There is right side and there is a flip side. Heads and tails. The Yin and the Yang. Then, happily for all of us, there are those who, through talent and conviction, merit and hard work, succeed in showing us that the world is not all black and white but is, in fact, many-coloured, multiply shaded and diversely hued and that bridges and syntheses are both possible and desirable. António Zambujo has earned a special place amongst this group of architects, always refusing – by dint of instinct, belief and artistic necessity – to remain confined to a single style, a school, a genre. At his own pace, he has crafted a sweeping heritage that is all his own; one that, like Do Avesso,  reaffirms in full, works in open space, without narrow compartments, and with total, natural communication between all corners of the house. Just note, for example, the new songs that have led the singer to bring in an orchestra, the Lisbon Sinfonietta, and those others where he is accompanied by a single instrument, be it the piano or the acoustic guitar. One of the healthily distinctive features of this path, which is only superficially paradoxical, is thus revealed – the more he diversifies his targets of interest, the more he erases the boundaries of stereotypes and of formats, the more António Zambujo establishes his musical personality, which is so much more than just his voice, itself unmistakeable.

To see this, just consider some of the details of the record that once again brings us directly into the orbit of António Zambujo. Let's begin with the choice of repertoire, a sure indicator of the transversality of interests and motivations: if the singer brings his composer “side” to the fore on three of the tracks, one feels like saying that the companion songwriters that he called in are, as they might say across the water, a “pure luxury”. In alphabetical order and just from Portugal: Aldina Duarte, João Monge, Jorge Benvinda, Luísa Sobral, Márcia, Mário Laginha, Miguel Araújo, Paulo Abreu Lima and Pedro Silva Martins. At the very least, this looks like a list of nominees for a kind of “Portuguese national team”. Some are working with António Zambujo for the first time whilst others are riding long-term collaborations and partnerships. Some of these figures should, without exaggeration, be considered seminal shapers of various “regions” of the music being made in Portugal. It is certainly worth thinking about how they have come together, without being forced or hurried to do so. And there is more: the singer’s passion for Brazil – also evident in a record entirely dedicated to Chico Barque, Até Pensei Que Fosse Minha (I Even Thought It Was Mine) – is quite clear on three fronts, each of which involves different generations and approaches: Rodrigo Maranhão, who is back again, and the duos Arnaldo Antunes/Cézar Mendes and Fernando Brant/Milton Nascimento. This is by no means the only “classic” presence, as a new lease of life has been given to a timeless near century-old track from José Maria Lacalle, (a Spaniard from Cadiz, who later settled in the United States): Amapola. The song, here sounding completely different from the instrumental version immortalised in the Ennio Morricone soundtrack to the film Once Upon A Time In America, was first released in 1920. Lastly, there is one more reunion, in the form of a tune written by the Uruguayan Jorge Drexler and the first song in Spanish to earn a Hollywood Oscar. With his usual “generosity”, which touches all 14 of the songs on the album, António Zambujo has wrought a mosaic in which the surprises and “acknowledgements” unfold smoothly into a construction of the highest harmony.

Another “external” indication that he has sought out the new (sustained, if you wish to use a word in vogue) is his choice of producers and musicians. In the first case, there is a troika that dispenses with austerities but that never derails into excess: Nuno Rafael, Filipe Melo and João Moreira, all of whom have already left their “fingerprints”. It could be a coincidence, but is likely not, that the singer has brought each of these into a “section” of instruments. The first is also particularly noticeable in the guitars. Or in the strings, if you prefer. The second excels as a pianist, with the instrument embedding itself in the percussion or, more strictly speaking, the percussive strings. The third dazzles as a trumpet player: that is, he is of the wind. As if this total “representativity” were not enough, António Zambujo has also taken on another challenge, by involving the Lisbon Sinfonietta, conducted by Vasco Pearce de Azevedo. With all these contributions, plus those of such musicians as Bernardo Couto, Ricardo Cruz, Emilie Flop, José Miguel Conde and Ana Cláudia Serrão, and the distinctive sounds of the Hammond organ, the clavinet, the EBow, the lap steel, the  marimba, the clarinets and the violoncello, in addition to the piano, guitars and percussion, the whole album is fine-tuned to avoid overload, superfluity, any hint of exhibitionism: what is important, essential, continues to be driven by the melodies, the words, the voice, the songs.

