Fado Resounding: Affective Politics and Urban Life

Fado Resounding: Affective Politics and Urban Life

by Lila Ellen Gray


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Fado, Portugal's most celebrated genre of popular music, can be heard in Lisbon clubs, concert halls, tourist sites, and neighborhood bars. Fado sounds traverse the globe, on internationally marketed recordings, as the "soul" of Lisbon. A fadista might sing until her throat hurts, the voice hovering on the break of a sob; in moments of sung beauty listeners sometimes cry. Providing an ethnographic account of Lisbon's fado scene, Lila Ellen Gray draws on research conducted with amateur fado musicians, fadistas, communities of listeners, poets, fans, and cultural brokers during the first decade of the twenty-first century. She demonstrates the power of music to transform history and place into feeling in a rapidly modernizing nation on Europe's periphery, a country no longer a dictatorship or an imperial power. Gray emphasizes the power of the genre to absorb sounds, memories, histories, and styles and transform them into new narratives of meaning and "soul."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822354710
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/16/2013
Pages: 334
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lila Ellen Gray is Associate Professor of Music at Columbia University.

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fado Resounding


By Lila Ellen Gray

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5459-8


Pedagogies of the Soulful in Sound

Não é fadista quem quer mas sim quem nasceu fadista. (A fadista is not someone who wants to be fadista but one who was born fadista.)


There are places in Lisbon that gather fado and fadistas: places where the talk of fans and singers, the photographs on the walls, and the songs and the stories told through singing merge and spin off of one another, teaching and reinscribing what fado is and its relation to history—both its own history as a genre and Portuguese history writ large. These places teach one how to listen to fado, how to feel saudade, and teach one how to have a soul.

It is a Saturday afternoon in 2002 at the bar, or tasca, O Jaime, in the Lisbon neighborhood of Graça, which hosts amateur fado on weekend afternoons. There is an interval, the lights come on; people talk, get up to stretch their legs, greet one another, and order new rounds of food, wine, and beer. I sit across the table from a fadista named Olga, singing to her under my breath, trying out a fado I am learning for my upcoming audition for fado lessons at Lisbon's Museu do Fado (Fado Museum). Interrupting my singing, she says, "I could hit you, I could kill you, but you will never have a Portuguese soul." "But we have souls, too," I say. (Since when have the Portuguese had a monopoly on soulfulness?) I try again and ham it up by singing extended voltinhas (improvisatory melismatic vocal turns) and drawing out the phrase "cantando dou brado" (singing I cry) with a rubato. She says, "Now you are beginning to have some soul."

As a central ethnographic trope, learning for the ethnographer is often to move from "outside" to "in," with the knowledge that belonging risks a partial blindness and deafness to a world gradually rendered natural through the quotidian. I wanted to study how people learn to sing, play, and listen to fado as a way to understand how particular affects become linked to expressive styles and sounds, how these sounds become aesthetically and socially salient, and how in learning to sing or to listen one might be learning how to feel, developing a sonic repertoire for emotional expression (Cumming 2000). Yet for most fadistas and listeners, an idea of learning had nothing to do with fado. For many, the concept of learning was anathema to fado, canceled it out; either one is born with fado na alma (fado in the soul) or one is not. Ser fadista não se ensina, não se aprende, nasce logo quando nasce uma pessoa (One is not taught, nor does one learn to be a fadista; one is born a fadista). I heard variations on this fado epithet from singers, listeners, instrumentalists, the general public, and in fado lyrics, and even saw it printed on tiles covering a building in an alleyway in the Lisbon neighborhood of Alfama. To admit to learning might be to reveal an essential lack, to não ser fadista (to not be fadista), as singing with sentimento (feeling) is widely understood as something that cannot be learned. For Olga, my voice and performance lacked soulful signifiers. The soul, in this case, resides in a musical, stylistic, and performative semiotics of the voice. An explicit culture of non-learning with respect to fado seals "the secret of sound" (Taussig 1999: 183) upon which is writ fado's "soul."

