Fados of Portugal
A Charming Vintage Folk LP You Can Download
By Kurt Wildermuth
What do you know about fado?
For some of you, fado is a given, a feature on your musical landscape: old school, old news, even though the tradition carries on. Until recently, I knew only that it is a form of Portuguese folk music, and it has been on my mental list of things to check out.
An opportunity to do so arrived in the form of a thrift-shop find: a vintage copy of the LP Fados of Portugal. One look at the cover and I felt that tingly sensation announcing that an informative and probably pleasurable listening experience was in store. And indeed, the album turns out to be a gem that opens windows onto worlds.
As the cover suggests, the happy man and woman posing on the dock are the fado singers on the album. Manuel Fernandes delivers six songs on the first side; Maria do Espírito Santo, six on the second.
Fernandes and Do Espírito Santo were natives of Lisbon, born in 1921 and 1938 respectively. He retired from his professional singing career in the mid-1980s, she from hers in 1970. Each recorded separately--EPs mainly--and in 1963 the U.S. label Monitor Records released this split LP.
Monitor turns out to be a little story unto itself. As detailed on its Discogs page, Monitor was founded in Manhattan in 1956 and ended its run in the New York City suburb of Mount Vernon about thirty years later. In addition to classical music, Monitor released what we now call world music. The owners had a mission, and Monitor's Music of the World series includes some 250 recordings of international folk musics: East of the Urals, The Voices and Drums of Africa, Bomba! Monitor Presents Music of the Caribbean, Viva Chile! and so on. The Monitor album covers tend to be as kitschily colorful as the titles.
You can supply your turntable with vintage Monitor vinyl, but hearing the music can be even easier, because the label's catalog now belongs to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. At its website and Discogs, Smithsonian Folkways describes itself as "the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States. We are dedicated to supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound." The Monitor collection is one of a dozen subsections added to Smithsonian Folkways' own treasure trove of recordings, which go back to the 2,168 albums released by Moses Asch's original Folkways Records. At https://folkways.si.edu/monitor-records/smithsonian you can download tracks from or order custom CDs of that treasure trove or the subsections, including the Monitor albums.
For Fados of Portugal, the Smithsonian Folkways website provides this capsule description: "A popular genre, fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with sentiments of resignation and melancholia. Singers (fadistas) Manuel Fernandes and Maria do Espírito Santo provide a musical journey to Portugal with heart and passion. They are accompanied by Francisco Carvalhinho on the Portuguese guitar and Martinho d'Assunção on the Spanish guitar, or viola."
The two musicians combine restraint with virtuosic technique, creating about as much atmosphere as seems possible from an acoustic guitar. Of course, the recording conditions in the early '60s were primitive by today's standards, but the sonic limitations contribute to the music's charm. For music this spare, no sensible listener wants evidence of trickery. The analog sounds should cleanly reproduce a guitarist and a singer creating spontaneous art in a particular room.
The back cover of Fados of Portugal provides brief bios of the singers, identifying each as "a popular recording star." While the song titles are translated, the lyrics are given only in Portuguese. A brief English paragraph summarizes the meaning. For example, "Trova Eterna," or "Eternal Song," encapsulates the people's love for this music: "With all his graciousness, God wanted to give Portugal the fado, eternal song, splendorous sunshine, and beautiful music so the happy people would sing the fado of Lisbon."
Not knowing Portuguese enables me to focus on the sheer sounds and the emotions. Without the cover's description of "Castelo Branco" I might possibly intuit that it addresses the "happiness one feels when in direct contact with nature," but no amount of careful listening would likely reveal that "Queijo Saloio" concerns a goat's milk cheese. In any case, the singers prove so captivating that for all I care (and with no disrespect to the folk lyricists or cultural significance of the material), they could be singing grocery lists.
Side 1 finds Manuel Fernandes employing his supple, very pleasant voice on mainly old-timey but nontheatrical, dry-eyed ballads. His delivery ranges from the almost conversational to something like Elvis Presley channeling Enrico Caruso, agile on the faster songs, staying mostly in his middle range, occasionally soaring. It's easy to understand why, as the website Museu do Fado notes, Fernandes was "one of the artists selected to represent Portugal at the Latin Song Festival, in Genova," in 1957.
On Side 2, Maria do Espírito Santo exhibits a breathtaking vocal control and an unforced soulfulness that suggest she had the talent to be in the world's pantheon of revered singers. She characteristically casts a line, projecting it however far, even to the point of whooping, then tightens it up. She can hold a note or change course instantly. Her delivery combines a swirling, trilling Middle Eastern feel with the groundedness, the underlying sense of life's fullness and tragicomedy, of Edith Piaf or Billie Holiday. Portuguese fado connoisseurs note online that her small body of work is held in high regard.
To my ears, the two sides of Fados of Portugal are a revelation akin to hearing the album Buena Vista Social Club (1997) for the first time. Some of you might be too young or too culturally sophisticated to fathom this, but at the time, outside Cuba, the sounds of Cuban musicians pouring their hearts and souls into classic sons and criollas was a novelty. The infectiousness of that music, the richness and beauty of the recording, and the overall freshness and good spirits of the project turned it into a huge hit and an entertainment phenomenon, including concerts, follow-up albums, and Wim Wenders's Academy Award-nominated 1999 documentary.
Some commentators view Buena Vista Social Club as nonauthentic, especially because of American guitarist Ry Cooder's spearheading of the project and its somewhat nostalgic, even romanticized nature. In my view, opening ears overrides such objections. As Smithsonian Folkways puts it, "We believe that musical and cultural diversity contributes to the vitality and quality of life throughout the world." In any case, because fado is a wholly different kind of music, stripped to the bone and not made for dancing, it's unlikely that even a Portuguese-based project akin to Buena Vista Social Club would speak to a popular audience of the same magnitude.
You, intrepid listener eager to feed your ears, might make your way to the Iberian peninsula via Fados of Portugal or one of the other fado albums released by Monitor. Any of these recordings could also serve as a gateway to the rest of Smithsonian Folkways' riches.
Also see Kurt Wildermuth's website
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