Ana Moura – Coliseu

14 Jun

In the wake of Ana Moura’s growing international success, her 2008 live album Coliseu has been given an international release by World Village. My review of the album is here.

The Road to Novo Fado (I)

9 May

A number of artists who were identified with the Portuguese rock boom  of the 1980s made a connection with fado, no doubt as a strategy to localize the otherwise ‘placeless place’ of Anglo-American pop and rock. Mler Ife Dada, a group formed in 1984 in Cascais, provide a good example of this strategy. In 1986, the group were joined by singer Anabela Duarte, who participated on two seminal albums, Coisas Que Fascinam (1987) and Espírito Invisível (1989). The latter contained a song called ‘Dance Music’ which set up the complexities of the Portuguese popular musical field simply but effectively: over a funk arrangement of bass, horns and guitar, an angry male voice asks in a semi-rap (in English), ‘Why do you have to hear dance music on your radio / if you’re not dancing, you’re listening to the radio?’ and then ‘Why do you have to hear this song in English language / If you’re not English and this ain’t no English song?’  The first album contained a number of varied elements, from experimental pop-rock with dada-ist overtones to music informed by an explicit internationalism. ‘À Sombra Desta Pirâmide’ includes Arabic sonorities; ‘Siô Djuzé’, a brief duet between Duarte and Rui Reininho uses the style of Cape Verdean coladeira; ‘Passarella’ mixes English lyrics with Portuguese; and ‘Desastre De Automóvel Em Varão De Escadas’ uses random lines of German alongside wordless singing and a musical accompaniment that evokes the honking of car horns. ‘Alfama’ is clearly a gesture towards fado, performed not by a particular instrumental style but via the sense of place evoked in the lyrics and by Duarte’s voicing of the words. Against a minimal electric guitar, an associative style is used in which a number of features are hymned: the Alfama of painted shards, of paint, of winds on the river, knife tips, alpaca, famous people, the flea market, and ‘knife-like winds  / that slice Alfama  / into doors painted / with the fame of fado’.  The lyrics involve a series of plays on words and heavy use of alliteration so that the ultimate number of associations is multiplied, the portrait becoming more than the sum of its parts, an intricate word labyrinth that echoes the tumbling streets of its subject.

Duarte went on to release a series of solo albums, including Lishbunah (1988), which included traditional fado instrumentation (Martinho de Assunção on viola and Manuel Mendes on guitarra portuguesa), opening it with José Régio’s poem of fadontology, ‘Fado Português’. Over a decade later, Duarte produced a more ghostly and futuristic fado on the album Delito (1999), which reprised her Mler Ife Dada song ‘Alfama’ and introduced a new piece called ‘Planeta Phado’. The album did not utilize fado instrumentation but relied on a variety of sounds and recording and post-production techniques to lend the music a fractured, fragile quality. ‘Planeta Phado’ presents itself as a sort of palimpsest, a new song sung (or recorded) over the distant trace of a traditional lament. Speaking about her ideas for the album, Duarte said:

We need to take the fado further. Cut its corsets, let it breathe. There have been some bold attempts, but a cyber-fado would be something completely new. In Planeta Phado, I tried to mix Blade Runner with fado. The cloning and the mechanisms of fiction and the multiple directions, or simultaneous directions, the matrix, cyberpunk, is something that has not been attempted yet in fado. Phado Planet is there.

Duarte did not specify who had been responsible for the previous ‘bold attempts’ to ally fado with other sonic possibilities but she might have been thinking of António Variações. Variações (a pseudonym taken from the Portuguese word for ‘variations’) was responsible for ‘queering’ both fado and Portuguese pop by fusing elements of folk, fado, new wave and other contemporary pop forms in his music and by applying an openly homosexual appropriation of Portuguese musical tradition. Prior to his premature death in 1984, Variações released two revolutionary albums Anjo de Guarda (1983) and Dar & Receber (1984), the former containing a version of ‘Povo Que Lavas no Rio’ which removed the song from traditional fado accompaniment by adding synthesizer, drums and electric bass. Vocally, the song is not so far removed from Amália’s  version, with Variações’s vocals often operating on a high, ‘feminine’ register, and this was something the singer seemed to recognise in another song on the album, ‘Voz-Amália-de-Nós’, where he sings ‘We all have Amália in our voice’. At the same time, this register alternates with a deeper ‘blank croon’ (more noticeable on the album’s third track ‘Visões-Ficções (Nostradamus)’), suggesting a hitherto unexplored connection between Rodrigues, Nico and Brian Ferry, another of the singer’s influences.  Variações’s albums were popular in Portugal, suggesting the ways that the 1980s might sound and playing a dominant role in interpellating young people into the pop world, including those musicians (the fadista Camané among them) who came together in 2004 as the group Humanos to record a highly successful album of songs written by Variações.

