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.
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.