Friday, March 22, 2013

Ana Moura - in tune with the times

Amid all the depressing economic news emanating day after day in Portugal, even melancholic fado music can provide welcome light relief, especially when sung by Ana Moura. It is also giving solace of sorts to Portuguese emigrants who have sought a better life abroad.
There can be no greater compliment to a female fado singer than to be likened to the iconic Amália Rodrigues. Although bordering on the heretical to some older fado aficionados, this is the kind of reputation Ana Moura is garnering on her current tour of Europe and North America.
So far this month she has performed to full houses in San Francisco, Boston, New York, Washington and Cleveland. This weekend it’s Chicago and Minneapolis, then on to North Carolina and Ontario.
A correspondent for the Boston Globe described Moura as “one of the latest singers to come out of the Lisbon taverns, where fado’s essence resides, and become one of its global ambassadors. She embodies, at a high level, modern fado’s duality: her potent contralto and her traditional fado treatments have earned her Amália comparisons at home – the ultimate connoisseur’s praise.”
As a fado “ambassador,” Moura is rivalling Mozambique-born Mariza who in the past decade has reportedly sold a million records and played more than a thousand concerts worldwide.
Moura has been singing fado since the age of six. Her interpretations of the form of music unique to the Portuguese have moved on from the purely traditional songs she learned from her fado-singing parents in Santarém.
“I started to grow up and listen to all kinds of styles, and I always sang many styles, but I always felt as a fado singer. It’s a way to express your feelings, your soul,” says Moura, now 33.
Rather shy off-stage, she has resisted being ‘programmed’ as a performer and cherished individual freedom of expression. “We are authentic if we sing with our souls. It should come from inside. I want the spontaneity that my parents taught me when I was young,” she says.
It helps, but you don’t have to understand Portuguese to appreciate fado. “If you have the emotion, the message can be felt by the audience even if they don’t understand the lyrics,” she told the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. In her recently released album, Desfado, three of the 14 songs are in English. One is called “Thank You, and the lyrics include the lines “Thank you for making me cry” and “Thank you for breaking my heart.”
Said a music critic in the New York Daily News, “The point, it seems, is to savour emotion itself, to celebrate the frisson of feeling beyond consequence. It takes a singer of rare passion to articulate the nuances of such risks and, right now, the Lisbon-based Moura stands at the forefront of them.”
Her innovative fado renditions sometimes incorporate elements of modern popular music. Some of her melodies are even downright jaunty, but much of what she sings is still plaintive. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones put his finger on it by describing fado as “Portuguese blues.”
On meeting her for the first time, Richards also succinctly summed up another of Moura’s attributes: “She’s very, very pretty.”
The mutual admiration between the Rolling Stones and the beguilingly demure Miss Moura was (and still is) obvious from YouTube videos of them rehearsing and performing together in Lisbon back in 2007 (click on link below).
Today in Portugal, Moura's 'blues' could not be more in tune with this time of deep pessimism over debt, austerity, unemployment and the future for the nation’s youth.
While her current concert tour is attracting admirers of various nationalities, many in her audiences are Portuguese emigrants. Over the past two years, since the country entered its worst recession in decades, some 240,000 people have left to join the millions of other Portuguese already living abroad. Moura’s music nicely satisfies feelings of homesickness, nostalgia, fate - saudades.

* Ana Moura is performing in the Barbican Centre in London on 20th April. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Criminals, wanted and unwanted

The law often works excruciatingly slowly and in dark, convoluted ways. Overshadowed internationally by the latest episode in the 12-year-old legal saga being enacted in Britain over the radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada, there is lingering concern in Portugal about gangster Abu Salem who is facing trial for alleged heinous crimes committed in India two decades ago.
Born into a modest family in the north of India in 1968, Abu Salem rose rapidly from taxi driver and petty crook to billionaire underworld don. He is accused of involvement in extortion, murder and playing an active role in the 1993 Mumbai bomb atrocities that killed more than 250 people and injured 700.
Portuguese police arrested Salem in Lisbon in 2002 along with his Bollywood actress girlfriend Monica Bedi. She went on to serve two years in a Portuguese jail for her association with Salem and possessing forged travel documents.
In February 2004 a Portuguese court approved Salem’s extradition to face charges in India. He was eventually deported in November 2005. The deportation was dependent on Indian government assurances that Salem would not face the death penalty or be kept behind bars for more than 25 years.
Portugal was one of the first countries in the world to abolish capital punishment. It imposed an absolute ban long before joining the prohibition under the European Convention on Human Rights in 1976.
While Salem awaited trial, police in New Delhi and Mumbai came up with further charges carrying the death penalty. A court in Portugal responded in September 2011 by cancelling the earlier deportation ruling. Then last July, with Salem still incarcerated in a high-security Indian prison, the Portuguese Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s cancellation.
Last week while on a visit to India with a business delegation to discuss bilateral economic, trade and social security arrangements, the Portuguese foreign minister raised the matter of Salem’s extradition with his Indian counterpart.
“I think the judiciary in Portugal has raised some issues. The judiciary here in our country will take care of them,” External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said in a joint press conference with Paulo de Sacadura Cabral Portas. 
Mr Khurshid conveyed India's “deep appreciation for the positive support” extended by Portugal on the extradition. He said India would “remain compliant with the expectations,” of the Portuguese legal system and judiciary, an assurance of sorts that Cabral Portas found “reasonable.”

