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.


MLeiria said...

Absolutamente de acordo, tal como referi no meu post de 26 de Fevereiro último - uma obra que devia ser reeditada.
E, claro, mais um belíssimo artigo do meu amigo. Parabéns!

Anton Garcia-Fernandez said...

Estou de acordo com você, Ofélia: este livro deve ser reeditado. Se bem contém muitas exagerações (como também as contém o "Canção de Vencidos" do Luis Moita), é uma obra imprescindível dentro da literatura sobre o fado. Talvez alguma editora resolva reeditá-la no futuro... E também acho que alguém deveria escrever uma nova versão mais actualizada desta obra, falando também de fadistas que foram importantes depois de 1937.

Obrigado pelo seu comentário, amiga!