living and dying

Olá from Lisbon, Portugal,

The evidence is unequivocal. Globalisation has brought both good and bad. In Portugal – first to navigate the oceans and colonise other parts (Let’s agree that was the first phase of globalisation.) – the benefits to contemporary culture are obvious. Portugal benefited whilst indigenes in hosts did not.

Fado is a product of the colonial phase of globalisation. At both ends of its existence it’s influenced heavily by international movement of people.

In a patriarchal society, women are often hostage to the whims/generosity/commands/strictures of their men. In seafaring Portugal, women were often left alone for extended periods of time. During these times, they wrote lamentations and sang the sad songs, thereby inventing Fado. The art form – despite being solely of the poorer classes – became such a revered part of the culture, public performance was accompanied by silence. There came to be a saying in Portugal: “Quiet please, I’m about to sing Fado”.

The lyrics of Fado are about one of those untranslatable words. In this case: saudade. Perhaps the best interpretation of saudade is the feeling of melancholy attached to unrequited love, prolonged periods of loneliness and (mostly) the great uncertainty felt by the women of the fickle ocean-going voyages.

Fado shows have been a feature of night life in Lisbon ever since. The Fadistas, normally backed by acoustic strings, sing the songs of melancholy to silence. The sets are even designed to allow for drinks, ablutions and meals – just so that the noise doesn’t interfere with the performance. But, like all unwritten rules, they tend to be broken by newcomers, not necessarily attuned to the etiquette. The rules of silence fall into the category of etiquette which can or can’t be observed – the infringer knowing full well there’ll be no penalty for non-observance.

The latest wave of globalisation, in which almost anything crosses international boundaries with ease and impunity, brings tourists to Portugal. It’s a mixture of a blessing and a curse. The tourists are here to savour Lisbon’s unique blend of cosmopolitan vibrancy, something this city has in spades. The Fadistas offer a unique element of this culture, something even the most diffident visitor wants to sample. It’s on the list of things to do in Lisbon.

Trouble is, they aren’t all willing to follow the unwritten rules. Either they don’t know or don’t care about the cultural etiquette. In some Fado shows, the loud tourists talk through the sets, even though the sets are designed to prevent that.

Do the Fadistas adapt and lose something critical to the culture? The inexorable accretion of globalisation seems to say that this is what happens. In the process, globalisation – the first phase of which begot one unique facet of Portuguese culture – homogenises the global culture. Something unique is lost and Fado becomes a relic rather than a living thing.

Lisbon Fado

In the meantime, Fado is hanging on. If you are a tourist visiting Lisbon, please remain silent during the Fado show.

Adeus from Lisbon


Leave a Reply