Fado and the Search for Authenticity

Written by Sorana Santos on Saturday the 11th of June 2011

Fado is an oral tradition of speculative origin. Though widely accepted
as evolving from the songs of the Moors due to their inherent
melancholy, but equally thought to have evolved from either the Lundum
music of Brazillian slaves or the Cantigas de Amigo of middle-age
minstrels (www.fado.com), it is strange that any claim of authenticity
even developed, however a new breed of Fadistas such as Mariza, whoc is
considered a contentious figure amongst lovers of Fado, shows us that
the question of authenticity is well and truly alive.

With this in mind, the parameters that I set for my own search for
authenticity (having found no definitive definition in my initial
ethnomusicological research) are that the Portuguese themselves consider
me an authentic and credible performer of Fado were I to perform Fado
in one of Lisbon's tavernas.

In discussion of these parameters with a native Portuguese acquaintance
and Fado-lover, Marina, I gleaned that the authenticity the Portuguese
appear to question in the new Fadistas is that of comparison to artists
such as Amalia Rodriguez, Maria Severa, and Carlos do Como who presented
Fados in styles that were heavily diatonic, in simple duple metre, (see
Appendix iv, Transcriptions) use of melodic sequence (Appendix iv,
Aquela Ma, third system), a structure in binary or ternary form
(Appendix iv, Confesso), and incorporated stock hispanic idiosyncrasies
such as dramatic melodic leaps of over a fifth (Appendix iv, Fado
, fourth and fifth systems) and the use of simple chords,
moving at a slow rate (Appendix iv, A Minha Cancao E Saudade). Parallel
to this, the lyrical expression of Saudade, a "vague and constant desire
for something that does not and probably cannot exist
" (Emmons, 2006,
p.402) and the typical setup of a Fadista accompanied by a Portuguese
and Spanish guitar ('viola' in Portuguese) came to be known as the
definitive sound of 'Fado', with the exception of large orchestral
arrangements for worldwide releases and the little-known fact that
original Fadista was actually accompanied on solo piano.

As a cause of increased globalisation and consumerism since the time of
Fado's (first) heyday the style has grown to incorporate modern musical
idioms such as: traditional melodic phrases re-harmonised with
extensions of elevenths and thirteenths, 'progressive' song structures,
'grooves' and borrowed elements of acoustic rock, crossover classical
music, and even electronica. Mariza's first record Fado Em Mim is an
example of this; speculating from personal experience of the record
industry, it is impossible to assess how much of Fado's newfound
modernity is owed to the input of the record label aiming to broaden
Fado's market appeal.

 A look into Mariza's history shows that she was in fact on course to
becoming a funk singer when the opportunity to sing Fado professionally
presented itself to her (Songlines, March 2011, p. 31). This sits
uncomfortably with the inclination of Fado to vehemently express how the
singer was born to sing only Fado, and renders Mariza's interpretations
of such pieces uncomfortably insincere. By contrast Rodriguez was
discovered selling oranges on the docks of Lisbon and having herself
endured the harsh realities of famine in post-war Lisbon, was considered
a prime candidate for expressing the nation's Saudades. Ironically, it
appears to me that fans of Fado itself harbour that very Saudade for the
singers of old that the songs themselves speak of.

From an ethnomusicological perspective I could neither be accepted as an
authentic performer of Fado by the Portuguese themselves, nor by my
academic peers since I am not part of the cultural

milieux. Scholastic study, which could be termed a 'treasure of the
mind', seeks to understand, dissect, define, theorise. As such it is
diametrically opposed to Fado, an oral tradition concerning itself more
with what could be termed 'treasures of the heart', seeking to express
sorrow, Saudade, and patriotic ideologies (see Appendix v, Lyrics).

To learn in a traditional ethnomusicological manner is to "gain access
to a different way of thinking and making music
" (Baily, 2001, p. 294),
yet learning via oral tradition is my first experience of music learning
and instantly marks this study with a bias, however small. Nonetheless,
learning Fado purely from recordings does not constitute 'oral
tradition'; as Fado is acquired through often complete, unmodified
demonstration, this questions the extent of understanding from a truly
emic perspective. In addition, Fado forms part of the European popular
and folk music traditions already very close to the music we are
familiar with in Britain in terms of its harmonic and rhythmic
structures, tuning systems, ornamentation and vocal style.


