Fado Resounding

Affective Politics and Urban Life
by Lila Ellen Gray

Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2013

Fado - what's in a name - a postscript: after having read this book, of which I was first made aware having completed my article Fado - what's in a name for Musical Traditions.  Always curious when finding a book on fado in English, I managed to get hold of a copy through interlibrary loan, and spent the best part of a week battling through it, wondering countless times why I didn't give up but, still curious enough to see where it would take me, persisting to the bitter end.

The author is an American academic, an ethnomusicologist with a background in classical violin.  She tells that in her mid-30s she spent three years (2001-2003) living in Lisbon, where she attended hundreds of amateur fado sessions, spent some time learning to sing fado herself, and became personally acquainted with a number of participants in the Lisbon subculture of amateur fado.  She performed and recorded 20 interviews with 21 different interlocutors between January 2002 and May 2003 and recorded one further interview in January 2010.  The subjects interviewed were mostly amateur fadistas, with a handful of professional or semi-professional fadistas.  She also interviewed a renowned professional Portuguese guitarist, a renowned veteran recording engineer, and a recording company executive, and had conversations with many contacts and informants which she did not document formally.

The book oscillates between two distinct kinds of text - sentences and passages composed in an obsessively abstruse pseudo-academic meta-language which is very often difficult or impossible for this reader to make much real sense of, and passages written in a simple journalistic reporting style.  The numerous passages of the former kind contain certain far too often repeated words and phrases - e.g. 'foregrounding', 'writ large', 'writ small', which often add nothing whatsoever to the sense of the text.  This language, peppered with neologisms and obliquities, can rather be suspected of intending to signal to the reader that 'I'm now being intellectually sophisticated and academic, moving in the upper realms of the ethnographic stratosphere, and if you can't make sense of what I'm saying then you're not good enough - in fact you're rather silly and you shouldn't be trying to read this brilliant and very deeply thought book.'

The book is obviously intended to present, and to theorise about, the results of an ethnographic examination of a particular subculture in a single city in the present.  However, nowhere in the book is there a reflection on during how long a time this subculture has existed in a form or forms recognisably similar to its present form(s).  This lack of, or at least the diffuse character of, historical perspective is troubling, as there are good reasons to wonder whether the culture described in the book has existed in recognisable form for more than half a century.  Obviously, phenomena named fado have existed in Portugal for nearly two centuries, but that is no guarantee that the particularities of today's Lisbon fado subculture are 'old', considering the various social, economic, cultural and political processes of upheaval and change which have transpired in Portugal since 1830.  Admittedly the book doesn't make such claims, but neither does it devote significant space to reflections on the matter.

There are a number of signs of the author's lack of what I would consider a reasonably informed historical perspective, and of her somewhat perplexing ignorance of the materials of the music at hand.  Such lacunae hardly contribute to this reader's confidence in the author's seriousness of approach.

Here are a handful of concrete examples:

  1. Early in the story she mentions having begun her attempts to learn how to sing fado from a CD reissue of a recording of the singer Maria Alice (born Glória Mendes, 1904-1996) singing the song Perseguiçâo.  She comments first that it was recorded in the 1920s, and later specifies the year 1924.  However - this singer did not record until 1929, and the recording to which the author refers was made in 1936.  This might seem like ill-willed nitpicking on my part, but here are my reasons for justifying my dissatisfaction.  First of all - relatively few recordings were made in Portugal during the first half of the 1920s, and I know of none specifically documented to the year 1924, which was the year before the introduction of electrical recording technology.  Although Maria Alice first entered the recording studio in 1929, the sound of this recording, relatively well but not optimally preserved on the 1998 French CD reissue, has a sound quality and character not heard on late 1920s Portuguese recordings, and its true recording date was documented to 1936 by Paul Vernon in his ambitious pioneer documentation of fado discography in the 1990s.  Secondly - the year 1924 was two years prior to the coup which established the Ditatura Nacional, and nine years prior to the establishment of the Estado Novo. The record in question was thus made three years after the introduction by the fascist dictatorship of licensing and censure procedures controlling singers, musicians and song lyrics, restrictions which were to obtain in one form or another until the revolution of 1974 and which are repeatedly claimed in the book to have had a decisive effect on the public presentation of fado lyrics.  So j'accuse on three counts: firstly - as a musician and academic writing a book on the 'affective politics' of a musical form documented in writing since the mid-19th century and marketed on disc or cylinder since 1900, it is reasonable to expect of the author an awareness of the varying acoustic character of recordings of this music made during the 20th century, an awareness which would have rendered impossible the assertion in question.  Secondly - neither would it be unreasonable to expect the practise of some kind of scientific curiosity about the provenance of the very first song which she tries to master, which could well have been traced by making enquiries within the fado community.  Thirdly, the nature of the lyrics - moralising and sentimentalising words put into the mouth of a married woman of the lower classes chastising a rich man for chasing her with desire of erotic adventure - is worthy of comment, not least in relation to the censorship theme.

