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Jose_malhoa_fado public domain

Fado painting by Jose Malhoa

There’s a saying in Portuguese that goes: “Tao Fadista quem canta como qum sabe escutar”, meaning “A Fado singer sings like someone who knows how to listen”.

Medieval minstrel publicdomain
Having learned about Fado while researching our trip to Portugal, I was intrigued with this most local of all things local, since this genre of music has been a part of Portuguese culture for centuries. Exactly when and from whom it originated is debatable, but there are several schools of thought: some believe Fado dates back to the 1800s, when the Moors called this piece of Europe home; others believe it originated with Brazilian slaves since many of the lyrics speak to the sea and far away places; still others trace this style of music and song to as far back as the Middle Ages when minstrels and jesters entertained audiences with songs dedicated to friends and women.

Whatever its origins, the music and lyrics of Fado are moving and emotional, as the ‘listening’ a singer does is with his heart, not his ears. The lyrics may sound sorrowful, but it is a bittersweet lament, describing a moment that was wonderful but now is lost, either through time, distance, or other forces, leaving that moment behind forever. Singing about these experiences is cathartic, nostalgic and moving, both for the performer and the audience since it speaks to a time that can never be recaptured, yet paradoxically, lives on forever through the song.

Henk and I were keen to experience Fado while in Lisbon, but having seen many larger dinner shows advertised as ‘authentic’, we were skeptical that these performances would be touristy, expensive, and lacking intimacy. Luckily, after taking a free walking tour with Chill Out Tours, we asked one of our guides for a Fado venue that they could recommend. Even luckier, the small bar they suggested, Tasca do Chico, was literally a half block from our rental apartment in Bairro Alto, a neighbourhood known as a local hot spot for nightlife, bars and restaurants.

Tasca do Chico exterior

Tasca do Chico *photo lizaperon.blogspot.ca

The Fado experience we had at Tasca do Chico was no dinner show or lounge act, and couldn’t have been more intimate: the bar is beyond tiny, with shared seating for maybe 40 people crowded together at wooden tables. Henk and I ordered drinks while waiting for the performances to begin, and once the tables were full and the singer was ready, the owner/presenter closed the door to the bar, asked for respectful silence from the audience, and then introduced the performer in Portuguese, without so much as a nod to English.

Tasca do Chico wall

The walls of Tasca do Chico are covered with posters of Fado singers

Over the course of the next hour or so, Henk and I were treated to performances by several singers, including a gentlemen who fit my idea of a what a traditional Fado singer would be (distinguished, older) and a woman who followed in the tradition of famous female singers such as Amália Rodrigues.

portuguese Fado guitar images

Fado musicians play a 12-stringed Portuguese guitar whose design dates back centuries

But it was a handsome young Michael Buble lookalike who took the stage last who blew us away with his absolutely brilliant voice and stirring performance. Even though we couldn’t understand a word, he owned the room and turned me into a Fado fan.

As a traveller, it’s not often that an experience lives up to the anticipation, but our Fado evening was an exception, and after arriving back at our apartment, I immediately began writing, anxious to capture the afterglow of the performance.

Like the moments expressed in the songs we had just heard, I wanted to capture the memory of this night as well.

TIP: Tasca do Chico is located on Rua do Diario de Notices near the corner of Travessa da Espera. Performances typically start in the evening, after 10:30 or 11pm, with the more accomplished performers singing later. (If the door is closed, be prepared to wait for the next performance, as people come and go between acts.)

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