finding fado in the city of seven hills

words & images paulo santos

It was nearing eleven when we ducked into Adega do Ribatejo, a small fado house located in the heart of Lisbon's historic district, or Bairro Alto. The Bairro, as the locals call it, used to be a place of disrepute to avoid, filled with prostitutes, drug addicts, and criminals. But things have changed. Now, Bairro Alto finds itself somewhere between edgy and outright dangerous: late night cupcake stores do business next to trendy, late night retail stores and hole in the wall bars and restaurants.

This is a place where red and green streamers hang between buildings, not because of some festival taking place, but just because. A place where joints are freely passed around among friends and strangers. A place where the empty beer bottles lying near the graffiti-covered walls are as much a fixture as the drunken revelers. Here, you are just as likely to find an elegant restaurant as you are to find someone urinating around the corner. The streets of Bairro Alto belong not only to the Lisboetas, but to everyone.

The idea of listening to fado had been on my mind lately, and not only because I had just arrived in the city of its birth. The recent end of a relationship had also left me searching for some sort of cathartic experience. So, when some new friends invited me out for a night of fado, the timing seemed fitting.

We were seated in the back of a small, rectangular dining room. The place was nearly full, and tourists mixed in with a few locals sharing a drink. It had everything you’d expect from a tasca (a typical Portuguese restaurant): cramped, family style seating; walls of pure azulejos (Portuguese ceramic tiles); and that white, flimsy peel away paper covering every table.

Midnight came and went while I sampled the jaquinzinhos (small, fried whole mackerel), assorted cheeses, cured hams, and of course a generous amount of the house red. Accompanying the unpretentious, simple pleasure foods were fado performances by a full spectrum of the restaurant’s employees. First the kind, old, and partially blind host sang, then one of the chefs (still fully outfitted in her apron), and finally even our waitress got into the mix of things. But it wasn’t until a woman emerged from the poorly lit street, dressed entirely in black with a shawl draped around her shoulders, that I truly felt what fado was all about.

A big woman, she walked to the back of the restaurant with an uninhibited step to whisper something to the lady behind the counter. Then she took her place in the opening in the middle of the room against the left wall, where a man with a Portuguese guitar awaited. The guitar looked to me like the banjo’s fatter, but more refined cousin. It had twelve strings (two layers of six) and a wide, elegant, almost pear-shaped body.


The man sat on a chair next to the fadista (fado singer), as though to draw attention away from himself. While he tuned his guitar, he played it only with the index finger and thumb—more of a plucking than a stroking motion. An old fashioned beret covered his bald head while his belly hung over his lap, swallowing his belt. As I looked around, the dining room appeared to have gotten darker, only I hadn’t noticed anyone turn off the lights. Loud conversation had dulled to white noise, and all eyes were fixed on the mysterious woman who was about to sing.

Her eyes had been closed in preparation for her performance, and now suddenly shot open, transfixing on some point far off in the distance. Past the audience, past the wall of azulejos, past time itself. It was subtle, yet piercing. Then, her booming voice jolted me from my gaze and the high-pitched twangs of the guitar eventually merged with the sounds of lost love. Everyone was in a state of awe, doused with melancholy—an emotion inescapable in this tiny restaurant. We were her captives.

I watched as the woman transposed herself into the song, becoming possessed by a sadness strong enough to break the foundations of her being. She clutched at her shawl. She glanced sublimely back and forth. She cried out in torment. In the corners of the room, the staff huddled together, looking on intensely. The kitchen had stopped altogether. And the audience was stone-faced, wearing a solemnity usually reserved only for funerals. There was a sense that we were in it together, full of a universal grief that had us all hypnotized.

But, this broken woman singing before me wasn’t running from her tragic destiny. No, she was embracing every ounce of it, letting the pain become her, and perhaps hoping that by doing so she would then be liberated from its grip. She was no longer the woman who had confidently walked through the door just minutes ago. She was now a messenger from the world where insufferable misery was the only reality, brought on by what can only be described as the absence of love. Refusing to let us forget that love not only has the power to lift us up to unbelievable heights, but also to wreck us.

Listening to the solo, I wondered if the Portuguese language had been invented exclusively for the purpose of transmitting human anguish. It’s not that Portuguese isn’t beautiful—it is. But if you let it, it will overpower your senses and pull you under. It’s closed and heavy, and lends itself to enormous feeling. And, just when I didn’t think that I could take anymore, she released me from her grasp, allowing me to catch my breath and warning me that certain emotions needed to be tread lightly. I thought coming here would give me some resolution about my failed relationship, and yet I couldn’t help but wish that Sophie were sitting across from me.

What followed was silence, interrupted only by the sound of people waking up, coming to, wondering what happened. The stillness lingered for a few seconds before we all began clapping. There’s a saying the Portuguese have that, “Fado can’t be seen or heard; it simply happens.” I would have to agree.

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