Tag Archives: transgression

Festas

7 May

It is well worth paying attention to the role of music and festivals in the city as forms of both divergence from and reassertion of social norms. In Lisbon, this is particularly notable during the period known as the Festas de Lisboa, a series of festivals held in celebration of the ‘popular saints’ and in which there is an interesting mixture of official and semi-official events. The former comprise concerts, marches, exhibitions, screenings and so on. The semi-official include the taking over of public spaces by stalls serving drinks and stages where music is played. The fact that the predominant music at this point is pimba and that the food served is grilled sardines reflects the sense of tradition and of the country in the city (pimba is generally more associated with the countryside). Pimba is explicitly rude, does not attempt any of the erudite airs and graces of fado (although there is a rude undercurrent to fado too), and, as a music that cannot be cleaned up or made cool, lurks as the obscene underbelly of popular culture in Portugal.

Such events allow power to continue, as Slavoj Žižek explores in much of his work. Using the example of the mutiny against Captain Bligh on The Bounty, Žižek focuses on the uses of unofficial power and the relationship between power and enjoyment. The enjoyment, or jouissance, associated with unofficial power – the power that operates ‘below decks’ – must be recognized and allowed to operate by the forces of official power ‘above’. Should the official power attempt to curtail the unofficial, the latter will most likely rise up against the former: ‘The mutiny – violence – broke out when Bligh interfered with this murky world of obscene rituals that served as the phantasmatic background of power.’ (  Slavoj Žižek, ‘“I Hear You With My Eyes”; or, The Invisible Master’, in Renata Salecl & Slavoj Žižek (eds.), Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 100.)

The connection between official and underground power tends to be more prevalent in the case of authoritarian regimes. It is interesting to note the use of music and festivities in films from the era of the Estado Novo to see how this connection is played out. In Canção de Lisboa (1933), there are various moments when impromptu moments of transgression break out, such as an improvised fado in the street and a drunken rant by the main protagonist against fado and fadistas, during which he proposes an ‘anti-fado’ week to cure the nation’s social ills. As commentators on the film have noted, however, these are moments of mild transgression which allow for the presence on screen of police officers or other patriarchal figures associated with the state to reassert the law. In this film, as in others such as O Costa do Castelo (1943), Fado, História D’uma Cantadeira (1948) and O Grande Elias (1950), fado is cast as both hero and villain. A common theme is commitment to the social group, often epitomized by the family, with a typical plot involving deception or abandonment of certain family members, resolved by a conversion in which the transgressor sees the error of their ways. In Fado, História D’uma Cantadeira, the fado singer (played by Amália Rodrigues) abandons her family to become a famous performer. She transgresses to such an extent that she even abandons fado. At the point where she enacts the ultimate betrayal – not reading a note that has been sent to her regarding a family illness – she is seen singing flamenco.

This dialectic between transgression and the law is visible also in the mass fencing-off that is the result of what Lefebvre calls ‘vacationland festival’, those areas marked off for rest and relaxation that promise utopia but rely on careful staging and investment by capitalists.  It is visible too in the spaces allotted to fado, from the taberna to the large scale shows put on for the Festas. In these events, fado fills the streets and lays claim to the city, to the people and to an escape from its boundaries. What we can determine from the festival and other negotiations of power in the social space is a reliance on a script which may be exceeded but cannot be done away with.

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