Music is a large part of my life but, before I came to Portugal, I admit to having been a bit sniffy about Fado, Portugal’s only significant contribution to music; it’s a country that has produced no world-status composers apart from those that hail from Brazil. Fado means fate or destiny and the songs are mostly sad. They sing of lost love, lost chances, regrets and all the subjects that are normally ignored by the glossy artistes that we are used to. The world has to be a happy place, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. There’s surely room for something that recognises that life isn’t always a basket of roses. Saudades form a major theme; this word is difficult to translate but can best be described as a longing, call it homesickness or however we northern Europeans try to compartmentalise emotions. Saudades is sadness, but with happy memories and that, in most cases, is Fado. It is performed by a solo singer, male or female, accompanied by a Portuguese guitar (a large 12-string mandolin that can sound like a harp) plus a Spanish guitar. The instrumentalists have free rein to improvise, as does the singer, and the result is rather lovely, simple, pure, clear and emotional. The diva of Fado was Amalia Rodrigues. If I have to compare her to anyone it would be to Edith Piaf; they both sing from the soul, but Amalia is less grating on the ear.
On a whim, I bought a Fado CD set from our local post office. Tonight, we had Luis’s mother, Celeste, to dinner and I played the CDs to her. While I listened to the vocal artistry and the instrumental ornamentation, I glanced in her direction; she was listening with her eyes closed, conducting with her arthritic hands, transported back two generations. Later, she told me how, when she was young, she had seen Amalia Rodrigues in Lourenco Marques, how divine she was, how they had so much difficulty getting tickets, so much trouble parking. Mozambique was then an outpost of empire and a visit by Amalia was something to tell your grandchildren about.
For a while, as she had listened to the music, Celeste had been a young teenager again; you could see it in her eyes and smile; a sparkle of youth’s optimism that said that nothing could ever really go wrong, listen to the words and be sad because life won’t really be like that. Fado is like watching a play, surely; experience the emotions then come back to your life. But fate has a way of biting you on the hand.
It was wonderful to watch the magic wrought by those simple words and music. So, I am a convert. Now, I realise that Fado isn’t a play, it’s real life. Maybe that’s why Celeste loves it so much.