Monday, March 23, 2009

A Defense of Fado: Victor Machado’s Ídolos do Fado (1937)

By Anton Garcia-Fernandez.

Published in 1937, Victor Machado’s Ídolos do Fado (Idols of Fado) is still widely regarded today as one of the most important reference books on fado ever written. The work is certainly a product of its time: in the 1930s, the early years of the Salazar regime, several intellectuals and scholars debated over whether fado should be scorned as one of the vilest, basest products of Portuguese culture, or whether it should be praised for its positive qualities and the possibilities that it offered as a vehicle for the education of the masses. This debate was already current at the turn of the twentieth century, yet it reached its peak in the 1930s, with the appearance of texts that fiercely argued for one side or the other. In 1936, Luís Moita published Fado, Canção de Vencidos (Fado, Song of the Defeated), a collection of lectures broadcast on national radio in which he vilifies fado attributing all the evils of contemporary Portuguese society to the genre and its practitioners. Machado’s Ídolos do Fado was conceived as a response to Moita’s work, and although many of its arguments are as hyperbolic as Moita’s, it still comes across today as an unapologetic, heartfelt defense of the beauty of fado and its long tradition. Machado not only aims at exalting the virtues of fado, but he also offers short biographies of some of the best fado singers of the time originated in interviews that he personally conducted with them, along with the lyrics of songs with which they were associated. Therefore, beyond the specific historical context in which it was written, the work contains a wealth of first-hand information about classic fadistas and is profusely illustrated with photographs. For the purpose of this review, it will suffice to concentrate on the first three chapters of the book, which encapsulate Machado’s critical approach to his subject.

Entitled “Vencidos… não!” (“Defeated… no!”), a clear reference to the title of Moita’s work, the first chapter begins with a fiery defense of fado, leaving Machado’s agenda perfectly clear: “May those who do not feel, do not understand, or refuse to understand fado leave it alone” (11). Drawing from writings by authors such as Fontes Martins and Júlio Dantas [see picture above], Machado attempts to dissociate fado from its origins in roguery and crime, underscoring the fact that it is not popular merely among the working class, but also among the aristocracy. Machado attempts to debunk the stereotype of the fadista as a criminal, counteracting Moita’s conception of fado singers and aficionados as defeated, degenerate people: “A style of music does not create degenerates,” Machado quotes from Dantas, “but perhaps degenerates may have a predilection for this or that style” (13). Machado consciously characterizes fadistas as as honest, hard-working people who become successful by virtue of their artistry. Thus, he argues that Moita’s view, which identifies fado with all the problems that plague Portuguese society, is erroneous: fado is not the song of the defeated because such a thing does not exist. To illustrate his point, Machado includes a quotation from a 1937 newspaper article by journalist Norberto de Araujo: “There are no songs of the defeated; there are simply defeated people. There are no songs of the sick; there are only sick people” (15). In order to push his point even further, toward the end of this first chapter, Machado offers quotes from several important writers, actors, journalists, and even aristocrats praising fado and explaining why they enjoy it. Some of these present the style as the essence of Portugal, a very common practice when it comes to legitimizing fado as a valuable art form.

The second chapter of the book, entitled “Do Passado ao Presente” (“From Past to Present”), is much more dense than the previous one. In spite of its title, Machado does not mean to write here an in-depth history of fado: he does mention the foundational myth of Maria Severa, yet he prefers to concentrate on a more recent time period—the late nineteenth century—when fado is embraced by the aristocracy and gains access to the theater stage. Once again, Machado stresses the difference between fado, that is, the music, and fadistismo, a term that he uses to refer to the background of roguery and crime with which its detractors associate the genre. He praises legendary fadistas such as Augusto Hilário, Ángela Pinto, and Júlia Mendes, some of whom met with an untimely death, arguing that they died from sickness and not because of their lifestyle as fado performers. Here, Machado is concerned with dignifying, and thus, he describes the process of popularization of the Portuguese guitar around the turn of the twentieth century, stressing the importance of musicians such as João Maria dos Anjos [see picture below], who contributed to the adoption of the instrument by the aristocracy. Once more, Machado mentions that these artists do not devote their whole lives only to fado, but rather that they also “work and provide for their families honestly, and their contact with fado . . . does not turn them into people unworthy of our society” (25).

