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How the Fado taught me to Speak Portuguese

Updated: 6 days ago

I speak Portuguese fluently today. I learned it as a 3-year-old when my family moved to Portugal. We came back to Chicago when I was 4. With my mother's death the following year, and having no one to speak with, led me to forget almost everything.

So, when I started spending summers there starting in 1980, I had a lot to learn. This was not today's Portugal - but a very different place. The nation struggled in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution. Infrastructure was poor, and the nation was emerging from decades of isolation.

Learning Portuguese was pretty easy as very few people spoke English. Older people could speak French, and young people were just starting to learn English. There was no internet, one TV channel, so I was completely immersed. I picked up the language as well as the culture.

But then I would go back to Chicago, and there were no Portuguese teachers or classes. So, I went to an unexpected place to learn. I had built a small collection of Fado LPs, some that I had bought, plus some that were my father's. Soon, with the help of cassette tapes, I walked and drove around Chicago listening to, and eventually singing along to, the Fado.

For most non-Portuguese, Fado is a bit of an enigma. They refer to it as "sad" and "mournful," but that's not Fado. Yes, most classic Fados lyrics are totally tragic, but what the non-Portuguese fail to understand is that listening to Fado does not make you sad - it makes you feel a bit better. You hear a song of loss, pain, and suffering, and it is quite cathartic - and everything just falls into perspective.

In the voices of João Braga, Carlos do Carmo, Amália Rodrigues, and Rodrigo - I learned so much more. There were bits of history, places, expressions, and poetry. Mixed with the unique tones of the guitarra portuguesa, I was treated to a musical perspective of Portuguese culture that no modern online app could ever give you. I listened to songs about those who were suffering, those who have lost everything, of love, of bulls, and even wine. I was transported to an imagined 1830s Lisbon, with the songs of Maria Severa and the Count of Vimioso, of the Tendinha and a good glass of ginja. There was talk of brothels, death, and hope. Deciphering the lyrics bit by bit was a Rosetta Stone for the cultural soul of Portugal. I learned more than just classic expressions and sentence construction. There were so many words for pain and suffering: Dor; Sofrimento; Agonia; Angústia; Aflição; Pranto; Desespero; Mágoa; Tristeza.

Certainly, the Portugal I met in the words of the Fado was not the real Portugal of its day. But like a musical archaeologist, I saw shards of a unique culture - odd bits of nationalism, of pride in an imagined past, and a way of being. I understood what so many gave up to leave to find a better life and how sadness can sometimes make you feel better.

I became, at the age of 15, a fan of ginja, the guitarra, and the bullring - but took a pass on brothels and death. And, I was surprised to find that after a few years of sining along ton the Fado, the song performed live began" with Silêncio, vai-se cantar o fado" or "Silence, the fado is going to be sung." They say sad songs are common in happy nations, and sadder nations have happier songs - but the songs of the Portuguese were neither sad nor happy - they were perfectly a seeming celebration of survival, of emotion, and of a shared sense of journey.

This was so different from the culture I had grown up with in Chicago. It honestly changed me.

Today, as I speak Portuguese, occasionally I find myself tossing out some outdated and disused phrases ("Quem não tem cão, caça com gato"), As I read of expats who have moved to Portugal who struggle with the language and the way of being of the people, I suggest a good helping of Fado. It is not a window on their soul, but it is a rare glimpse of a place where music, art, history, and imagination meet to offer up something that just satisfies.

I knew him

He was a drunkard, he was a rogue

Who wandered the Mouraria

Perhaps even thinner than a greyhound

And claiming to be a nobleman

For associating with the nobility...

His father was an abandoned child

Who even sailed on Vasco da Gama's caravels.

A ragged and dirty rascal

More swaggering than a sailor

In the old alleys of Alfama.

Well I know well, where he was born

He was nothing but a commoner

Always pulling towards vanity.

I know more, I know that Fado is one of those

Who never knew his parents

Nor has a birth certificate.

They ask me about him

I knew him In total disorder

Always a friend of chaos

He would enter Moirama at odd hours

Opening half doors

He was the king of that madness

He was at bullfights

He was a famous rider

He was the delight of the carnaval

In that hectic life

He, who came from nothing,

Having nothing, was everything.

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