When you imagine an evening of fado music in Lisbon, do you picture yourself in a room with subdued light, candles and an audience waiting for the next song in complete silence? That’s an experience, but not the only kind.
You can find two types of fado places in Lisbon: closed ones, where only professionals can play, and open ones, where everyone is given a chance to try. Professional fado is usually played in special fado houses where the door is closed, the lights turned down and the listeners keep silent. No experimentation is welcome here and the repertoire is traditional. You should book a table beforehand and may pay around 70 euro for dinner.
The other type of fado, fado vadio (fado of vagrants), takes place mainly at noisy cafés and restaurants. The doors are kept open, amateur singers can perform, and fadistas learn how to sing fado from each other.
One of these places is tavern “A baiuca,” a small house on the corner of San Miguel Street in Alfama. Doors are kept open, some people are sitting inside while others are standing outside. Fadistas come and go. Some of them are here to watch and are not singing this evening. A gypsy in his 40’s is first to sing, then a Portuguese lady switches with him, then a French girl living in Portugal comes to the stage to sing her first fado.
“I invite almost everyone I know to sing,” says Henrique Gascon, an owner of “A baiuca.” “For me, it’s the only way to sing fado. A lot of different singers come to perform here, even the cook sings every night. And all fadistas sing differently. They can sing the same song with different speeds and emphasis and work with their voice very differently. I believe you should always have a chance to learn from each other, listen to different approaches and find your own combination. We shouldn’t forget it started in taverns and was often sung by prostitutes. It wasn’t something luxurious for people of the upper class. I even called this tavern ‘a dumpster’ in order to emphasize this atmosphere of a melting pot, of a collection of so many different people and fado techniques together.”
The same approach is found at the cultural centre “Adicense.” Fado evenings don’t happen very often here, but when they are scheduled plenty of fadistas come to sing. There can be up to 20 of them per night, and everyone stays until the early morning.
Jaime Alves, who has been singing fado since he was eight, says he only sings in places like this one. He never liked fado played at closed fado houses. “It’s a wrong atmosphere for me. These houses exist mostly for making money. I believe that in real fado, people should have the chance to learn from each other. Amateur fadistas can come here and try to sing among professionals, improving their technique from time to time.”
Andre Melus, a guitar player who has been playing for 45 years, disagrees. “It’s much better to perform behind closed doors. Unfortunately, there are less and less of such places in Lisbon now. Fado needs silence, attention and peace.”
What most fadistas agree on is that fado is blooming. It’s internationally known, young people are actively performing, and a lot of modern successful poets are writing new fado songs. This has to do with history. During the 20th century until the revolution in 1984, fado was controlled and censored by the government and became a source of propaganda. Common people sang less and less fado. After the fall of the regime, they turned to fado once again.
Technical progress also helped. Previously, you had to go to Lisbon or Coimbra if you wanted to listen to fado and move there if that was what you wanted to do in life. Now you can reach everything in one click online, and there are plenty of fado schools all over the country.
Finally, governmental policy has also supported fado. In 1994, when Lisbon was the European Capital of Culture, fado was presented as one of its main values. Because of its success with the public, the government decided to build the Museum of Fado, which was finished in 1998. The Museum runs courses on Portuguese guitar, organizes seminars in fado lyric writing and keeps a database of all fadistas and guitar players in Lisbon. This database includes a lot of young people who have connected their life with fado. Carminho is 26. She performs in several fado houses in Lisbon and has already received an award called the ‘Reveletion of Fado.’ Katia Guereiro, 35, is famous for performing in a red skirt and was awarded with the title of the most remarkable Portuguese contributor to art. Marco Oliviera is 22 and he’s one of the few people who both sings and plays the guitar. It seems now is a good time for fado.
Coimbra vs. Lisbon
There are two different types of fado in Portugal: fado from the student city Coimbra and fado from Lisbon. The Coimbra fado developed out of Lisbon; students turned it into serenades that were sung to their loved ones. Nowadays, they sing fado when graduating from the university to tell how much they will miss these times of their youth.
The main differences between these two types of fado are: Coimbra fado is played only with Portuguese guitar, while Lisbon is played with both Portuguese and Spanish guitar. Coimbra fado is played on the streets and Lisbon inside taverns or fado houses. Women are not allowed to sing Coimbra fado. And what Portuguese call saudade (longing) is probably more common for Coimbra fado; it’s always very sad, sung by men wearing traditional black clothes. In Lisbon fado, you often hear fast and even funny songs. Listeners sing and sometimes clap together with the fadista.
Coimbra fadistas say Lisbon fado is chaotic. It lacks a real saudade atmosphere and depth in the lyrics.
“Lisbon fado tries to make itself richer by putting too many sounds at the same time,” says Jose Mendes, a student from Porto who plays Coimbra fado. “Therefore it’s not harmonic for me, it’s a cacophony.”
Lisbon fadistas, respectively, call Coimbra fado boring and monotonous. “I used to sing Coimbra fado,” says Antonio Jorge Morgado Martius. “But I’m glad I have moved to Lisbon. For me it’s just serenades sung on streets, and here in Lisbon it’s a pure feeling.”
Fado is more than music
Most fadistas agree on one main thing, which is really important to learn if you want to understand fado: fado is not music, it’s searching for a feeling. Singers, guitar players and listeners come together to experience the moment of pure emotion and joint feeling – the moment of fado.
“I’ve been singing fado for my whole life,” says Martius. “Technically speaking, I’m not a professional. It’s not my main occupation, but fado is something to just live with. I have had the fado moment only five times in my life, but every night I come to search for it again and again.”