Learning Fado, Portugal's Sung Poems

Fado is an oral tradition of speculative origin. Though widely accepted as evolving from the songs of the Moors due to their inherent melancholy, but equally thought to have evolved from either the Lundum music of Brazillian slaves or the Cantigas de Amigo of middle-age minstrels (www.fado.com), it is strange that any claim of authenticity even developed, however a new breed of Fadistas such as Mariza, whoc is considered a contentious figure amongst lovers of Fado, shows us that the question of authenticity is well and truly alive.

With this in mind, the parameters that I set for my own search for authenticity (having found no definitive definition in my initial ethnomusicological research) are that the Portuguese themselves consider me an authentic and credible performer of Fado were I to perform Fado
in one of Lisbon's tavernas. 

In discussion of these parameters with a native Portuguese acquaintance and Fado-lover, Marina, I gleaned that the authenticity the Portuguese appear to question in the new Fadistas is that of comparison to artists such as Amalia Rodriguez, Maria Severa, and Carlos do Como who presented Fados in styles that were heavily diatonic, in simple duple metre, (see Appendix iv,Transcriptions) use of melodic sequence (Appendix iv, Aquela Ma, third system), a structure in binary or ternary form (Appendix iv, Confesso), and incorporated stock hispanic idiosyncrasies such as dramatic melodic leaps of over a fifth (Appendix iv, Fado Alfancina, fourth and fifth systems) and the use of simple chords, moving at a slow rate (Appendix iv, A Minha Cancao E Saudade). Parallel to this, the lyrical expression of Saudade, a "vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist" (Emmons, 2006, p.402) and the typical setup of a Fadista accompanied by a Portuguese and Spanish guitar ('viola' in Portuguese) came to be known as the definitive sound of 'Fado', with the exception of large orchestral arrangements for worldwide releases and the little-known fact that original Fadista was actually accompanied on solo piano. 

As a cause of increased globalisation and consumerism since the time of Fado's (first) heyday the style has grown to incorporate modern musical idioms such as: traditional melodic phrases re-harmonised with extensions of elevenths and thirteenths, 'progressive' song structures, 'grooves' and borrowed elements of acoustic rock, crossover classical music, and even electronica. Mariza's first record Fado Em Mim is an example of this; speculating from personal experience of the record industry, it is impossible to assess how much of Fado's newfound modernity is owed to the input of the record label aiming to broaden Fado's market appeal.

A look into Mariza's history shows that she was in fact on course to becoming a funk singer when the opportunity to sing Fado professionally presented itself to her (Songlines, March 2011, p. 31). This sits uncomfortably with the inclination of Fado to vehemently express how the singer was born to sing only Fado, and renders Mariza's interpretations of such pieces uncomfortably insincere. By contrast Rodriguez was discovered selling oranges on the docks of Lisbon and having herself endured the harsh realities of famine in post-war Lisbon, was considered a prime candidate for expressing the nation's Saudades. Ironically, it appears to me that fans of Fado itself harbour that very Saudade for the singers of old that the songs themselves speak of.

From an ethnomusicological perspective I could neither be accepted as an authentic performer of Fado by the Portuguese themselves, nor by my academic peers since I am not part of the cultural milieux. Scholastic study, which could be termed a 'treasure of the mind', seeks to understand, disect, define, theorise. As such it is diametrically opposed to Fado, an oral tradition concerning itself more with what could be termed 'treasures of the heart', seeking to express sorrow, Saudade, and patriotic ideologies (see Appendix v, Lyrics).

To learn in a traditional ethnomusicological manner is to "gain access to a different way of thinking and making music" (Baily, 2001, p. 294), yet learning via oral tradition is my first experience of music learning and instantly marks this study with a bias, however small. Nonetheless, learning Fado purely from recordings does not constitute 'oral tradition'; as Fado is acquired through often complete, unmodified demonstration, this questions the extent of understanding from a truly emic perspective. In addition, Fado forms part of the European popular and folk music traditions already very close to the music we are familiar with in Britain in terms of its harmonic and rhythmic structures, tuning systems, ornamentation and vocal style.  

A large amount of auto-didactical learning was necessary so as to achieve as thorough an understanding of Fado as possible in order to better inform my performance; my methodology took the following structure:

1.       Finding a teacher

After an unsuccessful search for either a Fado singing teacher or Fadista in London, I decided to learn with Lynda Richardson, an Estill method specialist. The Estill method is concerned with "deconstructing the process of vocal production into control of specific structures in the vocal mechanism" (Shewell, 2009, p. 402). Whether this proves to be as good as learning from a Fado singer is a matter of debate. Since I will be learning how to control each aspect of my vocal physiology to acquire the Fado 'sound', I may acquire the ability to harness a greater range of vocal techniques than I could have acquired from an authentic Fadista who, being of an oral tradition, may not be aware of their vocal physiology; however, this will depend on both my current ability and potential. However, learning via Estill method raises the question of whether I will be receiving all the information I need regarding typical performance gestures, etiquette, and repertoire.
 2.       Listening to recordings and determining vocal qualities / research

The vocal qualities of approximately fifteen Fado singers were discussed with Lynda. Fado incorporates a combination of qualities that each singer uses either less or more of depending on their already existing vocal qualities and desired sound. Amalia Rodrigues mixed Belting and Operatic voice qualities. Carlos do Como used Speech Quality and Mariza alternates between Speech Quality and Belting. 

