Fado is a predominantly vocal Portuguese musical form first documented in the late 1830s, virtually always accompanied by plucked string instruments, predominantly associated with the urban lower classes, and which reached the recording industry during the last decade of the 19th century.1 It had reached what might perhaps be termed a classic form ('fado castiço' in Portuguese terminology), by the late 1920s. It has continued to flourish to this day and has become virtually the only internationally known form of Portuguese music. It exists both as a living urban folk tradition, a tourist attraction, and a national and nationalist emblem, not least since it was included in 2011 among the (at present 427) items in the UNESCO 'Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity', an inclusion which is gladly appended to the front covers of many CD issues and which turns up as an advert link at the top or bottom of any Google search page on fado. The singer(s) is/are usually accompanied by one or two Portuguese guitars, a Spanish guitar, usually with metal strings, and often, since circa 1949, a four-stringed acoustic bass guitar. The lyrics may follow various formal poetic traditions and are often credited to specific authors, some whom may be well-known poets. The melodic and harmonic formulae are of both anonymous and specifically credited authorship, some of them well-documented with a classic AABB form, and characteristic rhythmic cells, as early as the 1840s/1850s. Many different songs may be based on these (to aficionados) well-known formulae, perhaps in the same manner as many people will immediately identify thousands of songs as 12-bar blues, or perhaps as for example Summertime may be played in an infinity of guises which are all identifiable as Summertime. The subject-matter of fado covers themes many of which are familiar in other urban genres such as rebetika and tango; there are certain perhaps characteristic themes such as various forms of love, prostitution, the spiritual nobility and heroism of the poor in the face of rich nobility, drink, orphans, and not least, self-reflexively, the very act of singing fado as a channel of cathartic release and comfort during life's troubles, and likewise the emotional significance for the singer of the guitarra portuguesa, always simply referred to as the guitarra, while the 'Spanish' guitar is called viola (violão in Brazil). Saudade - a Portuguese word for a certain synthesis of melancholy and nostalgia - is an essential component. Fado lyrics were early subject to censorship during the long-lived Salazar dictatorship, although, as befits a male chauvinist society, prostitution was not a forbidden subject, as it was however in Metaxas' Greece in 1936. Fado lyrics with the censors' pass or fail stamps have survived in numbers; musicians and singers were obliged to apply for licences to perform in public.
The medial success of Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999) is largely responsible for fado's presence outside the Portuguese-speaking world. This success is in this writer's opinion a two-edged sword, as the particular character of her delivery has become paradigmatic. This assertion will be developed later in this essay.
So, again, what is fado?
As far as I have been able to understand, although the word itself exists in the Portuguese language as the word for fate, there is still no consensus as to the origin of the word as applied to this music, nor as to the origin of the music identified by that name. There are theories which suggest its origin in various Brazilian dance and song forms such as modinha, and lundum, phenomena which may have been brought back to Portugal from Brazil and were perceived as more or less lascivious by the Portuguese bourgeoisie and nobility. There are also theories of Moorish and African influence, whose value may be seriously questioned today, while there are certainly incontrovertible traces of rural Portuguese folk music. The word fado as applied to the musical form may in fact have been transferred from the word fadista rather than the reverse process. Descriptions of fadistas are strikingly similar to 19th and early 20th century descriptions of rebetes, manges, koutsavakidhes, and daïdes in Greece, whose emblematic traits were a certain style of dressing, the habitual carrying of, and use of, knives, and a life-style seen by established society as antisocial. This theme was astutely noted by João Dos Santos in his article on fado, The Gangster Reformed, in Musical Traditions, some 30 years ago.
What does seem clear is that fado as we know it originated in Lisbon the early decades of the 19th century and that it was always sung to the accompaniment of a Portuguese guitar, in the beginning often played by the singer her/himself and probably with simple strummed chords. At some time towards the middle or end of the 19th century, it would appear, the use of a wire-strung or gut-strung guitar of Spanish build as an accompanying instrument was introduced. Sometimes a guitar with extra bass strings was used, and from 1949, the acoustic bass guitar became a relatively common member of the ensemble, very often played by the seemingly indestructible nonagenarian Joel Pina, 97 this year and apparently going strong. Fado was associated with the urban lower classes, although its first iconic figure the fado singer and prostitute Maria Severa Onofriana (aka 'A Severa') (1820-1846) had a famed relationship with a nobleman, the 13th count of Vimioso, and a certain number of prominent fado singers of both sexes have come from a background in the nobility.
Here's a very early example of instrumental fado: Luís Carlos da Silva (Petroline 1859 - 1934) usually regarded rightly or wrongly as Armandinho's illustrious predecesssor and perhaps inspiration, recorded in 1905 playing Fado D'Anadia, followed by Armandinho's dramatically slower version of the same piece, here called Fado Conde de Anadia recorded in 1928.
