa nova and jazz, Minha Luz, had just been released in 2005, following her 2002 debut, Alma de Terra. She was a singer on the verge of breakthrough on the national stage.
But then she started to experience some frightening physical symptoms of an unknown illness. She had just finished running a half marathon when it first happened. “Parts of my body started to numb up and not work well,” she explains. “It spread over my whole body over the course of three or four months.”
It got so bad that she had to put her career on hold. “The new CD was out and I’d been doing some really great work with it,” Marreiros says. “Everything just came to a standstill. I had to say no to things that my spirit wanted me to say yes to. There was just no physical option. I was actually unable to sing for a whole year because I was so weak.”
It took a year before her condition was diagnosed as relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis—“After many people telling me I was clinically depressed and exaggerating. I went through many doctors and just kept fighting.” It was mysterious and frightening, and Marreiros says her improv skills came in handy: “OK, I can’t use my body in this way, so I’ll try that way.”
After the diagnosis, it took a long time to work her way back up to singing. “I knew it took energy to sing, but I didn’t realize how much physical energy it took to sing until I couldn’t. If I took a deep breath, I would feel like I was going to pass out—or I would.”
She admits she was scared. not knowing if she would recover, if singing professionally would be part of her life again. “It was a very challenging place to be when everything changes and people can’t see it. MS is quite an invisible illness unless you are in a progressive state. I had to use a cane for a while, but it affects everybody so differently.”
As challenging as her illness and recovery were—and that recovery is ongoing—Marreiros is focused on a completely positive message. “I’m in a place right now of finding an even deeper appreciation for the music than I had six years ago.”
She also enjoys working with a friend in Vancouver who does “sound healing” with chronically ill patients and another improvisational ensemble group that takes participants on “sounds journeys”—activities she has been involved with since before her diagnosis.
Marreiros released a new EP, Something Sweet on the Wind, in August 2012 and has been performing in a variety of smaller venues around Victoria. She says, “When I do shows now, I find that I’m in that really present place of ‘I’m singing right now—this is really wonderful!’ It’s so much more deeply rooted than before.”
She says, “The people I work with are very understanding. Sometimes at a show if I can’t do a certain piece then they will do a piece and then I’ll join them again.”
Actually, this isn’t uncommon—Marreiros says that in Portugal it is common for a fadista to sing two or three fados and then take a 20-minute break. “You have to sing them 110 percent. There is no halfway singing in fado. It won’t come across.”
She handles it by mixing in the fados with jazz and blues standards, as well as jazz-inspired arrangements of contemporary pop songs. On a night I saw her perform at the Café Superior with bassist Trav Short last November, I found myself singing along to two tunes before I fully recognized them as songs from the 1980s: Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” and “Lovesong” by The Cure—both filtered through her smoky, expressive vocal stylings.
Fado comes to her somewhat naturally, or perhaps genetically. Her father is Portuguese and she spent parts of her childhood living there. She has returned often as an adult.
“Portugal is all about fate and destiny and drama and passion. I love it. I am it! You’re either meant to sing fado or you’re not. You either have the calling or you don’t. That’s how it weaved itself in. It just kind of crept into my life in a very mysterious way.”
On her most recent visit to Portugal, she finally took the leap and performed fado there in the heartland. “It was great. I was so exposed: being somewhere where every single person speaks that language and half of them know the song, it was terrifying and really exciting.”
Marreiros performed in a fado house in Lisbon where she was given 15 minutes to warm up with a guitarist in a back room before singing. She also performed in Sagres, her family’s hometown, where they were holding a fado night in a local bar for the first time. That was special since she could perform for family members there.
Back here in Victoria, Marreiros is looking to the future. She is excited about a monthly fado night (first Thursday of every month) that is starting up at the Solstice Café. She hopes to travel and perform, though at a slower pace than is typical for a touring musician. She’s writing a song inspired by her temperamental illness—about tightrope walking and tiger taming. She wants to do fundraising and help raise awareness about multiple sclerosis. She’d love to return to Portugal with some of the musicians she works with here on a regular basis—people like Galen Hartley and Dan Weisenberger along with Trav Short. “Ideally, we’d just immerse ourselves for three weeks in the fado houses.”
Obviously Marreiros chooses not to live in fear of her disease: “I choose to work with it and do my best to understand it.”
Check out www.saramarreiros.com for performance announcements, as well as links to where you can listen to and purchase her recordings.
Joe Wiebe is a Victoria-based writer. His work has appeared in Toro, enRoute, BC Business and Geist, and newspapers such as the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and the Globe and Mail.