The Project

The fado world and its social geographies

In order to clarify in what geographical context this project is taking place, it is important to note that fado performances are taking place all over Portugal. Although the urban song originated in the capital, cities such as OPorto and Coimbra have a lively fado community. The concentration of fado houses [1] and bars and fado’s historical connection to the capital has determined my choice to focus only on Lisbon. Within Lisbon, there are many different social and geographical contexts that host fado music. Although the concentration of fado houses is particularly high in the historic neighbourhoods such as Alfama, Bairo Alto and Mouraria, one can find fado houses, bars and associations where fado is played daily, weekly, or only occasionally all over Lisbon. In the outskirts of Lisbon, one can find several associations or fado-clubs that provide weekly fado classes, as in Chelas and Odivelas.

The borderlines between touristic enterprises, ‘traditional’ fado houses, typical fado bars and insider’s settings are not easily drawn. Most houses and bars are dependent on tourism for their income and in some cases are closed during the low season, or only open at the weekend. A distinction can be made between professional and amateur settings. The professional fado performance takes place in a restaurant in which the musicians are paid to play fado for a dining audience. There is often a permanent team of musicians working for specific restaurants. The amateur setting is called fado vadio, which literally means vagrant fado. In contrast to the professional restaurants the fado vadio often takes places in local bars, fado clubs or during street festivals. In this setting only the guitarists are paid to accompany the singers throughout the night. Any singer can come and sing two fados. It is noteworthy, that although the material context differs between the professional and vadio-bars and houses, the distinction is clear on the social level. Musicians sometimes play in both houses, and professional singers often drop by at a vadio-bar to meet their friends and sing a fado. However, fado houses exist that are a hybrid of the two types of organizations; that is to say, fado houses in which, aside from the musicians, one singer is paid to open the night. In these houses the owner fills the night with fadistas he invites to sing after the break. This secures the house a certain degree of quality according to the owner’s taste, but the open structure does allow for a spontaneous and varied succession of fado voices. The restaurant Mesa de Frades, owned by the Portuguese guitar player Pedro Castro at the Rua dos Remédios in the heart of the Alfama neighbourhood is such a fado house.

Social encounters at the fado house


The fado night is a social event in which visitors drink, smoke, joke around, discuss politics or football and listen to fado. The lights are dimmed to communicate the start of the fado sessions. Absolute silence is demanded when the musicians start playing. There is no stage for the musicians. Depending on the space, the musicians may even sit next to the listeners or right in front of them. The fadista informs the musicians about the fado he or she likes to sing and in what key the fado should be played. The audience is strongly involved and interacts with the fadista at the finale of the fado. During the finale, exclamations as: ‘Ah.. fadista!’ or ‘Boa’ can be heard. Fado is usually sung in a set of three or two singers singing three or two fados. After the performance of three singers, the lights are turned on and the discussions, jokes, smoking and drinking continues inside and outside of the house. The fado night continues after a long break with sets of three new singers. Every night the act repeats itself creating a safely predictable form that has previously been identified as a ritual (Castelo Branco 2000, Gray 2005, Mendonça 2010).



Brita Lemmens ‘Rehearsal at Mesa de Frades with Pedro Castro’ 2010

For a novice singer, repeated visits to one, specific fado house are of crucial importance, as is the positive introduction to the owners of the house. I chose to make regular to the fado house Mesa de Frades. The owner invites the fadistas to sing shortly before the end of the break in between sessions. Because the fado milieu does not consist of so many people, the owners know most of the singers. The existent hierarchy amongst musicians and singers has resulted in the habit of inviting beginning fadistas only at the end of the night, when there is no one else left to sing. This is not only dependent on the quality of the voice but also on social relationships the novice singer has been able to build up. If the owner or organizer knows the singer better, it is more likely the singer will be asked to sing at an earlier stage in the evening. This meant for me that there were nights in which I listened in agony to the many singers who were clearly way beyond my level, only to be invited at the very end of the night. Sometimes it resulted in not singing at all. Part of the stress during the fado nights was a result of not knowing whether I would sing or not.