There is a commonly held belief that the Portuguese guitar is simply a 'Portuguesified' form of the English guitar, itself also a descendant of the cittern family, which was imported to Portugal through the trade connections of the port wine business. This is only partly true. What is true is that forms of this 18th century instrument lived a parallel existence among the Portuguese bourgeoisie and nobility during much of the 19th century and some few decades into the 20th century, under the name of citara. Pedro Caldeira Cabral, (1950-) who has a huge collection of such instruments, has written a large illustrated book on this subject, unfortunately not translated to English. Cabral is unusual in that he is a musician, an instrument maker and repairer, and a multi-instrumentalist who is at home at a deep level both within the fado tradition and in the worlds of 'early music' and 'classical music'. Unfortunately, most other published information on the subject tends to confuse the matter by not pointing out that a lot of musical activity involving instruments of the Portuguese guitar family has not really been 'fado' at all. Here's an example: Pedro Caldeira Cabral playing Geminiani's Sonata VI, Andante from 1760 (recorded in 1983).
If one listens to vocal fado recordings from the beginning of the last century one hears that virtuosic guitarra accompaniment is not the norm. The guitarra virtuosi who recorded early on recorded a kind of music which is rather to be understood as a form of middle class virtuoso hausmusik' Some of the guitarristas who were recorded early on were incredible virtuosi, but their recordings are sparse, hardly ever reissued, and virtually unknown to today's fado audience. The titles of their pieces often, but by no means always, included the word fado. Here's an example - Julio Silva (1872-1962) playing Fado Melancolico in 1927, unaccompanied as was his wont. In terms of pure technical ability some of these musicians were technically at least on a par with Armandinho (Armando Augusto Freire, 1891-1946). Through his virtuosity, his improvisational and compositional gift, and later, through his ability to manage singers and the musical running of fado houses, Armandinho played a central role in the development of the fado genre from about the age of 20 until his death from tuberculosis in December 1946. In spite of all this Armandinho, who came from a poor background, remained relatively poor until the end of his life. I think it's fair to say that when he accompanied singers (which he did quite a bit on record) his playing, although often manifestly of virtuoso calibre, never disturbed or overshadowed the quality of the singers or the dynamics of the songs. It was when he recorded solos that he would in a number of cases give freer rein to his virtuosity, which I would insist is never employed as a narcissistically demonstrative end in itself. I suspect that the inspiration which emanated from Armandinho's playing, and which strongly influenced Jaime Santos, José Nunes, and several other prominent guitarists of the later generation, some of whom played beside Armandinho in their youth, and whose own heydays were from the late 1940s to the 1970s, has led to the current paradigm where a singer is expected to be accompanied by a manifestly virtuosic Portuguese guitarist. This is a quite different situation from fado in its beginnings. What's more, those elements of virtuosity in Armandinho's accompaniments of vocalists are always clearly integral to the melodic structure of the composition, whereas today one is far too often treated to instrumental fill-ins which are in fact nothing more than unimaginative sequences of notes, often just scale passages devoid of musical tension, but perhaps full of demonstrated digital (as in fingers) Olympic-level gymnastics, more symptomatic of horror vacui, of musical narcissism, and of the compulsory presence of the guitarra portuguesa as a passport to fadoland, than of genuine musical intentionality.
As to female guitarristas - there are lots of photos of women with guitarras in late 19th century bourgeois milieux but of course no such recordings. Isabel de Sousa recorded a few excellent sides in about 1930 around the age of 17, accompanied by her father, and then disappears from view, and is the only woman from the 78 era whom I'm aware made records. Here is her Meu Sentir
For the non-Portuguese speaker, the richness of fado themes in the older repertory is evident in the translations of songs sung by among others Alfredo Marceneiro, Frutuosa França and Amália Rodrigues, included in the English version of what is perhaps the best available introduction to fado - the catalogue of a 1994 Lisbon fado exhibition entitled 'Fado - Voices and Shadows' (Fado - Vozes e Sombras). Unfortunately translations of lyrics are largely absent from fado records made for international consumption; I have in fact yet to see an example. The singer Claudia Aurora, who based herself in England in 2003, around the time of the initiation of her fado career, asserts that people don't understand what she is singing but that they get the feeling. To her credit, the digital release page of her latest CD includes the lyrics, but in Portuguese only. A perusal of a few of these lyrics with the help of Google translate offered me the opportunity to compare them to the lyrics reproduced in 'Fado - Voices and Shadows'. I found a paradigmatic difference. Aurora's lyrics are personal poetic effusions (no literary evaluation intended) marked by the ubiquity of the first person pronoun in the forms 'I', 'me', 'my', at least one of which occurs on almost every line. These pronouns are virtually absent from all but a couple of the lyrics included in 'Fado - Voices and Shadows', which are nearly all stories about a person or persons other than the singer. Thus, much of today's fado has been subsumed into the international category of 'singer-songwriters', and, within that category, to the belly-button fixated crowd.
