“You asked me once…
if I knew what fado is
I told you I didn’t know
You got surprised…
without knowing what to say
I lied at that moment.
I told you I didn’t know.
But now I’m going to tell you…”
-Tudo isso é fado, Amalia Rodrigues
The second act is about to begin. As people settle in their seats, a solitary spotlight slowly illuminates a small stage. Around, the tavern is lit softly by candles and on each table, a cardboard sign says: O Fado e uma cancao que nasce do Silencio. Por favor evite o ruido. (Fado: this song is born (sic) from Silence. Please avoid any noise.)
They say one cannot leave Portugal without watching a live Fado performance. So I asked my Portuguese friend to bring me to one. Here is where we ended up– a place called Restaurante Timpanas tucked in one of the rustic back streets of Lisbon.
An unlikely pair–a generously proportioned woman dressed in black and a thin man with a guitar–go up the stage silently. The man takes his seat on a stool and the woman stands beside him. As silence falls within the tavern, the man starts to pluck his guitar strings– tentatively at first, and then later, with a passionate adeptness only true artists possess. The woman joins him; her voice a soft caress that climaxes into a powerful yearning. I do not understand her words but her voice says it all. She seems to be singing of a sadness that is deeply rooted in her being.
Fado, which is Portuguese for fate, is an urban folk music genre that traces its roots in Portugal in the 1820s. Unrequited love, the longing for home, death and melancholia… these are its common themes said to have been sung by sailors and those whom they have left behind. It is usually performed by a woman called a fadista accompanied by a classical guitarist.
Fado songs resonate with saudade— a word so innately Portuguese it does not have a counterpart in English. People have suggested “melancholy”, “nostalgia” or “loss”. But these English words hardly come close. In Portugal, talking about saudade is almost a matter of national pride; as if only the Portuguese can have such a profound experience and therefore, the word itself loses its ‘Portuguese-ness’ when translated.
the pounce sings,
the guitars cry.
Ash and light
Pain and sin
All this exists
All this is sad
All this is the fado.”
Fado was brought to international attention by the Rhaina do Fado (Queen of Fado) Amalia Rodriguez in the 1950s. Today, her successor, Mariza, has made the genre more popular than ever, infusing her performances with a more theatrical flair.
Recently, Fado has been included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists alongside Spain’s Flamenco, Japan’s Kabuki Theatre, China’s Beijing Opera, and the Philippines’ Ifugao Hudhud Chants.
*Fado performance . Please excuse the poor quality of this video. I’ve recorded it to be heard and not seen.:(
The fadista pauses seductively, as if entreating the audience for a kiss . The tavern is suddenly filled with a collective tsssuuup, tssssuuuup as we pucker up to shower her with our imaginary kisses.
She then finishes her song with flourish. The applause is deafening. Much to my disappointment, it is the last song of the night. Reluctantly, I leave Timpanas but not with a heavy heart. Watching a Fado performance is indeed a moving experience… one that has let me take a rare peek into the Portuguese soul.
“E o fado é o meu castigo
Só nasceu pr’a me perder
O fado é tudo o que digo
Mais o que eu não sei dizer.
Fado is my punishment…
Fado was born just to make me feel lost
Fado is in all that my words say…
and also in what they don’t.”
*Restaurante Timpanas is located at Rua Gilberto Rola, 22-24 (Alcântara – Docks Area) 1350-155 LISBOA – PORTUGAL.