Archive | March, 2011

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.

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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.