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The Captivating Fado And Its Origin

posted on: Jan 13, 2016

The Captivating Fado And Its Origin

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

 “Listen to this tale of a broken heart,

Of its anguish I must tell, tell from the start”.

The singer’s melancholic voice full of nostalgia and sadness sent a shiver down my spine and seemed to penetrate my very soul. Even though my comprehension of Portuguese was limited, her sultry voice wailing out a ballad-like love song tinged with regret and passion put me in a trance.

Now throwing back her head with eyes half closed and her body swaying to the soft music; now clutching and twisting the ends of her black shawl as if she was grasping life itself, she poured out her soul in sorrowful words and expressions.

In the semi-darkness of the restaurant Parrierinha de Alfama, in Lisbon, this middle-aged woman dressed in black with long shiny ebony hair flowing over her shoulders, hypnotized the patrons. Like every one of the packed audience I listened in unbroken silence as she vividly described the piercing pangs of love and the poignancy of despair. Yet, it appeared the words were incidental, her movements and the emotional self-pity in her voice told all.

It was as if I was watching a concert of the late Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, the most famous songstress the Arab world had ever known. In her motions and moving voice she was the twin of that famous daughter of the Nile. That night, I could see and feel a strong connection between the fado and the traditional songs of the Arabs.

That memorable evening had not been our first experience with the fado. For a month we had criss-crossed Portugal from Algarve in the south to Porto in the north searching for the authentic expression of Portugal’s soul. Everywhere we went we found that, for the tourist trade, this best known and most common of Portuguese songs had been modernized into a kind of pop-music. Like all traditional folk music throughout the world, the influences of the so-called modern tunes had almost destroyed the fado of the past.

To a great extent, only in its true home, the Alfama and the Mouraria districts of Lisbon, is this traditional Portuguese entertainment kept alive. In these poor quarters of the city, amid the picturesque squalor on the slopes below the towering St. George’s Castle, one can still hear the unadulterated sound of the fadistas with their mournful tormented voices.

The name fado comes from the Latin fatum (fate). It is the popular song and music of the Portuguese cabarets and nightclubs – the entertainment par-excellence of that land. A type of urban melodies rather than folk tunes, its origin is not clear to numerous music historians. A number of Portuguese writers, perhaps still sub-consciously fighting the Crusades, claim that the source of the fado is to be found in Africa, Brazil or the sailor songs on the high seas.

The Captivating Fado And Its Origin

However, others more objective in their observations have asserted that it is of true Moorish origin. In the New Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Theophilo Braga states that the root of the fado lies in Moorish or Arabian tradition. R. Gallop in Portugal, A Book of Folk-Ways quotes Arménio Correia Lopes who claims that not only the fado but the Spanish tango and habañera rhythm are the direct descendants of the Arab majuri.

Yet, even more than what music chroniclers write, the fado in its melodies and the words is only a continuation of the entertainment of the Moors. No one who is familiar with the traditional Arab songs and spends an evening listening to the undistorted fado will doubt that they are one and the same.

The songs and dances of the Moorish age have left their mark on the folk entertainment of both Spain and Portugal. The flamenco, Spain’s most famous dance is saturated with Arab influences and the charamba, sung in the Azores and Madeira is an old slave lament of Arab origin.

As for the fado, the Portuguese rural challenge or duel songs, the desgarradas, despiques and desafios, popular throughout the country, are its true forerunners. Like these lyrics and the zajal in the Arab lands, the fado contains improvised material in the form of couplets or quatrains.

It was in Recife, Brazil’s northern capital, where I first became acquainted with Portuguese duel songs. One evening while strolling by a park in the cool evening breeze, I heard what I thought was Arab music. As I neared, I saw that two men, each with a tambourine, were challenging each other in verse while the ringed audience cheered when one or the other made a point. I could hardly believe what I was seeing and hearing. It was no different than the zajal duels heard in the villages of Syria and Lebanon.

Yet, in spite of these obvious connections with the Muslim past, the majority of Portuguese music historians support the premise that the fado had its origin in the songs of the freed slave inhabitants in the urban centres. They maintain that this type of singing originated in the early 19th century in the Alfama district of Lisbon from where it spread to other cities. Hence, it became known as the urban folk verse of Portugal.

