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.