How long has Fado been on my mind?
Well, I take myself back to the early 1970s and inside the Tribhuvan University Library at Kirtipur. I was leafing through the pages of a recent issue of National Geographic when my eyes froze on a full-page color photograph. The photojournalism story was on Portugal.
The full-blown photograph showed three working-class persons in a marketplace that was probably in Lisbon. The one on the left (on the right in the photo) was a middle-aged woman in a sandy billowing frock and covered in a gray shawl. She was singing, her lips contorted and her face red in a wailing that was certainly high-pitched. There was such pain lined on her furrowed cheeks and forehead that even the soundless image of the color photograph conveyed the message in shrills.
Unbeknownst to me then, she was a Fado singer who sang the saddest songs of Portugal.
In the middle was a younger man, a pudgy fellow, perhaps a vegetable vendor or a fishmonger. His white apron was wet in the middle. He was wiping the tears he was shedding and was copiously weeping at the words and strains of the woman’s voice cadenced by her flailing hands and hunched shoulders.
Next to him was a slightly older and slimmer man, happy-go-lucky in airs, and clad in a lateral zebra-striped t-shirt and tapered jeans, much in style of those days. He was giggling while grasping the right arm of the crybaby man for solace and consolation, at the same time also trying to duck his head under the wringing hands of the weeper, as if in unease, embarrassment or plain unchecked amusement. He was there for that certain “saudade” which Fado fatefully engenders, a soulfulness of solidarity in universal, national and individual fatalism that Fado metastasizes. He was there for a soul-mated commonality given to all mortal human beings on their existential marathons. His message is, “Alright, alright! But let’s make the best of it all, okay?”
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju
This was for me a fundamental and dense Fado façade in one frozen frame. It was my first familiarity with Fado, but only in wordy narration and photo images. It would be decades later when I would hear the actual music in cassettes, CDs, and then on airwaves and TV channels, through Winamp and other real-time website broadcasts and YouTube in the 2000s. It was how I began with Amalia Rodriguez and am with Mariza at present.
I appreciate and understand the National Geographic picture more clearly only today when I can hear and listen to Fado and its fortuitous fugues.
It is also only now that I can finally understand more clearly the deep despairs of the woman wailer. On national levels, she is crying for Mother Portugal who had seen happier and more prosperous centuries. Now her empire had shriveled, seceded and disappeared. Her great navigators had discovered and dominated lands thousands of leagues all over and many times larger than Portugal. Her ships freighted gold bullions from the New World, transported cargoes of flavored spices, precious stones, fine brocade and silk, fragrant incense and myrrh from Asia. Now the empire was lost for ever.
On personal levels, the woman lamenter sang of young coastal women waiting for their seafaring men who had sailed away for the king and queen and many never returned, being fallen to scurvies, diseases in alien lands or lost at sea. Waiting, pining and longing, and spending the interregnum in suspended loneliness and long deprivation, it all created personal Fados among the Portuguese. Life’s patent unfair deals and history’s loaded dices conspired to cause further miseries, vicissitudes and imbalanced similes.
It is exactly like Nepali hill village lasses waiting for their Lahurey men to return with money, medals and materials or reckon with their gone missing in Messina or Mesopotamia without trace. It is then Gainey (now Gandharva or Gayak) Jhalakman of Pokhara sings: “Aamaale sodhlin ni ‘Khai chhoraa?’ bhanlin…..”
Nepal, too, has had its Fado for centuries, and that is one reason, among others, I am writing this piece. The Nepali “dukha” and “durbhagya” and “bhawi” define its people’s Fado in Nepal. Lost causes suffered by nations and sustained by their adversely affected people produce sad songs, and Fado creates those fateful euphonic, much like the Rembetika of those Greeks ousted from Turkey and rehabilitated along the fringes of Athens.
Needless to say, I find the world of music seamless, boundless, and impossible to even scratch each genre on its surface in one lifetime. Apart from what I’ve been influenced by from my adolescent years in the 1950s and ’60s – the Singin’ Cowboys (Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter); airs of Scottish glens and Irish peat bogs; church chorales in Darjeeling; then Pat Boone, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Cliff Richards, Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the British Invasion and the American Answerbacks – the canvas has become even more complicated, crowded and colorful with old Beethoven, Bach, Mahler, Grieg, Wagner, Satie, Faure, and latterly John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and other iconoclasts.
In later years, I’ve been touched by the Caribbean waves of the Calypso sounds of Harry Belafonte, the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré’s African horizons, Bossa Nova’s Brazilian and Argentinian pampas, the South African rainbows in Miriam Makeba, the Turkish Greeks’ reversed Rembetika. The list goes on.
But for sometime, I’ve been drawn to Fado [fa:du or faðu], the plaintive, lament-ridden and nostalgia-infused music of Portugal. Though I don’t understand Portuguese, the music’s melodic structure, instrumentation and singing style are enough to express human fado.
The word, originating from “fatum,” means fate and destiny, or “what’s written on the forehead” – to take one Nepali saying: It’s Lila, Bhagya, Bhavi!
It’s just that Fado spawns in the doom and gloom of our mortal existence, and yet life is still full of more woes and vagaries.
On one plane, Fado is Europe’s Country Western, describing life’s beat-up trucks, burning houses, betraying girlfriends, deserting wives, stock busts, bankruptcies, sellouts, foreclosures, and dustbowls and rustbelts which finally compel oneself to take the hobo’s lonesome railroad tracks in the end, leaving green dreams and endearing memories forever behind.
On larger scales, Portugal and its worldwide ethos in Macao, Indonesia, Mozambique, Angola and Brazil have Amalia Rodriguez.
Nepal and its far-flung diasporas in Darjeeling, Sikkim, Bhagsu, Dehradun and elsewhere in India, in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Fiji and the rest of the world have Aruna Lama.
It’s their plaintive voice alone, in the end, which conveys the fado of their respective worlds to the universe.
Fado, in this case, isn’t simply “dukha,” or “bhagya” or miseries, misfortunes, missed opportunities or “I wish it were otherwise” wishful dreams: It’s the worse bitter half of life in this world. In that case, Fado is more real than anything else in life, because Fado comes upon us in as many forms, as the “Nau Lakha Tara” of Amber Gurung and Agam Singh Giri.
So I listen to Fado as often as I can these days.
The writer is the copy chief at The Week and can be contacted at email@example.com