Patricia Costa singing Fado in Porto, April 5 2013
photo: Lindsey Shere
Hotel Sao José, Rua da Alegria, Porto—FADO IS THE TANGO, I suppose, of Portugal; the national vernacular music, commercial, not authentically in a folk idiom, that has come to represent a certain sad, nostalgic, existential quality that seems to me to permeate this enchanting city.
I like, though not unreservedly, what Wikipedia has to say about fado:
In popular belief, fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a characteristic sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia (loosely captured by the word saudade, or "longing"). However, although the origins are difficult to trace, today fado is regarded, by many, as simply a form of song which can be about anything, but must follow a certain structure. The music is usually linked to the Portuguese word saudade which symbolizes the feeling of loss (a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent lifelong damage).Fado — the word means "fate" in Portuguese, though apparently is rarely used in that sense — has fallen out of favor in some quarters, where it is criticized for having succumbed to commercial imperatives. No doubt it has; and it's as ubiquitous a tourism property in Portugal as is tango in Argentina or flamenco in Spain. That's no reason to avoid it.
On our first afternoon here in Porto we were wandering the narrow, cobbled, hilly streets of the old quarter. Such a curious city: the façades, grey and dirty, often embellished with Baroque lintels over the windows; lots of ancient ironwork — railings, balconies, window-bars.
The façades on the plaza express everything Fado sings, I think; everything except the individual human content of the song. They represent the context: history; motionlessness; decay; outlived aspiration. Dignity. Within it all, reserved, somewhere, hope: what once was known may yet return.
Rounding a corner we saw two men straining to lift a heavy stone into a battered wheelbarrow. They joked with me about the weight of the stone, and its perverse presence in the way of whatever work it was they were about. It's everywhere, they said, this stone; you can never avoid it. The younger man then wheeled it, downhill fortunately, into a plaza, up a steep plank, into the back of a pickup truck parked casually in the midst of the plaza.
We turned back to our walk, immediately confronting a restaurant I'd been curious about: RESTAURANTE TIPICO O FADO, the individual blue-glazed tiles spelled out; and the same message was engraved on a bronze plaque right next to the tiles, framed by a lamp, an alarm-bell box, and the wiring supplying them; with a menu and a few snapshots in windows below. The haphazard care and symmetry of it all appealed to me, and we took note of the place.
We continued through the confusing narrow streets, down to the center, across and up to Sao Bento, the marvelous railroad station, its vast lobby walls covered with cazuelos, blue and white glazed tiles, depicting great moments of Portuguese history. Outside the front entrance, in the place where the restaurant had featured its menu-box, I was touched to see a bronze plaque in homage to Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral, two great Portuguese aviators, the first to cross the Atlantic, in 1922. On it, addressed TO POSTERITY, there was a poem in two stanzas, only the second of which I am able to decipher from my notes:
A nossa alma, na sua trajetória
Para o supremo Bem, para a Beleza,
Tem desferido um canto de vitória
Nas amplidões de toda a natureza!
Em frente ao apogeu da nossa glória
Veja o mundo que a raça portugueza
Leventa sempre o génio criador
Para a luz, para a vida e para o amor.
which I translate, with the help of the indispensable Google:
To our soul, in its trajectory
to the supreme Good, to Beauty,
they unrolled a song of victory
greater than all nature!
Before the height of glory
see the world that the creative genius
of the Portuguese race will always lift
toward light, to life and love.
THAT EVENING OUR DESK clerk recommended two fado restaurants in town; each was represented by fliers in the local-hotspot display you see in most hotel lobbies these days. I asked about a third, which we'd noticed on our walk in the Rua São João Novo, in the heart of the old town. Oh, that's the best of them all, the clerk said, though in fact they're all good, they all give you professional singers, there really isn't any difference.
In the end, though, we went to the Rua São João Novo, precisely because they did not supply the hotel with a pamphlet — maybe that suggests they're less touristy. We reserved a table for the four of us at eight o'clock: a little early, I thought; but the Portuguese seem to dine earlier than do the Spaniards.
The dining room is a long rectangle. It was empty of diners save one table at the very end — on reflection, this may have been relatives of the restaurant staff. Our table was reserved, in the center of the room, directly opposite a small stage for the performers. As we ate dinner other diners showed up, and before too long the place was fairly full.
After an hour or so the host — clearly the restaurant owner — took the stage to welcome his guests and introduce the performers. He did this first in Portuguese, then in quite fluent English, getting a good deal of applause from the audience. Then he went through it again in French. The many Americans laughed and talked among themselves, as if the French announcement were nothing anyone needed to heed; next to us, a table of French tourists looked quite pleased and attentive.