One of Machado’s most interesting arguments in this chapter, although not completely devoid of hyperbole, is that fado should be valued for its poetic qualities as some of the best Portuguese folk poetry. In this sense, he argues that poetry is inextricably linked with the Portuguese people: “We come to the conclusion that every Portuguese person is a poet. In Portugal, even the less cultivated social classes boast their own improvisers. The tenderness and the poetic sensibility that we find in many of the quatrains that spring from the inspiration of some of our folk poets do not exist in the folk poetry of other countries” (26). Machado notes that many of these poetas populares do not receive much income from their compositions, which he attributes to the fact that a great number of people either did not care to read or were illiterate. According to Machado, this fruitful poetic activity is the reason for the proliferation of publications on fado, most of which, however, were short-lived due to lack of funding and a reduced readership. Although he offers a thorough list of fado journals, Machado stresses the key role of two of them, Guitarra de Portugal and Canção do Sul, and ends this chapter by positing that all journals should have the common goal of defending fado against its many detractors.

Finally, the third chapter completes Machado’s defense of fado, focusing on the preservation of its generic identity. Like other musical styles such as the blues or country music, fado has always been highly self-referential and acutely concerned with its generic boundaries, which are established by contrast with other genres or cultural expressions. In this chapter, Machado takes the point of view of a purist who attempts to prevent fado from being contaminated by other styles. Just like Roy Acuff did not accept the use of drums on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, Machado is wary of fadistas who also sing tango, feeling that tango should not be sung alongside fado at fado houses. He takes a nostalgic look at a distant past when “the fadista was just a fadista” and “fado was sung with more affection and enthusiasm” (33). According to Machado, the staging of cegadas (short plays performed during Carnival celebrations and usually characterized by humor and social satire) at fado houses was also a threat to the integrity of fado, as was a part of the audiences that flocked to such venues simply to socialize and utter shallow comments about the music and not because they appreciated the beauty of fado. Machado dismisses this kind of audiences as “bad fado aficionados” (34) and very categorically states that perhaps they should not be granted admission into fado houses.

Despite its exaggerations and constant sententiousness, which should be understood in the light of the context in which it was written, Ídolos do Fado remains an extremely valuable piece of criticism on fado, as well as an interesting source of information on the lives, careers, and repertoires of the most important fadistas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At a moment when many intellectuals were criticizing fado for its alleged immorality and baseness, Machado attempted to put his point across in a very clear, simple manner, arguing for the beauty and poetic quality of fado and for the moral integrity of those who performed it. Unfortunately, Machado’s work is currently out of print: I have been able to use a copy of the first edition that I requested through interlibrary loan at Vanderbilt University, and I have no doubt that it is a book that definitely needs to be reissued.

Works Cited

A. Victor Machado. Ídolos do Fado. Lisbon: Tipografia Gonçalves, 1937.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Armandinho, the Wizard of the Portuguese Guitar

By Anton Garcia-Fernandez.

At a time when the Portuguese guitar was not as technically developed as it is nowadays, there appeared a man who was responsible for introducing important innovations in playing style and technique, thereby bringing the instrument into modernity. A true pioneer, Armando Augusto Freire, nicknamed Armandinho, will always be remembered as one of the best Portuguese guitar performers in fado history. His style is very lyrical and inventive, and his uncanny ability to improvise amazed audiences wherever he performed.

Born in Lisbon in 1891, Armandinho was drawn to the Portuguese guitar from an early age due to “the possibilities that it offered him in his longing for expressing his characteristic sentimentality” (1). A self-taught musician, Armandinho was deeply influenced by his admired Petrolino (2), an obscure and extravagant guitarist that is said to have performed as far afield as Czarist Russia. His first public appearance took place when he was fourteen at the Teatro das Trinas, and even back then, his style was already becoming very polished, setting him apart from most of his contemporaries. Armandinho soon became one of the most sought-after accompanists in Lisbon, and he was an integral part of many overseas tours that took him to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. In the early 1930s, he toured Madeira and the Azores Islands with Martinho d’Assunção, João da Mata, and singer Ercília Costa, and he also performed in Angola and Mozambique with singers Berta Cardoso and Madalena de Melo. Throughout his career, he accompanied many great fadistas, including Amália Rodrigues in her early years as a singer.