Efforts in Britain to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan to face terrorism charges have been going on now for seven years at a cost to the British taxpayer of half a million pounds in legal aid alone. Despite assurances from Jordan, it is argued that confessions obtained by torture would be used against Qatada. While his continued presence infuriates the British government, Justice Minister Lord McNally said this week that the legal protection holding up the deportation request was “part of what makes us a civilised society.”

In marked contrast to all this ponderous deliberation, the attempt by law enforcers in the United States to extradite the former Black Panther, convicted murderer, prison escapee and hijacker George Wright was dealt with in Portugal remarkably swiftly.
Arrested near Lisbon in September 2011 after 41 years on the run, the FBI wanted Wright back in America to serve the rest of his 1972 New Jersey jail sentence. By the time they tracked him down, however, he had morphed into José Luís Jorge dos Santos, 67, a Portuguese citizen married to a Portuguese woman by whom he had fathered two sons in a country with a statute of limitations, even for murderers.
In less than two months, a panel of three judges ruled that the statute of limitations had expired and so Mr Wright a.k.a. Sr Santos could not be extradited. A month later the decision was upheld by Portugal’s Supreme Court and the case formally closed. Wright was suddenly a free man for the first time in 50 years.

Meanwhile, there has been much criticism of endemic inefficiency in the execution of justice in Portugal, so much so that judicial reform was one of the key demands in the €74 million bailout deal.  Also, a recent study indicated that the Portuguese are among the citizens of Europe with the least confidence in their country’s legal system.
Flawed as it is, though, some might argue that in some ways, highlighted by the cases of Abu Salem and George Wright, the legal system here is part of what makes this a civilised society.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

‘People power’ and Portugal’s economy

The March 2 anti-austerity demonstrations thrust Portugal into the limelight far beyond Europe in newspapers as diverse as USA Today and the Times of India, the Jamaica Observer and the Bangkok Post.
Editors and readers would have been struck by the scale of the event (hundreds of thousands of protesters in more than 40 cities). The name of the main organisers had gutsy appeal: Que se Lixe a Troika (variously translated as ‘Damn’, ‘Screw’ or ‘F***’ the Troika).
The story was enlivened because it was a display of ‘people power’ coinciding with a visit to Lisbon by representatives of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Demands that the government must resign and renditions of the song that echoed the Portuguese revolution of 1974 added an extra edge.
One of the more searing quotes came from Fabio Carvalho, a filmmaker taking part in the protest in Lisbon. He told Reuters:  “This government has left the people on bread and water, selling off state assets for peanuts to pay back debts that were contracted by corrupt politicians to benefit bankers.”
The opposition Socialist leader, António José Seguro was succinct in his appraisal: “It is time to stop austerity, to stop the impoverishment of the Portuguese and Portugal.”
All in all, a mixture of zestful organisation and heart-felt spontaneity resulted in street drama full of sound bites and powerful images reflecting social angst - yet free from the violence that has marred similar protests in other countries in the Mediterranean region.
But what did it achieve?
The main messages certainly did not go unnoticed by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, his centre-right government or the Troika lenders who insisted on austerity measures as a condition for the €78 billion bailout in 2011.
In denouncing the present government in general and its imposition of severe austerity in particular, the protesters have added impetus to the Movemento 12 de Março formed by activists in 2011 to “make every citizen a politician” in the promotion of democracy in this country.
The 2011 demonstrations helped bring about the collapse of the last Socialist government and there is now renewed determination to oust the present conservative administration.
Declared Armenio Carlos, Secretary-General of the CGTP, Portugal’s largest trade union: “Today it is clear that this government has no political legitimacy, has no moral legitimacy, has no ethical legitimacy to continue to govern, because any visit by any minister is followed with protests and demands for the resignation of the government. The government has become the problem that prevents the solution.”
Widely condemned as they are, Passos Coelho and his government have a comfortable majority in Parliament. National elections are still two years away.
After chairing a meeting in Brussels of EU finance ministers, Jeroen Dijsselbloem of the Netherlands told reporters that Portugal is “on track and performing well despite challenging macroeconomic circumstances.”
Portugal’s Minister of Finance Vitor Gaspar said at the end of the Brussels meeting that the crucial message for the protesters and others was that “all the efforts and the sacrifices made by the Portuguese….will be successful.”
Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal pointed out: “The government's commitment to the bailout conditions has encouraged international investors, enabling Portugal to sell its bonds in the market and increasing its chances of covering its financing needs when the bailout program expires in mid-2014.” But, the paper added, “growing political and social opposition to the austerity measures could threaten the government’s control of its finances.”
The EU finance ministers have since agreed in principle to requests by both Portugal and Ireland for extensions to the deadlines for repayments of their loans. Analysts believe the Troika may go along with the requests in order to avert the growing danger of further political turmoil. We will have to wait a little longer to find out.
Bloomberg this week quoted the EU’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn as saying: “I hope we can conclude this work and give a strong message of confidence” when the ministers meet in Dublin in April.”
The April message is unlikely to satisfy the anti-austerity, anti-Passos Coelho lobby.  Meanwhile, it is far from clear what alternative economic recovery plan would be better and who would be better equipped to implement it.