Fado discourse shapes the stuff of a subjectivity predicated on binaries of interior and exterior. The fado voice is oft en spoken and sung about by listeners as revelatory of a deep embodied inside, an inside that runs "in one's veins" (veias). One fan explained fado to me as the "DNA" of Portugueseness; many listeners and fadistas told me (in some form), "Fado é nossa canção portuguesa e vem de dentro da alma" (Fado is our Portuguese song and comes from inside the soul). This "inside" full of feeling, um estado de alma (a state of the soul, of being), is one that listeners oft en talk about as unique to the person who sings, yet also as part of a certain way of being Portuguese. Fadistas talk about singing their lives and their stories as individuals, in their own style, with singularly marked voices. One of the most severe critiques possible to level at a fadista is that she or he is imitating the vocal style or repertoire of another. At the same time, fadistas' life stories oft en share similar biographical narratives and trajectories, while timbral and stylistic characteristics of individual fado voices (both of which are externalized indices of the soulful) are shaped in pro cesses of learning that are necessarily social. This chapter flips over the story of non-learning that binds fado as sound, fado as music, to fado as "a state of the soul." How are soulfulness and interiority in fado learned, ritualized, talked about, instituted, improvised, performed, listened to, and heard? At the same time, this chapter understands fado's ideologies of the "unlearned" voice to align with widespread metacultural tropes about musical expression, voicing, and emotion where they are understood to reflect an "interior self" or "essence." What kinds of selfhood and socialities might practices of fado shape? What are the stakes of the soulful sung?

A Tasca do Jaime

It is a late Saturday afternoon in February 2002 at the Tasca do Jaime in Graça. Men line up along the bar drinking; women sit at tiny tables with their girlfriends or husbands; people sitting on milk crates squeeze between chairs; two tourists stand tentatively in the entrance. Photographs of fadistas, living and dead, vie for space on the walls. In the back of the room, under a guitarra hanging on the wall and an illuminated framed photograph of Portugal's twentieth-century fado icon, Amália Rodrigues, sit two or three male instrumentalists, one playing the guitarra and another the acoustic guitar (viola). In front of them, or sometimes behind, stands the fadista. People sitting at the tables get up and take turns singing. While fado is in session, the lights are turned off , and the owner of the bar and listeners enforce strict silence, hissing, glaring, or shouting to demand "Silêncio!" from anyone who as much as tries to whisper. When a fadista starts singing, particularly if a song is a sad one, people listening sometimes close their eyes and silently move their lips in the shapes of the words. The fadista oft en sings the more melancholic songs with eyes closed, with her head thrown back, her hands at times interlocked in front of her and at others gesturing expressively, the torso in a stillness rapt with a focus that directs all attention to the sound and expression of her voice.

During a break, the lights are switched on, and a woman in her early fifties sitting near me, wearing a black dress (Olga) softly sings a fado, looking into my eyes. She turns around and announces, "We have an americana here who likes fado!" When the fado is back in session with a male fadista singing, a listener mutters under his breath, "Bom" (Good), nodding his head, positively appraising. The fadista suddenly stops; a man behind the bar calls out "Baixinho!" (A little lower!), and the fadista sings again at a lower pitch. He still cannot sing the high part; appearing shamed, he turns his back to us, and listeners fill in the melody and the words with their voices. He resumes singing, and when he finishes, listeners applaud. An older woman sitting with Olga tells me, "Her family wouldn't let her be a fadista, but it has always been her dream, and she has the voice. Today is only her second time singing in public." Olga talks to the viola player about a way of singing a vocal line in the style of Argentina Santos (a famous fadista of the older generation who is known in some circles in Lisbon for her "authentic" singing style) and demonstrates. They go to the back corner, and Olga sings quietly, experimenting. I hear strong opinions from everyone about how to sing: what is right, what is beautiful. I am in a place where people love what they are doing. I am in a place where people are also allowed to fail. I return again and again to this tasca that has fado in the light of the afternoon. The Tasca do Jaime gives me a base to learn how learning happens in a fado enclave, which somehow becomes the whole of a particular world writ small. One man says about me as I am leaving after my first visit, "She is studying the fado, and she likes this atmosphere the best."

