Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Fado Vadio

José de Oliveira bellows, occasionally off key, the melancholic songs known as fado.

But questionable talent does not inhibit the 70-year-old retired welder from taking over the floor at A Baiuca, a tiny tavern and restaurant, and keeping the two dozen diners captive — or perhaps prisoner — past midnight.

When he sings a well-known song of love, longing and loss, the diners put down their knives and forks and join in. When one couple dare to whisper during the song, a woman shushes them with the classic retort: “Silence! Fado is being sung.”

This is the ritual of fado, performed night after night with various degrees of authenticity, quality, kitsch and tourist appeal in the dinner clubs of Lisbon.

Reviled by some as backward-looking and morose, fado, which means fate, has been reinvented to become Portugal’s most successful cultural export. But here, in the twisting alleyways of Alfama, one of the working-class districts where fado was born, the songs are the classics, the message unadorned.

Mr. de Oliveira, dressed in a somber vest and trousers, his tie tightly knotted, is a neighborhood fixture.

“José doesn’t have a good voice, but he loves fado, he breathes fado,” said Henrique Gascon, the owner of A Baiuca. “Sometimes people cry when he sings.”

There is no stage, no microphone, no spotlight, not even candles here. It is the kind of place that hangs a “no smoking” sign on the door, then puts ashtrays on the tables. When Mr. de Oliveira’s voice cracks one time too many, João de Jesus, 33, owner of a fire extinguisher company, steps in to take his place.

Inspired, it is believed, by African slave and Moorish songs, fado was transformed by Portuguese sailors in the early 19th century into a vehicle to express the pain of loneliness and danger of a life at sea.
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