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The Pleasures of Saudade

A year in Lisbon teaches you more than how to select a decent vinho verde. An ode to the uniquely hopeful, desperate music that’s missing from the usual American fare.

Why aren’t you listening to Portuguese music? The Portuguese are certainly listening to us. When I lived in Lisbon a couple of years ago, I visited apartments lined with shelves of American rock, folk, blues, and jazz CDs. One of the city’s main newspapers, Diário de Notícias, paid homage to the careers of American and British rock stars on their birthdays—David Bowie and Tom Waits, among others—with multi-paged inserts that included thumbnail photos of even the most obscure albums, accompanied by mini-reviews. And inevitably, you hear some of this influence in Portugal’s own rock and jazz music—and sometimes a dobro will pop up in the most unusual places.

So why don’t we listen to them? Well, there is this little thing called a language barrier, but that hasn’t prevented Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club from selling a bazillion records in the Anglophone world. Need I state the obvious, that Portuguese is a much prettier language than Spanish? And it is the sixth-most widely spoken language in the world, and the official language of eight countries, even if Portugal itself is a sliver of the western edge of Europe (two-thirds the size of Illinois), with a population of about 10 million.

More likely—and you wouldn’t be alone in this—you don’t take to the soul-drenched songs of fado, Portugal’s traditional, mournful music forged long ago out of European melody, African slave chants, and melismatic Arabic-style vocals. This is powerful stuff—fado means “destiny” or “fate”—but for some people in the non-Portuguese-speaking world it’s a music that verges on the emotionally operatic and whose performance rituals have begun to calcify. It’s a taste that requires some acquiring—me, I love it—but when the world-touring and world-class fadista Mariza hits the stage, everyone effortlessly basks in the saudade of her songs.

Like so many words that carry heavy cultural weight, saudade really isn’t translatable, but the English words of “nostalgia,” “love,” “pain,” “longing,” “hope,” and “despair” are all held in its gravitational sway. Even the least fado-like of Portuguese music is tinged with saudade, a particular, sweet ache that’s unmistakable.

And while Portuguese music has long been far more than fado, the country’s recent social transformation accentuates this even more. In the past 10 years or so, spurred on by Portugal’s climb to European Union-style prosperity, the citizens of the country’s former colonies—mainly Brazil, Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique, but also Goa and Macau—have produced an unprecedented wave of immigration.

Now usually this level of social change will cause tension, and surely there are Portuguese out there who approach a Lou Dobbs Level of Crazy™, but in election after election the right-wing nationalist party barely manages to register a shiver on the political Richter scale. Most of Portugal appreciates this new multiracial and multicultural population, as it reflects the history of their once globe-spanning empire, and all you have to do is walk the spacious promenades of Lisbon’s vast and glitzy Colombo shopping center to see the emerging middle class of this new immigrant reality.

With the former empire gently striking back, Portuguese music has developed into a brew that’s beginning to be recognized as Pan-Portuguese. The country’s current feverish synthesizing spirit reminds me of the ferment of the 1960s in the U.S., when rock ‘n’ roll happily wove the disparate strands of our musical history and turned up the amps. Something is happening over there, but you don’t yet know what it is. Well, I’m here to help.

A good example of this recent, heady shift in Portuguese music can be seen in the example of Madredeus, a band that began fashioning elegant songs out of the tug between fado and chamber music in the mid-’80s. Madredeus has toured the world—though rarely in the U.S.—and is the subject of Lisbon Story, a film by Wim Wenders. But if you never heard of them then you weren’t devastated when the angel-voiced Tereza Salgueiro left the band in early 2008 after a 20-year run. Those in the know hung their heads—until main songwriter, guitarist, and guiding star Pedro Magalhães bulked up the remnants of the band to a 10-piece ensemble (with the unwieldy new moniker of Madredeus & A Banda Cósmica). The new group creates an unusual sonic universe that mixes violin, harp, and classical guitar with electric guitar, bass, and keyboards, plus a double battery of percussion. New singers Rita Damásio and Mariana Abrunheiro work double-time to erase the memory of the departed Tereza Salgueiro.

All of which might have produced nothing more than whistling in the wind if Magalhães hadn’t delved deep into his private well and composed his latest batch of melt-in-your-mind songs, many sampling the spirit of Pan-Portuguese music. The song that perhaps best captures the band’s wider reach is “O Eclipse (Habitas no Meu Pensamento)” (“The Eclipse [You Live in My Thoughts]”). This song begins with an acoustic-guitar riff that first softens your skull and then hammers it in as the electric guitar Spaghetti-Westerns an accompanying chord. And then those singers begin to sing.
 


During the writing of this article, Pedro & Co. kindly released a second album, A Nova Aurora, and it’s jam-packed with more songs that go for your secret faultline. To demonstrate the depth of the expanded band’s singing staff, the two lead vocalists are given a brief break for a song so harpist Ana Isabel Dias can show off her own vocal chops with “Um Doce Canto” (“One Sweet Song”), a title that doesn’t begin to hint at the haunting melody.
 


If the venerable Madredeus in its new incarnation has dipped its toes into Pan-Portuguese music, then Terrakota has dived into its deepest waters with a double-somersault one-and-a-half twist. This is a local Lisbon band that sizzles with the energy of African musical traditions, and in the song “Sunnu Gal” they shift between the insinuating, rhythmic slouch of reggae to the perked-up chatter chime of Congolese Soukous-style guitar riffs.

