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In Portugal, they sing sad songs just for the fun of it


In Portugal, melancholy is a pastime. Whatever the weather or the unemployment rate, the Portuguese can be found reveling in the most lugubrious musical tradition in Europe. Where else on this continent do you see casas de fado?

A dictionary definition of fado reads like a list of the bees in Portugal's bonnet: "fate, lot, destiny, doom." Fado is also the name given to folkloric songs that celebrate the misery of urban life. They are robust, wistful, poignant and melodramatic. In Lisbon, they are sung by anyone with the courage to stand up in a bar. In Coimbra, only university students sing fados. In both cities, they are a tourist attraction.

No one is sure how fado began. Some say it drifted in from Brazil. Others believe that homesick Portuguese sailors were the first exponents. Or maybe it sprang up among the prostitutes, freed slaves and street vendors who thronged the ports at the end of last century. Whatever its origins, fado has made its home in Lisbon's four hundred year old Bairro Alto (High Quarter).

With its narrow, cobbled streets and emaciated cats, the Bairro Alto is tailor-made for fadistas. On street corners, old men in caps smoke pipes and watch stout, bow-legged women pass by with bags of shopping. No doubt they remember the days when those same women were slim and agile. That is what fado is all about: memories, nostalgia and yearning.

At night, the Bairro Alto comes to life. Smartly dressed young people pour in and out of the trendy night clubs that hide behind anonymous wooden doors. Here and there, slicing through the banter and muffled disco beats comes the sad, wailing voice of a fadista.

Every night of the week, Sabina throws open the door of her little fado bar in the Rua da Atalaia. There is no sign or name on the outside wall, but by early evening she has a full house. Tonight, the crowd is spilling into the street.

The inside is no more than a large room lighted by a couple of naked bulbs. Paint is peeling off the walls, and there are rows of shelves lined with dust-caked bottles. To one side of a crooked picture of the Virgin Mary, a few doleful slogans are pinned to the wall. One reads: "When I am drunk, everybody sees me. When I need a drink, nobody sees me."

It's a far cry from the have-a-nice-day atmosphere of the nearby tourist traps. Wreathed in promotional posters, the commercial casas de fado stage irrelevant folk dances and charge a fortune.

At Sabina's, there is no cover charge. Backed up near the front door are 30 people of all stripes: scruffy foreigners, career women, manual workers, young nightclubbers, blowzy housewives and men in suits. Those lucky enough to find a stool are seated at tables dotted with glasses of red wine, port and ginjinha, the local cherry brandy. The rest stand behind them, cheek by jowl, craning for a view.

In one corner, the fadistas sit in a solemn ring, sipping drinks bought for them by the crowd. There is a guitar on their table. One of them, an old man with a leathery face, stands up. All conversation stops. He stands there for maybe a minute, eyes shut and lips trembling slightly. Then he begins to sing. It is a song about his two little girls, of the sacrifices he made for them, of how deeply he loves them, of how God lent him a hand through the hardest times. His thin, straining voice is the only sound in the room. Very quietly, the crowd joins in for the two-line refrain. The song ends as his two daughters achieve womanhood.

For a long moment, no one speaks. There are lumpy throats and some of the older men and women are wiping away tears. Even the foreigners seem to share the grief. Shaken, the old man is finally helped back to his seat. Then everyone applauds vigorously.

After drinks are replenished, it is the turn of a female fadista. With her well-worn dress and ample limbs, she looks like a washerwoman from a Degas painting. At Sabina's, she is a star. Standing in the clearing before the crowd, she flicks back an errant strand of hair and clears her throat. She sings about the woes of a young prostitute who cannot sell any flowers because it is only her love that men want to buy. This fado has a faster rhythm, which the woman exploits to the hilt. Her voice is rasping and suggestive, and each innuendo is accompanied by a coquettish swivel of the shoulders. At the end, to uproarious clapping, she gives a deep, histrionic bow and returns to her seat.

Fado is serious stuff. To whisper while a fadista performs is heresy. When an American couple laugh aloud during one of the more affecting songs, a barmaid hisses at them until they are quiet.

Still, nobody takes fado without a pinch of salt. Not at Sabina's, anyway. Later in the evening, a young man from the crowd plucks up the nerve to sing an intensely sad piece about lost love and a heart that won't mend. Just as he drones through the part about being haunted by his lover's face, the same barmaid who scolded the Americans slips in behind him and rubs imaginary tears from his eyes. For the briefest moment, the reverent silence is broken by laughter.

Some time after midnight, Sabina lets it be known that she is tired and off to bed. The crowd offers no resistance. Mostly in pairs, they file out into the street and head quietly back to their lives in 1994 Lisbon.

Sabina says nothing about tomorrow night; the past is her metier. Anyway, she knows they will come again.

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