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The Hymn of Lisbon

By Carol Wright

Portugal’s capital city of blues from the ubiquitous blue tiling adorning buildings to fado, the soulful music and song performed in the warm evenings in rather secluded and secretive fado houses are the soul of the thriving city

he mournful songs known as fado are the blues of Portugal’s capital Lisbon. Fado means ‘fate’ and saudade; a kind of hopeless melancholy fills the lyrics - rarely written down - and themes. Love, usually hopeless, is woven with the sadness of the lonely life at sea and parting. In 2011, fado was awarded UNESCOs ‘intangible heritage of humanity’ status.

The songs sung without microphones and to a silent audience are essentially emotional and the voices to be good need to be ‘wine voices’; deep, throaty, throbbing; a wail of pain reflecting the sadness of life. The beauty of the performer is in the voice not the face. Livelier are the fado songs in praise of Lisbon often sung during the June city festivals and parades. June in Alfama is the most romantic time to hear fado when performers backed by guitarists sing on the steep steps that stitch the hilly streets together.

The origins of fado are obscure; perhaps Moorish since classical fado has a slow, more African, throb or it derived from lovesick and homesick sailors at sea. Either way, it is best heard in the originally Moorish areas of Lisbon: Alfama and neighbouring Mouraria separated by the steep hill that supports Lisbon’s iconic building the Castelo Sao Jorge.

Though fado houses can now be found in many parts of the city, Mouraria was where fado was born. It was home to the singer Severa; the original 18th century fadista and the mistress of the Marques de Marialua who gave Lisbon the term ‘Marialuism’ to describe a swaggering macho pride. Severa lived in a little house on Rua do Capelao in Mouraria where visitors inside and in the street outside stand and listen to the songs she sang. The walls of Rua do Capelao are a permanent gallery of leading fado singers whose photos have been literally printed on the wall. Fado fascinates and is a flexible music genre; it is the magic of the so called ‘wine voice’ issuing from a woman who is not a stereotyped modern beauty who holds hushed attention by her voice, the accompaniment of two Portuguese guitars, 12 stringed and lute shaped, the guitarists not always aware of what the next song will be until the singer starts, the neat business-suited middle-aged man who produces passionate notes that overcome language barriers.

Good places to get one’s ear in are Clube do Fado in Alfama owned by Mario Pacheca, a Portuguese guitar player who played with the famed Amalia Rodrigues who brought fado to international attention. O Faia in Bairro Alto, owned by a singer, has an intimate feel in the stone arched room where singers like Lenita Gentil and Antonio Rocha perform. In Mouraria many of the small restaurants and bars like Bar Anos 60 offer fado.

To learn the history, lyrics and instruments of fado, the modern Fado Museum on Largo do Chafariz de Dentro by the river Tagus guides the visitor gently at his or her own pace with excellent audio guides and plenty of interactive opportunities to sit and listen to favourite fado singers and players. All that throaty singing arouses a thirst and a pleasant place for a drink or meal is A Travessa do Fado at the museum for tapas style sharing dishes; garlic prawns, asparagus in light bater, stews, and black pork with baby beans go well with a glass of vinho verde. Late afternoon one may be serenaded by guitarists.

Mouraria is one of the oldest Lisbon districts, which became a Moorish settlement after their defeat in the siege of Lisbon in 1147 during the second crusade. Gradually immigrants from former Portuguese colonies followed them into this labyrinth of snaking, umbrella wide alleys and mini-squares slithering downhill from the horizon guarding Castelo de Sao Jorge. In 2008 the Renovate Mouraria ( organisation was created to revitalise and clean up the neighbourhood. It provides free information, guided themed tours - especially fado - and courses from yoga to tapestry and Portuguese language. The high balconied houses, coated with typical Portuguese azuelos tiling, are being restored as shops, apartments, galleries and ateliers given a vibrance by the multi-cultured inhabitants from India, China, Africa and Brazil. It can be reached by a canary yellow, old fashioned tram 28 that bears visitors from the central Rua Dom Duarte up to Castelo de Sao Jorge dating back to the fifth century that was a royal residence for a thousand years, was destroyed in Lisbon’s great earthquake of 1755 and now is the place to oversee the city from its ramparts and gardens of lime trees and cypress among which peacocks strut.

Below the castle, new look Mouraria starts at the large open space named Martim Moniz; a sunny sweep of tables, parasols, the setting of cultural events and street markets. Stalls showing Mouraria’s diverse ethnic makeup edge the square offering everything from curries to Brazilian grills. The cultural mix comes together in the bustle of the multi-storey Centro Commercial where tiny shops are crammed with goods like the Indian Popat where Lisbon’s foodies buy their spices.

Mouraria offers an increasing number of small but characterful cafes, bars, tasquinhas - small inexpensive bistro like eateries - and restaurants. Tavern crawls are organised to experience different cultures; visitors can listen to morna from Cape Verde while drinking a ginjinha cherry brandy, take in some fado with a Goan sarapatel, a samba with Brazilian prawn muqueca. O Fornodo Alfarrabister specialises in bean soup and Saturday evening fado, Tentoaçes de Goa in Goan food, Restaurante Paquistanes in tandoori chicken. And in the slim streets on warm spring evenings one can often hear the plaintive wail of fado.

Musical genre
Maria Severa Onofriana, also known simply as A Severa, was a Portuguese fado singer and guitarist. She is regarded as the first fado singer to have risen to fame in her short life, attaining a near-mythical status after her death. The singer of fado (literally, “fate”) speaks to the often harsh realities of everyday life, sometimes with a sense of resignation, sometimes with the hope of resolution.


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