The first months I spent in Lisbon in 2009, were dedicated to listening, observing, and questioning. I knew one or two fados only from singing along with recordings and studying a book of fados made by an American musicologist Donald Cohen (The Portuguese fado, 2005). I had not sung fado in public and I refused to sing the first weeks whenever the owner Pedro Castro asked me. I tried to make it clear that I would much rather rehearse the fado first, before performing for an audience. The rehearsal did not come. Time passed with socializing and getting a grasp of how I was expected to behave. During the long breaks between the fado sessions, I learned about what type of voice is preferred. The attendees, always disputing their different position while smoking, did agree that an ‘educated’ voice (especially classically trained voice) was not at all fit to sing fado. It was the smoky, rough, warm voice that is considered optimal for fado singing. As fadista/composer and researcher, Daniel Gouveia explained to me: “You have a blue voice. A cold voice.  In Fado we use a voice ‘castanho ou laranja’ a brown or orange voice. Like Raquel Tavares, Carminho, and Ana Moura. I don’t want to discourage you from singing Fado, but you should work on making your voice warmer” (personal conversation with Daniel Gouveia, 10-08-2009).

I learned that any poem with the right amount of syllables could be sung to different fado melodies, and that no singer has the same technique, as there is not particular way of singing fado. I was taught that life was the school of fado and experience the most important ingredient for soulful singing. Chatting with the fadista Pedro Moutinho after his performance, I was confronted with the local conception that fado is something that cannot be learned. I tried to make clear to Pedro Moutinho the project I was planning; “He laughed a bit and explained that one cannot learn the fado. ‘You have ´alma´(soul) or you don’t’. To have a trained voice is not necessary. The only crucial thing is to feel fado and express it. Not willing to accept, I joked that I would continue my search for a teacher anyway’ (field notes, 3-7- 2009).

And that is how it starts. One learns a fado and is expected to sing it any time the invitation comes. The repeated performing of the fado gave the possibility to grow familiar with the rhythm of the guitars, the interactions between the musicians and the singer and the singer's interaction with the audience. Everyone was therefore witness to the learning process. The encouragement to continue came from the invitations of the owner to perform again, enabling an apprentice to grow. I did not spent all my nights at Mesa de Frades, throughout the months I visited fado houses as Tasca do Chico in Bairo Alto and in Alfama, Tasca do Jaime in Graça, Baiuca in Alfama, Clube Lisboa Amigos do Fado in Chelas, Casa das Mariquinhas, Chapito, Fabrica Braço de Prata, Senhor Vinho, Bacalhao de Molho, Bela, and Esquina de Alfama. Some I visited weekly, some I visited only once or twice and some became my harbours.

After my first experiences in the fado nightlife, it was time to systemize my learning process. I decided to record myself systematically every time I would rehearse at home or sing at a fado bar. On a daily basis, I rehearsed in between two or five fados, sitting at my desk with the lyrics on my computer or printed out, the voice recorder documented the development over the months. With this method, a development can be tracked with all the new fados I learned. From the first notes, to a self-secured preparation for performance, the fados were documented audibly. I did not only stick to home-recordings. The device was a useful tool for field recordings in fado houses. All the performances were recorded to the best of my abilities within the chaotic setting of the bars.

I had presupposed the learning environment to be similar to what was common in classical and jazz or pop music pedagogy. The practices in fado however are of a different kind. The learning processes appeared to be much more embedded in the performance practices and conversations during fado nights and fado concourse.

Very seldom there were small rehearsals in the back part of the restaurant Mesa de Frades. When the opportunity arose, I was also able to rehearse in the same way. One night I had made an appointment for such a rehearsal before the start of the fado night. 

On these nights I learned a lot and I was able to try it out right away, which of course was not always successful. After listening to the recordings, made over the months, one finds some mistakes that have never been corrected fully. This applied to pronunciation especially. Pedro Castro remarked in the beginning of August that I sang the vowels too open, and I still made the same mistake at the end of December. With the slow perfection of my Portuguese, my pronunciation naturally improved as well. My mistakes during performances were my most intense learning moments; a case of learning by trial and error.