Paulo Bragança is an interesting figure to mention in this context. Like Variações, he had a sacrilegious approach to fado that was nonetheless rooted in a serious consideration of fado’s possibilities. Declaring himself an enemy of the genteel tradition of the puristas, Bragança took upon himself the role of a ‘true fadista’ by drawing comparisons between the original fadistas and the punks. He would perform on the fado circuit barefoot, dressed in jeans, T-shirts and leather jackets and making declarations such as ‘Fado for Portugal is like a sacred altar covered in dust. And if someone dares to clear the dust, he’ll be shot.’  Bragança’s first album Notas Sobre a Alma (1992), which featured the guitarra of Mário Pacheco and the viola and production of Jorge Fernando (a major figure in what was to become novo fado), was restricted to mostly traditional fado, apparently at the request of his record company. His second, Amai (1994), was a different affair, featuring a wide range of instruments (synthesizers, samplers, organ, guitarra, accordion, and strings) and styles (fado, flamenco, rock, pop and Brazilian music) and containing a number of self-written songs and cover versions of non-fado material, such as Nick Cave’s ‘Sorrow’s Child’ (in English) and Heróis do Mar’s ‘Adeus’. The bringing together of Cave’s lyric and Pacheco’s guitarra, as mentioned in a previous post, was designed as a way of showing how saudade and a fadista worldview could reside in musics outside the Portuguese world. In 1996 Luaka Bop, the label created by David Byrne and Yale Evelev to promote progressive world music, reissued Amai for an international market; Bragança and Carlos Maria Trindade of Madredeus also contributed a track to Red Hot & Lisbon (1999), a compilation released by Luaka Bop as a snapshot of Lusophone music at the time of Expo 98 in Lisbon. Bragança released a third solo album in 1996 containing traditional fados and a fourth (Lua Semi-Nua) in 2001 which reprised the large instrumental palette of Amai and contained a number of songs written by pop legend José Cid, who also produced the album.


2 May

References to the city occur even in highly metaphorical fados; here, the intention seems not so much to describe or represent the city as to ground otherwise ‘universal’ material. An example can be found in a lyric written by Amália Rodrigues, in which she speaks of an ‘icy sea’ that enters her when her lover is absent and of being ‘um barco naufragado / Mesmo sem sair do Tejo’ [a boat shipwrecked / without even leaving the Tejo]. In another fado associated with Amália, Alexandre O’Neill’s ‘Gaivota’ [Seagull], we hear of a seagull that might come ‘trazer-me o céu de Lisboa’ [to bring me the Lisbon sky]. The success of this song, which has been recorded by a number of performers, has arguably strengthened the possibility of a metonymy utilized in many fados whereby the image of the ‘gaivota’ comes to stand in for Lisbon itself. The same can be said for the ‘Varinas’ mentioned in many older fados; these are female fish sellers famed for carrying their baskets of fish on their heads as they walked through the streets. Now more prevalent in songs than in reality, they are also hymned by mythologists such as Ángel Crespo.

Alfama Rooftops

‘Gaivota’ also highlights the desire to move to a space where one can look down on the city. As Michel de Certeau and numerous cultural geographers have pointed out, the ‘God’s eye’ view of the city beloved of urban planners and readers of the city-as-text often mixes uneasily, and even antagonistically, with the lived text of the street level view. But that does not alter the fact that such a perspective remains a dseirable one, even in everyday life. It is, after all, what allows us to read the city and try to get a sense of what the city might mean. While it is true that the view from above is one which has power and authority attached to it, it is also a view that the city itself – in the form of the polis, the citizens – requests. There is a pleasure to viewpoints that allow a looking-back on the city text, which is why they are frequently included on tourist itineraries and prominently signposted from the ‘depths’ of the city itself.

Fado’s association with Alfama has allowed its songwriters not only to negotiate the dark alleyways and labyrinths of the quarter, but also to look down on the city and the river below. Hermínia Silva can thus sing of the ‘Telhados de Lisboa’ [Rooftops of Lisbon] and Tristão da Silva of the view ‘Da Janela do Meu Quarto’ [From the Window of My Room], from where he sees Alfama, the seven hills of Lisbon, the varinas, the cathedral and the Tejo.

Let’s return to ‘Gaivota’, a fine example of fado canção. Written by Alexandre O’Neill, set to music by Alain Oulman and recorded by Amália Rodrigues, the song became a twentieth century fado classic. Central to its appeal are the dense metaphorical language, the references to Lisbon (nothing too obsessive, just the sky above the city that allows us a view of its streets and the possibility to be carried away on the wind and over the sea), a maritime flavour, an aching longing at the heart of the refrain and Amália’s deep saudade­-drenched voice. The song was both a culmination of all those seagulls that had provided part of the poetic language of fado and an inspiration to subsequent fados. In the 1970s, Carlos do Carmo lent his jazz-influenced phrasing to the song and it was reinvented, arguably becoming as much his as it was Amália’s.

