This week’s album was made by an artist who’s been handled as Portugal’s answer to David Bowie; however, António Joaquim Rodrigues Ribeiro, more commonly referred to as António Variações, was very much his own creation. An intriguing persona in his own way and a musical genius impossible to reduce to being a mere imitation of the former. If you love unique personalities and one of a kind music, you’ll love this!
Variações was born in 1944 (even before Bowie!) into a large working-class family and grew up in a small Portuguese village in Fiscal. After finishing grade school, he would then spend a compulsory year in the military and ultimately move away to Amsterdam. There he would eventually get a first taste of music unbeknownst to the residents in his native country. He’d later return to Portugal though and work as a hairdresser who due to his love for music would began performing in bars at night together with an eclectic group of musicians named Variações (meaning “Variations”; due to the different instruments and styles they would be playing and also due to the changing line-up). António would later adopt the group’s name to form his own fluid artistic persona. So fluid that no label at the time knew exactly what to make out of this eccentric-looking man who would mix traditional Portuguese rhythms and fado with a variation of punk, jazz, new wave, rock and synth.
Usually such a variety of different sounds and styles would create an incoherent mishmash and it’s understandable if you now assume that this was the reason that every label boss was hesitant to sign this guy BUT the incredible thing is that it all hang together neatly, creating a sound that clearly only this guy could ever pull off. His music has character. His inimitable character. I believe that Elvis, David Bowie, Roxy Music, the Beatles (all of which he cited as influences) partly became huge cultural touchstones because they were simply being themselves and that inevitably slipped into the greatness and uniqueness of their music. They all have that in common even if what they are vastly differs from the others. Variações isn’t different in that aspect. Trends come and fade, but a unique personality lasts – it’s timeless and often inspiring. That’s why we will always remember (and mourn the loss of) a Bowie or a Waits. They will forever stand tall as monuments, and their music will always be ahead of the times. This week’s record Dar & Receber, Variações sophomore and sadly final album, is no exception. You could have put it on in ‘84 or you can stream it today and in both cases it would taste like a future that we will never experience. A future that only that specific person could’ve brought to us. That’s the essence of an icon in my opinion.
Unfortunately, Variações’ artistic career was cut short. He died a few months after this LP’s release, falling ill with pneumonia (though it’s speculated that his death was AIDS-related but it was never verified). Hot on the heels of the Carnation Revolution of 1974, when Portugal got rid of its dictatorial regime and colony wars without firing a single shot, Variações also somewhat became a symbol for many by creating songs that represented the country’s newfound freedom and by expressing a sexuality and identity that would’ve been condemned before. His androgynous behaviour and looks encouraged an entire generation to fearlessly express themselves in ways that were uncommon up to that point. Because of this, Portugal considers and celebrates Variações as its most important cultural figure next to Amalia Rodrigues (which is admirable considering how queer-looking and rumoured-to-be-gay artists weren’t exactly openly celebrated by the masses, especially back in the 80s).
It’s a shame though that his short discography has escaped the greater narrative of music history books. I can only encourage you here to dive into this album and also into his debut because it is absolutely brilliant and complex yet it still has a distinct pop-sensibility that makes it still easy to digest and very enjoyable for the casual listener. Truly a sound “between Braga and New York” as he fittingly described his music.
Unfortunately the album is not on YouTube but here are two preview songs for you. The entire album can be streamed on Spotify though!