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A Man in the City (ii)

7 May

Carlos Saura’s use of ‘Um Homem na Cidade’ in his film Fados (2007) is rather more postmodern but maintains the idea of a tour through the city. Saura’s visualization of the song opens with Carmo standing in front of three musicians (guitarra, viola, viola baixo), who in turn are sat in front of a screen showing filmed footage of Lisbon street life. As the song progresses, Carmo walks forward until he is flanked by two large screens with photographs of Lisbon on them. He walks between these screens, advancing towards the camera, between further pairs of screens all depicting the city until he comes to a halt during the closing of the song in front of what is now a collage of images made up of the photographs he has passed. In a sense he is touring through the city but it is a city of mostly static images and the focus remains on the singer throughout, zooming in on him as he delivers the final line of the song.

Saura has arguably missed something in the song by singling out Carmo and superimposing him on both the musicians and the city. To see what he is missing, let us return to Certeau’s rousing dedication:

The floodlights have moved away from the actors who possess proper names and social blazons, turning first toward the chorus of secondary characters, then settling on the mass of the audience… Slowly the representatives that formerly symbolized families, groups, and orders disappear from the stage they dominated during the epoch of the name. We witness the advent of the number.

(Certeau, p. v)

Saura, then, has returned the floodlight to the individual, as have I. There is a seeming paradox here. How do we reconcile an insistence on the number, the everyday, the move away from the proper name, with an account such as that presented in Fado and the Place of Longing, which emphasizes biographies and recordings of prominent fado stars? Would it not be more apposite to Certeau’s vision to take the route more usually frequented by the ethnomusicologist and attend to the everyday practice of fado by less well-known amateurs (‘users’, in Lefebvre’s and Certeau’s formulation)?

The key is in Certeau’s mention of metonymy, the part taken for the whole. It is time, he says, for the floodlights to move from the actors representing the people to the people themselves. But what this does not take into consideration is the audience’s desire, the fact that they came to the theatre in the first place wishing to see themselves represented by those privileged, highlighted and floodlit actors. The same is true for the godlike view of the city, a view that is actively desired. People want to get out of the city and look back or down on it, to look back, as it were, on ‘themselves’ in the place where they normally are. It should be remembered that the request for representation of the community – be it visual, sonic, theoretical, or academic – comes from within the community itself. There is no privileged ‘theorist’ forever in a position on the ‘outside’. Which is not to say that there is not power, and abuse of power and misrepresentation and non-reflexive categorization. All this exists but it cannot all be laid at the feet of those with proper names. Celebrity culture is something that feeds on a desire that emerges from the everyday. This paradox is also encountered in those artists who are simultaneously feted as ‘one of the people’ and as celebrities. Even the celebrant of anonymity and the practice of everyday life still attaches to his celebration a proper name: Michel de Certeau.

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A Man in the City (i)

7 May

In 1976 Carlos do Carmo represented Portugal in the Eurovision song contest and recorded what would become one of his signature tunes, ‘Lisboa, Menina e Moça’, a popular song which feminizes the city as a ‘young girl’. It was his 1977 album Um Homem na Cidade [A Man in the City], however, which really showcased what Carmo meant for the future direction of fado. Described by Rui Vieira Nery as ‘one of the most significant albums in the whole fado discography’, it consisted of a series of specially written poems about Lisbon by José Carlos Ary dos Santos and set to music by a variety of composers from the worlds of Portuguese pop, jazz and fado. It was a concept album and one which clearly was aimed at the post-revolutionary metropolis, showcasing new possibilities of being in the city alongside recognition of longstanding customs that predated (and could therefore escape the taint of cooptation by) the recently overthrown dictatorship. The album came with liner notes by Carmo, Ary dos Santos and two of the composers, António Vitorino D’Almeida and Martinho D’Assunção, all of which stated a commitment to creativity, modernity, Lisbon and the people. ‘With love we leave you this disc’, wrote Carmo at the end of his note. The ‘man in the city’ is also to be found in the dedication at the beginning of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and it is interesting to consider these two works alongside each other:

To the ordinary man.

To a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets. In invoking here at the outset of my narratives the absent figure who provides both their beginning and their necessity, I inquire into the desire whose impossible object he represents. What are we asking this oracle whose voice is almost indistinguishable from the rumble of history to license us, to authorize us to say, when we dedicate to him the writing that one formerly offered in praise of the gods or the inspiring muses?