There is yet one further reason for us to be impressed and fascinated by this pilgrimage made by António Zambujo, who has never been out of sight or out of mind for very long. We can applaud him at all sorts of concerts, whether his own, those he does for charity (he will be playing at one of these at the Casa da Música, in Oporto, before the end of November), those he shares (on 15 December next he will in Estarreja, with Rancho de Cantadores da Aldeia Nova de São Bento), those with or without orchestral accompaniment (on 23 February 2019, he returns to Coliseu do Porto, on 2 March he moves on to Coliseu dos Recreios, in Lisbon, and on 24 May he will be at Convento de São Francisco, in Coimbra) or at one of his myriad performances abroad (in February of next year, he will also be appearing in Paris and Luxembourg). Two documents make his liking for live performance quite clear: Lisbon 22:38 – Live at the Coliseu, from 2013, and 28 Nights Live at the Coliseus, from this year, which spotlights his “partnership” with Miguel Araújo and resoundingly testifies to one of the most impressive “seasons” for Portuguese musicians performing at major venues (a record, it would seem), with zero signs of ennui or lack of appetite on the part of audience. Quite the opposite, in fact. No less important or significant is António Zambujo’s willingness to lend a hand – or a voice, to be more precise – to those who request it. It would be overly punctilious to reproduce the full honour roll of his participations on other artists’ albums. Half a dozen examples are more than enough to evince his interest in such adventures: Carlão and Jorge Fernando, Dengaz and Júlio Pereira, Samuel Úria and Luísa Sobral. What is quite clear, in this regard, is the ease and fluidity with which António Zambujo ignores boundaries and removes any presumptive obstacles. This makes him of inestimable worth in all the projects to which he sets his hand.

The rest is what we already know and what this unique path has allowed us to determine: that António Zambujo was born in Beja, in Portugal’s Alentejo region, on 19 September 1975. That he had an auspicious and grounded musical childhood – learning the clarinet from the age of eight – and an adolescence much focused on what was to become his professional craft. That he ended up moving to Lisbon, where he split his time between a daily dose of fado and laying siege to musicals, immediately making the mark that would lead him to the place, as difficult as it is uninteresting to actually “locate”, in which he finds himself in today. His first album was launched in 2002 and opened the way for an impressive run of awards and other distinctions, most notably the Order of Prince Henry, with which he was invested by the President of the Republic in 2015. There is plenty of evidence for his natural, and non-strategic, inclination to avoid choosing a “single way” (or a fast one) in his musical work. While, on the one hand, he has recorded with a group (Angelite) of Bulgarian Voices, he has never concealed his passion for Brazilian music. His voice has prompted Caetano Veloso to raptures: “I want to hear more, more times, deeper (...) It gives me goose bumps and makes me cry”. With the international release of his albums, he has begun scaling the rich and infinite heights of world music, a melting pot in which the right to difference is all. However, he never really veers very far from planet Portugal, where – as we have seen – he neither establishes nor practises academic distinctions of genre. Ever more cherished by his audiences and increasingly acclaimed by critics, not rushingly so but at a pace with which the singer himself is comfortable, he takes to the stage for concerts and festivals in Portugal and elsewhere, particularly in Brazil but also in such unlikely spots as Denmark, Norway, Azerbaijan, Israel and Bulgaria. This internationalisation forms the backdrop for the further enrichment of António Zambujo’s “menu” – as plainly shown by the nomination of Até Pensei Que Fosse Minha at the 2017 Latin Grammies, for Best Album... in the Brazilian Popular music category.

Another chapter has now been added to António Zambujo’s multifaceted, stimulating songbook, so tranquil in form yet so restless in content. It argues convincingly that it is not necessary to tear down in order to innovate, following to the letter the urgings of a singer and songwriter who has grown in stature with every single step, perhaps because he has not let himself be tied too much to the obvious but limiting roots of his talent and will. Rather, he has always sought to bear the juiciest of fruits but with an unexpected tartness. This is António Zambujo’s eighth studio album and, given that the number eight is lucky for the Chinese, it is quite clear, in this case, that this “great luck” is far more global, as it touches all of us. But: in an age in which we are learning to value and defend our rights, we have another objective before us – to put our foot down about our right to be (Do) Avesso [(Of the) Flip Side].

João Gobern
October 2018