Sunday, May 28, 2017

On a Binge - Fado


I'm not a binge TV-watcher--not much of a TV watcher at all--and I keep my drinking strictly under control—for the most part.

But the other night I became a binge-listener.

Looking back on that wild night, it strikes me that the causes—in so far as causality can have any bearing on the exuberance and spontaneity of human behavior—were three.

1) A few days earlier a friend had come over for dinner, and I was trying to describe the part that standards from the Big Band Era play in my new book, All the Things You Are. This reminded him of the recent string of albums that Bob Dylan released consisting entirely of such tunes. He's a big fan of those discs. The next morning I drove down to the library and checked out a copy of Shadows in the Night. I liked it. Dylan's craggy voice and droll phrasing were perfect for a tune like "I'm a Fool to Love You."

2) The next night we were having dinner at the house of some musician-friends who are going to the Azores soon. Naturally the conversation turned to that old-fashioned  Portuguese folk-form, fado. There is no way that anyone can fully explain or describe the "saudade" that lies at the root of fado's melancholy charm, but many have tried. Our host pulled up this description on his phone and read it out to us as we sat on the porch under the stars :
Saudade is ‘the sorrow of not having enjoyed that which was there to be enjoyed; it is the vehement but resigned desire to enjoy a thing we were deeply attached to; and also the yearning to see, or be in the company of, someone from whom we have reluctantly been parted’.    
3) The third and undoubtedly least significant causal element may have been the glass of wine from the Dāo region of central Portugal that I poured myself the following night while I was sautéing the onions for an egg pie. I put a CD by Christina Branca that I hadn't heard in years on the stereo while I was cooking.  It fit the mood of the moment.

Next up on the queue was Sylvia McNair singing the songs of Jerome Kern, but that seemed a little frantic and artificial after what we'd just been listening to. "Why don't we put on some more fado?" Hilary said. And thus the binge began.

In the course of the evening we listened to every fado record we own from start to finish. Six albums: that isn't such a big deal. After Christina Branca we went with Ana Moura, and then Mariza. After that it was Amália Rodrigues, the undisputed queen of fado for thirty years and more back in the WWII era. A second CD by Branco, and a wrap-up with Mariza.


Six hours of unrelenting melancholy, mostly transmitted by nothing more than a bass, a woman's voice, and a Portuguese guitar. Occasionally a guitar would also appear, but neither orchestral nor electronic sounds intruded. There were no drums. Branca's tunes sometimes seemed to be drifting into pop, and Mariza'a albums had an occasional cello or muted trumpet, but things never got out of hand.

And I ought to add that unlike American blues, which can become dreary, fado usually has a lilt (hence the accuracy of the description quoted above: resigned but vehement. And it also has another quality that's as important to it as the bent guitar note is to blues: an ornamental catch in the throat near the end of a line, like an extra squeeze of the heart.

The lyrics tend to be simple, to judge from the ones Hilary read to me from the liner notes occasionally during the course of the evening.

“Last Sunday I passed by the house where Mariquinhas once lived, but everything is so changed that I didn’t see anywhere the famous windows...I saw nothing that could remind me of her.”

“The old women in the beach say you’re not coming back. They’re mad! I know, my love, that you never really left, everything around me says you’re still here with me.”

In the same way that flamenco vocals thrive on a fierce, coarse, open-voiced singing style (the rajo gitano), fado draws much of its appeal from the purity and focused intensity of the singer's voice, as well as the crispness with which even the most long and mournful notes are terminated. Thus fado is typically melancholy but seldom maudlin, and the rapid-fire picking of the mandolin player (a Portuguese guitar is basically a mandolin) also tempers the prevailing mood.

Anyone who wants to learn more might find the website The Place of Longing interesting. Better yet, make a stop at iTunes and sample a few numbers. 

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