How the humble songs of the fadistas captures the world's imagination
The sun sets on Alfama's tortuous streets and alleyways, enveloping the tiled facades in golden light. Inside an old building, within the white walls of a stoned-floored Casa de Fado, the clinking of cutlery rises in the air with the scent of codfish and grilled sardines. As each table raises their glasses in consecutive toasts, an enthusiastic chatter fills the room; then, the lights dim and the audience falls into muted anticipation. A Portuguese guitar player breaks the silence, strumming the chords with nimble fingers, and soon a deep-voiced singer is pouring lyrics from her heart. As the night goes on and the candles burn low, the audience abandon themselves to the voice, enraptured by shivering guitars.
Born in the early nineteenth century in rooms alike across the old neighbourhoods of Lisbon, fado is simultaneously a voice of the quotidian and a desperate cry of love. The journal of those who couldn't write or read, fado emerged as a melodic narration of daily joys and sorrows, allowing each member of the community to let go of their emotions without too much disclosure. Initially rejected by society for its humble origins, perfectly embodied in Severa - a prostitute/singer whose legend gave birth to songs, vaudevilles, novels, and the first Portuguese sound film - the public image of fado changed to the extent that it was endorsed by the dictatorship for international propaganda in the fifties. Following a golden age that spanned decades and gave the world the first internationally acclaimed fadista, Amália, fado braved the turn of the millennium with a tired image.
"At the time, no record company wanted to sign a fado artist", recalls Mariza, "they just didn't sell". Born in Mozambique and raised in Lisbon's old district of Mouraria, Mariza sang as soon as she could speak, and her debut album made waves from the get-go, in 2001, leading the way in shifting perceptions of contemporary fado. "I would go to schools to talk about fado's history, and kids would frown until I told them how this genre was born out of gangsters, tattooed sailors and the like. It was a sort of nineteenth-century hip-hop", Mariza laughs. With a career marked by performances in the world's greatest concert halls, Mariza forged her own path, playing on the influences of her African heritage, and collaborating with musicians as diverse as Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Gilberto Gil and Cesária Évora.