During my long searches for new fados I tended to read myself in the poems, to relate my life to the ‘I’ of the poetic narrative. The relation between the lyrics and the singer is assumed to be very close in most cases. Fado poems deal with: love, the city of Lisbon, the neighbourhoods of Lisbon, the mythical figure of the fadista and prostitute Severa, the history of Portugal, the feeling of saudade, and the fado itself. The feelings that are discussed are sadness, happiness, missing, being in love, nostalgia, feeling of loss, satire or mockery, or anger, discontent, but also pride, and cheerfulness. As an apprentice, I felt obliged to stand behind the lyrics I sang, to mean every word and embody its sentiment. In my view, a collection of fados poems forms a framework in which fadistas can create their autobiographical narrative. 

The voice sometimes directs the choices of its songs due to the nature of the timbre. The type of voice was not the only criteria for choosing certain fados. As I learned during the first months, the fado had to fit my voice and my life. So far, I had been rehearsing sporadically at the fado houses, and every day at home. I sang the fados I already knew, tried out different endings and experimented in copying the recording.

Brita Lemmens ‘Development of Fado da Defesa, compilation of rehearsals’ 2010

Brita Lemmens ‘Practicing endings of Fado Azenha’ 2010

I did not know how else to teach myself to make those beautiful vocal turns, which they call voltinhas. How do the singers manage to glide down in semitones or microtones right before the forte finale?  As Ellen Gray had pointed out in her essay ‘Memories of Empire, Mythologies of the Soul’ (2007), the “shifts in vocal register, dynamic, heightened improvisation, use of rubato, melisma, vocal turns (voltinhas)" (p.116) were the moments that would be met with great approval by the audience. These stylistically signalled moments are the indicators of fadistas skill to create one’s own style. The acquisition of those skills was the aim in this project. How I would obtain them was a mystery to me.

Classes in Clube Lisboa Amigos do Fado

Brita Lemmens ‘Rehearsal at Club Lisboa Amigos do Fado with João Ramos’ 2010

A fado frequenter took me one night to a fado ‘school’, which to my surprise did exist after all. The school gave classes every week in a fado club in Chelas, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. From that week on, I visited the fado school every week with the intention of bringing at least one new fado every time. The next time I joined the classes the fado club owner asked me to rehearse with a guitarist Pedro Ferreira in the director’s room. This week I had brought the ‘fado Carmencita’, which I had rehearsed the week in advance. I rehearsed it listening to an old recording of a male fado singer who sang with an airy voice in a completely different key. Once I had understood the logic of the melody, I stopped listening to the recording and tried singing it with the lyrics in front of me in a key that fit my voice. I could not stop singing it in my head, in the kitchen, while walking in the streets. Therefore, I learned it quickly and with a lot of improvisations since I had not been stuck to the recording for too long. The following audio tracks are of a home rehearsal, a rehearsal at Club Lisboa amigos do fado with corrections of guitarrist Pedro Ferreira and a recording of two fado performances. The last recording is a comparison between a performance in the fado cafe Tasca do Jaime (25-9-2010) and Casa das Mariquinhas (9-12-2010).

Brita Lemmens ‘First rehearsal at home of Fado Carmencita’ 2010

Brita Lemmens ‘Rehearsal at Club Lisboa Amigos do Fado, rehearsing Fado Carmencita with Pedro Ferreira’ 2010

Brita Lemmens ‘Comparison of Fado Carmencita performed at Tasca do Jaime and Casa das Mariquinhas’ 2010

On Sunday afternoons, the club organized fado matinees that provided the students with a stage for their process. During these weekly fado sessions many members, who were not following classes or not following classes anymore, came to sing accompanied by the teachers and guitar students of the school. “This is my student,” said João Ramos proudly of almost every young performer during the Sunday session.

Classes with Arménio de Melo

Brita Lemmens ‘Rehearsal at Musicentro with Arménio de Melo’ 2010

During an interview with a Japanese fadista, I learned about the method she was using in her classes with Arménio de Melo. The fadista showed me some sheets of paper on which poems were printed. Above the words, I saw indications with arrows, which, as she explained, were an indication of the meter, with the help of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4. Some letters were circled in pencil in different colours. The colours referred to a particular sound the vowel should have. I was impressed by the rigidness of her annotations. I had heard of Arménio before; as a musicologist and professional Portuguese guitar player, he had developed a rigorous style of teaching.

