The learning process in fado through artistic research (2012)

Brita Lemmens

About this exposition

This project focuses on the learning process in the oral tradition of fado. A common Portuguese saying 'O fado não se aprende' (one cannot learn to sing fado) forms the departure point of this artistic investigation. As a singer I dived into the practices of the oral transmission in Lisbon in order to discover if I could in fact learn the skills of singing fado. The project discusses several methods one can use as a singer in order to enrich one’s artistic practice with new genres that are not taught in music academies. It is concerned with the question of what knowledge can be produced through artistic research. What can we learn from an artistic researcher that we cannot learn from an ethnomusicologist? What is the extra dimension of artistic research?
typeresearch exposition
published inJournal for Artistic Research

comments: 3 (last entry by Lila Ellen Gray - 10/11/2012 at 01:27)
Richard Elliott 06/11/2012 at 12:34

The exposition is of interest in that I am not aware of other work in English that explores the learning of fado from an artistic research perspective. The closest parallel would probably be Lila Ellen Gray’s work, though Gray is coming from a more ethnomusicological perspective. Lemmens also uses ethnomusicological methods but combines them with artistic research and auto-ethnographic methodologies to create a more personal, less theoretical perspective than Gray’s. The chapters describing the learning of fado will be read with interest by those involved in fado practice and also by those intrigued by the question of whether seemingly intrinsic cultural practices can be learned by those coming from outside the culture. The questioning of romantic, nationalist myths surrounding fado history and practice is important. It is questionable, however, whether this work evaluates these issues as critically as it might.

The submission’s greatest strengths lie, it seems to me, in its exposition of the learning of fado. The field notes and the more considered reflections work very well together and paint a fascinating portrait, along with the audiovisual files, of how the researcher entered the fado milieu and adapted herself to its demands and possibilities. Anyone with a love of fado and an interest in the mysteries of what makes a fadista will find these sections thrilling. They certainly provide new knowledge and could potentially provide material for others to build upon.

Michiel Schuijer 08/11/2012 at 15:33

The submission is certainly of great interest. This is especially true of the author’s extensive reports on her mission to learn singing fado. It must have been a very confrontational journey for her, and I admire her courage and sincerity. Readers might experience the author’s role as a “student” – a role she consciously assumes for this project – as a limitation. As a consequence of this role, she has not much to contribute to her field of interest artistically. The real expertise and ability to act on this field resides with her “teachers”. But in this exposition she leaves a lot of ideas and material for others to explore. Much of this is implicit, however. She could do more to indicate possible uses of her work.


I am sure the author adds a new perspective to the literature on fado; her research question is imaginative, well presented, and stimulating curiosity. I am not sure whether she considered looking for similar approaches to other musical genres, that is, a study the genre through the lens of someone who learns it. I think not. It would certainly have made her work more rigorous had she referred to and taken good ideas from comparable projects in other fields.


The experiences in the fado houses and the dialogues with the teachers have been reported carefully. This is no doubt the strongest part of the submission. : It strikes me that there seem to exist different opinions on the extent to which fado can be taught. There are performers who are even reluctant to instruct others in the art of fado, whereas somebody like Arménio de Melo assumes an almost academic stance to fado (with which guitarists, listeners and fadistas seem to take issue in one recording). It would certainly be desirable to pay more attention to these different attitudes within the fado culture. Also, why do some of the author’s “teachers” say that she cannot learn to sing fado, when obviously – and judging from their own comments – she can make mistakes?

Lila Ellen Gray 10/11/2012 at 01:27

The topic of learning in fado (as read against the common stereotype amongst fado practitioners that fado is essentially “unlearnable”) is an interesting and important one and warrants multiple ethnographic perspectives from different researchers.  The author brings her unique vocal training, musicality, experience, and self-positioning (as “half” Portuguese, “half” Dutch), and some solid ethnographic research to bear on a reflexive approach to the question. 

The strength of the work is in the observations Lemmens draws from her own empirical research conducted vis-à-vis her vocal practice.  Additionally, she documents her artistic “process” with care. Lemmens’ piece also benefits from her audio/visual examples (as adding richness to the text).

For further reading I recommend the following works not referenced in Lemmens’ exposition:

Brito, Joaquim Pais de
1999    O Fado: Etnografia na Cidade. In Antropologia Urbana: Cultura e Sociedade no Brasil e em Portugal. G. Velho, ed. Pp. 24-42. Rio de Janeiro: J. Zahar Editor.

Castelo-Branco, Salwa El-Shawan
1994    The Dialogue Between Voices and Guitars in Fado Performance Practice. In Fado: Voices and Shadows. J.P. de Brito, ed. Pp. 125-141. Lisbon: Electa.

Elliott, Richard
2010    Fado and the Place of Longing: Loss, Memory and the City. Farnham, Surrey, England Ashgate.

Gray, Lila Ellen
2011      Fado´s City. Anthropology and Humanism 46(2):141-163.

Nery, Rui Vieira
2004    Para uma História do Fado. Lisbon: Público-Comunicação Social, SA/Corda Seca, Edições de Arte, SA.

Tinhorão, José Ramos
1994    Fado: Dança do Brasil, Cantar de Lisboa. Lisbon: Caminho da Música.

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