In 1990, Carmo’s occasional collaborator Paulo de Carvalho included the song on his album Gostar de Ti, a pop-fado project that mixed state-of-the-art keyboard sounds with guitarra. In 1998 it became one of Lula Pena’s ‘phados’, a stark, almost-not-there exercise for husky voice and guitar haunted by the ghostly presence of Amália. In 2002, Gonçalo Salgueiro used the song to show his dedication to the Amálian event and to highlight his vocal ornamentation, while Carlos do Carmo sang a more unusual version than normal to the accompaniment of Joel Xavier’s inspired acoustic guitar improvisation. Margarida Bessa’s version from 1995, complete with tenor saxophone, turned up on Metro’s Café Portugal in 2004, one part of a jigsaw of songs making up that invisible city. Cristina Branco used ‘Gaivota’ as a homecoming at the close of her far-ranging album Ulisses. For the Quinteto Jazz de Lisboa and for Paula Oliveira and Bernardo Moreira it became once more an exercise in jazz singing, Oliveira providing an achingly fragile reading over Leo Tardin’s minimal piano that aimed for the song’s lonely heart. Then in 2009 ‘Gaivota’ was suddenly the focal point for a Number One album by Hoje, the project featuring members of pop band The Gift, whose Nuno Gonçalves wished to prove that ‘Amália is more than fado – Amália is pop’ (see the group’s MySpace page).

What to make of the nearly fifty year flight of this seagull? Does it tell us a story about fado or ‘only’ about Amália? Can the two be separated at this stage? Can ‘Gaivota’ tell us any more about what fado ‘is’? Does its arrangement determine its fado-ness? If so, does Carlos do Carmo stop being a fadista when accompanied by Joel Xavier? How does fado differ from other song genres? How does the commissioning of lyrics and arrangements affect authenticity in comparison to pop and rock? Was ‘Gaivota’ always a pop song, as Nuno Gonçalves claims? And what does it mean to claim, as Gonçalves does, that ‘pop’ is something bigger than ‘fado’? Hoje’s version soars and swoops, aiming for that place on high from where the lyric speaks and proving itself to be a song about singing, about fado and pop music: a self-aware object that escapes the drooping cadence. But which version can be said to be truer to the word and spirit of fado? The fact is that groups such as A Naifa, Donna Maria, OqueStrada and Hoje seem to climb to a place outside of fado. But this would suggest a music that ‘just is’ and a music that ‘gets outside’, which seems too neat. What are the elements within fado itself that make it seem ‘natural’, ‘transparent’?

Strolling and Shuffling

21 Mar
Rua do Carmo

Rua do Carmo, Lisbon, 2008.

Listening, as Mladen Dolar suggests, ‘is “always-already” incipient obedience; the moment one listens one has already started to obey’.  The form this obedience takes is inherently spatial but this should not blind us to the obvious temporal implications of listening. Listening to music. for example, offers us a possibility to pass time and, as Simon Frith points out, an experience of time passing: ‘In the most general terms,’ Frith writes, ‘music shapes memory, defines nostalgia, programs the way we age (changing and staying the same).’  For Sylviane Agacinski, who presents a similar discussion of passing time (focussing on both senses of the term), Walter Benjamin remains a key figure, one for whom the act of strolling through a city street was akin to strolling through a series of memory places, stumbling upon evidence of one’s own past and that of one’s society. Here, a giving of oneself over to happenstance is presented in distinction to the strict control of the searcher who is on a quest. Comparisons with forms of reading, viewing and listening are immediately apparent: the browser flicking through the pages of a book, the television viewer cruising the various stations, the radio listener trusting to the dial, or the iPod listener setting their collection to ‘Shuffle’. Agacinski sets up this apparent distinction between agency and passivity by opposing the figure of the historian to that of the stroller:

The historian takes possession of the past by interpreting traces, whereas the trace of the past happens to the stroller and takes possession of him. Let us not claim, however, that nothing happens to the historian; undoubtedly his desire also involves an anticipation, a curiosity with regard to what will come to him from the past, what he will discover in the shadows and encounter. There is often a stroller at the heart of each historian, a part of him that is trying to let himself be touched by the traces.

(Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing, Columbia UP, p. 52)

Agacinski admits in a footnote that she is thinking of Michel de Certeau when she writes the foregoing, and it is no coincidence that this stroller-historian should also become the author of a discussion of walking that wished to problematize the distinction between active and passive ways of being in the city. As with the historian, so too with the browser, the cruiser and the shuffler, who may well be enjoying the ‘ecstasy’ of discoveries made by accident or by the equally pleasurable activities of browsing among bookshops, record stores, or other collections.  Continuing the idea of browsing-as-activity, Agacinski writes:

For Benjamin, the possibility of experiencing the past requires certain conditions. In particular, the frame of mind for letting oneself be touched, for letting oneself be taken by the aura, requires a true idleness. The stroller cannot want to arrange time himself, for example, by undertaking some project or by precisely scheduling his course of action; rather, he must be available to time, to let time pass, to spend it without keeping count, to know how to waste it.

(Agacinski, p. 55)

This is not a simple form of passivity; to make oneself available is still to make something, to do something. The stroller strolls and the shuffler shuffles with a prior knowledge of certain things they are going to encounter.

Voice (I)

18 Mar

The voice, above all, is that which is lost to the wind. Mafalda Arnauth reminds us of this in a song entitled ‘Esta Voz Que Me Atravessa’ [This Voice That Crosses Me]. The song speaks of a voice that does not live inside the singer but in a shadow beside her. In the second verse she sings, ‘Trago cravado no peito / Um resto de amor desfeito / Que quando eu canto me dói / Que me deixa a voz em ferida’ [I bear, embedded in my chest, / A shard of broken love / That hurts me when I sing / That leaves my voice wounded]. The final verse reveals that the voice that has possessed the singer is in fact that of Maria Severa and did not die with the fadista.  The singer is encountering a voice older than she. Here, the voice itself is the site for an acting out of the memory work supposedly undertaken by all fadistas who show fidelity to the originary figure of Severa. The voice becomes an object, like the shawl worn by female fadistas as a sign of mourning for Severa. This object bears none of the claims to originality familiar to so many commentaries on the individuality of the voice; rather, it is collectively owned, something to be taken up, borne and passed on.
There is a responsibility to fado singing, then, one that permits Mariza to name her first album Fado em Mim [Fado in Me] and to include on it a song explicitly about responsibility, ‘Ó Gente da Minha Terra’ [O People of My Land]. It might be more accurate to say that there is a responsibility to singing in general which fado recognizes. This allows the fadista António Zambujo, for example, to sing ‘Trago Alentejo na Voz’ [I Carry Alentejo in My Voice], in which the carrying of a place and style quite other to that of Lisbon fado can be voiced. Zambujo signals recognition of the polyphonic singing tradition common to the area of Alentejo in the south of Portugal, both in the lyrical message he delivers and in the addition of a male choir to his recording of the song.  Another example of this carrying of a responsibility can be found in the work of the fadista Gonçalo Salgueiro, especially his debut album …No Tempo das Cerejas (2002).

The album opens with a song entitled ‘Grito’ [Shout/Cry], a verse written by Amália and set to music by her former guitarist Carlos Gonçalves. Guitarra and viola set the musical scene for around half a minute before falling silent. The word ‘silêncio’ is voiced, stretching over ten otherwise silent seconds, with the majority of work being engaged on the middle vowel as Salgueiro introduces us immediately to his (at first subtle) vocal ornamentation. An audible intake of breath is then followed with the following section of the verse, still unaccompanied by the guitarists and with increasing ornamentation on each word:

Do silêncio faço um grito
E o corpo todo me dói
Deixai-me chorar um pouco

[From the silence I make a cry
And my whole body hurts
Leave me to weep a little]

Over the course of the first four lines, and occupying a significant section of the song in terms of duration, we experience what Simon Frith calls ‘the sheer physical pleasure of singing itself … the enjoyment a singer takes in particular movements of muscles’.  Furthermore, a message is communicated directly: voice will be central to this recording project. And so it turns out. Following a fairly strident rendition of ‘Meia Noite e uma Guitarra’, a different enjoyment of the voice that complements the subtle intricacy of the album’s opener, the third track comes in the form of a poem written by Maria de Lourdes DeCarvalho with Amália in mind and entitled ‘Tenho em Mim a Voz dum Povo’ [I Have in me Voice of a People]. The poem sings of  a ‘Voz com que canto e me encanto / Em cada canto do meu pranto / Uma estranha lágrima de fogo’ [Voice with which I sing and which enchants me / in each song of my lament / A strange tear of fire].

Responsibility is key here. Salgueiro is carrying a responsibility, as the liner notes to the CD make clear. He is in the tradition of Amália and veers, according to Rui Vieira Nery’s version of the singing-as-enjoyment phenomenon, between ‘the joy of risk-taking and a liking for conservatism’.  As the accompanying biography alerts us, Salgueiro was invited by João Braga to be part of a show that accompanied the moving of Amália’s body to the National Pantheon in 2001. There is a layering of responsibility here as Salgueiro is given the task of ‘carrying’ Amália in his voice and Amália is given the posthumous responsibility of eternal national recognition. In her third verse, DeCarvalho has Salgueiro speak on behalf of Amália of the latter’s new home alongside the poets Camões and Pessoa, a home that is both the Pantheon itself (the home of mortal remains) and the Infinite in which her ‘eternal soul’ will sing a song in the presence of God.

This appeal to God should not surprise us. Fado, like other cultural products and processes in Portugal, has deep connections with Catholicism and many of its key tropes (fate, sin, guilt, redemption) could be traced back to religious practices. We can find a fine example of the divine implications of the fado voice in a song written for Amália by Alberto Janes and entitled ‘Foi Deus’ [It Was God]. The song begins, not unlike ‘Tudo Isto É Fado’, with the singer claiming ignorance; in this case it is the reason for the sorrowful tone with which she sings fado of which she is ignorant. But this ignorance is superseded by the declaration that ‘It was God / That placed in my chest / A rosary of pain / For me to speak / And to cry while singing / He made the nightingale a poet / Put rosemary in the fields / Gave flowers to the Spring / Ah, and gave this voice to me’.  In one rather simplistic sense, this provides us with an ‘answer’ to a question posed by so many commentators about the ‘magical’ power of Amália’s voice. How did that voice allow her to transcend the politics and traditions of her time and become so ‘universally’ acknowledged? The answer appears that to be that it was not her voice after all but part of God’s plan. In Mafalda Arnauth’s ‘A Voz Que Me Atravessa’ the voice that passed through the singer, while capable of travelling across time and space, had mortal origins in the figure of Maria Severa. Here, the origins are explicitly divine. In one song, we hear the voice of the people; in the other, the voice of God.

Manuela Cook suggests that the fatalism of fado is generally connected to an earlier fatalism found in the Romans and Greeks and is in fact in tension with Catholic faith in which ‘a Christian healing power defies a non-Christian merciless destiny.’ But it is the latter, the ‘omnipotent but merciful God’, that Cook recognizes in Amália’s ‘Foi Deus’ rather than ‘ancient inexorable deities’.  Cook’s discussion of the role of women in fado singing covers the witnessing of the Fátima miracle in 1917, offering a useful reminder of the role of witnessing in religious lore. Many different religions place emphasis on witnessing, testifying, performative preaching, ritual and what Simon Frith calls ‘the collective voice of religious submission’.

Notions of submission and possession are frequently given voice in fados such as Maria da Fé’s ‘Cantarei Até Que a Voz Me Doa’ [I Will Sing Until My Voice Hurts].  This song is a speaking-out, or singing-out, a stubborn persistence to make oneself heard and to not have one’s voice lost to the ether. Like ‘A Voz Que Me Atravessa’ and ‘Foi Deus’, it represents a giving of oneself over to the voice and the song. But the reliance on another figure is lessened; neither God nor the mythological fadista are required. The witness here, like the witness in court, is someone who takes the stand and who is given their moment to speak out, licensed by the people to speak for the people. In this sense, it is a very public song and immediately brings to mind visions of its performance in a casa de fado such as the one Maria da Fé herself operates.

This emphasis on speaking out and on public voices should not distract us from the privacies and intimacies of speaking and listening allowed by sound recording. Aldina Duarte, no stranger to the casa de fado, nonetheless fashioned an intimate form of communication on her first album Apenas o Amor (2004) that could only have come about through the medium of recording.  The album is notable for having a sense of sonic intimacy that is attained by the unhurried nature of the arrangements and the way the voice and guitars have been miked and recorded, with a slight echo that serves to emphasize the clean silence surrounding the words and notes. This is further highlighted by songs which reference the affect of voice. The first song begins with the evocation of a ‘voice in the silence’, while the second opens with ‘the memory of a sad voice’; another speaks of ‘an unconscious voice / that deep down is always fado’. On the slower tracks, José Manuel Neto’s guitarra is a model of minimal accompaniment, allowing the voice room to materialize in the sonic field. It is no surprise that fellow musicians Carlos do Carmo and Jorge Palma, who both provide liner notes to the album, speak of silence in their comments.

As Simon Frith writes, ‘The microphone made it possible for singers to make musical sounds – soft sounds, close sounds – that had not really been heard before in terms of public performance … [it] allowed us to hear people in ways that normally implied intimacy – the whisper, the caress, the murmur.’  This intimacy is hymned in Alexandre O’Neil’s ‘Há Palavras Que Nos Beijam’ [There Are Words That Kiss Us], a poem that has been performed as a fado by Mariza and Cristina Branco.  Meanwhile, the ‘memória duma voz triste’ that Aldina Duarte sings about also suggests a carrying on the part of the listener too, a reminder that in listening something is placed in the mind, becoming a part of consciousness itself

Maria da Fé & Ana Moura, ‘Divino Fado’

Witnessing, Carrying, Bringing (I)

1 Mar

As suggested previously, the acts of carrying, bearing and bringing-to-bear are crucial to the process of witnessing. The kind of carrying I am thinking of can be heard in a fado written by Amália Rodrigues and recorded on one of her late albums. It is entitled ‘Trago Fados nos Sentidos’ [I Carry Fados in My Senses]:

Trago fados nos sentidos
Tristezas no coração
Trago os meus sonhos perdidos
Em noites de solidão.

Trago versos trago sons
D’uma grande sinfonia
Tocada em todos os tons
Da tristeza e d’agonia.

[I carry fados in my senses
Sadness in my heart
I bear my lost dreams
In nights of loneliness

I bear verses, I bear sounds
Of a grand symphony
Played in all the tones
From sadness to agony]

This is the form of witnessing which I believe is most important to fado, this sense of carrying and unburdening, of passing on. Interestingly, in other versions of this song such as that recorded by Cristina Branco, the word ‘fados’ is changed in the title and the verse to ‘fado’.  The change is slight but helps us to make the claim for fado not only as a series of witnessed symbols but also as a process of witnessing.

The verb ‘trazer’, from which ‘trago’ comes is very popular in fado texts. It can be translated variously as ‘to bring’, ‘to wear’, ‘to bear’ and ‘to carry’. Among contemporary fado lyricists, Helder Moutinho seems particularly fond of the verb. In ‘Ai do Vento’, he sings ‘Sao as saudades que nos trazem as tristezas…’ [It’s saudades that bring us sadness]; in ‘Ao Velho Cantor’, he addresses an ‘old singer of the past’ whose eyes ‘trazem imagens de fados’ [bear images of fados]; in ‘Não Guardo Saudade a Vida’ he claims ‘Trago a saudade esquecida’ [I carry a forgotten saudade]. One of Moutinho’s albums even bears the title Que Fado É Este Que Trago? [What Fado/Fate Is This That I Bear?]. Even when this verb is not used we find many lyrics which deal with what is borne or held inside by the singer, such as the ‘fado no peito’ [fado in my breast] in Moutinho’s ‘Lisboa das Mil Janelas’.

