Paul Vernon shares his enthusiasm for those
Portuguese Blues

In the late 1980's I lived for a time in San Francisco where, among other diversions, I frequently dropped into the Purple Heart Thrift Store, a huge barn of a place run by Vietnam Veterans. On a bright spring day in 1987 I was checking, as usual, the gritty pile of old records that sat between the ancient typewriters and the pulp literature. Usual stuff. You've got your Doris Days, your Bings, your Tommy Dorseys. This day, however, I found something quite different. The first one off the top of the stack was on English H.M.V. In California, that was unusual. I almost expected it to be Jack Hylton or maybe a stray Paul Whiteman but the name was unfamiliar. Perhaps South American. The legend below read "ace. Viola e Guitarra". I realised I had found some kind of ethnic folk recording but I had no idea where it was from. I dug deeper, found more, and by the time I was through had assembled twenty- seven 78rpm records on an enticing selection of labels, none of them American. I'd Definitely Found Something. Totally suckered, I shelled out my dollars and left clutching a brown bag.

Back home I cranked up the phonograph and let the needle drop. The sound knocked me sideways, I felt like I'd discovered the lost chord. Dinner was ignored. I'd found the Fado. Or it had found me. To explain its elusive and haunting beauty is no easy task. The Fado is deceptively simple, like quicksand. The listener is enmeshed in the Fado before quite knowing how or why. It sounds like a bowlful of echoes from everywhere.

Down to basics; the literal dictionary definition of the word "fado" is "fate". The meaning invested in this small word by the Portuguese, however, is as rich, deep and complex as the Portuguese character itself. The music at least in Lisbon, could be defined as an urban cafe style and parallels can be drawn with Rebetika, blues and original Tango. Like Rebetika, its subject matter is life's harsh reality. Like Rebetika again, its instrumental accompaniment is largely stringed - in this case the Portuguese guitarra and viola* - but unlike Rebetika its approach is much more about the graceful acceptance of one's destiny rather than a garrulous resistance to it. The Fado speaks with a quiet dignity born of the realisation that any mortal desire or plan is at risk of destruction by powers beyond individual control.

An illuminating description, by the author Lawton McCawl, can be found in his book Portugal for Two in 1931;

"We realise that a Fado can be considerably more than just A song At midnight when the lights are low. In fact, theFados are spontaneous poetry of the human heart, shared with an audience that feels and understands."

When I arrived in Lisbon, following the path that led from that clutch of unsleeved Fado 78s in San Francisco, I almost dared not hope to find what I was looking for. I did, however, and moreover I found it in cafes and on the street. Not just as music but also as poetry, as speech, as attitude and ultimately as a whole way of life. A coping mechanism that the Portuguese have employed, arguably for over a century and a half, as a means of making sense of life's quirks. " The Fado is life" one man told me in a Bairro Alto cafe. I believe him. Lawton McCawl's account of a night in a Lisbon Fado tavern differs little from my own experience some 56 years later. That in itself is astonishing in a world of instant communication and fast-withering tradition.

So where did it start? And how? There are many theories and almost all of them contain some essential truths, for the Fado is an old tree of a music, with deep and tangled roots formed over a longer time frame than many folk art forms. It is half as old again as the Blues but with an international exposure less than one tenth of that form. What you find, therefore, is a very long tradition which, in its cultural isolation, has remained almost completely unchanged at . the core. Sifting through the evidence a pattern begins to appear. Portugal's early involvement in colonialism ensured that the home country was exposed to a broad wedge of other cultures, principally and initially African and South American. Black emancipation had occured in Portugal over a century before the American Civil War and a substantial black population, African in origin but often filtered through a Brazilian experience, was firmly ensconced in the Alfama district of Lisbon by the beginning of the 19th century.

Guitarristas de Lisboa: Avelino (viola) and Adelino (guitarra)

The dances most commonly associated with this cultural group were the Lundu (or Lundum) described with contemporary horror as "the most lascivious thing I ever saw", and the Fofa. Later, elements of these two dances came to be known as "the Fado". In this it is similar to the Spanish Jota, a dance that became a street song.

So we can IIOW see that a fundamental ingredient of the Fado is identifiably African in origin, and it seems certain that the term Fado applied to a guitar- accompanied black dance form first. The next factor to consider is the long Portuguese tradition of poetry and literature, both academic and folk. In folk terms both the quatrain (rhyming couplet) and modhina, or ballad tradition, were provably part of Portuguese culture long before the early 19th century.

