Photo taken in Havana, Cuba.
Fado music is a key element of traditional Portuguese culture. The Portuguese word saudade is often associated with it. Each works with the other to express a particular emotion, an almost fatalistic world-view where love is doomed and destiny rules on. From an Anglo-Saxon perspective, it is very easy to confuse saudade with nostalgia – it is nostalgia and something more. Fado music, which comes from the word fatum in Latin, meaning fate, is a Portuguese urban folk style, with supposed origins in the rhythms of African slaves. The style was adopted by the poor of Lisbon to express a discontent with the status quo. Its common themes are destiny, betrayal, love, death and despair.
Saudade is a nostalgic longing for someone or something that once was and is no longer. An element of this longing is the submerged realisation that the missing object or person will never really return, and yet hope for its return remains constant. Saudade differs from nostalgia because it is located firmly in the present, while also looking towards the future for the eventual realisation of this longing. Saudade can express varying forms of love and longing, from the unrequited love to the love one feels for a missing person, or a distant relative. It can also express a longing for the motherland, and is thus used by Portuguese emigrants as a way of illustrating their homesickness and estrangement in their new land. A fado performer or fadista who does not express saudade is not a true fadista.
I once saw a fado performance in a Portuguese Social Club in Westbourne Grove. The female singer emerged, cloaked in black and resplendent, from the men’s toilets mid-song. As we ate our stew and got steadily drunker, she walked slowly around the tables and sang with such a presence, such a palpable sadness, that we couldn’t help but be moved. Several members of the audience cried hopelessly. If a fado performance does not move one to tears, it has failed as an art form.
This article is featured in this month’s edition of Garageland Magazine, the Nostalgia Edition