Speech Quality is fairly self-explanatory in that it is singing with the same voice with which we speak. Because of this it is limited in both volume and pitch. Belting is achieved by raising the larynx, tilting the head back, intaking a sharp clavicular breath, preparing to 'squeak' and then singing the note. The result is a shrill, powerful sound akin to the vocal sound of musical theatre, soul and some pop music. By contrast, to produce an Operatic quality the larynx is lowered, head tilted forward, the tongue tightened, and the breath drawn by 'letting go' of the diaphragm to exhale. The resulting sound is equally as powerful as Belting but the tone is both warmer and darker. (Appendix iii) documents my lessons with Lynda in further detail. 
3.       Producing skeleton transcriptions

It became necessary to produce numerous transcriptions of Fado songs. An advantage of using transcriptions is that it speeds the learning process for both teacher and student. Transcriptions enabled Lynda to accompany me at the piano, see exactly where we were in a song when she needed to stop or restart a song, and focus on tutoring my voice without having to learn each song herself. Secondly, producing transcriptions freed me to develop my vocal style away from the influence of recordings, enabling me to "interpret the fixed tunes [and] establish [my] own distinctive claims." as Fado singers are said to do (Khalvati, 2010, p.19). According to Lynda, the larynx copies what it hears and singing along to a recording is less likely to lead to the development of my own distinctive sound. Further, the production of transcriptions can facilitate other musicians to feature in the final

Naturally, this shows the extent to which we as western musicians rely on notation. Even the guitarist interested in performing the Fados requested copies of the transcriptions despite being trained in both Suzuki and Kodaly methods. Aside from notation not being typical of an oral tradition, producing the skeleton transcriptions was immensely time-consuming, though the benefit of over-exposure to the Fados not only familiarised me with the harmonic and melodic structures of Fado, but also enabled me to learn the songs.

Only those songs that I found aesthetically pleasing were transcribed since no scores or lead sheets of Fados exist save a recently published introduction to Fado that only contains around twenty Fados (Cohen, 2003). The transcriptions themselves posed somewhat of a problem since the 'skeleton' of the songs themselves were decorated in whatever vocal melismas, phrasings, and accompanying chordal arrangement the musicians used to define their unique styles. Producing these transcriptions involved determining which elements were merely decorative and which were their true forms. The transcriptions served as jazz charts from which I was then free to build my own interpretations. My full transcriptions can be found in appendix iv. 

4.       Learning the songs

Another beautiful irony of Fado is that in questioning the balance of fate and free will, Fado's own fate and free will was tampered with when, post-war, having previously dismissed Fado as the music of those of ill repute, the government used Fado as a means of attempting to unite the population and aid Portugal in attempting to attract tourists and re-build the economy (Broughton, European Roots (documentary), 2007)

There is no distinction between poetry and song in Fado and as such the songs themselves are considered Poemas Cantadas, or sung poems. The 'lyrics' are indeed poetic and not only make use of forms typical to poetic structure: stanzaic forms, quatrains, metre and rhyme, but also metaphors between geographical and historical matters pertaining specifically to Portugal itself whilst all the while, the true subject being treated is that of 'fate' itself. The chorus of Que Deus Me Perdoe which translates as "May God forgive me if it is a sin [to love Fado], but this is who I am and to run away from Fado I only run from myself", the first chorus of O Gente Da Minha Terra which translates as "Fado is both mine and yours, this destiny that ties us with a string of a guitar, no matter how much it is denied" and the second line of the chorus of Locura which translates as "Trunks of the same root, of the life that joins us" are a few examples of this (see Appendix v, Lyrics)

As Romanian and Spanish are my first languages and I learned English and French at school, there is an inherent bias in my ability to acquire another romance language. This is not necessarily indicative of whether I can successfully acquire the Portuguese accent or whether this would serve to further authenticate me in the eyes of a Portuguese native. 

Among linguists, the ability to acquire accuracy of pronunciation in a second language are widely agreed as being: age, motivation, proximity of the two languages and immersion. Further: "Overall, it appears that one of the most important individual variables in adult L2 [second language] is the learners' aptitude for accurately producing the phonology of another language ... Purcell and Suter (1980) list aptitude for oral mimicry as the      second most important variable ... There appears to be a perceptual ability in talented learners that differentiates them from the normal adult population. Kuhl (2000) suggests    that talented adult learners may ... perceive novel speech sounds in the same manner as infants do"  (Hansen-Edwards, 2008, p.53) would indicate an innate predisposition for the acquisition of language through an increased sensitivity to the second language's phonology. When I performed my interpretations of Fado to Marina, she did indeed detect an accent and suggested that I had what corresponds to a 'lisp' when singing in Portuguese; my d's come out as t's and vice versa. 

