You can say that jazz is one of, if not the only, purely
American art form. While that is no longer true, and while in its infancy it
needed the nurturing which it could only receive abroad due to segregation,
that heady stew which drew from so many diverse sources could only have been
cooked in what was then, the great melting pot.
While being an older music, Portugals Fado is made up of
as many diverse ingredients. Aside from sharing jazzs multi ingredient
make up it also shares jazzs emotional ability. The music manages to
resonate an emotional landscape to its audience which is felt by each listener
to be unique and deeply personal, while at the same time embracing all who are
open to it.
To classify Fado as Portuguese Blues is to paint too
simple a picture, to miss the point. Even the sorrow, base component for both
is of different worlds. Nor should Fado or its cousins Tango, Duende and
Flamenco be categorized as mere world/folk music.
Such terms too often now conjure up images of urban hipsters on
a shopping spree at Borders.
Much like (Western) classical, one could spend their life
familiarizing themselves with specific pieces, becoming a connoisseur in the
same way one would with Wagners Ring Cycle. Indeed, there are
complexities to rival any piece from the classical canons. There are
established rules which gave way to sub genres and different
cults of performers and compositional styles. Another way too, it
is similar to the world of jazz, with its divisions of Bop, Cool, Free et al.
Jazz, Fado, like all great art, steeped in tradition and ever in flux.
Like jazz and classical too, the established structure is often
added to by each generation, new groups of players and composers adding
reflections of their world view to renew the music and make it distinctly their
The cadence of the fadistas voice can vary, although never
according to the purist, but never the lyrical structure nor their intent.
Lyrically Fado songs are all about a sort of nostalgic longing.
It is heartbreak, but also a thankfulness that something could have ever been a
trigger for such powerful emotions.
Fado comes from the Latin word Fatum which means [an utterance ,
esp. a divine utterance]; hence [destiny, fate, the will of a god]; personif.
Fata, [the Parcae or Fates]; [doom, fate, misfortune, ruin, calamity].
However, this definition gives only the smallest clue, a glimpse
into what Fado has to offer, is about.
Like all music which has become deeply rooted in a
cultures identity, the exact origins of Fado remain unknown. It is known
that Fado started appearing in the 1820s. Within to be found, there are
elements of African slave rhythms, Portuguese sailor music and some Moorish
Initially there were but two types of Fado, originating from two
specific areas in Lisbon. From Alfama and Mouraria came Fado which had a more
salon/drawing room style. A chamber music using vernacular, beautiful but rigid
in how the pieces were arranged and performed.
The other type came from Coimbra and incorporated Brazilian hall
music popular with the heavy influx of Brazilian students who were appearing at
While both styles proved to be equally popular, it would be
another hundred years before any Fado music was put down on wax.
A key lyric ingredient for Fado is the feeling known as Saudade.
It is the nostalgic aspect of Fado. It concerns people, heartache and
remembrance as opposed to the other often used ingredient Banzo. Banzo is a
nostalgia for ones culture and homeland. Both are connected to the music
through a beautiful sense of longing. An inner ache made into music in hopes
that sharing this will perform some sort of release, but also showing a respect
for the broken heart whose pain lets us know we are alive. Life so sharply felt
is always worth living.
Lyrical content aside, another thing which was initially
required for a piece of music to be considered Fado was a specific line up of
Sonically, the most prominent instrument is whats known as
The Portuguese Guitar. This is a twelve string instrument descended from a
Moorish lute-like instrument and what is known as a Cistern. The tuning
involves watch key tuning keys as opposed to modern day machine
head pegs which are found on most guitars. When used for soloing, it posses a
fuller sound than its relatives, the mandolin, lute or cistern.
This guitar was teamed up in the early days with a Spanish
Guitar (classical style guitar) which the Portuguese called a Viola and a
bottom end provided by a double bass.
Now one can find larger instrumental ensembles playing Fado on a
far more diverse group of instruments both acoustic and electric. This early
trio of instruments though, made sense in their portability and the perfect
supportive counterpoint they provided to each other and the voice telling the
For those not strict or conservative in their
definition of what can be considered Fado, Fado music can now be heard,
combining traditional instruments with more modern day technology to great
effect (see the albums of Madredus and Mariza who combine an organic
Euro-groove feeling with Fados power).
