IMC Music/Qualiton Imports, 1999

Born in Montijo/Portugal in 1969, and after honing her pipes with the Rock band "Os Percapitas" to perform for commercials and musical theaters, Dulce Pontes became instrumental in resurrecting her country's traditional Fado style seen as passé and defunct at the time. But she quickly ventured beyond easy classification to explode the somewhat formal, coolly smoldering Fadista archetype. She became a celebrated songstress whose glorious voice transcends stylistic boundaries instead. Today, she's one of the corner stones of female Portuguese folk song. The others four poles, more exclusively rooted in Fado, are Mísia, Mariza, Mafalda Arnauth and Cristina Branco.

Dulce's Pop-flavored debut album Lusitana [1992] was followed a year later by the double Platinum Lagrimas, one of the best-selling Portuguese albums ever. Its track "Canção do Ma
r" was finally also discovered by Hollywood and made multiple appearances in the Richard Gere vehicle "Primal Fear". In 1995, the live album A Brisa do Coração followed, then today's Caminhos a year later, finally O Primeiro Canto in 1999 where she collaborated with Jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Hedningarna's Anders Norudde, Basque trikitixa player Kepa Junkera, Brazilian cellist-arranger Jaques Morelenbaum, Madagascar valiha harp player Justin Vali and Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu. She's also performed with Andrea Bocelli and Caetano Veloso.

I first discovered Dulce Pontes on a duet with Greek phenomenon Eleftheria Arvanitaki, only to cross unwitting paths again later on her stunningly seductive rendition of Cesária Évora's "Saudade", on Junkera's double album Bilbao 00:00h. This proved enough to flip - not lids or tempers but CD covers, at my local Borders a few days ago. I was stubbornly set on not leaving without a Pontes release, dammit. Fortune smiled, hence today's -- belated -- review of Caminhos, an album that brings together celebrated poet Fernando Pessoa; song writers Alain Oulman, whom cognoscenti refer to as the Antonio Jobim of Fado; Zeca Afonso; the great Portuguese guitarist Carlos Pardes; the Brazilian Caco Velho; and the Azorean Zeca Medeiros. A surprise guest artist? Galician whistle blower Carlos Nunez, the honorary 7th chieftain, who has toured with Andreas Vollenweider and Paddy Moloney and is considered one of the foremost pipers alive.

What should a non-Portuguese speaking listener expect from Caminhos? A mixture - of French chanson with strong hints of Streisand in places; of ballads flavored with a peculiar melodic elegance reminiscent of Brazil; of lush string orchestras, weeping recorders, the bel canto mystery of the Portuguese guitars; the dramatic depth of Amália Rodrigues, its inherent restraint more romantic, more exuberant while no less serious in impact or intent.

In the end, it all comes down to Dulce's voice, how it holds together the songs, rides them to the edge of cresting and back again just before they'd smash the metric structures to pieces. There's a kind of gravitas you also find in Flamenco and Blues, though here its delivery is far more polished, the vocal finesse far from the former's primitive charge, the harmonic progressions and fluid rubatos far removed from the latter's repetitive four-chord patterns. One could draw parallels to Greek singers like Haris Alexiou, though that tends to overlook a certain smoldering quality inherent in any of Dulce's songs.

Hers is a very refined, playful, far-reaching upper register fully exploited above the African-style closing chorus on "Mãe Preta" where the soloist veritably chirps like a lark on the wing. "Fado Português" shows off her burnished alto register, her uncanny ability to swoop from thickly throaty to jubilantly lithe, shift from erotically romantic to lugubriously sad. It is here, in this very scope of emotive range, where Dulce Pontes reaches beyond the earlier-mentioned quartet of modern-day neoclassical Fadistas. It renders her their peer, their matriarch, the one who enjoys the larger artistic perspective that remains true to the spirit of Paredes and Rodrigues while incorporating elements from outside their world, like a vagabond story teller seasons even familiar exploits, in the retelling, with unfamiliar imagery from afar.

Deeply touched, I'll dig into the remainder of Dulce Pontes' oeuvre next to report whether it's as universally accomplished as Caminhos. Until I know more, I highly recommend making her acquaintance with this readily available album. If you're still a stranger, that is. Don't be a stranger - become part of the global community of ardent admirers. Eduardo de Lima of AUDIOPAX tells me that barely a day passes when he doesn't listen to a Dulce Pontes song. Now I understand why. She's one of the true divas. Her voice goes down your ears like a premium Portuguese Port trails down your gullet. Cheers then. Pour me another one.