I first listened to fado over 40 years ago, when a friend lent me two Columbia LPs - the 1964 LP Há Festa Na Mouraria (CSX24), by Alfredo Marceneiro (1888 or 1891-1982), and the Amália Rodrigues LP Fado Português (SCX 6233) from 1967. The Marceneiro LP was his second recording in LP format, despite an unbroken artistic career which had begun in his late teens. It was the singing tone of the Portuguese guitar, especially on Marceneiro's disc, which particularly caught my ear during that first meeting with fado - a tonal ideal which had an effect which has persisted in my Greek bouzouki playing until this day. I didn't experience the players of the Portuguese guitar on those records as patently or demonstratively virtuosic, or unnecessarily fast - just very musical. I liked Marceneiro's voice and singing more than Amália's, (I appreciate them both more today than then, but still prefer Alfredo) but of course I didn't understand a word either of them sang. Marceneiro didn't like making recordings - in fact the notes to his first LP recorded in 1960 assert that he blindfolded himself in order to tolerate the studio situation!
Then I hardly listened to fado for a couple of decades, until my first visit to Portugal in 1991. During that trip we were lucky to hear fairly good and not too touristy fado in a couple of places, and I heard one lady singer in particular who moved me very deeply (Julieta Reis, not one of the 'famous' ones). I bought a few LPs 'on spec' which led to me discovering the Coimbra style (through Carlos Paredes' LPs) a style distinct from the Lisbon style, both socially, instrumentally, and I later found, vocally.
In 1989 Bruce Bastin's Interstate Music Heritage label published the LP and CD Portuguese String Music (HT323/HT CD 05) curated by Dick Spottswood and beautifully remastered by Jack Towers (1914-2010). Eight of the sixteen 78 rpm sides are Portuguese guitar instrumentals originally recorded between 1922 and 1928. Between 1992 and 1996 the first larger-scale attempt to reissue fado recordings from the 78 rpm era resulted in six CDs on the same label. These six CDs, curated by Paul Vernon, contained fado recordings from the 1920s to the 1940s accessed from the Gallop collection, the National Music Archive and the EMI archives. The first two, Fado de Lisboa 1928-1936 and Fado de Coimbra 1926-1930 (HT CD 14 & 15) appear to have been produced before the label had begun to employ CEDAR technology, and they retain essential upper frequency sound, with noticeable but perfectly tolerable surface noise. The subsequent four - Lisbon Women (HT CD 24), Armandinho - The 1928-29 HMV sessions (HT CD 25), António Menano (HT CD 31) and Ercilia Costa with Armandinho, (HT CD 32) are, despite their excellent musical content, significantly marred by over-ambitious remastering. I'm not sure if Charlie Crump, the engineer responsible, used CEDAR technology, but whichever technology he used he managed to embed all the music in cotton wool. With this unfriendly comment I certainly do not wish to imply that such technologies cannot be used to give very satisfying musical results, and would here like to refer the interested reader to a text of mine available on this site here: http://www.mustrad.org.uk/pdf/78s.pdf
All in all we are now aware of a total of forty 78 rpm sides with instrumental recordings by Armandinho, recorded between 1928 and 1946, of which only twenty-four have been reissued on CD. At the time of writing I have heard all but two of these 40 sides. In my humble opinion they are magnificent legacy of plucked string musicianship comparable to the work of such musicians as jazz guitarists Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt, Greek bouzouki players Ioannis Halikias, Vassilis Tsitsanis and Manolis Hiotis, mandolinists Jacob do Bandolim (Brazil), Dave Apollon (Russia & USA) and Grigore Kiazim (Romania), and the Greek Spyros Peristeris (who played all three of these instruments), to name but a few who were born within a decade or two of the turn of the last century. The only reason that several of these are less known outside their countries of origin is that their music lies outside the Anglo-American nexus. So what is it about Armandinho that enthuses me? There is in his playing a combination of a seemingly effortless virtuosic improvisational flow, combined with delicacy, sweetness of tone and emotional depth, and a genius for expressive melody. As in the case of the Greek bouzouki pioneer Ioannis Halikias who, according to his son, never sang, I can conceive that Armandinho's playing was also his way of singing.
