Fado means fate in Portuguese. It’s also the name of a particular kind of haunting music heard principally in small cafes and bars in Lisbon. Spain has its foot stomping, fast-paced, sensual flamenco. Portugal has the slow, mournful fado sung by men and women to the accompaniment of the Spanish guitar and the Portuguese guitarra, a kind of 12-stringed mandolin.
“Fado is the expression of the Portuguese soul,” my wife, Ann, and I were told many times during a recent trip to Iberia.
So we went on a private expedition to find the Portuguese soul at the lowest possible cost. Using a guidebook (Rick Steves’ Spain and Portugal) and the telephone, we found a small cafe in the Bairro Alto section of the city, known for its night clubs, discos and restaurants. The English speaking owner of the cafe, Canto do Camoes, assured us that we could get a full dinner and watch the performance for less than $20 each.
With a couple from Connecticut we met on the trip, Joe and Amy McManus, we took a terrifying jaunt in a taxi guided by a driver who sped rapidly through narrow streets missing other cars and pedestrians by the thickness of a worn dime.
The driver left us off at the base of a rise and pointed to a little street too skinny for even his small car, the Travessa da Espera. We climbed the cobblestone walk for two blocks before coming to Canto do Camoes, a small cafe capable of seating at the most 40 persons.
Gabriel, the owner, greeted us and gave us a table near the small performance area. As our entree we chose fish newly caught from the ocean. The meal, which was delicious, included vegetables, a salad, a bottle of wine for each couple and dessert. Later, Gabriel threw in a glass of brandy.
The four of us were his only customers. Nevertheless, the performance started on time at 9 p.m. The first singer was a short, bespectacled, gray-haired man. He took his place in front of the two middle-aged men playing the stringed instruments and threw his head back, closed his eyes, put his thumbs inside his belt and began singing.
We had been told earlier that most fado songs are about love and unhappiness, a sort of Portuguese blues. Except for the fact the words were in a strange language, he could have been on Beale Street in Memphis singing of a lost sweetheart.
Since we had no idea of the words of the lament, we were free to think of our own lost loves and failed ambitions or to imagine what tale the singer was relating. I fancied he was a former Enron employee telling through trembling lips of lost savings and the prospect of an old age doomed to poverty and inadequate medical care.
He was followed by a massive woman, sturdy as a mountain and dressed in black lace, the Sophie Tucker of fado. She had a face of crushed parchment, but her hair was black and shiny like wet asphalt. She sang with great passion and presence. I was convinced she was telling of a handsome husband killed in his full manhood fighting in the Spanish civil war of the 1930s. She had never met his equal.
The third singer was also a woman, younger with faded red hair and an air of melancholy. She wore a light flowered dress, but like the other singers, sang slowly with closed eyes and uplifted head. I imagined she was telling of the lost love of a jealous husband who beat her regularly and drank most of his earnings.
Each singer sang three songs before giving way to another performer. After the show, they each asked us to buy recordings of their singing on tapes or CDs.
Fado is not for everyone and it may be too slow and mournful for the tastes of those who have grown up with thumping, earsplitting sounds. It has old roots, but there is disagreement on what they are. Some say it goes back to the Middle Ages to the time of minstrels and their love songs. Others believe it came from the songs of the Moors who ruled the Spanish peninsula for 800 years. Another theory is that it comes from the music of slaves brought to Lisbon from Brazil.
Whatever its history, it is something visitors who wish to fully experience Portugal and its culture should hear at least once.
Besides the Canto do Camoes, places which have a reputation for presenting the “real fado,” include the Parreirinha de Alfama near the Fago Museum. Its owner and recording artist, Argentina Santos, also does the cooking.
More casual fado is performed a few streets away at a bar with a limited menu, A Taverna do Juliao, operated by Goncal Ferreira, brother of a famous fado singer. Also known for its fado is the family-run Adega Ribatejo, where nearly everyone sings, sometimes even a few of the diners.
by Joseph Ritz
November 16, 2005
Fado is the Expression of the Portuguese Soul
November 07, 2007 05:35 PM UTCviews: 0 comments: 12
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