Much of the world’s best music – jazz, blues, rock – can credit the traditional songs of one or more cultures as an inspiration. Now, many world music performers are exploring these cultural traditions, bringing local music onto an international stage.
Fresh and centered from the afternoon yoga class she teaches, Ramana Viera shared from her heart and imagination about the creative process of writing and performing Portuguese songs together with a group of other innovative musicians.
Here’s a paraphrased excerpt from my conversation with Viera – but first, she would like to thank her very supportive production company, Pacific Coast Music, for the work they put in producing her latest album, Lagrimas del Rainha.
You may visit their website, and listen to and buy the music, here: http://ramanavieira.net/
Ramana Viera (RV): People are more aware of traditional music nowadays…we’ve heard of Gypsy, or Roma, music, and Spanish flamenco. And Portuguese music has a style all its own. We have a kind of music, fado, which is more sedate, usually has three guitar players, and serves a cultural function like American blues. Fado deals with themes such as lost love, grief, and nostalgia.
Cristina Deptula (CD): So, do you perform traditional fado, or do you mix things up a bit?
RV: Our band loves the traditional pieces, and the history of that music. We do innovate when it comes to fado: we’ve used electric guitars and incorporated Latin rhythms. When we experiment with something different, that’s not at all because we don’t like the traditional way. Often, it can be hard to find very traditional fado performers in this area, so we make do with what we have.
From what I’ve seen, the Portuguese community’s great at performing music at our festas and parties, but I’d love to see people take the music to the larger world.
There are some wonderful traditional musicians around, though – Ana Moura, Mariza, Dulce Pontes, Helder Carvalhiera, for example – and we’ve learned from them.
CD: So you have a lot of influences…how exactly does one musician influence another? Is it conscious or unconscious? Does a new musician set out to emulate a person or play in a certain style, or does it just happen?
RV: Sometimes someone’s music just takes hold of you! I’m most inspired by Portuguese musician Amalia Rodrigues, along with Kate Bush and Tori Amos. I admire people such as these three, who can combine various art forms, who write and perform their own songs. Musicians who aren’t just front people for a band, but who really help create and embody the characters they present in their songs.
CD: Your new song Lagrimas de Rainha (Tears of a Queen) certainly presents many powerful emotions. Would you like to share the story behind that piece?
RV: Tears of a Queen comes from a very old and true story in Portuguese history. Hundreds of years ago, a prince fell in love with a young woman whom he wasn’t allowed to marry because she came from a lower social class. They carried out a relationship in secret for years, until people found out and had her killed. But, once the prince became king, he had her unburied, dressed her in a lovely gown, and then ordered everyone in the court to line up to kiss her hand. Even the people who’d taken part in murdering her.
Somewhere in Portugal, there are these springs of water which seem mysterious. No one really knows where the water’s coming from, so it’s said that it’s the tears of this woman, after so many years.
The story sounds so morbid, kissing a dead body – but to us it’s really about the level of devotion, how far someone would go for someone they love. That lent itself to music.
CD: What distinguishes you from other musicians…what do you feel makes your sound unique?
RV: We’d like to think we take things to a different level, incorporate all the elements of song creation and performance. Also, how we present the cultural heritage and the spiritual aspects of ourselves and the Portuguese culture. We’d like to inspire people to embrace themselves.
CD: Where do you get your song ideas? Share more about your process in composing? Music or lyrics first?
RV: It depends on the song. I start with an idea usually, or a feeling. Some feeling has to move me before I turn it into a song. And I’ve been performing so much lately, I have a lot of songwriting catch-up to do!
CD: Catch-up! I know the feeling…what are you working on now?
RV: Right now I’m working together with Euclides on a set of music from Macao, a Portuguese colony in China. There’s still a Portuguese community there, and they created their own music over the years. We’ve gotten requests to produce music from Macao for years, so now we’re doing it.
CD: Interesting, not everyone knows about the Portuguese population there. Did/do you have a mentor with whom you worked to develop your music?
RV: Yes, I’ve been incredibly inspired and encouraged by Amalia, the legendary, traditional fado singer. Was a great loss for the entire world when she passed away, and I lost a heroine and role model.
CD: What’s it like to work together with a band? What have you learned from the process?
RV: Some people have trouble finding the right group, it can be a challenge – but I’m incredibly grateful for the high caliber of musicians I’ve found to play in our band. We’re most successful when we’re cohesive, when we work together. And I’ve learned a lot about motivating and encouraging people from serving as the band leader.
CD: How’s the international reception for your music…have you ever played out of the US/discovered you have international fans?
RV: We’re working on developing and reaching out to our international fanbase. This November we plan to play in Portugal and France, and we hope to perform in Canada.
Our music’s also available internationally online – through Pandora and other digital services.
CD: Why did you choose music as a medium as opposed to writing poems, etc? How did you choose your style of music?
RV: I also have some theater training, and could have pursued that – but back then I figured I’d need to move to Los Angeles or New York City to go professional with that. And on an intuitive level, I knew I wanted to stay in Northern California. I knew my heart was in music, and had a sense that I was on to something, with the music, and with celebrating my Portuguese roots. And I’ve found enough cultural support here in the San Francisco Bay Area to continue as a musician.
CD: Do you feel being a musician has changed you as a person? Do you respond to situations differently having a musical outlet for expression?
RV: Yes, absolutely. I appreciate life, and art, so much more. I just have a deeper awareness now. When I was twelve I stumbled upon a musical play, and while watching I realized I wanted to create music…and ever since, that interest has grown and blossomed.
CD: What would you say to someone else who’s thinking of developing a career in music?
RV: You have to be willing to commit to what you’re doing, to be dedicated and driven, to stay with it. I’m now able to support myself financially through a combination of music and yoga/fitness teaching, but it’s taken awhile.
And it’s all about balance. I’m a wife and mom to a five-year-old son as well as a band manager and musician, and also a yoga instructor. But I find the yoga helps keep me grounded, because the music is more intellectual and emotional, and yoga is different, it’s a physical activity. It takes thought, too, but a different type of thought.
You can create the reality you want to create, just stay with it over time.
CD: Share some stories from your travels and live performances…do you have a favorite onstage memory?
RV: Awhile back we played a show at Modesto’s Gallo Performing Arts Center. One lady in the audience, who was a huge fan of Portuguese music and a major Center patron, celebrated her birthday on concert night. Her son was serving in the US military and flew in from Baghdad to see her.
We played our international peace song, ‘United in Love,’ and dedicated the piece to the soldiers in Iraq. Praying for peace while supporting the soldiers as human beings and thinking of the sacrifices they make.
CD: How has your music changed over the years, and where do you see the creative spirit taking you in the future?
RD: Our music has gotten richer, maybe even simpler, truer about the Portuguese experience. We’re bringing more authenticity to the music, while remaining open to what the creative muse will share.
Right now I’m studying advanced Portuguese at UC Berkeley – just trying to keep at least one foot in tradition.
CD: Tell me about one of your favorite songs on your new album, how it’s inspired by tradition.
RV: I’d say Fui Dios – “It was God.” It’s an inspirational song, talks about how God has put the stars in the sky, really done so many powerful things. Faith’s very integral to Portuguese culture – I was raised strongly Catholic and that heritage inspires me to think about the spiritual aspect of life, about connection to something outside myself.
CD: And, finally, what do you hope to accomplish through your music?
I hope that we as a band are making a contribution to the world, not just putting our music out there. We’re not just Portuguese musicians promoting our culture, we’re citizens of the world, trying to promote peace and understanding. In my yoga classes, I end with a meditation for the students on creating internal and external peace.