Let’s Have A Word #5: Maja Milinković

“Let’s Have a Word” is David Soares‘s attempt to make the Lisbon scene spill the beans.

Fado is often an acquired taste, even for a Portuguese person. It needs to mature a while before the familiarity of the sung language and the warm, crystallized sound of the strings end up striking a chord (literally). This moment of resonance happened to Sarajevo-born Maja Milinković, although she wasn’t familiar with the genre, nor the language. Listening to Amália Rodrigues played its magic on Maja and led to a major change in her career. She already had two pop-rock albums under her belt – Začarina Krug (2006) and Ocekivanja (2011) – and was well established in Bosnia and the Balkans. But, Maja decided to learn Portuguese and move to Lisbon in quest of her newfound obsession. She has since released the album Fado É Sorte (2017) and a new one is in the making.

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical before I first heard Maja perform several months ago. Based on previous experiences, such a specific genre as fado, although it can be enriched by other influences, can also sound somewhat adulterated when sung in a foreign accent or undertone. But none of that happened with Maja, and she conveyed, in her own style, that same familiarity I would expect in fado. Not that the Portuguese own it. Fado is now part of the UNESCO-designated intangible heritage, it’s everyone’s — and Maja Milinković owns her art.

(conversation held in Portuguese)

Your first contact with fado was hearing Amália Rodrigues (“Estranha Forma De Vida“). How did you stumble upon her music?
A friend of mine shared a video and I got curious, so I pressed play and this simple act was the beginning of the change of the course in my life. One would think that just clicking on a link can never change one’s life, but it can, obviously (laughs).

And you had never even been to Portugal?
No, I didn’t know the word “fado,” I didn’t know the genre, and, honestly, from Portugal, I only knew about Vasco da Gama. I didn’t even know who Ronaldo was.

Can you describe your transition process from mainstream music to such an obscure genre from an obscure country?
I fell in love with Amália’s voice, her expression, her emotion, and the emotion she stirred in me. I really started from scratch, I had to research every day, and two years later I sang my first fado for a group of friends. In the meantime, I had released my second album and was touring it, but fado just wouldn’t let go. The more I learned about fado, and the more I knew about the lyrics and the language, the more in love I felt. So my friends insisted that I did a concert. I first told them it was almost impossible because I’m not even Portuguese. I had this moral and ethical doubt over meddling with something that’s not mine, as it’s not pop or rock music or any other genre, it’s tradition. But knowing it had become humanity’s intangible heritage helped me have fewer qualms about my decision. So, I found musicians who played flamenco — because that’s the closest I found to fado — and we also have this genre called sevdalinka, with great musicians, especially guitarists, who like to try new things. I suggested we organize a small concert, sent them links, and they accepted. They both came to my place to rehearse twice a week, then, three months later in May 2012, we gave our first concert in an art gallery. That drew the attention from media, my fans, and people in general because it was worlds apart from the music I used to make.

Yes, you were fairly famous in Bosnia. How did the public and media take your conversion?
After that concert, people woul

d ask me where they could buy tickets to the next one. There wasn’t any, it was supposed to be a one-off. They insisted, so the following week we had another at that same gallery. Then, being a public person there, I had many invitations to festivals, fashion shows, and the radio. You could tell people liked it, they were in awe as if I had managed to convey what I felt when I first listened to fado. Reactions were like “This is beautiful” “What is this?” They wanted more and wanted to know more.

Was there no weird or less positive reaction?
No, there was just “Who is this ‘Fado’ now?” Some people didn’t know if it was a genre or a man that played with me (laughs). On social media, there were even comments wondering if “Fado” was my husband or boyfriend, but the older generations knew who Amália Rodrigues was. I was received with open arms, which I honestly didn’t expect, and I felt it was fate that put fado on my path. People would ask me whether it was difficult to learn Portuguese, but I was spending six hours a day listening to Portuguese and I never felt it was a chore, it was pure pleasure to me.

When you finally made it to Lisbon, what was the first impact?
I got out of the metro in Chiado and I was speechless, I didn’t expect that. It reminded me of Dubrovnik’s old town but bigger. Lisbon is almost all like that, especially on the riverside, it’s simply fantastic. The light. The moon — the nocturnal light here is different, warmer. I was completely love-struck. And I still am. As a foreigner away from home, there were times when I felt lonely, but even in those moments I felt the city hugged me, I didn’t feel as lonely as I would somewhere else. So, I have this relationship with Lisbon. Lisbon is a magical, gorgeous city.

And funnily enough, you ended up on Rua de São Bento, right?
(Note: Amália Rodrigues’s last address was on Rua de São Bento, 193 and is now a museum dedicated to the singer who died in 1999)
The first time I stayed in Bairro Alto. On the second time, I lived for three months on Rua de São Bento, unaware Amália had lived there. One Sunday, my landlady invited me to go to a museum, I accepted, and she then suggested we went to the Amália one since it was nearby. I said “What?” I was dumbstruck, I thought this was another sign (laughs). She told me how at the time of Amália’s passing, people tried to have the street renamed to Rua Amália, with no success. (Note: one might still be able to find the odd ‘Rua Amália’ graffiti on the street)

Was it difficult to be accepted in the sub-world of fado as a foreign outsider?
On my second day here I went into a restaurant, a proper fado establishment, and I said “I want song fado” — my Portuguese wasn’t good yet (laughs) — and I think they saw this will in my eyes. I had fado in me, and one can feel these things, so they said “Yes, let her sing. Can you speak Portuguese?” I said “No, more or less.”. At that time, in 2012, I didn’t speak well, but they let me sing, and I remember after I sang the first one they told me to sing another one, and another one, and the fadista of that restaurant, an elderly woman, started crying and said “You have a Portuguese soul.” I remember it well, she hugged me and told me I should come back and move here. Then, the other fadista grabbed me by the hand and took me to another fado house and said “Let this girl sing, she sings wonderfully and she’s a foreigner!”

