Listening to Fado where it's Sung

As the fat lady sings for the Euro zone, the Portuguese are doing what they've done for more than a century when things turn south: seeking refuge in the melancholic strains of fado, Iberia's signature species of torch music.

It’s midnight at Clube de Fado, a hothouse for Lisbon’s inimitable musical form, and the original crowd of a couple hundred or so has receded to a few dozen hardcore enthusiasts. Guitarist and fado great Mario Pacheco is about to open the final set of a two-hour performance, and he begins by introducing a red-haired songstress in a black dress with lace at the shoulders and her hair tied back in a bun. She is Dutch, a native of Amsterdam, though she has adopted fado and all its Iberian angst. Maria Fernandez, as she is introduced, is clearly nervous – this is her debut performance at the club – though the audience is sympathetic and eager to be wooed.

 Fado great Mario Pacheco

Fado great Mario Pacheco

Pacheco, tall and distinguished with a patrician brow and tightly clipped moustache, deploys some light banter to keep Fernandez’s stage freight at bay before they ease into the first number, a spirited ballad in three-quarter time. As the piece builds, he and his two bandmates – one on rhythm guitar, the other on bass fiddle – exchange wry glances as if sharing a private joke. Her inhibition vanquished, Fernandez warms to the beat and deftly nails the high notes. When the set ends twenty minutes later, she owns the room.

Romance and redemption is a staple offering in the fado bars of Lisbon, and no one serves it better than Pacheco, the 57-year-old fadista who is widely acknowledged as a master of the genre. He first picked up a guitar at 14, a relative latecomer, and within a few years was good enough to accompany his father, himself a classically trained musician. At 17 he attended a local conservatory, where he studied the guitar and the violin, and by his early thirties he was writing his own compositions. At 36, as one of Lisbon’s top classical guitarists, he switched to the Portuguese guitarra, a flat-backed, oval instrument that looks more like a mandolin than its conventional, hour-glass shaped counterpart. He’s been playing fado ever since.

“My father and my friends said they were losing a great classical guitarist and gaining a bad Portuguese guitarist,” Pacheco says with a grin. “That was my best motivation to learn fado.”

Often compared to the blues, fado – literally “fate” – identifies with the Portuguese concept of saudade, a yearning for what has been lost and what has never been attained. It evolved more than a century ago from the Alfama casbah and, like the blues, has remained true to is roots. “The tradition of fado runs deep,” Pacheco says between sets. “It is a timeless form of expression and its importance is increasing.”

Indeed, as Portugal packages itself into a high-end tourist draw, fado is evolving into a national brand. Young musicians throughout Europe are coming to Lisbon to learn the art, says Pacheco, and business at fado clubs has never been better. As if to reinforce the point, club impresario Louis Vaz de Camos, who keeps his eye on the crowd through a peephole in the wall that separates the bar from the stage, arrives to hustle Pacheco to start the next set.

Will success spoil fado? Unlikely, says Pacheco. Fans of the music are too devoted, too romantic, to over-commercialize such a national treasure. “Fado is not for the masses,” he says. “No matter how many people are in a room listening, they’re always seated. That’s how much respect they have for the music.”