He was critical of the fado milieu and local singing practices and much time was devoted to discussing this topic. The most problematic, Arménio told me, was the singer’s inability to divide the sentences by melodic phrases in such a way that the linguistic structure was respected. The wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable was so common in fado that it went unnoticed. Fadistas have recorded CDs with such mistakes, these CDs have been examples for apprentices and were re-performed to such an extent that the right division seemed wrong to most listeners. The central quest is whether singers give preference to the melody or to the text. A fadista can change the text to sing the melody in a certain way, or he or she can change the rhythm of the melody in order to repeat the text correctly. According to Arménio de Melo, the text should always be pronounced well since the message is transmitted through the medium of language. The melody has to be reshaped in order for the sentence to stay as logical as in speech. To illustrate this, the musician has many examples of how it is not supposed to be:

“There are so many singers who sing: ‘Foi por - vontade de Deus’ (‘it was for - God’s pleasure’. The break between ‘for’ and ‘God’s’ is a rupture in the logical linguistic sequence). ‘But the melody is like that’ they say. If the melody is like that, then you have to sing another poem to it. Therefore, they call it ‘classic’ or ‘traditional fado’, because it accepts any poem you sing with the melody. But for the melody to accept the poem it has to be ‘said’ correctly, which might imply an alteration in rhythm or melodic phrasing” (Arménio de Melo, field notes, 28-10-2010).

As Arménio remarked, my weak point was to get a feel for the correct sentence structure and pronunciation of words within the melodic phrases. Like many other fadistas, I did not always pay respect to the poem because I was so focused on giving an interesting melodic interpretation. I was one-step ahead of myself. First, I would have to learn how to sing Portuguese correctly so that all listeners could understand the poem, only then would I be ready to make melodic variations and give my own ‘style’ to it.

What interests me in these lessons”, Arménio explained, “is that you understand the importance of counting and measuring, that is most important. And, you have to learn that. With each poem that you have in front of you, of which you don’t know the meter, you can start counting while imagining its tempo. Once you start counting you will understand the fado”(field notes, 28-10-2010). 

For his students Arménio has developed a method to teach a correct division within fados. During the first lesson, he made me indicate the meter, ticking the first beat on my knee, and then left, right and up in the air. As once conducts a four quarters meter. When I managed to tick it correctly with the help of a metronome, we looked at fado lyrics for which he had made a very helpful sheet.

Above certain syllables, Arménio had indicated with arrows and numbers where it should fit in the meter. Counting with my hand, I could now read out the poem in such a way that the numbers indicated above the syllable corresponded to the movement of my hand. This might sound like the most basic lesson in conducting, but it had the effect of increasing awareness of the linguistic and poetical structure. Only when I managed to go through the poem in speaking voice, without making a mistake, could I continue to the next step: singing. This appeared to be not as easy as I thought. The melody seduced me to go astray, to forget my counting and to take a melodic walk. Through this exercise, I was forced to change and often simplify the melody in order for the words to stay connected. As musician and musicologist, Arménio de Melo assured me that, as within any other type of music, the skill of improvisation does not come naturally. It implies a lot of practice and knowledge to really understand what possibilities you have within a certain scheme of cords. “It means that all this is improvised, although there is something that dominates. One cannot play impulsively; ‘ah.. but it came out like this!’ they say. It came out like this because you did not do your homework. You have to work; everything has to be worked through. I know that in one musical phrase I have ‘N’ possibilities to fit it into the music. And, within the music I know ‘N’ other ways that are in accordance with it. Why? Because I know the language. I know the exact words, which are notes that can be played there. Why? Because I studied. If I had not studied I would not know. It is all a game” (Arménio de Melo, field notes, 28-10-2010). 

My rehearsal exercises at home changed with the material I had obtained from Arménio. In a few lessons, I had figured out how I could make his notes my own. I understood the logic and was able to apply it to fados I had learned before. I now started rehearsing by speaking through the lyrics before singing it. I tapped the meter with my hand on the table in order to follow the schemes I had made.

The way I interpreted ‘Fado Carmencita’ changed quite a bit. On the audio file, one hears the first part of the fado played in the bar Tasca do Jaime 25-9-2010 and the cafe Casa da Mariquinhas 9-12-2010. For the trained ear, one hears differences for example in the sentence: 'a cigana mais bonita do que um sonho, uma visão'. The division has shifted from a pause between 'bonita' and 'do que' to a pause between 'sonho', 'uma visão'. The effect is that the sentence is sung as it would be spoken.

