Flirting with 'fado'

Flirting with 'fado'

Goan music

Flirting with 'fado'

This is the story of two lovers. Both from the fishing community. They were madly in love but the girl’s mother did not like the boy. Every time she would see the boy, she screamed so hard that the marketplace building trembled. The lovers were distraught. But between picking crates of sardines, they could steal a few kisses… This is the story of two lovers.” 

In Goa’s Maracas restaurant, Sonia Shirsat was narrating a story as I sat under a mango tree with a crowd sipping sangria. Dressed in black and white, a mantilla thrown on her shoulder, her hair in golden gradient, Shirsat held the mike and the crowd held its breath. The yellow light from the chandelier lit the blue walls, the accompanying musicians picked the cue and suddenly a dulcet voice resonated as if from the heavens. Narrating the story of two lovers in Portuguese. The voice rose and fell, the intonations rendering the agony of a teardrop and the ecstasy of a stolen kiss. Music hit a crescendo, the timbre a magnificence. Then, the applause. And a graceful nod from Shirsat.

Shirsat was not an unknown name for me. I had heard about the queen of fado but that evening was my first fado moment. Shirsat and her team have been performing across the city as part of ‘Fado in the City’ project.

Musical origins

Fado, which borrows its name from Latin fatum (fate), is a Portuguese musical genre characterised by mournful tunes and lyrics infused with resignation, fatefulness and melancholia — emotions encapsulated in the Portuguese word saudade (longing). Music historians have not carbon dated fado, but it can be traced to 1820s in Portugal and is believed to have been created by a pair of lovers, Dom Francisco Paula Portugal e Castro, the 13th Count of Vimioso, and Maria Severa, a singer. Today, there are two main styles of fado — Lisbon and Coimbra, with Lisbon being the more popular style and Coimbra, closely linked to academic traditions of the University of Coimbra. Exclusively sung by men wearing academic outfit, Coimbra is performed at night, almost in the dark.

That night in Maracas as Shirsat sang ‘Ten Shades of Love’, darkness fell. And the acoustics fell silent. A power cut. But fado did not die under the inky sky. The musicians Orlando Noronha, Carlos Manuel Meneses and Dr Allan Abreu forgave the electrical fault and played on as Shirsat’s voice rang through the four walls. She was singing about a woman who had found another love and was making a doleful confession to her first love. 

I understood not a word of Portuguese lyrics. But then music never really has a language. The ‘Ten Shades of Love’ settled under my skin like an eternal saudade (longing). I had heard Shirsat sing, but not met the woman behind that glorious voice. Next day, Shirsat and I met again. Away from the crowd and the mike. Shirsat is again in black and white, her hair still gradients of golden and her voice dulcet like yesterday. She breaks into a big smile and begins with the confession that she has no formal training in music. For a long time, she did not even speak Portuguese, the sole language of fado.

She was as if to the music born; the rhythm and the throatiness bequeathed by her mother, an amateur fado singer who spoke Portuguese at home. By nine, Shirsat was singing in school music competitions and romping home with top honours. “I started taking part in every music competition in every possible language — Hindi, English, Konkani, French. I belted Whitney Houston to old Hindi film song to Konkani and won them all,” Shirsat adds gleefully. Fado was still merely a sing-along with mom. Not a love, yet.

Shirsat had not planned a fado career. Destiny had its own plans. One trip to Portugal, her encounter with faddists and moments spent in fado houses would change everything for Shirsat and fado in Goa. She picked inspiration from noted faddists Maria Severa and Amalia Rodrigues, the latter being credited with taking fado beyond Portugal and making it international. More importantly, to be a faddist, she had to learn Portuguese. That’s the sixth language Shirsat picked — she hastily adds she has sung in 14 languages!

It was a long journey. A lesson here. A workshop there. A rehearsal one day. Jamming with the musicians another. It took years but Shirsat achieved what destiny had ordained. To become synonymous with fado. With that power, Shirsat has taken up a responsibility. To keep alive fado. It is for this purpose that she initiated ‘Fado in the City’ project to take fado to the masses.

Shirsat still sings for her band Status4, mentors aspiring faddists, and subsists on hope that fado will find bigger audience in Goa. She rehearses while driving, loves her three pet dogs, and on a happy day, she’ll tell you all about her cats. It is only when she talks of fado, do her large eyes twinkle and the world around her gleams. If I were a fado connoisseur, I’d cough to applaud. I am not. So, I clapped.

Fact file

The first recorded reference to fado in relation to music was made in 1822 by Adriano Balbi, an Italian geographer.

According to tradition, to applaud fado in Lisbon, you clap your hands, while in Coimbra one coughs in praise as if clearing one’s throat.  

On November 27, 2011, fado was declared by the UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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