10 March 2011

What is the fado?

It might be hard to believe, but fado is--by nature--dark but also light, maudlin but also celebratory, introspective but also forward-looking. It is almost never bleak and desperate. If it were, it would not survive. Exploring these seemingly contradictory sentiments is the objective of the next few posts on this blog, which I hope will serve as a guide to the content of the music. Every post will have a few mp3s.

José Maria Fernandes
Tasca do Jaime, 28 June 2009
I expect to write this in three parts. The first one will cover some themes in the lyrics; the next one will cover the music itself (which is, strictly speaking, the fado); the final one will cover live performance (how the fado "happens"). Unlike recent treatments (e.g., the program "Trovas antigas, saudade louca" on RTP), these entries will be based almost entirely on my own experiences. These include my own recollections of what I saw and heard during about 100 nights of fado over an approximately ten-month period in Lisbon (documented here: http://noitesperdidas.net), but also from a survey I conducted recently with about 50 singers and musicians.

In other words, I am not going to cover the "big time" fado, nor am I going to cover the history of fado's development. My approach follows from my own feeling that it is really because of the amateur strata of the fado that the music continues to thrive, but also due to the fact that there are many great studies along these lines, including plenty of work in English. One excellent (and freely available) writeup on the history of the fado by Anton, including instrumentation and styles, that I hope to complement (see http://fadous.blogspot.com/2009/01/what-is-fado.html).

"The joy that brings sadness, and the sadness that brings joy." This is one way to conceptualize "saudade"--a fundamental concept in the lyrics of the fado. The emphasis can sit anywhere along this scale.

There are about 3500 fados in my iTunes library, and a (real) random sample of ten of them gives at least some idea of the scope o fado lyrics. Below is the title of the poem (with my rough translation), the singer, and the record that the fado is taken from. Unfortunately, I do not have the names of the other personnel on these records. The names of the authors and composers are taken from José Manuel Fernandes' site, http://fadosdofado.blogspot.com.

O Sonho ("The Dream"). Maria Do Carmo Torres. Vol. 1-Fado De Lisboa 1928-30
A dream that wraps around the bullfighting tradition of the Alentejo region, ending with the singer seduced by the sound of fado, then finding herself singing a desgarrada with Severa while Severa's lover, the Conde de Vimioso, plays the guitar. Lyrics by Francisco Duarte Ferreira; music by José Marques (Fado Rigoroso).

Meu Canto de Viela ("My song of the alley") [Fado Zeca]. Fernando Maurício. Património
A song about a poem that causes the singer to walk the streets looking for the person he ought not to love. Lyricist and composer unknown--sorry.

Manuel de Almeida
Azenha Velhinha (mp3). Manuel de Almeida. Fado Castiço
The stars are at war the night a terrible tragedy occurs at the water mill. The miller attempts to flee a fire with his child by crossing an old bridge. The bridget collapses and they both perish. Lyrics by Frederico de Brito.

O Meu Desejo ("My desire"). Luís Gois. Serenata de Coimbra
A fado from Coimbra: "my desire is to kiss you." Lyrics by Luís Gois.

O rio que nos viu nascer ("The river we saw being born"). Vicente da Câmara. Casa de Fados em Concerto
Two lives are bound up with one river (the Tejo of Lisbon). Lyrics by Maria de Jesus Facco Viana; music by Vicente da Câmara.

Cabelo Branco ("Gray hair"). Alfredo Marceneiro. Vol. 1-Fado De Lisboa 1928-30
"Cabelo branco é saudade." The white hair on an older man makes him realize not just his age, but also the things in his past that he cannot return to. Lyrics by Henrique Rego; composer unknown (Fado das Horas).

Eu Canto. Carlos do Carmo. Nove Fados E Uma Canção De Amor
"I know that I sing, and the song is everything." Lyrics by Cecília Meireles; music by António Victorino de Almeida.

A Carta (mp3). Américo Correia. O Grande Castiço do Fado
"Mother, this letter is the mirror where your son confesses everything: why he drinks the night away thinking of a woman, and how--despite all this--he continues to keep you close as a mother." As José Manuel Osório has said repeatedly, disentangling and clarifying titles and authors (as well as personnel) on fado records is incredibly tough. For example, the credits on this record say that the poem is called "A carta" (the letter), with lyrics by Jorge Fernando and music Fado Cravo. José Fernandes de Castro's site has the title listed as "Confessando" (Confessing), lyrics by Jorge Fernando and music Fado Cravo--with credit (as it should be) to Alfred Duarte (i.e., Alfredo Marceneiro).

Na Rua Do Silêncio. João Braga. Fados Para Sempre
"On the street of silence the night is always dark."Lyrics by Amadeu Sousa Freitas; music by Alfredo Duarte.

Casinha dum pobre (mp3). Fernando Farinha. The Portuguese Hits
"The poor man's house... don't open the door to jealousy--there is no room for it here." Lyrics by Carlos Flores; music by Frederico de Brito.

A couple of things are worth mentioning here.
  • All of these lyrics speak to the saudade, though from different perspectives, about different sources of loss and love, and from different ends of the scale. 
  • I am a bit surprised to see that there is only one song about Lisbon, though certainly some of the authors describe scenes in Lisbon (or Coimbra). Vítor Marceneiro has compiled a list of all fados that he knows that mention Lisbon. It's pretty long (http://lisboanoguiness.blogs.sapo.pt/156738.html). 
  • There are two female lyricists in the list. I really expected to see all males. I would think that an enterprising person might analyze the entries at fadosdofado to get a firmer estimate of this figure.
  • Alfredo Marceneiro and Frederico de Brito are the only people who show up twice on the list.

Finally, I think it's worth looking at one complete lyric, and also seeing and hearing how it was sung live. A saying heard over and over in Portugal is "Recordar é viver" ("To remember is to live"). Below is my translation of one poem that captures this sentiment and shows how it triggers the saudade. The lyrics are by Sérgio Valentino, and the music is the fado Proença (see link to JF Castro's site, below).

"Noites Perdidas"
Lyrics by Sérgio Valentino, music by Júlio Proença (Fado Proença)
Artur Batalha
How many lost nights/ shared with you/ laying seeds for a storm;
Untrue hours, lived in the worst way,/ my life robbed from me/ so that I did not want to live anymore.

I wish that I could forget/ those dreamlike nights / lived without any purpose.
Hours and hours without seeing,/ without seeing that you were not worth even a minute from me.

What I suffered no one can imagine/ those nights now gone / which so changed our passion.
And now I am ashamed/ because I am not able / to get you out of my heart.

As the singer José Maria Fernandes (above) told me, "Se eu não posso sentir, não posso transmitir" ("If I can't feel it, I can't convey it"). This gets into questions of repertory, which I'll take up in part three. "Noites perdidas" is very strongly associated these days with Artur Batalha (see a previous post for more about him), and there are a couple of videos on YouTube of Batalha singing this fado. The latest one (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COBQ-rYl9gA) is taken from a recent cycle of fado held in the Mouraria, where Batalha was a special guest. A transcription of the lyrics in Portuguese is here: http://fadosdofado.blogspot.com/2010/03/noites-perdidas.html.

Thanks for reading this. Leave a comment if you have a chance.

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