Comparing learning environments

During those months, I had been taking lessons at the two schools simultaneously. I planned to explore the two teaching methods by confronting the teacher in Chelas with the interpretations I had developed with Arménio. In the following sound document, one can get an insight in the changes that took place in the way I sang the fado ‘Rua do Capelão or sometimes called ‘Fado Nova da Severa’. The fado is a composed song, meaning that the lyrics are written and fixed to this melody; no other poems are used for this melody. With the first recording, one can get an impression of how I sang the fado in July 2010 in the Mesa de Frades. I sang it very slow, I missed some entrances and the end was an uncomfortable mess. The second recording one hears a fragment of a lesson in Chelas by João Ramos. He corrected me in the division of a certain phrase. I picked up the correction and continued singing. In the recording following up on this is a lesson with Arménio de Melo, the recording is relatively long, and one can choose to listen to parts of it. Important to note is how Arménio undoes the correction of João Ramos and many more divisional mistakes that have become so much part of this fado that one does not hear it differently. The final recording is again the ‘Rua do Capelão’ in the lesson in Chelas. João Ramos was not there so the most experienced guitar students lead the lessons that evening. Confused as I was with the drastic changes the fado had gone through in my development, I missed several entrances, which one can hear at the start of the recording. The interpretation Arménio taught me, led to great confusion in the classes. ‘This fado is not sung so strictly. It has to flow.” This is the first remark. In the confusion of voices, one can hear the discussion it aroused. 

Brita Lemmens ‘Performance of the fado Rua do Capelão at Mesa de Frades’ 2010

Brita Lemmens ‘Rehearsal of the fado Rua do Capelão at Club Lisboa Amigos do Fado’ 2010

Brita Lemmens ‘Rehearsal of the fado Rua do Capelão with Arménio de Melo’ 2010

Brita Lemmens ‘Last rehearsal of the fado Rua do Capelão at Club Lisboa Amigos do Fado’ 2010

In retrospect, the rehearsals and exercises did contribute to a more convincing fado performance. The fado poses a double challenge to the apprentice. There is a musical challenge, the acquisition of skills and vocal techniques through a semi-organized oral transmission. But also one could identify a challenge asking the apprentice to reflect upon his or her biography and to translate that individual story into a musical one, the latter standing for the originality and authenticity of the fadista's intention. The learning process therefore could be characterized as a constant back and forth between learning by imitation and performing with innovation. This innovation refers to the ability to create a unique style, in fado called ‘estilar’, to connect the singing to one’s own emotional life and change the interpretation accordingly.

The process of going from imitation to innovation is the art of singing fado. To what extent a singer is able to come to that art, does not only depend on one’s talent but also one’s experience. In addition, in my view, one gets to innovation through a long learning process, which is not confined to one particular place or teacher. Rather, it consists of the many facets that make up the fado-milieu.

→ Conclusion

[1] The term ‘fado houses’ is used since the Portuguese call their restaurants ‘Casas de Fado’. Literally translated as fado houses. It must be clear that it refers to a restaurant in which fado is performed during or after dinner. The bars or cafés that are referred to in the text are called ‘Tasca’ in Portuguese and are often more informally organized and feature fado vadio.

