By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fado : Sorrowful Songs

Ever since I came down to live in my home-city Chennai in South India a few years ago, after having lived in New Delhi, the cosmopolitan Capital of India, for 32 years almost continuously (except for a break of four years from 1979), my whole musical environment and experience have been altered convulsively.

There are two diametrically opposite reasons for such a dramatic change of atmosphere from the Capital's:  (a) Madras-turned-Chennai is not only my home-city but also that of Carnatic music, which overflows here; and (b) Western music tends to trickle in a very anaemic stream, with far thinner audiences and far fewer organizers than in New Delhi, rarely featuring distinguished visiting musicians from abroad.

Luckily, in the past few years The Hindu has developed a superb online edition which attracts a lot of readers abroad, so I still have an incentive to explain and analyze fundamental aspects of foreign music also from time to time.  The following extract from a couple of successive essays on Portugal's musical ethos is a good example.

The Hindu, Chennai

13/27 June 2008

.... Whenever we talk about folk music traditions prevailing anywhere in the world, we normally tend to visualise only rural settings and vibrant pictures of village life. That’s no doubt a universal scenario, but there are also isolated cases of urban folk music traditions, which are inspired by the common historic concerns of people living in large cities.

A flourishing example of this can be found in the traditional music known as Fado in Portugal, which had evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly in the capital city Lisbon, and also in a university region called Coimbra. It projects a uniquely nostalgic vision of urban sea-shore life, and is defined by the Collins Portuguese Dictionary as follows:

“The best-known musical form in Portugal is the melancholic Fado, which is traditionally sung by a soloist (known as fadista) accompanied by the Portuguese ‘guitarra.’ The theme is nearly always one of deep nostalgia known as ‘saudade’ and the harsh reality of life.”

I had discovered the universally appealing character of Fado more than 50 years ago, thanks to the broadcasts of Radio Goa [in India]. And after losing touch with it for a very long time, I have now discovered it all over again, thanks to the Internet....

Half a century has elapsed between these two phases of my life, and a distance of oceanic dimensions separates the technological, economic, social, and cultural manifestations of life then and now all over the world. And yet my memories of the traditional Fado I had heard when I was a young student aren’t substantially different from the impressions of current trends which I obtain today as a senior citizen.

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I had developed a keen interest in European languages and Western music in my college days long before I learnt Hindi or discovered the true glory of Carnatic music, thanks mainly to an amazingly efficient six-valve HMV radio receiver made in England which my father had bought just before the Second World War.

Throughout the 1950s, I used to spend long sleepless nights listening to crystal-clear short-wave broadcasts from almost every capital city in Europe. For some mysterious reason, I could never receive any broadcast from Portugal; but that omission was made good by Radio Goa’s short but regular programmes of Portuguese music, especially Fado (pronounced Fadu, rhyming with Sadhu).
Those were days when long-playing records and tape-recorders were still far too expensive and unfamiliar, and I had to listen to the radio with absolutely intense concentration so as to register whatever I heard permanently in my memory. That’s probably why I still have so many vivid impressions of the kind of music I used to hear so long ago!

Of course, in some cases a far more important reason for such a strong impact was the tremendous power inherent in the music itself. I did acquire a smattering of Portuguese in due course, but even before that I was quite fascinated by the distinctly sorrowful tone of Fado, which could pierce your heart sometimes.

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This urban folk music tradition had acquired certain intensely nostalgic undertones because it had evolved during the 19th century mainly in certain proletarian districts of Lisbon where there was a concentration of home-sick immigrants from Portugal’s far-flung colonies in Africa and South America, and also families and lovers of sailors who were usually absent and were sometimes missing altogether.

For more than a half-century from around 1940 to the mid-90s, the Fado scene was dominated by Amalia Rodrigues, who not only carried the folk art from the taverns in the poor districts of Lisbon to affluent social circles and sophisticated cultural settings, but also took it back to the grassroots level enriched with refined and poetic lyrics. Being also a beautiful actor-singer in several Portuguese films, she was mainly responsible for attracting international attention to Fado.

As in the case of old cultural traditions all over the world, there were also technical innovations in Fado in the 20th century. Thus the instrumentation, which had traditionally consisted only of a plaintive Portuguese guitar and an acoustic guitar, was extended to include the cello, piano and drums or even a whole orchestra sometimes.

But such modern trends haven’t materially altered the traditional spirit of Fado so far. Nostalgia, however, is a heavy cross to carry in cultural terms; and I do foresee an eventual shift in Fado’s ethos, from the constant contemplation of lost horizons to a hopeful quest for elusive but attainable fulfillment....

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