As the first woman to professionally take up the Portuguese guitar, Lisbon’s Marta Pereira da Costa can fairly be described as a musical pioneer who has opened up new territory for female musicians. She embraces her role as a barrier-smashing artist, but also likes to credit the 19th century foremother Severa as a primary source of inspiration.
Part of a wave of women who have revitalized the traditional Portuguese style known as fado, a blues-like form that weds sumptuously plaintive melodies to poetic lyrics about love, loss, and the vicissitudes of fate, Pereira da Costa harkens back to an era before fado was associated with cultural conservatism.
“We have a lot of old traditions in fado and, for more than a century, only men used to play the Portuguese guitar, but there’s the legend of Severa, the only story we know of a woman guitarist,” says Pereira da Costa, who kicks off a series of California dates Thursday with her San Francisco debut at the Mission’s Red Poppy Art House. Joined by Brazilian 7-string guitarist Tuniko Goulart and Portuguese percussionist Guilherme Melo, Pereira da Costa also performs at Modesto’s Gallo Center (Jan. 18), San Jose’s Art Boutiki (Jan. 19) and Sacramento’s Crocker Museum (Jan. 23).
Pereira da Costa is a worthy figure to step into Maria Severa Onofriana’s imposing shoes. A star during her short career, Severa became a one-name legend after her death from tuberculosis in 1846 at the age of 26, celebrated in novels, plays, songs, Portugal’s first “talkie” film in 1931, and more recently a 2011 musical. Pereira da Costa’s path has been far less dramatic and costly, but she’s taken some risks too.
A devoted student of the Portuguese guitar, a pear-shaped instrument with 12 strings in six courses, Pereira da Costa longed to focus on music growing up, but took a safer route by studying civil engineering. She was nearly a decade into her career with a private firm when she quit her day job in 2012 to concentrate on music.
“Every engineering class I took, I’d tell myself I’m going to quit,” she says. “I wanted to be a musician, but I delayed and delayed.”
When she married esteemed fado singer Rodrigo Costa Félix, he encouraged her to pursue her dream. She started to make a name for herself performing as an accompanist with Portuguese guitar masters like her teacher, Carlos Gonçalves. A revered innovator, he had toured and recorded with storied fado singer Amália Rodrigues, who turned fado into an internationally recognized art form in the decades after World War II.
Pereira da Costa also performed widely with her husband, and his 2012 album Fados de Amor, the first to feature Portuguese guitar solely played by a woman, earned top honors that year from the Amália Rodrigues Foundation.
She spent several years working on compositions and arrangements for her 2016 self-titled debut album, a project that reflected both her devotion to fado and the expanding influence of Lisbon’s increasingly international music scene. One of the album’s most striking tracks, “Encontro,” is a collaboration with Cameroonian electric bass master Richard Bona.
“My idea was to give voice to the Portuguese guitar, a very special instrument,” she says. “I wanted to take the audience on a journey, from the oldest fado to more recent developments. I go into jazz, world music, Brazilian rhythms. My compositions are a mix of everything I hear and the Portuguese guitar connects all the sonorities.”
In many ways, Pereira da Costa embodies the evolution of fado from a style associated with the authoritarian government that ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1974. An unintended harvest from Portugal’s far-flung empire, fado grew out of the confluence of Portuguese folk poetry, Arabic cadences, and African and Brazilian rhythms.
By the time fado started taking shape on Lisbon’s waterfront in the mid-1800s, the nation’s status as a world power had been in steep decline for centuries. With unabashed emotional intensity and a preoccupation with heartbreak, betrayal, and separation, fado turned into a ritualized form of emotional release. The music’s themes often reflected the bitter but defiant outlook of a people whose sons were often forced by poverty to search abroad for work.
The style thrived for generations in Lisbon’s fado houses, taverns where people gather to hear vocalists perform the haunting songs accompanied by the Portuguese guitar. The government embraced the fatalistic art form as an exemplar of the national character, and when the beloved Amália Rodrigues died in 1999 at the age of 79 many young Portuguese looked at fado as an unwanted inheritance.
It wasn’t long, however, before a new generation of artists started to reinvigorate fado. Led by a disparate cast of women vocalists, fado regained its mojo as artists like Mariza, Mísia, Cristina Branco, Ana Moura, and Dulce Pontes gained international attention. With the 2016 release of her debut album, Pereira da Costa joined the band of Pontes, who’s been a leading force in opening fado up to the world.
She describes her two years touring the world with Pontes as “an amazing experience, like earning a graduate degree. Dulce is a fantastic musician. She plays the piano sings incredibly. She’s like a conductor, and she gives us the freedom to add what we think is important.”
Now, Pereira da Costa is offering her own masterclasses every time she performs, turning a once tradition-bound style into a vital 21st-century art form.
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16, Red Poppy Art House, 2698 Folsom St., S.F., $20-$25.
7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19, Art Boutiki, 44 Race St., San Jose, $30/$35, 408-971-8929.