Then the first singer appeared. Again, I was unable to catch the name: subsequent rooting around the Internet leads me to think she may be Patricia Costa, whose photo I find somewhere on the Internet. She had a clear soprano, bright, silvery, and she sang like a young woman, on the threshold of mature life, expecting her first child, aware of the difficulties of life but not at all overcome by them, harboring no sorrows, no angers. She sang about singing, about Lisbon, about life and love. She sang simply, affectingly but unaffectedly, directly, stepping aside at moments to allow the guitarist to supply his wordless comment on her song, stepping back naturally, without pretense or ego, to resume the song.
When she was finished, after perhaps fifteen minutes or so, she walked unaffectedly off her platform into another room, followed by the guitarists. We turned back to our table; a new course had arrived, and we enjoyed it and our conversation, and the energy of the dining room which had filled up and was clearly as pleased as we had been. We didn’t expect further entertainment, at least I didn’t: but our master of ceremonies returned to the stage to introduce another singer, a man this time, Antonio Laranjeira. Behind him the guitarists were taking their places again and tuning up, and soon Laranjeira appeared: a young man, late thirties perhaps, a little stocky, with a broad open honest face, very pleasant-looking, rather artless.
His singing was most direct and disarming. He had a clear tenor, supple, insinuating I suppose, light, inflected with perhaps more personal experience than the soprano had had. There was a wistful quality to his voice and his delivery; he reminded me at times of Luciano Pavarotti when he was young and was singing simply. He began, straight-forwardly, with
Este fado é de nós dois
Quero cantá-lo e depois
Vou levar-te pela cidade
De bairro em bairro à toa
Por esta velha Lisboa
Onde se canta a saudade
[This fado is for us two
I want to sing it and then
I'll take you through the city
Neighborhood by neighborhood aimlessly
For this old Lisbon
Where saudade sings…
[Saudade is famously untranslatable. Nostalgia, longing, melancholy are all involved. I first met the word in Darius Milhaud's marvelous piano suite Saudades do Brasil, composed in France after spending two years in Rio de Janeiro. Then, years later, but many years ago, we had a Brazilian exchange student with us for six months, and I observed a lot of saudade first-hand.
There's a long discussion of the word, the concept, the condition, on Wikipedia: "The state of mind has subsequently become a "Portuguese way of life": a constant feeling of absence, the sadness of something that's missing, wishful longing for completeness or wholeness and the yearning for the return of that now gone, a desire for presence as opposed to absence…"]
Again, the gravely smiling grey-haired man with the Portuguese guitar accompanied the voice, then played the interludes, accenting certain beats with a curious quick upward motion of his entire upper body, arms, and instrument, as if he were incapable of resisting the urgent insinuation of the music; his quieter, more retiring colleague supplied bass and afterbeat harmony with his conventional guitar.
Laranjeira gave us quite a number of songs — this was generous entertainment. And then, after another interlude devoted to conversation and the table, a third singer was introduced: an older woman, Leonor Santos, whose face and voice and styling were quite a contrast with the previous two singers. Where the first woman had the clear light soprano and the disarming innocence of, say, Doris Day, this woman made me think of Peggy Lee, if she'd only sung fado.
After her set the evening was pretty well over. We talked to the two female singers — a nice conversation, about fado and its history, about the irrelevance of such categories as popular or commercial or folk or vernacular. The singers were clearly artists, they'd given their art a lot of thought. I was struck, as I so often am, by their generosity, singing so artfully and sincerely in a restaurant to an audience of tourists. We took photos and bought a CD.
As we left the restaurant, just before getting to the door to the street, we passed through a sort of vestibule — it looked like the reception desk of a small hotel, though this was no hotel, as far as I could see. The restaurant host, who'd served as MC, was standing toward the back of the room. Antonio Laranjeira was leaning over the high counter; behind it the man with the Portuguese guitar — how I wish I could find his name! — was seated, with his instrument. Laranieira was singing to him, and he was playing guitar back to Laranieira — as if they were working up an arrangement, or refining a duet whose music each had long known but had perhaps not performed with the other.
I suddenly realized my iPhone could record this, and made a short video — the singing was extraordinarily beautiful, persuasive, engaging, direct; and the guitar supported it intuitively. It was late and time to go, but I couldn't tear myself away. Finally I had no choice: if you watch the little video I made you'll see what finally happened…
My latest book, Improvised Itineraries, is just out. In a little over two hundred pages it describes walking in Limburg and on the GR5 in Belgium and Luxembourg; driving across France; exploring cave art and cassoulet in the Perigord; seeing Einstein on the Beach in Montpellier; lunching with Lulu at Domaine Tempier; and a number of small hotels, country restaurants, and good times. A number of black and white photos. You can order it online, and I wish you would. $12.95 plus shipping.