A large amount of auto-didactical learning was necessary so as to
achieve as thorough an understanding of Fado as possible in order to
better inform my performance; my methodology took the following

1. Finding a teacher

After an unsuccessful search for either a Fado singing teacher or
Fadista in London, I decided to learn with Lynda Richardson, an Estill
method specialist. The Estill method is concerned with "deconstructing
the process of vocal production into control of specific structures in
the vocal mechanism
" (Shewell, 2009, p. 402). Whether this proves to be
as good as learning from a Fado singer is a matter of debate. Since I
will be learning how to control each aspect of my vocal physiology to
acquire the Fado 'sound', I may acquire the ability to harness a greater
range of vocal techniques than I could have acquired from an authentic
Fadista who, being of an oral tradition, may not be aware of their vocal
physiology; however, this will depend on both my current ability and
potential. However, learning via Estill method raises the question of
whether I will be receiving all the information I need regarding typical
performance gestures, etiquette, and repertoire.

2. Listening to recordings and determining vocal qualities / research

The vocal qualities of approximately fifteen Fado singers were discussed
with Lynda. Fado incorporates a combination of qualities that each
singer uses either less or more of depending on their already existing
vocal qualities and desired sound. Amalia Rodrigues mixed Belting and
Operatic voice qualities. Carlos do Como used Speech Quality and Mariza
alternates between Speech Quality and Belting.

Speech Quality is fairly self-explanatory in that it is singing with the
same voice with which we speak. Because of this it is limited in both
volume and pitch. Belting is achieved by raising the larynx, tilting the
head back, intaking a sharp clavicular breath, preparing to 'squeak'
and then singing the note.

The result is a shrill, powerful sound akin to the vocal sound of
musical theatre, soul and some pop music. By contrast, to produce an
Operatic quality the larynx is lowered, head tilted forward, the tongue
tightened, and the breath drawn by 'letting go' of the diaphragm to
exhale. The resulting sound is equally as powerful as Belting but the
tone is both warmer and darker. (Appendix iii) documents my lessons with
Lynda in further detail.

3. Producing skeleton transcriptions

It became necessary to produce numerous transcriptions of Fado songs. An
advantage of using transcriptions is that it speeds the learning
process for both teacher and student. Transcriptions enabled Lynda to
accompany me at the piano, see exactly where we were in a song when she
needed to stop or restart a song, and focus on tutoring my voice without
having to learn each song herself. Secondly, producing transcriptions
freed me to develop my vocal style away from the influence of
recordings, enabling me to "interpret the fixed tunes [and] establish
[my] own distinctive claims.
" as Fado singers are said to do (Khalvati,
2010, p.19). According to Lynda, the larynx copies what it hears and
singing along to a recording is less likely to lead to the development
of my own distinctive sound. Further, the production of transcriptions
can facilitate other musicians to feature in the final performance.

Naturally, this shows the extent to which we as western musicians rely
on notation. Even the guitarist interested in performing the Fados
requested copies of the transcriptions despite being trained in both
Suzuki and Kodaly methods. Aside from notation not being typical of an
oral tradition, producing the skeleton transcriptions was immensely
time-consuming, though the benefit of over-exposure to the Fados not
only familiarised me with the harmonic and melodic structures of Fado,
but also enabled me to learn the songs.

Only those songs that I found aesthetically pleasing were transcribed
since no scores or lead sheets of Fados exist save a recently published
introduction to Fado that only contains around twenty Fados (Cohen,
2003). The transcriptions themselves posed somewhat of a problem since
the 'skeleton' of the songs themselves were decorated in whatever vocal
melismas, phrasings, and accompanying chordal arrangement the musicians
used to define their unique styles. Producing these transcriptions
involved determining which elements were merely decorative and which
were their true forms. The transcriptions served as jazz charts from
which I was then free to build my own interpretations. My full
transcriptions can be found in appendix iv.