Performance Practices of the Soulful

Some people acknowledge fado venues as places where singers learn from one another in the acts of both singing and listening. The fadista and fado researcher José Manuel Osório claimed that casas de fado are "the only schools fado has." In the words of one of Lisbon's most revered presenters of amateur fado, Sebastião de Jesus (1930–2005), "Eighty percent of professionals come out of the context of amateur fado; fado vadio (amateur fado) was a great school." Certainly, within the networks of fans and singers who participate in the amateur fado scene in Lisbon, places like O Jaime—places of dense sociality centered on music making and listening—function implicitly as schools for the performance of "soulful" listening, playing, and singing.

The tasca, or small neighborhood bar, is one type of venue where "amateur" fado performance traditionally has taken place. The tasca is reified through ongoing and multiple discourses—urban legends and fado origin myths, song lyrics, fado marketing, international media—as the space of authentic social and musical practice and contrasted with official casas de fado where professionals regularly perform under contract for predominantly tourist audiences. In the presentation of fado outside Portugal to international audiences, in the narratives that oft en circulate with recordings by elite fado celebrities, an invocation of fado amador can do the work of bolstering multiple authenticity claims (for the genre, for the city of Lisbon, for international stars). I grew up singing fado in the tascas in Lisbon's traditional neighborhoods. Participants in Lisbon's amateur fado scene (including some professional fadistas) told me about how the routine and the contracts associated with casas de fado lead to repetitive, "soulless" singing and playing. "I would never say this to a journalist," a famous guitarra player, who had traveled the world with Amália Rodrigues, says to me after I switched off my tape recorder, "but you know these little tascas where there is amateur fado, this is where there is the most fado." A professional fadista who sings at O Jaime for fun before his nighttime gig tells me, "The Tasca do Jaime has a different kind of soul (alma); it is not like the professional places where the singer sells his voice."

The boundaries between sites of official fado and places that host so-called amateur fado—fado amador or fado vadio—are in many ways porous; along with the recording and media industries, "amateur" and "professional" fado shape interdependent discourses and practices. I focus here on performance practice within amateur sites because venues like O Jaime offered me the greatest scope to bear witness to failures, risks, and dreams amid audiences whose ways of listening shape aesthetic style and the learning of the soulful. Fado singing at O Jaime, and in amateur fado practice in general, depends on numerous codified ritual practices; the exact details of rituals vary depending on the venue, but many aspects are the same. The ways in which I came to understand individual variation and development; the shaping of an aesthetic; and ways of listening, feeling, and expressing the soulful in sound figure against a ground of ritual's weekly repetitions.

It is 3 pm on a Saturday in June 2002. I walk up the series of steep cobblestone streets that connect my apartment building on the Ruada Bela Vista à Graça to the Tasca do Jaime on the Rua da Graça. When I arrive, a few men are standing outside the door smoking. We exchange kisses of greeting. Smells of frying fish and potatoes mingle with tobacco as I walk in and my eyes adjust to the darkness. A few men alone sit at tables finishing their lunches with hard liquor. A dapper man in his seventies wearing a suit jacket with a pin of a guitarra on his lapel sits drinking water and humming to himself as he looks at a folded list of all of the fados he sings and the keys in which he sings them, which he keeps in his breast pocket. A middle-age couple sits in the back chatting with the proprietor, Jaime Candeias, who eats before the fado starts at 4 PM. I say hello to everyone individually with a kiss on each cheek. "Ah, Elena, the americana," someone says. Laura, Jaime's wife, chides me for coming so late but takes my lunch order anyway (see figure. 1.1). The instrumentalists occasionally come early to eat a meal before playing; sometimes they bring their wives, who sit patiently through the entire afternoon. Gradually, more people come in, many claiming regular tables. After attending O Jaime for many months, I have a sense of which people arrive and when; I know who are singers and who come to listen—and those who come to do both. People banter, ask about one another's lives, children, illnesses. I learn about their families, their jobs, their relationships to fado, to Graça and other Lisbon neighborhoods, to other fadistas, and to other venues in which fado is performed.

