Tenzing Sonam goes in search of saudade in Lisbon
We walked downhill towards the waterfront in the old Alfama district of Lisbon. The narrow, cobbled alleys wove their way through a maze of stone houses with red-tiled roofs, clinging tightly to each other, higgledy-piggledy, like the magic houses in a Miyazaki movie. Lines of laundry flapped overhead and the occasional open door signalled a tiny bar or restaurant, empty now for the most part. It was almost eight in the evening but the streets were still quiet.
Ritu and I were in search of fado, the soul-stirring, heart-wrenching embodiment of melancholic music that is Portugal’s gift to the world. We had been given a tip that the up-and-coming fadista, Carminho, performed occasionally at the Mesa de Frades, a small restaurant in the Alfama. Earlier, we had read an interview with Carminho where she said that the only way to experience fado was to listen to it live. My only brush with this distinctive genre of music was through the recordings of its best-known ambassador, the late Amália Rodrigues. I had chanced upon fado by way of its wayward offspring, morna, the equally mournful and piquant music of Cape Verde, the former Portuguese colony off the coast of West Africa. Its most famous exponent, Cesaria Evora, the “Barefoot Diva”, had long ago woven a spell over me, sucker that I am for anything that conveys the bittersweet melancholia of human existence. The songs of Amália Rodrigues had similarly touched me, and I was keen to experience fado first-hand.
The Mesa de Frades was empty when we entered. The genial owner assured us that there would be fado later in the evening, but he couldn’t guarantee who might show up or when. By 10pm, the small dining area had filled up, and some of the guests, with their guitars and their familiarity with the owner, were obviously musicians. Everyone seemed to know everyone else; Ritu and I were the most noticeable outsiders. Around 11pm, post dinner, on our second bottle of wine, just as we were wondering whether anything would happen, four of the diners brought out their instruments—a Portuguese guitar, two Spanish guitars and a wooden flute—and casually pulled up chairs in the small aisle between the tables. The main door was shut, the lights dimmed, and before we knew it, the music had begun.
The distinctive sound of the oval-shaped, 12-stringed Portuguese guitar plucked out sad minor notes, while the two Spanish guitars provided the rhythmic backing. In lieu of a singer, the flute held sway, perfectly capturing that sense of nostalgia for lost things that the Portuguese call saudade. The man playing the Portuguese guitar must have been in his early thirties, while one of the other guitarists looked like he could be his grandfather. The music cut across generations and cultures, and soon we were all in thrall to its bewitching magic. As the musicians performed, a hush fell over the room, everyone transported to a shared inner world, united by the language of love and loss.
At the end of the first set, the lights came on, the diners went back to eating and chatting, and then after a while, just as casually, the lights dimmed and the next set began. Various singers took their turn, and with each new voice—plaintive and thrilling—the atmosphere in the small room became ever more emotionally charged, ever more palpable, sucking us into a web of enchantment, as if we were being slowly and pleasurably immersed in a cloud of pure music. Sometime after midnight—by this point, time was no longer an issue, we were drunk on both wine and music—the young woman who had been sitting quietly at the table next to us, stood up and entered the magic space between the tables. Dressed casually in jeans, her hands tucked into her pockets like a college student, Carminho began her set, and immediately a reverent silence settled over the room. We knew instantly that we were in the presence of something magical. Carminho’s voice, miraculously released from her slight body, soared free above the confines of the tiny dining room and quivered on the edges of our own subliminal longings and losses, transporting us to some primeval space where all memories are stored.
Carminho sang in Portuguese, but the language of fado is universal. Her poignant melodies were drenched with half-notes from Portugal’s Moorish past and infused with the accreted history of melancholic ports and absconding sailors. I felt a nameless joy and I felt a deep sadness. Riding on the quivering arpeggios of her throaty voice, I conjured up lost loves and double-crossing husbands; faraway shores and sweet homecomings; tragic goodbyes and miraculous reunions; the trials of fishwives here in the Alfama and their never-to-return sweethearts . . . I knew nothing of what she sang, and yet I knew everything. Each time I looked at Carminho, I was amazed: how could one so young, so innocent looking, convey such depth of experience
Much, much later, Ritu and I staggered out of the Mesa de Frades. Laughter and music receded into the distance. We walked up to our hotel through the now fast-asleep streets of the Alfama. The cobbles glistened in the streetlights. Everything seemed enchanted. What did I know of Lisbon other than the fact that for one magical evening, I was swept into a world of music that had opened up, if only briefly, a glimpse into the source of all human emotion, the wellspring of sadness and its conjoined twin, happiness.
Tenzing Sonam is a filmmaker and writer born in Darjeeling to Tibetan refugee parents. He has been making films for over 25 years, mostly on the subject of Tibet, including award-winning documentaries, video installations and a dramatic feature film.