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O Primeiro Canto must be counted as Dulce Pontes' 2001 sublime masterwork. Considering her crowning position in the current pantheon of Portuguese female vocalists (Mafalda Arnauth, Cristina Branco, Mísia and Mariza), this alone says all that needs saying to stress its import in this glorious hierarchy. Staggeringly ambitious in scope -- including such disparate musicians as Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, Basque accordion wonder Kepa Junkera, Morelenbaum's string quartet, sax player Wayne Shorter, nuevo flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook, Anders Norudde on Swedish bagpipe, Carlos Blanco Fadol on Australian didgeridoo, Justin Valin on Madasgascan harp, to mention only a few -- Canto completely transcends the formality and conventions of traditional Fado while simultaneously paying it homage. As the mud-caked but otherwise nude likeness of the cover already suggests, Dulce's paean to Portugal, to life, love, pain and suffering, is emotionally stripped of all artifice to embrace its subject matter with open eyes and head-on - accepting the literal stain of mud sans protection of clothes, armor or masque to convey the essence of the thing itself.

Gifted with a stunning voice equally suited to the girlish very high registers as the mature lower ones, able to shift from drama to coquettishness on a dime, from impassioned belting to barely audible sketching, from high-speed enunciation of complex lyrics to shifty overdubbed harmonizing, always mining the depth of poetry, Dulce is the most gifted of all Português singers currently working Fado's renaissance, the one who defines its survival by respectfully stretching its boundaries. Her talent doesn't restrict itself to vocalizing but includes composition, many examples of which make up Canto's glittering necklace of songs. Playing a few burned-to-CDR tracks at VSAC, the response of whatever audience happened to be in the room was invariably the same - a request for a pen to write down artist and album while asking whether I'd had another Pontes sample in my traveling tool kit of musical pick-me-ups.

It goes without saying that a singer of Dulce's caliber and artistic intelligence would surround herself with only the choicest of collaborators - hence this album reads like a virtual who's who of musician, poet and composer credits. Comprehensive translation of the Portuguese lyrics allow English speakers to appreciate the meaning put to song, such as the gripping "Velha Chica", Dulce's duet with Waldemar Bastos: "Once upon a time old Chica used to sell cola and ginger, and in the afternoon she would wash the clothes of some important signor; and we, the kids at school, would ask old ma Chica the reason for such poverty and for our suffering. Little boy, don't speak of politics... But now whoever sees the face of that lady only sees the lines of suffering. And now she only says, little boy, when I die I want to see Angola living in peace..."

From Fandangos to simply folks songs of poor peasants, without any synthesizers or amplified instruments, O Primeiro Canto, as Miguel Sousa Tavares so aptly states in the liner notes, is "an almost anthropological journey to the sources of music". Exactly. It's music making at the highest level, led by a voice so purely in the service of conveying the heart of its mistress that, though not exactly new and long since praised for its unique contribution, Canto ranks as one of my most treasured female vocalist discoveries of 2003. Right alongside Sevara Nazarkhan's Yol Bolsin and Bobi Céspedes' Rezos, it eclipses either in sheer scope and inventiveness. It thus take its place right next to the best work of Sezen Aksu, my other perennial favorite.