Finding Fado

Behind the wheel of my blue jalopy, I insert a cd and crank up the volume. What comes through my speakers is not the raspy vocals by AC/DC, nor Adele warbling "hellooo". The melodies that surround this driver are foreign. And it takes me back to earlier in the summer when I journeyed with family to Pink Street, Lisbon. A pedestrian walkway filled with bars, open-air cafes, clubs and people seeking supper and some late night entertainment.

We were seated at a round table in a small bar. The chairs were oriented towards a makeshift stage adorned with dark backdrop, lit minimally by two floodlights. Grazing on salad with a glass of Sagres, it wasn’t long before an attractive young woman took the podium. After a brief introduction in Portuguese, she went straight into her playlist. Two male musicians with acoustic instruments accompanied her pipes. One of the strum instruments, a Portuguese guitar, looked and sounded like a hybrid between a mandolin and Spanish guitar, producing trills reminiscent of reverberating vocal chords.

Unfortunately I didn’t speak the local language, so I could only guess what was going on with the lyrics. The songstress who I will call Maria would raise her head to the heavens and pucker her lips like rose petals about to blossom. She would produce high notes, a longing howl, penetrating the darkness and piercing the moon. Her angelic face expressed heartbreak and her eyes demonstrated sorrow.

This was the music of Fado. The Portuguese traditional music of sob songs and melancholy melody. My salad wilted and my beer went flat, but overall, it was a beautiful experience. Again, I could only speculate what Maria was singing about, so I fantasized and recalled the sights and sensations that we encountered on our travels throughout Lisbon and the surrounding towns.

Chords would rise and fall, crescendo and turn soft, fluctuating tones, a patchwork much like the cobble-stoned streets of old Lisbon, revealing the grit within the mortar and the smoothness of the stones after centuries of pedestrian travel.

Maria would clasp her hands to her breast, similar to the effigies we came across in the many ancient houses of worship that faced a public square... silent witnesses of the generations of devout and sometimes revolutionary acts displayed by the masses.

Some of her lyrics sounded slightly more lively, expressing the desire for joy and play, reminding me of Pena Palace overlooking the town of Sintra, with its maze-like corridors, colourful walls and ornate turrets. Another recollection was the less-than-sober atmosphere of crowds sipping sherry served from within a wall in Santa Justa.

Emotional cries of the fado singer provoked feelings of grief and tragedy. I recollected the history and the lives lost at Praca do Giraldo, formerly a centre for execution in Evora, now a public square where modern-day tourists haunt. 

This was my initiation to a genre that I came to realize was the building blocks to the music of "kroncong", a style of music in my motherland of Indonesia. The Portuguese once colonized a sliver of territory there, and implanted an art-form that I grew to appreciate.

I reach my destination and cut the engine. I am enveloped in silence and I think about Maria. A vision of her crosses my mind as she steps down from her stage and the sadness is over. She is beaming in happiness again.

September 2016

© Prakoso Sastrowardoyo 2012