Ask most burgeoning rock stars what the best thing is about their newly acquired fame, and an honest answer is likely to contain references to high-performance modes of travel, the regular ingestion of mood-altering substances and the abundant availability of fleshly pleasures. Ask the same question of Portuguese singer Rosa Francelina Dias Martins, and the answer is as illuminating as it is disarmingly honest - "I get to travel abroad, and I no longer have to sing on the street to survive!"
It was a track on Charlie Gillett's World 2004 compilation that first drew many people's attention to Dona Rosa. The veteran broadcaster's annual world music round up usually throws up at least one previously unheralded gem, and the track that prompted most reaction from the public that year was Resineiro (The Gum Collector), a gentle fado tale of impending infidelity poignantly sung by Rosa to a sweetly melancholic accordeon refrain.
Fado means 'fate' in Portuguese, and if ever that word was reflected in a person's life as well as their music it's in this humble lady's remarkable story:
"I was born in Oporto (in north west Portugal) in 1957, one of eight children, and we were very poor so we lived in just one room."
Meningitis raged through that room when Rosa was still an infant, paralysing her mother and leaving the four-year-old Rosa blind.
"I was sent to a special school for blind people in Lisbon when I was nine years old, and because my parents were poor they were grateful that I was being taken care of by the school. I returned to Oporto to finish my schooling between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, but it was obvious that my family couldn't keep me, so I returned to Lisbon."
Her father was a construction worker, and due to her own disability her mother didn't work. So it was left to members of the family to fend for themselves, and in the case of a blind teenage girl who has received only a basic education, that meant selling whatever she could on the streets of the Portuguese capital.
"I mainly sold lottery tickets, but with the encouragement of friends I would occasionally sing as well." It was a combination of enjoying the sound of coins coming her way when she sang, and of being robbed of her lottery tickets, that persuaded Dona Rosa to take up singing as the sole way of raising money. Accompanying herself with a triangle given to her by a friend, she soon became a familiar sight around the city.
Her luck began to change when Austrian music director André Heller, beguiled by one of her street performances, asked her to appear on a TV show in Marrakech, Morocco. Since then she has performed throughout the world, and released two CDs on the Jaro label of Germany - Historias da Rua (Stories of the Street) and Segredos (Secrets). Both contain a range of songs from the folklyric styles of Portugal, as Rosa explains, "The songs I sing are usually popular songs that I've heard on the radio. People in the street will know them, particularly older people. Some are traditional, some written by other musicians. I'm usually attracted to the melody first, although the words are also important. I learn by ear, and for the more difficult songs I'll buy the cassette or CD and learn it by writing out the words and notes. I have learnt hundreds of songs this way." As for the fado tag: "I like most traditional Portugese music, not just fado."
Her guitarist Raul Abreu concurs: "I don't think you can really categorise her as fado. You cannot say she sings fado, you cannot say she doesn't sing fado. She has her own way of performing."
She certainly does - small and stout, she sits smilingly immobile centre-stage, clutching that triangle and flanked by her musicians - percussionist, accordeon player and Portuguese guitarist. Dressed in simple attire, her modest appearance is a reflection of her uncomplicated delivery. Her voice hasn't got great emotional range, it doesn't swoop or declaim so much as ride the melodies of the songs she sings. But it’s an earthy and organic voice, drenched in the saudade (yearning) born of a lifetime's struggle for survival and acceptance, and it’s a voice that is both enchanting and moving.
And with the help of Abreul and the other musicians with whom she works, Dona Rosa has expanded her repertoire, introducing a wider variety of songs than those found on her recordings so far, including waltzes and shades of polka and other European styles.
All of which augurs well for her third CD, scheduled for release sometime in 2007, and one with every chance of really announcing this unassuming, down-to-earth yet captivating singer's arrival in style.