Performing fado


Did I learn to sing fado?

Although the expression ‘o fado não se aprende’ negates it, the description of my learning process serves to show that I did learn fado to a certain extent. The learning process obviously never ends. Why does the expression at the heart of this research say that one cannot learn to sing fado? Within the sentence word ‘não’ could be regarded as an indicator for the performative act of exclusion of something or someone outside of ‘the fado’. It demarks who is already inaugurated in the fado practices and who is not, or not yet. According to my observations, the sentence is most commonly reiterated to the person with lesser experience, even if the speaker expressing it is an apprentice himself/herself. Those who are ‘in’, are the fadistas who have gone through such a gradual learning process that it has never occurred to them that they have been listening, observing, imitating and experimenting all their lives. The demarcation functions as the creator of a fado or fadista identity inspired by a certain nationalism, sometimes, by musical purism and anti-classical music practices. The tension it creates between the reality of the learning process and the exclusionary performance of identity creation lies in the heart of the apprentices’ practices. It shows that, not only musical boundaries have to be overcome by the apprentice, but also socio-cultural borders have to be crossed in order to call oneself fadista.

What did I learn?

What I learned throughout my research in Lisbon is how to recognise the different types of fado melodies, which each singer matches to their own choice of poems. It took a lot of listening to recordings, which I organized by fado melody. But most of all I learned in the fado houses in which attendees and other singers taught me how to recognise those melodies. The next step was to choose fado melodies that suited the timbre of my voice and to connect to a poem that would fit to the meter of the song. By listening again to many versions of other fadistas and endlessly repeating their recordings, I made the fado my own. The most challenging process was to give a new interpretation of that melody and of the poem. The way to make it sound different was through stylizing it with embellishments such as melismas and creating an original ending. However the acquisition of musical skills is only one part of the learning process, the understanding of cultural metaphors and conventions form another part. Both aspects are learned through observing, listening, repeating, imitating and in the end: innovating.

Tacit- to discursive knowledge

Building on the results of my research I argue that much of the skill involved in singing fado can be understood as tacit knowledge embodied in the fadistas' performances. In his book The Social Theory of Practice (1994) Stephen Turner investigates the changing concept of ‘practice’ and the philosophical problems that arise when we want to understand a practice as tacit knowledge. Turner defines the epistemic problem of practices the following way: “They present themselves as natural objects, with natural powers. But, the only access we have to them is through our own ‘culture’. From the point of view of what we can know about them, or how we can construct them they are irremediably cultural facts”(Turner, 1994, p.103). However in daily life the cultural is lived and perceived as the natural. My position as singer and researcher implied a constant back and forth between living the art practice and reflecting upon the acquired skills that came to feel natural to me.

The performing of knowledge

If the knowledge of fado singing is embedded in its practices, how can we know about it? How can this knowledge travel?

Aiming to offer an alternative to the supposed binary opposition between art practice and theory, Peters proposes in his essay ‘Woorden van hout’ (2012) to give attention to the epistemic situation, which is created when art takes place. Peters defined the concept of epistemic situatedness as tool to approach the artistic context, like fado, in which performance skills are acquired and used. Can we conceive of the performing art as a form of active theory? What theory is embedded in art? “Next to theory about art there is theory in the arts. We should conceive of this form of theory as a way of contextual positioning that is part of every creation or performing process of art” (Peters, 2012, p. 77). The author argues that the performance could be seen as the creation of a situation in which knowledge is made available. The notion of epistemic situatedness points at the context in which the performative act is simultaneously an act of knowledge. As an artistic researcher I have aimed to make this knowledge available through reflecting upon the art-practice so that it can travel to other contexts in the form of text or in the form of a concert. This writing is primarily involved in making the journey undertaken in this process transparent and therefore re-travelable for the reader. In the different parts of the text, several transformations are visible, from singing to description, from singing to recording, from listening to description, from description to citation of a borrowed theory, from the borrowed theory to a new framework for description. Language and styles of writing constitute a clear process of translation, in a figurative and literal sense.

The artistic research has not differed in this sense from scientific practices, as Bruno Latour describes them in Pandora's hope: essays on the reality of science studies (1999). In his work, Latour is particularly interested in how theory is produced, with great detail for all the transforming practices that make the material into a scientific referent. In Pandora’s Hope, the author observed geomorphologists and pedologists in their research practices. The scientists researching the Amazonian soil select their samples, which they detach, separate, preserve and classify. From plants, the samples are turned into abstractions that become scientific referents. Acts of reference do not rely on a resemblance to the reality the samples were extracted from; they rely on a regulated series of transformations, transmutations and translations. “Phenomena are not found at the meeting point between things and categories of the human mind: phenomena are what circulates all along through the reversible chain of transformations, at each step losing some properties to gain others that render them compatible with already established centres of calculation (Latour, 1999, p. 72). This is how scientific knowledge has been circulating as ‘electricity through wire’ on the condition of a non-disrupted circuit (Latour, 1999, p. 69). What has theory done to the sample of soil? Through the practices of theory, the soil has travelled from materiality to textuality, enabling us to know about this little part of the Amazon through reiteration and citation within the academic community. 

