essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Women have a vocal singing range that runs approximately over the notes between middle and high C in pitch (something to do with the comparative shortness of their vocal chords compared to men I read: though it hasn’t proven to be a handicap). I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a man, but women’s voices appeal to me strongly, and I have some favourite singers of whom many are female. I wonder if women are drawn to the male voice in the same way? Is singing part of the dance between the sexes? Many songs do seem to be about difficult or failed relationships (or perhaps it’s just that songwriters aren’t very good at relationships). We certainly like to listen to them.
Here are some women singers, each famous in their way, but not enough. In my view, they all deserve to be more widely known. They all sing beautifully, in a pitch well below Mozart’s the Queen of the Night’s two octave Fs in the “Hell’s Revenge” aria of the Magic Flute. A random selection of exceptional voices.
Cesária came from Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean west of Senegal, and, except for trips to Portugal, and Paris, where she recorded, stayed there most of her life. She died in 2011 aged 70. She released a dozen albums, all recorded from her late forties onwards, by which time she had developed a deep, superbly expressive voice. Her breakthrough album was Miss Perfumado of 1992, which included perhaps her best known song, Saudade. Cesaria sang in the local style of the Cape Verde islands, called morna, a style that seems slightly similar to fado, but, at least with the sophisticated Paris arrangements Cesária used, somewhat faster in tempo. It was ideally suited to express saudade, and was a combination of a fast dance metre and a kind of blues. Here Cesária performs Saudade at Le Grand Rex Paris in 2004: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNVrdYGiULM (a woman’s lover has gone away. Will he return, will he write a letter, does he love her? She sits alone and wonders).
Further north of Cape Verde, and off Morocco in the Atlantic, are the Canary Islands, and that’s where Rosana Arbelo comes from. She was 30 before she moved to Madrid and released her first album, Lunas Rotas, in 1996. Blessed with a beautiful, smooth and warm tone to her voice, Rosana is widely known for her songwriting ability as well as her albums, of which she has released seven. Her first, Lunas Rotas, was so popular it was released in various formats three times, each time effortlessly topping the Spanish language album charts. A major singer songwriter, the songs on her albums often give the impression of familiarity. It takes a while to realise you’ve never heard them before, but are hearing for the first time what is classic pop music, sounds that will be around for quite a while. A voice to fall in love with, and songs that mix the poignancy of blues with the passion of flamenco. Here is Carta Urgente from Rosana’s fifth album, Magia, released 2005: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B91-KkxBXOk (“there are things I write down on cards not to speak them, ..things that make no sense without you…”).
Azam Ali comes from Iran and moved to Canada as a teenager. She is vocalist for the groups VAS and Niyaz, and has released four solo albums, the first, Portals of Grace, in 2002. The album is comprised of 12th and 14th century European music with authentic accompaniment, and Azam’s beautiful soprano voice. These little heard songs have a purity that is quite unique and sound as though they might be hymns. In any case they are a calming and uplifting experience to listen to. Azam’s voice is what you remember, an ethereal instrument which makes the medieval songs sound, not contemporary, but timeless. Here is Lasse Pour Quoi from Portals of Grace (unfortunately not live): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmpl6bnIq84 (“alas why did I refuse him, he who loved me so…” all the way from the 14th century: how we haven’t changed over those centuries).
Kiran was born in Patna in Bihar state north eastern India, and migrated to Canada as a child, though now settled in New York. She has released five albums since 2000, many of them presenting traditional Indian music, especially the ghazal of Persia and the Punjab. The ghazal is an elaborate poem expressing love and loss, a cross between a sonnet and the blues. Kiran seeks to preserve the equally elaborate conventions of many Indian vocal styles (techniques of many instruments are often learnt through vocals). Her stunning self titled album of 2005 presents this ancient music with a mix of Indian and modern Western instruments accompanying. Her follow up album, Wanderlust, in 2007, throws Celtic fiddle and banjo into the mix. Here’s a track from the album Wanderlust, Terey Darsan, which shows the hypnotic blend of ancient and modern styles Kiran and her band achieves https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QyQAG7mvpM. Words Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah and music Kiran Ahluwalia. The longing of the ghazal meets the jazz fusion of Kiran’s music, and it just works.
Sezen is the queen of pop in Turkey, where she has a reputation and an influence that rivals performers like Elvis or Michael Jackson in the USA. Since her debut in the mid seventies Sezen has released more than 25 albums, and her influence has been felt across Europe. Her music has led to the Westernisation of Turkish pop, which had previously had deep roots in traditional music. A national treasure who for many people stands for Turkey in the modern world, she is the heart of Turkey. Sezen sings with a deep, passionate tone that is immensely convincing. She is also a gifted songwriter. Listening to her albums in release order is a good introduction to Turkish pop, but her more recent releases are more accessible, because more familiar, to Western ears. Deliveren (2000) or Bahane (2005) are a good place to start. Here is Gülümse (Smile), from the 1991 album of the same name. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtOwqDBABmQ, A woman cajoles her lover after a quarrel and tells him she loves him despite it (“Come, smile, Let the clouds go by. How else would I survive? Come, smile…)
Haris Alexiou’s first name starts with a chi, a guttural pronounced at the back of the throat, hard for foreigners to say. ‘Haris’ means ‘grace’ and she is known by the diminutive form by her fans: Haroula. Haris has been Greece’s most popular female singer since 1975. She has released 33 albums, 28 of which reached platinum or gold in sales figures in Greece: and she is just as popular in Turkey (whose culture shares many common elements with Greece). She sings in a variety of styles, from rebetika (a group of urban styles originally sung by underworld figures to emphasise machismo and political dissent) to laika (a fusion of pop with Greece’s many dance measures), songs written by famous Greek composers such as Hadjidakis, Theodorakis, Loizos, and Nikos Antypas/Lina Nikolakopoulou. Haris is herself a celebrated songwriter, making her debut with the 1995 album ’88 Nefeli Street. Good albums to explore are that one, To Paihnidi Tis Agapis (Game of Love) of 1998 and Paraxeno Fos of 2000. Here is Ola se thimizoun (“Everything reminds me of you…”), lyrics Manolis Rasoulis and music Manos Loizos. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5kc_pXHy-M. Not just a great singer: a great performer.
