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Fado: Music of Destiny

“The music is by the door,” they told us.

Earlier this year A and I spent a few days in Lisbon. Set near the mouth of the wide river Tagus, the capital of Portugal is, perhaps, not as grand as Madrid, its neighbouring capital on the Iberian Peninsula. The culture of Lisbon, explored by Alastair Sooke and Dr Janina Ramirez in one of their BBC Four programmes, was sufficient to confirm that Lisbon deserved its place on our list of cities to visit.

There are a number of splendid buildings, constructed in the Manueline style of architecture – Portugal’s own style – in this, one of the oldest cities in Europe, exemplified by the glorious monastery of Jeronimos.

A was keen to visit the tile museum, ceramic tiles being a highly distinctive feature of Portuguese decorative art. It was the return journey from the museum back to our hotel on the edge of Commercial Square that confirmed that taxi travel was a very cheap way of getting around. And, taxi protocol in Lisbon is no tipping!

Taking a tram ride is an interesting way to see the city. There is one route that takes in the hills of the city as the old-style trams trundle along the streets, lurch around corners, and haul their way up steep hills.

That’s quite enough of the travel guide: back to the music. Taking in a Fado evening was the highlight of the visit for us and was one of the reasons why we wanted to go to Lisbon.

Fado is a musical style specific to Lisbon and one other city, whose name escapes me (without looking it up). It is a musical tradition that dates back at least to the beginning of the nineteenth century and is characterised by a solo artist (a man or a woman) singing to the accompaniment of a Portuguese guitar and/or a traditional guitar. The style of singing is usually melancholic and mournful, steeped in longing and feelings of loss. When you hear a Fado singer, you can hear their voice express these emotions: you don’t need to know what words they are singing in Portuguese.

When we told Ruben, one of the doormen at our hotel, where we were going that night, he placed his right arm across his chest, hand on heart and said, “We feel it here.”

We couldn’t book the Fado venue that was featured in the programme presented by Alastair Sooke and Dr Jamina Ramirez: it was fully booked. However the Fado museum recommended Mesa de Frades, where we walked to along the river front towards the oldest part of Lisbon in eager anticipation as to what the evening would offer.

What the tiny restaurant did offer was music by the door and an excellent meal with unlimited wine. Inevitably the meal part of the evening was touristy in that it seemed that the majority of dinner guests were tourists. However after the meal was over and wine glasses were refilled once more, two guitarists squeezed themselves between the first tables by the door and the door itself. A young woman, Teresinha Landeiro, joined them: the noise in the restaurant faded to silence and she unfurled her voice and began to sing. She mesmerised the diners with the power and subtlety of her wonderful voice, which ranged from the strength of its volume to soft nuanced tones.

“She’s an angel,” commented one of the staff that served us our evening meal.

After a short set of songs, Teresinha, took a break and an elderly man took the limelight, followed by another young woman. These two Fado singers were good but it was Teresinha that held sway and who people had come to hear. By this time in the late evening, a large crowd of young people crowded by the tiny bar. This, we were told later, was Teresinha’s “tribe”. It seems that the most popular Fado singers, move from venue to venue. Teresinha’s tribe piled into the restaurant – standing room only – to hear their angel sing.

“You have a wonderful voice.” I told her when she was taking one of her breaks outside.

“Thank you,” she said with a dazzling smile. “It is my night. I will sing all night.”

We left, reluctantly, at about one in the morning. I could have stayed and listened until she sung her last that night, but there was the small matter of getting to the airport the next day for the flight home.

On the morning of our flight, the hotel manager wished us a safe trip. “Today’s Fado singers are less melancholy than the older generation,” he informed us.

Whatever it was that Teresinha was singing about touched our hearts.

I emailed the venue when we returned home to say how we enjoyed the evening. The reply came:

Hello David

I am really happy to know that you enjoy our music and “home”… that’s the big secret… no customers, only friends.

Hoping to have you here soon.

I don’t know if Lisbon needs a second visit in itself as a city destination: I would love to hear some more Fado singing though.

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