Armandinho was not only an extraordinarily gifted musician, but he was also a very accomplished composer. Some of the tunes that he wrote, such as “Fado Armandinho,” “Ciganita,” “Fado São Miguel,” and “Fado Mayer,” have acquired the status of standards and are still widely performed today. Although his recording career was not very prolific, he did cut some sides for HMV that are now collector’s items and that allow us to appreciate his unparalleled artistry and the magic sounds that he could produce with a Portuguese guitar in his hands.

Armandinho was a man who devoted his whole life to fado and to the Portuguese guitar. After his passing in December of 1946, when he was only 55, he became a legend, a classic, a performer to whom virtually every Portuguese guitarist is indebted. Some of his many followers include such magnificent musicians as Jaime Santos, Raúl Nery, and José Nunes. In his very nostalgic, autobiographic fado “Belos Tempos” (“Good Times”), Fernando Farinha remembers Armandinho as “that great commander,” ranking him as one of the most versatile Portuguese guitarists in the history of fado. There is no doubt that the innovations introduced by Armandinho during the first half of the twentieth century changed the Portuguese guitar forever and played a decisive role in shaping the sound of fado as we know it now. Hence, his incomparable talent and his extraordinary legacy will always live on.


(1) Eduardo Sucena. Lisboa, o Fado e os Fadistas. Lisbon: Edições Vega, 1992: 95.

(2) For more information on Petrolino in Portuguese, please visit Fadocravo - O Petrolino.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Berta Cardoso, the Fadista with a Tear in Her Voice

By Anton Garcia-Fernandez.

During the first half of the twentieth century, fado underwent many decisive changes: from its origins in the brothels and dingy taverns of Lisbon, it moved to theaters, records, radio, movies, and the typical restaurants known as fado houses. Embraced by all different social classes, from the lower social strata to the aristocracy, it shed its bad reputation and ceased to be associated with rogues and criminals. Fadistas that once were amateur singers turned professional, striving to create an image and a recognizable sound that would secure them popularity and success. Fado began to be marketed and mass produced—it became an industry, an economic as well as an artistic pursuit. Berta Cardoso not only witnessed all these modifications, but she was one of the most important figures that helped usher them in. Throughout her long and successful career, she was always one of the most prominent artists in the fado scene, making extremely popular records, receiving standing ovations wherever she performed, making memorable appearances on radio and television, and even starring in movies. Today she is duly remembered as one of the foremost names in the history of the genre.

Born Bertha dos Santos Cardoso in the Lisbon parish of Sacramento in 1911, her father died when she was only nine, and a state institution took care of her. This upbringing apart from her mother would have a decisive influence on Cardoso, who would always value the idea of family as one of the bases of her life. Although she never married, she did have two sons, and as soon as she began to earn her own money, she made sure that her mother stayed close to her. In years to come, she would turn down many an interesting contract on account of her family life, proving that she was well aware of her priorities.

Cardoso did not start performing in front of live audiences until she was sixteen: her first appearance took place at the Salão Artístico de Fados, owned by Portuguese guitar whiz Armandinho, and it marked the beginning of an extremely successful career that in time would take her to Brazil, Africa, Spain, and the Portuguese colonies. Her singing was soon celebrated by specialized publications such as Guitarra de Portugal and Canção do Sul: “Berta Cardoso,” wrote the latter in 1941, “is not merely a singer. She has great diction and stage presence. In short, she knows how to act . . . Her singing style remains rich and powerful. At times she overshadows the orchestra, and her voice fills the stage, the theater, and our soul” (1). Indeed, Cardoso’s beautiful voice and very personal singing style dazed audiences and critics alike, earning her access to the theater stage, where she cemented her popularity starring in countless revues. She was not only an amazing singer, but also a very accomplished actress, and therefore, a natural for this kind of musical theater.

