Marta Pereira da Costa, the world's only professional female fado guitar player, is quickly becoming an ambassador of Portugal's most iconic musical tradition. In a free show on Thursday, March 14, at the David Rubenstein Atrium—presented in collaboration with Fado Festival NY—Pereira da Costa will showcase her soulful playing and stunning virtuosity. Rebecca Klein caught up with her a few days before the show to learn more about her path to fado greatness.

Rebecca Klein: How did you start playing the Portuguese guitar?

Marta Pereira da Costa: When I was a child, my parents understood that I was in love with music. I wanted to play all the instruments at school. So they started me on piano when I was four years old, but then I wanted to play classical guitar, too, so I started guitar lessons at age eight.

It wasn't until I turned eighteen that my father, who is very passionate about fado, said that he would love for me to learn the Portuguese guitar. He found a teacher, Carlos Gonçalves, who used to accompany Amália Rodrigues, and I started taking lessons.

Before that lesson, I had never paid attention to fado or the Portuguese guitar. Fado wasn't trendy during my childhood, though it's changing now. Mainly older people listened to fado, and it was very traditional. But after that first lesson, I suddenly started paying attention. I remember the first fado house I went to in Lisbon, it was called Clube de Fado, and I was so overwhelmed. When a fado singer walks on stage, the lights dim and everyone must be silent. You cannot speak or even whisper. The fado singer commands so much respect because he is about to express himself and expose his deepest feelings. The audience needs to be silent in order to receive that. After my first Portuguese guitar lesson, I thought to myself, "How could I have never heard this in a different way?" I fell in love with the instrument immediately.

RK: Did you grow up in a musical family?

MPC: (Laughing) No, I'm surprisingly the only one! My parents and sister know nothing about music, but they knew I was crazy about it. I wanted to learn everything I could, but my parents always told me I should focus on one instrument and get good at it. They didn't want me to learn all the instruments. But now, every time I'm with other musicians I always ask if I can try their instruments. I ask if they can teach me something about what they do.

RK: I read that you started your career as a civil engineer. How did you transition to becoming a professional musician, especially one in such a male-dominated genre, and what was it like to make that decision?

MPC: I always loved music, but I never thought I could live on music. I was a very good student in school, and my parents told me that after I got a degree, I could do whatever I wanted. But I was always afraid of risking everything for music. I wanted it so much, but I just didn't feel comfortable pursuing it.

When I got married, I started working as a civil engineer. I was always postponing the transition to becoming a professional musician, but then I was invited to record a fado CD. I was married to a fado singer at the time, Rodrigo Costa Feliz, and he invited me to play on his album called Fado de Amor. I was just a beginner at the time, so I practiced a lot to prepare for his album, and it ended up coming out very nicely. It made me think, well, if I had time to prepare and practice more, then I could do something special with my life. In fado, there are no women playing the Portuguese guitar. This was the first album ever recorded with a woman playing the Portuguese guitar, and it made me realize that I should take a risk and do what I believe in. I then spent one year preparing for the transition, and in 2012 I became a professional Portuguese guitar player.

RK: That's an incredible story. Why do you think there aren't more women playing the Portuguese guitar?

MPC: I think it's a matter of tradition. Some of the traditionalists don't like me, but you can never make everyone happy. Fado is changing, and they don't want anything new. I don't mind the traditionalists though because I accept that not everyone will like me. 

There are also people who are very surprised by the different approach I've brought to fado and the Portuguese guitar. And there are more women learning the Portuguese guitar now, too, and they write to me. I always offer to help them and share my story.

RK: How is your approach to the Portuguese guitar different?

MPC: I've chosen to have a more sensitive and delicate approach to the instrument. The Portuguese guitar is a very physically demanding instrument. I can't compete with the strength that male players use. In the beginning I experienced injuries like tendinitis, and that made me realize that I had to be careful. I couldn't do exactly what my male teachers were doing, but that was okay. I've now gained more awareness of my body and what I can do.

RK: Can you tell me about your self-titled album and the music you'll be performing at the Atrium? How do the songs on your album embrace fado's changing traditions?

MPC: With my album, I tried to give voice to the Portuguese guitar. A long time ago, fado was known as sad music. The women would dress in black and lament over their sorrows. They would sing about missing loved ones who had traveled abroad or who had died. Now, fado singers still sing about suffering, but there is also happiness in the music. Fado is now about everyday life, not just saudade, which is a Portuguese word that sort of translates to "longing."

The Fado instrumentation has also changed. Before, the only instruments used in Fado were the Portuguese guitar and classical guitar. We now use contrabass, percussion, and so many others. My album has a variety of sonorities and many guests such as Richard Bona, whom I met in Lisbon. He is a great bass player, and we recorded a song called "Encontro" together, which I perform all the time.

My album also features Tara Tiba, who is an Iranian singer. She has an amazing story. She used to live in Iran, but she is not allowed to sing in her country, so she left and went to Australia. While there, she heard Carminho, who is a very famous fado singer who happened to be touring in Australia. Tara Tiba met the musicians after the concert and asked if she could sing for them, and they agreed! So she took off her shoes, put her feet on the ground, and started singing. They were so surprised by her amazing voice that the producer, Diogo Clemente, invited her to his hotel the next day to record. When Diogo came back to Portugal, he brought me the recordings and told me her story. Tara Tiba and I are now very close friends. I think we have a story in common because we both fought for our dreams in music, against all traditions. 

At the Atrium, I'll play some songs from that album, but I'll also play some traditional songs that I've never recorded. I think it's important to bring that sonority to the United States. And then I'll also play a few songs from my new album, which I haven't recorded yet. I'm trying to feel the audience’s reaction to the new songs.

RK: What do you hope people feel when they listen to you play the Portuguese guitar?

MPC: I hope they feel my truth. I am physically and emotionally exhausted after my performances, but I have so much adrenaline from the intensity. Performing feeds my soul, and I hope they feel that. The Portuguese guitar is such an amazing instrument with an incredible sound. Any sensitive person cannot be indifferent to fado. I want the audience to experience something they've never heard before and to leave my concert with their hearts full.

Rebecca Klein is a freelance writer and is also the 2018–19 Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellow at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.