I am constantly amazed by the way Armandinho's musical contribution is treated in the Portuguese media. Although there is still one compilation of 23 tracks available as a CD or an mp3 download from the Tradisom label which reproduces Paul Vernon's notes from 1994, there is virtually no other intelligent writing published on his work, and of the existence of the 16 sides never reissued there is virtually no published information. Strangely, the publisher of the currently available issue offers the 'fake news' that it includes several previously unavailable examples of Armandinho's work. In fact there is one single piece, O Alentejano, muddily transferred and 'restored', which was not included in the Heritage CDs. One of Armandinho's oft-played compositions, Meditando, which he recorded himself in 1944, has been recorded by several musicians during the vinyl era, yet the composer's original recording is still unavailable to all who don't happen to have been obsessive enough to manage to locate a copy of the rare 78 rpm disc - a task which took this writer quite a long time.
Now for the first time the institution of 'Houses of Fado' appeared, which over the following decades would develop into a tourist attraction complex. The concept of 'typicality' would lead to stereotype formats. Instructions were published mandating suitable décor elements for a Casa do Fado, and these environments in truth became quite artificially 'traditional'. A standard performance schedule evolved in which just three of four songs would be performed by one singer under a imposed venerating silence, followed by a pause during which the guests could continue to be served, eat, drink, talk and make a noise, until the next musical sequence. Female singers would wear a black shawl (originally a multi-coloured one, but black after the establishment of Amália Rodrigues as the ultimate goddess or queen of fado). The instrumentalists would play usually one, or perhaps two Portuguese guitars, accompanied by a steel-string guitar of Spanish form played fingerstyle, usually with a thumb-pick and sometimes finger-picks, and from the late 1940s perhaps a four-stringed acoustic bass guitar. No microphones are ever used in such performance situations, which is, to this writer one of the most endearing aspects of the fado tradition.
Parallel with these venues there has, since at least the 1950s if not earlier, existed another kind, small locales, bar- or tavern-like, in the various older barrios of Lisbon, usually virtually invisible to the uninitiated, where local people will gather one or two nights a week to engage in the ritual of fado. On a given evening, there will be between perhaps two and four or five instrumentalists who will accompany a succession of singers who will sing two or at most three songs each, often coming forward in an order written down at the beginning of the session by a semi-informal master of ceremonies. Most or all of the performers, both singers and instrumentalists, are amateurs, and the 'public' may in fact largely consist of the 'artists'. They may come from all imaginable walks of life, both manual professions and academically qualified professions. In fact in the earlier days of the century many of the most prominent male fado figures never abandoned their original profession; Alfredo Duarte for example was a carpenter, for which reason he came to be known as Alfredo Duarte (Marceneiro).
There is a misleading myth about the classical guitar which credits Andres Segovia (1893-1987) with having rescued it from oblivion and made it into a celebrated concert instrument, when in fact the guitar, in its various historical stages of development, had been a serious instrument in the hands of virtuosi at least since the 17th century. There were celebrated virtuosi of a slightly older generation than Segovia, such as the Paraguayan Agustin Barrios (1885-1944), and the Catalan Miguel Llobet (1878-1938) who toured world-wide. Both these entered the recording studios before Segovia, and Llobet was at some point effectively Segovia's teacher. But Segovia was clearly good at promoting himself, through a combination of outstanding technical facility and a certain kind of personality, and of course through his relative monopoly on the recording studios during the early post-WWII years, when he filled the need for icons in a growingly commodified world.
Why do I mention Segovia? Because my impression is that the current image of fado similarly places Amália Rodrigues at the very beginning, the first generation of queens, which she certainly wasn't. A significant number of women singers of fado had achieved degrees of prominence in Portugal and Brazil well before Rodrigues made her first recordings in Brazil in 1945. Among those who recorded long before Amália and who attained some local notoriety were, for example, the actress Maria Vitória (d. 1915), who in fact sang occasionally among the lower classes, and whom Armandinho accompanied on occasion, and the street flower seller Júlia 'Florista' (d. 1925), one of the rare exceptions of a lower-class singer recorded before the 20s. Ercilia Costa (1902-1985) here singing Fado Lisboa in 1930, and Maria Albertina (1909-1985) to name but two, made successful tours in Brazil during the 1930s, and are thus examples of the 'international' success of fado artists in the '30s well before Amália's rise, even if such success was confined to the Portuguese-speaking world and to foreign Portuguese communities. Among other recorded singers deserving of mention are Maria Silva (?-?), Madalena de Melo (?-1970), Maria Emília Ferreira (1896-1941), Maria do Carmo (1894-1964), Maria do Carmo Torres (?-195?), Ermelinda Vitória (1892-198?), Adelina Fernandes (1896-1983) and Dina Teresa (1902-1984) (these eight featured on the first and third Heritage/Tradisom fado CDs), and furthermore, Cecília d'Almeida (1910 or 1911- February 1932), Hermínia Silva (1907-1993), and Berta Cardoso (1911-1997), here singing Marinheiro de Portugal. The latter two were celebrated and recorded well into their mature years.
