Lisbon is the city of Fado music. It seems that at least one person in every family can sing fado, like a bird on a wire, like a blind poet.
Fado has two souls. The first fado soul is serious, emotional, dramatic, The singers clench their fists against their chests, with eyes tight shut, while howling those abrupt sounds of soulful music.
The other soul of fado is light and international, a music of the shiny boulevard, which might be the Champs Elysees in Paris, or the Rambla in Barcelona. Yet this soul belongs to the old empire of Vasco de Gama, of Portuguese admirals and sea wolves who conquered new worlds with efficiency and cruelty.
There is yet a third soul to Fado, invisible to all for centuries on end, like humble, colorful laundry, hung high and waving in the wind, as the flags of the oppressed. The oppression of kings, then emperors, then dictators, and today, the modern oppression of banks and austerity.
What goes on in Lisbon stays in Lisbon, in your soul and in the soul of the city. No music or novel can do this city justice, much less your eager tourist pics, videos, instagrams, and vines… Cities can be both soulless and soulful, just like people, and I make no judgement which is better: I like them empty and I like them full, just as I like the moon.
The soul of Lisbon is female, it is that powerful faddist voice that comes out as an unpredictable piercing clear tone of a lament that desires no pity. Fado thrives in lamentation and despises consolation, because that is the human condition. Amalia Rodrigues, the late and legendary fadista, has a memorial statue in Lisbon: it depicts this pretty woman, who rose from utter poverty to stardom, with the big broken face of a Medusa, the fado singer as a mermaid, as a goddess from tragedy.
The living fado legend, Mariza, has very short blonde-tinted hair, a punk with the affect of the Velvet Underground. In the USA, the musical soul of American society is haunted by the blues, while in Lisbon, the late empire’s dignified women, dressed in their black shawls, howl the fado to make your grandma shudder in her grave. Fado leaks through Portugal’s generations as a gift from the gods, a heavy gift to bear, and even heavier if you don’t sing about it.
In Lisbon, the Austerity is so deeply ingrained these days that the public demonstrations downtown have become public rituals, like a fado with protest signs. The adaptable city exports its citizens to wherever the money has gone, and it survives from tourism. Lisbon is not a Disneyland self-parody. It’s a hospitable and peaceable capital of high culture, with art, museums, art, design exhibitions — and plenty of low culture too, like fado and heavy metal. You can lunch with a fisherman, but dine with the president.
Lisbon has a dress code: the fadista takes due care to wear her time-honored black shawl, while a male singer of fado take the stage in his suit, and sings with his hands in their jacket pockets. The wildly baroque, aristocratic monastery of Saint Jeronimo is just across the street from a spectacularly weird high-tech future city curated by Liam Young. No matter the shape of its many windows, the city of Lisbon still hangs out its own laundry.
It’s an eloquent laundry, too: uniforms, rags, rugs, napkins , shawls…Laundry by the magnificent bridge, towering like the Golden Gate in San Francisco. Laundry in the sudden and unexpected favelas, which sprout like grass from old ruins. The long November sunlight burns the benches on the riverbank. The moonlight turns uneven cobblestones to chessboards.
Beware, you who cross the threshold of the city of fado, you lovers who dare to plumb your souls to the last depth, you who have known love and loss. Death will come like liberation to those who fail to love and lose in the city of Fado!