  2. The only time the author devotes any descriptive words to the central musical instrument of fado, the guitarra portuguesa, she writes: (p.140) 'the guitarra - its twelve steel strings, six of them sympathetic ...' thus revealing a magnificent and in the context (the author being a classically trained instrumental musician) shocking ignorance of this musical instrument.  The instrument does not have sympathetic strings.  There is to my knowledge not a single plucked string instrument in Western cultures endowed with sympathetic strings which is not a latter-day hybrid inspired by the plucked instruments of Indian classical music.  The guitarra portuguesa, an instrument of the cittern family, has six pairs of metal strings of which the three first are octave pairs and the other three are unison pairs.  Although some guitarristas will occasionally strike the upper of an octave pair for a musical purpose, the paired strings are otherwise always plucked together, and in this aspect the instrument does not differ from other plucked instruments with double courses, with or without octave pairs, such as the lutes and citterns of the renaissance and baroque periods and the oud of the Middle Eastern world, and, today for example, the mandolin, the bouzouki, and the 12-string guitar.  Three particular characteristics of the instrument as used in fado which can reasonably be expected to be unfamiliar to, and of interest to, any uninformed person taking the trouble to read the book, and which it would not have taken many words to explain.  They are that firstly, it has a unique tuning scheme, which from bass upwards consists of the intervals of a fifth, a major second, a fourth, a fourth, and a major second, usually starting from D or from C.  Secondly that only two digits of the right hand, the thumb and index, are used to pluck the strings, either using natural nails or taped-on tortoiseshell or plastic plectra.  And thirdly, that virtually all melodic movement is played by up- and-down strokes of the index finger, a technique known in renaissance times as dedilho.  These details should reasonably have become manifest to the author early on in her work.  The author furthermore occasionally uses the word 'strum' to denote single-string melodic playing on the guitarra - an insensitively incorrect use of the word.  This tiny linguistic inaccuracy betrays to my mind a strange lacuna, or perhaps plain and simple ethnocentricity, marring her ambition to enter into the character of this music.

  3. Although a number of fado singers who predate Amalia Rodrigues receive brief mention, there is hardly a mention of musicians of older generations, other than her interlocutor the eminent guitarrista José Fontes Rocha (1926-2011).  One might at least have expected brief mention of the role of Armando Freire, (aka 'Armandinho', 1891-1946) the guitarrista who accompanied Amalia to Madrid in 1943 on her first tour outside Portugal, and who had already by then, through the combination of his musical genius as instrumentalist and composer, and his position in the fado world, perhaps more than any other musician, come to set the agenda during the 1920s and 1930s (perhaps already in the 1910s, though there are no such audio documents) for how fado is still accompanied today.  He is still regarded by musicians today as the unsurpassed genius of the instrument in Lisbon fado.
Whether or not one accepts the book's primary agenda, these facts, given as easily and briefly formulated additions, would in my opinion have offered the reader a more solid basis.

Although the words 'affect', 'soul' and 'feeling' recur on almost every page, there is a surprising lack of attempt to define them, not to speak of the lack of psychological reflection upon their meanings and implications.  Questions I ask myself: whether it is possible to estimate what proportion of the Lisbon population includes a significant relation to fado in their image of themselves, and whether there might be some kind of weighted selection of personality types among those who make up the amateur fado community?  What are the varieties of life stories included in the concept of the life of the fadista?  There is very little given in the book on the textures of actual lives.  Can one distinguish any significant currents of difference between believers and non-believers in the 'religion of fado'?

One point of genuine interest in the book, which I've not seen mentioned elsewhere, is the question of the implications of the religiously imposed silence in fado performance situations.  While this silence is today seen as an integral and exclusively positive component of the fado performance situation, indeed as one of its iconic characteristics, the author's hypothesis about its possible origin in the machinations of the authoritarian state as part of its strategy to include fado among its repressive tools of nation-building is of value.

The anecdotal recounting of the statements made by 'Amalianos' - self-confessed Amalia Rodrigues fanatics - is, perhaps unavoidably, but certainly frustratingly, lacking in reflections upon the particularities of personality among the three or four people so described.  Likewise, in the context of discussing Amalia Rodrigues' icon status and the celebrity adulation phenomenon in general, there is no real reflection upon the psychological aspects of those who adulate celebrities.

Much is made of singers' use of variations in dynamics, vocal timbre, and melismatic improvisation, and the characteristic melodramatic device of pausing and temporarily arresting the flow of the rhythm towards the end of a song.  While a comparison is made once or twice with older recordings which are noted as exhibiting these features to a far lesser degree or not at all, I once again come to think of the concept of mannerism in the art historian Wölfflin's arch model of the development of an art form.  The idea that this aspect of today's fado may in fact, to put it rather cruelly, be seen as a prime example of mannerism in a decadent phase of an art form, equivalent to musicians' exaggeration of speed and number of notes played in some kinds of music, is never discussed, for which the writer's lack of practised familiarity with earlier recordings is perhaps to blame.