What then is the significance of Amália Rodrigues? At risk of being criticised for 'psychologising' I would venture to say that what distinguishes her singing from most of her elders and contemporaries is the kind of emotional expression which pours forth in her voice. In her first youthful recordings made at the age of 25 in 1945, there is a sweetness and a kind of tender pathos, of a character I have not yet heard in any earlier recordings of other fado singers, and which disappeared from her voice fairly quickly. The earlier fado singers on record simply did not seem to strive to communicate with this kind of affect. Cecília d'Almeida, who recorded a few songs in Madrid in 1930 before her premature death at the age of 21 or 22, was explosive in her intensity in a quite different manner. Here is her Fado de Gandaia accompanied by Armandinho.
Note on the three preceeding sound clips: Three prominent women from the 1930s - Ercilia Costa, Berta Cardoso and Cecilia D'Almeida, recordings hitherto never reissued in this audio quality, or at all.
As the years passed, Amália's voice deepened, and her expression shifted from that youthful tenderness of 1945 to a pained quality which persisted to the end of her career, perhaps that which is canonised as saudade. While earlier singers seem perhaps to have had an inner distance to their emotional register and to be able to employ it for artistic purposes, Amália, in my interpretation, was as a singer constantly in the throes of her inner pain, and this sometimes caused her singing to be marred by a mannered, exaggerated crescendo, which to my ears at least was not appropriate to the song itself. She became, with an international career, one of that handful of post-WWII women singers - in the company of among others Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Maria Tanase, and Sotiria Bellou, whose pained expression was in integral component of their signum. So I would dare to suggest that what has happened to fado under the influence of Amália's status as national icon is that the very nature of fado singing has become defined by two aspects of her particular psychology: specifically, the canonising of the expression of intense pained affect as a standard, and the idealisation of narcissistic-individualistic self-projection. And this is what characterises a significant proportion of the fado recordings I've heard which were made during the last couple of decades; it's no coincidence that most of the blurbs employed to hype current fado queens emphasise this very defect while implying that it's a virtue.
Here are three Amália clips to demonstrate the change in her vocal delivery and the increasing use of reverb, and its effect: Passei por voce (1945); Estranha forma de vida (1962); and Lágrima (1983).
And likewise, here are a couple of Alfredo Marceneiro clips, to show how different he sounded on 78rpm and with no reverb: Ultima Carta (c.1930); and Há festa na Mouraría (1964).
The fact that the narcissistic projection of personal pain is far more prevalent among contemporary female fadistas than among male fadistas, is paralleled by the photographic style often apparent in contemporary fado CD booklet covers, where, in a manner I find unpleasantly redolent of the male gaze, the female singers are often portrayed so as to emphasise their conventional good looks and attractiveness, not without sexual undertones, and often in combination with that mysteriously vacuous facial expression familiar from fashion adverts, which is implicitly both inviting and distanced, and, significantly in the case of fado, with no visual reference to the music itself.
Interestingly, this phenomenon is not apparent among male fado singers. My impression is that while Alfredo Marceneiro is still perhaps the most celebrated of male fadistas, he hasn't spawned imitators. In his choice of lyrics, and in his delivery, he doesn't seem to be marketing his own suffering. Although there is certainly a kind of pain in his voice, I don't get the feeling that he's saying "listen to my personal pain folks", which I feel Amalia did a lot of the time. Rather, my feeling is that his voice communicates with deep empathy: "listen to the sad facts of the human condition."
Another way of looking at this arose while listening to Adelina Fernandes the other day - it struck me that what Amália recorded in 1945 was in some sense a crossover between the emotional and somehow more 'subjective' vocal approach of more schooled singers, and the tougher feeling I get from the 'real' fado singers, whose communicational style is thus less narcissistic - in other words, to me at least, Amália's predecessors were less 'personal', more 'folk' in their delivery, i.e. not 'look at me me me'. Amália's narcissistic approach has then as it were 'poisoned' the contemporary generation of 'fado queens'.
Whatever one may think about all this, I can't resist at least mentioning the thought that the differences between the communicative styles of female and male fado singers reveal a distinct gender structure which seems to seamlessly perpetuate the hierarchy of the genders still so paradigmatic in so many, not to say virtually all, human societies other than the tiny handful of matriarchal societies which still exist, outside the so-called developed world.