The popular folk quatrain was used in many forms by a largely rural community to celebrate specific calender events, preserve folk-lore, tell children's stories and declare undying love. All the usual concerns of a pure folk form. It's arguably the lyrical genesis of the Fado. The ballad tradition extends back to the 14th century at least and, in its cultural isolation, remained largely unadulterated until the first tentacles of post-industrialist technology reached it in the early 20th century. So that one may NOW see these three basic ingredients, dance, modhina and quatrain as supplying rhythm, form and content. At some point lost in the log of history these ingredients gelled and matured to form the recognisable music that we now call Fado. This is not to ignore the evidence of Pop-Fado or Tourist Fado; these styles have evolved and remain intact, but the central structure of the original form is still living and breathing as it was at the time of Maria Severa.Who? Maria Severa is where the enigmas really begin.

According to most dependable contemporary accounts, Maria Severa was the first great exponent of the Fado and the originator of the female Fadista tradition of wearing a dramatically draped black shawl while performing. Born and raised in the Alfama district of Lisbon (that is, the wrong side of the tracks) she and her mother ran a small tavern in which the embryonic music was practised. It was her Fado that the Comte De Vimioso heard and with her this noble aristocrat entered into what historians of the time referred to as a "tempestuous love affair".

The impact on Lisbon society of this scandalous, high profile, mismatch was considerable. The resultant exposure that the Fado received brought it to general public attention for the first time. Sheet music was published, articles were written, the whole matter was hotly debated by the Portuguese at every level. Like any new music that appears to threaten the status quo, people quickly took sides and dug their heels in. The controversy was probably not dissimilar in essence to the emergence of the Tango in Buenos Aires. It is a testament to the impact of these events that there are many different songs about Maria Severa by a wide variety of Fadistas de Lisboa.

For how long before these events in 1836 the Fado had been an identifiable song we can never be certain. There is some evidence to suggest it was known in Brazil as early as 1829, but it is clear that the Fado we hear on record from at least 1910 (the Fado that is still nightly practised in Lisbon) is the same Fado that emerged from this 19th century scandal. It might therefore be reasonable to assign to Maria Severa the role of unwitting catalyst rather than inventor, as some have previously claimed.

But the Fado lives not just in Lisbon. There is yet another side to this story, one of a Fado which shares the origins and keeps the basic form, but is recognised by both devotees and critics alike as essentially divorced from the barrel-house of the Lisbon style.

Coimbra, the old university town of Portugal, is a place of deep and unbroken tradition. Here among the old streets and university buildings Portugal's heritage of literature, song and poetry has been quietly and lovingly nurtured for more than five centuries. Those who practice the Fado da Coimbra are a very different breed from the bus-drivers, barbers, labourers and shoeshiners who use it in Lisbon for cathartic purposes.

While it retains the same form and instrumental accompaniment, its attitude is markedly different. It has been described as a more refined strain of Fado, but this empty phrase does little to accurately reflect the majesty and emotional summits that a good singer can reach; one listener to whom I played a selection of pieces described them as a fusion of blues and opera. Certainly a Coimbra Fado would be deemed unseemly if it were not highly rehearsed and stylised. Rodney Gallop, writing in 1936, brilliantly and succinctly defined the difference; "It is the song of those who retain and cherish their illusions, not of those who have irretrievably lost them".

The 1920's and early 30's saw a remarkable flowering of this style which, fortunately for us, was preserved on record. A group based around Dr. Antonio Menano, including singers Dr Edmundo de Bettancourt and Dr. Lucos Junot, guitarristas of astonishing virtuosity such as Artur Paredes and Jose Joaoquim Cavalheiro, produced a body of music that documented the Coimbra Fado in its true glory. They also interpreted other Portuguese song forms from rural regions such as the Beirra Baixa and Alemtejo. Their recorded legacy affords us a glimpse, at least, of a sub-culture that would otherwise have been irretrievably lost. It is also clear from Rodney Gallop's published works that their efforts spawned vigorous debate in contemporary music journals.

Coimbra Fado is nevertheless full of longing, and it is that spirit which lies at the very heart of the Fado, be it from Lisbon or Coimbra. There is a Portuguese word, 'saudade' that has no direct equivalent translation. The closest English definition is 'yearning'. Its emotional parallel is Spanish 'duende', insofar as defining the depth of feeling involved. But the direction it takes is different. It may be useful to think of it as the Portuguese equivalent of that which fuels the deepest of Mississippi or Texas blues. Saudade is, in short, a measure of the depth of feeling that passes back and forth between singer and audience.