Through the years the fado evolved into two distinct types: the Lisbon, sung in the cafes and streets of the poorer sections, especially Alfama and Bairro Alto where most of the authentic versions are rendered; and the Coimbra, a favourite serenade of the students to their lady-loves in the University of Coimbra. In this institution of learning, black-gowned students strolling through narrow streets or along the banks of the Mondego River on moonlit nights serenading the shadowed casement windows is a common sight. On the other hand, the Alfama versions can best be heard late at night along the steep miniature streets of old Lisbon where the mournful and soul-felt tunes of the fadistas fill the air.

In the past, the fado was frowned upon, and respectable people were reluctant to be seen where it was performed. It was believed that this diversion of the masses was immoral and led to depravity. Perhaps, its early association with the freed slaves and urban poor, many of whose ancestors were former Moors, gave it the stigma of rogue and scoundrel entertainment. This degrading of the fado has not altogether vanished. Some still describe it as a hymn to vice or ode to crime, while others avow that it is monotonous, morbid and an artless sophistication of words and music.

In the conventional fado the singer is always accompanied by two musicians each with a different type guitar: one called guitarra Portuguesa and the other viola da França. The guitarra is a long necked silvery-toned lute with a rounded soundboard and twelve strings. The viola, another name for the Spanish guitar, is a five or six string instrument. It was first introduced by the Arabs into the Iberian Peninsula and adopted by the medieval minstrels under the name vihuela. It provides harmony and bass line while the guitarra plays improvisatory passages against the vocalist’s line. As to the melody, it consists of an eight-measure period divided into two four-measure phrases in 2/4 time. The harmony alternates between tonic and dominant, usually in the minor mode.

The fado session begins after the guitarists are seated and the lights are dimmed. They play a few bars on their instruments and the audience becomes quiet. The songstress, attired in a somber colour, the customary garb of the poor, with a black shawl around her shoulders begins to sing in a simple unpretentious manner in an almost languid resignation. The song in most cases tells of misfortunes, unhappiness and disaster. Full of sentimentality, it is an outpouring of emotional feeling usually an exaggerated lament.

Many of the melodies extol the joys of being unhappy, while others tell the story of blighted love or infidelity. Poems, often improvised by the singer, almost always include the word saudade, a Portuguese expression that has no exact equivalent in any other language – an expression which has acquired the connotations of misery, malaise, regret and longing for unattainable comfort. Without exception, the audience listens in unbroken silence to this liturgy of Portugal’s inner being.

Each traditional fado evening, not those frequented by tourists, usually features three singers: two women and one man who, besides singing, work in the nightspot where they perform. Food and drink are always served in these establishments and they are usually not overpriced.

For its fans, the fado has a strange attraction, difficult to analyze or explain. According to C. Salter in Portugal, the fado reveals the Portuguese character plangent, gentle and intensely and uninhibitedly sentimental. Never cheerful and much too solemn, it is never danced. Beloved by the great majority of the people, its strangely fascinating melodies are the true popular manifestation of the nation. As distinctively Portuguese as the flamenco is essentially Spanish, it has a common heritage with that fiery dance. Absorbing, thrilling and captivating, both have their roots in the days of the romantic Moors.

The most renowned of the fado singers grew up in the slums of Alfama. José Dias, Caldas Barbosa and Maria Severa, the most celebrated of the 19th century fadistas and, in the 20th century, the famed Amália Rodrigues, all called that part of Lisbon home. Their ballads filled with traces of tragedy and the evil destiny of the unfortunate have made them the genuine symbol of Portugal.

Likewise, Umm Kulthum’s songs recounting the irony of fate and the sorrows of the heart have made her the unchallenged voice of the Arab lands. It appears that the common ancestral links between their verses produce the same results.

There is a Portuguese saying which states that once you open your ears and let in the fado with its yearning intermingled with despondency and resignation it will stay with you forever. Of course, they are not speaking of the typical tourist type entertainment. Many visitors who attend a fado performance in conventional nightclubs featuring extravagant floor-shows and modernized singing, think that they have seen the real thing. Not knowing the true fado, they become disillusioned.

On the other hand, those who come to know the authentic fado will in many cases, like the Portuguese, become enchanted with its words and music. Gallop’s description of this soul-rending type of singing is on point:

“It is emotional, passionate, erotic, sensuous, one might say meretricious, and yet, like some rustic courtesan fundamentally simple and unpretentious”.

These words that truly portray the fado could also very well describe the Arab traditional ballads – the undisputed origin of a good number of Portuguese and Spanish folk songs.