The iconic status of Amália has led a putatively serious CD producer to commit an amazing crime of anachronism. The CD Amália Rodrigues - The First Recordings (EPM musique, EPM/ADES ADE797, first published in 1996 and still for sale on Amazon as of 14/10 2017) is on a label started in 1986 by the former president of French RCA. The first track opens with 15 seconds of concert applause, wherewith it continues with a pasted-in pirated transfer of a 1928 (!) instrumental recording by Armandinho, Fado Estoril, concluded with more pasted-in applause. Amália was of course eight years old in October 1928 and would not record until she was 25! In the same CD, three more of Armandinho's instrumental recordings, two more from 1928 and one from 1944, are interspersed with transfers of what are, in truth, those first 16 sides recorded by Amália in Brazil in 1945. The 1944 Armandinho recording is falsely named Fado do Ciúme (Jealousy Fado) - a mistake clearly culled from the first reissue of that side by Heritage in 1992, where the two pieces Ciganita (recorded in 1944) and Fado do Ciúme (recorded two years later) had their titles exchanged. This title mistake continues to be repeated today in the Tradisom issues, and even on a double CD issued in 1998 by the ambitious French label Fremeaux Frères, 16 of whose 36 tracks would appear to have been culled from the Heritage series. Adding insult to injury, the French CD follows Armandinho's Ciganita, wrongly named Fado do Ciúme, with Amália's vocal rendering of the real Fado do Ciúme, which ought to have been perceived by the compiler as being sung to a quite different melody from the preceding instrumental track! So much for historical and documentational exactitude in fado discography.
Furthermore we have the problem of the genre as a discursive phenomenon. While the concept of genres is perhaps of an older date than the historical period of commodification in which we live, the birth of the recording industry has arguably contributed, or at least consolidated, one more need to create genres as a means of classifying commodified music - the simple need to order records on shelves, and in catalogues, to enable both shops and customers to orientate themselves in the enormous ocean of purchasables. The Portuguese-Egyptian ethnomusicologist Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco offers this succinct introductory paragraph to her essay on the politics of music categorisation in Portugal:
In today's world of commercially viable music, the tiny country of Portugal is only known outside its boundaries for one kind of music - fado. The fact is, that just as in very many countries today, there are surviving local traditions of rural folk music, an art music tradition, a pop and rock tradition in a broad sense, and, not least in Portugal's case, a tradition of playing music on the guitarra portuguesa quite distinct from the fado tradition. These facts, more or less self-evident to a Portuguese, are non-starters for an international public. So for a Portuguese musician who would like to establish a career which takes her or him outside the home country, calling one's music fado is basically the only viable alternative. That is my tentative explanation for why some of the music performed and sold today as fado really has almost nothing to do with fado as a recognisable stream of musical development from 1830 to now, that stream which has been defined by UNESCO as an 'Intangible Cultural Heritage'. Fado today has instead become what Naomi Klein would term a brand. To perhaps overstate the case, while I would insist that there is much truth in my exaggeration, what the contemporary Portuguese music business is often doing, is trying to sell a conglomeration of what is basically a kind of pop music under the brand name of fado.
Summing up - if one listens to fado recordings from the 78 rpm era and compares with those of the post-WWII era, the major difference seems to me to be a combination of this perverting acoustic ideal and the effect of Amália Rodrigues' personal style. This is perhaps well-captured in the sleeve of Amália's 1962 LP recording (33SX1440), which is occupied by a b/w photo of a portrait sculpture of the singer, a manifestly mythopoetic image. Accompanied here by a single guitarra and a single viola, while I am struck by the irresistible intensity of her pathos, which is quite unlike any other fado singers I have heard on record, yet the artificial reverberation seems to seek to transform her communication from drama to melodrama. It is this melodrama which seems then to have become paradigmatic for subsequent generations of 'Queens of Fado' who thus risk simply becoming wannabe Amália clones, and who are hyped in their blurbs in terms of their intense (but unspecified) emotionality.
This article has concerned itself almost exclusively with Lisbon fado, to the exclusion of the Coimbra style, which inhabits a totally different territory - that of an ancient university town and its student serenading traditions - which merits an account all of its own which will not be included here. The deeper-sounding Coimbra guitarra, as developed in Coimbra and Porto in the late 19th century, and refined between the '30s and '50s by Artur Paredes in collaboration with his luthiers, is slightly larger, slightly differently built, and tuned a whole tone lower than the Lisbon guitarra, and has nowadays become the preferred instrument of many Lisbon guitarists.
