The struggle for freedom and a deep underlying sadness make up the soul of Lisbon and it’s expressed through the hauntingly beautiful but sorrowful music of Fado. Art is definitely an expression of the times and the impact it has on the people, an impact which may not be fully realized until decades later. Whether it be through paintings or poetry, there is a connection made of the art to the era in which it was written or otherwise produced. The same is true of the music of Lisbon: Fado.
I have found it to be well understood and even documented that the Portuguese are warm and friendly, but not necessarily inviting. There is a sense of ‘being held at arms length’ when getting to know someone here. But a night of listening and observing the music of Fado changed all that for the short time we were there. Not a show put on for tourists but in a small alley restaurant, recommended by a local, consisting of all of seven tables. Here, the musicians occupy the same personal space as the small audience and the singers bear their souls, sans microphone, with such a raw emotion that for those moments I felt that understood it all without actually understanding the words, and felt as though I was brought into their inner circle.
This is a nation with a long and glorious history but their fall from grace was swift. Years of building an empire rivalling that the mighty British and Dutch was smothered by the collapse of the monarchy and the rise of a dictator. The history of Fado predates the fall of the monarchy, it’s beginnings are muddled as the traditions were not documented but passed down by word of mouth, but the art form was changed drastically after the political coup in 1926. Once, the genre was more in line with musical theatre with many players and improvisations, but as the era of censorship took hold the theatre was regulated and the messages behind the performances were strictly controlled. This reduced the shows to just songs performed by a singer, a classical guitar player and a Portuguese Guitar player. The performances also moved to “Fado houses” mostly in the more historic, and historically poorer neighbourhoods of Lisbon.
Today, Fado’s songs can be about pretty well anything, it’s more the form and structure that define it, but the traditional songs are what struck me and helped me feel what the impact of oppression has on the soul. The sorrow the longing, the struggle but also the perseverance and the pride shone through and left me speechless.
I have not felt that much passion expressed to me even in the greatest of arena rock shows let alone two guitarists and a singer in an acoustic setting. It really makes a trip to Lisbon complete, to get a sense of their more recent history, it is truly a profound experience to understand everything and nothing all at once.
Our night was spent at Casa da Severa which has changed its name to Maria da Mouraria, recommended by our Airbnb host, it is a very intimate venue where you can enjoy a drink and some petiscos. There are Fado performances at the more touristy venues as well, but whatever your preference, don’t leave Lisbon without catching a show and you’ll see what I mean!
And if you need some more ideas of what to do in Lisbon, our friend Jo from Frugal First Class has a fantastic 48 hour guide to Lisbon!