Her prolific recording career started in 1931, when she traveled to Madrid to cut her first sides for Odeon, accompanied by legendary musicians such as Armandinho and Georgino de Sousa. These early records met with wide acclaim, which led to many more sessions; by the late 1930s, Cardoso had signed a much more advantageous recording contract with Valentim de Carvalho. Even in the late 1950s and 1960s, when she was making records for the lesser-known Estoril label, her music sold in respectable quantities. Her very lyrical approach to fado singing is well represented in her records, all of them magnificent examples of the high quality standards that fado had reached in those golden years that span the period from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Berta Cardoso was a regular fixture on radio throughout the 1930s and 1940s, a period of constant touring and appearances on highly successful revues. In 1940, she also performed in Feitiço do Império (The Spell of the Empire), a movie directed by António Lopes Ribeiro and meant as a propagandistic exaltation of the dictatorial government of António de Oliveira Salazar. One of the biggest productions in the history of Portuguese cinema up until that point, the film featured a whole array of great stars such as Luís de Campos, Isabela Tovar, and Francisco Ribeiro. Performances by Alfredo Duarte Marceneiro also graced the movie, which was an instant success and remained in theaters for many years.

The 1950s saw Berta Cardoso enduring difficult times: not only did her mother pass away in 1951, but her son Humberto died tragically in Mozambique in 1959. As she mourned these two important personal losses, she gradually abandoned the theater stage and concentrated on her appearances at fado houses. Television arrived in Portugal around 1957, soon becoming a powerful medium for the divulgation of fado, and of course, Cardoso was prominently featured on television shows until her definitive retirement in 1982.

From left to right: Berta Cardoso, Lina Maria Alves, Alfredo Marceneiro, and Portuguese guitarist Acácio Gomes.

Cardoso had a very acute poetic sensibility, as demonstrated by her constant concern with the quality of the lyrics of her songs. Mostly written by acclaimed fado poets such as João Linhares Barbosa, Armando Neves, Joaquim Frederico de Brito, and Luís da Silva Gouveia, her songs underwent periodic lyrical modifications: “Any artist always feels a constant need to update his or her repertoire,” she once reflected. “Of course, people still request my old hits, and so do the record companies. But that is not enough. I would not like to be accused of tiring off my audience, and so I strive to update my repertoire as much as possible” (2). These are words of wisdom spoken by a cultivated woman who understood the importance of the relationship between an artist and the audience, one of the secrets of her prolonged success.

Berta Cardoso was a witty woman, both on and offstage: she enjoyed impersonating other artists and was a hard-working professional who always knew how to please the people that flocked to see her shows. Her death in July of 1997 left us without one of the true first ladies of fado, an all-around entertainer that has become an icon of Portuguese music at large. Her voice, preserved in her numerous records for posterity, sounds as thrilling now as it did when she cut them: it still transmits a whole palette of complex feelings that range from the sadness and saudade of loss to the joy of everyday life. Berta Cardoso, that “fadista with tears in her voice” (3) undoubtedly remains one of the all-time heroines of fado.

Acknowledgments: This article would never have been possible without the kindness and cooperation of my good friend Ofélia Pereira, who knew Berta Cardoso in life and owns an impressive collection of memorabilia related to the great fadista. She graciously sent me the catalog of the exhibition Berta Cardoso, 1911-1997, held at Lisbon’s Museu do Fado in 2006, and I am indebted to her for that.

Links: For more information on Berta Cardoso, please visit Ofélia’s website BertaCardoso.Com, which contains sound clips, pictures, and biographical data both in Portuguese and English. To watch Berta Cardoso videos, please click on the following links:

Cinta Vermelha / Red Ribbon
Noite de São João / Night of St. John
Lés a Lés - one of her earliest recordings
Fado do Marinheiro / Fado of the Sailor - with Márcia Condessa and Maria Clara
Olhai a Noite / Look at the Night


(1) Canção do Sul. 19th Year, Issue 287. December 1, 1941.

(2) ”Vida artística: Berta Cardoso, uma voz que continua a ouvir-se na noite de Lisboa.” Diário de Notícias. June 23, 1973.

(3) This nickname was coined in Portugal and followed Cardoso to Brazil. See Berta Cardoso, 1911-1997. EGEAC / Museu do Fado, 2006: 30.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mariza Introduces Nashville to the Sounds of Fado at the Symphony Center

By Anton Garcia-Fernandez.