Artur Paredes8 (1899-1980), today perhaps the most well-known, but not necessarily the most interesting of the early Coimbra guitarists, recorded ten fine 78 rpm sides in the late 1920s, and made numbers of recordings, both formal and informal, during the vinyl era, including some duets with his famous son Carlos Paredes (1925-2004). Compared to the playing of his contemporaries, irrespective of his musicianship and creativity, Arthur Paredes' expression seems to my ears to be driven by a kind of rage, which I can't resist associating with the family tragedy of 1915 when he was only 16, when his father shot his stepmother and then killed himself. This incipient rage, which I hear expressed in an extremely hard attack and an insistent vibrato of an entirely different character to Armandinho's vibrato, seems to me also to permeate most of the playing of Carlos the son, whose style then became paradigmatic for the Coimbra guitarra. Here are two examples of Coimbra style - first Carlos Paredes playing Despertar in 1964, an example of the 'aggressive' attack, followed by Anthero Da Veiga playing Fado Melódico in 1929, quite clearly with a gentler approach. So I hypothesise that Arthur Paredes' rage, and/or desperate grief, came to characterise his physical relationship to his instrument, such that his music was always more or less imbued with those emotions, and that this, in its turn, infected his son's 'musicking'. So here perhaps one could speculate on the role of actual events in particular human lives in modulating tradition.
That these speculations aren't entirely the products of this writer's fertile imagination is beautifully evidenced in the notes to Carlos Paredes' first full-length LP, where we may read the following quote from Amália's composer and pianist Alain Oulman:
Now to compare with Greece, where rebetika has not been lobbied to UNESCO until this year, and where it doesn't top any Google music search as a tourist trap. In September 2003, when the rebetika revival had been going on for some thirty years, Greek enthusiasts in Crete created an independent rebetiko-oriented website in the form of a web forum in which members were able to upload transfers of 78 rpm recordings. These transfers were then made accessible and searchable in a well-organised manner, and each donor had the opportunity of contributing informative text and discographical information about each recording. The forum chat space allowed for extensive discussion of both uploaded songs and other rebetiko-related themes, in the manner of most such forums. This forum still exists and works even if, sadly, unnecessary system updates and rebuilding have lately rendered it much more difficult to navigate. After a struggle with the Greek copyright authorities which threatened to close down the site, the original option of downloading the files was strictly limited to a small proportion of the thousands of uploaded songs, but all the music can still be listened to. To compare with the Museu do Fado archive: the sound quality of the Greek site is variable, and certainly not consistently optimal, but generally speaking members have not misused digital 'cleaning' software to the same extent as the Portuguese online archive, and I've never heard anything as abysmally sloppy as the worst of the Portuguese archive, for the obvious reason that the Greek moderator(s) clearly care about what is being offered to the community and would be shouted down if they did allow files of such awful quality to slip through. And none of this is done on 'public' taxpayer money. When I contacted those responsible for the fado archive on the matter of defective uploaded audio files last year, offering to help, (for free) I received no response whatsoever.
There is one significant factor which must in all fairness be mentioned here, and which in part explains the rich source of material available on the Greek forum. In Greece the reissuing of large quantities of 78 rpm recordings, not only of rebetika but of other kinds of popular and traditional music, began in earnest during the early 1970s, and has continued unabated to this day, so that a sizeable proportion of the over 25,000 78 rpm recordings of Greek music has been made available on LP, cassette and CD. The sound quality of reissues has varied, from superb in a few cases to acceptable in a considerable proportion, but occasionally less than so; during the last few years, an ambitious series of lushly packaged but unfortunately destructively over-cleaned Greek reissues has appeared. I would dare to assert that since the advent of CDs, the best-sounding reissues of Greek 78 rpm material have with few exceptions been produced outside Greece, and these have often been well-annotated, in contrast to most Greek-produced reissues. In the forum I have described, it must be admitted that a sizeable proportion of the uploaded material was taken from extant reissues, even if much was also contributed directly from private 78 rpm collections. The knotty question of copyright on material which is more than 70 years old will not be discussed here, more than to point out that the Greek forum is truly an idealist project with no intrusive advertising or begging for financial contributions, unlike thousands of putatively idealist music blogs, not to speak of YouTube.
In the case of Portugal, there was, as far as I know, no significant corresponding reissue activity until well into the CD era, when Tradisom started up its reissue line in the mid-1990s in association with the British Heritage label which actually provided Tradisom with all the material for its first six CDs. I do have one touristy LP of acceptable transfers of post-war fado 78s recorded between 1947-1952, issued by Capitol in the 1950s. Some LP reissues of the Coimbra singer António Menano appeared in the 1980s. Beyond these I have yet to stumble on any examples of Portuguese 78 rpm reissues in the vinyl era. Since the first Heritage-Tradisom set arrived 20-25 years ago, there has been relatively little further Portuguese 78 rpm material reissued in comparison with the Greek situation, although there has been a considerable CD reissue activity of post-war material from the vinyl era. The Tradisom label has issued at most about 30 sets, both of early fado and other early recordings, which are mostly only available as mp3 downloads; the quality of these is variable, and information noticeably absent. There has admittedly been a considerable amount of shameless pirating of extant reissues by various more or less shady non-Portuguese labels, but the actual amount of early material available has remained very limited. This situation must reasonably be understood on the basis of 'demand and supply'. It would appear that there has never been such relatively widespread grass-roots enthusiasm for early recordings in Portugal as there was, and still is, in Greece. This I take to be an expression of differing kinds of historical consciousness in the two countries. The pure musical quality of many 1920s and 1930s Portuguese recordings ought to be able to inspire a similar interest and enthusiasm as has been evinced for early blues, jazz, tango, and rebetika, but it hasn't.