Both strains of Fado must possess saudade if they are to be considered genuine and a singer will not last long before a Portuguese audience without it. Audience behaviour is actually crucial to a live performance and the rules for the audience are at least as strict as for the singer. In the typical Lisbon situation, no audience will suffer a poor performance to the end, nor will they tolerate interruption during a good one. I have witnessed noisy patrons being physically jostled from the room, and poor singers rudely halted in mid-song.

Jose Reis a coach driver singing In Barrio Alto

It's a serious business for all concerned and anyone experiencing the genuine Fado for the first time will need to bear those simple rules in mind, especially when fiery debate breaks out, as it often can At the end of a song it is perfectly acceptable to indulge in applause, whistling stamping, shouting, table-banging and beer-spilling. Indeed it is expected. For especially fine renditions the appellation 'Fadista' pronounced faaadeeshta!!) is especially appropriate.

The term 'Fadista', like most things Portugese, has deeper layers of meaning than just 'A Singer Of Fados'. From the mid- 19th century until at roast the early 1900s it was a term applied to a picaresque section of Lisbon society. Fadista's were the Portuguese counterparts of Athenian Mangas, people whose dross code, attitude and pocket knives spoke eloquently of their disdain for 'normal' society. A contemporary description is worth noting for its refined sense of outrage;

"Fadistas wear a peculiar kind of black cap, wide black trousers with close-fitting jacket, and their hair flowing low on the shoulders - they are held in very bad repute, being mostly vauriens of dissolute habits." - Catherine Charlotte Lady Jackson, Fair Lusitania London, 1874.

Whether Lady Jackson ever heard the music of these dissolute vauriens or not she does not say, but her attitude persists to this very day. I had been in the Bairro Alto for over three weeks when a Seriously Concerned Representative of the Tourist Office issued grim warnings about the Footpads and Jack O'Lanterns lying in wait up there for my watch, wallet, spectacles... it seemed churlish of me to shatter his delusions with true tales of the honestly, friendship and humanity I was nightly experiencing.

Maria Severa, like Buddy golden, never had a chance to leave any recorded examples of her art. One who did, however, and one whose impact upon the direction of the Fado has been immeasurable, is Amalia Rodrigues. Like Severa, Amalia Rodrigues was born into the poverty of the Alfama district. Her mother was an orange-seller and an early photo shows mother and child at the dock-side peddling fruit. A strikingly beautiful woman with a powerful personality, Amalia's greatest talent lies in her voice. Astonishing range and control allow her to produce music of great beauty and emotional depth Do I sound like her publicist ? She needs only to be heard at her best to he appreciated.

In a long career that started in 1939 and continues to this day Amalia's style has defined and crystalised the Fado. If you've had only a passing acquaintance with this music, it's likely you've heard Amalia Rodrigues. And you may have heard some of the later, more popular pieces with orchestral accompaniment. 'There are, however, early recordings that not only reflect the roots but also the heights to which a real fadista can rise.

Amalia Rodrigues's first records are intense, heartfelt, deeply traditional and strikingly innovative. They represent a pinnacle of development in Fado's history. Let's put it this way; if Robert Johnson had been a Portuguese woman, he would have been Amalia Rodrigues.

As a folk-music the Fado has been woefully overlooked and misunderstood by the rest of the world. Today's broad minded Ethnic/World fan (that's probably you) would do themselves and their oars an enormous favour by turning their attentions to Fair Lusitania, where they will find, if they dig deep enough, a folk music of unsurpassed beauty. I've been chasing the Fado for over five years, and it's been worth every minute.

* The guitarra is (generally) 12-string see photo -- hut some can be 10-string. 'The viola, confusingly, is the Portuguese name for the Spanish Guitar. This is the classic instrumental configuration

Available Recordings:

Presently, it is not easy to find genuine examples of the Fado in UK record stores. Interstate have an album available, Early Portuguese String Music 1908-1931 that is instrumental only. On this are some fine examples of guitarra and viola duets recorded in Lisbon along with Portuguese- American titles that are perhaps less typical of the classic style. (Heritage LP 323 and CD 05).

EMI-Portugal issued two volumes by Dr. Antonio Menano (2605983 & 2612283) and one by Dr. Edmundo de Bettancourt (2402451) some five years ago. 'These are prime examples of Coimbra in the 1920s and the De Bettancourt is especially interesting. Don't ask me where you'll get them in this country though.

