Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The (Updated) Portuguese Fado

Michael Barrientos for The New York Times

José de Oliveira, left, singing fado tunes in A Baiuca, accompanied by Jorge Mata on Portuguese guitar and Carlos Lopes on classical guitar.

New York Times
February 21, 2007
Lisbon Journal
A Song Form Is Updated, but Not in the Alleys of Its Origin

LISBON — José de Oliveira bellows, occasionally off key, the melancholic songs known as fado.

But questionable talent does not inhibit the 70-year-old retired welder from taking over the floor at A Baiuca, a tiny tavern and restaurant, and keeping the two dozen diners captive — or perhaps prisoner — past midnight.

When he sings a well-known song of love, longing and loss, the diners put down their knives and forks and join in. When one couple dare to whisper during the song, a woman shushes them with the classic retort: “Silence! Fado is being sung.”

This is the ritual of fado, performed night after night with various degrees of authenticity, quality, kitsch and tourist appeal in the dinner clubs of Lisbon.

Reviled by some as backward-looking and morose, fado, which means fate, has been reinvented to become Portugal’s most successful cultural export. But here, in the twisting alleyways of Alfama, one of the working-class districts where fado was born, the songs are the classics, the message unadorned.

Mr. de Oliveira, dressed in a somber vest and trousers, his tie tightly knotted, is a neighborhood fixture.

“José doesn’t have a good voice, but he loves fado, he breathes fado,” said Henrique Gascon, the owner of A Baiuca. “Sometimes people cry when he sings.”

There is no stage, no microphone, no spotlight, not even candles here. It is the kind of place that hangs a “no smoking” sign on the door, then puts ashtrays on the tables. When Mr. de Oliveira’s voice cracks one time too many, João de Jesus, 33, owner of a fire extinguisher company, steps in to take his place.

Inspired, it is believed, by African slave and Moorish songs, fado was transformed by Portuguese sailors in the early 19th century into a vehicle to express the pain of loneliness and danger of a life at sea.

During the 40-year era of dictatorship that gripped Portugal until 1974, fado was associated with the government’s rigid values and was used to promote nationalism.

As prime minister in the 1980s, Mário Soares once took American journalists traveling with President Ronald Reagan to a famous casa de fado. But having been in exile during the dictatorship, Mr. Soares was said to have hated the genre.

Even now some Portuguese consider it fatalistic, a reminder that Portugal remains the worst-performing economy among the 13 countries that use the euro. “Saudade,” a concept essential to fado that blends the nostalgia and yearning associated with the Portuguese character, is also seen by some as the main obstacle to progress.

Prime Minister José Sócrates, who was overwhelmingly elected on a pledge to modernize Portugal, has mixed feelings about fado.

“Fado is about nostalgia, a sadness that is very intimate,” Mr. Sócrates said in an interview. “I’m not a huge fan.” But as fado is a purely Portuguese product, he does not renounce it. “Fado,” he said, “must have the right environment, and the singers must be very special, to give it both beauty and a high standing.”

Certainly, there is a lot of bad fado singing in Portugal, as there is a lot of bad flamenco dancing and singing in Spain, and it sometimes seems more popular among outsiders.

When President Bill Clinton visited Portugal in 2000 he confessed to having fallen in love with fado. “I’m going to promote fado music all over the world!” he exclaimed.

The legendary queen of fado, Amália Rodrigues, defined the genre. She wore the traditional black dress and shawl and was accompanied by a pear-shaped 12-string Portuguese guitar. When she died in 1999, Portugal declared three days of mourning.

More than a decade ago a younger generation of singers began to take over and revolutionize fado.

Mariza, a Mozambique-born fado diva who sang a duet with Sting for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens at 30, has added cellos, pianos, trumpets, a positive attitude and designer gowns to her performances.

Another fado singer, Kátia Guerreiro, used her voice to campaign as a youth leader for Aníbal Cavaco Silva during his successful campaign for president in 2006 and to protest a referendum to liberalize abortion laws in February.

Mísia uses a violin and poetic interpretations to inspire her work. “When I decided to devote myself to fado my friends were horrified,” she said before a performance in Paris, where she now lives. “It had the stigma of the dictatorship that used fado as propaganda for Portugal as a place that was happy in its poverty.”

She keeps her performances simple and has disdain for the prettified productions of other fado singers. “You have to have a voice with texture, with scars, close to life,” she said. “This is not the Virgin Mary singing. It’s Mary Magdelene.”

A museum in Lisbon called the House of Fado and Portuguese Guitar offers the uninitiated a history of fado, with old photographs, sheet music and television and film excerpts.

In the 1930s the government created fado houses to professionalize and control the movement. Fado lyrics had to be approved by a censor, and the museum, in a modernistic building, displays original typewritten lyrics with red X’s and stamps of “proibida” indicating disapproval.

On the streets today, everyone in the older generation seems to know a fado song or two. It does not taking much urging to persuade a Lisbon taxi driver — like a Venetian gondolier — to sing.

Not Prime Minister Sócrates. “I promised myself when I entered politics never to sing and never to dance,” he said. “I respect fado too much to imitate it.”

No comments: