Archive | April, 2010

The Music of Fado

15 Apr

guitarra portuguesaInstrumentally, fado is distinguished by the use of the guitarra portuguesa, a pear-shaped lute- or cittern-like instrument with twelve steel strings (tuned DDAABBEEAABB, from low to high, in the Lisbon style to which I mostly refer). The guitarra is played via a combination of strumming and plucking, using mostly the thumb and index finger, on which are worn unhas (‘nails’). Although in the past the guitarra had provided only harmony, by the period covered in Fado and the Place of Longing it had taken a more dominant role as provider of the melody in instrumental numbers or melodic counterpart to the voice in songs. The other constant accompaniment is provided by the viola (Spanish guitar), which provides harmony and rhythm predominantly but may occasionally lead. In addition, especially in contemporary practice, a viola baixo (acoustic bass guitar) is often added. Additional percussion is rarely used.

The fado singer Ana MouraThe fado singer, or fadista, tends to take the centre stage in a performance of gesture, phrasing and verbal improvisation that serves to heighten the drama of the lyric and lead the song to an appropriately momentous conclusion. Drama is often emphasized by alternating between registers and songs invariably close on a vocal climax that repeats the last part of the final verse or chorus and is punctuated by a two-chord full stop, or exclamation mark, from the guitars (generally, V–I). Lyrics are of vital importance in fado and, while some are improvised (especially in amateur settings), most are the work of fado lyricists who are not normally involved in the performing group. Adaptations of so-called ‘erudite poetry’ are common and mix with more down to earth variations of a range of lyrical themes.

Stylistically, Lisbon fado can generally be divided into fado castiço (‘authentic fado’, also known as fado fado, fado clássico and fado tradicional) and fado canção (‘song fado’). Fado castiço styles were concretized in the mid-late eighteenth century and include fado corrido (‘running fado’), fado mouraria (named after the Lisbon district discussed earlier) and fado menor (‘minor fado’) and numerous variations of these three basic styles often named after particular guitarists and composers. Salwa Castelo-Branco provides a useful and concise description of the castiço styles:

All three fados have fixed rhythmic and harmonic schemes (I–V) and a fixed accompaniment pattern consisting of a melodic motif that is constantly repeated, at times with slight variation. Using these patterns as a basis, the melody is either composed or improvised. Texts are usually set to one of the most common poetic structures, such as the quatrain or five-, six- and ten-verse stanzas. The accompaniment pattern, the I–V harmonic scheme and the regular 4/4 metre are the identifying elements of these fados and are basically fixed. All other elements are variable. Fado corrido and mouraria, in the major mode, are usually performed in a fast tempo and have similar accompaniment patterns. Fado menor is in the minor mode and is often performed in a slow tempo.

(Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, ‘Fado’, in L. Macy (ed.), Grove Music Online,

Fado canção was a development of the late nineteenth century and evolved through theatrical revistas (shows). It is distinguished by a stanza- and refrain-based song style and uses more complex harmonic structures. It is this style that came to be associated with Amália Rodrigues and those influenced by her, although both Amália and the ‘new fadistas’ continued to perform the more traditional styles.

Three classic examples of the castiço styles that can be fairly easily sourced are:
Lucília do Carmo, ‘Maria Madalena’ (fado mouraria)
Carlos do Carmo, ‘Por Morrer uma Andorinha’ (fado menor)
Maria Teresa de Noronha, ‘Corrido em Cinco Estilos’ (fado corrido)

Miguel Baptista has posted videos of the basic guitarra styles on YouTube.

Classic examples of fado canção include Alfredo Marceneiro’s ‘Há Festa na Mouraria‘ and Amália Rodrigues’s ‘Gaivota’.

Tudo Isto É Fado

15 Apr

Another oft-quoted introduction to fado’s ontology is a song made famous by Amália Rodrigues entitled ‘Tudo Isto É Fado’ [All of This Is Fado], in which the narrator initially claims not to know what fado is before going on to list a number of its features: ‘defeated souls, lost nights, bizarre shadows in the Mouraria’. The list continues as it leads to the famous refrain: ‘Amor, ciúme / Cinzas e lume / Dor e pecado / Tudo isto existe / Tudo isto é triste / Tudo isto é fado’ [Love, jealousy / Ashes and fire / Sorrow and sin / All of this exists / All of this is sad / All of this is fado.].

The song can be heard here. The full lyrics can be found here.

Sonically, the song provides as good an introduction as any to fado, opening with the distinctive tinkle of the guitarra, leading into the interplay between guitarra and viola (the Portuguese name for the Spanish guitar which is the other main accompanying instrument in fado) and providing an excellent example of Amália’s art as, within the space of the first short verse, she displays her famous melisma (‘perguntaste-me’) and hovers majestically on the word ‘fado’. The song, originally recorded by Rodrigues at Abbey Road in 1952, became one of those on which her reputation as the ‘queen of fado’ would rest.

Cover of José Régio's Fado

Another example of fado’s desire to explain itself can be found in a book of poems entitled Fado, produced by José Régio in 1941. Its most famous poem ‘Fado Português’ recounts the maritime myth of fado’s origins, identifying the strong connection to the sea found in Portugal’s history and the loneliness of the mariner in the midst of the watery expanse. ‘Fado’, we are told, ‘was born … In the breast of a sailor / Who, feeling sad, sang’. Régio’s poem was, perhaps inevitably, set to music and became part of Amália’s repertoire. Amália’s version, with music by Alain Oulman, shortened and slightly reworded Régio’s original poem.

Amália’s version can be heard here. Régio’s poem can be found here.

Cover of Fado, Alma de um Povo

The maritime myth is taken to arguably its greatest extreme in Maria Luísa Guerra’s Fado, Alma de um Povo [Fado, Soul of a People], in which the music is presented as an ‘existential cry’ born of the loneliness of the high seas. One of the reasons for the popularity of the maritime origin of fado is the connection to Portugal’s proud seafaring past and its significant colonial endeavours. While one searches in vain in narratives such as Guerra’s for any proof that what we know now as fado really owes its existence to these sailors, the connection to the sea cannot be dismissed. Lisbon has been an important port for centuries and has been witness to the comings and goings of myriad cultures; most commentators agree that it is this mixing of cultural practices along the banks of the Tejo River that most likely gave birth to fado and that, contrary to the nationalist insistence on Portuguese purity, Brazilians and Africans most likely had some involvement in the process.

Whatever the shortcomings of descriptions which lean towards mythology, many are excellent at delineating the world of fado texts, the basis of fado poetics. One could do worse than consult the chapter titles of Mascarenhas Barreto’s Fado: Lyrical Origins and Poetic Motivation to gain an insight into what fado is: Saudade, Bullfighting, Places, Street Cries, Windows/Eyes/Kisses, Sailors, Jealousy, Guitarras, and Destiny are among his principle topics. Guerra, meanwhile, provides her own ‘thematic profile’ of fado: love, hate, shame, separation, hurt, sadness, despair, betrayal, destiny, disgrace, solitude, luck, travel, memory, anxiety, bitterness, fatalism, forgetting, politics, tears, hope, passion, happiness, the human condition, time, life, death, saudade and fado itself. (These words should, of course, be witnessed in their original language: amor, ódio, ciúme, separação, dor, tristeza, despedida, traição, destino, desgraça, solidão, sorte, viagem, lembrança, ansiedade, amargura, fatalismo, esquecimento, política, lágrimas, esperança, paixão, felicidade, condição humana, tempo, vida, morte, saudade, fado.

This seems an extensive list and one which might well be applied to other song genres. Certainly, as one works through it and through the ensuing pages that Guerra devotes to each of these themes, one wonders if there is anything that fado is not about; Guerra herself suggests that it represents a phenomenology of life. Yet the list is also specific enough to give a fairly good demarcation of the world of fado songs. I would wish to add at least the following to it: an obsession with the city of Lisbon; a sense of witnessing, carrying and unburdening, connected to a number of the emotions listed above; and the act of being a fadista. This latter is summed up in Artur Ribeiro’s ‘O Fado de Ser Fadista’ [The Fado/Fate of Being a Fadista ], in which fado is described as ‘everything that happens / When we laugh or cry / When we recall or forget / When we hate or love’.  The question of whether fado was happy or sad was also addressed – poetically, if indecisively – by the great modernist poet Fernando Pessoa:

All poetry – and song is an assisted poetry – reflects what the soul lacks. For this reason, the song of sad people is happy and the song of happy people is sad. Fado is neither happy nor sad. It is an episode of the interval … Fado is the weariness of the strong soul, the gaze of contempt that Portugal directs to the God in whom it believed and who abandoned it.

(This statement, much cited but rarely referenced, appeared in a piece Pessoa wrote for Notícias Ilustrado, published on 14 April 1929.)

Cover of Pinto de Carvalho's Historia do Fado

While it is possible to find accounts of fado dating back to the eighteenth century, and while writers such as Guerra have been keen to highlight an archaeology of fado discourse stretching even further, the debates described here are generally sourced from a number of works that have appeared in the twentieth century. In many ways, the fadology alluded to here can be said to have been born with the twentieth century for two important reasons. Firstly, the appearance of José Pinto de Carvalho’s history of fado in 1903 serves as a major source for subsequent histories and thus casts a giant shadow across the historiography of the genre. Secondly, and more controversially, in considering fado as a durable musical genre from the perspective of the twenty-first century, I suggest that fado, like so many musical genres we are now accustomed to, is an invention of the phonographic era. It is this era, and in particular its twentieth century formulation, that has ‘fixed’ musical styles and genres like no other before it, even as it has allowed for seemingly endless new experimentation, cross-genre fusion and deconstruction.

Label from a fado 78

The phonographic era has also led to the possibility to disseminate the music to a much wider audience than ever before. While English language descriptions of fado practice from the nineteenth century are invariably sourced from travel literature, and while twentieth century folklorists and ethnomusicologists have continued to provide accounts from the field, it has nevertheless been possible for many to indulge in the virtual tourism of experiencing fado via its mediation in films and recordings. This has created a desire for information about the music in languages other than Portuguese. A comprehensive fado history in English has yet to be completed, although Paul Vernon’s A History of the Portuguese Fado goes part of the way towards achieving this goal. Vernon’s work leans heavily on Rodney Gallop’s analysis of fado from the 1930s and is somewhat lacking in translations of subsequent Portuguese scholarship. To find other work on fado in English, it has been necessary to seek out scholarly articles in music encyclopaedias and general accounts in world music guidebooks, magazines and websites, although happily this situation is starting to change.