The learning process in fado

through artistic research

Brita Lemmens 


As a singer of Portuguese descent I have always had the desire to become familiar with Portugal’s national folksong, fado. I wished to learn how to sing in that heart breaking, almost crying manner. I travelled to Lisbon to find a teacher who could take me by the hand and show me all the tricks.


Fado is an urban song that developed in the mid 19th century in the Portuguese capital. Ever since then it has been performed by a fado singer accompanied by at least one classical guitar, and a twelve stringed Portuguese guitar. Today the fado performances can be experienced in professionally organized fado houses and more informal settings such as fado bars, neighbourhood festivities and concourses. The fado music can also be heard at concerts, and since the 1920s the many recordings have made fado available to a wide audience. The musicians, singers (called fadistas) and frequent attendees of fado performances together constitute the fado milieu [1], which shares a particular mode of discourse, conventions and rules. During fado performances different groups within the fado milieu meet to listen and discuss what fado is


When I searched for fado teachers, in 2009 and 2010, I was confronted with the local saying ‘O fado não se aprende’ which claimed that one cannot learn to sing fado. The conflicting message of this expression deepened my wish to search for a teacher. It made me curious how other fadistas have learned the fado and how young apprentices understand this common saying. From an early stage in my research the saying turned from a statement into the project’s main research question.  O fado não se aprendeHow can we understand the learning processes of fadistas in the light of this statement? As a way to approach this expression, the leading question, I asked myself was: Can I learn to sing fado? What methods can contribute to a fruitful understanding of the art studied departing from its daily practices?


Through my own singing practices I have approached the fado culture with the aim of acquiring the practical knowledge I would need to be able to add fado to my repertoire. It is therefore a project that exists within the context of artistic research in which the artist and the art practice are central to the research. The project differs from regular ethnomusicological research, since its goal is not to convey the obtained knowledge in an academic setting with academic means. The goal of this work is to enrich the artist's practice and to perform that knowledge in text and art.


Through seven months of research, I used my own voice as a research tool to find out if I could learn to sing fado, and subsequently, how this learning process would take shape. My own voice would be the centre of this artistic experiment to see if the statement is a local assumption or if, as a foreign singer, I would be able to grasp the skills of singing fado. Within the framework of ethnomusicology and artistic research, the artistic practices are placed at the centre of this research. It has been a methodological experiment in which the documentation of the development of my voice was most important. The descriptions in this essay are accompanied by audio and video material that will provide an insight into the rehearsal practices.


Methodological Pluralism


As a way to approach the research question I departed from different disciplines such as auto-ethnography, artistic research and ethnomusicology. Only during the research process I realized how these disciplines are connected through the use of similar methods. The disciplines of artistic research and ethnomusicology both borrow their methods from the field of ethnography. Within artistic research, the ethnographic methodologies form an important tool for the artist’s inquiry into their own art practices. Tools such as participant observation, auto-observation, interviewing and audio/video recording, equip the artistic researcher to document and reflect upon their work.


Participant observation attains an extra dimension when the participant is the artist and the observation implies a critical self-observation or reflexivity. Since most artistic researchers study their own artistic activity, the discipline has a strong affiliation with auto-ethnography. Documentation in many forms is of great importance for the analysis of artistic practices and processes. As Arlander indicates in her essay ‘Characteristics of Visual and Performing Arts’ (2011), research in the performing-arts often has a practice-based focus, investigating into the acquisition of skills, rather than an art-based focus, aiming at reflective understanding of a material artwork. Time-based practices are confronted with the ephemeral character of the artistic product and can be more dependent on documentation strategies in order to communicate the knowledge embedded in the end product.


Within ethnomusicology a certain element of artistic research is embodied in the tradition of studying through performance. [2] The ethnomusicologist takes on an active and engaging role within the musical environment that he or she is studying. Learning processes often form an entrance into the social aspects of the culture as well as a fruitful way of acquiring knowledge. In his essay about Oriental music ‘The challenge of Bi-musicality’ (1960), Mantle Hood points out that music students are mainly concerned with training the ears, the eyes, the hands and the voice in order to be assured of a theoretical understanding of music. “But if this kind of training is indeed essential, the Western musician who wishes to study eastern music or the Eastern musician who is interested in Western music faces the challenge of 'bi-musicality' “ (Hood, 1960, p. 55). Hood’s essay addresses the challenges for Western musicians learning Eastern music theory, such as the different methods of ear-training and the misconception of the sense of perfect pitch, which is not perfect in non-Western music. The students have to get used to learning methods that might not make use of notation but emphasizes training the oral memory. In the case of learning to sing, the student also has to struggle with the challenges of the foreign language and the appropriate quality of the singing voice. “The crowning achievement in the study of Oriental music is fluency in the art of improvisation. This is only possible after the student has become proficient in the technical demand of the art, so that he is free to follow the musical inventions of his own imagination” (Hood, 1960, p. 58). The researcher’s position as a distant or detached observer is, since Hood’s writing, no longer a guarantee of a successful research results within ethnomusicology.  The essay had a great impact on the disciplinary methodologies, since it included the ethnomusicologist’s artistic participation in the performance settings. In my view, it was the precursor of a new type of fieldwork, which has many similarities to artistic research. 


