The best-kept secret in Europe
Robin Denselow travels to Lisbon and discovers there's more to Portugal than just fado
It's three in the morning in a little restaurant hidden away in the steep cobbled streets of Lisbon's Alfama district. The doors are shut, but the fado session inside is reaching a climax. Two musicians are sitting on wooden chairs in the middle of the room, one playing the 12-stringed, oud-shaped Portuguese guitar, and the other a classical guitar; a singer is perched on a table at their side.
Helder Moutinho, one of Portugal's best-known young male fadistas, has just finished an impromptu session, with two typically soulful songs expressing the saudade, the melancholy of Portugal's answer to the blues, followed by a faster song - "because if we have a good time we can sing about that, too". Now he decides it's time for the desgerrada, an improvised session in which different verses are sung by others in the room, amateurs and professionals alike. So there's a verse from 20-year-old Raquel Tavares, who has just finished performing in another restaurant. There are surprisingly impressive verses from some of my fellow diners, and a rousing contribution from the barman.
Fado may have been associated with the bad old days of the Salazar dictatorship and fallen from favour after the Carnation Revolution in 1974 but today it's firmly back in fashion, and is the music of young Portugal.
Tavares explained how she learned the songs from her parents. "A new generation are listening to it. And if you want to do well outside Portugal, it's better to be singing fado." Indeed. The magnificent Mariza, who finished a British tour last night, has popularised the new fado well beyond Portugal, but this is just one part of the country's music scene hoping to find an international market.
Lisbon has a large African population from its former colonies, and the singer Lura, currently touring the UK, is a lively exponent of the different styles from the city's Cape Verde scene. Next week, an even wider showcase of Portuguese music opens in London, at the Atlantic Waves festival, organised by the Gulbenkian Foundation. It includes fado from Moutinho and others, along with experimental pop, improvisation and electronics, in a series of shows across town.
Three days and agreeably long nights in Lisbon last week showed me what the city has to offer. It's a port, of course, and the contrasting styles to be heard include influences from all round the world. The fado singers still can't decide exactly how their music evolved, with Mariza arguing that it's the product of a "triangle," taken by slaves from Africa to Brazil, then on to Portugal after the Portuguese court escaped to Brazil during the Napoleonic wars. Moutinho, for his part, suggests that it's a "cultural mix, from Brazil, Africa and Spain, born in Lisbon and still changing".
There are dozens of fado houses on the twin hills of Alfama and Barrio Alto, and though many are there just to attract the tourists and offer inferior singers, the music in several of the little restaurants and bars is remarkably impressive. Moutinho took me on an eight-hour fado marathon, which started with a visit to a small, tiled restaurant run by the 80-year-old veteran singer, Argentina Santos. She served a fine malandrinha fish stew, and then the lights dimmed as the first fados were sung, amplification-free, in the semi-darkness.
The ritual was repeated at half-a-dozen other little venues. Then there was a powerful session at the elegant, well-established Clube do Fado, where the young star Ana Sofia Varela was backed by Mario Pacheco, who played on Mariza's last two albums.
Music also plays an important role for Lisbon's Cape Verdean population, from the former Portuguese colonies off the coast of Senegal. Cape Verde is best known for its one international celebrity Cesaria Evora, the greatest exponent of the sad-edged morna ballads that have strong links with fado, but the immigrant community in Lisbon have their own stars.
Down near the water at the Casa da Morna, run by the singer-songwriter and guitarist Tito Paris, the glamorous Lura and her band were relaxing before their British tour. She was born in Lisbon, to where her parents had emigrated, but insists that living away from the islands has made her all the more determined to keep the traditions alive.
Once a backing singer for Cesaria, Lura sings in creole, and specialises not just in morma but in upbeat styles like the African-influenced batuku and funana. The only problem for the community's musicians in Lisbon, she said, is the city's lack of venues. There is this one new club - Casa Da Morna, and Em B Leza, a glorious bar and dance hall in a dilapidated mansion, looking like something from a Cuban film set, but Lura is determined that there should be more.
Lisbon's fado set and the Cape Verdean singers have both benefited from the fashion for world music, a vague but useful category when it comes to promoting their music abroad. It's a trend that hasn't escaped the attention of one of the city's experimental pop bands, who claim that major international labels show little interest in what they are doing, and that they have few places to play.
Pedro Goncalves is double-bass player for Dead Combo, an intriguing duo in which he's joined by guitarist To Trips to play strange and rousing instrumentals that sound like themes from a Spaghetti Western or Ry Cooder's Paris Texas, mixed with influences from jazz, Africa and Cuba, with a little fado melancholy thrown in.
"I think that Portugal has always been like that," he said. "Everything is a mixture - like fado." The duo are based in a rehearsal room at ZDB, a large, rambling building in the cobbled alleyways of Barrio Alto, that's become a centre for experimental music, visual art and films. From here, Dead Combo plotted how to get their self-produced music heard by the outside world. "It sounds just a bit like fado, so we decided to push it that way," said Goncalves. CDs were sent to the British world music fraternity, and Dead Combo duly appeared on Charlie Gillett's latest global round-up.
But not everyone can use that tactic. The Gift play a mixture of electronics and pop, melded with the dark, brooding vocals of singer Sonia Tavares, who is much admired by Mariza. They started out listening to British bands such as Portishead and Massive Attack and became national celebrities by doing everything themselves, from management to running their own studio and label. Earnings from their hefty local sales are "invested" as they move into the international market by visiting trade fairs or playing concerts abroad. The band insist they have a distinctive style. "The songs have an elegance that is maybe Portuguesea" said Sonia, "and we have a melancholic side - but not as dark as fado".
For Nuno Goncalves, their keyboard player, the aim is to "break the rule that Portugal is only fado". "Being Portuguese is not a problema" he insisted. "We have great fado and electronics and pop. Portuguese music is the best-kept secret in Europe."
in The Guardian - 2005-11-18