4. Learning the songs

Another beautiful irony of Fado is that in questioning the balance of
fate and free will, Fado's own fate and free will was tampered with
when, post-war, having previously dismissed Fado as the music of those
of ill repute, the government used Fado as a means of attempting to
unite the population and aid Portugal in attempting to attract tourists
and re-build the economy (Broughton, European Roots (documentary), 2007)

There is no distinction between poetry and song in Fado and as such the songs themselves are

considered Poemas Cantadas, or sung poems. The 'lyrics' are indeed
poetic and not only make use of forms typical to poetic structure:
stanzaic forms, quatrains, metre and rhyme, but also metaphors between
geographical and historical matters pertaining specifically to Portugal
itself whilst all the while, the true subject being treated is that of
'fate' itself. The chorus of Que Deus Me Perdoe which translates as "May
God forgive me if it is a sin [to love Fado], but this is who I am and
to run away from Fado I only run from myself
", the first chorus of O
Gente Da Minha Terra
which translates as "Fado is both mine and yours,
this destiny that ties us with a string of a guitar, no matter how much
it is denied
" and the second line of the chorus of Locura which
translates as "Trunks of the same root, of the life that joins us" are a
few examples of this (see Appendix v, Lyrics)

As Romanian and Spanish are my first languages and I learned English and
French at school, there is an inherent bias in my ability to acquire
another romance language. This is not necessarily indicative of whether I
can successfully acquire the Portuguese accent or whether this would
serve to further authenticate me in the eyes of a Portuguese native.
Among linguists, the ability to acquire accuracy of pronunciation in a
second language are widely agreed as being: age, motivation, proximity
of the two languages and immersion. Further:

"Overall, it appears that one of the most important individual variables
in adult L2
[second language] is the learners' aptitude for accurately
producing the phonology of another language ... Purcell and Suter (1980)
list aptitude for oral mimicry as the second most important variable
... There appears to be a perceptual ability in talented learners that
differentiates them from the normal adult population. Kuhl (2000)
suggests that talented adult learners may ... perceive novel speech
sounds in the same manner as infants do
" (Hansen-Edwards, 2008, p.53)
would indicate an innate predisposition for the acquisition of language
through an increased sensitivity to the second language's phonology.
When I performed my interpretations of Fado to Marina, she did indeed
detect an accent and suggested that I had what corresponds to a 'lisp'
when singing in Portuguese; my d's come out as t's and vice versa.

After several attempts to correct this we found that a stronger
commitment to vowel pronunciation and a loosening of the jaw
authenticates the sound better. However, what made the most difference
was a slight raising and tightening of the tongue as well as its
placement towards the top teeth and back of the hard pallet. After
discussing this with Lynda she provided me with further exercises to
strengthen my tongue and loosen my jaw - two unnatural movements that
singers learn to make simultaneous and natural.

A large facilitator of my study of Fado was the online availability of
all lyrics, which I subsequently translated using a combination of
online translation tools, a dictionary and my working knowledge of
romance languages. Learning Fado as an outsider without either speaking
the language or seeing the lyrics in print would have been difficult as
the Portuguese language is heavy in elision. Also, since Fado is so
heartfelt, Lynda noted that it is of vital importance to understand the
meaning of the words in order to express their sentiment.

5. Selecting songs for performance

I learned more Fados than were necessary for the performance in order to
further understand Fado, increase the potential for finding those that
are most enjoyable to perform, and those I could most relate to
personally. The fados to be performed were further narrowed down on the
basis of those that best suited my voice.

Lynda's mantra: "The singer and song should be one" advised my choice of
Fados for the performance and guided me towards those that I thought I
could express best given my life experiences. Unsurprisingly, these were
not the songs that praised Lisbon's beauty but those that spoke of the
Fadista being caught between fate and free will and those describing
Saudade. For example, A Minha Cancao e Saudade vividly depicts the
suffering in lines [that translate as] "Faded illusions, films of lost
hopes, my song and longing
" and songs such as Que Deus Me Perdoe which
contain touching l passages such as "If I could tell you how sad I am
when I pretend to be happy
" and "When I sing I don't think how awful
life is
", are better understood as a whole as they are less specific to
their location of origin. The extent to which my inability to connect to
songs specific to Lisbon or Portugal inauthenticate my performance.

6. Practicing and personalisation

With songs heavy in elision such as Loucura, I placed the song on repeat
mode and firstly read, then mimed, then spoke, then sung the words
along to the recording. In this instance once the melody and lyrics were
acquired the stereo could be stopped and a 'personalisation' of the
song could begin. Other songs such as Que Deus Me Perdoe and Fado
were less tongue-tying and were memorable enough to take the
lyric sheet to the guitar and begin forming my own arrangement with
careful attention drawn to ensuring that words such as 'ma' and 'se' did
not gradually become similar sonic counterparts 'me' and 'si'.

