25 September 2010

Listening to Fado

While I'm working on transcribing, verifying and translating an interview with Tony Loretti, here is a short piece on listening to the fado. The text is my translation of most of a short essay by José Lúcio Ribeiro de Almeida. You can see the original Portuguese version here:
With Sr. Ribeiro de Almeida’s permission, I’ve left off a bit of his original discussion, which mostly addresses the recent historical context for the fado in terms of Salazar’s “Three Fs”--Football, Fado and Fátima. There is a small chance that that portion of the text will be augmented (by him) then translated for inclusion here.

Learn to listen to fado, with open ears. The fado isn't "heard"--it "happens".
By José Lúcio Ribeiro de Almeida 
(trans. DM)

When one likes to listen to Fado, it's best--as the people say--not to eat cat as if it were rabbit. Now we see the "hamburgers of Fado" appear more and more. They don't know how to sing, they are 'semi-toned', they don't have the voice, they don't know how to divide the poem, they don't know how to breathe over the musical frases without losing their breath in trying hold the melody, they sing fado without caring whether or not their musical prowess will permit them to sing it, and--finally--they sell alot of CDs, receive alot of applause and good words from the specialists in the material, and people who like Fado listen to them thankfully, which is a serious thing indeed. No one eats spoilt food. So why is the fado sung poorly and no one says anything?

But I am going to give you a simple recipe to improve your knowledge of the Fado. If you like the Fado, then read this with attention. 

1. Do not confuse listening to Fado with listening to a CD of Fado. Listening to Fado means being there, live and without a net, where the true thing happens. The CD is the cynical side of the Fado. Or perhaps you think that when someone attempts to record a CD and things don't go well (that is, if someone makes a mistake), then the recording is left as is. But of course it is not. The person goes back and records again and again, until the recording is OK. With the advanced technology of the computer, there are already programs that enable mediocre singers to sound perfectly fine. But only on CD, because live they are a disgrace.

2. If you like a particular Fado, try to learn the composer of the music (careful with the Fado Acácio, because Acácio is not the author but the name of the music) and the author of the lyric. Learn who are the musicians playing. In the fado, the viola player and the guitarist together are called the 'parelha' [pair]. If it's a Popular March, the group of 7 musicians is called the 'Cavalinho' [little horse]. For the fado to 'happen' (that is, to hear good Fado) the 'Yantra of Fado' (the esoteric triangle of the Fado) has to happen: the person who sings has to sing well, the musicians who play have to play well, and the audience has to listen well. When somebody says, "Quiet--the Fado is going to be sung", that is a bad sign. Which is to say that the audience is probably noisy or perhaps more interested in conversing than in listening to the Fado. The word 'Fado' is more associated with the singer, but the Fado does not continue to thrive just because of the singer. To the contrary, the singer is the final element of the Fado. First somebody has to construct the guitar and the viola, then compose the music and the lyrics, then learn to play in the key of the person who is going to sing, and only then does the 'artist' appear, who is always the person who gets paid.

3. The Fado requires physical proximity. If there are microphones, that is a bad sign. They are now selling big shows of Fado that are not Fado. The thing is that a big Fado show brings more people, and the fado itself may be sung on a football pitch, in a bull ring, or in another large area, and this is all synonymous of the business of Fado and so is not Fado at all. Which is to say quantity and not quality. As is logical, the big Fado shows on television require microphones, but these are big shows--not Fado. There is a big difference between hearing the Fado in a small Fado house versus in a big show or on television. To get to know the feeling of this difference, go to a restaurante with a healthy appetite. Watch the others eat but you yourself don't eat.

4. If you like Fado, make a rule in your life to go at least once a month to hear Fado. Choose the location well. There are plenty of places where cat is served as rabbit. So what is there to do? Whoever doesn't know ought to go looking in order to be informed.

5. If you go to hear Fado, don't take anybody with you who doesn't like Fado, or anybody who you haven't seen in a long time. If you do, it's natural and likely that the talk about olden times will take precedence over the fado.

6. If you can--and if the artists approve--record and photograph a session of the Fado. You will see that, upon hearing it at home, the recording will have the taste of the truth.

7. With the appearance of the CD, the great archives of the Fado will continue to reside only on 78rpm or 33rpm vinyl records. If you can, get ahold of a record player and look for records from your preferred artists.

8. In your collection of Fado--whether records or CDs--always have some good 'guitarradas' [fado music but no voice]. Listen with attention to the 'guitarrada', since the music without the voice gives other a different type of knowledge of the Fado. 

9. Finally, if you like the Fado and none of this appeals to you, continue to enjoy the Fado in your own way. My intention in writing this text was simply to share with you what I've learned over roughly 40 years. I say 'learned', but I mean 'know'. For this reason I consider myself an investigator of the Fado, a person who studies and learns every day. Not a 'musicologist', because while in the old days this expression was used for investigators and for the studious, now it's used only for PhDs.

If you don't agree with me or you find errors in what I've written, tell me why. I knew somebody who would often say, only everybody knows everything.

José Lúcio Ribeiro de Almeida


  1. "the person who sings has to sing well, the musicians who play have to play well, and the audience has to listen well."

    This is very much what the 'duende gitano' is to the Spanish Flamenco, except duende is something good that is born of something bad, or from an internal luta.

    Very good article. Aprendi bastante.

  2. thank you for the comments--good to know that somebody is listening out there!
    cumprimentos, dm