At your local Our Price, fairly recently, a double-play tape of some good early Amalia Rodrigues recordings has been seen lurking in the 'world music' section. It contains a few pop-ish songs but in the main it's a good, solid selection. (Festival 400134). From your favourite specialist you should be able to procure an album on Ocora CD559041 by Fernando Machado Soares, a genuine modern Coimbra stylist.

As yet, the classic early Lisboa recordings from the '20s and '30s have yet to appear. However, a pair of 24-track CDs of 1928-36 Fado are promiser! in the early summer from Heritage, one of which will from Lisboa (75% female singers) and the other Coimbra (all male vocals or instrumental).

Further Reading:

There's not very much. Rodney Gallop's epic 1936 volume Portugal, A Book Of Folkways contains a chapter on the Fado and much useful background information about Portuguese folk-lore an cl culture. Currently out of print, it's novertheless well worth searching for. If you read Portuguese, try to find Historia Do Fado by Pinto De Carvalho, first published in 1903, and reprinted in 1984 by Contexto (Lisbon). From the same publishing house, shore's Amalia, Uma Biografia by Vitor Pavao Dos Santos. This excellent volume contains many absorbing illustrations and vintage photos, and is worth finding even if you can't say so much RS "Bom Dias". Ask your library to find Aubrey Bell's In Portugal from 1912 if they can. Bell was an eccentric Englishman who spent most of his life in Portugal. His views are perhaps quirky, but worthy of attention.

I also just learned from Paul Vernon that he finished writing his book on Fado. The title is not yet desided but it will be published by the The Scola Press, London & Vermont, an is to appear in the bookshops in January -98. [LF-970418]

[The following paragraphs are possibly not by Paul Vernon and some information may no longer be valid but I include it here just in case it is of any help to anyone... ]


Getting there: Flights from London or Manchester to Lisbon run at around 100 return off season, rising to 120-150 in the summer. Useful agents include Abreu (071-229 9905), Destination Portugal (0893-773269) and Portuguese Travel Centre (071-581 3104)

Red tape: None for E.C. citizens. North Americans can stay up to 60 days without a visa, Australians for up to 3 months; New Zealanders, for some reason, need visas. The Portuguese Consulate in London is at 83 Brompton Rd, London SW3 (071-581 8722)

Reckon on 20 a day minimum for the essentials (double rooms in pensions start at around 8), plus 15 - 40 for a fado night out.

Information and maps: A range of leaflets are dispensed by the Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22/25a Sackville St, London W1 (071- 494 1441). Maps of the country are best bought on the spot. The Falkplan: Lisbon is invaluable for finding your way to the capital's clubs and bars.

Getting around: Trains and buses provide a comprehensive network around the country; car hire is cheap if booked in Britain, with a flight or from an agency like Holiday Autos (071-491 1111). Trams - built in Britain at the turn of the century - are a treat in Lisbon, and taxis are cheap.

Festivals: Lisbon's Alfama quarter is the place to be for the Popular Saints 'Festivals in June. In Coimbra, the biggest celebration is the Queima Das Fitas, at the end of the academic year (end of May), which is a very promising time for spontaneous outbreaks of fado.

Fado clubs: Lisbon. There are about a dozen fado clubs, or adegas, up in the Bairro Alto quarter. Some are established and expensive, with the big names and high prices - examples include A Severa, Rua das Gáveas 55; Machado, Rua do Norte 91; and Painel do Fado, Rua de São Pedro de Alcantara 65. Cheaper, earthier places, where the cooks and waiters do most of the singing, include Adega do Ribatejo, Rua Diário de Noticias 23, and Mile a Cem, Travessa da Espera. In furtherflung quarters of the city (take taxis), try: Fado Menor, Rua das Praças 18, Santos; and in Alcantara, Timpanas and A Cesária, Rua Gilberto Rola 16 and 20, respectively. Most people go to an adega for a meal, though some will allow customers just to drink; minimum charges are around _8 a head, but can be a lot more at the fancier places.

Fado clubs: Coimbra. Regular sessions take place at Cafe Santa Cruz, Praça 8 de Maio, and Bar Diligencia, Travessa da Rua Nova. Check the action, too, and enquire about events, at the students' bar, Associaceo Académica, on Rua Castro Matoso.

These travel notes have been compiled with the indispensable assistance of the very wonderful Rough Guide To Portugal (Harrap-Columbus, 7.99) which features a decent section on Portuguese music, and lots of bar and club recommendations, in addition to all the nitty-gritty on travel.

This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17