Before artistic research launched itself as a discipline, art-practice-based research has already been explored, to a certain extent, within ethnomusicology. (Auto)-ethnography, ethnomusicology and artistic research meet each other in two crucial concepts: art-practice-based study [3] and reflexivity [4]. Ethnomusicology and artistic research meet each other within the music-practice-based research. At the same time, both disciplines intersect the concept of reflexivity through (auto)-ethnography. These concepts formed continuity throughout the fieldwork in Lisbon. The multi-disciplinary approach made it possible to experiment with various methods of approaching the topic from academic and artistic viewpoints. The (auto)-ethnographic descriptions were backed-up by numerous interviews with other apprentice fadistas in order to have a balanced view on the learning process in general. Many similarities appeared between the various fadistas and my own experiences. The methods I had used to document the learning process of my voice, they had used for rehearsing and improving their singing.


In her Ph.D. dissertation ‘Resounding History, Embodying Place’ (2005) the ethnomusicologist Ellen Gray has made a detailed description of her experiences in fado singing and the oral tradition in Lisbon 2005. She investigates the settings and practices of learning processes in fado and its relation to the concept of soulfulness. The negation of these learning processes she conceptualized as "a discourse of non-learning particularly regarding 'essential' qualities like timbre and improvisation with respect to singing..."(Gray, 2005, p. 80)."The multiple ways in which the discourse of fado musicians and fans connect fado to mystery, to the non-learnable, to the soulful, not only reinforce and perpetuate a privileged musical culture where only a chosen few have 'soul'. . . but can also be understood in parallel to other kinds of “secret” making around sound" (Gray, 2005, p. 82). Gray’s learning process within fado gave her an insight into the mystery around learning to sing the genre, related to Portuguese identity. The elaborate descriptions of the social settings in fado are therefore central in Gray’s description. As an ethnomusicologist she has committed to the learning of fado in order to deepen her understanding of the concepts of “soul” and saudade in relation to Portuguese nationality. The chapter of her book is an outstanding example of the bi-musical ethnomusicologist. What can we, as artistic researchers, add to that?


This project aims to show a comparable process but from the singer's perspective. The outset of this research has not only been to understand the practices but to be able to perform them in the future and to enrich my artistic practice with a new genre. The detailed description of my fieldwork functions not only as an ethnomusicological investigation into an oral tradition, but rather as a proposal for singers to engage in similar research to enforce their art-practice. It is in that light that artistic research distinguishes itself from academic research within an art-practice. The essential difference lies in the basic question the artist asks him/herself. How can I produce knowledge about an art form through practicing and acting within the art? How do I gather knowledge about fado culture through the participation within that culture as a singer?


→ The Project

[1] The term ‘milieu’ is used to refer to a general group of people who share the passion for fado and engage in the performances as musicians, singers or attendees. It can be considered a sub-culture in Lisbon, which shares a common discourse and practices related to and embedded in the fado performance.

[2] In the book 'Shadows in the Field'  (2008) several ethnomusicologists give their view on present day research practices. The new fieldwork is characterized by experience since, according to Cooley, music is best comprehended when it is studied within an experiential setting placing the researcher as a social actor in a musical culture. “Fieldwork is experience, and the experience of people making music is at the core of ethnomusical method and theory” (Barz & Cooley, 2008, p. 14).

[3] In practice-based research the questions of the researcher arise out of the artistic practices and form a direction for the theoretical framework. Instead of departing from a theoretical outline before entering the field, problems and questions that the practices carry with them can speak up for or against the application of a certain theory

[4] In recent years, much attention has been paid to the concept of reflexivity as a reaction to the positivist or naturalist legacies of ethnography. Both positivism and naturalism, striving towards an objective account of the encountered cultures, have neglected the consideration that researchers are as much part of the social world they study, as their subjects are. As the authors of 'Ethnography' (2003) argue “by including our own role within the research focus, and perhaps even systematically exploiting our participation in the settings under study as researchers, we can produce accounts of the social world and justify them without placing reliance on futile appeals to empiricism, of either positivist or naturalist varieties” (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2003, p.18).