I stayed for 12 days and cried when I left Lisbon. I had met a lot of people, made many friendships, and been to many fado houses. I told myself I would come back and I did in May 2013 for three months. Good things kept happening to me: the city, the people I met, the music, the way fado is treated with respect and love. The more I learned, the more in love I was. So I went home for a couple of weeks and came back for another three months, after which I decided to open my own fado house on Rua dos Remédios.

Yes, Tasca da Maja. What did you take from that experience?
I ran the place for two years. Over those two years, I learned everything there was to learn: the language, the habits, Alfama — my neighborhood, where everyone knows me — it was my lab. Meanwhile, I also gave concerts in Lisbon every now and then. That’s when I met João Ferreira-Rosa, who invited me to his last gig in Alcochete, he wrote me a song to be included in my next album.

I met and was accompanied by great musicians and the whole fado milieu. After two years, I decided it was enough because one can’t run a fado house and be a performing artist at the same time — it takes too much of your time and I felt too tired. So, I closed it and carried on with my artistic life. It was an important experience to have, though, it turned out to be a good decision.

Your new record is partly in Bosnian and it’s a bit of a fusion album, with sevdalinka. Tell me about that genre.
On the last album, Fado É Sorte, I had two sevdalinkas accompanied by the Portuguese guitar, but on this new album there should be five sevadlinkas and five fados. I released a single in July, “Romansa,” which is a song by Amália (“Romance”) adapted to my language. Fado doesn’t exist in any language other than Portuguese, I have to say. Even sung it’s not the same thing because fado and the Portuguese language were made for each other. Those translations and adaptations are just my attempt to bring fado’s poetry and expression closer to my own language and my Balkan fans, and it works pretty well because it rouses people’s curiosity and they can identify with the genre more easily.

Now I’m a bit like how you were, listening to fado in a language I don’t understand.
Exactly, and many Portuguese have told me this, that by listening to fado in Bosnian, like “Romansa” or “Znam Za Rijeku” (“Sei De Um Rio”), they’ve said, “Now I know how you guys feel about our fado, not understanding a word.” It’s funny because I gave a few concerts in Sarajevo and would always introduce the songs with a short explanation. Eventually, people said there was no need, I just had to sing and fado would take their imagination away. They’d rather not have any explanation interfering with it

How do you compare the audiences in Portugal and Bosnia? Have you noticed many differences?
No. In fact, I’ve noticed many similarities, because the public that appreciates fado in Portugal is exactly the same that appreciates fado and sevdalinka in Bosnia. They are musical genres that one listens to in silence, not dancing or drinking, a bit like a classical music concert. The audience is quite different from other audiences, it is more demanding.

You were 11 when the Bosnian War broke out, you learned to play the guitar in a shelter. Do you want to tell me a bit about that experience?
Yes, we were locked in. I don’t want to make comparisons, but it was a city like Lisbon, with its own buildings and urban life, and when it all started we found ourselves stuck in our houses. Whoever had a basement would go there. So, we would spend a lot of time indoors, especially in the first six months, with nothing to do, but I had always been drawn to music and wanted to study music. Before the war, my grandmother had bought me a guitar, which unfortunately stayed in the apartment we fled from— because half the city had been occupied we fled to the other half where my father and aunt used to live. There a neighbor friend lent me his guitar and he taught me a few chords, and I spent hours playing it. This helped me a lot to calm myself down and not feel fear. For endless hours I tried to figure out chords and tunes and learn songs. It was my salvation, completely, because I could create my own world and be happy there.

Now in Lisbon, where do you go and see live fado?
I like to go to Tasca do Chico. It has that neighborhood feel to it, you know, it’s very relaxed. I also like Mesa de Frades. There are many good fado houses in Alfama. Good, genuine fado. The singers, the musicians, Alfama is all fado.

In the new generation of fadistas, who stands out for you?
There are many good ones, from whom you can always learn something or other. I liked Mariza a lot, particularly at the beginning. I also like Camané, he knows how to pick his lyrics and sings really pure fado. I like Carminho, I think she has an extraordinary voice, and also Ricardo Ribeiro among the men from the new generation, my generation, in fact.

This new generation is a renaissance, it must have come with Amália’s passing. While she was alive, she sat on that Queen’s throne and no one dared to even come close (laughs) and after she passed away, there was a period of grief. Then comes Mariza with her debut album Fado Em Mim, with several songs by Amália, and that opened the door to fado again.

And now, with social networks, the internet, and Lisbon living a renaissance of its own, the new generations see a future in fado — and that’s important too.

Let’s Have A Word: what’s your favorite Portuguese word?
There are so many, but the first that springs to mind is saudade, amor, paixão, beijinho (smiles)….Cabeleireira! That’s the hardest (laughs). It has many vowels and that’s a challenge to me.

What’s next?
The new album is almost finished – I’m going to release a new single beforehand, a fado that I wrote in Portuguese. [The album] should be out within the next few months. I have festivals lined up next year, I’m probably going to the Balkans again: Sarajevo, Montenegro, we’re still booking the agenda.

Where would you like to take fado?
I want to take it all over the world, there are venues where I want to sing, I have this big dream of singing in the Olympia and Carnegie Hall, I have a list, and so far so good, because I managed to fill the venues I dreamt of as a child in Sarajevo, before the deadline I gave myself (smiles). But I want to take fado to the heart of people, because people tend to forget about emotions.


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