In this song the band members sing and rap in a dizzy mix of Portuguese, English, Spanish, and what might be one but could also be three African languages, and through it all reigns Angolan-born singer Romi Anauel and the cut-through-butter beauty of her voice.
 


The Portuguese folk scene has also been energized by the country’s itchy musical ferment, and Dazkarieh is the punkiest of the country’s folk bands, whose lead singer, Joana Negrão, sometime sings through a riot police megaphone (a Portuguese version of Auto-Tune?). Dazkarieh has recently released a double-album, Hemisférios: One disc is devoted to original songs, the other to traditional songs.

“Coroar” (“Coronation”) [mp3] begins with a nasty fuzz bass that sinuously hints at the country’s distant Moorish past until the band speeds up with a Celtic flourish, a nod to northern Portugal’s pagan ethnic origins. None of which really prepares you for the fact that this is a souped-up version of a traditional song honoring the Holy Ghost.

 

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You might not know that Portugal has its own vibrant jazz scene, or that Mário Laginha is perhaps one of the country’s most accomplished improvisers, composers, and pianists. You should. His solo piano album Cancões e Fugas (“Songs and Fugues”) contains a song, “Do Lado de Cá do Mar” (“On This Side of the Ocean”), that I’ve played so many times I can now effortlessly spin it through my mind. Laginha has also collaborated with jazz pianist Bernardo Sassetti for a set of improvisations, and their version of the Ellington/Strayhorn classic “Take the ‘A’ Train” [mp3] is a beaut.

This slow, sly vamp is a typically Portuguese, saudade-drenched experience: It’s not about taking the ‘A’ train, it’s about the memory of taking that train. Portuguese musicians aren’t afraid to create dreamy nostalgia that swings.

 

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Bernardo Moreira is a bass guitarist who plays in Laginha’s jazz trio. But Moreira is also working up some projects of his own. Borrowing a page from American jazz musicians who have long turned Broadway songs into improvisatory explorations (think of John Coltrane’s expansive twisting of “My Favorite Things”), Moreira takes tunes from the classic Portuguese songbook and gives them a jazz spin. His collaboration with the singer Paula Oliveira takes tunes by the likes of Sérgio Godinho and drenches them in late-’50s cool jazz. His latest project, with singer Lena d’Agua, also raids from Godinho, Jorge Palma, and others, but here the music evokes Miles Davis’s early experiments with electric jazz.

“Mariazinha,” performed live at the Hot Clube de Portugal, is graced with a stately, haunted trumpet solo by João Moreira.
 


Sara Tavares, born in Portugal of Cape Verdean descent, has become so popular that one of her songs was featured a few years back in a Portuguese commercial for home-improvement loans. Normally this would be a sign of career decline, but Tavares is such a class act that making a little song-licensing change on the side can’t stop her. Her voice seems designed to create chills, and her songwriting skills draw the disparate strands of Pan-Portuguese music into a glistening blend that’s both accessible and complex.

“Só d’Imagina” [mp3], from her new album Xinti, brings the sound of the islands into the streets of Lisbon.

 

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Portugal also boasts some great rock groups, and my favorite is Rádio Macau, a band whose longevity—they debuted in 1984—makes them something like the Portuguese equivalent of U2. I’ve long thought their album from 2000, Onde O Tempo Faz A Curva (Where Time Bends) is a masterpiece (and now criminally out of print, though live versions of some of the songs can be heard on their kick-ass live album, Disco Pirata). The band’s most recent releases, though, have more than their share of magnificent moments.

“Quando Entro Nos Teus Elhos” (“When I Enter Your Eyes”) [mp3], from 2008’s wildly popular album Oito, is a song that takes advantage of all the implied menace in the husky beauty of lead singer Xana’s voice, even when she’s singing the words “Beijos tantos como as estrelas.” (“So many kisses, like stars.”)

 

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Rádio Macau isn’t the only Portuguese rock band worth an introduction. Clã, from the city of Porto, is a power-pop band that never disappoints on record and I hear is even better in live performance. The song “Amuo” (“Pout”) is from their latest album, Cintura, and it’s a gas to hear two side-by-side versions of Portuguese as lead singer Manuela Azevedo trades verses with guest singer Fernanda Takai from Brazil.

Here’s the band’s sultry video of the song; remember, “Amuar faz bem” (“Pouting does just fine”). And yes, that is a dobro you hear in the background.
 


Finally, we come to the acoustic band O’queStrada, a group that combines the rhythms of Cape Verdean funaná with ska and fado and the kitchen sink. “Se Esta Rua Fosse Minha” (“If This Street Were Mine”)—shows the band ramping up a popular Brazilian folksong into a dervish of a tune, channeling the ghost of a Django Reinhart jittery on speed. Except that Django never got to match the sassy vocals of Miranda.

This video of a live performance at the Tivoli theater will give you a glimpse into how much fun the Portuguese are having these days. And it just might tempt you to book a flight to Lisbon and live on grilled sardines and vinho verde for the rest of your life…
 


Philip Graham is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches From Lisbon. He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor. He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois and the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he can also play every musical instrument in the world extremely well in his mind. His seres of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at philipgraham.net. More by Philip Graham