Mariza has embarked on a tour of the United States and Canada that will not be finished until May, and last night she appeared at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Accompanied by a lineup that included Portuguese guitar, piano, trumpet, classical guitar, bass, and percussion, at the end of her two-hour concert, she got a standing ovation. And deservedly so, because she put on a magnificent show: her mournful voice sang of unrequited love, fate, her childhood, and her homeland, and her backing musicians provided the perfect accompaniment. For many, it was an evening of discovery; for others (and there were definitely many Brazilian and Portuguese immigrants in the audience) it was a unique chance to enjoy the music of one of the foremost names in present-day fado.

As evidenced by most of her records, Mariza’s approach to fado singing is somewhat modern, a combination of influences culled from jazz, pop, African rhythms, and Latin American music. At times she clearly strays from traditional fado, but she has a vast knowledge about its tradition and is extremely respectful of it. Thus, she mixed songs from her latest album, Terra (“Já Me Deixou,” “Rosa Branca,” “Tasco da Mouraria,” “Vozes do Mar”), and more traditional-sounding tunes such as the Southern Portuguese air “Feira de Castro.” One of the highlights of the evening was a rhythmic, percussion-laden reading of Amália Rodrigues’s classic “Barco Negro” that had the audience on their feet.

Clad in a beautiful black dress, Mariza has a powerful, dramatic stage presence, and last night she seemed perfectly in tune with her extraordinarily gifted musicians, which added to the overall charm of the concert. She also introduced some of the songs in very good English, reminiscing about her life and instructing the audience on the meaning and long history of fado. The performance was divided into two parts by a lovely guitarrada, that is, an instrumental fado that allowed Mariza to showcase the abilities of her wonderful musicians. Toward the end of the evening, she even gave a tip of the hat to the Great American Songbook with a yearning version of “Cry Me a River,” a classic made famous by 1950s songstress Julie London. The final surprise was still to come, though: Mariza pulled up a chair and called her guitarist and her Portuguese guitarist, and together they sang a few quatrains from traditional fado songs like “Zanguei-me Com Meu Amor” and “É Tão Bom Ser Pequenino,” unplugged and with no microphone, turning the Schermerhorn into a Lisbon fado house for a few minutes. A fitting finale for a fabulous evening that will be hard to forget.

Nashville, March 10, 2009.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Joaquim Pais de Brito on the Role of Fado in the Development of the City of Lisbon

By Anton Garcia-Fernandez.

The volume Antropologia Urbana: Cultura e Sociedade no Brasil e em Portugal, edited by Gilberto Velho, includes an excellent article by Joaquim Pais de Brito entitled “O Fado: Etnografia na Cidade,” in which he attempts to outline an ethnography of the city of Lisbon by taking a look at the relationships established between fado and the urban space throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The study considers the history of Lisbon in the light of the influence of fado in the cultural development of the city, while at the same time illustrating the development of fado as an art form.

As fado is a manifestly urban cultural expression, Pais de Brito is primarily concerned with the role that it played in the construction of an idea of city. The author admits that fado is not easy to define, that its nature is elusive and its boundaries difficult to set: “In everyday language, fado is a plural, fragmented, decentered reality” (24). Therefore, his article takes a markedly historical approach, going back to the early nineteenth century and taking a look at the different historical events that played a part in the evolution of the city of Lisbon, as well as in the creation of the social types that lived there. Lisbon’s social landscape was delineated throughout the nineteenth century, and toward the end of that century, four distinct social groups can be distinguished. First of all, there were the destitute, that is, poor people who did not have a stable job. On the other end of the social scale, there was a rapidly dwindling aristocracy that was beginning to feel the political changes brought about by liberalism. In between these two groups, there was an incipient working class that used fado as a means of vindication of its rights; for this working class, fado was instrumental in the definition of its class status. Finally, there was also the petty bourgeoisie, which had economic power, flocked to the theaters, and in time would start purchasing records and listening to the radio.