One could consider my voice the soil of this project. The changes my voice has undergone on the artistic level are influenced by the research transformation from unrecorded to recorded rehearsals. The recordings stimulated development within my voice, and obversely the learning practices and environments changed my documentation methods. Field notes and audio or video documentation have become my referents to construct an academic text. Through text, audio- and video recordings this embedded knowledge has become discursive knowledge. However I do not want to consider the text as the only product of this artistic research, for it has been only a vehicle to give the reader a chance to re-travel the chain of transformation my voice has gone through.

Throughout the months I discovered that other singers also used similar reflection tools for their learning process, such as observations, listening, recording and documenting. In this light, I was not unique in my ethnographic practices at all, although the objective did differ. The recordings and observations made by the fadistas I interviewed, will stay within the epistemic situatedness. Although their music might travel all over the world, the knowledge about the learning process will stay within the context of the Lisbon sub-culture.

So far, the discipline has searched for arguments to consider art-works acts of knowledge and to give it a place in academia through Artistic Research (Borgdorf (2009), Peters (2012), Coessens et al. (2009)). My experiences however made me realize how academic tools can guide me as a singer to explore another art-practice. I considered the research as a form of educating my own voice, as a counter act to the institutionalized voice education of the conservatory. Since the skills of singing fado cannot be learned within the institutionalized learning environment, the research allowed me to engage in an intense training in the midst of the oral transmission in Lisbon. The project started and ended with my voice as my research tool. The artistic experiment I embarked on, concerned the question whether or not I could adapt to the voice quality characteristic for singing fado. To be frank, the artistic goal was to learn to sing fado and to become good at it. The product of my learning process is the voice I have developed and the vocal skills that I can now apply as a singer. During the fado lessons and fado nights, I performed a double role, as participating apprentice and as observing researcher. The comments, critique, and corrections directed to me as a singer, were processed as artistic learning material on the one hand, and as ethnographic material indicating the oral transmission on the other. The field was therefore not site specific. Whenever I was engaged in the singing of fado, in conversation and in listening to fado, I was in the field.

The difference between the ethnomusicologist and the artistic researcher is the intention to perform the acquired knowledge within the arts and in text. Out of this research we can extract a form of researching oral transmission from within, with the purpose of enriching one’s own artistic practice. I hope to inspire fellow singers to embark on similar journeys and to let us re-travel their process through documentation and performance.


Annette Arlander, ‘Characteristics of Visual and Performing Arts’ in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, edited by Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson (London: Routledge, 2010)

Paul Atkinson and Martyn Hammersley, Ethnography: principles in practice, 2nd Ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2003)

Gregory F. Barz and Timothy J. Cooley, Shadows in the Field. New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Henk Borgdorff, ‘The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research’ in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, edited by Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson (London: Routledge, 2010)

Kathleen Coessens, Darla Crispin, and Anne Douglas, The Artistic Turn. A manifesto  (Ghent: Ness Goff, 2009)

Ruth Finnigan, Oral Traditions and the Verbal Arts; A Guide to Research Practices (London: Routledge, 1992)

Lila Ellen Gray, ‘Re-sounding History, Embodying Place: Fado performance in Lisbon, Portugal’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 2005).

Lila Ellen Gray, ‘Memories of Empire, Mythologies of the Soul: Fado performance and the shaping of saudade’, Ethnomusicology vol. 51, no. 1 (2007)

Mantle Hood, ‘The Challenge of Bi-Musicality’, Ethnomusicology. Vol. 4, no.2 (1960)

Bruno Latour, ‘Circulating Reference. Sampling the Soil in the Amazon Forest’ in Pandora's hope: essays on the reality of science studies (Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard University Press, 1999)

Peter Peters, ‘Woorden van hout. Voorbij het dualisme van theorie en praktijk in het kunstvakonderwijs’ in Denken in kunst. Theorie en reflectie in het kunstonderwijs  edited by Henk Borgdorff and Peter Sonderen (Leiden: Leiden Publications, 2012) pp. 74-85.

Stephen Turner, The Social Theory of Practice tradition, tacit knowledge, and presuppositions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994)