A Fado Evening
One Couple's Introduction to Fado Music
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• Part One
• Part Two
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By Peter and Helen Evans

Life has a delightful way of mysteriously serving up the unexpected, and our first encounter with Fado was one such unexpected delight.

We like to write about living, about the challenges and rewards of striving to live, learn and do right in our human encounter with the immensity and mystery of life. In our day-to-day routines, most of us tend to stick to what we know and avoid the mysterious unknown. Yet, in peaceful, contemplative moments we feel the urge, the pull toward what we have not yet been and known, a larger, more expansive self-expression. Some call it our soul's yearning. The traditions that inspire us tell us this thing called Spirit is within, that heaven is to be found within our own hearts. We enjoy meeting people who strive to express the highest and best in themselves.

Browsing through a local newspaper, a small article about a restaurant in the town of Sonoma caught our attention. California’s Sonoma County is known for its wineries and delightful restaurants. We had enjoyed LaSalette’s Portuguese cuisine before, but there was something else distinctly Portuguese and tantalizingly un-familiar on the menu... the music of Fado!

Doing a little Web research, it sounded like "Fado" was another expression of that same human encounter with the mystery. In English, the equivalent word is "fate", but this simple translation suggests more questions than it answers, and opens the door onto a personal exploration, beyond the words, of the meaning of life itself. Well, this was too intriguing to resist, and only a few miles from home, too. We arranged to meet and talk with the performers before their first set.

Several years before, we had the opportunity to meet with an Iranian musician of mature years, a spontaneous cultural ambassador. He introduced us to his ancient, traditional instrument, whose four strings he played with a bow, upright, like a tiny cello. As we drove to meet the ‘fadistas’, we recalled his words about the inter-dependence of audience and performer. "Until I get to know you, I cannot give my best performance."

Over the years we had heard the same response from performers whose aim was not merely to entertain but to express their deep, emotional, soulful engagement with life. The words or actions didn't matter nearly as much as opening themselves to the mystery and letting it flow in a new expression through them. However, in order to do that, they had to push aside their insecurities and their need for approval. It is at this level of expression that an empathetic, attuned audience becomes essential. We realized our Iranian friend wasn't talking about "Peter and Helen" when he said that he needed to know us before he could do his best. As audience, we had to put our personalities aside and listen as naked souls, to offer that true essence we all share with each other. That essence that can understand and share love, grief, sadness and joy with another.

We had just read about the importance of connection between fadistas and their listeners, and we wanted to be the "best audience we could," but we were a bit concerned about our chances of "getting the point" of Fado, because neither of us speaks a word of Portuguese!

We put our heads through the doorway of LaSalette just as a dapper man with sparkling eyes and a wireless microphone completed the sound-check with a technician. He smiled and said, "We don't work here.... we’re just the performers." He was Norberto Arruda, one of the evening’s two headliners, and we sat and talked for nearly an hour in the lovely, vine-covered patio outside the dining-room.

A seasoned professional, Norberto spoke easily about his 30+ years in the States, his 9-piece Latin band, and Fado. As a musical folk art form, it arose from the soil and soul of Portugal over the last two hundred years or so. A singer is accompanied by Portuguese and Spanish guitars. "It’s folk-music. It’s a poem."

We were anxious to find out what was unique about Fado, something to help us understand and relate to it, short of taking a crash course in Portuguese. Well, is there really anything unique about the universal human experience of facing the bitter-sweet realities of life? It’s something we all experience. As Norberto said, "Fado could be about anything... love, the passage through life, mothers, fathers, God... a statement, a true statement... but with meaning, you know?"

The peculiar emphasis he put on ‘meaning’, suggested something beyond the words. Fado is said to be an expression of "saudade," a difficult word to translate for it means many things, sadness, longing for someone or something, the past or even the future; nostalgia, yearning, wistfulness, all of which is expressed not only in the words and the music but in the very vocal qualities of the singer. Fado in fact is more than music and songs, it is a way of life created by real human drama.

This was confirmed when we asked if some of the songs had been translated into English. "Oh, you can't translate them! They’re poetry. Sometimes the whole meaning is in the sound of just one syllable." Well, he masterfully maintained the mystique, so we asked if he could tell us the ‘story’ of a traditional Fado song. He responded by telling us about "Mary of Heaven." "Not ‘that’ Mary!" he clarified, "It’s just her name... Mary of Heaven." The Mary of the song lived in a village by the sea, and was in love with a certain fisherman who sailed off to work on the waves each day. She sat at her window and he would sing to her as he went out and returned. And then one day it happened... her fisherman was lost at sea and didn't return, and now Mary sings her own song of sadness gazing from her window on the empty sea. "Yes, this one is sad... but sometimes Fado can be happy, too!"

Even though his explanation was intended to indicate the futility of trying to translate Fado, his understated passion and obvious respect for this simple, universal theme of love and loss was movingly clear as he spoke.

Next page > A Fado Evening Continues >