A vital correlative, and one which connects with the sense of fate, is the sense of being carried too, as in Ana Laíns’s ‘O Fado Que Me Traga’ [The Fado/Fate That Carries Me]. A crucial metaphor in bringing together these senses of carrying and being carried is the air, and especially the wind, that carries our testimony to others and delivers theirs to us. Helder Moutinho’s ‘Fado Refugio’ speaks of carrying ‘in my voice / the life that has been offered me’ and each verse contains the line ‘Eu trago na voz o vento’ [I carry the wind in my voice].  Many fados talk about the wind and things which are carried on the wind, not only the seagulls that populate numerous songs but also the uncertainties and hopes of the future. The wind is also a force against which things are fixed, so as not to blow away or be turned: the wind of change, or of destiny. The wind is both something that carries, upon which one can be passive, and something that threatens loss: words disappear into the wind. Ana Laíns’s ‘Pouco Tempo’ is an attempt to preserve what is being lost to the wind. This is the message the written text (a poem by Lídia Oliveira) tells us and to a certain extent it is the message that the song enacts; by being a song it is a song dispersed in the air and lost. Like the poem, though, the CD on which we find Laíns’s performance tells us something else: the concept has been fixed in rhyme, set to music (‘set’ promises permanence) and recorded.

‘Ai Mouraria’, recorded by a number of fadistas, speaks of ‘Amor que o vento, como um lamento / Levou consigo / Mas que ainda agora / A toda a hora / Trago comigo’ [Love that the wind, like a lament / Carried with it / But that still now / All the time / I carry with me].  In this song, the love that the singer remembers and that disappeared with the wind, is connected to the winds of change and destiny that would affect Mouraria itself, making it both an example of the kind of mourning work described by Michael Colvin and an example of the bringing together of personal and public memories. The numerous recordings of the song by Amália at different points in her career helped to ensure that this relationship remained in people’s minds.
By the 1960s, when Amália came to record this song once more, the trope of the wind was prevalent in many popular songs. Bob Dylan used it in a number of songs that looked back to the folk, blues and country traditions of singing about travelling and being ‘in the wind’. Most famous, however, would be his use of the trope as a political metaphor in ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. The lyric of that song finds an interesting parallel in a song entitled ‘Trova do Vento Que Passa’ [Ballad of the Wind That Passes], written by the Portuguese poet Manuel Alegre and roughly contemporaneous with Dylan’s anthem.

Alegre had been imprisoned by the PIDE, the special police force of the Estado Novo, for his political views. Following his release he spent half a year in Angola, returning to Portugal in 1963 where he wrote ‘Trova do Vento Que Passa’. The words were set to music by António Portugal and performed by Adriano Correia de Oliveira, a singer associated with the Coimbra fado. ‘Trova’ made an instant impression with listeners and became a popular staple of the student resistance against the Salazar regime much as Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ would in the US Civil Rights Movement.

Adriano’s version had three verses, which describe the poet asking the wind for news of his country but hearing nothing. The second verse claims that ‘There is always someone that sows / Songs on the wind that passes’, while the third affirms that ‘Even on the saddest night / During time of servitude / There is always someone who resists / There is always someone who says no’.  The verses provide a number of issues familiar to the other songs mentioned above, including the unanswering wind, a voice lost in the wind and a sense of futility. But the message changes and the crucial final lines get their full enunciatory power as the repeated words that resolve the song, becoming the ‘answer’ that had been missing. Manuel Alegre himself emphasized the importance of music in the creation of poems and poetry; music allowed the poem ‘to be a vehicle of history and memory, to sing of love or to give the signal of past or future epics, to inform and to form, to witness and to bear witness.’

Amália recorded Alegre’s poem in 1970 on Com Que Voz, her album of adaptations of great Portuguese poets, with different music composed by Alain Oulman. The version adds a verse that highlights the carrying nature of fate, describing rivers that ‘take dreams and leave sorrows’.  Amália recorded two more verses of the poem, making her version more wordy than Oliveira’s. She did not, however, include the outspoken final verse and, unusually for a fado, the final lines of her version are not stressed; instead the voice disappears and the guitars bring the piece to a restrained close. It could be argued that these two versions present opposing qualities of activity and passivity. Although Amália’s version is sometimes cited as an example of her alliance with committed leftists poets, the use of different music and the removal of the ‘call to arms’ could be said to severely lessen the impact, making it a universal song about love, exile and loss as Amália was to also say of the song ‘Abandono’ which she recorded around the same time.

The curse of consciousness

28 Feb

When Ricardo Reis writes of having ‘no better knowledge’, he is presumably referring to the consciousness of one’s lot, a topic that can be found in much of Pessoa’s work. Perhaps not unusually for an artist of his time, Pessoa often applies a somewhat patronizing tone to the ‘normal people’ he writes about. The poet is always the suffering artist, who no one else can understand and whose sufferings they, in the simplicity of their everyday lives, cannot imagine. This is true even of the Whitmanesque Álvaro de Campos, in whose celebrations of collectivity there can always be sensed an obverse impossibility for the poet himself to fully participate in the collective. The reflective middle section of Campos’s ‘Maritime Ode’ demonstrates this, as does the concluding section of the poem when the possibilities opened up by the opening hymn are left unrealized. The sense of removal from the world he is describing is more explicit in the later poetry. In the poem that begins ‘At the wheel of the Chevrolet on the road to Sintra’, Campos describes passing a ‘humble’ cabin in the countryside and thinking ‘Life there must be happy, just because it isn’t mine’. In a poem from 1934, he writes of the people in the building across the street from him, ‘They’re happy, because they’re not me’.

