Saturday, 29 August 2015


Portugal's main contribution to "world music" is the mournful, black-clad genre known as fado.  At its best, fado is one of those profound musical expressions that seem to plumb the depths of human emotion; at its worst, it is like being force-fed a diet of Mariah Carey.  You really have to be in the right mood.

The appropriate mood is saudade, one of those defiantly untranslatable words that define a culture, but loosely defined as
A deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.  A stronger form of saudade might be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing, moved away, separated, or died. (Wikipedia)
The definitive possessor of saudade and singer of fado is generally said to be the wife of a Portuguese sailor, long absent at sea, and possibly sleeping with the fishes (the husband, that is, not the wife).

One of our hosts' friends in Lisbon was a photographer and academic, who was a fado aficionado.  He recommended to us a late-night joint where the Real Thing would be performed, as opposed to the touristic simulacrum.  But, after a few days of incessant and inescapable fado muzak wherever we went, the profound melancholic longing I was feeling was, simply, not to have to hear any more soulful wailing, however authentic, and we didn't go; something I now regret.  Maybe next time.

Crows, obviously, love fado.

As it happens, I did have a moment of saudade myself in Lisbon.  We were walking through the steep, cobbled streets of the Alfama district, when I heard a familiar tune drifting from a doorway.  I stopped to listen, and let the others wander on; they're very used to my stop-start progress.  It was a fado-ized version of "Case of You" by Joni Mitchell.*  Now, that song will floor me at the best of times, but leaning there in the deep shadow of a doorway on a street of a foreign capital, watching the world drift by in the sunshine, it transfixed me.  As I listened, I became acutely aware of the forty-plus years that had passed since I first ventured into Europe and since I first heard the album Blue (the two are closely linked in my mind) and recalled all the sadnesses and losses along the way; I also thought of Joni Mitchell's recent brush with death, and the Ten Thousand Things you think of in such wistful moments. Above all, I longed to be twenty again.

Then the song finished and faded out, the street noise faded back up, and I felt somehow renewed, and -- to my surprise -- intensely happy.  Mainly, I realised, I was very happy not to be twenty again.  Very happy indeed.  Much as I'd enjoyed a brief excursion into a deep blue "emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone", it was good to be back.  Now, where'd everybody go?

* Almost certainly this version by Ana Moura.

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