The place begins to buzz with the activities of fado about to happen and sounds of fado conversation. "Did you know that that fado was first sung by Maria Teresa de Noronha? A grande senhora of fado she was." Someone else chimes in, "Well, her voice was too lyrical for me, but yes, a grande senhora she was." "Yes, she had a clear voice (uma voz limpa)." "What key do you sing 'Lágrima' in?" "I sing it in G." "I have always sung it in F. Are you coming to night to the fado night at Boa Vista?" "No, we are going to Tasca do Careca." "But they can bring the van by and pick you up later. They need fadistas." A poet arrives with sheets of paper containing draft s of a fado poem, hoping to get a fadista to try it out for him. A fadista begins the fado halfheartedly, then stops because she does not like the flow of the words. The guitarra player unpacks his instrument and takes out his unhas (fingernail extensions)—which lend brilliance to the sound and are sometimes made from pieces of plastic or old credit cards—carefully taping them to his fingers, and begins to tune. The viola player comes in and greets everyone then opens his case.

It is 3:55 PM. Jaime switches off the television set. He plugs in the light that illuminates Amália's portrait and connects the cord to light a diorama that hangs in the center of the back wall in a glass-covered wooden box framed with dominoes. A group of cardboard cut-out men in suits stand around a domino table in a miniature bar. Jaime long ago altered the diorama by adding a viola and a guitarra to the picture and pasting a tiny photo of Amália Rodrigues singing, taken from a postcard, in the back and surrounding it with a cardboard stage (plate 1). Jaime turns on a dim red light and switches off the main lighting. This is the signal that the session is about to begin.

Jaime walks to the back of the bar where the instrumentalists are positioned and in a resonant bass voice gives a general welcome that goes something like this: Welcome to my humble tasca, to yet another afternoon of fado, another afternoon of tradition (see figure 1.2). I am proud that so many good people and fadistas come here every week. I am sorry that the place is not more comfortable. We are all like family here (em família), so feel at home. He introduces the instrumentalists with great flourish. The guitarra and viola play a guitarrada. Jaime then oft en sings the first three fados of the aft ernoon, sometimes dedicating them to specific people in the room, before introducing the first fadista: And now I wish to present our friend, eighty-three years old and still going strong, the great fadista and popular poet of Alfama: Senhor Álvaro Rodrigues! Or, Ladies and gentleman, the sun is setting, and as it begins to gets dark, the atmosphere becomes even more special. So listen with great silêncio and attention to the voice of this fadista who has sung fado all over Europe. She is also a fadista of the neighborhood (bairro) and lives here in Graça: Fátima Fernandes. Or, We're going to play around a little (vamos brincar). This girl (menina) has come all the way from the United States to study our music. Now she is going to try to sing a bit: Elena! Or, This gentleman never sings the same way twice. This is a great interpreter of fado you are about to hear. Or, This young man has been waiting all of these hours just to sing, and no, I will not turn him away. After all, this is a place where everyone is allowed to sing. The order in which people sing follows strict guidelines. The general rule is that the presenter of the fado session (in this case, Jaime) writes down the names of singers as they arrive, and fadistas are called to sing in this order (see figure 1.3). But exceptions are sometimes made depending on someone's status as a fadista, schedule, or condition of health.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1. Pedagogies of the Soulful in Sound 27

2. Affects of History 70

3. Fado's City 105

4. Styling Soulfulness 139

5. The Gender of Genre 158

6. Haunted by a Throat of Silver 179

Afterword: The Tangibility of Genre 227

Appendixes: Fado Vitória

Transcriptions 231

Notes 243

References 281

Index 295

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