Having discovered a painting of Amalia Rodrigues in which she is
depicted accompanying herself on the guitar (see Appendix ii) I was
inspired to perform the songs on a Spanish guitar despite not having
played since my teens. The implications of this is that I will be unable
to use my hands to express the songs in the performance, as is typical
of a Fadista who physically communicates in a performance solely via
facial and arm gestures whilst the remainder of the body is still.

To personalise the songs I began with the decision of how exactly I
would interpret the songs. Recalling my 'authenticity parameters' and
conversation with Marina, I began with rejecting Mariza's modern style
of arrangement in favour of the more traditional approach: using only
root and dominant seventh chords in my guitar accompaniment, a slow rate
of chordal changes (one or two per bar), slower tempos and more
traditional 'feels' to the songs as found in Fados such as Fado de

Vocally, I began by experiment with what type of vocal sound best suited
the messages in particular phrases. For example, in O Gente Da Minha
the two lines "esta tristeza que trago, foi de vos que a recebi"
[this sadness which I carry, I received from you] call for two different
vocal qualities to highlight the intentional and emotional difference
between the weight of the sadness in the first clause and the revelation
in the second. I sought to best express each phrase as if it were
emanating from personal experience, using emotional memory to trigger
the mode of expression. In this instance, I found that the first clause
suited the Belt Quality whilst the second better suited Speech Quality. I
also experimented with whether the occasional vocal melisma was
possible for me, which indeed it turned out to be. Overall I was glad to
find that the vocal aspect of singing Fado came to me easily due to
what Lynda described as a predisposition for speaking in marginal Belt
and Speech Qualities myself and that Fado generally only used an octave
and a half's range of notes.

The area of emotionally connecting with each song was surprisingly the
one that was most problematic for me, as the expression of such raw
emotion is not something I am accustomed to and I found I had a very
deep and unexpected affinity with Saudade. Many of the poetic elements
inherent in Fado are very close to my personal penchant for the macabre,
for understanding the negative functions of life and my personal rather
melancholic nature. Yet in spite of this I found it exceptionally
difficult to 'sing from the heart' as Fadistas are meant to. The songs
were often too emotionally painful to sing and I found I was unable to
sing a complete Fado without choking with emotion and even, at times,
crying. It is a striking dichotomy that whilst musically Fado is simple,
this is contrasted by what I have found to be such emotional

Fado, which is usually performed socially in the dark, intimate tavernas
of Lisbon, will by contrast, be performed in a university performance
hall to a panel of examiners. According to Lynda this has implications
in terms of the need for greater vocal projection in a recital room
compared with a small taverna. However, Recalling Ted Solis' statement
in Performing Ethnomusicology: "...my perceived ethnicity increases the
"authenticity" of my performance, which makes the individual's concert
experience more "authentic" and in turn makes me more credible as a
practitioner and authority...
" (Solis, 2004, p.37) I hope that by
dressing in the black dress and shawl typical of a Fadista, it will both
add to the authenticity of the performance and give me a psychological


Complex matters such as whether my mixed European heritage has any
influence on increasing the extent of authenticity, or the extent to
which it is possible to be considered an authentic performer of Fado
even after conducting field research need to be addressed at greater
length and depth.

Perhaps it is also true that the idea of what constitutes authentic
music practice will need to be ever increasingly refined in order to
match increased globalisation, encultration and increasingly complex
musical cultures.

Nevertheless, I am encouraged to continue striving for authenticity in
my performance by this translation of Ha Muito Quem Cante O Fado, (There
Are Many Who Sing Fado
) by Manuel de Almeida. It offers hope that my
performance could indeed being considered authentic by the Portuguese if
my heart is at one with the song:

Not everyone is a fadista who wants to be,

Just because one day they sing a fado.

To be a faditsa is to have your soul Tied to your throat...

To be a fadista is to have expression,

To feel everything that is sung.

To be a fadista is to tie the heart and soul

To the throat.
Tags for this post: Fado, Santos, Sorana.
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