The first known star of Fado was a prostitute named
Maria Severa. She was born the daughter of an innkeeper in 1820 in Lisbon. Her
voice is unrecorded but there are many tales, all hard to confirm as hard fact
which have become part of the public consciousness of Portugal.
Her legends all seem to contain many of the same elements which
can be found in the powerful art form she helped birth.
Her first lover was shipped off to Africa during a flourish of
Portuguese colonialism. She lamented his passing but soon was attached to a
count. In his salons she shocked everyone by performing what would become Fado.
Eventually the count was forced to separate himself from her. After this second
major heart ache, in a fatal mood of Saudade she committed suicide in an orgy
of the senses, drinking and eating (game bird) herself to death in one sitting.
The major lexicon began to form when poets, a natural fit for
such subject matter, became involved in applying their pen. The early body of
Fado work, the standards quickly numbered over two hundred.
The first and eternal modern day queen of Fado is Amalia
Rodrigues. She had a long career and never seems to have taken an artistic
mis-step, a rarity for any artist with such longevity.
Amalia was born July 23, 1920. Much like Louis Armstrong with
his second birthday which was always give as July 4, Amelia always insisted she
was born on July 1st.
In the timeless tradition of many great artists, she started
working at an early age, hard, tedious jobs. At the age of nine she gave her
first recital at her primary school. At this time too, she was selling fruit on
the streets of Lisbon and doing embroidery work. During these formative years
she could also be found working in a cake factory and in a souvenir shop with
her mother and sister.
Her talent and drive were such that every year marked an
important first for her. Too many to list, too many to keep this
interesting. Two artistic touchstones however should be mentioned: 1935 marks
the first time she performed, accompanied by a guitar during a benefit concert.
1945 sees Amalia make her first recording a 78 RPM single, done in Brazil.
During her career Amalia did extensive touring. She wracked up
an impressive amount of appearances in movies, both at home and abroad. She
seems to have fared better on the big screen than some of the other musical
greats who tried, sometimes being the only good thing in a film.
In the 1950s her power was such that she worked directly
with many of her countrys greatest poets, some even writing lyrics
specifically for her.
Amalia was often considered the only cultural
ambassador to Portugal (literary giants Fernando Pessoa and Jose Sarmago might
beg to differ). In her final years she was still making albums, the last one
cut only a year before her death. In celebration of her long career there was a
five hour television documentary made with her complete cooperation and
featuring many candid conversations with the artist and some rare concert
footage. This was eventually edited down for a DVD titled The Art of
When Amalia died at the age of 79 the prime minister called for
three days of national mourning. Her house in Lisbon is now a museum.
The best album for beginners, and the one I started off with is:
The Art of Amalia Rodrigues (Hemisphere). This is a compilation
with pieces spanning the years 1952-1970. Unlike best of albums by
jazz singers one does not get the feeling they are viewing only a small part of
the picture, one aspect of the performer. Another contrast I have found from
Jazz singers and even opera divas is that there is no division of artistic
periods. There is none of that I enjoyed this incarnation of her band
when she had
Nor is there such cherry picking of which recording
labels receive preference from the enthusiasts. It all seems to have the same
sonic feel and there is always an immediate connection with whom ever is
accompanying her, year and record label aside.
The songs are of three different Fado styles although only the
experienced Fado listener is going to notice any huge difference.
I am not a Fado conservative, but when I want my insides to
vibrate in melancholy sympathy to the music, I prefer the traditional type of
Fado. All the pieces on this album even the evergreen pieces have
Even though there are decades separating some of these
performances. None give that feeling of coming at us from a distant, other
time. It is unlike the earliest Edif Piaf recordings which sound as if they
were only made to emerge from a Zinc tulip of a Victrola. Indeed, upon first
listening, before reading the linear notes, I was surprised to find out how old
some of the pieces were.
When I listen to the album it is always from start to finish.
There is not one track without power. One favorite is Vou dar beber a dor
(track 5 1968). The Portuguese Guitar does a bright, repetitive playful
pattern. Her voice sounds sensual and playful always without the least
Jazz, Fado, you can tell people about it, but it is a road they
must go down themselves. A trip which can last a life time and one which I