In some countries where 78 rpm reissue activities have taken place, there have been tiny handfuls of enthusiasts who have learned what it takes to make decent transfers of 78s. They have often done a much better job of this than the big companies - witness, for example, the magnificent Yazoo LPs of the '60s and '70s compared to the sound on the first early 1960s Columbia LP reissues of Robert Johnson, or witness the massacre of Bessie Smith by CBS on LP and compare that to the Frog Records series remastered by the late J R T Davies. Portugal seems to be a desert in this respect. The above-mentioned Tradisom reissues subsequent to the Heritage set, which are mostly just issued in mp3 format, are of varying, often inferior audio quality, and have clearly not been remastered with expertise, not to speak of tender loving care. And - when not even the most centrally placed and obviously morally responsible institution, in this case the Museu do Fado, has taken the trouble to get the equipment and teach people how to use it - one has good reason to rant as I have allowed myself to do here. To my mind the Greeks, in their 'indie' operation, have put the Portuguese to shame.
I will leave the reader who has honoured me by reading this far with the news that while fado has been on the UNESCO list since 2011, rebetika was nominated this year and was in fact inducted as recently as a week and a half prior to the publication of this article. And with the suggestion that one continue to ponder on how these musical forms are regarded in the official discourse, compared to what they actually can be seen to have been in the past, and to be today.
I am deeply grateful to my friend and collaborator Pedro Jorge for sharing with me his unique treasury of knowledge on the early Portuguese guitar and its exponents, and on early fado in general, in countless emails and during an enjoyable week in Lisbon earlier this year; also for helping me to acquire some rare 78rpm discs and recordings, and for helping me with proof-reading, orthography and translations, and discussions of knotty points. All opinions expressed here are entirely my own.
Tony Klein - 20.12.17
2. According to Pedro Jorge there are manuscripts in Coimbra probably dating from the first half of the 18th century, allegedly written for fado tuning; Pedro hasn't actually had the chance to see them yet. The first (anonymous) method published in 1875 (not to be confused with Maia's method from the same year mentioned in the note below) mentions the fado tuning as the most popular tuning.
3. A F Maia & D L Vieira - Apontamentos para um Méthodo de guitarra (Lisbon, Lallemant Frères, 1875).
4. It is undeniable that the observations I discuss here apply virtually exclusively to female singers. This in itself opens up a huge and important territory which I will leave unexplored in this essay. The question which I will leave hanging in the air being: are there things to be understood here through fado's current forms and styles of expression, which tell us things about the relation between women and men in Portuguese society, and about the ongoing processes of emancipation of women (and men?)
5. Quoted from: The Cambridge History of World Music (CUP 2013) p.661.
6. For the curious reader, here are translations of the passages in question:
Pp.16-17: Music woven on a guitarra is more touching than those beautiful dramas unfolded on ungrateful pianos and sentimental barrel organs. The chords of the guitarra penetrate with a victorious sweetness the viscera that move the blood, they are nostalgic like the inflections of beloved voices, that the phonograph reproduces though they are departed; they awaken in us the saddest, most pungent and most gentle of all the thoughts - those of the past.
Pp.175: We now come to a famous singer, a worthy follower of the great traditions of Severa and Custodia - Cesaria, or the Woman of Alcantara. This girl was working in a factory in Alcantara and was living with a fadista. She had a pleasant voice and a well-filled bookshop, that is, hundreds of verses were stored like a phonograph in her memory, verses which then sprang from her coral lips in uninterrupted expectorations. Once, while she was singing in a restaurant in Alcantara, a group of friends entered, fado lovers, a group that was made up of Cesario Salles, a stone-cutter, Moraes Nautico, a piloting instructor, and João Muzanti, who had driven a carriage on travessa da Palha and then drove an omnibus to Belem.
7. Greek rebetika, on the other hand, did not became a saleable commodity under that name until the 1970s, although some of the various kinds of music now incorporated in that blanket term had existed by that time among Greek-speaking populations for at least a century if not more.
8. or Arthur - his name is found on record labels in both spellings.
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