Greece probably has more great singers than any other country in the world except Brazil, and one of the greatest is Glykeria. She began her career in the mid 70s, and has released more than 24 albums. Her albums not only go double platinum in Greece, but are popular in Turkey, Syria, Israel (Glykeria also sings in Hebrew) and Europe. Gifted with one of the most distinctive voices of contemporary singers, Glykeria’s smokey tones are instantly recognisable. The 1998 gold album Maska (Masks) is a good place to start with Glykeria. It features a collaboration with Natacha Atlas, and prominent synthesiser sounds of the era. Also worth a listen is her album of Greek Orthodox hymns (I know, I know) O Glyki Mou Ear of 2006. Here’s Anna from Maska. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJqPGqLSgdE (not a live version unfortunately).
Melina comes from Thessaloniki in Macedonia and is now living in Athens. One of the many great Greek vocalists, Melina sings lyrics by some of Greece’s best modern poets against a traditional accompaniment that evokes the Middle East and also the unique sound of rebetika. Her beautiful, smooth and intimate vocal can be heard on over 24 albums dating from the early 90s to the present. Most accessible is the 2000 compilation Portrait which collects the cream of her earlier albums: virtually every track is the best. Here is a live version of Milo Gia Sena (I Tell of You), words and music by Thanasis Papakonstantinou. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iUwCPDRZXA&list=PLEB70EDC4CAFFA1FB. Melina performs with the group Ashkabad (or Ashgabat), named after the capital city of Turkmenistan in Central Asia where the musicians originate.
With 28 albums released since 1976 Gianna has consolidated her position as one of Italy’s major rock and roll stars. Her work is as varied as the singer whose voice is often compared to hers, Rod Stewart. Her 1998 album Cuore is one I like. Here is a live version of Un giorno disumano (Cruel Day) from that album, performed in Cologne in 1999. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJBX_T6Gacg&list=PL045305BE23E2C856. The whole set is well worth watching, a really great live sound.
Adriana is one of the many talented singers and composers in MPB, the pop music style of Brazil. She has released eight albums since her first in 1990, and also several albums of children’s songs. She has a lovely warm and intimate tone of voice, and is also an accomplished guitarist. I love her 2002 album Cantada, but any of her albums is worth more than a casual listen. Here she performs Devolva-me (Return to me) from her 2000 album Publico: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QVC5IX8QPI. It’s all a bluff: “tear up my letters, don’t look for me any more; give back my photograph, it’s better for both of us that way”, but he really means, not “return my photo to me”, but “come back and love me again”. The song was written by Renato Barras in the 60s. What is astonishing is how, with just voice and guitar, Adriana transforms the song from conventional pique to something deeply personal: we’re listening to someone’s heartbreak. Adriana adds depth to just about everything she sings.
Clara was and probably still is one of the greatest vocalists in Brazilian popular music (and there’s a hell of a lot of competition). Beginning in the late sixties, she released an album a year till her death age 40 in 1983, many of them million sellers at a time when those figures were unknown in Brazil, especially for women singers. Clara died because of an allergic reaction to anesthetic during a minor operation to deal with varicose veins. Over 50,000 people attended her funeral, many of them shocked still by the death of Elis Regina the previous year. Clara’s records still sell well today, 30 years after her death. Here is a version of one of her most famous songs, written by Chico Buarque at Clara’s request, Morena de Angola, about a woman who just keeps on dancing, despite the war in her country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgQSisKqSgY. Almost any live recording shows the infectious gaiety Clara brought to her songs.
Dulce comes from near Lisbon in Portugal and is a singer who continually extends her range of styles, and often literally her vocal range, and has sung fado, pop and classical music. She has released nine albums since her first in 1992. I am very fond of Caminhos of 1996, which includes traditional folk music in her mix of styles. Here’s something which shows her range: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0oi1wP-qG4.
Uxía Dominguez Senile
Uxía is from Galicia, the Celtic land north of Portugal and west of Castile on the Atlantic coast of Europe. To call her music folk music would be a simplification, as she blends traditional music from Spain, Portugal and Galicia with that of Andalusia, and her arrangements are contemporary even when using traditional instruments. The album I like best of hers is Estou vivindo no ceo of 1995. Here is Menino do bairro negro (Boy from the negro quarter): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nov8Ix01pE from the 2011 release Meu Canto.
Tanita (Anita with a T she explains) comes from an Indo-Fijian and Malaysian background but was born in Germany and raised in Britain. She has released nine albums since 1988 but none has had the success of her first, Ancient Heart. Tanita has a very unusual voice, deep and mournful, and writes the kind of songs whose meaning you can argue over for days. Some of her songs are just unforgettable. Also notably on her albums are the superb arrangements. My preference is for Lovers in the City (1995) and Sentimental (2005). Here’s I Might Be Crying from the first of those albums: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sga9Y-Ky910; and Play Me Again from the second album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mK_QNyMbmzw.
Sandy Denny is probably the most influential singer on this list, and her beautiful voice can be heard on the third and last album she did with Britain’s pioneer folk rock band Fairport Convention, Liege and Lief (1969). It’s the appropriate Farewell, Farewell. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnWry5P_WFY.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation. A special thanks to the writers for Wikipedia and the posters to YouTube, without both of which groups the internet would be infinitely a poorer place.