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. v)

Certeau’s words bear an echo of the commitment shown by Henri Lefebvre to the lived experience of those connected to representational spaces. It bears a challenge to authority and the ‘view from above’, while also acknowledging the modest endeavour of a description of the everyday. So, too, with Carmo’s album, which mixes quotidian description with an imagination that recognizes the potential for transformation. Almost all of the tracks included in the album make reference to the city of Lisbon. In addition to regular references to the city as a whole, other features of Lisbon are hymned. The title track records the Tejo and the Rossio area, ‘Fado do Campo Grande’ refers to the area of the same name, and ‘O Homem das Castanhas’ uses Praça da Figueira and the Jardim da Estrela as backdrops to the chestnut vendor’s song. Two songs celebrate the public transport systems that connect Lisbon’s neighbourhoods to each other and to the world beyond. ‘O Cacilheiro’ describes the ferries that criss-cross the Tejo, connecting the quays of Cacilhas, Seixal, Montijo and Barreiro and carrying ‘lovers, sailors, soldiers and workers’ to their destinations, while the tram system is the subject of ‘O Amarelo da Carris’ (Carris is the company that operates the buses and trams in Lisbon, easily recognized by their distinctive yellow colour).

‘O Amarelo da Carris’ provides a good example in its lyrics of wider theories regarding agency, passivity, consciousness and the unconscious in the city. The first verse describes the tram which runs from runs from Alfama to Mouraria, from Baixa to Bairro Alto and ‘climbs shuddering to Graça / without knowing geography’. On one hand, the tram serves a purpose similar to the train in many popular song texts, providing a potent metaphor for the workings of fate as it faithfully follows its pre-designed course. Its passengers are passive citizens unable to alter the text of the city, etched as it is in the steel rails. Like the tram itself, which does not require knowledge of geography, the passengers can put their trust in the hands of the network and its operatives (which include, of course, the tram driver). On the other hand, they have chosen to be carried thus and are actively using the tram for their own purposes. They have a starting point and an ultimate destination; the tram and its driver are merely the means to achieve this destiny.

Similarly, the lovers described in ‘Namorados da Cidade’ are like Certeau’s ‘lovers in each other’s arms’, blind to anything beyond themselves while simultaneously creating that ‘beyond’ by going about their business. The protagonist of the title track, the man in the city, is the equivalent of the walkers found in Certeau, Aragon and Sinclair, going through the street under a ‘moon / that brings my Tejo into season / I walk through Lisbon, naked tide / that flows into Rossio’. Another song, ‘Rosa da Noite’, also hymns the incorporation of the city into the body and vice versa, claiming that ‘each street is an intense vein / where the song flows / from my huge voice’. The city is both body (a theme employed by other fados such as David Mourão-Ferreira’s ‘Maria Lisboa’) and a channel through which other bodies (human, non-human, mechanical) flow. Um Homem na Cidade celebrates all these corporeal manifestations. It is, importantly, an album, and therefore, like a photograph album, something to be taken as a whole; its songs are snapshots of the city and its citizens, a collective creating a collection, a thing. This sense of the album as a thing-in-itself was highlighted by the release, in 2004, of an album entitled Novo Homem na Cidade which recreated the original album with versions of its songs, in the same running order, recorded by twelve different artists, a number of them associated with the novo fado of the early 2000s. In addition to showcasing these younger performers, the album serves two other purposes, commemorating Carlos do Carmo’s original album as a thing-in-itself (without which the new album would not exist) and highlighting the continued relevance of the city of Lisbon as a thing-in-itself to be celebrated (without which neither album would exist).

Fado texts provide a tour of the city of Lisbon by incorporating various names associated with the city and, in Certeau’s terms, ‘liberating’ them into a new poetic and metaphoric language. Yet, given that we are dealing with a musical form, it is also necessary to remember the role played by sound in this process. If fado texts take us on a tour of the city, part of that tour involves the hearing of fado music itself. The sound of fado, its instruments and cries, are both representations of space and representational spaces, products of and responses to space itself. In Um Homem na Cidade, there are additional sounds of the city referenced, such as the sound of the tram bell emulated by the guitarra in ‘O Amarelo da Carris’ or the use of the chestnut vendor’s cry in the refrain of ‘O Homem das Castanhas’. This practice develops in sonic form a process earlier undertaken by numerous European and American modernist writers and artists to provide a representation of the noise of the city, albeit witnessed in silence (in the space of writing). For example, we find the following in Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet:

Future married couples pass by, chatting seamstresses pass by, young men in a hurry for pleasure pass by, those who have retired from everything smoke on their habitual stroll, and at one or another doorway a shopkeeper stands like an idle vagabond, hardly noticing a thing. Army recruits … slowly drift along in noisy and worse-than-noisy clusters. Occasionally someone quite ordinary goes by. Cars at that time of the day are rare, and their noise is musical. In my heart there’s a peaceful anguish, and my calm is made of resignation.

All of this passes, and none of it means anything to me. It’s all foreign to my fate, and even to fate as a whole. It’s just unconsciousness, curses of protest when chance hurls stones, echoes of unknown voices – a collective mishmash of life.

(Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 14.)

This ‘collective mishmash of life’ is wonderfully transformed in ‘Fado Varina’, from Um Homem na Cidade, into a noisy and salty metaphor suggested by the cries of a woman selling fish in the market: ‘Os teus pregões / são iguais à claridade / caldeirada de canções / que se entorna na cidade’ [Your cries / are like brightness / a fish stew of songs / spilling over the city].