I heard this music for the first time on a sunny September day in Lisbon, having a white sangria in the Bar 38º 41' at the Altis Belem on the shore of the Tagus river.
Fado is Lisbon vibe pure, a form of music full of mournful tunes and lyrics infused with a sentiment and melancholia. A typical trait of fado is rubato, when the guitar pauses at the end of a phrase and the singer holds the note for dramatic effect. The music uses double time rhythm and triple time, in a waltz style. Which is not really my style, I like tango the best.
Still, I was curious.
“Your guitar sounds good,” I said to the old man who was selling fado CD’s from a green ancient truck on Rua Augusta. He was sitting in front of his old British Bedford playing the Portuguese guitarra, a plucked string instrument with twelve steel strings arranged by two. And he was playing it just right - the music filled the narrow street without being too intense.
So I couldn’t help myself from asking:
“What do you think about tango? You play guitar so well, you could play anything.”
He didn’t react to the question for a while until he seemed to get out of his comma once he put the guitar away. He stomped on the cigarette and started speaking with a low voice: “I can, and I did, I still do on some evenings. And you don’t really dance the tango, that’s the genius of it, it’s what makes it special – you play it. You hold your woman close to you, or you try. And she moves like a cat, full of passion and desire, around the man. And the music makes it both, hot and subtle. She asks you to control her, but she doesn’t say it, she just wants you to know it before you even start the dance. “ He hung down his head like was exhausted with his memories.
“What was the most important thing she said to you?” I asked, and he looked up, not really seeing me at all.
“She said – hold me tight.”
Then he was just looking at the cobblestones of the street.
“But I didn’t, I failed,” he said finally.
Later he was gathering his things, the big guitar and the CDs packing them into the old green truck. And he looked at me one last time. “What do you listen to when the life don’t go as you had hoped it will?”
“A violin,” I said.
I left and got in the line to the Santa Justa lift, which connects the lower streets of Baixa, with the higher Carmo Square. Standing there, I saw his green Bedford truck leaving and it was all quiet on the street now. The lift was built in 1902, with fancy shapes of the places where columns attach to the horizontal structures. It has a platform on the top with the best around view of Lisbon, my opinion. This was the end of a beautiful day, end of the weekend too. Down on the Tagus river a couple of ships were anchored, waiting to moor at the port on Monday to get their cargo and then go back in the Atlantic.
Down in the narrow streets, in the shadows thrown by the setting sun, someone was playing violin.
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler