|The passion and melancholy of Lisbon's fado||
The 'fadista' stands firm with her eyes closed and head thrown back. Her hair is bundled into a massive bunch behind her.
Her hands are clasped across her chest and the fingers have formed an external rib cage. Two guitarists, one with a pear-shaped soundboard, establish a tempo. They are dressed in perfectly pressed suits. But it's not fado until the proud, slightly plump lady sings.
Every muscle in her neck moves as she lets rip. Her haunting voice is on the melancholy side of flamenco. Think Edith Piaf on downers and you're halfway there. A heavy earnestness and respectful silence fill the air. If I make a noise, I think I'm going to be thrown out. Grin and I will be lynched. Certainly a smile from any of the musicians is likely to break a clause in their contract. Like poets, fado singers use few words to express a lot of emotion. Performances are short because it's so intense. There's such deep feeling that after a few songs she is sweating.
Fado is taken so seriously because you've tapped into the deep expression of the Portuguese soul. You're in the presence of absence, where an innate melancholy reigns. These are songs born in the hearts of homesick sailors adrift on uncharted seas. From the time when ships sailed abroad and didn't come back. It's a longing for something that's gone and this sadness keeps them happy.
When Portugal's greatest fadista, Amalia Rodrigues, died in October 1999, there was an enormous outpouring of public grief and three days' national mourning. 'I never cry, but I cried the day Amalia died,' says my waiter, Luis. 'She was our Princess Diana. People liked her because she was natural, she didn't pretend to be important. She never lost her common touch.'
Amalia would certainly approve of Lisbon's latest festival, a week of nightly concerts and exhibitions celebrating fado. And, like the great Portuguese explorers, the festival will cross the oceans and explore fado's links with similar musical forms, such as the mornas from the Cape Verde Islands, the tango of Buenos Aires, Cajun music from New Orleans, flamenco from Andalucia and rembetika, the Greek blues born in the ports of Piraeus and Salonika at the start of the twentieth century.
Like fado, all these musical styles sprang from the poorest levels of society to become cultural emblems of their countries. Bittersweet anthems of longing that draw inspiration from common themes of fate, love and destiny. The music reflects a difficult, hard and often sad life. Life has always revolved around the sea in Lisbon. The celebrated Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, wrote that every pier is a longing of stone. He was right. Ports breed sadness, but also cultural interchanges.
The origins of fado are hotly contested. Some swear it was born of Gypsies or Arabs, while others theorise it may have been the musical longings of African slaves, freighted to Brazil. It is the small hours before I finally emerge from the fado house. The narrow, cobbled streets of the Bairro Alto (Upper Quarter) are now amok with hundreds of good-natured young Lisboetas . Virtually every doorway is some kind of bar. Late nights are an essential part of Lisbon, but you pay a price.
In the morning, weary from lack of sleep, I take the Edwardian tramline to the hilly, mediaeval streets of Alfama, Lisbon's Moorish quarter. Fado emerged from these streets in the eighteen-thirties among people in poorly paid jobs often connected with the sea. Originally the music was associated with prostitution and Bohemian life.Only in the late nineteenth century did fado enter aristocratic circles.
You sense that Alfama is a close community that looks out for its own. But what else would you expect from what is in essence a fishing community? You meet the eyes of proud, old men in flat caps and cardigans, but their half-smiles hint at a terrible foreboding. Dignified old ladies with kind faces watch from their balconies. Every face tells a story, of personal sorrows, of a longing for something out of reach.
At the foot of Alfama, the House of Fado and Portuguese Guitar documents the history and roots of Lisbon's own music. Not bad for a former city water supply pumping station.
In a café, elderly men crowd around a flimsy table. They slam playing cards down with such ferocity you think the table will collapse. Behind the counter a barman looks on quietly, torn between the action and the pages of a novel. Their game of cards is not quite as intense as last night's fado, but it is still early.