By Anton Garcia-Fernandez.
Saying that Alfredo Marceneiro is one of the most important figures in the history of fado is a vast understatement. His grandson, Vítor Duarte, comes much closer to the truth when he describes him as “the essence of fado” (1). Indeed, Marceneiro was one of the first performers to appear in theaters and concert halls, paying special attention to his clothing and stage persona, thereby contributing to the incipient professionalization of fadistas in the 1920s and bringing the style into the modern age. He was also an accomplished songwriter who wrote the music for most of his fados, creating a repertoire all his own that suited his extremely personal style and that has become a blueprint for classic fado.
Always looking for a trademark that would make him stand out, Marceneiro was the first fadista to stand up in front of his musicians while singing and to perform by candlelight, creating a very intimate, almost mystic atmosphere. His singing style was quickly recognizable, and his husky voice always shone on slow numbers drenched with sadness and saudade. “The most important thing in fado is not one’s voice,” he once said, “but rather the ability to speak out the words” (2). And that was something at which Marceneiro clearly excelled.
He was born Alfredo Rodrigo Duarte in 1891 in the parish of Santa Isabel in Lisbon, where his parents had arrived in the hope of achieving the economic prosperity that had hitherto proved elusive. The young Alfredo was interested in acting from a very early age, but very soon he began to concentrate on singing, an activity that he conjugated with his job as a carpenter. As was very common among fadistas around the turn of the twentieth century, his profession would earn him the nickname “Marceneiro” (meaning carpenter in Portuguese), which stuck throughout his extensive career. Very adept at improvising lyrics, during these early years he built a solid reputation both as a very original performer and as a songwriter. His success would earn him a recording contract, and in 1930, he cut his first records for Valentim de Carvalho, which have now become historical items highly coveted by fado collectors. Despite the fact that his records were always very well received by fans and critics alike, Marceneiro was more of a live performer and much preferred to stand up and perform in front of an audience.
Although carpentry remained a lifelong passion, Marceneiro quit his job as a carpenter in 1950 in order to become a professional fadista. Over the years he had built a vast repertoire of self-penned tunes whose lyrics had been provided by great fado lyricists such as Silva Tavares, Armando Neves, João Linhares Barbosa, and Gabriel de Oliveira. Always concerned with the sound of his music, Marceneiro required professionality of his musicians, and he was usually accompanied by some of the best guitarists in Portugal, legendary names like Armandinho, Jaime Santos, Fontes Rocha, and Raul Nery.
His popularity transcended his home country, and throughout his life he constantly received booking offers coming from abroad, especially from Brazil. All of these he turned down, choosing to sing at Lisbon fado houses for his friends and his countless admirers. Though he did appear in many different parts of Portugal, it was in Lisbon that he really felt at home, and there, among his people, whenever he was coaxed to stand up and sing a few songs, he always obliged happily and with an air of seriousness on his face. It was a ritual held regularly almost up until his death, a ritual that he enjoyed to such an extent that he could not conceive life without singing fado.
Alfredo Marceneiro passed away in Lisbon in 1982, surrounded by his wife Judite, his family, and his friends. He was 91, and despite the fact that he hardly ever left his beloved homeland, he had lived a very full life, a life entirely devoted to fado. He was undoubtedly the greatest songwriter in classic fado, and his recorded legacy includes unforgettable gems such as “Senhora do Monte,” “Eu Lembro-me de Ti,” “Há Festa na Mouraria,” “A Minha Freguesia,” and “A Casa da Mariquinhas,” among dozens of others. Marceneiro is an inescapable figure in the history of fado: his name will forever be synonymous with the style, and fadistas everywhere will always be indebted to him for his unparalleled contributions to fado.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank my friends Ofélia Pereira and Vítor Duarte, the grandson of Alfredo Marceneiro, for all their help in the preparation of this article.
Links: For more on Alfredo Marceneiro in Portuguese, visit Fadocravo - Alfredo Marceneiro: A Viela, where you will find pictures, lyrics, and a video. The blog Lisboa No Guinness, published by Marceneiro's grandson, also features a great deal of information on this great fadista.
(1) In a letter to the author, February 4, 2009.
(2) Quoted in Eduardo Sucena. Lisboa, o fado e os fadistas. Lisbon: Edições Vega, 1992: 240.