After several attempts to correct this we found that a stronger commitment to vowel pronunciation and a loosening of the jaw authenticates the sound better. However, what made the most difference was a slight raising and tightening of the tongue as well as its placement towards the top teeth and back of the hard pallet. After discussing this with Lynda she provided me with further exercises to strengthen my tongue and loosen my jaw - two unnatural movements that singers learn to make simultaneous and natural. 

A large facilitator of my study of Fado was the online availability of all lyrics, which I subsequently translated using a combination of online translation tools, a dictionary and my working knowledge of romance languages. Learning Fado as an outsider without either speaking the language or seeing the lyrics in print would have been difficult as the Portuguese language is heavy in elision. Also, since Fado is so heartfelt, Lynda noted that it is of vital importance to understand the meaning of the words in order to express their sentiment. 

5.       Selecting songs for performance

I learned more Fados than were necessary for the performance in order to further understand Fado, increase the potential for finding those that are most enjoyable to perform, and those I could most relate to personally. The fados to be performed were further narrowed down on the basis of those that best suited my voice. 

Lynda's mantra: "The singer and song should be one" advised my choice of Fados for the performance and guided me towards those that I thought I could express best given my life experiences. Unsurprisingly, these were not the songs that praised Lisbon's beauty but those that spoke of the Fadista being caught between fate and free will and those describing Saudade. For example, A Minha Cancao e Saudade vividly depicts the suffering in lines [that translate as] "Faded illusions, films of lost hopes, my song and longing" and songs such as Que Deus Me Perdoe which contain touching l passages such as "If I could tell you how sad I am when I pretend to be happy" and "When I sing I don't think how awful life is", are better understood as a whole as they are less specific to their location of origin. The extent to which my inability to connect to songs specific to Lisbon or Portugal inauthenticate my performance. 

 6.       Practicing and personalisation

With songs heavy in elision such as Loucura, I placed the song on repeat mode and firstly read, then mimed, then spoke, then sung the words along to the recording. In this instance once the melody and lyrics were acquired the stereo could be stopped and a 'personalisation' of the song could begin. Other songs such as Que Deus Me Perdoe and Fado Alfachina were less tongue-tying and were memorable enough to take the lyric sheet to the guitar and begin forming my own arrangement with careful attention drawn to ensuring that words such as 'ma' and 'se' did not gradually become similar sonic counterparts 'me' and 'si'.  

Having discovered a painting of Amalia Rodrigues in which she is depicted accompanying herself on the guitar (see Appendix ii) I was inspired to perform the songs on a Spanish guitar despite not having played since my teens. The implications of this is that I will be unable to use my hands to express the songs in the performance, as is typical of a Fadista who physically communicates in a performance solely via facial and arm gestures whilst the remainder of the body is still.

To personalise the songs I began with the decision of how exactly I would interpret the songs. Recalling my 'authenticity parameters' and conversation with Marina, I began with rejecting Mariza's modern style of arrangement in favour of the more traditional approach: using only root and dominant seventh chords in my guitar accompaniment, a slow rate of chordal changes (one or two per bar), slower tempos and more traditional 'feels' to the songs as
found in Fados such as Fado de Adica. 

Vocally, I began by experiment with what type of vocal sound best suited the messages in particular phrases. For example, in O Gente Da Minha Terra the two lines "esta tristeza que trago, foi de vos que a recebi" [this sadness which I carry, I received from you] call for two different vocal qualities to highlight the intentional and emotional difference between the weight of the sadness in the first clause and the revelation in the second. I sought to best express each phrase as if it were emanating from personal experience, using emotional memory to trigger the mode of expression. In this instance, I found that the first clause suited the Belt Quality whilst the second better suited Speech Quality. I also experimented with whether the occasional vocal melisma was possible for me, which indeed it turned out to be. Overall I was glad to find that the vocal aspect of singing Fado came to me easily due to what Lynda described as a predisposition for speaking in marginal Belt and Speech Qualities myself and that Fado generally only used an octave and a half's range of notes.                                                
The area of emotionally connecting with each song was surprisingly the one that was most problematic for me, as the expression of such raw emotion is not something I am accustomed to and I found I had a very deep and unexpected affinity with Saudade. Many of the poetic elements inherent in Fado are very close to my personal penchant for the macabre, for understanding the negative functions of life and my personal rather melancholic nature. Yet in spite of this I found it exceptionally difficult to 'sing from the heart' as Fadistas are meant to. The songs were often too emotionally painful to sing and I found I was unable to sing a complete Fado without choking with emotion and even, at times, crying. It is a striking dichotomy that whilst musically Fado is simple, this is contrasted by what I have found to be such emotional complexity. 

Recalling Ted Solis' statement in Performing Ethnomusicology: "...my perceived ethnicity increases the "authenticity" of my performance, which makes the individual's concert experience more "authentic" and in turn makes me more credible as a practitioner and authority..." (Solis, 2004, p.37) I hope that by dressing in the black dress and shawl typical of a Fadista, it will both add to the authenticity of the performance and give me a psychological edge.

sorana santosComment