If you walk around Lisbon you’ll eventually hear some Fado music or see somewhere selling fado CDs - you don’t even need to head to Alfama, the city’s historic district and home of the genre. If you do choose to go to Alfama though, the music haunts the cobbled streets tuning in and out at every corner - but for how much longer?
In the evening, especially if it isn’t the weekend, Alfama is quiet. Here, your ears are a better friend to you than TripAdvisor could ever be. The streets are winding, small and disorientating, without the lights to guide you, graffiti and posters are your best points of reference. To find a show, unless you know people locally, just listen.
Within a few minutes of following false leads, you’ll find yourself outside a bar or restaurant, usually with its door closed. A quick look through the window will confirm that it is in fact, the place. Standing up in front of a captivated audience is the singer, accompanied by a nylon stringed guitar and a Portuguese guitarra, the twelve stringed round-bodied instrument that’s seen in most pictures of fado performances.
Fado constitutes one of Portugal’s ‘Three F’s’ (the other two being Football and Fatima). These were the preoccupations of the population during the country’s time under an authoritarian regime, they were popularized as an opiate for the masses. That’s not how it began though.
Although the origins are hazy, it seems to have stemmed from early 19th-century music that was thematically coherent with a focus on the life of the poor and the stories of men at sea. As Lisbon was a popular trading port, the romanticism and heartbreak that surround seafaring was instrumental to the development of the genre’s themes.
These feelings, related to loss and nostalgia are associated with the Portuguese word saudade. These themes, relatable and transcendent, are just what might keep the music alive in a quickly changing city.
A lot of Lisbon’s appeal lies in its history, not necessarily the stories, but more the impact that the city’s long life has had on it and its inhabitants. Proudly claiming the title of Europe’s oldest capital city, Lisbon has changed greatly over time, but nothing like the change that has washed over the city over the last decade, or even less.
Of the ‘Three F’s’, Fado’s evolution in a new Lisbon is the most interesting. Football will only grow as a result of the city’s growth and religion, all across Europe, is in decline. So where does this leave Fado, the traditional music from the traditional parts of town in a place that is moving forward at eye-watering speed?
On one hand the music could try to evolve, but that wouldn’t make much sense. On the other hand, if it doesn’t, it could easily become a tourist-only experience, no longer a part of the city’s tapestry. It would be a shame, for both city and tradition, if it were to become a show that exists only as part of an industry. It’s the feeling of the guitars in unison, of the powerful voice of the lone singer and the mesmerized crowd watching on that makes it.
These things tend not to last - the next generation of fadistas are as likely to be in it for a quick buck as for keeping a tradition alive. But to keep it alive only for the tradition, not the love, would be to kill it entirely. The beautiful beast risks becoming an endangered species, held in captivity for our viewing pleasure.
New niches pop up through generational change. The most recent and noticeable is the longing for something real, meaningful and permanent in our lives - the result was the culture of the ‘artisanal’ and ‘handcrafted’. As cities grow, especially partly based on their attractive historical customs and traditions, a new market pops up – there’s money to be made there. Fado must do all it can to combat this.
In 2011, Fado became a part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list consisting of skills and traditions passed down through generations, considered important to the way they shape a country’s culture, both historic and contemporary. Mariza, one of the faces of contemporary fado led the campaign stating, “People shall have a far greater desire to care for, understand and nourish (Fado) as they begin to understand that this is not some lesser culture, but rich and deep and able to be performed anywhere in the world”. To her, the genre seems partly undiscovered even by the Portuguese people – this may be the key.
If fado is to be nourished in a growing city, then it is important that the genre seems attractive, that it is understood and that young people are enticed into keeping it alive for what it really is, a rare gem that remains greatly unchanged from its inception - it is a portal back to a world untouched by modernity. If the poetry and the craft is to bleed through, if the demand is going to keep growing, then future performers must be nurtured, for they are the gatekeepers of the city’s past and the torchbearers for its future.
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