Pais de Brito underscores the influence that the new media of mass communication had on the sound of fado and the visual appearance of fadistas, and he also states that the figure of the fadista was created in the late nineteenth century by a series of authors such as Brito Aranha, Ramalho Ortigão, and even Eça de Queiroz. These writers depict the fadista as a heartless delinquent who frequents taverns and uses all kinds of violence and cheating in order to achieve his goals. For instance, Pais de Brito offers an excerpt from a text by Ramalho Ortigão [see picture below] that brings together the guitar and the knife in its description of the ways and looks of a fadista: “The tools of his trade are a guitar and a Santo Cristo, which is the slang term that they give to their knives” (31). Pais de Brito notes that these portraits of the fadista survive well into the twentieth century, even after the sense of immorality has been shed.

Indeed, the construction of the figure of the fadista continues in the first half of the twentieth century, with the appearance of a number of intellectuals who aimed at defining what fado was, attempting to channel their perception of the music and its performers in order to suit their ideological discourses. The controversy already starts in the 1910s, when Albino Forjaz de Sampaio criticizes fado for what he perceived to be its negative influence on Portuguese culture. This prompted Avelino de Sousa [see picture below] to publish his book O fado e os censores, in which he contradicts this negative view. In his opinion, fado can be used as a viable instrument to educate the illiterate working class.

After the military coup of 1926, intellectuals once again discuss whether fado should be rejected or embraced. In his 1936 book Fado, Canção de Vencidos (Fado, Song of the Defeated), a series of lectures read over the radio airwaves, Luís de Mota fiercely criticizes fado, ascribing all the evils of Portuguese society to this music. In 1937, Victor Machado’s Ídolos do fado (Idols of Fado), published as a response to Moita’s work, praised fado for its positive qualities within Portuguese society, thereby counteracting Moita’s attacks. According to Pais de Brito, the dictatorial regime appropriated fado, stripping it of its subversive elements and controlling it.

Toward the end of his article, Pais de Brito posits an outline of the different periods that can be observed in these two centuries of fado. First of all, he looks at its appearance in the cities of Lisbon around the 1830s, an early period that is highlighted by the love story between Maria Severa and the Count of Vimioso, which Pais de Brito calls fado’s “foundational myth” (33). By the 1860s we enter into a different period, as specific songwriters and performers begin to acquire popularity and to step outside of anonymity. This is the period in which fado subgenres and styles start to be defined, and at this stage, singers and dancers are still more popular than musicians.

Then, there is a long period that spans the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, when fado is appropriated both by the aristocracy and the working class, the latter often using it in order to denounce social injustice. Fado now becomes the soundtrack of social events such as bullfights, singing the joys of city life and recording daily events and the dynamic relationships established between the social classes. During this crucial period, improvisation is extremely important because it determines the form of fado lyrics, that is, the use of improvised ten-line stanzas constructed upon a given quatrain. Some of the biggest names at this time are gifted improvisers such as Júlio Janota and Carlos Harrington. In the early years of the twentieth century, fado will graduate to the stage of theaters, and great performers such as Alfredo Duarte Marceneiro [see picture below] and Berta Cardoso, to name but two, become household names.

One final, also extremely important period, begins with the military coup that brings an end to the Republic in 1926. According to Pais de Brito, the coup thwarts this unfettered evolution of fado, changing the genre forever. The dictatorship enforced censorship and the professionalization of performers. During this period, records and radio will determine the sound and form of fado, favoring the construction of a specific, carefully planned image for the artist. This would explain, for example, the disappearance of the use of nicknames for the fadistas, traditionally linked to their professions outside of fado. There are exceptions, of course, such as Alfredo Duarte, who always used his nickname “Marceneiro,” meaning carpenter.

In short, this is a very interesting article, very well researched and full of pertinent information. Toward the end of the study, Pais de Brito underscores a fact that we sometimes tend to overlook: the iconography that we now associate with fado—the guitars and the stage image of the performers, for example—has not always been a part of fado. On the contrary, its creation is rather recent, harking back to as late as the 1920s.

Works Cited

Pais de Brito, Joaquim. “O fado: etnografia na cidade.” Gilberto Velho (ed.). Antropologia urbana: cultura e sociedade no Brasil e em Portugal. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 1999: 24-42.