Jottings from Lisbon

Just home from Lisbon, where I screened my film for a select and rather posh CHIME conference. How good to have a few days to enjoy cobbled streets, tiles, and little wood-lined trams—authentically scattered, as everywhere, among decrepit building sites.

Back in the 1990s, annual working holidays in Lisbon (as well as Parma, Ludwigsburg, Amsterdam, Paris, and London—happy days) were a regular gig while we were doing Mozart operas with John Eliot Gardiner.

On the same principle as seeking out flamenco in Seville after the Matthew Passion, it was always good to go in search of fado in Lisbon after our concerts there. Fado can be great, as long as we don’t expect it to be flamenco—this is a bit like relationships altogether (tutti, bemused: “This is a bit like relationships”.)

The old-style fado bars, holes in the wall, have become ever more elusive, long outnumbered by glossy tourist restaurants. As ever, a good sign is the lack of a sign.

fado

Fado singing, 1993. My photo.

We found a good little fado dive this time too, rather by chance. And then on our last night our fine hosts kindly took us to the Boteco da Fa in the Alfama, a classy joint that nonetheless has a great atmosphere—it’s just a little room that can pack in around fifty aficionados. We heard Sandra Correia

and Augusto Ramos:

The quintessential saudade (“missingness”!), a first cousin of the duende of cante jondo in flamenco (and see several other nice intercultural equivalents under the saudade link), was much in evidence.

Both singers are well known performers in “concert”, and in a club like this the atmosphere is quite formal (the rather good food can only be a brief diversion between—not even during!—sets), but Augusto also doubles as a waiter there, and they’re pouring their hearts out just a few feet away from you.

Focusing as I was on the intensity of the singing, it took me a while to realise how great the two pluckers were too— Luis Guerreiro, the leading guitarra player, totally at ease, always exploring patterns and harmonies, his riffs even featuring the occasional soupçon of  Django.

pluckers

Brilliant fado pluckers. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Being in Lisbon, we were able to express our appreciation with warm applause—I read that

According to tradition, to applaud fado in Lisbon you clap your hands, while in Coimbra one coughs as if clearing one’s throat.

Could Coimbra have been a British colony?!

Our group from the conference included the brilliant Xiao Mei and two young Chinese conservatoire performers. I relish this recent rapport, this new sense of equality. Xiao Mei, most enlightened among Chinese musicologists, is always in fieldwork mode, lapping it all up, as were the younger musos, recording on their posh smartphones and chatting in breaks with the musos. A wonderful evening— Chinese Twitter will be abuzz with it, and that’s just so inspiring…

fado group

Sandra Correia, Xiao Mei, and Enio Souza, dynamic conference organizer.

In a small way, all this reminds us all why it’s worth replacing the vague term Western music with Western Art Music, if that’s what we mean; and observing how European folk traditions are an equally precious part of our heritage. “Music” can be such a misleading little word: just as there’s more to music in Shanghai than its opera house—such as amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs or temple fairs in Pudong—so music in Lisbon is more than the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. Symphony orchestras and erhu solos are but the tiny shiny tip of the iceberg (cf. this post too).

Nor would any visit to Lisbon be complete without a serious overdose of nata:

Whereas the English custard pie is only good for slapstick. Typical

***

Meanwhile at our conference on Chinese music, it’s always good to hear Xiao Mei introducing her work on shamans and trance, with her amazing videos of rituals among the ethnic minorities within the PRC.

Since the conference was held at the Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau, the music of Macau was one theme. With typical impertinence I suggested that studies of music-making in Macau might be inspired by Ruth Finnegan’s seminal book The hidden musicians, exploring all the diverse kinds of musical activity in Milton Keynes, whose population is less than half of that of the Chinese metropolis. Macau’s cultural life outside official institutions remains to be explored—for instance, no-one has yet made the connection with the household and temple Daoists there. [1]

***

Back in May 1993, we were doing a series of performances of Le nozze di Figaro:

That’s a live concert recording at the Queen Elizabeth Hall after we returned to London. Soon after that I returned to Hebei for my second visit to Gaoluo and further survey of village ritual associations.

On a free day between Figaro shows, I visited the resort of Cascais, a pleasant excursion just west along the coast. On the street I came across a blind busker called Rosa, then 36, from Almada just across the river. She accompanied her songs on the triangle, occasionally checking the lyrics in Braille.

Cascais singer

Rosa, 1993. My photo.

I assumed she was just another blind beggar who never comes much to anyone’s attention, unless you count me. So imagine my surprise, today, when none other than Xiao Mei saw my photo and told me that Rosa (now “Dona Rosa“, with a backing band) had come to give concerts in China! And sure enough, she’s now become a star on the world music circuit, having been “discovered” (not by me—I kept her to myself) but since 1999 and more widely since 2004.

How was I to know?! Can I indeed claim to have discovered her, like Yang Yinliu discovered Abing?! Hardly, since I’ve sat on the fruits of my casual fieldwork for 24 years. I am reminded of the occasional blind bard from Shaanbei who materialises, bemused, on Chinese TV extravaganzas.

Here’s one of several youtube clips of Dona Rosa:

As usual, the exigencies of the world music big band distract from the atmosphere of her solo singing. Try this instead—from a concert at New Year 2008 in the Concertgebouw, no less:

Still, from a BTL comment by fjcnunes I also learn:

It’s sad and lamentable that this great lady is still begging on the street of Rua Augusta, Lisbon. This was the case in June 2014, when I saw her there and took a picture with her. In her words, she gets paid “next to nothing” to play in Portugal and is forced to play on the streets to make a living. Probably the promoters and organizers get the lion’s share of the revenues from her concerts. I wonder if the same would have been allowed to happen to Cesária Évora? If you happen to travel to Lisbon, Portugal, please pass by Rua Augusta and purchase one of her CDs, directly from her. At least you’ll know where the money’s going.

***

Anyway, that chance find in Cascais was typical of the kind of superficial yet rewarding little jaunts one can fit in as a touring muso—like dance houses in Budapest, Tralallero choirs in Genova, and so on.

The Alentejo, just across the river (a kind of poor man’s Pudong?!) is famed for its folk choral singing. I haven’t caught it live yet, but it’s evidently a rich tradition.

In Cascais I also enjoyed the parade for voluntary fireman’s day.

firemen

Parade for voluntary fireman’s day, May 1993. My photo.

All this belongs to my recurring theme of delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse. In the present climate, we must relish our cultural diversity all the more. And yes, that does include Mexican migrants and Syrian refugees. All those Brits who find themselves (not) with an extra 350 million squid a year to spend might lavish a bit of it on educating themselves about the traditions of their newly-alien neighbours.

[1] See e.g. http://www.macaotaoist.org/澳門道教科儀音樂/http://www.baike.com/wiki/澳门道教科仪音乐http://www.chinataoism.org/showtopic.php?id=1005; for a major community ritual for the 2003 SARS epidemic, see http://www.cciv.cityu.edu.hk/macau/3/2.php.

8 thoughts on “Jottings from Lisbon

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