Rapping about Portuguese blues
Yes you can have an authentic fado experience in Lisbon
A version of this story was previously published in the Sunday Tribune travel section.
By Wanda Hennig
Is fado an early form of rap? Will I be struck down by gods lurking in the fadosphere for such a sacrilegious suggestion?
The thing is, it did cross my mind when I was standing in the Mouraria neighborhood, one of Lisbon’s poorest, most diverse and interesting, listening to local fado luminaries Nuno de Aguiar and Luísa Soares singing in a sparring sort of way to each other. I couldn’t understand a word. But the large neighborhood audience tutting and nodding and shaking their heads clearly did.
They were visibly engrossed as the performers, accompanied by the solemn and melancholy chords of two Portuguese guitars, bantered and teased in the full-throated reverb tones that define this vocal genre of poetry cum song, to quote from José Miranda, representing Lisbon’s Fado Museum, who was our guide on a three-hour free tour “discovering the neighborhood of Mouraria through the voices of its artists”.
One English speaker
More than 100 people including one English speaker (me) had gathered for what the museum’s invitation, which ran in a little “what’s-on” cultural guide I picked up at my lodgings, described as “one of Lisbon’s most traditional neighborhoods with a strong historical connection to fado dating back to the origins of this music genre” and where “once every weekend the ancient singing tradition is revived as the Mouraria is filled with the sound of desgarradas (fado repartee singing).”
For the second of two performances included on the tour, (the first was outside the church we met at — keep reading!) our group was augmented by a flow of residents who spilled from a warren of rooms into tiny, historic Largo da Severa square, named in honor of Maria Severa Onofriana — A Severa as she is better known — recognized as Portugal’s first fado singer, reputedly a “tall and gracious” prostitute who sang and played guitar in taverns, had legendary affairs and attained near mythical status after her death in 1846.
I am, let me say, something of a fan of this genre, sometimes described as the Portuguese expression of “the blues” — the name (fado) roughly translating as “fate” or “destiny”. Fado enthusiasts will know the name Amália Rodrigues (the first to take it to the world music stage). And maybe that in 2007, Ana Moura sang with the Rolling Stones at the Lisbon stadium and has had a Golden Globes nomination.
But you’d have thought I had asked a San Francisco friend and Portugal regular to subject himself to a tooth extraction with pliers, given his reaction when I suggested he come with me to a fado club. So clearly it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.
The purest expression of Lisbon’s soul
Turns out there are loads of fado spots for tourists in Lisbon, not surprisingly given that it is called “the purest expression of Lisbon’s soul” and that it is “inseparable from the culture and tradition of the Portuguese capital” — and that fado, born in Portugal’s Mouraria neighborhood, was classified as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by Unesco in November 2011.
But I didn’t, you may understand, want tourist fado.
I wanted a small taverna crammed with local fado lovers listening to the haunting musical angst of voice and guitar, a good bottle of Portuguese wine and food made by some mama in the kitchen.
And I found it. But that came later in the evening, after the tour. Which began with finding the tiny Nossa Senhora da Saude church, near the Martim Moniz metro station, assigned as the meeting point — a church with a ornate interior that is a holy picture postcard scene of marble, gilt and icons, with probably the best-dressed Virgin Mary anywhere.
Frocks made for the effigy
Miranda, our guide, tells us that the erstwhile queen of Portugal had a mini-wardrobe of frocks made for the effigy. They survived the years of the Salazar dictatorship, in storage. And now the Portuguese president’s wife chooses outfits from the collection, which change for feast days and holy events.
The free Fado Museum weekend tours are geared to getting well-heeled Portuguese and European fado fans into the Mouraria, an area that’s been undergoing an upgrade.
On a Saturday in good time for the 6:30 start, I alighted at the Martim Moniz metro station and came upon a large outdoor eating, drinking and hanging out space, with fountains and music, that stretched a couple of blocks. Lisbon is a grand city of large squares, impressive and gorgeous old buildings and, for anyone from South Africa (my homeland) who has grown up knowing about Mozambique and Angola (previously Portuguese colonies), relishing Portuguese restaurants and peri-peri chicken (a colonial legacy) — and recalling history lessons with Vasco de Gama references — there is some natural affinity mixed in with curiosity.
“The origins of Fado are uncertain. It is thought to have either Arab or African roots (perhaps in 10th century songs of troubadours, the homesickness of seafarers or the Lundum songs sung by the black slaves from Brazil). Nobody is sure,” says Miranda before leading us through a maze of cobbled streets and up steep alleyways in this working-class area that is home to a jumble of predominantly Portuguese, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans and Chinese. People peer out windows. One old couple blast fado music from funky loudspeakers. There are hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants, and dereliction.
Along the way Miranda tells up stories of artists who’ve lived here, including Mozambique-born Mariza (dos Reis Nunes) who moved to Lisbon with her folks (whose house he points out) when she was three, started learning lyrics and performing when she was five, and later became the first Portuguese nominated for the Latin Grammies, among other accolades.
The so-called ‘cathedral’ of fado
We wind our way up to the so-called “cathedral” of fado, located in Grupo Desportivo da Mouraria, several rooms filled with framed photos and artificial flowers commemorating generations of fado stars from this neighborhood and others.
By the time we wend our way back down to the metro station, past Lisbon’s oldest surviving house, propped up by others on both sides, three stories tall and single-room narrow, with a satellite dish bigger that the front door, it is dark.
“Can you tell me where to go for an authentic experience and dinner,” I ask Miranda.
He takes my map and and points to the metro stop Sta Apolónia.
“Get out there and ask someone to point you in the direction of the Fado Museum. It’s in the Alfama district (Alfama, Bairro Alto and Mouraria are the city’s main fado neighborhoods). Walk about. Explore the Alfama. You’ll find a place there.”
Authentic fado sought and found
Going to Lisbon? Looking for authentic fado?
Find your own. Or try Dragâo de Alfama (Rua Guilherme Braga 8, Lisboa ). After a long walk including up narrow steep alleyways, along the way joining two German women who I watched decline an invitation from a tout at a more commercial venue, it’s what the three of us settled on.
It is a crammed taverna where local fans share tables with visitors. We had a two women fadistas, plus two men singing and two playing guitar. They all took turns and got appreciative applause.
We drank chilled green wine and ate seafood prepared by an old mama who came out of the kitchen at the end to converse with diners and fado fans at each table and high-five us about the food.
My conclusion? Rap or no rap, been to Lisbon. Done good fado.
© Wanda Hennig, 2016: story and pictures.