Rui was very certain of putting me to up sing tonight. I was afraid. I would have liked to practice first, before singing in public (and what kind of public! Fadistas! Guitarristas!). I realized that if he and Pedro Castro were determined to hear me sing tonight, I could not refuse. If I would refuse, I would never sing. Or, it would be disastrous for my reputation. “You sing or you do not sing” said Rui. Which means ‘now or never’. So it was now. It was a perfect night. There were not so many listeners any more, there were two guitarists, one bass player, and just a few fadistas. (Now is the moment I will have to describe how I sang, what I experienced. ‘O Fado não se esplica’ You cannot explain Fado. I do experience that I find it incredibly hard to put it into words. This is what the whole project is about. Embodiment and reflective analysis). I did not know in what key I should be singing, Pedro Castro figured out in no time. Unfortunately, I did not hear which key it was, but I should find out, for the next time I sing. I opened my mouth and words flowed out. Tones flowed. I had a hard time getting into the rhythm, at the start of each phrase. I was insecure. I forgot one part of the poem and went too quickly to the end because the entrance was always difficult for me. The moment the refrain starts the harmony changes from minor to major. Afraid to miss this moment, I went too fast. The guitarists looked at me with tension and excitement. They followed immediately. I brought it to a good ending. I wanted to sing a fado bailado that I sang for my music exam in high school. I knew the song well, although I had not sung it in a long time and was not sure if I would remember all the lyrics. But, I just went for it. I wanted to make up for my mistakes of the first fado, and managed quite successfully. This fado had power. I put all my desire into it. It was as if I was not there, at that moment. The room was flying around me. I had my eyes open and saw the guitarists playing with each other, exchanging little phrases. I enjoyed singing at that moment. I felt strength coming from my chest. As I suspected, the sound did not resonate much in the head, the tones came up from the chest, to the throat where it gained its ornaments, and filled the room straight from there. I was surprised how easy it was to produce enough sound to fill the room.  

The moment before I started singing, I forgot all my experiences, all my musical capabilities, the years of training. Tabula Rasa. Is this part of singing fado? Forgetting everything you have learned and see what comes out that moment? It is a temporal thing. At that moment, you are there, telling or sharing your story. It is remarkable how willing everyone is to hear that story. Drinking every note you produce. I received a great applause when I was done with the fado bailado ‘Quanta melancolia’. Warm. It felt warm. They had been listening with great attention, hearing the Dutch girl sing for the first time. “Não era tão dificil.” (‘See that it was not hard’) was the first comment of Rui. And he was right. In the end it was not hard to sing, it was exciting, thrilling. The night was done. It was 5.30 in the morning, but I had not noticed it was that late. I talked to the attendee Fransisco, Pedro Castro, the fadista Luis and Rui the producer. They were very enthusiastic about my voice. Pronunciation is what I have to improve. I sometimes make mistakes with the words, pronounce them wrong, of which the Portuguese language is very sensible. “One can hear you sing Jazz.” “And she sings Jazz wonderfully! You should hear this girl sing Jazz, o Rui!” And so the conversation went on about my voice. (Field note, 29-7-2009).

They let me sing a fado. I sang ‘Fado Carmencita’. When I was done, Arménio gave me his analysis; rhythm was fine; placing of the voice was okay (they always refer to colocaçao. I am not sure what they mean by it. Most probably, it means that I do not sing off key, or it refers to certain control over the voice). “Your problem is the placing of the words and the pronunciation. But, ninety percent of all singers do not know how to do it right. They say it is tradition, But is it tradition to repeat the poem wrongly?” he said agitatedly. He continued about people who did not know how to sing.

There are only a few singers who give attention to the words. If you sing well, they already think it is fantastic. You do some gymnastics with your voice and they will clap for you. The problem is that they also know the lyrics so they do not listen to them any more. That is the advantage of the foreigner; he really has to try to understand. Later, when I sang ‘Fado da Defesa’, he remarked that I had already had knowledge of music. I make variations but I do not respect the rules of the verses. Variation and improvisation are most important but only when one can still understand the words. I asked him if there were words he had not understood. He confirmed that there were several words I did not pronounce clearly (field notes, 30-9-2010). 

I wanted to try ‘Rua do Capelão’ in the way Arménio taught me. I counted the times and tried to be correct in language as well. I noticed that now I have the tendency to enter a bit late in every new phrase. I don’t hear where the normal start is anymore, although I have to be able to do both. When I finished there was great unrest (already in my last notes). They looked at me very confused. “It is not supposed to be like this, it way too rigid, this fado needs to flow.” An adult guitar student, who lent me a CD last week, told me it was the guitarist's fault. “NO, another guitar student said, we follow the singers”. The first student turned to me and asked me if I had a recording of this fado. “I don’t actually,” I replied. He was surprised and offered a CD of Fernanda Maria with this fado for me to listen. “You do some things that are not part of the original fado, but that is good.” It is a pity I did not sing it with the João Ramos, he was not there today, though I’m curious what he would say about it (field notes, 15-12-10).