Sometimes Pessoa does attempt to place himself among the people: ‘How many, under their de rigueur jackets, / Feel, like me the horror of existence!’  But often people he observes labour under a false consciousness, or, in Pessoan terms, a permanent ‘unconsciousness’. In ‘Almost’ we read of a:

Peddler crying out her wares like an unconscious hymn,
Tiny cogwheel in the clockwork of political economy,
Present or future mother of those who die when Empires crumble,
Your voice reaches me like a summons to nowhere, like the silence of life…
Under Pessoa’s own name, hearing a woman reaper sing:
Ah, to be you while being I!
To have your glad unconsciousness
And be conscious of it!

Or he might try to project his feelings of difference on to others. In ‘Sintra’, he imagines a child gazing back from the window of the cabin at him driving by: ‘Perhaps … I looked (with my borrowed car) like a dream, a magical being come to life’. But he is still the centre of this, ‘the prince of every girl’s heart’.  To a certain extent, we might recognize an echo of the tension between Pessoa the poet and the people who populate his poetry in the distinction often drawn between the erudite and the vernacular in fado, and between the fado castiço and the fado canção. We are made aware of this when confronted with the ‘povo’ of ‘Povo Que Lavas no Rio’, in which Amália took on the voicing of Pedro Homem de Melo’s imagination of the people. We might recognize in Homem de Melo’s lyric something of the man in a Ricardo Reis poem who ‘enjoys, uncertainly, / The unreflected life’.  The question that subsequently emerges is to what extent a version of witnessing that considers the everyday might help to resolve some of this tension.


26 Feb

Of all Pessoa’s creations, Ricardo Reis is both the most classically-minded and the one who dwells closest to the classical sense of fate that fado seems to echo. ‘Each man fulfils the destiny he must fulfil’, he writes:

Like stones that border flower beds
We are arranged by Fate, and there remain,
Our lot having placed us
Where we had to be placed.
Let’s have no better knowledge of what
Was our due than that it was our due.

The images of collapse, resignation and decay in fado – homologically registered in  falling vocal lines (what Rodney Gallop called fado’s ‘drooping cadences’) – cannot help but associate fado with an absence of agency, the mirror image of a ‘collapsed’ and fatalistic people. But in placing fado against political ideology it is never altogether clear how the music ‘sizes up’. In hymning decay/decadence, could the music in fact have been a retort to an Estado Novo whose very raison d’être was to arrest further decay? What is the significance in the fact that the State was unable to completely adopt and assimilate fado, that it was unable to paper over the cracks that fado revealed? Is it conceivable that fado could be what Roland Barthes called an ‘acratic language’ in its refusal to be assimilated?

António Osório, the author of A Mitologia Fadista, would vehemently deny such a claim. For Osório fado, in addition to idealizing poverty and objectifying women, hymned a defeatism bound up in ‘saudosismo, “the fumes of India”, Sebastianismo, the “spectres of the past”, the petulance of Marialva, a lachrymose predisposition, … narrow-mindedness … [and] a distaste for life’.  Going on to parody the famous Amália Rodrigues song ‘Tudo Isto É Fado’, Osório wrote:

Misery, prostitution, sickness, dishonour, debasement, all this is ‘fado’. It explains and, indirectly, absolves all ills. Before the ‘laws of destiny’, willpower shows itself to be non-existent; the ‘philosophy’ of fado condenses into an inexorable fatalism, ultimately nothing more than the fatum mahumetanum defined by Leibniz:  free will can never be because men and events are automatically governed by the ‘force of things’. The corollary can be instantly deduced – no one is responsible for anything.

Such an opinion was undoubtedly persuasive in Portugal in 1974, when Osório was writing. Apathy in the face of authoritarianism had festered for too long and change was needed. Fado was discouraged but refused to crawl away and die in a pool of its own tears. Why? One suggestion is that the power of fado’s mythemes and the ease with which it can be connected to ideas of Portugueseness – however problematic such a concept remains – enforce its appropriateness and effectiveness as a staging of a traumatic jouissance that has meaning far beyond the world of fado music. It could be argued that Osório overstated his case and, effectively, centred fado and the ‘fadista mythology’ as a cause rather than a reflection, as a constitutive element in the formation of subjectivity rather than the recognition of a subjectivity already constituted around a radical loss. He does seem to recognize this possibility at certain points, such as his consideration of how a similar experience is to be found in modern literature:

[M]an’s impotence in the face of circumstance, the central experience of fado, does not only permeate the work of contemporary Portuguese writers, because it is at the heart of Kafka, of Beckett, of all the representative writers of our time. The seeds of dejection proliferate in these times of oppression and individual paralysis.