There are extended references to the voice of Amalia Rodrigues, from various people and viewpoints.  Among aspects touched upon are how demanding her vocal style and voice were for a recording engineer, and how her voice changed with time.  Amalia is quoted as claiming that the engineer Hugo Ribeiro was the only one who could record her voice so that she felt it to be faithfully captured when she listened to the recordings.  Yet, close listening to his recordings of her reveals a liberal use of studio reverberation and/or echo which results, to my ears at least, in his having imparted an inescapably artificial melodramatic quality to her recordings.  This phenomenon, if noted, would have been of great interest for the author to have discussed with 'Amalianos'!  Not only how she is heard by others, but how she heard herself?

A piquant detail not mentioned in the book: there exists a photo of Amalia on her visit to Madrid in 1943, depicting her together with Armandinho and the Argentine, later naturalised Spanish singer, Imperio Argentina (1910-2003).  In 1938 Imperio Argentina had recorded two songs from the Spanish box office film hit Carmen, la de Triana, of which one was Los Piconeros - a song which Amalia then recorded during her first recording sessions in 1945, and which was her first recording in Spanish, in Spanish style.  The other song on the 1938 78 was Antonio Vargas Heredia.  The Carmen film was popular in late 1930s Greece, and the title of the latter song (actually the first words of the song) was amusingly 'Greek-ified' as 'O Andonis o Varkaris o Seretis', which translates roughly as 'Antonis the boatman and tough good guy', by none other than Markos Vamvakaris, with Spyros Peristeris performing the bouzouki lead, including a delicate flamenco pirouette!

Something to which the author refers tantalisingly briefly is the matter of the archival treatment of recordings of historical interest.  But although the book is sub-titled 'affective politics and urban life', she never actually delves into the substance of this theme, which I would have thought is of great relevance to her subject, so I wonder why she never mentions it.  Tradition (I see and hear the chorus in Fiddler on the Roof when I use the word here) is regarded so religiously in the amateur fado world, and yet in Portugal a large proportion of the historical aural documents of fado, which one would expect to be regarded as pillars of this tradition, have either been consigned to oblivion, or have been brutally maltreated, demonstrating exactly the opposite of what she implies - that there is an ongoing serious scientific program dedicated to the recovery of sound from archival material.

The year 2011 is mentioned, when fado was inducted into UNESCO's intangible heritage of humanity but, strangely, not the fact that a couple of years previously, in the midst of an ongoing economic melt-down, (a factor given certain space in the book), the Portuguese state spent approximately one million euros on a huge collection of archival discs, a collection which is now partly accessible on line in execrable, to a sensitive musical ear often basically unlistenable audio files.  Not a single one of those to which I have listened would pass muster for a serious commercial reissue of music from 78 rpm discs.  This is not because it would be impossible to extract acceptable sound from the discs at hand.  There are many examples of discs which are obviously in very good condition but which have quite unnecessarily been subjected to violent and destructive digital 'cleaning'.  In fact, virtually all the sound recovery in the only decent commercial reissues of pre-war fado has been done outside Portugal.  No 'affective political' analysis of this undeniably significant fact is attempted in the book.

I furthermore question the justification for publishing a book in the year 2013 about a kind of music in which fluency is for the most part acquired by ear, without offering the reader access to audio examples of what the author is talking about, and instead offering a handful of notated fragments, plus ten pages of elaborate written transcriptions of four performances, three of which are not available to be heard if the author doesn't choose to share her recordings.

So who is this book actually for?  I really don't know.  I can't imagine any non-English speaker managing to navigate such a jungle of labyrinthine abstraction, so it's presumably not intended for a Portuguese audience.  But is it even for native English speakers who are fond of, and/or interested in, fado?  I wonder, becase this reader - a multilingual English musician, practising psychiatrist and psychotherapist, with university degrees in medicine, psychotherapy, musicology, art history, English literature and social anthropology - found it almost impossible to read.  Neither the design of the front cover nor the blurb on the back cover imply that it is a doctoral thesis directed towards a coterie of initiated specialists who are inured, or immune, to its vagaries of verbose self-indulgent abstruseness and who are accustomed to patting each other on the back, pretending that there are actually Imperial fabrics between their hands and the author's skin.  Much like aspects of fado itself as described in the book, it has the character of a self-reflexive act, with the difference that there is a serious risk is that it is not really capable of delighting, or communicating with, anyone else but the author herself.  But of course it would be nasty to say that.

Tony Klein - 18.1.18

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