Fado singer Sara Marreiros gets back in the groove

To sing fado, singers must use their entire bodies. It’s a wildly passionate form of Portuguese music, often about unrequited love, death and what we North Americans might call “the blues.”

When singer Sara Marreiros was grappling with the worst effects of multiple sclerosis, she found it difficult to get through the day, let alone belt out fado songs.

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The 37-year-old vocalist was diagnosed six years ago after an initial misdiagnosis and 12 months of mystifying — and frightening — symptoms.

“[When I was finally diagnosed], it had been a year of my life really stopping,” said Marreiros, who lives in Mill Bay. “I was very weak. I couldn’t perform. I lived with my mom. She had to sleep beside me, monitor me. I used a cane.”

After a time, she wondered whether she’d sing again. Said Marreiros: “It broke my heart.”

Tonight, she and musician friends will perform at Victoria’s Solstice Café. Marreiros will sing jazz, blues, folk … and yes, even fado. And on Tuesday at Alix Goolden Hall, she’ll open for international fado star Ana Moura.

Although her MS hasn’t vanished, Marreiros has re-entered the music scene. Her form of the disease is classified as “relapsing/ remitting MS.” For Marreiros, that means she’s now in a plateau period that may (or may not) be marked by future flare-ups.

She has good days and bad days. Determined not to give up, Marreiros has learned to integrate MS with her singing career. Yes, she’s cut back drastically on the number of shows she performs. But she’s definitely in the game, even recently releasing a six-song disc, Something Sweet on the Wind.

This recording offers several fados. Most remarkable is Gaivota, a lament in which the singer imagines her heart being held in a lover’s hand as she dies. With minimal guitar accompaniment, Marreiros, singing in Portuguese, delivers a husky-timbred rendition. It’s heartfelt and deeply moving — indeed, an astonishing performance, especially given her struggles of late.

Born to a Portuguese father and a Canadian mother, Marreiros spent her childhood between Victoria and Sagres, Portugal. Days were spent on beaches in the Algarve, the country’s southernmost region. Evenings were often spent in fado houses, where as a child, Marreiros sometimes fell asleep to the sound of fado.

“Everyone would be playing it or singing it. It was just kind of around,” she said.

In 2006, Marreiros’s career was on the rise. She’d just released her second album. Concert offers started to come in.

She was training for a half-marathon in Victoria when the initial symptoms came. Marreiros felt a strange numbness in her legs. She visited chiropractors at first, thinking she’d somehow injured her back. Finally, one suggested Marreiros get thoroughly checked by doctors.

The first neurologist missed the diagnosis, telling the singer she was merely “a little bit hyper.” A second told her it was MS.

Eating could be difficult. She had body pain. The symptoms were sometimes strange. For a time, even music lost its appeal. Any sound, whether a running tap or an acoustic guitar, jarred her senses.

“I actually couldn’t handle sounds,” Marreiros said.

The symptoms eventually settled down. Marreiros decided she wanted to return to performing. It’s been “baby steps” over the past five years. She gigs much less, closer to home. During a concert, if she’s not feeling up to singing a song, Marreiros will have another musician take over until her energy returns. Singing fado, especially, is a big physical exertion.

“Maybe before I could do 10 fados in a row. Now I’ll do three and throw in a blues or a folk or an original piece that requires a different kind of singing.”

If the MS is acting up, she’ll sometimes leave her bed to perform, do a show, then return to bed. Marreiros tries to work with the disease, she says, approaching it with improvisory skills gleaned as a singer.

In a curious way, the disease has a bright side. In concert, Marreiros finds she’s now more able to savour the moment; she no longer takes performing for granted. Also, coping with MS has somehow made her bolder in her music.

“Where I might have been afraid before to go way off the deep end, now I’m not,” she said.

Life is far from perfect, but Marreiros views it with optimism, ready to adapt and change if need be. And she will need to soon, once again.

She and her partner, David, are expecting their first child in July. On top of everything else, Marreiros is dealing with morning sickness that somehow extends all day.

She’s excited about becoming a mom, though. And singing more fado in the future.

“Over the last five years, I’ve been able to do more and more, to put out a new album or commit to different kinds of gigs,” Marreiros said.

“Maybe it’s not as much travelling as I’d like. But there’s house concerts. You just improvise.”

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