Locating ideology within a framework suggested by Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek may help us here. In doing so, we can posit the Symbolic as the realm of language, or discourse, that attempts to ‘explain’ the Real but which never can, for the Real remains that which cannot be symbolized. Yet that very lack in the Symbolic Order constitutes a gap and it is because of this gap, if we follow Žižek, that ideology is needed.  To use a metaphor not entirely inappropriate with Lisbon in mind, if the Symbolic acts as a wall to obscure the Real, a wall that has, however, seen better days and which threatens to allow the chill of the Real in through its cracked tiles and holed plaster (to be punctured, as it were, by the Real), then ideology is the sheen of new plaster needed to fill those fissures. A music more concerned with crumbling, decay, collapse and the wounds that rupture the sheen of everyday ‘bearing up’, a music, moreover, which dwells on melancholy and which actively seeks to remain unreconciled to the world can perhaps be a music closer to challenging ideology than might at first be imagined.

Can it be that fado operated, then and occasionally still, as a sublimation of the forces operating on the modern subject, that, furthermore, it has occupied the place of what Catherine Belsey calls an ‘abolished particularity’? Belsey suggests that ‘the abolished particularity returns as resistance, marking the speaking being’s loss of the unnameable real, which is still there, but no longer there-for-a-subject. This resistance makes itself felt not only in individual experience, but also as incoherences in the apparent homogeneity of culture itself.’  The stubbornness of fado’s mythemes, the persistence in which the same elements of Lisbonness, shame, jealousy, collapse, flight, the seasons and saudade are endlessly and imaginatively recombined, suggests an unwillingness to move on from the objectification of loss, a process akin to Freud’s definition of melancholy. But what does it mean to be ‘cured’ of this stubbornness except to be taken once more into the Symbolic realm, a realm one might be unwilling to recognize as one’s own?

Lula Pena – Troubadour

5 Jan

Lula Pena, Troubadour

It was gratifying to be able to include Lula Pena’s wonderful Troubadour in the PopMatters’ Best World Music albums of 2010. For those of us who rely primarily on recordings to hear her work, it had been a long wait since 1998’s classic [phados]. Here is what I wrote for the world music feature:

2010 proved to be another successful year for Portuguese fado and its derivatives. The fourth album by the brilliant young fadista Ana Moura received international distribution, while the second album by Deolinda was met with only marginally less acclaim than the group’s debut. But the real surprise came with the long-awaited follow-up to singer-guitarist Lula Pena’s classic 1998 album [phados]. Troubadour followed closely in its predecessor’s footsteps, offering up a stark, haunted take on fado that took in Portuguese folk music, French chanson, Latin American nueva canción and Anglo-American pop, all stripped down to the wood. Over seven longish “Acts”, Pena wove fragments from other writers into her own songs, using voice, guitar, and silence to mesmeric effect. Her take on the Amália Rodrigues classic “Fado de Cada Um” is startling, as is the closing number that mixes two distinctly non-fado songs, Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy” and Mirah’s “Pollen”.

I would only add here that Troubadour is, in my opinion, one of the best albums of 2010 regardless of genre or marketing category. It made it into the general lists of Best Albums that I submitted to the two music sites I write for (PopMatters and Tiny Mix Tapes) but would have been too obscure a treasure to have made it onto the main lists of those sites. It is at times such as this that otherwise problematic categories such as “world music” can be useful, in providing a space for otherwise marginalised sounds. Credit should go to PopMatters, too, for consistently encouraging the coverage of international music on its pages. (Troubadour received critical acclaim in Portugal, featuring in the Best of 2010 lists of Time Out and Blitz, among other places.)

The following performance by Lula Pena opens with her take on “Fado de Cada Um”

Here is the version made famous by Amália Rodrigues in the film Fado, História de Uma Cantadeira:

And more from Lula Pena’s Troubadour:

There are a couple more videos available at the website of Mbari Music, along with a press release which offers a kind of “explanation” of Troubadour. The normal PR exaggerations aside, it contains some thought provoking comments about the “open” nature of Pena’s album, its emphasis on flow and transience, and its refusal of closure or memory. For Pena, it seems, the place of longing cannot be fixed or fastened down, not even provisionally. Rather, longing remains a constant source of becoming, an undoing of oneself and one’s sense of stability.

Lula Pena

Saramago – The Elephant’s Journey

7 Dec

From my review of José Saramago’s penultimate novel The Elephant’s Journey:

[…] Given the amount of work the reader is asked to do here, it’s tempting to invoke Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’ when considering The Elephant’s Journey, not because Saramago has left us, not even because we are witnessing Margaret Jull Costa’s typically excellent translation from the Portuguese and hence having to deal with English terms such as ‘pigeon fancier’, but rather because the text is laid out before us as a site of play and experimentation, as a refusal to be explained via the history it (mis-)represents or the life of the author ‘behind’ it.

However, no matter how much the center of representation is destabilized in this work, the authorial voice remains as strong as ever. There is never any doubt that this is a text that could only have originated with José Saramago. We, meanwhile, float above the narrative, text, and book, looking down on the characters, the scenes, and the author at work. As ever, Saramago proves himself to be an author who respects our intelligence and our ability to navigate between narrative and metanarrative, who shares the mechanisms of representation with us because, ultimately, he trusts us.


Full review available at PopMatters: